Puerto Rico, though technically part of the United States as a territory, was another world that I was not expecting to experience. It was a special trip for me because I finally got to visit Rey’s motherland to meet his mom’s side of the family. Not only was his family incredibly accommodating (which seems to be a common trait in the people of PR), but the island proved itself to be a true hybrid of American and Spanish culture in all of the right ways.
The People: Viejo San Juan
Every country has its social quirks. Parisians are known for their pretentiousness; the Chinese are often blunt; and Puerto Ricans are the most accommodating people you’ll ever meet. Almost everyone on the island speaks English, so it’s pretty easy to get around, but even if they don’t, they’ll do their best to help you out. Even when we tried to access the beach through the private San Juan Hotel Resort, we had no issues talking the staff into letting us hang out in the pool and bar area.
While we were in Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan), we decided to visit El Castillo San Felipe del Morro, which is a famous fort built on the northern edge of Puerto Rico. Right outside of the fort is a gigantic lawn where both locals and tourists come to fly kites and bask in the sun. I highly recommend buying a kite or bringing a picnic to just relax on this lawn. I would equate it to a more serene version of New York’s Central Park. As you sit down to people-watch, you’ll notice how at ease the locals are. When you’re surrounded by beautiful beaches, historical landmarks, and Spanish-inspired architecture, there’s no reason to ever be unhappy.
The Terrain: El Yunque y Las Playas
Before coming to Puerto Rico, I assumed that the island was a beach city catered primarily to tourists. And… yes, that assumption is partially true, but it hardly gives Puerto Rico enough credit. When you visit San Juan, you’ll see that the island is a mix of mountainous terrain and vast beaches. On the edge of the island, you’ll find an endless shoreline colored with hotel resorts and seaside restaurants. In the central part of the island, you’ll see nothing but rolling mountains decorated with every type of tree imaginable. On our first full day there, we visited El Yunque National Park to hike a 2 mile trail down to a hidden waterfall. With no cell phone reception in sight, it was hard to believe that you were still technically in the United States. However, you were reminded every so often when you saw a Walgreens or Target on the highway.
Throughout our time in San Juan, we were never more than 10 minutes away from a beach (or a Burger King for that matter – they seem to be extremely popular on the island). If you explore the coast enough, you’ll see that the beaches range from large commercial beaches, to private restaurant-owned beaches, to local neighborhood beaches. The most unique thing about PR beaches? The sand. It it literally softer than cotton balls.
The Food: Mofongo, Tostones, and Fresh Seafood
If there’s anything I love to do, it’s trying out new cuisines. Traditional Puerto Rican food hit the spot for me. I will have warn you that the food is very carb and plantain heavy. After 4 days there, I ate more plantains than I’ve ever consumed in my life. However, I love bananas and plantains so this was not an issue for me. My favorite new discovery was the classic Mofongo dish, which is basically mashed/fried plantains topped with either chicken, churrasco, or steak. I’ve never had anything like it, so I highly recommend for anyone who likes to experience new foods.
I’m secretly a french fry lover (despite my healthy facade), so my second favorite dish… or side dish rather… were the tostones. These are basically plantains that have been pressed into mini pancakes and fried to a crispy perfection. Dip these babies in avocado hot sauce and you’ll never want to leave PR. It also made me feel a little less guilty knowing that I was eating fried fruit instead of fried carbs i.e., french fries. (Side note: the Taco Bells in PR serve french fries, and they are AMAZING.) If you’re not a plantain person, you can bet there are tons of other things you can eat, like fresh octopus and conch. I tried the octopus at a kiosk restaurant and I still can’t stop dreaming about it.
On such a small island, there’s so much to do. In fact, we’re already planning our next trip back there to go cave diving and zip lining, which I’ve heard is something PR does best. Unfortunately, until then, I’ll continue dreaming about the delicious seafood and the endless island breeze.