I moved to the Isla del Encanto, Puerto Rico, when I was two years old and lived there until I finished high school. During my many trips back to the island, I have always enjoyed the landing as I get a great view no matter on which side of the airplane I sit on (though the ocean side is more colorful as you can see!). I thought it may be cool to share the view from my window seat as the plan crosses over land near Cataño, just west of Old San Juan. Enjoy the pictures of this, one of the prettiest landings ever!
For many, the ideal vacation is to go where it is sunny and warm, be it the tropics or somewhere with good “Mediterranean” climate. Be it the Caribbean, the South Pacific, or the Greek Isles, sun and fun seem to go together. I am not as much a chaser of these climates but they definitely present great color and usually interesting and, pardon the word, warm peoples. For the “Capital Cities” series, I have chosen four warm capitals: Panama City, Manila, San Juan, and Port of Spain.
Panama City, Panama
I have shared before about incredible and ever-changing Panama City, a place I have visited over four different decades and which I always enjoy.
As I have family there, I get to do both the things a visitor would do but also live a little like the locals when I am there. Panama City is both old and modern and whether by visiting the old ruins of the original establishment, or exploring the old (but not as old) city or “Casco Viejo,” or entering the Canal Zone, or simply enjoying the modern life, Panama City offers great experiences. And when those are not enough, then fly to the Pearl Islands or head to other beautiful parts of the country like the area near Chagres or Chiriqui, for example.
Manila, The Philippines
I have only visited Manila once and for a rather brief visit. I shared in another post how the old district has much more history than I understood from centuries of Spanish rule, then American control, then Japanese occupation, and –finally- from the times after it gained its independence.
While it can be quite hot and humid (as Panama City), the warmth of the people is well worth the warmth of the climate. You’d expect that people in any large city would be short-tempered, always in a rush – a la Manhattan. Not in Manila, where it seems the human connection is most important. I did not get to venture outside of the city to enjoy what I hear are incredible beaches and other natural settings worth exploring. But the city alone was well worth the visit!
San Juan, Puerto Rico
You may know from prior posts that I grew up in Puerto Rico. We moved there when I was two and I left at 17. 15 years to make San Juan a piece of my heart, as the lovely song says: “En mi Viejo San Juan, cuantos cuantos sueños forjé en mis noches de infancia…” The old part of San Juan is referred to as “el Viejo San Juan” to distinguish it from the more modern city around it.
The small island where old San Juan sits is connected by bridges to the rest of the city and, if you don’t pay attention, you may not catch that.
Old San Juan is truly a living museum. Centuries old, it has not been destroyed nor significantly burned so what you see is what it was and has always been. But it is not a lifeless museum or collection of old buildings: people work, shop, play and live in those old buildings! The heat of the tropics is kind in Puerto Rico due to the strong breezes coming in from the Atlantic, at least on the northern and eastern side of the island so Old San Juan is a great place to spend time as it sits higher than sea level for the most part and the breezes, combined with the shadows the buildings offer part of the day, make it comfortable even for the most cold-loving snowbird. When you go, make sure you explore the old forts and walls erected by the Spanish centuries ago. For more of what to see in this incredible place and the rest of Puerto Rico, check out my recommendations on experiences to have in Puerto Rico!
Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago
The capital of Trinidad and Tobago sits in the island of Trinidad. Facing the water but with hills around it, it is a melting pot of races and cultures which results in a fun place to discover, even when it is not Carnival (which I hear is phenomenal!). I visited for a few days and enjoyed GREAT food (whether Italian, Indian, tropical, or other!). I loved driving around the neighborhoods and seeing some neat island architecture.
While Port of Spain definitely has an industrial side to it, it has many other awesome areas to spend time in – and don’t forget Maracas Bay not too far away (passing through a beautiful tropical forest and great ocean views from the road!).
The world has many capitals in the warmer climates. In fact, quite a bit! Here is to getting to explore many more of them! Have any recommendations??
Because I lived in Puerto Rico for 15 years, I often get asked about what to do and where to stay in this beautiful island. Of course, these things depend on the type of vacation one is looking for, one’s general preferences, etc. but I can usually provide a varied list of recommendations so others can then pick and choose what sounds good for them. I will share here the recommendations I have for someone wanting to experience Puerto Rico. Feel free to ask questions!
Take part in the fiestas patronales (patron saint feasts)
Each town in Puerto Rico has its patron saint. Around the feast day of the saint, the town has a “fiesta patronal” with a lively parade (heck, everything is lively in Puerto Rico!), music, games, artisans, and food and a very lively atmosphere! Find a piragüero to make you a piragua (shaved ice with your favorite flavor syrup on it!).
Enjoy Luquillo’s beaches
The beaches of Luquillo, along with Rincón‘s on the west coast, are some of the best on the island. Luquillo is due east of San Juan and along the way one can stop at the food kiosks off the main road. These kiosks used to be “huts” but, along the way, the government decided to build them better structures. I don’t know how many there are but probably over 50 of these eateries. Stop and taste some of the different foods and maybe a cold beer!
If you feel like it, drive further east to the town of Fajardo. You can visit its old lighthouse “Faro de las Cabezas“. You can also drive to the former El Conquistador Hotel (it seems to change name every few years so I stick to the original which everyone knows there) which offers great views cays and the sea below. It was a very famous hotel in its heyday before it went into decay in the 1970s. It has been resurrected a few times and it is currently a hotel open for business.
Visit the world’s largest single dish telescope
Made even more famous by the Jodie Foster movie, Contact, and the James Bond movie, Golden Eye, this observatory, built in 1963, is famous for being the largest single dish telescope in the world. Its diameter is 1,000 ft and it is impressive to see it firsthand, nestled in a small valley. When I went many years ago (when it was being run by Cornell University), there was a recording playing at the observation deck describing the observatory. It is from this radio observatory that a message was sent in 1974 by SETI to anyone out there listening that Earth existed and was populated by us. “Look at me! Look at me!” (Like I want angry or scary aliens being alerted to our existence…)
Go off the mainland to Vieques and Culebra
If Puerto Rico is small, Vieques and Culebra are even smaller but they both offer a nice getaway to a more remote part of the island group. Vieques was the former location of a U.S. military base so part of it is not as developed as you would expect since the closure of the base is relatively recent. But I hear that it has been developed smartly. I have not been to Culebra and, from what I gather, it is less developed. Either would be great for R&R!
Go under in the Cuevas de Camuy
The caves (or is it more accurate to say “caverns“? some day I will study the difference…) of the Río Camuy, just west of Arecibo, are definitely worth a visit (60 mies or so west of San Juan but miles in PR do not equate easily to time – lots of traffic!). Due to the proximity to Arecibo, it may be worth combining this visit with the radio telescope since the latter is a fairly quick stop. The Río Camuy, it may surprise many to know given the smallness of the island, is the world’s third largest underground river. The river has carved these caves (about 10 miles of them, very little of it accessible to the public) from limestone and you can visit them and ride in them – no worries, the assumed half a million resident bats are likely asleep during the daytime. But if you go, go early as they stop letting people in after a daily quota has been met (1,500 visitors last I checked).
Visit the pearl of the south: Ponce
Cross the island from San Juan to Ponce (an hour plus drive) via a scenic drive, and visit the “pearl of the South.” Ponce is named after the first governor of Puerto Rico: Juan Ponce de León and later explorer of what became Florida. Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second largest city. It has a totally different feel than San Juan’s metropolitan area: a slower pace, and even the climate is different being a little drier. Its art museum is well done and its old fire station (Parque de Bombas) is very picturesque. Both were the target of a special field trip from my high school for the freshman class every year (only an hour plus from San Juan but THAT is considered a LONG trip in this small island!).
Explore Old San Juan
Founded on 1521, there are not enough words to describe how unique Old San Juan is. Only Havana is competition for OSJ, I hear. It is the oldest city in the United States, pre-dating St. Augustine by a few decades. Its cobblestone streets, its beautiful multi-century old buildings (built before anything was built by Europeans in the continental U.S.), and its plazas make this a true jewel of a town. I appreciate it a lot more now that I no longer live there and have seen more of the world – beats a lot of old towns I have seen. (Check out my post about OSJ here.)
As a kid, my Dad used to drive us up the hill to enter the old quarter, then along the north coast (with the shantytown La Perla down below the city wall), into the heart of old San Juan to then drive through the old San Juan Gate (a sea-facing gate in the city walls). Right after going downhill through the gate, the road turned immediately to the left but my Dad used to pretend we were going straight into the water, a thrill ride that I fell for every single time!
This gate is the last remaining gate along the city’s walls. This gate is now pedestrian only and the left turn now takes you down a pleasant walk down the Paseo La Princesa (site of a former jail!). The city walls are incredible and are preserved along the waterfront but not the inland part. You can explore these by walking into a garita (guard posts) where Spanish soldiers used to keep watch for foreign invaders and pirates.
The crowning pieces of Old San Juan are the fortresses of San Cristóbal and San Felipe del Morro (El Morro). The latter is more imposing but the former is also worth a visit. Do take a tour when you visit so you can grasp how incredible these structures are due to their age, their construction and their history. The field in front of El Morro is great for a picnic or fly to kites as you look out on the Atlantic Ocean. I loved going there as a kid.
There is a cemetery at the foot of the city walls of that field but, be careful if you decide to go to the cemetery… visitors are easy prey in this important cemetery in San Juan. I will not keep expanding on all there is to do in OSJ (there is a LOT to see!) but there are small museums, art galleries, bars, etc. Just walk around and explore!
See La Parguera’s bioluminescent bay in the southwest
This bay in the southwest town of Lajas is a unique place. The thing to do is to get in a small boat and go into the bay at night. When the still waters are disturbed, the microorganisms that live in the bay glow. I have actually never gone but it is famous. When I return to Puerto Rico some day, this is on my list of things to check off!
Experience Loíza aldea
Loíza is a coastal town east of San Juan that seems to have preserved more of the African heritage of the island than the rest of the island. Stop and try any of the local restaurants / stands and try “salmorejo” (crab dish) or any of the fried foods! This is definitely off-the-beaten path for visitors.
Drive the mountain towns and see their main plazas
This is my favorite thing. Puerto Rico is made up of 70-odd towns, each with a center following the traditional Spanish colonial pattern of a main plaza with the town hall on one side and the main church on the opposite side (the other two sides were houses of better-off families back in the day). Though they sound very similar, each is quite unique and it is fun to visit and see the differences. Some of the towns are on the coast but the center of the island is mountainous so visiting the inland towns also has the side benefit of driving around the mountains and tropical forests of the island. Of course, the main plaza in the capital city, San Juan, is very nice but others compete favorably! Though I have never visited it, I hear Guayama‘s is one of the prettiest.
Go tropical in El Yunque
The mountain of El Yunque east of San Juan, past the airport is actually not Puerto Rico’s tallest point but it is its most notable one as it is quite standalone in comparison to Cerro de Punta (the tallest point in the island at around 4,400 ft). It is neat to visit as it allows you to see tropical flora at its best. My favorite are the gargantuan ferns. You can also get off at the waterfalls and climb around or get in the water. It is a neat visit, especially if you are headed to the Luqillo beaches or the food kiosks!
There are other neat places to see and visit (e.g., the Bacardi distillery!) but I did not want to write my favorite 111 things to see and do, so I chopped off a digit (not a finger!) and kept it to 11. Please feel free to ask any questions if you are planning or thinking of a visit to Puerto Rico!
Old world charm in the new world. Streets that have seen a lot of history and major empires fighting for them. Old San Juan’s charm lies in its setting by the water, in its history, and in its well-preserved architectural jewels (including the “adoquines“, the cobblestone used to pave the streets a few centuries ago). The wavey adoquines resemble the sea around Old San Juan, reminding us of its place in the Spanish Empire as a key port.
I went to Puerto Rico, where I lived for 15 yrs growing up, for a long weekend after a 5-year absence. It is always an interesting trip when I go with the mix of family, friends, and lots of memories. Most of my family has moved away from there and many friends are no longer there either but I still never have time to see the ones who remain. Also, I never have enough time to see things I want to re-visit or things that I just plain and simple have never seen before (like La Parguera or the Bacardi distillery, must-sees). It is funny how that goes! While this trip was due to a family member’s illness, I did get a little time to go around some.
I had never spent too much time (other than driving through) some of the towns due west of Bayamón. In particular, I saw more of Vega Baja, Vega Alta, and Toa Baja in a day or two of going from place to place this weekend that the sum of the time I ever spent there before. It is interesting to see how densely populated some of these towns can be (and how bad traffic can be!). Yet, along the coast (where the “Baja” towns are) I saw some of the “‘hidden away” beaches I had never been to before, far away from tourist areas and the local crowds (like Los Tubos and Puerto Nuevo, which I hear surfers love).
In terms of food, my Dad took me to a real treat of a place, La Casita Blanca, a small restaurant of typical Puerto Rican food near Barrio Obrero, a neighborhood that had glory days a long time ago but that even in my childhood was already known for higher levels of crime and, therefore, a “must stay away from” area. The restaurant is quaint and picturesque and is located in a semi-residential, semi-commercial street (Ave. Tapia).
When you sit down to eat, they serve you not only the typical basket of garlic bread but also fried cod (“bacalaito“), and a small serving of an awesome chicken soup. When you are done, they serve you a small dose of anise to cleanse the palate. I had to go for the carne frita (friend pork chunks) and mofongo (friend mashed plantains) – one of my favorite Puerto Rican dishes! The place was a really neat hole-in-the-wall that had a lot of character, great food, and friendly staff.
Finally, I had to have my “quesitos“, a Spanish-influenced pastry filled with cream cheese that I can’t find at home (though I have it whenever I go to Miami or Tampa). My favorite place to eat these in PR is La Ceiba on Ave. Roosevelt. That, a “croqueta de jamón” and a cortadito (coffee and milk) make for a most bodacious breakfast! A sister bakery to La Ceiba is La España, on Ave. Baldorioty near the airport (next to a cemetery and across from another one!). So, not only do I enjoy going to La Ceiba but on the way out of the island, I make a stop at La España to eat some goodies, and take some home with me 🙂
Writing about Puerto Rico will not be easy for me as writing about other places. I lived in Puerto Rico since I was 2 years old until I finished high school so my experience of Puerto Rico is not just a trip or an extended visit. However, I will try to highlight, through a few of these entries, what one who visits Puerto Rico can expect to see and experience.
There are many places in Puerto Rico worth seeing. However, for me, Old San Juan is tops. Consider that Old San Juan is a decade or so short of having been in existence 500 years. Santo Domingo is older but, for the Americas, 500 is impressive enough.
The best way to appreciate the uniqueness of Old San Juan, which refers to the area formerly surrounded by a wall and the immediate vicinity, is by coming into the bay in a cruise ship (or maybe some other boat). The tip of the island where Old San Juan is houses the El Morro fort, a very impressive fortification built centuries ago to protect San Juan de Puerto Rico from pirates from other European countries (even the mighty Francis Drake tried -and failed- to take San Juan).
From the fort, a huge wall surrounded Old San Juan with several gates (only one survives) controlling access. A good bit of the wall remains, especially from the fort of San Cristobal towards El Morro, then to La Fortaleza (the governor’s mansion) to the Capilla del Cristo. Seeing the old city surrounded by this wall, especially at sunset or nighttime is a sight to behold.
The fort of El Morro is a must see for anyone visiting PR. Get a guide so you can understand how the fort operated, how it was used to defend the city, etc. Step into a “garita” and feel what a Spanish soldier must have felt centuries ago serving as a sentry keeping an eye out for ships. The fort is huge (take a water bottle if it is hot!).
As kids we loved going to the fort. The fort of San Cristobal is smaller but still an impressive site. There is a cemetery below the ground of the fort of El Morro. Local luminaries are buried there; however, be warned, getting to it is risky so I would actually recommend not going but, instead, cross the El Morro grounds and look down on the cemetery from the gaps in the wall.
The area around Plaza de Armas is the center of the town, where city hall is. It is your typical Spanish plaza. Nearby, you also have the Plaza Colon. Anyone around will happily direct you to these places. The Capilla del Cristo and the next door Parque de las Palomas are local favorites. The Capilla (chapel) was built on the edge of a cliff in honor of a jockey not dying (a very long time ago) when he and his horse went off the cliff on a downhill race down the Calle del Cristo. People leave items as thanksgiving for prayers answered. It is a charming site.
Old San Juan is a great place to explore on foot as it is very compact. Walk to the Cathedral, enter the hotel across the street (“El Convento“, a former convent), walk down by the waterfront, explore the backstreets and examine the architecture. If you get lucky, take a peek inside any of the houses (people do live there!); worst case, at least go into shops or eateries that retain the inner courtyard so you can appreciate how people lived and still live in these magnificent buildings. The cobblestone streets and the architecture really take you to a different time (if you can ignore the cars!).
As you approach the cruise ship area, the number of souvenir shops increase exponentially but in the rest of Old San Juan, you will find shops where the locals also shop and souvenir shops that are more reasonable. I remember as a child my mother going to Old San Juan on a Saturday to go shopping. There are many places to eat and many of those being oriented to tourists but, for a local style lunch, el Siglo XX is a classic (Calle O ‘Donnell). Other well known eatiers are La Bombonera and La Mallorca (some of these may be closed by now…). If the day is hot, stop at a piragüero, and get the piragua (shaved ice with a syrup with the flavor of your choosing).
Nightlife in Old San Juan is abundant. The bars in the Calle del Cristo were famous in my time in PR and are likely still popular with the local crowd. I believe that Calle San Sebastian has also developed as an area to go out at night. The area by the cruise ships also has places to eat and drink but, to me, having known another side of Old San Juan, that would feel too touristy and I would avoid it. (Anyone with more current info and perspective, please comment if all this is outdated info!! I don’t claim to be current on where to go for nightlife, but I know there is!)
If you have kids, the forts and adjoining grounds will clearly be fun for them – but get a kite and be ready to fly it!
Check out this link for more info on what to do with kids: http://www.puertoricodaytrips.com/kids-in-old-san-juan/
It is hard to do Old San Juan justice in any write-up. It is a charming, deeply historical, and beautiful location to see and explore!