The gorgeous islands that make up Puerto Rico are known for many things: beautiful beaches, great music, lively culture and much more. To us they are, so far, the islands of the best mojitos! 🙂
It’s no secret that when we travel, we love the gastronomic side of exploring new places, and that includes amazing food and drinks worth returning for. Puerto Rico was no exception. I kid you not, I have seriously considered flying there with Mr. Enchumbao just for a weekend of eating and drinking in our favorite new places. That’s not very FI-friendly though, so we put breaks on those impulses. I’ll highlight a few of our favorite yummy destinations in a bit. But first, let’s talk about the islands themselves.
Puerto Rico (PR) is truly La Isla Del Encanto (Island of Enchantment), made up of the main land, plus several smaller islands nearby. So far, we’ve discovered San Juan on the mainland and the amazing island of Vieques. If you are a U.S. citizen or resident, it’s quite easy to visit Puerto Rico, as you don’t need a passport to enter. It’s a U.S. territory, so all they require is your driver’s license or state ID. This makes the travel experience much easier, as there are no customs or immigration control points to go through.
Visiting PR is great any time of year, since you get lots of Vitamin D all year round. The high season is during the drier months of December through April. The rainy season starts in May. This doesn’t mean that it pours all day, every day. Simply, you just may come across some rainy days or occasional showers. Our favorite time to visit is May, since it’s early on in the rainy season and we got pretty lucky on our ten day visit with little rain. The risk is worth the value, in our eyes, since everything is less expensive starting in May, and that means more value for your money.
Our first part of the trip took us to San Juan. There are plenty of places to stay in San Juan. Having experienced both Condado Beach and Old San Juan, we wholeheartedly recommend the latter. Condado Beach area has plenty of resorts, hotels, restaurants, shops and bars, however, it felt like Miami Beach to me. It’s missing the unique culture and history that Old San Juan possesses, so skip the familiar and go for the historic part of town.
Our adventures in Old San Juan
Getting to San Juan
The city of San Juan, located on the mainland, is the capital and the central hub for most flights coming into the island. The main international airport is SJU (Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport), which is about 15 minutes from Old San Juan without any traffic. When we arrived, we got in line to grab a cab, and were happy that the process was quite organized. An airport employee “checks you in” and provides you with an invoice for your expected cost and a copy to the taxi driver. They have a table of flat fees to each area, and we got to OId San Juan for about $20 including tip. Not bad at all.
We enjoyed our stay in CasaBlanca Hotel. The location is perfect for exploring Old San Juan. Great bars, restaurants and shops are all around. The only thing to be aware of is that they don’t have an elevator. As we happen to like the exercise, we didn’t mind it at all. Plus, when checking in and checking out, a staff member can help you with your luggage. The lobby is really cozy with the Moroccan decor, so I enjoyed sitting there and people watching for a bit. They also have a restaurant on the first floor, but we ended up venturing out to eat every time. The rooms were pretty basic: bed, two nightstands, TV, small table, and small bath. However, for such a prime location, the plain and simple accommodations were well worth it for about $140 per night.
I studied abroad in Spain for six months, so arriving in Old San Juan felt like a homecoming. The city was build by Spaniards and it really does feel like little Spain. The architecture is gorgeous with all the brightly colored buildings. The charming cobblestone streets take you back in time, but they can be ankle breakers in heels! Ladies, flats or sneakers are lifesavers. Since we love to walk, we explored all of Old San Juan by foot over the three days we stayed there.
One of our favorite touristy activities included visiting Castillo San Felipe del Morro (“El Morro”) – the main fortress. There is also another fortress in San Juan. When you buy a ticket to either fortress for only $5 per person, you have the option to see the other one within a week at no extra cost. We discovered this on our last day in San Juan, so we ended up seeing only El Morro. The fortress takes you back in time, and there are gorgeous views from all the levels. They have signs and pictures posted throughout the fortress to guide you through each section’s history and significance.
Outside of the fortress, you can’t miss the vast open field full of local families. It’s quite windy in this open area. Many people bring their kites and fly them over the grassy fields. On the weekends, locals come prepared to stay the day, with food and coolers full of the virgin and not so virgin libations . 🙂 There is nowhere to hide from the sun though, so we couldn’t stay too long in the hot Caribbean sun without roasting. I wish they had permanent umbrellas and hammocks there!
Catching street concerts and performances
The best parts of the city for other entertainment are the street festivals, the impromptu block parties and even free concerts. The trick is to check out the main plazas and common areas where these tend to come alive.
Coming out of El Morro on a Sunday afternoon, we noticed that people were gathering in a little plaza on the corner of Calle del Cristo and Calle San Sebastian. We asked around and it turned out that there was going to be a free concert performed by a local orchestra. We found some space on a bench, bought some finger food in a local bar, and enjoyed the performance for a while.
Another popular gathering area is down by the Port on the southern side of Old San Juan. Come to Monumento Al Inmigrante and take a stroll west down Paseo de la Princesa. In the evening, when the hot sun goes down, many locals come to this area of town. You will see some vendors, folks playing dominos, and people of all ages walking down the street. We even caught a local music performance there one night. We felt the unity of the people as they danced and cheered to the sounds of Plena, a folkloric music from Puerto Rico.
Take a few steps south of the monument and you arrive at Darsenas Square. This little place gets packed at night, with street vendors and locals who are looking to socialize and listen to music. We caught another great free concert there one night, performed by a local band.
Just when we thought our luck was running out with free shows, we walked by the monument after brunch the next day and—what do you know—another free public show! There were dancers and singers performing Flamenco on a stage set up right around the monument. I am not even sure what the occasion was, but we welcomed the surprise. People watching is optimal at street gatherings, so I was in heaven.
Are you picking up this trend yet?… Lots of free events, in a beautiful climate, with great people—that’s PR for you!
Since our hotel was right on Fortaleza Street, shopping was quite convenient. Most of the street has a variety of shops from beginning to end. We ended up gravitating towards the white cotton shops. As white is such a must-have color in a Caribbean wardrobe, this is a great place to find an extensive selection. I found a great white cotton shirt for about $25, which was both FI-friendly and proved to be a great shirt to wear to the beach. Overall though, the prices are pretty comparable with mainland U.S., since San Juan’s cost of living is similar.
Dancing the night away
As you may have picked up from our About page, we love to dance, especially salsa and other Latin dances. Needless to say, we checked out a few clubs while in Old San Juan.
A $5 cover gets you into this tiny club. I have to say that as a salsera, this is not the place you come to dance in comfort. The place is small, and the dance floor is full of people both dancing and standing, as it gets pretty packed. The live salsa bands is why people come there. It’s a great hole in the wall kind of experience, so don’t expect fancy decour, drinks or people. Very casual, fun and unique. It gets packed early on, so don’t be surprised if the ride gets bumpy. I like to come here, dance a few songs in a 2×2 box equivalent, listen to some more live music, and move on. A starter for the night, so to speak.
When we left this place, we headed towards the bar/club strip off of Plaza Colon and Fortaleza Street. There are some restaurants on the cobble street off of that corner (Calle Tetuan), and the clubs opened up after 10 or 11 p.m. We did a bit of club hopping there, and they had more space and more club like music, including reggaeton.
Indulging and savoring
Now this was our favorite part of the visit. We tried numerous places for food and drinks, and there were some winners that we still rave about and slightly drool over in reminiscence.
Hands down, the best drinks we tried in PR are sold here, and certainly the best mojitos we ever had, period. This little corner bar and restaurant is only a few blocks from El Morro, so we found ourselves enjoying the refreshing drinks on the way back to our hotel.
First off, very cozy location in a less busy street of Old San Juan. Outdoor seating under some trees makes it feel like Europe. But, the main reason we went back there three times: the drinks. Tried at least 7 different places between San Juan and Vieques for mojitos and we bow to this place. Super yummy, very natural ingredients and friendly staff. Also tried caipirinha, red sangria and piña colada, which were very good. A true enchumbao moment for us.
Must try this place if in the area! We didn’t have any food, but the drinks are yum! You know those times when you travel to a new place, find a place you like, but feel inclined to try other places since you feel like exploring…don’t bother. We could have saved a good $100 on sub-par drinks, if we just stuck with our gut reaction. Everything else failed in comparison. Cheers to Marilyn’s Place. We will be back when in town!
Pirilo Pizza Rustica
Very cozy place, friendly service, yummy pizza, but drum roll please……the best sangria I ever had. And let me tell you, having lived in Spain before and learning to make my own awesome sangria at home, it takes a lot to impress me. Sangria snob, anyone? 🙂 The unique thing about the red sangria I had here was that it came with ginger, sesame seeds, and crushed almonds on top. Weird, right? Turned out that the flavors were out of this world!!! You simply must try it. Please have one for me if you are there – I’ll be in heaven with you vicariously.
Ben and Jerrys
This cozy cafe provides a nice stop over shelter from the hot Puerto Rican sun, as you walk around Old San Juan. Located only a few blocks downhilll from El Morro fortress, we felt like we had a good excuse to stop by several times. You have to walk uphilll to get to El Morro, so you deserve a treat on the way up. Then, after walking all around El Morro, you deserve a break on the way down. Logic of steel, huh. 🙂 They have the famous ice cream, cafe sandwiches, salads and snacks, and some refreshing cold drinks to choose from. So, treat yourself to this experience when in the neighborhood.
Café Puerto Rico
This place has the best mofongo we had in old city. You simply must try the mofongo here! We had the seafood one with plantains and red sauce, and the veggie one with yucca and cream sauce. I loved the yucca cream one the most. We called ahead to reserve a cozy outdoor table, which faced the plaza de Colón. They tend to be quite busy, so RSVP in advance. I went here a few years back, and just had to return! House wine was also good and so reasonable: $5 per glass. Friendly service. Overall, a must! We tried mofongos in other San Juan and Vieques restaurants, but now we know not to bother and just come back here.
St. Germain Bistro & Cafe
This was a great place for brunch! We wanted some good old fashioned eggs on a Sunday morning, and were quite glad we discovered St. Germain. The place is very charming and can sit about 30 people on the main level for brunch, so get there early. We both ordered the prix fixed menu for $20 per person, which included a hot drink (coffee, tea, etc.), a cold drink (mimosa, etc.), a fruit plate with honey and granola (too much honey for me, so next time I’ll ask for it on the side instead), and main entrees with eggs. We really enjoyed our lazy Sunday brunch here and will return again.
Skip This: Marmalade Restaurant & Wine Bar
A quick note on the #1 rated place on TripAdvisor in Old San Juan. We decided to splurge and try it, since it was so highly rated and just happened to be right across from CasaBlanca Hotel. I must say the $81 bill was not worth it. It’s not that it was really bad, it’s that the food portions were tiny and lacked flavor. Mr. Enchumbao is quite the chef, you see, therefore we know what good food tastes like and this place did not meet our standards, especially not at this price. The ambience was really nice though – chic and fancy, but you can find that plus yummy food elsewhere. My advice: save your life energy money and check out the recommended places above instead.
Overall, we found Old San Juan to be extremely safe. Many nights we were out and about past midnight, and the streets were well lit and felt very safe. A good sign is that we saw some police cars around, but not too many. That usually means that it doesn’t get too rowdy or dangerous, which proved to be true for us.
This was our fun adventure in Old San Juan. Up next, we’ll introduce you to the beautiful island of Vieques. Until then, we’ll continue our shady exploration activities.
Have you been to San Juan? What are some of your favorite places?