If you're an American, Puerto Rico has to be the easiest place to visit in the Caribbean.  No passport required.  No changing currency.  Direct flights to San Juan from major airports. And, best of all, your cell phone plan works without international roaming! There are also a variety of experiences you can have based on where you choose to stay - Isla Verde, Condado, Old San Juan, Fajardo, Ponce... It's the perfect destination to consider for a long weekend!  For me, I chose to stay in Old San Juan because I love being surrounded by history.  Located on a small island connected to the main city by three bridges, Old San Juan is the location of the colonial settlement established by Ponce de León in the 16th century.




The Old San Juan neighborhood may be less appealing to the typical tropical tourist because there are no beaches and the shops and restaurants are less plentiful; but, there is a certain charm to some of these uneven and narrow, blue glazed cobblestoned streets.  No, not all of the streets are great, I will admit. The port is at the bottom of the hill, and with that comes day trippers off of the cruise ships wanting souvenirs, so the shopping is targeted at that tourist subset. I suggest that the charm factor would shoot way up if places like the Coach Outlet, Pandora, Burger King, and Wendy's relocated. Overall, though, there is no denying the pleasure and sense of adventure felt while wandering the streets, back and forth and up and down, trying to find the cutest and most colorful building.







My home base in Old San Juan was the El Convento Hotel on Calle del Cristo, where I found a deal for the holiday weekend.  The hotel has been in operation since the 1960s after the building was converted from the convent that had occupied the site from the late 1600s through 1903, hence the name El Convento.  The small sun deck and plunge pool was perfect for me because I spent most of my time getting thoroughly soaked with sweat walking the streets in the high humidity - 88 degrees, feels like 99.  It was nice to stop and take a few hours to sit with a book on a lounge chair and take a short dip to cool off - something I definitely don't do often enough.  The location of El Convento was very convenient to the city's old wall and defenses - the forts of El Morro and San Cristóbal (the third historical fort, La Fortaleza, has restricted access because it is the current Governor's mansion).  It is also located right next to the La Catedral de San Juan Bautista, a conquistador-era church that dates back to 1542 and has architectural elements from gothic and renaissance revival periods.  Speaking of churches, it was a treat to walk around the streets on Sunday morning and hear all of the music pouring out the doors of the many historic churches in the neighborhood, including San Juan Bautista. The oldest church, Iglesia de San José, unfortunately was undergoing major renovations while I was there.




For food, you will find open air cafes around some of the old city's popular plazas as well as small restaurants hidden on the streets.  I had a great lunch one day at the St. Germain Bistro and got a taste of Puerto Rico during lunch the second day at El Jibarito.  While in PR, a popular dish is a mofongo made out of mashed green plantains, fried and filled with meat or vegetables.




What I enjoyed most of all from my time in Puerto Rico was observing, as I walked the streets, the juxtaposition of the buildings where next to a beautifully maintained home is a dilapidated shell of a home with broken shutters, paint peeling, door chained shut, and plants overtaking the walls and floors.  It's a reminder of how much money and time must be invested to preserve history.  Living in a historical town myself in Washington D.C., I can see similar evidence of that challenge as I walk my home streets, though most of our historic buildings have been fully restored over the past forty years. My point is that I find it fascinating to appreciate the beauty of these old structures somewhat being reclaimed by nature.  And I don't mean to highlight this aspect of Old San Juan to discourage you from visiting because these neglected buildings are not the norm. It's just an issue of time and money, which is not going in PR's favor right now under current economic conditions.  




This second floor window hotel shot may be one of my favorites from the weekend!







With all that being said, I return to my original point, it could not be any easier to visit Puerto Rico from the United States, and I encourage everyone to put it on their vacation to-do lists.  Also, while you are there, you must book a trip (and book it early!) to kayak through the mangrove forest to reach the bioluminescence bay.  This bay in Fajardo is home to tiny microorganisms that light up when disturbed.  Many companies guide kayak groups to see this natural phenomenon, but I chose to go with Kayaking Puerto Rico.  They arranged for transport from San Juan, which was much easier than navigating my way there and back in traffic and in the dark.  Under perfect circumstances, these microorganisms will create an aqua glow if you swish your hand around in the water or take a stroke with your paddle.  Unfortunately, the night I went the luminescence was around 10-30% of an ideal level because of a grass that had infiltrated the lagoon and an algae condition that was changing the Ph levels, both of which impacted the quantity and associated reproduction activity of these illuminating microorganisms in the water.  Most of the tours actually cancelled their outings that night, but Kayaking Puerto Rico took our group out, which to be honest made it a lot less stressful navigating the kayak through the mangrove tunnels in the dark and more peaceful in the bay itself without 120 other kayaks to manage. We actually received a post-event partial refund from Kayaking Puerto Rico, which was an unexpected but welcomed gesture of goodwill.  Despite my decision not to do it, another popular day trip on the island is to visit the El Yunque rainforest.  Like the bio-bay, there are many tour providers from which to choose for this activity.  Of course, there's always the beach which is easily accessible from Condado or Isla Verde.  If you stay at El Convento, you are allowed access to the beaches by its sister properties, just a taxi ride away from Old San Juan.  Whatever you do, just get out, have fun, and enjoy Puerto Rico.

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