ministry logo

Jef's Blog

San Juan, Puerto Rico
Feb. 2013  (slideshow at the end)

It had been almost 10 years since we took a real vacation that did not center on a family gathering of one sort or another.  We had canceled a trip to Turkey the year before because it was about the same time Allen was starting his new job and we were not sure how secure we were.  So it was good to finally plan something that involved somewhat foreign shores and warmth.  For a while it was a toss up between Panama or Puerto Rico.  After much web surfing and deal searching, Puerto Rico won.  I had never been there and it had been over twenty years since Allen was last there – so why not?!

We would go in late February after a few months of winter passed and a few more to go.  It would be the perfect break from snow, ice, gray skies, and all too early sunsets.  Someplace warm, someplace with sun, someplace different.  Our friends Nick and Matthew go pretty much every year and made some recommendations to us.  After we made our plans, they would see if they could overlap on their own visit to the island.

Since we are a household with four dogs, we also had to make vacation plans for the pooches.  Luckily we have found a boarding facility that has never disappointed us.  In fact, our little ones never seem to want to leave – no matter how long they have been there.  That either speaks to the quality of the kennel or the lack of quality in their home life.  We prefer to think the former. 

Since we were going the cheap route, our flight was not a direct one.  We flew from Chicago to Atlanta and then from Atlanta to San Juan.  On the way to San Juan, the layover was not terribly long, though Allen did lose his rather expensive skin cream at the security check.  It seems that there were just a few ounces too many to safely let it through.  That put a momentary damper on the trip, but he soon got over it.

Arriving in San Juan, early in the afternoon their time, we knew we where we wanted to be.  The jackets we had worn in order to fight the Chicago cold were not extremely heavy, but were too much for the warmth of Puerto Rico. 

Although we had been up since before 4AM and had been on the planes for hours, and so initially a bit tired and worn, it was not to last.  The cab ride to our hotel was a real heart-starter.  Our cab driver had an I-Pad hooked up to his car and was constantly texting with his phone the entire 15-20 minute trip.  There were plenty of times that I thought for sure we were going to rear-end the cars in front of us, and how he managed to weave in and out of the various lanes while texting all the while was absolutely and amazement and thrill ride that not even 6-Flags can compete with.  I am so dead-set against the use of cels while driving (hands free or no) that not only was my ire piqued, but I was afraid we were going to begin our vacation with a trip to the emergency room.  Despite my fears though, he managed to get us to our hotel physically intact.  And now we were wide-awake!

We stayed at the Atlantic Beach Hotel on Condado beach.  To say it was nothing fancy is a real under-statement.  It was a hotel that Allen knew of from his visits in the ‘80’s, but back then it was known for its rooftop bar, the craziness of drunken drag queens and an abundance of prostitutes and other colorful characters.  It is no longer that hotel but it is certainly not the Marriott either.  We sort of knew this going in.  Our plan was to save money to play with rather than putting it all into a bedroom where we did not plan to spend much time anyway.  There was a bed, a bathroom (with a very narrow shower – but really good hot water), a dresser 2 chairs and a TV bolted to the wall.  Our window looked out on the shell of a building that was lizardbeing rehabbed and that was about it.  We had no control of the a/c other than to cover the vent with a towel when it felt too cold.  It was, however, clean and right on the beach.  There was a patio bar and restaurant that stayed pretty busy.  No more rooftop bar and the riff-raff had been pretty much moved out.  The door had a 3 or 4-inch gap between the floor and the bottom of the door – allowing for lots of hallway light to get in as well as the sounds of anyone opening or closing their door or speaking.

After checking in and unpacking we then headed to the anchor of our weeklong stay in San Juan – the 24-hour Walgreens down the street.   Allen needed sandals, and like everything we needed while there, we started with the Walgreens.  Sure enough, they had a pair to fit him and they were cheap – what more did we need.  Now properly shod for tropics we did a little investigating of our surrounds.  We walked up and down the local beach, watching and listening to the roar of the rather dramatic waves; taking in the views of nicely browned and nicely shaped bodies; breathing in the fresh, warm, slightly salty air and simply enjoying the fact that we were running around in shorts – in February!!

We headed out to the main boulevard to get the lay of that part of the land.  It turns out that a portion of this main street has a reputation of being the Rodeo Drive of San Juan with fancy jewelry stores, exclusive clothing stores and high end shopping of other sorts.  The main street was also home to a number of hotels – both high end and others like the one we were staying at .  There was a Wendy’s, what seemed to be an inordinate number of Subways and lots of local restaurants and bars, I was very surprised that there was no McDonalds.  We did see some in the old city when we went there, but not in the Condado area – no skin off my nose as I have not been in a McD’s since sophomore year in college.  After figuring out where we were and since the evening was settling in, we returned to our hotel to sit on the beachfront patio bar for Sangria and Margaritas.  We also decided to partake of their restaurant fare.  The calamari was great as was my hamburger and Allen’s chicken sandwich – didn’t want to go native too quickly.

After eating and another drink, it was time to retire – at 7:30 PM!  I decided that some wine would be nice in the room and so I walked up to- where else- Walgreens and got a couple of reasonably priced bottles.  Allen dropped off somewhere around 8:15, I passed out sometime around 10:30.  It had been a very long day and the island air surely must have contributed to our tiredness.

I was up early the next morning, stopped at Walgreens and spent a while on the hotel patio watching the waves, the body surfers and others walking along the beach.  The morning was loud with waves, a mix of sun and clouds, a light breeze and everything one could want at a beach getaway.  After a relaxing time meditating and simply being I headed back to the room to confirm that Allen was still wanting to sleep a little longer, put on my walking shoes and headed out for what I hoped was Old San Juan. 

It was a pleasant walk up the road following the coast.  The route led me past the sports stadium and museum to Puerto Rican sports (focusing on baseball and soccer), coconut and palm trees, the Third Millennium Park along the waterfront.  The water was 4 or 5 different shades of blue, the waves were constant, and it was simply great to be out moving and warm.  I got as far as the eastern walls of the San Cristobal Castle before feeling the need to get back to town and hook up with Allen.  I really did not want to explore the castle on my own, thinking we would do it together.

Just to mix it up, I took a slightly different route on the way back through the L. Munoz Rivera (a political hero and journalist of Puerto Rico when it was transferred from Spain to the US) Park and the Supreme Court building that lies at its western end.   The building projects over a beautiful reflecting pool that makes it difficult to determine where the park ends and the Court grounds begin.  The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Not sure why. 

As I neared the area of our hotel, a gentle, warm rain began to fall… the rain did not bother me too much as long as I was able to keep my cigarettes and camera dry.  By the time I got to the hotel the rain had stopped, the sun was out and I was already beginning to dry.  Allen was waiting for me on the patio and I convinced him to return with me and we would go see the forts.  He agreed, even though I warned him it would be a long walk.  He had bragged about the walking shoes he was bringing with him before we left Chicago, so I figured we were all set.

I felt confident enough about the route, even having only traveled it once, that I decided we should take the route on the north side of the Munoz park as I was sure it would take us where we wanted to go.  This route led us to Constitution Street.  Many government buildings were on either side of the road and the huge dome of the capital building acted as a beacon.  There was a long park running down the middle of the street with many monuments and statues to various causes dotting the length of it.  Directly across from the capital, there were a number of statues to the various US Presidents who had actually visited Puerto Rico, including Barack Obama.  We took some pictures with a few of the statues, me with my arms around Obama, holding LBJ’s hand and Allen sitting in the lap of FDR in his wheelchair.

As we continued our walk, it began to rain again.  We headed up the stairway of a large, ornate building and took refuge in its doorway.  It turned out to be the Olympic House – headquarters of the Puerto Rico Olympics Committee.  It was originally a huge YMCA building with that housed Puerto Rico’s first international regulation size basketball court,  as well as its’ first indoor swimming pool and gymnasium.  It is beautifully kept up, and we probably should have taken more time to explore, but the rain stopped and we wanted to get to the castle.

I had no idea that San Juan would be so hilly, with lots of rolling roads and routes.  Quite beautiful, but it made for more strenuous walking at times.  We made our way to the San Cristobal Castle and its thick, old, still-formidable walls and ravelins.  The castle and its walls sprawl all along this eastern end of Old San Juan.  It was built more than 150 years ago to protect the city from land attack.  The signs claim that an Irishman who was happy to do it because at the time Spain was the enemy of England designed it.  It is the biggest European fortification in the Americas.  There are 3 levels to it and we were able to walk along the walls, take the typical photos in the domed sentry boxes and look through the various observation ports.  I was fascinated to learn that the men slept on flat, wooden boards with the thinnest of blankets.  Each soldier was issued a single white uniform that they were required to keep in good repair and clean.  The crenulated walls are 18 to 25 feet thick.  It is amazing to think of this castle (they don’t call it a fort) being built on the rocky, steep cliffs at a time when most of this work was done by hand.  It allows for some beautiful views of both the ocean and Old San Juan.  We crawled around the castle, were amazed by the size of the wells and impressed by the canons and cannonballs piled on the second level.  After wandering through this castle it was time to walk to the second one.  It looks as though more than the protective walls that surround Old San Juan or the road that leads to it would connect the 2.  From the looks of it, I was convinced that there must be a tunnel of some sort connecting the two castles, but the park rangers assure us there was not, nor ever had been.

It was about a 20-minute walk to the second castle – “El Morro” – or San Felipe del Morro castle.  The approach takes you through a huge green lawn, dotted with families having picnics, children flying kites and tour groups listening to their conductors.  There is also a large graveyard and funeral chapel overlooking the sea.
It was built to protect San Juan Bay’s harbor from attack by the sea.  Basically it protected Spain’s access to the New World for almost 300 years.  Built in the 1500’s and added to over the years, it even served as an observation post in WWII.  It has 5 different levels, accessed by ramps, tunnels and stairways.  The lighthouse built on the highest level continues to operate today.  From its ramparts and observation posts it was easy to see how it protected the waterways and was in an ideal position to prevent sea attacks into the harbor.  It was while looking over the city from this castle that it really hit me that the entire city was a walled city.  The walls started going up almost as soon as Columbus sighted the city on his second voyage and Ponce de Leon started the colony 15 years later.

We wandered through this castle and then walked over to the walls over-looking the graveyard.  There are ancient as well as modern graves here and quite a number of crypts that were broken and cracked.  Not sure how many zombies wander the land, but from the looks of the broken tombs – quite a few.  Allen was slowing down a bit.  It turns out his “great” sports shoes were rubbing at his heel.  We stopped often so he could pull up his socks over the rubbed area, but inevitably they would slip back down.

After getting our fill of the castles, we decided to fill our guts and so made our way into Old San Juan and find something to cityeat.  Boldly colored houses and shops line the narrow streets of the old city, all of it watched over by grille-work balconies.  It reminded me a lot of the French Quarters.  Hard to believe we were walking through over 500 years of history that were still very much alive. We did make a stop and visited the cathedral as well as a small chapel on the walls of the old city.   We finally found a restaurant, just off one of the city squares where we could sit outside and have a bite to eat.  Our table was literally in the street, on a  small stage that allowed cars to pass all too closely to our table.  Luckily, the streets are narrow and congested enough that nothing was moving too swiftly and no collisions.  There is nothing like dining al fresco – the shade of the umbrella, the tweeting of the birds, the fumes of the exhaust pipes. After eating, we made our way back home, this time taking the route I used in the morning, giving us a view of the ocean and a sizable iguana.

Allen was definitely walking with pain.  It was apparent he simply wanted to get back and get his shoes off, to get this trek over.  Unfortunately it was another 45 minutes before we got to the hotel.  His pained feet did not allow us the chance to explore together the parks and waterfront, it was more a death march, endured stoically and in silence.  Poor guy.  We got back and he inspected his feet – not only was there a raw sore where the back of his show was rubbing, and blisters among his toes from the narrow foot of the shoe.

We spent some time in the water, thinking it would help his feet.  The waves were hitting pretty hard and knocked Allen to his ass twice, after which he decided that he would simply stay in the shallow area.  We then took our place on the chaise lounges to read (me) and sun.  As we soaked up the rays a visitor – our friend Nick, surprised us.  We knew he and Matthew’s trip would overlap with ours, but we certainly did not expect to see him on his first day there.  It turned out his hotel was only a block or two from where we were staying and he took a chance of finding us at our beach.  He did.  Matthew soon joined us and we played in the surf for a while.  We then walked with them to their hotel and planned to take in the hotel hot tub.  The sign on the hot tub clearly stated that no kids under the age of 15 were allowed.  The 4 or 5 tweens in the water either could not read or were ignoring the sign.  It did not make for a pleasant soak, so it was a short-lived adventure.  We made our departure, after making plans to meet up for supper a little later.

Allen headed to Walgreens for some foot repair supplies.  After cleaning up, it was time for cocktails on the patio.  It was great to stare out at the ocean, be wrapped in the warm ocean breeze, have cocktails and smoke (without having to leave our table)!  It really is a civilized way to live.  We walked over to our friends’ hotel and their trees were simply sonic with the chirping of the indigenous tree frogs called coqui (coke-ee).  It was easy to think that this was an artificial noise, as we only really heard it at this hotel.  However, the trees were plentiful here and our friends assured us that thy had actually seen the tiny frogs. 

That night I had my first taste of one of Puerto Rico’s native dishes – mofongo.  I had heard of it on the cooking channel, but this was my opportunity to actually try it.  It is a fried plantain-based that takes on a number of incarnations.  I guess it is typically made with fried green plantains that are mashed together with broth, olive oil, seasonings and meats.   It is often filled with veggies, chicken, beef, or seafood – just about anything.  I am told that there are all sorts of ways to make it, and during our trip we got to taste several different incarnations.  This first tasting came as a small dome of the plantain, filled with beef and with a beef gravy and more meat on top of it.   Allen had his with pork and Matthew’s was chicken.  We shared tastings.   I found it good, but very thick and almost putty-like.  Not bad, just very heavy for the tropics.  In other places it was lighter and more flavorful.  Everyone has his or her own recipe.  I will have to try to create my own sometime.

After dinner we walked the main street a bit.  Looked in on the lobbies and pools of several of the high-end hotels.  We returned to our hotel, had a drink on the patio, talked a bit and then headed to our beds.  Allen was really feeling a lot of pain in his feet and the air conditioners was  blowing directly on us, and we had no control over it.  None of this was helping us sleep until I took one of our towels and covered the vent.  It kept the room cool, but it prevent it from blowing directly on us.

The next morning I was up early and took my place on the patio with a book, a diet coke (from Walgreens) and my smokes.  The breeze was a bit stronger that morning, the waves breaking with a lot more force.  The clouds were out in full force.  They never did break up until after letting go of some rain about mid-day and then it was bright, warm and inviting again.  Which was good, because I was out walking the city when the rain finally came. 

Letting Allen sleep, I slipped on my shoes and decided to walk south for a change.  This route took me through neighborhoods and private homes, some gated communities close to the water and what felt like “where the real people live”.  It had been a long while since I had done as much walking as I had the day before, and this shorter walk helped take the stiffness out of them.   After going a few miles, I headed back in a slightly different direction just to see what could be seen.

By the time I got back to the hotel, Allen was up and taping his feet.  Covering the blisters and raw areas on his feet.  Hopefully this was going to help him be able to do another walking tour.  We were going to go to Old San Juan and spent more time actually seeing the sights.  We would take the bus this time and not do the hour walk to get there.

We headed to the bus station – about 2 blocks away.  Well, by the time we got there, and as we stood waiting for the bus, a quick glance at Allen’s pained face said that this was not going to happen.  He was in too much pain, his feet were hurting and  the shoes, even with the tape, were too much for him.  Our bus came and left and we tried to decide where we might go to get him some different shoes.  Although the main street had plenty of jewelry and other high end shops – what we needed was a Marshalls or some regular shoe store.  We did try Walgreens (seems to be the first answer for everything) and struck out there.  The 3.00 Croc knock-offs just did not seem the right choice to make.

We asked his phone where we might find a shoe store and it indicated there was one less than a mile away, but we were not sure about the directions.  So we called Nick.  He comes here often enough that we thought he might know where to go.  He was not yet fully roused, but he agreed to take Allen someplace to get some shoes and it was agreed that they would do that after he put himself together.  I, on the other hand, would go off and explore a bit on my own.  I was going to walk to another beach – only about 3 miles away, but he talked me out of it – saying that it was not much more than the beach we were at, only a bit more touristy.  So, I decided to walk through the main city for a while.  Plans made, I left Allen to Nick and walked on.  That was when I got caught in the rain that finally fell.  I was just crossing a bridge when it hit.  There was a guy selling water to drivers on the bridge way, but when the  rain started, he rolled his shopping cart down and under the bridge.  He invited me to join him, but I figured I would just wait it out in the shelter of a nearby building.  Something about going under a bridge with a  scruffy stranger sort of made me a bit uneasy.

The rain came, it went, the sun came out and within 15 minutes I was dry.  I walked theough the convention area – nothing much to see there but big hotels and meeting rooms.  I walked into the city and was disappointingly struck by how much it resembled most other big cities.  Lots of glass and steel, concrete and fast food signs.  Oh well, I saw it, and I got some more walking in.  I did pass a few areas that looked like abandoned housing projects.  Lots of graffitit, shells of multi-unit housing, fallen ceilings, barbed wire and lots of trash.  I guess you find it everywhere.

It was interesting, but I was feeling a bit guilty and as if I had abandoned Allen, so I headed back to the hotel.  I did want to try and see the St. Geronimo fort that was just up the street from our hotel.  However, when I got there, it was closed to the public as they were doing some restoration work on it.   

I got back, but Allen had not.  So, grabbed my book, a diet coke, my cigarettes and sat out on the patio again.  Of course, it was sometimes difficult to keep my eyes on my book, because there was quite a bit half-dressed eye-candy laying out on the beach, riding the waves, or just walking by.  I do love Latin cultures.

Allen finally showed up, and there was a new light in his eyes.  He was walking again, and it was not hurting.  He and Nick had found a shoe store where he bought himself a better fitting pair of shoes, and it was making all the difference in the world.  After sitting a while and recounting the events of our respective days, we got into our beach togs and walked over to find Nick and Matthew at their beach area.  We laid out with them for a couple of hours until the sun started to dip behind the larger hotels.   We agreed to meet up late for supper.

After cleaning up, it was cocktail time and we had a couple of them until we decided it was time to meet up with the other two.  They were just getting back from the gym, so while we waited for them to clean up and dress, we had some really bad run and fruit juice.  The rum was good, the fruit juice (from Walgreens) sucked.  But alcohol is alcohol, so we sipped on them.  Our place still had happy hour prices, so after they got ready we headed to our place and grabbed a patio table for drinks and dinner… why not?  Just as we sat down, it began to rain.  After moving to three different tables, we finally found one that was protected from the rain.  It was a pleasant evening of eating, watching the ocean and stars, talking and drinking.  Civilized, pleasant and very relaxing.

After dinner we walked the streets a bit, again making a tour of some of the other hotel pools and lobbies.  We wandered a while, got to Ben & Jerry’s too late (Matthew had told me about some sort of ice cream with potato chips that I wanted to try) and so we headed to – yes – Walgreens for some of their ice cream novelties.  After eating our purchases we broke up and went back to our respective hotels.

streetFor the first and only time on the trip, I thought about work as I laid down to sleep.  Thank God it was for only a few minutes.  The board had met that day and I was a bit curious about what happened regarding the many cases that were being presented that day.  Luckily, the curiosity passed quickly and I was off to sleep.

Thursday morning started out absolutely gorgeous… just what a person thinks a morning in the tropics should be like.  No clouds, the sun was out early, it was warm and it was only 7AM.  I loved it.  It also struck me – I have not seen any sea gulls.  I asked our hotel staff about this.  They said that given the constantly moving waves on this part of the island, the birds did not come because it was too difficult to fish.  I was assured that there were plenty of gulls on the island, just not on this particular beach… okay with me.

Allen’s new shoes had certainly put the spring back in his step and he was all ready to finally go walk through Old San Juan.  We didn’t walk up there, deciding to use the bus instead, and that was fine.

Old San Juan, like many older Latin-influenced cities is colorful, lots of narrow streets, laid out in such a way as to slow down attackers and quite lovely.  We tried to walk the streets as a grid, but the hills and curves sometimes threw us off.  We passed by and through a lot of tourist shops and quite a few residential buildings.  It is easy to forget, like New Orleans’ French Quarters that this is not just a tourist spot, it is home to many.  The gates and doors that line the sidewalks might open onto a lovely courtyard, a set of stairs or the very living room of the residents.  I always love that… never sure what’s behind the door.  Very cool!  Some of the buildings were apparently as old as the city itself, some were new, and some were falling in on themselves waiting restoration or demolition.  Many Juliet-balconies, pigeons, and bright colors.  It was really a lovely place to walk.
Making our way through the tourist shops, the only thing that really intrigued me and asked me to take it home were the masks that were made of coconuts with all sorts of spikes sticking out of it.  I asked several shopkeepers what they were, what they symbolized and what the story behind them were.  Unfortunately, many of the shopkeepers either did not know or could not tell me in English.  Finally, one shop had an explanation card.  The masks are called Careta and are worn by the Vejigante.  The Vejigante is a creature, a demon of some sort, whose origins go back to ancient Spain but the meaning and folklore began to weave together with African folklore until the creature became truly Puerto Rican.  Vejigante means giant cow-bladder and referred to the bladder that the demon would carry, filled with seeds and other stuff which the demon used to hit people with.  The term has come to refer to the demon itself, as well as the bag it carries.  I really wanted one of the masks, but with all the spikes sticking out looking rather fragile, we thought maybe we could get one on-line after we get home.  Haven’t done it yet.

Pigeons – the city was filled with pigeons, and the people do not seem to mind.  In fact, if I understood correctly there is one of their plazas that they refer to as the Plaza of the pigeons.  They were everywhere in that plaza and totally fearless when it came to humans.  In fact, it seems they were selling seeds at one of the small store so that the pigeons would sit in your hands and make for some interesting photos.  It was fun to see.  Another great gathering of pigeons was found along the old city walls.  There was a park, called Pigeon Park, and the pigeons were abundant.  There were some rather large, bent trees in the park, and for the first time in my life I actually saw pigeons in a tree.  The wall of the buildings that formed the other border to the park was made up of bricks and there were plenty of holes from the bricks where the pigeons also made their homes.  It was fun to watch Allen slowly make his way through a see of pigeons, none of them flying away or paying much attention.  Also, I have noticed sitting at the L stations in Chicago; many of the pigeons have bad feet – toes that have been severed, feet that are contorted, even missing feet.    The pigeons of Old San Juan, in contrast, have very good feet – healthy, strong and even, pretty.  Big city living seems to not be good for pigeon feet.

I was time for lunch!  We searched the various plazas for another outdoor restaurant (actually Allen wanted the same one we were at when we visited the forts, but we could not seem to find it).  We finally found a place with tables literally in the middle of the street (which thankfully was closed off and enjoyed some really great tacos.  At the end of the street was Christ Chapel, one of several chapels built into the walls of the city. 

Allen wanted to get some early afternoon sun, so after eating and a bit more wandering around we headed to the bust station.  It was a little confusing but a rather extroverted woman, sensing our confusion, pointed us to the bus we wanted and even knew which driver we would have.   When the driver exited the office and made her way to our bus, this woman walked through the station like a mother hen gathering her chicks, informing other tourists that their bus would soon be leaving. She got on the bus with us and told us about her originally being from Seattle, retiring to San Juan and the many joys of living there.  She was sweet and made sure we got off at the right stop. 

The waves were really strong this afternoon.  Nick and Matthew came by and Nick and I spent some time being battered by the waves.  They left, we laid out for a while longer and then walked over to their section of beach.  Nick was gone; Matthew was sleeping under an umbrella.  Allen and I walked over to where they told us we might find some crabs.  We were hoping to bring one back to put on Matthew, but we were out of luck.  If this sounds mean, the idea came from the two of them when they were going to do this to one of us.

After lots of time in the sun, we headed back to clean up and begin happy hour.  After a few margaritas, we walked over to catch up with Nick and Matthew in order to go to supper.  We began our search for food at Oceano – a restaurant that had been featured on the Food Network.  It was part of a show where they look for a head chef for restaurants.  They were premiering the new chef’s menu that night.  We looked at the menu, and decided that we were not interested – though it was a fabulous looking place.  We decided on a Cuban restaurant that the two of them had not been to before.  The service was slow but the food was good.  I had my favorite Cuban dish – Ropa Vieja which was flavorful and everything I wanted it to be.  After dinner we tried for the Ben & Jerry’s for desert again, but once more we were too late – by 5 minutes.  Would I ever taste this potato chip ice cream?!

Friday morning was warm, a little cloudy and minimal breeze.  The water was as quiet as I had seen it; it was all tropical and beautiful.  I walked a little while, stopped by Walgreens for a diet coke before waking Allen.  We were to meet Nick at about 9:30.  He had rented a car and was going to take us to the rainforest.  It turned out to be closer to 10 (sometimes the mannana gets inside you). 

We were heading to El Yunque National Rainforest.  About 40 miles east of San Juan, the hour long drive took us thorugh some suburbs and little towns – a pleasant drive.  It was first set aside as a protected park by the King of Spain in the 1800’s.  It is also the last refuge of the critically endangered Puerto Rican Amazon parrot (we never got to see one).  It is beautiful and lush with palm trees and other flora.  The name “El Yunque” seems to have a disputed origin meaning “white lands”, “anvil” or the name of the giant whose profile can be seen in the shape of a particular mountain (also named El Yunque).

yunqueThe serpentine road took us through the forest and up the mountain.  There were pull offs along the way where we were able to taken in some rather striking views of the ocean and the beachfront cities –including San Juan.  The Yokahu Observation tower – built especially for sight seeing – gives a spectacular view of the mountains, forest and the island coast.  After a couple more scenic stops, we parked and made our way through the forest to the La Mina Falls.

La Mina are the only falls in the park open to swimming. It was an easy hike on a very damp and sometimes quite slippery trail.  There were plenty of other tourists there as well.  When we got to the falls, there were already a number of people there, many of them playing in the water at the bottom of the falls.  Nick, Matthew and I decided we needed to get wet too.  Allen was the designated photographer.  We took the more difficult route to the pool – slipping on the algae covered rocks and occasionally getting stuck by the sharp ones.  It would have been easier had we not been barefoot.   The water was cold and took the breath away until we got used to it.  The pool itself was surprising deep, and the rush of the falls kept pushing us back as we attempted to swim to them and get under the falls itself.  Nick and I took turns climbing on the narrow ledges that allowed us to stand under the rushing water and getting a good head and back massage.  We played in the water and falls a bit and then decided to get out and warm up in the sun as we made our way back to the car.

Along the way, two kids, seemingly brother and sister were walking toward the falls.  Matthew told them to watch out for the big snake along the trail.  That was funny enough until their dad (apparently) came around the bend and the kids said something to him quite excitedly – in German.  I am not sure what they understood or what they told their dad, but he was smiling and laughing, as were we.  Hilarious.

The group then decided we were hungry, so it was time to leave the forest and head back to the coast.  Nick was told about a strip of kiosks on the shores of a lagoon along the way.  We decided we would give it a try.  We found the place.   It actually looked like a strip mall made up of 3 car garages with garage-type doors opening in the front and back.  One after another, some were bars; some were restaurants, gift shops, a tattoo parlor, all sorts of things.  There were quite a few of them, each with their own name and kiosk number.  Some really looked ramshackle, others were quite nice.  We were looking for kiosk number 20.  We found out it about half way along the string of open doors, so there must have been at least 40 or so of these kiosks running along the highway out front and along the shore of the lagoon out back.

Kiosk 20 was really pretty nice.  The walls were paneled, the bar was clean, the food looked well cooked and plentiful.  There was the smell of the sea blowing in on the breeze, mixed with the odor of the garbage containers out back.  Our waitress was really bouncy, friendly and giggled a lot.  She answered all our questions and was very sweet.  By their offerings, rabbit seemed to be the specialty of the house.  I had rabbit fritters, Nick had roast rabbit, Matt had the chicken breast and Allen ordered the cod salad.  While we waited for our meals, we wandered out back and scoped out the lagoon.  There were almond trees growing along the water and we were all sort of amazed at the large husk that contained the much smaller almond nut.  There was no sense of hurry bothering the staff.  When our food arrived, it really looked good and came with a number of sauces that seemed to be homemade.  One of the other ladies came over and explained what each sauce was, what it was for, and how best to enjoy our meal.  My fritters were okay, but would have preferred a bit more rabbit and a little less dough.  Allen’s cod salad looked more like cat food on greens.  It must have been salted cod, because it was definitely saline.  The roast rabbit was also good and the chicken breast was … a chicken breast.

While Allen and Nick settled the bill, Matthew and I went to look at the souvenir shops – not really much to see or that really interested us.  The other two soon caught up with us and we decided to head back to San Juan to see if we could catch some late afternoon sun on the beach.

We laid in the sun for a bit and then cleaned up and changed clothes for that evening’s meal.  Of course, the first thing we had to do was sit on our patio and enjoy a couple of margaritas first.  The bar/restaurant this evening was exceptionally sparsely populated.  We asked where everyone was at on a Friday night.  One waiter told us about a club a couple of blocks away that was quite popular – so he said.  We walked over there and found the club- with only 3 customers.  We decided to skip it.  Given that we had had a late lunch and were not meeting the others for dinner, we decided to try a local burger joint.  The burgers were great, and there were a number of local sauces at the condiments bar, so we were able to try a lot of different flavors of Puerto Rico. 

Then off to – of course- Walgreens for something sweet and a bottle of wine to accompany some TV time and then sleep.

Saturday was our last full day in San Juan.  The morning breeze was quite strong – warm, but definitely windy and nary a cloud in the sky.  The day started, as usual, with a diet coke from Walgreens.  Watched the sunrise over the water – incredible colors and made dynamic with the light reflecting off the water and waves.  Waiting for Allen to greet the day, I did some reading in a tourist guide and learned that there was a large market not too far from our hotel.  After Allen got up I talked him into walking there with me.  It was a bit further than it looked on the map, but it was a great day for walking.  Once we got there, we were immediately disappointed.  The market was rather large, and the buildings surrounding it seemed to have also been market sort of places, but none were open, and the only stall in the large building was selling only a limited supply of fruits and vegetables.  So much for the touting of tour books.    However, it did give us a chance to walk through some more local neighborhoods.

We returned to our part of town, stopped at an internet café to print out our boarding passes and then began to do some souvenir shopping.   We stopped in all the shops that we had by-passed the rest of the week – looking for the perfect memento of our time in San Juan.  Along the way, we decided to stop in a casino on the main street.  We agreed to only use the handfuls of quarters I had in my bag.  This was for grins – not serious gambling.  The machines did not take quarters – bills or a card .  Oh well, we each had 2 bucks, we felt extravagant and so we sat down at a couple of penny machines.  I was surprised that most of the slot machines in this casino were penny and nickel machines.  There were some quarter and dollar machines, but not many at all.  After winning a bit (we may have gotten up to 3 dollars) we then made our way to the nickel machines.  We managed to increase our wealth way beyond 5.00 but the lure of potential riches sucked us in and about an hour later we walked out a total of 4.00 poorer – but had a good time.  We are not much on gambling and the only times we have really gone into casinos have been on our trips away from home.

Now in the poor house, we continued our search for the perfect souvenir.  I was hoping to find a mask, but none of these stores had any.  We walked up and down the main street but the shops were not very interesting.  We finally settled on a magnet for our fridge and a mirror for a friend who always brings really cheesy souvenirs home from his trips.  We also stopped in Walgreens to see what their selection of souvenirs was like – it was like nothing.

After our walkabout, it was time to hit the beach.  That was what brought us to Puerto Rico after all.  The water by this time was gentle, not much wave activity  and warm – perfect!  We laid at our portion of the beach for a while and then went up to find Nick and Matthew at their end of the beach.  We did eventually find them and as Allen and Nick laid out, Matthew and I went to play in the water.

As the sun dipped behind the buildings, cooling things down, we called an end to our time on the beach.  Agreeing to meet later for supper, we left Nick and Matthew and returned to our hotel for a drink, a smoke and then to do our packing.  After cleaning up we went to Nick and Matthew’s room for a margarita.  We drank a few on their patio, looking out over the sea and their pool area.

This, our final night in Puerto Rico, we decided to eat Asian.  There was a little confusion about seatingjef on the patio, but we got a table and then spent some time looking over the rather large menu.  We were under an awning and the corner of the awning, behind Allen, dipped a bit and water dripped form the corner and onto the sidewalk.  It was difficult to see and quite a few people walked through it, shocked and shuddering as the cold water dripped down their backs or on their head.  The looks on the victim’s faces provided a whole night of entertainment.  Allen tried to film it as it was happening, but I think he was laughing too much to get a good steady shoot.

We ate our meals, and since it was earlier than when we usually finished our meals, we headed to Ben & Jerry’s.  It was open.  I was finally able to try the potato chip ice cream.  Not bad, the sweet and salty combination was absolutely just right.  I could become a fan.  We ended the night at their room in the Marriott where we had a nightcap and bid our friends goodbye.  We were leaving in the morning; they were staying on for a few more days.  Lucky them. 

It was a rather restless night.  I kept waking up, almost hourly, with vivid dreams.  Also, at about 1 AM, someone was yelling in the hallway, and it was quite loud.  When Allen woke up he also talked of not sleeping well.  His description of his night was exactly what I had experienced.  He said it was from the MSG in the food we ate.  He tells me that it is a typical reaction to MSG.   I had never heard of such a thing, but the fact that we both had the same restless night; I am inclined to go with it.  Another new experience – one I could have done without.

We knew the vacation was definitely over when we put on, for the first time in a week, long pants.  We checked out, got a cab (much saner than the cab we took to the hotel) and got to the airport all in good time that morning.  We had a 3+ hour trip to Atlanta and then a 5+ hour lay over there.  We told Meredith (Allen’s brother) and Michelle (his wife) of our lay over and they made plans to meet with us for lunch while we waited.  Great plan!

We though lunch would be a matter of them picking us up and taking us to someplace close to eat.  We were both tickled and surprised to discover that they had packed a picnic cooler (on wheels – very cool) with home made goodies and were planning a picnic lunch inside the airport.

They had their sons Gabriel and Carter with them as well – what a treat.  We grabbed a table in the food court and fed on pasta, cornbread (it was Georgia after all) and a salad and other goodies.  The boys were having a grand old time playing with Allen’s I-Pad and the fart piano and whining cat games that were on it.  We talked, we caught up, we played with the boys and all too quickly the time came that we had to go back through security and board our plane for Chicago.  It was a real treat to spend some time with them and to see the boys again.  They continue to grow and learn… it happens all too quickly.

It was difficult to be back in Chicago – they had had a snowstorm earlier in the week and it was cold… we were already missing the warmth of the tropics.  There was another snowstorm about a week later – leaving 7 inches on our parking lot.  Oh well, that is what is so nice about a vacation – leaving behind the reality of everyday life now and then and taking in new places and warmer weather.  I’d do it again, but because we saw so very little of the island I would want to do more touring, see something of the interior, something of the Caribbean coast, do a little more sight seeing.  However, given that it had been many years since we did something like this, it was a great start to taking more vacations. 

I had taken Monday off from work as well, and that meant doing a lot of little things in order to return to “normal”.  Pick up the mail that had been on hold, pick up the dogs from the kennel, shop for food, laundry, and all those things that take up our “daily land”.  Unfortunately, Allen had to return to work.

One of the biggest treats for me was to not be “on the grid” or “be connected” for a whole week.  I did not check emails, phone calls, or anything else to do with a computer (except to print out our boarding passes) and thought of work only for about 5 minutes one evening - and I felt free.  Allen stayed a little more connected - managing to post to Face Book, check emails, send texts, etc. – but he and Siri have a pretty special relationship and I would not want to get in the way of that.

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player