As this was my first long weekend away from NYC I was up extra early to head to subway and make my way to JFK. Upon arriving at the station I was treated to the glorious site of a rat the size of bichon frize tucking into a dead pigeon on the platform. Needless to say I skipped breakfast!
I arrived well on time in JFK after the 1 hour trip, checked in and was away in no time. The flight with Delta as smooth as a baby's arse, although the lady beside me kept popping open her bible for the odd pray during landing which had me on edge. Added to this was the round of applause that began once we landed, which always makes me wonder about people's mental state.
Once through passport control, I just straight in a cab and got the Español moving again which was nice. I was dropped off in the middle of Old San Juan, in O'Donnell Street of all places. Classic. The city of San Juan is split into two main tourist areas, Old San Juan, which is the Spanish colonial town and Condado, which is where plush tourists spend their days on the beach and could really be anywhere in the world. My recommendation...stay in the Old Town for a proper Puerto rican experience.
After a quick check in at my local guesthouse, which was an old colonial style building, I popped out for some food in La Guerita that serves amazing Mexican food. They owners even gave me some tips on what to see in the town too. With that in mind I headed on foot around Old Town which is an incredible walled city with 2 main forts, both of which are accessible by foot. The good news is that most of the sites can be seen in a day if you get your skates on.
First I made my way down to the Cathedral San Juan and mozied around the amazing Spanish colonial buildings and streets nearby, which are extremely colourful and well preserved. I then moved down to la Capilla del Cristo, Puerta de San Juan where the Spanish used to let sailors into the city (impressive), and then through the streets up to el Castillo San Felipe del Morro. This is the symbol of Puerto Rico and a stunning castle built to protect the island back in the day. It has a very impressive open space leading up to it, built with defence in mind and the resting ground of thousands of English, Dutch and Spanish fighters. There is also a famous graveyard beside too which is impressive.
After taking the view in, I walked down the northern part of the Old town Peninsula through the infamous La Perla, an old working class town, which is now infamous with the Despacito song. A local had recommended not going in alone, but feck it, it was for Justin Bieber! Needles to say I was only in there 30 seconds and was offered every drug under the sun! "Estoy bien, gracias!"
Finally I headed down to the Castilo San Cristol, the second fort in the town for a gander and then rocked back to the hotel for a couple of beers and chill! My poor legs can't handle it anymore. After a coupe of hours and shower I was rut for some dinner in the local Italian..as you do! I made friends with the barmen who were all big McGregor fans! They recommend a famous bar called La Factoria which I told was amazing but quite empty so I went back to the ranch around 12 as I was wrecked! All in all a productive first day.
I was up nice and early and out for a run along Paseo de la Princesa which goes around the main fort. The run gives amazing views of the old city, but I wouldn’t recommend in 35 degree heat! At one stage I thought I was giving birth and probably sounded like it too! I meandered my way up to the castle and to then the supermarket for a sambo, with beads of sweat following down me. After a quick shower in the hotel, I jumped in an Uber to Condado beach where all the gringos stay and managed to get sunburnt in 37 minutes. The beach itself is pretty nice and ocean water warm too, so worth a visit.
I walked down the main strip which is similar to Marbella, with lots of franchise fast food places to appease visiting tourists. I found a cool burger place and once finished continued down to Ocean Beach which is larger that Condado and a bit nicer too. After a quick dip I grabbed some ice cream and made my way back to the hotel courtesy of the friendliest Uber driver I’ve ever met. Full of the chats and the nearest thing you’ll get to a Latino Dublin taxi driver!
A quick siesta was on the cards before I popped down for a quick dinner in a local restaurant in the main square and then decided to check out a few local bars nearby, before making my way to La Factoria with the barmen from the bar the night before. Good craic and home late enough having improved my salsa skills substantially.
I rose on Saturday with a cloudy head to say the least and decided to run to a nearby beach, opposite government buildings for a wake up. I found a hidden beach about 10 minutes from the hotel, dropped the gear, took a quick dip and then preceded to burn my arse off while drying up on the rocks.
After running back, I showered, and headed to another Mexican restaurant to catch the United game. Cue the Mexican barman hitting on me again and proceeding to give me his daily workout routine in full detail. All I could say was: “I’m going to have to stop you there”. “Why so?” …”No reason. I’m just going to have to stop you”. So I inhaled the tacos and headed back to the hotel to catch up on a bit of work.
At about 2pm, I ubered across town to La Placita, which is a famous market square where local Puerto Ricans dance the night away to salsa. I had obviously rocked up pretty early, but still had a few scoops in the square while munching on some local empanadillas. As the McGregor boxing match was later that night I made my way back across to the Old Town for a small bite and a shower. I managed to find a really old traditional bar showing the boxing match. After a few Medalla and jelly shots with the locals, I realised they wouldn’t have the PPV so an alternative plan was made to head to the Hilton in Condado. Absolute pandemonium in there with tons of Americans and no Irish. San Juan was hit by a big thunderstorm during the fight so we lost coverage about 8 times throughout the fight which was madness, but not bad at all in hindsight to the hurricane that hit a week after. Decent fight by McGregor.
Once finished I headed out to the main strip to be greeted by the lashings of rain, so hid under a bus shelter for 20 minutes before managing to get a cab to La Placita to meet up with a friend of a Venezuelan friend I made in Caracas years ago. We had some good craic bar hopping and they dropped me home at 4am, absolutely wrecked! La Placita is a must if in town.
Sunday was to be a chill day, but I managed to get up for a run mid morning only for the Old Town to be attacked by a huge rainstorm after about 60 seconds, so had to spend the next 30 minutes crowded under a tree with an old lady. Some craic! I made it back to the hotel during a rain break and took it as a sign of God not to exercise more that day. After a quick bite to eat I made my way to Condado for a local street festival as the sun came out. There was a seriously good vibe in the town as bands played musics, chefs served up local cuisine and most importantly bars dished out some beers. After an hour or so, I headed back to San Juan for a bit of a chill as the past few nights were catching up on me.
That evening I met up with some friends made in La Factoria and drove out to Pinones, further up the coast to try some local food or fritura. I have to say it was absolutely delish! We then popped next door for some Medallas at a traditional merengue club, before making our way back to the Old Town and calling it a night. Again Piñones is definitely worth a visit if you have access to a car!
I was up bright and early on Monday morning with ZERO, yes 0, hangover and made my way to the main square to grab an Uber to the car rental zone just outside the airport. The Uber ride was the most gas thing I’ve experienced in a while, as it began with the female driver rubbing my leg and telling me I’m lovely and then when she realised I was travelling alone, just coming straight out with it and saying “Are you gay?”. We both had a good laugh when I gave her a negative on that front.
Once I arrived at the rental depot, it was pretty smooth sailing to get the car, but it did take me a few minutes to get used to not only the left hand drive, but also the super sensitive brakes. I’d say their eyes were lighting up with $$$ when they saw me chug my way out of the garage! As Puerto Rico is a US territory, my US phone worked fine so came in handy for GPS. My first stoop was to El Yunque National Rainforest which was simply spectacular. It is only about a 45 minute drive from San Juan and is a huge reserve that dips in an out of lashing rain and bright sunshine.
The whole drive is a steep ascent so I took my time to stop off at a few different viewing spots en route. I first stopped at waterfalls before walking up to the first tower, which offered great panoramic views to the coast and not too many tourist. Plus its free! I then continued up in the lashings of rains for a few more KM with the pop tunes blaring. I had a quick dip at Mina Falls and made my way to the peak, parked and hiked 2km in the rain to Matton Tower. Matton Tower is essentially located in the middle of a cloud. So when I first entered it was lashing raining all around me and then as the cloud passed, I could see a breathtaking view of the full Rainforest below. I hiked back down and had some empanadillas for brunch in the lashing rain with some locals.
One thing I noticed during my driving was that some of the radio stations are absolutely hilarious and you can essentially say anything you want on phone in shows. The local host would pose a question: “Where would you like to live apart from Puerto Rico?”, and the locals would call in like made to tell them where and why. No prizes or anything. Some of the opinions were super controversial too that had me in fits. “Barcelona? No I couldn’t, full of Muslims”, to which the host asked, “ Have you ever been?”…”Never!”.
I then made a 30 minute drive to Loquillo beach which is truly gorgeous, with very few people on the beach too. After a quick dip and some lying on the beach I was back on the road for a longer drive to Fajardo Old Town and made my way up to the famous lighthouse, which turned out to be closed. Great! So instead I grabbed a tea and chilled by the beach looking at the famous islands of Culebra and Viques. I call that my pensive stance. In Fajardo you can also kayak in the bioluminescent bay, where the water lights up with plankton movement during sunset and night!
After all my driving I was pretty wrecked so I grabbed some cheap Chinese food, as you do when in Puerto Rico, popped in some petrol and made my way back to San Juan t drop off the shaggin wagon. I ubered it back to the Old Town just in time to head over to the Castillo for an epic sunset. Once dark, I walked back to the casa for a shower and down to the local pizzeria for a final Margarita. Out of nowhere it started lashing rain and power went so we were plunged into darkness. So with nothing else to do I started chatting with two locals and ended up going to La Factoria with them for an hour or so. They were rocking the salsa so I made my Irish exit absolutely bollixed.
On my last day I was up pretty early and did some work in the hotel for an hour or so before heading for one last run to the beach for a small workout and to burn my arse cheeks off one last time. I’d definitely recommend to shake of the cobwebs…the dip that is.
I jogged back to the hotel, showered and checked out of the Fortaleza Guesthouse (great spot), and picked up a few souvenirs nearby. As the tummy was rumbling I headed for tacos (new place I must add) and then took a few photos along the coast for a new ecommerce I am running called Vesuvius. I topped it all off with a milkshake, and as the rain clouds set in, I jumped in a taxi and made my way back to the airport.
All in all, Puerto Rico is a great place to visit. It has great weather, an amazing history and super friendly people. It’s also pretty cheap too. The best idea is to rent a car once you’ve completed San Juan and get around the island, and visit some smaller islands especially. El Yunque was absolutely fascinating and a great rainforest to explore. One thing I would recommend is avoiding hotels along the gringo trap that is Condado, as its not representative of the Puerto Rican culture or people. And also get to work on the salsa moves!