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Fun Things To Do In Puerto Rico - Exploring Puerto Rico
What Is There To Do In Puerto Rico?
Because I've traveled so much, people are often surprised when I mention a place where I haven't been -- like the Caribbean. From New York City to any of the Caribbean islands, it's only about a four hour flight. Still, that area was one we kept skipping because we were too busy heading off to more "exotic" places.
Finally, our frequent travel companion, Lani, asked us if we'd join her for a few days to visit Puerto Rico a couple of Decembers ago. We wondered what is there to do in Puerto Rico, but we accepted, figuring it would be a great way to escape the cold, and you know what? PR is amazing and there are so many fun things to see and do in Puerto Rico. There's beautiful scenery, interesting architecture, great food and culture, and warm, welcoming people. Though we didn't travel far, we felt as if we were a million miles away -- and I found myself ashamed that I hadn't visited this area of the world a little sooner. I'm so glad that we got to explore Puerto Rico!
Beautiful Puerto Rico
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Though there are plenty of Puerto Rico resorts worth checking out, we wanted to get a more "real" feeling of the city, so we stayed in the Comfort Inn in Condado, a pleasant neighborhood about a 15-minute drive from Old San Juan.
As we headed toward the hotel from the airport, two things immediately hit us: the heat (remember, it was December and we were coming from NY) and the Christmas Decorations, which were everywhere. Puerto Ricans take family and holiday celebrations very seriously and make a point to let their joy be known. That said, every apartment and little park was filled with bright, colorful lights and decorated trees. The only thing was, it was about 85 degrees Fahrenheit outside, so it was a little jarring for us to see all these Christmas decorations up in a tropical setting. Lani especially got a kick out of standing in front of our hotel's tree while wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
So, what is there to do in Puerto Rico? Condado itself is very residential and relatively quiet. There was a park, as well as a few restaurants and shops near our hotel, so that evening we took a short walk exploring the area. There were plenty of chain restaurants around, but we decided to have dinner in a homey-looking diner with checked table cloths. Our instincts were right on; the place served authentic PR cuisine and was filled with locals instead of tourists. We ordered mofongos, which is made of crushed plantains mixed with fat, which are then baked and filled with meat, fish or chicken. These were served with a garlic sauce and were one of the best foods I've ever tried. Seriously, my mouth is watering just writing about these things. I've had them here, but it's just not the same as actually eating them in Puerto Rico while you're surrounded by swaying palm trees and warm, tropical breezes.
El Yunque: The Rainforest
One of the best things to do in Puerto Rico is see the rainforest. The next morning, we headed to El Yunque, which was about a two-hour drive from our hotel. We'd rented a car for the trip, and we learned early on that driving in PR was going to be quite a challenge. The other drivers are very polite: they'll get out of the way and don't tailgate (they're terrible about this is California, FYI), but riding on the PR roads feels as if you're entering a funhouse. Roads will curve around mountains with steep drop-offs; or else some will suddenly narrow ... and then disappear altogether! We had this happen to us a few times, where all of a sudden we'd come upon a barrier blocking the road (which was undergoing construction, usually) and we had to find an alternate route. There were also many cases where we'd see a million signs for something we didn't need, but then when we actually had to make a turn, there was no sign there to let us know to do so. Happily, my husband is great at sussing out directions and we didn't care too much about getting lost because we simply enjoyed peering out the windows at the views.
When we finally reached El Yunque, it was well worth it. When you travel a lot, it's easy to compare places so I immediately began noticing similarities between this rainforest and the ones in Hawaii and Australia. However, as you enter the lush, green El Yunque, you realize that there's no other place like it. The forest positively sings from all of the animals present, mainly birds and various insects. Most are hard to spot, especially the elusive tree frogs, but if you stand still and close your eyes, you can feel and hear how alive El Yunque is.
After hiking a few trails, we drove through the area just to get a better feel of the forest. Along the way, we stopped at a few pull-off points to admire more views. Unfortunately, we encountered many tourist groups along the way, but as it turns out, this was a plus. One man, who took a shine to Lani, gave her a tip on where to find a "secret waterfall." We followed his instructions and sure enough, there was these beautiful falls hidden off a short trail. Though it wasn't too far from the main road, not many people were there and it really did feel like we had this small piece of nature to ourselves for a little while.
El Yunque Puerto Rico -- Puerto Rico Rainforest
Puerto Rico Salsa Music
Hacienda La Esperanza And Old San Juan
After hiking around the rainforest all afternoon, we decided to take it easy and go for a leisurely drive. Despite the road conditions, it's easy to do that in Puerto Rico; as you're driving, you go past rows of houses all painted in pastel colors and travel through rich jungles and green, inviting mountains.
Along the way, we stopped at Haceidna La Esperanza. The restored site includes an old mill and a manor house. However, we were more excited by the fact that they'd also discovered Taino ruins there, including petrogliphs, a burial ground and a pre-Columbian ball court. In some ways, the ruins reminded me of the ones I'd seen in Mexican's Yucatan. Come to think of it, though, PR and the Yucatan aren't too far away from each other.
That evening, we got our first taste of Old San Juan. As soon as we stepped out of our car, we could hear music all around us; indeed, there was live music being played in the streets, parks and inside many of the restaurants. We stopped to listen to several performances, and at one, a lady grabbed Lani and encouraged her to dance along.
Finally, we made our way to dinner and chose a trendy Indian-Puerto Rican fusion restaurant that served things like curry mfonogos and all different types of martinis. However, it was crowded, techno music blared and the food wasn't that great. Already, I was missing the simple, delicious food of the diner we'd eaten in the day before.
Though it was dark by the time we'd finished eating, we took a short walk along the narrow streets of the old city. We could see, even in the dim light, that the rows of houses were all different colors and that the city had a big personality. We also noticed that there were tons of cats wandering the streets. For three self-described crazy cat people, this was a treat -- and made us feel very welcome.
Tour Of Old San Juan
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Rio Camuy Caves, Ponce And Phosphorescent Bay
The next morning, we got up bright and early because we had a long day ahead of us. First, we drove out to the Rio Camuy Underground Cave system in Arecibo. These huge caves are actually a giant sinkhole, but regardless of their technical name, they were impressive to walk around (you have to go with a guide in order to do so). They had all of the familiar features present in caves -- rock structures, stalagmites (limestone columns which form from the floor) and stalactites (the same, only they form from the ceiling). We also saw thousands of bats flying around, as well as other creepy crawlies. Lani is terrified of spiders so she wasn't so thrilled to see some of the giant ones that resided there. But we all appreciated walking around the magnificent network of tubes and tunnels.
That evening, we went to Ponce, which PR's second-largest city after San Juan. The Colonial-style town, which is in the south, consists of beautiful white stucco buildings, quaint churches and a lovely plaza. We wandered around the shops and square for a while before heading out to dinner in a wonderful cafe that overlooked the Caribbean. There, we were treated to some live music and more authentic PR cuisine. I had another mfongo, of course, and my husband had pernil, which is Puerto Rico's signature pulled pork and rice dish. Meantime, Lani had fish, which is, not surprisingly, abundant and fresh in that area.
Later that night, we took a trip down to the town of La Parguera. Though it was considerably out of the way, and it was dark, we did have a specific purpose for our visit: we wanted to see Phosphorescent Bay.
In some tropical areas, there are bioluminescent organisms, known as dinoflagellates, that light up when disturbed. Only two places in PR have these creatures -- La Parguera and the island of Vieques. None of us had ever seen anything like this before so we were eager to check it out.
We arrived there just in time for the next boat tour, which was at 10 p.m. I'd figured that we'd be taking a larger cruise as we had when we went out to the reef in Australia. In this case, however, they stuffed about 15 passengers onto a tiny motorboat, and then took us out into the middle of the bay.
But the trip was amazing! When I first heard about the bay, I pictured this glowing green body of water. Instead, the glow is subtle; you see green trails emerge whenever the creatures move. If you swim in the warm waters, your movements will make them light up even more. They look a bit like fireflies, only they're in the water instead of the air.
We finally made it back to our hotel around 1 a.m., and were completely exhausted. But we were pleased that we were getting to see so many interesting things on our visit.
Puerto Rico Food
Old San Juan And El Morro
On our last full day, we spent the entire time exploring San Juan. As beautiful as the city had been at night, it was even more spectacular during the day. Houses painted in every color you could imagine lined the winding, cobblestone streets; alleys would end at panoramic views of the ocean.
Our first stop was at El Morro, the fortress which is at the edge of the old city. After climbing around the fort's walls and tunnels, we went to the nearby church and cemetery, both of which overlooked the water. We then headed back toward the rest of the city and wandered the streets for a few hours. Lani was in heaven because shopping is plentiful there; we all purchased colorful masks and figurines. Music is in abundance, too, just as it had been in the nighttime. While we were in the stores, the shopkeepers would be dancing and singing -- and always invited us to join in.
That evening, we enjoyed dinner at at crowded Middle Eastern restaurant that was in the main square. The sun was shining, more music was playing ... and we didn't even want to contemplate the fact that we'd be returning to winter in NY the next day.
Viva Puerto Rico!
Having lived in New York City for all of these years, I've known plenty of people who are originally from Puerto Rico. After visiting PR, though, I now have a greater appreciation for the culture -- though there is still much for me to learn! It's funny how it took me so long to see a place that was only a few hours away. But to this day, if I listen hard enough, I can still hear that music playing as the palm trees sway in the wind.