A Day in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

A Day in Old San Juan || To Salt & See

The planning for this trip started a few months prior when Alex told me he would have a week off from school at the beginning of May. His schooling rarely has breaks, so when one does arise, I immediately begin planning a trip. With limited time, we wanted minimal flight time in order to maximize our vacation. Looking at flight prices on Google flights we landed on Puerto Rico. Both of use knew very little about Puerto Rico, except that it is a US territory and the music video for the popular song, “Despacito” was filmed in Puerto Rico lol. More importantly, the country had been hit by Hurricane Maria less than a year prior.

After some quick googling, we found numerous sources claiming that the state of Puerto Rico was good, with power and water available to the “main” areas of the country, and now more than ever the country needed tourist dollars. Sold.

A week prior to our departure, I had a conversation with a man at work who I soon found out was born in Puerto Rico. Excitedly, I told him that I was traveling there the next week – and I guess I was subconsciously expecting him to start raving about his home country and give me lots of advice as to where the best places are to go. Instead, he scrunched his eyes, knelt his head down, and started shaking it back and forth, all the while saying, “no, no, no, no.” Cue my internal panic lol. He proceeded to inquire why I wanted to go there, told me about how dangerous it was there, told me to go somewhere else, and to never go outside when it was dark. Well this is just great.  

So let me briefly touch on the safety of Puerto Rico. The recommendations for San Juan are exactly what you would expect it to be for a large city - to use your common sense! Don’t leave valuables in plain site, don’t walk on the beach at night (this is prime theft area), be aware of your surroundings, and listen to your gut. With that said, there are some specific areas to avoid in San Juan. La Perla, located on the northern area of the OSJ peninsula and where the Despacito music video was filmed, is known for heavy drug trafficking and is best to be avoided at all times of the day. Also avoid Puerta de Tierra at night. Alex and I had to drive through here at night when coming back from dinner on Condado Peninsula and we both felt a bit uncomfortable, so we hurried through without any issue. But walking around OSJ or Condado Peninsula are definitely safe, even at night.    

We split our time between Old San Juan and Rincon. I’ll talk about Old San Juan in this post, and Rincon in a separate post still to come.

We stayed in an Airbnb in the heart of Old San Juan, which was so convenient for exploring and walking OSJ. We parked our rental car in Dona Fela Parking, which if you have a rental car for exploring more of the island, I highly recommend this parking structure. As you can imagine, parking on the narrow streets of Old San Juan is nearly impossible. There are a few parking structures scattered throughout OSJ, but they can became expensive very quickly. Dona Fela is so cheap, at just $4 for 24 hours. The parking structure is also huge, so we never had any difficulty finding a parking spot.

Here is what we did with 24 hours in San Juan…  

Old San Juan

Colorful Streets \\ We woke up early in order to explore the streets of Old San Juan without the crowds. The buildings truly are, if not more, as colorful and beautiful as they look in photos. Better yet, the entire OSJ area has these colorful buildings and it is not simply limited to a few streets. The architecture of the buildings, specifically the second story balconies reminded me of the architecture I have seen in photos of New Orleans. But I can imagine that the particular architecture I was seeing was Caribbean in origin, which later got brought to the states. The streets are made of cobblestone, and their shape has visibly been molded from the weight of cars driving over them. There was a Carnival cruise ship in the harbor while we were there, and there was a noticeable difference in the crowds between when the cruise ship was there and when it was not. While exploring these streets expect to find some friendly kitties around every corner!

Stuffed Avocado Shop \\ We ate lunch at this fresh, and healthy restaurant. They serve avocado based bowls with a wide range of protein and veggie toppings. I found that the majority of restaurants in OSJ only served fried dishes. After getting sunburnt in the early hours of the morning, and continually sweating under the harsh Caribbean sunlight as we explored the area, the least appealing meal to me was a fried one. If the weather is hot I am all about fresh juices and smoothies, or light and healthy meals. That is why I was SO happy that Alex found this restaurant.

Señor Paleta \\ Speaking of things that I crave in hot weather conditions - ice cream. This hip and trendy shop serves gelato and sorbet in popsicle form. The frozen treats are not only flavorful and delicious, but also so so so refreshing amongst the heat. I got a Pistachio gelato while Alex tried their Strawberry Lemonade sorbet. I recommend their sorbets because while they were both delicious and flavorful, the sorbet proved to be more refreshing.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro \\ This old Spanish fort stands guard on the westernmost tip of the OSJ peninsula. We did not explore the fort itself, but we did enjoy the large grassy area in front. The day we were there, there was a reenactment presentation of soldiers marching, loading canons, and giving sword fighting demonstrations.  

Luquillo Beach

After a morning of exploring OSJ we drove less an hour east to Luquillo Beach, located near the northeastern corner of the island. We went on a Sunday afternoon, so it was quite busy with local families enjoying the water and cooking up some BBQ. Unfortunately we got rained out after an hour of being here.

Condado Peninsula

While we were walking along one of the streets in OSJ we randomly ran into one of Alex’s friends that he had made while studying abroad in Spain. To say we were shocked would be an understatement! We met up with her for dinner that night over on the Condado Peninsula, about a 10 minute drive from the OSJ peninsula. Condado reminded me of Waikiki Beach in Hawaii with its high rise hotels along the shore line and its various extravagant restaurants that catered to tourists. At La Ventana al Mar Park, there is a Puerto Rican walk of fame, where star plaques in the ground highlighting famous Puerto Ricans, such as Lin Manuel-Miranda, Ricky Martin, and Daddy Yankee.

Kabanas \\ We had the BEST fish tacos here. (Something to know about me is that if I am vacationing next to the ocean, I will without a doubt order fish tacos). These tacos were very unique in that the outside of the tortillas had crispy cheese attached. Highly recommend!

4D Coffee & Artisan Gelato \\ After dinner we walked down the street to this gelato shop, because gelato is always a good idea.

Post Hurricane Maria

Overall we felt that the portions of Puerto Rico where we visited were in good shape considering it had been less than a year since Hurricane Maria had hit. However one thing that stood out to me was when we were flying into San Juan, we could see that a large portion of the homes in the area had blue tarp roofs because they were still unable to fix their roofs after the hurricane tore them off. I realize that the tourist areas where we were hardly represent the majority of the country. There are still a lot of families and villages whose electricity has yet to be restored, and who don’t have access to sanitation and water.

Alex’s friend, who I mentioned above, is in Puerto Rico because she is working with the nonprofit organization, Save the Children, who provides safe places for children to play and emotional support for them in light of dealing with feelings of uncertainty and loss. Additionally many of the schools have been unable to reopen their doors, while some can only open for part days. Save the Children provides these students with educational programs for continued learning. If you wish to donate to this particular organization, click HERE.

Driving around in Puerto Rico did present some pot holes here and there; however, we felt that they had less pot holes than we do here in Minnesota. While driving we also saw a few telephone poles that still hadn’t been fixed, but overall the things we saw were very minor compared to what I imagine they had been immediately following Hurricane Maria. And again, the country fixed the tourist areas first so as to bring in tourism money – so if you are thinking of going to Puerto Rico I encourage you to go. Not only was it a wonderful destination to visit, but the country could use all the tourism profits they can get as they continue to work to rebuild the country.