Travel Tips / Food Fandom / Enlightenment
Waiting in Puerto Rico
“Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory,” I said to the customer service rep on the other end of the phone. “I’m not traveling out of the country.”
Still, why was I even calling the credit card company to notify them of my upcoming trip if I already knew the island was part of the U.S.?
Somewhere between 2017, when Hurricane Maria slammed into the island of Puerto Rico, and long before earthquakes hit southern Puerto Rico in late 2019 and early 2020, I had decided that island would be the next destination for my husband, Mark, and I, to travel.
I have a certain affinity for lost civilizations. Not the ancient ones, but the ones we can see before our own eyes. Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati after the riots. New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Cuba in its own sort of downfall from prominence due to embargoes. Given its storied history of ownership, Puerto Rico fell into the same category as the others above.
As our departure date approached, I had to remind myself Puerto Rico was not a foreign country. My bank card would work in the ATMs. They had Walgreens and Burger King. They could secure what they wanted from mainland U.S., of course with an added cost.
Was I in the category of 70% of U.S. citizens who lacked awareness of the status of the territory? Or did I fall into the remaining 30%, determined to educate myself and spend money in our own country where it might have a positive impact?
As soon as we landed in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, I felt the familiarity of an airport laid out much like any other smaller airport in the U.S. But my senses were heightened by new smells of fried street food and the color and rapidity of the Spanish language
“We Give This Island”
We took up residence for a several days in Old San Juan, the ancient streets reminding us of travels to old European cities, as well as our own neighborhood of the not-as-old, Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati. Of course, the presence of cruise ships was its own anomaly, especially given recent quarantines for COVID-19. The contemporary poet Raquel Salas Rivera wrote in Tertiary,“…for each bay you save/we give this island/an anti-cruise ship of hope/we sink all the cruise ships.”
Old San Juan was delightful. Luckily, the horn sounded at six p.m. beckoning cruise guests to return to the trip. That’s when the party started in Old San Juan. On our first night, we coincidentally checked off many to-dos on most travelers’ lists — Calle Tanca and La Vergüenza Puertorrican Chinchorro for street dancing, and cocktails at La Factoria,
We made a brief stop in the Cannon Club for Latin Jazz. We had heard music from the street and found the piano bar to be a charming place to stop and catch our breath. As we moved further into our stay, we noticed more and more t-shirts around San Juan that read, Salsa / Plena / Bomba / Rumba, promoting all the styles of dance that existed on the island.
We ended our night with Nilsa at Sanse 152 and returned to visit her later, not necessarily for the best mojitos. However, if drinks had personalities, they were the most friendly ones.
In the morning, we walked the perimeter of Old San Juan peninsula, marveling at the stone walls dating back to the 16th century. The path ended at the Castillo San Felipe del Morro — El Morro undefeated since the inception of the fort. The gate for us to pass through did not open until nine a.m. but a friendly guard allowed us in, or else we would be stuck looking out over the ocean for an extra 12 minutes. I had been content to wait.
Waiting was a pastime in Puerto Rico. One waited on the ferry. Waited on preparation and service of meals. Waited for spurts of rain to subside.
We relaxed into the pace and spent our afternoons at the rooftop pool at our Airbnb on Calle Sol, a convenient location for many of our adventures. The rest of our time, we crisscrossed the cobblestone streets and fell into shops, noting which ones to return to before our departure a week later, and in the evenings, we floated in and out bars that intrigued or enticed us.
We never did dine in Old San Juan. Instead, we munched on chinchorros, small bites like empanadas and relleno de papa and tostones, at various stops. And we returned to “old” haunts to consume too many mojitos and Old-fashioneds fashioned with rum. In the morning we found a local coffee shop, Café Finca Cialitos, near Plaza Colón, paved in marble. And Mark indulged in their chicken sandwich on their sweet brioche-like bun.
Whenever I’m in a new city, I track down the local bookstore and support them. We discovered Librería Laberinto. After a brief chat with the owner and a mention that I was a writer, she suggested books by Julia de Burgos, a well-known Puerto Rican poet who died too young, and a contemporary one (Salas Rivera), each book consisting of poems in Spanish, with English translations. Their words and how they used them would accompany me for the remainder of the trip, and seep into my writing.
Taking Our Chances
Our next stop was the island of Culebra, accessible via private or charter plane, or ferry. The ferry ride could be tumultuous and I didn’t fare well at sea. Landing in Culebra, we learned there were no Jeeps or golf carts available for rent (note to rent ahead of time) to travel across the eleven-square-mile island. After our visit to the third rental office, we secured a cart for the following morning and rolled our suitcases along Calle Escudero on about a mile walk, which was nothing for city walkers like ourselves. However, the sun’s rays were intense and we had grown accustomed to a slathering of sunscreen before leaving our rooms each day.
We found ourselves bayside at our Airbnb, and spent the evening reading, staring at the water and sky, and using my Sky guide app, which was not reliable given the infinite number of stars in our purview.
We woke early, packed for a day of beaches, stopped for coffee and quesitos (think along the lines of cheese croissant twist) and walked another mile to retrieve our golf cart. Though we had to sign waivers about theft, when we asked about locking up the cart we were met with a shrug. One had to work extra hard to commit a crime on an island this size. We drove to the various beaches, starting with Flamenco, considered a Blue Beach, designated through the FEE, meaning it meets ecological management standards.
We persevered through a long walk on the beach despite wind warnings, and found a cove at the far end that more resembled the Oregon Coast than a Caribbean beach. In the evening, we dined at El Eden, a family run restaurant (on Culebra, they all are), with a wonderful wine selection. One of the owners acted as sommelier.
The next day, we were without plans. I was not a fan of snorkeling in open water, but we wanted to be on the water and in it, and not staring at it. On the island, there weren’t many options of hiring boat captains, that job was not a luxury the people who lived there could afford. After numerous false starts, I looked up at a telephone pole and saw an ad for a water taxi. I phoned the company (because my Verizon phone plan worked everywhere) and discovered they could to take us to Culebrita, another smaller island off the coast of Culebra.
Up to this point, we had simply been going off our instinct or recommendations of locals. It had worked again, after reading that sign for the water taxi. Following a 40-minute boat ride across the ocean, we landed on an uninhabited island for hiking, and beaches so stupendous, they were not worth capturing on film.
We made friends that day with those on our boat, thanks to Alejandro, who was bilingual, my weak Spanish and Barbara’s broken English.
By far, that had been favorite day. We had supported Jackie and her husband, who had lost their jobs after the hurricane and started their H2O water taxi service. Now they owned two boats and that day, ferried about 20 guests across the water. Later, we rejoined our boat friends for a sunset and a family meal, drinking Medallas, the traditional (and cheap) way to salute a day.
A Return to the Stars
We returned to Old San Juan, and the following day, embarked on a road trip to El Yunque Rainforest. I read that some trails were still inaccessible due to hurricane damage. But there were plenty of guides, listed on various websites, to take us on hikes that circumnavigated some of those paths and discovered some incredible waterfalls and slides. We kayaked that evening through a bioluminescent bay in Fajardo, one of five in the world, where tiny dinoflagellates light up like stars beneath the surface of the water when they come in contact with other organisms, or one’s hand.
We were fortunate that night to be paddling under a new moon, with no interference from ambient light. Mark and I learned that our marriage still needed work to paddle together in the dark.
With two full days left, we embarked on another road trip in a rental car, this time south to Ponce. The southern part of the island sustained the majority of earthquake damage. We arrived in old Ponce and stumbled upon a Carnivale celebration near an old church. We ate at La Nueve Pasteleria for brunch, while watching a local artist paint and listening to local acoustic guitarists.
Unfortunately, La Guancha, the promenade of restaurants, bars and boardwalk in Ponce along the water, was closed. The Museo de Arte Ponce was also closed, both sustaining a fair amount of damage to their structural integrity. But we drove along the coastal route back to the main highway to San Jan, to experience more behind the scenes.
We learned later, with time we had expended on our drive, we could have volunteered instead, and decided money we would have spent in Ponce on lunch and dinner and rum, would be directed toward food and clean water efforts through World Central Kitchen and Water Mission.
Back in San Juan, many traveler sites recommended viewing the murals in the neighborhood of Santurce. The murals are fascinating, but if you come from a city full of them (compliments of non-profits like Cincinnati’s Artworks), it was difficult for us to marvel. However, we wanted to show our enthusiasm for Puerto Rican art, and walked and drove the area anyhow.
The Memories Were “Plantain”-ful
During our final days, we added to our plantain awards — plantain buns for hamburgers and plantain slices on pizza with a honey crust, to join the plethora of mofungo (fried, pickled and mashed plantains) options. On Sunday, once again, we did some street dancing, a warm up for our late night at La Factoria, where we finally let go. We spent our last day dodging water bullets, peeping in and out stores, and reading while watching it rain in the courtyard of our hotel.
In the end, the beaches were most beautiful, many of them unspoiled. And I would have loved to spent more time in the mountains to get rid of bugs bites (my current count was Annette:23 and Mark:3).
Still, I miss the roll of the “r’s” in the Spanish language, the swing of my husband’s hips when he salsa dances and the long wait before being served a meal (except the street food). But the long wait was worth it for us to absorb the passionate energy and vibrant colors of the island, take in the smells, and listen to the people.
They do like to talk, sometimes about our connections to books or rum, sometimes about nothing in particular. But not often about their independence or relationship with U.S., though they certainly have their views as evidenced by the poets’ words.
In the interim, the territory is waiting on our tourism dollars, in the same way New Orleans needed travelers to return to its former self. But Puerto Ricans are used to lengthy waits. It’s been a long wait for their independence, as evidenced by the Ron del Barrelito Distillery which houses a barrel from 1952 they will open when independence arrives.
I hope other U. S. citizens don’t wait so long to come.