Traveling is one of my passions, and my longtime road companion is my younger sister/BFF, Kozi.
From hitting Toronto every year for Caribana to our escapades at the Essence festival in New Orleans, our MO is to zero in on a location and try to get to know it, native style.
No fanny packs, crumpled maps or chain restaurant dining for us, no sir. We aim to go in and uncover so much intel that we’ll have other tourists asking us for directions.
And so during our second visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico, we dove in deeper than we did a few years ago when — armed with tips from one of my journalism colleagues– we went down and did the damn thing: exploring the El Yunque rainforest and seeking out the spots where the locals in the know go to dine. We found some gems, as this old-school post from my days at the Tribune RedEye reveal, but this time….
Oh, this time, we really got comfortable, even eschewing cabs for a rental car. And now, we want to make sure you have all the right tips at your disposal when you visit…and yes, you really must book this trip. Here are the places you want to visit, dine, and a few you’ll want to avoid when you hit PR. I’ve included some visual aids to get your imaginations flowing.
WHERE TO EAT
(1) Jam Rum Bar (Eats/Condado Area of San Juan) 400 Magdalena Ave., San Juan 00907
To be honest, we were really trying to go to a spot we discovered during our last trip when we ended up at Jam. But our preferred place was clearly packed and the guy who answered the phone seemed flustered and prone to disconnecting folks. Rather than risk driving over to Old San Juan from our hotel near the Condado area and waiting an hour for a seat, we opted to try something new. That there was good thinking. This swanky spot is decorated in homage to a mod, mod world, but the menu is definitely next level. We ordered a delicious array of appetizers, including their pork quesadilla (heavenly), buena vida ceviche and an inventive entree customized for us by our very insightful, friendly waiter. Wait, make that a guide into one of the best dinners of life. Do try their delectable cocktails as well. And if you can, see if you can’t squeeze in an after-dinner sip of their Puerto Rican coffee.
(2) Casita Blanca (San Juan) 351 Calle Tapia, Villa Palmeras Do not mistake Casita’s kindness for weakness. The homey restaurant on an unassuming strip of sidewalk feels very much like walking into your grandma’s house. In fact, they use peppers as “paperweights” to keep the napkins from fluttering away at the outdoor tables. But if your grandma cooked like this, you’d move in. No question. Choose from the offerings scrawled on a white board after being offered a delicious soup and toasted bread that may well dampen a touch of your hunger. My recommendation is their beef and onion dish, as well as a garlic shrimp sensation that must be eaten to be understood. This spot beat the pants off some other fancier “fusion” cuisine and then some.
(3) Bebo’s BBQ Marginal Los Angeles I-20, Carolina There is another place called Bebo’s Cafe and you do not want to get confused. The latter looked a hot mess, in our appraisal, but the BBQ spot was a raucous, ravenous delight. Stuck next to a McDonald’s in a snake pit of rental cars, Bebo’s BBQ was recommended us to the guys from Payless when we arrived, bleary eyed from a near failed-connection between NYC and PR. We are not thankful to them for the rather scratched up Nissan Versa they bestowed upon us, but their referral to this home of roasted pork, chicken and rice and beans was a revelation. We tasted, but did not enjoy the local delicacy of morcilla (blood sausage), but that is beside the point.
(4) Pamela’s, 1 Calle Santa Ana Too bad we were just on a girlfriends’ getaway, not a romantic trip, because this is the spot if you want to propose. Seriously. The food at this beachfront restaurant was outstanding– including lightly fried, succulent calamari and Bahamian conch fritters. The entrees of grilled shrimp and juicy churrasca made us swoon. I did not like, on any level, their ceviche but I am willing to forgive and forget, thanks to the other crazily good dishes and attentive wait staff. And did I mention this was right on the water?
After a disappointing turn at the much ballyhooed and fancy schmantzy Aguaviva, I was afraid to even enter Santaella. It seemed like a tourist trap of fusion cuisine and overpriced drinks. But it was a good look, particularly this hulking lamb shank. Hint: Split it with your dining partner or be prepared to burst at the seams if you order it, plus an appetizer.
WHERE TO GO
I might offend some folks with this next statement, but hey, I’m trying to make sure you have a good time. I cannot recommend the following mainstay of PR vacations: Loquillo Beach, essentially a bunch of kiosks that are selling the same kind of fried foods under heat lamps. Nor can I speak to the island of bio-luminescent kayaking because the notion of floating around in that water, in the (mostly) dark sends a shiver up and down my spine. But this is what I do strongly urge you to try when in the area.
1. El Yunque Rainforest/La Mina Waterfall (45 minute drive from San Juan)
I love to look at nature, but I’m a little like SNL’s Brian Fellows when it comes to coming up close and personal with wildlife. That’s why the great green glory that is El Yunque rainforest was perfect for me. Other than chirps and warbles in the trees, I saw nary a creature but I was floored by the beautiful flora and fauna in this waterfall-laden piece of heaven. Check out this picture. You don’t even have to be super active to experience this attraction, which contains watchtowers and at least two magnificent cascading bodies of agua. Our preference is to park very close to the opening of La Mina, our fave ‘fall, which is then a 25-minute trek from the roadway. There are steep stairs, hills and at least one somewhat narrow lane but it is worth it when you arrive and can walk down the rocks to plunge deep into the cool, crisp waters. Some fools decided to swim right up under the foaming, falling H20, but it didn’t look like a lot of fun…more like some kind of waterboarding from Mother Nature. You’re better off just chilling in the deep pools. And do take plenty of pictures. There are tours to this attraction, and if you don’t rent a car, that might make sense. But if you’re driving, ditch the other lookie loos and beast it on your own. The guide at the visitor center will give you plenty of information so you won’t end up acting out the first season of “Lost.”
2. Guavate (La Ruta de Lechon) (40 to 50-minute drive from San Juan)
On Saturdays and Sundays, the area of Guavate (about 45 minutes away from San Juan) turns into a colorful, noisy musical festival that just happens to feature some of the best roasted pork in the dang universe. Full disclosure: I’m not much of a pig aficionado these days, and honestly, I mostly skip it altogether. But I will fall off the wagon and roll in the road for another bite of this bad boy. There are a number of places to eat as you travel winding roads up into the mountain to dine with reckless abandon, but our personal favorite was El Rancho Original. Grab yourself a pina colada or beer from a neighboring stand and write me a thank-you note later. Get there before noon as parking gets tight. Make sure to bring some cash in case you also have a hankering for souvenirs.
3. The Beaches (Condado Area)
There are varying accounts of which is best, but we typically hit the beachfronts in the Condado (resort-filled) area of San Juan. This time around, we specifically set up camp right behind La Concha, where we flirted harmlessly with a ridonkulously handsome waiter named Hector. (Hey, bew.) But due to our previous experience, we knew that lounging is really the thing to do as the waves can be rather wild and merciless. It’s a much better set-up for boogie boards and surfing. To put it plainly: The Puerto Rican waves will smite you if you go in too deep. My advice is to stand near the outskirts and be careful to watch the ebb and flow of the water. As a person who, along with my sister, did an involuntary back flip in the surf during one lapse in judgement, I should know. If you do get smacked, get all the salt water out of your lungs ASAP, take a beach chair breather and then go order a drink…a Miami Vice sounds nice.
4. Old San Juan
We’re not huge shoppers when we travel, but the boutiques, gorgeous cobblestone streets and looming cathedrals make Old San Juan a must when we are in PR. Next time, we might actually stay in that area and drive over to Condado. You can get some amazing photo opps as you stroll around checking out the melding of old (churches, streets) and new (big honking Walgreens and Marshalls). Make sure to stop and have a drink at some of the restaurants with courtyards. You’ll definitely spot some tiny lizards…or big ones, depending on how much you drink.
Did I miss a spot? Where do you like to hang out in Puerto Rico? Or is there anything else you’d like to know. Put it in comments below and I’ll do my best to answer.
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