Published September 19, 2010
Puerto Rico has long been known as la Isla Encantada - the Enchanted Island, but it would be just as fitting if the island’s vibrant capital, San Juan, came to be called la Ciudad Encantada -- the enchanted city. Grand stone fortresses hug the Atlantic Coast, golden beaches lead to crystal waters, and laughter from the myriad squares, hotels, and restaurants trickles over the cobblestones and streets just like the waters that flow around this gorgeous city.
Perhaps the best news of all is that San Juan is easy to visit. Puerto Rico became a commonwealth of the United States in 1898, and since then the English language, U.S. currency, and a modern infrastructure have augmented the local Spanish culture. An added perk for US travelers: you won’t need a passport or extra time to get through customs. Just grab a bathing suit, book a room, and soon enough you’ll be enjoying the waterfalls, fountains, oceans, and pools that make up wet and wonderful San Juan.
5…Explore an ancient fort
You’d hardly be the first visitor to appreciate the spectacular views over the Atlantic Ocean in San Juan. The Spanish Conquistadores created the castle-like Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, referred to simply as El Morro, between 1540 and 1873, from which to survey these same crystal waters (although the Conquistadores were searching for unfriendly marauders, not the luxury cruise ships that currently ply the sea here).
On a rocky outcropping at the northern tip of the city, rising nearly 140 feet above the sea, it’s hard to miss this National Historical Monument. The interior contains many dark passageways and thick stone walls that will give you a chill even on the hottest summer day. The views from the ramparts are spectacular, and get even more so as you climb higher up the fort’s six tiers. For even more dazzling views, lace up your walking shoes and head over to Castillo San Cristóbal. The 18th century fortress once marked the eastern entrance to the walled city of San Juan and was used by the Spanish to guard against land attacks. It covers 27 acres and has a labyrinth of secret corridors, not to mention sweeping views of the city and the coast.
4…Walk among the waterfalls
Less than an hour’s drive south from San Juan is lush green El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest managed by the U.S. Forest Service. This canopied oasis is a cool reprieve from the city’s tropical heat and contains towering waterfalls, thousand-year-old trees, exotic flora, massive vines, and diminutive coquí frogs whose loud call of “coe-KEE, coe-KEE” reverberates through the air. This is, oddly, a driving destination---a highway runs through the forest---and you’ll hit your first falls within minutes of entering the park: La Coca, incongruously situated right along the side of the road. The 85 foot drop can range from a scenic trickle, which allows you to climb up for a closer look, to raging waters not to be messed with, depending on the weather. Hop back in your vehicle and within another minute or so you’ll be in front of the romantic Yokahu Tower (a great photo op if the sun is out). Refrain from climbing to the top and save your legs for the 30 minute hike to lovely La Mina falls. After you’ve taken in the rushing water, you can take a swim in the bracing waters as well. Speaking of water, be sure to bring a poncho or other rain gear – the rain forest is aptly named.
3…Get squared in Old San Juan
One of the highlights of spending time in Old San Juan is exploring the outdoor squares where locals gather to stroll, snack, and even splash. Sherbet-hued buildings with wrought-iron balconies line the squares and 16th-century cobblestone walkways of the old city. In these squares you’ll find authentic Puerto Rican fare along with some of the best shopping and people watching in the city. Two of the most popular are Plaza de Colón and Plaza de Armas, both great places to pull up a bench and spend some time soaking in the atmosphere. In the same area of the old city is Calle Fortaleza, a hot-spot for trendy restaurants fit for foodies and hopping nightlife. Two enduring favorites are the Parrot Club (737-725-7370), which features Puerto Rican-influenced dishes such as a local dorado ceviche and barbecue ribs with a dark rum sauce, and hipster-magnet Dragonfly (787-977-3886) where late-night crowds line up for hybrid Asian-Latin cuisine, sushi, and killer cocktails.
2…Behold the beaches
San Juan’s golden, palm tree-lined beaches positively sing out for you to pull up a towel and toast yourself and there are several top spots to try out the sand and surf. Playa del Condado, home to many of the city’s big hotels, has a long, wide stretch of snowy sand, beach bars, water sports outlets, and chair rentals (but, alas, no lifeguards). Balneario de Carolina, at the eastern tip of Isla Verde (and close enough to the airport to read the small-print on descending jets), is many San Juan residents’ favorite stretch of sand. Its spacious shore has lifeguards, changing areas, and plenty of ocean views to go around. Playa de Ocean Park, between Condado and Isla Verde, is a wind-blown, 1-mile long strip of beach, whose waters are a bit choppy for swimming, but win a gold-medal with wind- and kite-surfers. Finally, just south of the city, about a half-hour’s drive, is Balneario de Luquillo, possibly the most beautiful beach on an island of beautiful beaches. Although all Puerto Rican beaches are legally open to the public, “Balnearios” are actually run by the government and have amenities such as lifeguards, bathrooms, playgrounds, and picnic tables. Luquillo has all this and a plethora of popular kiosks hawking fried snacks and as fresh-as-it-gets seafood.
1…Enjoy paradise poolside
Be it a small patch of blue or a massive water-slide-enhanced wonder, every hotel in San Juan offers a refreshing pool in which to take a dip, and lounge chairs where you can zone out with a book or just admire the sun’s reflection. Bigger hotels, especially those in the Condado area, also have chair-side (or even in-pool) waiter service, perfect for a piña colada break. The creamy pineapple and coconut concoction was said to be created pool-side at the Caribe Hilton, although you can sample the rum-infused drink all over town. After a few poolside coladas, rum punches, or daiquiris, you may find yourself wanting to know more about local spirits. If that’s the case, and you can tear yourself away from the pool, you’re in luck. The Casa Bacardi Visitor Center (787-788-1500) is just 15 minutes from downtown San Juan and offers a fascinating look at local rum-making traditions. The free 45-minute tour follows sugar cane as it travels from barrel to bottle, and shows some of what it takes to create the 100,000 gallons the factory produces daily of the cocktail staple. All very interesting, indeed, but the highlight for rum enthusiasts may be the well-stocked tasting room and the gift shop, where you can stock up, duty free, and then try to recapture some of the San Juan magic once you get home (unfortunately, the pool is harder to transport).