As we entered the taxi van in front of our hotel, the Caribbean skies wept for us; a sort of baptismal for newly devout believers in the island of enchantment. Vacation was over. Over the course of a few days we travelled to quite a few places on the island, and in the process, I learned an important thing: You cannot appreciate the wonders of Puerto Rico from a cruise ship.
San Juan, the island’s capitol, is the most popular city. It is a major dock for many cruise lines and with that comes a hodge podge of tourist traps and long-standing local favorites desperately trying to catch your eye. If you look beyond the souveneir shops and kitschy chaos however, you will find an incredibly charming place. Much of this charm is contained within the seven-square blocks considered to be Old San Juan. Just a stone’s throw from the many piers, the glitzy high-rise resorts of Condado, and the airport sprawl near Isla Verde, Old San Juan is the perfect starting point to begin your Puerto Rican journey.
Accessible by foot to major landmarks, entertainment, and some of the best restaurants and nightlife on the island, this part of town has a strong Spanish colonial nostlagia to it complete with centuries-old churches, gigantic stone fortresses, and tiny cobble-stone streets where you can retrace Hunter S. Thompson’s drunken steps from The Rum Diary.
After doing much research, the boy and I decided that there is only one place that we would ever consider staying at in Old San Juan. The world famous Hotel El Convento, which is not only centrally located to practically everything in town, but is also one of the most beautiful boutique luxury hotels you can find. A former Carmelite convent built in the 17th century, El Convento takes what travellers love about big new luxury hotels and gives it the charm and romance of a small independent hotel. While the building may be hundreds of years old, this hotel is fantastically renovated, offering top of the line ammenities and service while maintaining the location’s integrity. Guestrooms are cozy, impeccably clean, and are decorated in warm inviting colors with tasteful local art and everything you would expect and want from a hotel room. We were fortunate enough to get a bay-view room on the fourth floor, but every room here is worth every penny. The added bonuses of three great restaurants, 24 hour access to their rooftop plunge pool and jacuzzi, and a free nightly Manager’s wine and cheese reception in addition to unlimited bottled water easily puts them in one of my favorite hotels I have ever stayed in.
While driving in San Juan is not necessary (in fact it is discouraged since there are very small streets, very little parking, and way too much traffic), I would definitely recommend renting a car for exploring the rest of the island. We opted for a two-day rental so that we could make trips to near-by attractions such as the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo, the El Yunque rain forest in Rio Grande, and the famed Ruta de Lechon in Guavate.
There were many more places we would have loved to drive to, but we were only on vacation for five days and we just couldn’t fit everything in. For car rentals, I recommend Charlie Car Rental; a Puerto Rican rental company that is just as good as any of the bigger names. They offer the cheapest prices, good insurance policies, easy booking (online), and even a free shuttle service to get you back to your hotel. Their cars were all newer models in great condition, which is something to really look for when driving small streets, winding roads, and going up and down lush mountains.
As I begin sorting through hundreds of vacation photos, digging up notes on memorable meals, and writing up freelance articles, I leave you with just a few photos of our trip. I’ll be updating about our favorite spots on the island including where to get the best espresso and what could quite possibly be the best breakfast sandwich. It’s been decided that several return trips to Puerto Rico definitely lie in our future. Easy to get to without being too expensive,the versatility of being near posh resorts or hunkering down in small villages and the great outdoors, and you don’t even need your passport.