Okay, so it's been a few weeks since we got back from Puerto Rico, but I figure since we hadn't been there in three years, it's still well within the acceptable time limit to post about it. Why it took us so long to get back to one of the places we love most on earth, I don't know. Life. It gets in the way of taking time for what's truly important. And considering we hadn't actually taken a trip of any sort that wasn't business- or family-related in all that time, we were due. We were ready. Oh so ready.
One of the great pleasures of discovering a place you love is getting the opportunity to share it with other people you love.Â Of course, for a massively codependent people-pleaser like myself, it can also be nerve-wracking. Will they see the beauty that you do? Will they appreciate the non-glossy aspects of Puerto Rico as being part of the true experience? Will they like the quirks? Hell, will they like the food.
On this trip, we met up with our amazing friend Denise. In fact, she's the one who kicked off the whole affair, announcing her plans to spend 10 or so days in Puerto Rico in between leaving her fellowship here in Ann Arbor and moving to San Antonio. On a whim, we decided to join her and uncovered the adventure of seeing a familiar place through new eyes.
We met up in Old San Juan the first night of our arrival. At the risk of offending anyone, San Juan proper doesn't have a lot to offer visitors, unless you're looking for high rises and night clubs. I think it's safe to say we're not. Old San Juan, on the other hand, is the oldest settlement within the territorial United States, at least according to Wikipedia, so you know it has to be true. It's a lovely place, dating back to 1521, founded by the Spanish, teeming with 16th & 17th century colonial architecture, and surrounded by El Morro and the old city walls.
Chris, master of crazy travel bargains, managed to swing us a stellar deal for staying at El Convento, a former Carmelite convent we'vewalked past many times and coveted from afar. Let me tell you, it was charming and delightful. The rooms were comfortable and well-appointed and -- although likelyÂ not in keeping with its historical state -- air conditioned to an icy-cold state.
Aside from such nods to modernity, the place felt steeped in history, with its wooden beam ceilings and giant carved doors. It wasn't hard at all to imagine the nuns wandering the hallways in quiet contemplation. Although it was so frickin' hot, I can't imagine that was particularly comfortable for them in their habits. I'd venture to guess at least a few of them prayed for a break in the weather. (Legend has it that the nuns still walk the hallways in silent prayer, but I tried really hard not to think about it while I was there.)
The convent was built around a central courtyard, with balconies on each level over-looking it.Â The big tree in the middle of the courtyard (see photo below) is apparently hundreds of millions of years old. Okay, maybe it's actually just, like, hundreds of years old, but that's still pretty impressive.
One of my favorite things about El Convento were the nooks and crannies you could explore at every turn and had I not been close to expiring from the heat, I might have done more. We did, however, make it to the roof, which offered us some lovely views of San Juan...
...as well as a nice little saltwater dipping pool which, had the water not been the temperature of tepid bathwater, would have been very refreshing.
While I'm busy complaining about the heat in San Juan, you're probably thinking, "Duh. It's summer in Puerto Rico. What were you expecting?" I know, I know. I've certainly been there during summer before -- after all, it's when flights and hotels are often cheapest -- but we usually make a beeline straight for the rainforest, where it's much, much cooler. Besides, the last time I was there, I was still somewhat acclimated to St. Louis summers which are pretty comparable to Puerto Rico, actually. In other words, the past few years in Michigan is making me a pansy.
Anyhoo, there was no point in staying in the A/C, no matter how tempting, considering we had only part of the next day to show Denise a good ol' time in OSJ before heading off on the next leg of our adventure. So we braved the heat of our second day wandering the streets of Old San Juan, looking buildings the color of tropical fruit and, priorities well intact, stopping for breakfast at La Bombonera, our favorite old-timey bakery which has been open for more than a century. (And marveling at the old men at the counter who looked as though they might have been present on opening day.) May I just say that there is a special place in heaven for whoever invented the quesito, Puerto Rico's answer to a cheese danish. Chris and Denise also had success ordering mallorcas, toasted sandwiches filled with ham & cheese or cheese & egg and then dusted with powdered sugar. All washed down with cups of strong Puerto Rican coffee. Fantastico!
There's so much to see of Old San Juan and I took so many pictures I can't possible bore you with them all here. But I think one of the things I love most is that you can find something beautiful and interesting no matter where you look, including down. Many of the streets of Old San Juan are composed of cobblestone made from 16th century ship's ballast, which has the most beautiful blue-gray hue to it. You know, in case you were wondering. See, here:
I'm telling you, if I ever get my hands on some 16th century Spanish ship's ballast, I'm so doing a walkway outside my house like this. Then I'll paint my house the color of mangoes and we'll just see what the city of Ann Arbor has to say about that. Although, knowing Ann Arbor, the answer is probably: nothing. But I digress.
Where were we? Ah, yes. Wandering through the crazy heat and the bright sun to take in some of Old San Juan's sites, including the aforementioned fort El Morro and the neighboring cemetery, which overlooks the Atlantic and is the final resting place of many of Puerto Rico's most notable citizens.
Since you can't get down there easily on foot, I can't exactly tell you who these famous people are, so you'll just have to take my word for it. Either way, they have an incredible view.
Next, we made our way down to the El Morro walkway which led to the Paseo de la Princesa. (Not, as Denise insisted on calling it, the Paseo de Principesa, but we let her have her fun.) Here are Denise and Chris at the Old San Juan Gate, which leads to the walkway.
Somehow we'd never been down there before and it afforded us a nice new perspective on Old San Juan. Go Denise for blazing new trails! (And by new, I mean centuries old.)
After lunch at Cafe Manolin, where we sat at a lunch counter rubbing elbows with locals and scarfing down authentic Puerto Rican fare, Chris had to dash off to do some work. (Work!) So Denise and I wore ourselves out doing a little souvenir shopping. Afterward, we seized the opportunity to pause in a plaza and shield ourselves from the sun while sipping amazingly delicious iced coffees. Quite cosmopolitan, we felt.
By that time, we were just hot, sweaty and tired enough to go and meet up with Chris, say adios to Old San Juan and head east to the El Yunque rainforest for a few days. Stay tuned for details!