Travel Series: Wanderlust takes Puerto Rico!

“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” -Martin Buber

I have to admit…Puerto Rico was never considered as one of my top destinations. Might I dare say, I even labeled the island as ‘basic.’ Shame on me! Puerto Rico was a last minute birthday gift I decided to treat my fiance to because it didn’t require a passport (he seriously needs to work on changing this), it was fairly affordable, and it did not require to take many days off from work. I chose the city of Old San Juan. My fiance doesn’t care for the beach; he’s more of an artsy kind of guy. I knew he would appreciate the beautiful architecture and art of the oldest city in the U.S and territories. We left for a long weekend to enjoy the birthday festivities. Being of Puerto Rican descent, I figured it was the perfect opportunity to get in touch with my roots. I am terribly Americanized and I get shamed for it ALL THE TIME. I don’t think I can ever put into words the incredible energy this beautiful island has. You feel it the moment you step off the plane. It was more than just a weekend trip, it was truly an experience, and I left feeling proud and connected to the island. Alright, enough with the spiritual awakenings lol let’s get into the details!

A few fun facts about Puerto Rico:

  1. Puerto Rico is not a country or a U.S state. Due to the U.S governance, it is part of the Commonwealth and considered a U.S territory. However, people on the island are not allowed to vote in U.S presidential elections.
  2. Cock fighting is a popular blood sport in Puerto Rico, where two chickens get placed in a ring called the ‘cockpit’ and fight to the death…literally. However, this will cease due to Congress voting in favor of banning the sport in 2018.
  3. El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. With 28,000 acres of lush tropical palms, it is definitely a sought after destination. We did not get to explore this beautiful rainforest due to the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria. Last I’ve heard, it is up and running, so I definitely plan to go back!
  4. Puerto Rico coffee is AMAZING. Honestly! The conditions on the main island are excellent for growing quality coffee . I lived off cafe con leche while I was there.
  5. The Coqui frog is the official mascot of Puerto Rico. Endemic to the island, the frog is known for its timid ‘ko-kee’ evening sounds. Another fun fact, apparently the Coqui frog also lives in Hawaii! It is reported that the frogs were accidentally transported in a shipment of plants.

Puerto Rico has some of the liveliest and friendliest people I have ever encountered. Immediately stepping off of the plane, we were greeted with warm hospitality. Using excessive hand and facial gestures, they are expressive and their energy is infectious. The first night we landed there, we took an uber to our air bnb. Our driver was friendly, humorous, and conversational as she gave us suggestions of attractions to see around the city of Old San Juan. We reached our location around 4 am. We walked up to our home for the next few days, go to input the security code…and nothing. We couldn’t get in! Located on San Sebastián , a very popular tourist area and near all of the nightlife, a local bar owner saw we were having trouble and insisted on helping. Apparently, the building was correct but our security code was wrong. As we waited for a response from the air bnb owner, the bar owner insisted on us coming over for a few drinks. We dived into deep conversation over discounted drinks, and you would swear we were life-long friends. Encounters like this mean the world to me. In the U.S, we get so caught up with how busy our lives are, how stressful life can be, our everyday obstacles, that we forget easy going nature such as this exists! Around 5 am, we were able to get in contact with the air bnb owner, just in time before the bar closed for the night.

Only being on the island for three days, we took full advantage of the attractions closest to us. We spent our days walking and exploring the city, enchanted by splashes of colors throughout the buildings, blue cobblestones that paved the streets, and 500 years of history. Some of the most well known attractions we visited were El Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal, massive fortresses used as defenses against Spanish conquistadors nearly 500 years ago. By day, we visited numerous local art galleries and museums. We even visited the historical shanty town, La Perla, which we were advised by locals to never go to at night. I believe one of the locals exact words were, “Not even the police go there at night.” Yeah…say no more. One honorable mention is the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, a colonial era cemetery with construction dating back to 1863. Okay, so I know what are thinking. Why would anyone want to visit a cemetery? Honestly, we were just passing on the way to La Perla. After doing further research, it is reported to be one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world, so why not? While at the cemetery, we were admiring the style of the tombstones. Elegant and marble life-like sculptures, these burial sites are truly a sight to see. The cemetery overlooks the ocean, which is believed to be symbolic of the journey over to the afterlife and originates from Spanish superstition and fear of death. First, I will say that I am a believer in the paranormal and after life. I’m not sure if my fiance previously was, but after our encounter with this cemetery, I am sure his beliefs were seriously altered. As we passed through the cemetery, we noticed a burial site that looked like a mini mosque. It was massive, dome shaped, with stairs leading to doors on all sides. One of the entrances leading indoors looked like it had been ripped open, I’m assuming from Hurricane Maria. My fiance was fascinated with the site and its architecture, so much that he insisted that I take a photo of him sitting on the stairs. After I took the photo, I noticed he proceeded to walk up the stairs to take a peak inside. I warned him that it was probably not the best idea, that it can come off as disrespectful to the spirits resting there. Initially shrugging me off, I urged him to follow my advice. He agreed and we continued exploring around the cemetery. This is when things got a bit spooky. I did not see what he saw, I can only relay the information. According to him, he saw a dark figure hiding behind a burial site with a black cloak floating off the ground. He was SHOOKETH. I’ve never seen him so scared before. He insisted that we leave the cemetery immediately. While on our way out, the wind seem to pick up and dozens of crows were flying over us. Although I didn’t see what he saw, I believed him. It was a feeling, you know. And plus, I warned him *Kanye shrug.* You can see the picture of the site in the slideshow below along with other locations we explored.

Our exploring didn’t stop during the day. By night, we were checking out all of the local restaurants, bars, and lounges. Nightlife is CRAZY in Puerto Rico! The streets are ridiculously busy up until the wee hours in the morning. Also, the legal drinking age in Puerto Rico is 18. With that being said, us ‘old folks’ were outnumbered. The night spots that stuck out the most to me was La Factoría and Douglas. La Factoría is a bar that gives you a speak easy vibe with its hidden passages and entry ways, which creates a really cool atmosphere. There are multiple rooms inside with different genres of music. Douglas is a corner pub with friendly staff and the most amazing Coconut Mojitos I have ever tasted in my life! And trust me, they sneak up on you. Both places are highly recommended.

Douglas has amazing Coconut Mojitos for half the price!

You can’t talk about Puerto Rico without mentioning the food. Honestly, I gained like 5 pounds just over a course of a weekend, but I loved every single minute of it. Some popular mentions are Arroz con Gandules, Tostones, Alcapurrias, Mofongo, and Empanadillas. I indulged in it ALL. These foods are not unfamiliar to me because they were part of my childhood growing up in NYC, which is where the majority of Puerto Ricans migrated to during the political immigration dated back to the 1800s. So basically, I was in heaven and was excited for my fiance to try these foods as well. I also can’t forget to mention the desserts I indulged in, Piragua, Tembleque,and Flan…ugh, take me back! Now! My fiance also tried his first mango EVER in Puerto Rico. We were seated at a restaurant, and the servers started passing out free mangoes pulled from the tree in the back. I don’t think mangoes in the U.S will ever measure up for him.

I will always cherish the memories spent in Puerto Rico. I never expected to have such an amazing time. My fiance loved it so much that I’m convinced he is tempted to move there. The culture and people were magical. I always felt ashamed for not truly embracing my roots, not necessarily by choice, but because of my American upbringing. My parents did not even raise me on the Spanish language, although both are fluent. I can’t tell you how many glares I get from other Hispanics with my broken Spanish. But on that island, I felt accepted. It’s the weirdest and most loving feeling to meet someone in a place you’ve never been before, and just by looking at you, they know you are part of the culture. A local bartender at Douglas was conversing with us as she made our mojitos, and she looks at me and says, “You’re Puerto Rican, right?” I asked her, “How did you know?” She told me that my physical features, my spirit, and even the way I spoke, gave it away. Laughing, I told her that I don’t speak Spanish very well and it was my first time to the island. Without a glance of judgment, she says, “Welcome home. It was only a matter of time.” And in that moment, I realized she was right. I may not speak the language, but I cannot deny the feeling inside when I hear salsa music. Or the fact that I can’t keep myself from dancing when I hear salsa music. Or how anxious I get, scrambling to get Coquito and Pasteles during the holidays. I cannot deny that my roots are mixed with Taino, African, and Spaniard blood. The traditions I grew up with are deeply rooted. The island, at least to me, represents pride and acceptance. I had come home for the first time.