“Puerto Rico, you lovely island, island of tropical breezes.”
A lot of things have changed in Puerto Rico since “West Side Story” first opened 1957 — but that opening line of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics about it in “America” still applies.
And the tropical breezes were wonderful when we made a short trip to San Juan in early spring. Actually, they were strong enough to make the ocean a bit too choppy for swimming on Condado Beach, just a few blocks away from the Airbnb where we stayed. (Confession: I’m not a strong swimmer and don’t much like waves tumbling me about.)
But those breezes made the temperatures — which almost always reached 84° during the day — really comfortable and welcome, on our escape from the cold of New York State. It was comfortable enough to walk for many miles per day, exploring the sights and tastes of Puerto Rico’s capital. And we extensively explored two areas — Condado Beach and Old San Juan.
Our Condado lodgings were located right between the beach and Loiza Street, which boasts a great variety of restaurants. We wandered there on our first night in town and greatly enjoyed our dinner at La Cueva del Mar, where we developed a real fondness for mofongo, a traditional concoction made of mashed green plantains with garlic, olive oil, and pork rinds. We confess, we never did notice the taste of the pork rinds, because the dish is served with a variety of tasty sauces.
We also walked to and from dinner on Ashford Avenue, past high rises and a small park. We felt safe everywhere we walked in Condado and Old San Juan, though surfaces were much rougher in the old town. But that didn’t stop us from walking from one fortress — Fort San Felipe Del Morro, the oldest Spanish fort in the New World — and across town to the other — Castillo de San Cristobal, which is the largest fortification the Spanish built in the Americas.
We toured El Morro, which seemed plenty big — like huge — to us! When we got to the Castillo, it looked so similar to El Morro, we decided to head to a bar instead for a light snack and some liquid refreshment. (Interesting note: We didn’t realize until we’d already paid admission to El Morro that our Senior National Park Pass would have gotten us in for free. It is, in fact, a national park. And Puerto Rico is part of the U.S.!)
Part of our explorations were led by not just one, but two amiable representatives from Old San Juan Free Walking Tour, and both young ladies were very knowledgeable about the history and art of the Old City. Like most free tours — nearly every city has one, we’ve found — the tradition is a tip for a job well done, so the amount can be tempered by your enjoyment and your budget as well.
The food and drinks were excellent anywhere we went, from a tiny outdoor cafe in Condado to Restaurante Barrachina in Old San Juan, where the Piña Colada was first concocted. There, along with their famous invention, we opted again for mofongo. Yum. And El Asador, on San Francisco Street, had a delicious Passion Cocktail, created by bartender Frank Martinez, and a creamy, dreamy seafood risotto. It’s impossible to detail all the good food we ate, though El Convento deserves a mention — despite looking very upscale, it offered reasonably priced and tasty food in a spectacular atrium setting.
Then consider museums. We especially enjoyed the Museo de las Américas, where we marveled at the exhibit of works by Maestro José R. Alicea, rightly described as a master printmaker. From posters, to book covers, to murals, this native Puerto Rican artist’s work is really brilliant. And Casa Blanca, built for Ponce de Leon, though he never got to live there, is well worth the minimal cost of admission. The exhibits there give lots of historical details about the building and the city of San Juan in the 16th to 18th centuries. Plus, it boasts great views of San Juan Harbor and lovely gardens, which are more extensive than first meets the eye.
But Old San Juan is a museum by itself. One thing I especially liked was the abundance of interesting sculptures we found nearly everywhere we wandered. And the Paseo de Sombrillas, a display of colorful umbrellas, on Calle Fortaleza in front of the Governor’s Mansion, was a fun surprise. It is indeed joyful, colorful, and playful, just as Puerto Rico’s Governor and First Lady intended.
San Juan’s buildings themselves make the main part of the old town well worth meandering through. Lots of restaurants, lots of businesses, and most of them in great old buildings. John remembers that, in 1967, his first trip there, many of those buildings were residences, with people sitting on the stoops on a warm evening. That part of San Juan may be gone, but the charm decidedly remains.