Four days were spent in San Juan, Puerto Rico. With family—which means days began with a healthy slathering of suncream (no Polysianes Monoi Oil despite the admittedly low SPF) and nights ended before 9 p.m. At any other time this may have been considered miserable, but given the state of exhaust and the grey weather, it was bearable. More than, actually: it was much needed, and turns out, Old San Juan is beautiful even in the rain.
WHERE TO EAT IN CONDADO, SAN JUAN
(Because food is the priority, always.)
Pack a bathing suit in your carry-on or better yet, wear it under your airport clothes: if you arrive before 4 p.m., you’ll want to take advantage of the sun (and pass the time before you can check in). I suggest staying at The Condado Plaza Hilton; the location is pretty central and ideal for those who love a decent walk/short cab ride. Taxi drivers are exceptionally friendly and offer recs on the best local spots in town, so be chatty. It’s how we found out about Café del Angel, a 10-minute walk from the Hilton. If you want cheap, traditional Puerto Rican food, make this is a checkbox on your to-do list. And if you’re like me (vegetarian, mostly vegan, hates anything over-seasoned or heavy unless it’s a spicy Malaysian curry), this probably won’t be your top 10. But you’ll still enjoy their vegetarian (it’s vegan, actually!) mofongo. My parents report that the seafood was fresh and that the bartender was very generous with the alcohol in their mojitos. (Dad, being a straight-shooter with liquor in his youth and never touched alcohol since his mid-20s, pronounced it “mo-gee-toes.” It was a great moment.)
If you want something fresh but within a 3-minute walk—especially on a hot day or if you’ve just been dropped off from the airport—there are a few beachside restaurants to the left of the hotel. We popped into Waikiki on a whim, but the food surpassed expectations. Granted, it was nothing special: but do try the fish sandwiches. If you’re a rabbit like me, the sautéed vegetables were pretty divine.
Everyone’s favorite restaurants in the Condado area, however, came down to the following two. Hands down, no questions asked. (We made three trips to each of these eateries, one of which called for enduring a walk through a rainstorm.)
Let’s start with my parent’s favorite, and a tourist/resident’s favorite: Pinky’s. Also a 10-minute walk from the Hilton (and a few doors down from Café del Angel, this place had lines out the door and down the street as early as eight in the morning. That had my Dad sold—but what sold it to me was its menu. Not for the actual food (though it all sounded delicious for the non-vegan), but for the humor and quips throughout. Read the story, have a chuckle, and place your order for takeout. (The place is tiiiiny.) Pinky’s claims it’s an all-day breakfast cafe, but in reality, it’s more than that. The portions are huge and the parentals/brother claim the food is fresh.
I’ve saved the best for last, though. Having recently discovered Yelp and at the same time, finally understood what ‘vegan’ means, my sweet, sweet father tried to find a ‘healthy, vegan’ place for me to eat. And he did well: Bajuice. This is the best breakfast, lunch, and in-between place (but if it were solely up to me, I’d eat all three meals here throughout my stay). Apparently it claims to be Puerto Rico’s first cold-pressed juicery; it could be PR’s second and I’d still choose this place in a heartbeat. It’s adorable and sunny (literally), with a healthy menu for carnivores and vegans both. For my dad and brother to eat at a “healthy” restaurant twice speaks volumes. I went for a custom açai bowl each time. Also lovely: their soy lattes and smoothies.
Oh, and a general tip: After every meal, walk a few blocks out to CVS or Walgreens to stock up on water. You will be dehydrated. You won’t want to pay hotel prices for water bottles.
WHAT TO DO IN OLD SAN JUAN
Skip the casinos in the Condado Plaza. Forget the outlets. Take the hour to walk to Old San Juan, an immediately find a spot to rehydrate. There’s a tiny place right by Subway that makes a mean açai bowl and fresh lemon water. Get your bearings there, then wander as you please. Take photos in front of the pastel-colored buildings—and come time you’re itching to rest your legs, stop at Cafe Berlin, where the food is as delicious as the ratings claim and the cockatils imaginative. Vegetarian and vegan options are readily available; skip the vegan burger and opt for the Tofurican Wrap: there’s a taste of Puerto Rican tradition, but light, healthy, vegan, and delicious. My parents raved about the seafood paella, calling it the best they’ve yet tasted.
Keep wandering. Keep exploring. There are empanada stands to try and bars at every corner. Art galleries and souvenir shops are plenty, and come 7 p.m., the town will sputter and come alive. Bars will set up tents and blast music; live bands will take residence at every street; street vendors will set up; lights will turn on; people will flood the streets in search of drink, food, and dance. Old San Juan turns into a New Orleans of the Caribbean, and it’s exhilarating to be at the center of it all. Restaurants dominate the town. Pick one, anyone.
Set aside another day for the tourist-y things. Again, I suggest you walk everywhere, but there is a free trolley you can take to reach every destination. Head in the direction of Old San Juan, but before you enter the town square, hike up to Castillo San Cristóbal (also known as Fort San Cristóbal). Tickets to enter are cheap: they last for seven days and extend to the second fortress at the island’s coast. Though this fortress isn’t the most exciting, it’s a good workout and the view is lovely.
Grab a bite to eat in Old San Juan and stock up on water. (There’s a froyo place that sells water for 49 cents!) Your next stop is the Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Juan Bautista (Cathedral of San Juan Bautista in English). If you’ve been to European cathedrals, you may not be readily impressed: but it’s equally beautiful as it is humble.
Find the edge of town to get to the Plaza of the Religious Procession. From there, follow the road past a pink building (the mayor or governor’s house, I heard!) to the Castillo San Felipe del Morro. It’s magical there: rolling green fields against endless sea. Remember your ticket from Fort San Cristóbal? Show the rangers your receipt, and enter. The view is breathtaking (and the walk up equally breath-taking). If there’s one historic site to go to, this one is it.
And do let me know if the iguana is still there.
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