We got up at 8am and headed to breakfast unwashed, as the buffet closed at 8:30. It was insanely crowded, and I was a little sad to have my final gruel (and Echteboter) of the trip. We then went to shower, and gathered with the rest of our group in Revelations at 9:30. We were off the ship by 10.
A porter asked if he could help with our bags, so we said yes. Most people were insisting on hauling their own, but we made the right choice: after barely having to flash our passports at customs, he led us right to the front of the very long taxi line. WIN.
While we were sitting and waiting to get off the ship, we’d had a bright idea: why not rent a car for the rest of the trip, and go see more of Puerto Rico? I’m not sure why it hadn’t occurred to us before. The cab took us to Thrifty near the airport, and we picked up a car (that we promptly named El Dispo), threw our giant bags in the back, and were on our way to El Yunque National Rainforest.
It was awesome to see some of the small towns outside of San Juan. We missed the turnoff for El Yunque the first time (we could barely even find it with GPS turned on on our phones), but we still managed to get there in half an hour or so. Admission was only $3! We stopped at the visitor center to get a map and find out more about it.
We toured the displays and got a map with directions from an old guy at the front desk. Then we went on the short hike near the visitor center.
Wherever breadfruits had fallen and smashed on the ground, these gigantic snails were enjoying the buffet:
From the visitor center, we drove up the mountain to find La Coca Falls. El Dispo did surprisingly well on the steep hills.
Our next stop was Yokahu Tower, for the overlook. We had to climb a million stairs to get to the top, but the view was amazing.
On one side, we could see the cloud forest (the area of the rainforest that’s almost always in the clouds, and therefore has a completely different ecosystem):
In the other direction, we could see over the top of the rainforest canopy to the ocean, and a beach lined with resorts.
After climbing back down from the tower, we drove up the mountain even further to the hiking trail that leads to La Mina Falls.
The map showed that the trail was .75 miles long, 1.5 miles roundtrip, and that it was ‘somewhat difficult’. That didn’t worry me too much, considering I’ve hiked on ice in the mountains, and on the Sliding Sands trail on top of Haleakala. Still, everyone that was emerging from the trail looked like they were going to die. Along the way, two people even wished us good luck. Yikes!
The trail was definitely difficult, but not insane. It was paved for much of the way, but it would’ve been really hard without hiking shoes. The humidity played a big factor, too. It was worth the effort to see La Mina:
We sat around at the falls for a while, then headed back. The return trip wasn’t bad til the very end, when we had to climb back up to the parking lot. We still weren’t as worn out as most people looked, though!
After that, it was time for lunch. We drove up to Yuquiqu Delights, a little restaurant/picnic area even higher up on the mountain. The girl working there was awesome, and she was telling people all about how she moved there from New York with her husband. How you go from there to a cafe on a mountain in a rainforest… I don’t know, but I’m a fan. Since we have similar ambitions and all.
I’d be happy eating tostones and beans and rice every day. Matt probably feels the same about his empanadas and amarillos.
We headed back down the mountain, stopping on an overlook where we were able to pick up cell reception so I could call my parents and inform them that we were back in the US. It’s always good to hear that nothing very exciting is happening back home.
From there, we drove back toward San Juan. We made a few wrong turns on the way, even ending up at the airport, but we eventually found Isla Verde, Ocean Park, and Condado. They reminded me of… well, most coastal communities in the US. Fort Lauderdale or Myrtle Beach.
Long before we’d left for vacation, Matt had expressed an interest in visiting one of Wilo Benet‘s restaurants in Puerto Rico. We’d kind of written it off because they were far from Old San Juan, so imagine our surprise when we drove right past both Picayo and Varita. And they were at the Conrad Casino, which we figured had to have been named after Matt, just misspelled. We parked and went inside.
The Conrad has a little beach, and the lobby is gorgeous. We walked out onto the patio to see the ocean side, and noticed that they had hammocks everywhere. (I kind of want to stay there now!) We went upstairs to Pikayo, but it was closed. Varita was kind of empty-looking, so we decided to go hang out til Pikayo was open at 6pm. The main problem was that we had no idea what time it was, because both of our phones had died. We figured we could wander around Condado for a while, and eventually they’d be open.
We walked down a couple of blocks to a park with a beach, which had an outdoor bar next door. Perfect! We ordered a couple caipirinhas just as a pink limo pulled up, and out piled a wedding party. All the girls were dressed in neon dresses in different shades, with matching Chuck Taylors. The groomsmen had neon cummerbunds and shoelaces. We watched them take pictures on the beach, and it was a sight to behold.
From there, we wandered back to the Conrad and went to the front desk to ask the time. The guy working there told us it was 6pm exactly, so we were in luck. We stopped to browse at the gift store at the Conrad, and met a very loud, very drunk man from New Jersey, who entertained us for a while. We then went back up to Pikayo, and were the first people in the doors. We grabbed chairs at the bar.
I had a mojito made with cilantro and tequila, and we tried their version of rum punch, which had cinnamon syrup and bitters. We also ordered a couple appetizers, and ended up with a bonus order of tuna lollipops because he’d put in the order wrong. On TV, there was some kind of runway show with terrifying models. We learned the history of the place from the bartender, who went from chilly to friendly within a round of drinks. We’d have loved to have dinner there, but we were nowhere near hungry enough. Not to mention the fact we were severely underdressed.
The only downside to renting a car in Puerto Rico was the idea of driving it in Old San Juan. Traffic is crazy there, the streets are narrow and cobblestone, and we didn’t know the parking rules. Before we left, I tracked down a public parking ramp within a couple blocks of our hotel, and we made that our target: drive straight there, park, and don’t think about any more driving in town.
It didn’t exactly work out that way. A couple of the streets we needed to turn on were closed, and they were having some kind of festival near the port. We sat in crawlingly-slow traffic forever, but at least the people-watching was excellent. We ended up having to drive right by the festival, and then were finally able to head up the hill toward the parking garage. We sat on one street for 15 minutes due to a traffic jam behind a parallel parker. INSANE.
Finally, we found the ramp, but the door was closed, and there was no indication about how to get in there. We decided to circle and maybe we’d get lucky and find a spot, so we headed around the block and there it was!! A street parking spot! Directly across from the actual entrance to the parking garage, of course. We emptied the car and hauled our bags to the Howard Johnson Plaza de Las Armas.
I wasn’t expecting much of the HoJo, but the reviews were good, it was the only hotel under $200, and we were only going to be sleeping there one night. The guy at the front desk was fantastic, and he assured us that it was fine to leave the car parked on the street overnight. He pointed us to the tiny, ancient elevator that required instructions, because it had two sliding doors that had to be closed completely, or it wouldn’t move. Also, it went approximately .5 floors an hour, and was so tiny that the two of us could barely get in their with our giant suitcases and carry-ons.
Our room was actually very nice. It was clean and had a balcony overlooking Plaza de las Armas and The Best Souvenir Shop in San Juan, where another Christmas festival was in full swing. They even had a giant neon Christmas tree, and bands were playing.
We charged our phones, repacked our suitcases for the flight the next day, stopped at a supermarket for water, and headed to La Barrachina for another of their legendary pina coladas. The old bartender was fantastically opinionated: he went off on a rant about how the crazy weather changes were indicative of the fact that the world was going to end in 2012. He had made plans for that event, too: he was going to take his sons to a whorehouse, and his daughter to a convent so there’d be someone to pray for the family.
Then it was time to go find dinner. Quite possibly the saddest moment of vacation was when we left La Barrachina and noticed that the ship we’d just disembarked was heading back out to see with a new set of passengers. SIGH. We wandered around in Old San Juan til we came across the Blessed Cafe. We’d walked past it several times, and noticed the reggae blaring. The sign about Jamaican patties drew us in.
Their menu had 5 kinds of rum punch, which was immensely confusing. I ordered callaloo, but they were out. I asked the server (the owner’s wife) if they had anything else vegetarian, and she said just red beans and rice. I was totally happy with that, but she kept apologizing for not having anything else. When she brought it out, the rice was molded in a heart shape, and there was enough for two meals. She had nothing to apologize about!
After dinner, we did some more wandering in Old San Juan. We heard music coming from a spanish restaurant near El Convento, so we went in. I got a margarita that was so strong I couldn’t even finish it. We sat in the courtyard, and watched the band set up for the evening. Once Matt was finished with his drink, it was time to return to El Batey!
There was a different bartender with awesome tattoos this time, but he had basically the same attitude as the first. We had some Cuba Libres with Barrilitos (you can tell it gets you cred with the bartender just by ordering that brand as a non-Sanjuanero) and played the jukebox. My set ended with “No Woman, No Cry”, which made a bunch of people sing along. Also, our bartender uttered my favorite phrase of the entire trip: “Why pay for sex, why pay for water? Those are two things that should be fucking free.”
We wanted to stay there forever, but of course we still had things to see in San Juan the next day. We bid farewell to our new favorite bar, and headed back to the hotel.