Day 1 – San Juan
The first place that we stayed in was an Airbnb near the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. We had planned on staying in Old San Juan first, but we realized that we’d probably be too tired to do anything when we got to Puerto Rico at 12 midnight.
When we got up in the morning, we walked to a nearby restaurant and got a Puerto Rican dish called mofongo, a dense ball of fried-then-mashed plantains. Mofongo can come with a variety of sides, but we got mofongo relleno de bistec or mofongo filled with thin slices of steak. A heavy Puerto Rican breakfast and strong café con leche was definitely a good way to start our first day on the island.
We then got an Uber to check in to our next hotel in Old San Juan. We loved how walkable the barrio was and how beautiful the buildings were. It was a bit touristy, but that didn’t take away from our experience.
What we really wanted to visit was a citadel called the El Morro or Castillo San Felipe del Morro which, just like the Philippines, was named after King Philip II of Spain. (At least according to Wikipedia.)
The grass was so green and lush that we decided to relax on the lawn for a bit before we entered. It was also cold in Philly that we opted to just relish the sun while we were in Puerto Rico.
The citadel itself was massive. We wondered, as we walked along its halls, how much work must have gone into building this fortress. It tired us out a bit because it wasn’t only vast, it also had steep inclines that you have to use to get anywhere.
We were craving some food after all that walking so we went to a panaderia or bakery called La Bombonera and got a mallorca, a puffy bun that’s showered in confectioner’s sugar. We especially loved mallorca con jamon y queso which is a grilled mallorca with ham and cheese. It had a delightful mix of both sweet and salty.
That evening, we had longaniza de pollo or chicken sausage and sancocho, a traditional soup in Puerto Rico.
Andrea told me that the most useful set of words that you can say to learn Spanish is ¿Cómo se dice? or “How do you say … ?” For example you would say, ¿Cómo se dice ‘for here’? and they would say, para llevar.
Day 2 – El Yunque National Forest and Luquillo Kioskos
Ubers and taxis are only available in the metro area. So if you wanted to get around, you have to rent a car. (You can take publicos which are buses that can take you outside of metro areas, but we got a car instead for convenience.)
Since it was the second day, we wanted to do some exploring. First up was El Yunque National Forest. Getting to El Yunque was a little terrifying because of the narrow roads, but we were rewarded with some fantastic views of Puerto Rico as we went up the mountain.
Some trails were unfortunately closed because of Hurricane Maria, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying the forest. It was especially beautiful when we got to the top of Yokahú Tower.
After a whole morning of driving and walking, we wanted to reward ourselves with some food. A local had previously told us about the kioskos in Luquillo, and how good the food was and how deliciously fried they were. They said that it was definitely something that we shouldn’t miss, so we drove over there after exploring El Yunque.
It didn’t disappoint. I’ve forgotten the names of all the fried things that we ate, but what I remembered the most was arepa rellena de camarones or shrimp arepas.
Day 3 – Cueva Ventana and Isabela
Our next Airbnb was in Isabela, a beach town which looked a bit like a tropical San Diego to me. But before we went there, we stopped by to go on a tour inside Cueva Ventana or window cave. Our tour guide talked a lot about the ecology around the cave and Puerto Rico in general. She mentioned a lot of facts, but what I remember the most was that there were no venomous animals on the island and that the fruit bat population was heavily affected by Hurricane Maria because they had trouble finding food.
As we entered the cave, our tour guide mentioned that you had to keep your mouth closed whenever you looked up because there were a lot of bats on the ceiling that could poop on you at any time. We did, in fact, see a lot of bats clustered on the ceiling. They looked a bit like this. We weren’t allowed to point the flashlight directly at them, but you could dim the light by using your hand to get a better look at them. The guide also showed us some petroglyphs in the cave that the Taínos—the indigenous people of the Caribbean—drew 600 years ago.
After that, we went to Isabela to drop our things off at the Airbnb and enjoy the beach. That night we had red snapper mofongo. We were unsure at first because we didn’t really know how red snappers tasted, but we ended up loving the richness and garlic-y-ness of the dish.
Day 4 – Isabela
This was our recovery day, and all we did was eat and stay at the beach. We started the day by going to a nearby panaderia to eat breakfast and get lunch and dulce or dessert to go. We also went to the grocery store to get snacks, and we learned that Puerto Ricans call orange juice jugo de china instead of jugo de naranja. The beach in Isabela had strong currents, so we didn’t spend too much time in the water. But we did enjoy reading books and lounging in our beach chairs.
We also drove to Jobos beach where we watched the sunset while the waves crashed against the rock that we were standing on.
Day 5 – La Ruta Del Lechón & Vieques
The next day we drove to the other side of Puerto Rico to go to the La Ruta Del Lechón or Pork Highway where we had some delicious roast pork (lechón), blood sausage (morcilla), and yellow rice with pigeon peas (arroz con gandules). We went to a place called Lechonera Los Pinos. The Lechón is very similar to the variant in the Philippines, except Filipinos grew up eating it with Mang Tomas sauce.
We then drove to Ceiba to take a ferry to Vieques, a small island municipality of Puerto Rico. We wanted to go there to see all the wild horses that roamed around the beaches and also see its famous bioluminescent bay. Also we learned that, golf carts are road legal in Vieques, so we rented one to get around the island.
That night we went on a tour of the bioluminescent bay. It was magical. I don’t have any pictures of it, but you can watch videos of it online. Apparently, the tiny microorganisms that live in the water produce a bright cobalt blue light with even the smallest agitation. So every time you paddle or glide your fingers across the water, a trail of blue light will appear in the water. We were lucky to have a transparent kayak because the fish that were swimming underwater also lit up the bay.
Day 6 – Vieques and San Juan
We couldn’t stay in Vieques for too long because we had to fly back the next day, but at least we were able to relax for a bit on Caracas beach. It was recommended to us by our Airbnb host, and it was probably the calmest beach that I’ve ever been to. There was no crowd, the sand was soft beneath our feet, the water was warm, and there were barely any waves.
Before we hopped back in to the ferry, we got to try salmon with trifongo which was a mofongo variety that’s made of cassava, ripe plantains, and green plantains. We really couldn’t get enough of mofongo, and I wish I could get it here in Philly.
We then drove back to Old San Juan and stayed at a slightly more upscale hotel called Wind Chimes Hotel where we spent the night watching Spanish-dubbed Air Bud on cable TV.