Puerto Rico 2017

It has been a ridiculous amount of time since I have updated this blog, and I really should upgrade the drupal version at some point, but the mood struck me on a Saturday morning to jot some notes about our recent trip to Puerto Rico at the end of March 2017. The first quarter of this year has been a stressful one with my promotion to management and taking over as master of my Masonic Lodge. Jen and I really needed to get some time away, and the Caribbean sounded like just the thing we needed. Our travel agent put together several options for us, and never having been to Puerto Rico, we decided to give it try. There are many benefits: US currency, no passports needed, common electrical, English spoken widely, common cell phone service, safe to drink the water, no airport customs, etc. He set us up at the Caribe Hilton near old San Juan for a week and what follows is my thoughts on various places we visited, not in any particular order.

First: a direct link to my Flickr album

Caribe Hilton
This was our home away from home for a week. When we booked, we requested an ocean view in the high tower. We were placed on the 18th floor with a very nice view overlooking parts of old San Juan and the Atlantic. It was westward facing, so no horrible sunrise busting through in the morning, although the blackout curtains would have put a stop to that. The hotel was in pretty good shape for the age. It was built in the mid 1900's and is showing signs of wear. The lounge furniture and umbrellas are a little tattered, and room furniture was chipped or pealing. And like any resort, you pay a premium for food and beverages. Otherwise, it certainly had location and convenience on it's side. The was a multi-level outdoor pool with swim-up bar, a whole cove off of the Atlantic with sand beaches, snorkeling, and chair side food and beverage service. The property boasts seven restaurants, and a few shops for those items you may have forgot or didn't know you needed. A few items of note:

  • do book the bed and breakfast rate, the buffet breakfast has everything you could want, but at near $30/person, it is nice to have that included.
  • be prepared to spend a few dollars on drinks. we are not heavy drinkers, so this was not a big concern. If you are at the pool area, get the shaker for your drinks, it's a far better value.
  • do get the Mofongo at the Pina Colada Club restaurant, the cuban wrap is also exceptional
  • do dine at the Lemongrass resturant, it is exceptional asian fusion food in a romantic setting near the water gardens at the hotel.
  • pack a snorkel and dive mask, you can rent them, but it gets expensive
  • always have a few dollars for tipping the staff, especially the beach crew who can setup an umbrella for you on demand
  • do splurge and get a cabana for a day. this was a little slice of heaven, and includes a ridiculously large fruit tray and complementary bottled water
  • San Geronimo fortress is not open to the public for safety reasons, but you can admire it from a distance.
  • taxi prices are fixed for travel to and from old San Juan, Uber is an option (although I have yet to use it) and the staff is more then eager to recommend it, but they cannot come up to the hotel, so you will need to walk to the corner.

San Pedrito Cafe
Sure there is a Starbucks right at the property, but our concierge advised us to try a small Cafe adjacent to the hotel called San Pedrito. This is where many of the locals stop for their morning cup, and features Puerto Rico coffee. Do take a short walk in the morning, it's completely safe and you will be pleasantly surprised by the prices.
La Bodega del Viejo
We stumbled upon this restaurant by accident. We had just finished walking the Castillo de San Cristóbal that morning and were pretty hot, tired, and hungry. We had a few restaurant suggestions from the hotel concierge, but those were 4 or 5 blocks away by best guess looking at the map. We were debating on the best route when a waitress at this location asked what we were looking for, who then suggested that we would have a much better dining experience at her establishment, naming several of their specialties. We opted to give it a try and the food was wonderful. Do try the battered and fried grouper served with honey. I know, honey and fish does not sound like a pairing, but it was delicious.,
Himalaya Ice Co.
We walked to the old San Juan city gate, saw several cathedrals, and were pretty well hot from the sun. While trying to find the next trolley stop, we found this small ice cream shop. It had a charming steampunk decor, and ice cream made while you wait. Definitely a fun little stop to refresh yourself.
La Cueva Del Mar
We got caught in the rain while touring San Felipe del Morro Fortress in the late afternoon, so we hopped a trolley back to the water front area, to locate umbrellas and find dinner. One of the places we wanted to stop for dinner, on the recommendation of the concierge, was La Cueva Del Mar on on Calle Recinto Sur. This is a place where the locals go to dine, and the food quality did not disappoint. The service was prompt and the prices fair. I had the Seafood Rice La Cueva which was comforting and delicious.
Cuatro Sombras
With full bellies and dried off from the rain, we strolled down Calle Recinto Sur for, what we were assured was, the best coffee in old San Juan. I got a mocha and Jen had a latte, and the coffee was simply brilliant. It is a nice setting and had friendly staff. The baristas put extra attention to the presentation as well.
Cavernas de Camuy
We purchased an excursion one day, which included Cavernas de Camuy Cave Park. The park in near Arecibo, so it is a good hour and a half drive to get there. We were in a tour group with 4 others for the drive out, which the bus driver gave much information on. The cave park is an exceptionally large complex, and is a bit of a walk, although nothing too demanding. Do be careful what you touch, as the there is a large bat colony that resides there, and dress appropriately. It is rain forest area and pretty wall 100% humidity all the time.
Cafeteria Román
Our tour bus driver stopped for lunch, after the Cave Park, at a roadside cafe just outside of Arecibo. Being slightly off the beaten path, this is where I wish my spanish skills were even partially mediocre. It was no matter though, the food was exceptional. We got turkey and beans with rice and a Puerto Rican tamale. The portions were generous, and the prices inexpensive. I would stop here almost every day for the fresh flavors and relaxed environment.
Arecibo Observatory
The real reason for our tour package was to see the Arecibo Radio Telescope and Observatory. It is a massive reflector dish built into a hollow area of the limestone foothills near the town of Arecibo. It has been featured in a few films like Golden Eye and Contact. At the site you will find interactive exhibits, a 19 minute informational film, gift shop, food stand, and of course an observation platform. The hike up is not for the "out of shape". The parking lot gives way to quite a few stairs which turn into a semi-steep up-hill walk. The tour area was a bit basic, but it was designed to get children interested in science and technology. This was a bucket list item for me and well worth the time to get there.

All and all, it was a positive experience. Yes, the hotel services were expensive, but I was pretty well expecting that going in. Puerto Rico and it's citizens were pleasant and kind, especially when you are the same in return. Sure there are areas you would not want to wander into (as I could say the same thing for Detroit or Chicago), but a little research an planning makes you well prepared and knowledgeable on what to avoid. It was as safe as any big city I might stay in, be aware of your surroundings and you will have a fun time.