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Taking It Easy In Puerto Rico
By Lolly Bowean
26 September 2004
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO -- Even when it's raining, there's still plenty to do in San Juan.
I realized this on a recent weekend, when one day on the beach was interrupted by a long, thunderstorm and another by gray skies.
But when it rains on your vacation in Puerto Rico, it's a good idea to do as the Puerto Ricans do -- retreat inside to the colorful and cozy cafés and restaurants, shop the little boutiques or visit the 300-store Plaza las Americas mall.
My two friends and I went to San Juan in search of a short, stress-free getaway where we could simply relax. It was a girls-only trip, and we dreamed about lying out in the sand under the bright sun and leaving any problems back home.
Besides, none of us had been to Puerto Rico. It's an American commonwealth, which means residents are U.S. citizens, but they don't pay federal taxes and can't vote in U.S. presidential elections. However, most of the people speak English and the currency is U.S. dollars, so it seemed a good bet for a low-maintenance escape.
And even though we had those two bleak days at the beginning, we were staying in the Condado district of San Juan, which has a population of about 445,000 people. Condado is the main tourist strip, with beachfront hotels, high rise condominiums, casinos and cafes with all sorts of activities.
It's a good thing we arrived with strong appetites, because even the smallest and cheapest restaurants serve plentiful plates of food. On our first night of strolling through Condado, we found Cielito Lindo, a small Mexican restaurant where $5 went a long way. We feasted on salads, fajitas, refried beans, guacamole, salsa and chips for a little more than we'd pay for a Happy Meal at home.
And that was just the beginning. By the time we left four days later, we had eaten Puerto Rican, Mexican and "Latin-Asian" cuisine. It was so good, we didn't want to leave -- ever.
One evening, we passed the Parrot Club, which we assumed was a dance club. But as we walked by the restaurant with yellow, blue and pink walls, we smelled meat and seafood being grilled. So we danced right inside to eat corn cakes covered with roasted beef that was served with avocado and sour cream and lamb ribs. The menu was a mixture of Caribbean and American food, even including hamburgers and hot dogs with a flair. Its Hebrew National Hotdog, for instance, was served on pretzel style bread and featured criollo sauerkraut and seasonings. And instead of serving the burgers with lettuce and tomatoes, there was a spicy tomato salsa with bacon.
DragonFly, apparently a favorite of rapper Jay-Z and actress/singer J-Lo (not together), is more chic and sexy, with dark red walls and candles that light the way to the tables. Even at 11 p.m., there was a line waiting to get inside the restaurant, where it's easy to meet people since the tables are so close together. We ate smoked salmon pizza, lamb ribs and fried Calamari, all served as tapas, small appetizer-size dishes.
Both spots are in Old San Juan, where streets are paved with blue bricks and buildings are painted in strong Caribbean shades of blue, pink, yellow, green. The 500-year-old neighborhood that dates back to the Spanish colonial era also has iron grillwork similar to that in the French Quarter. The only thing missing were the beads.
Then again, Old San Juan has something we don't, views of the vivid blue Caribbean sea on three sides, with sloping streets so it's visible from most places..
Another attraction here is the salsa, not the sauce, the dance. Locals hang out at some of the nightclubs in Old San Juan, where there are live bands and no one cares whether or not you speak Spanish. In these clubs, your hips and feet do the talking.
As we walked through the district, we noticed a group of people standing outside the Nuyo Rican, a small club and restaurant on a side street. We realized they were swaying and twisting to the music from the live band inside.
Like in the French Quarter, the clubs are in walking distance of each other, but the land's not flat here; and some streets crawl up and down steep hills.
At a club called Rumba, we joined more Puerto Ricans twirling and grooving the night away. In Old San Juan, you don't have to plan a night of fun; you can simply walk from shop to shop or club to club until you find something that suits you.
One native Puerto Rican told me that "once you see one tree, you've seen them all." I laughed, but decided there was some truth to that statement. After about four hours in San Juan's rain forest El Yunque, it was hard to keep paying attention to the descriptions of some of the 240 species of trees and plants. But the waterfalls in the rain forest did hold my attention.
Touring and hiking through El Yunque was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon after a morning on the beach. It was drizzling in the rain forest (which makes sense, of course), so many of the animals -- there are said to be 145 species -- were hiding in their habitats.
Because the rain forest has a concrete walking path up and down the mountainous terrain, it's a hike that's easy to navigate, and it's only 45 minutes away from San Juan.
After four short days, San Juan was beginning to feel almost as familiar as home. People were friendly and welcoming, especially a few men who grabbed us to dance at the nightspots.
When we finally found a sunny day on the beach, locals offered us beer and soda from their coolers and let us lounge on their beach chairs.
I'd go back any time -- even if it's raining.
El Yunque is the only rain forest within the U.S. National Forest System. It harbors 240 tree species, different varieties of wild orchids, falls, streams, birds and millions of tiny nocturnal tree frogs. It's fairly easy to navigate, and it's only 45 minutes away from San Juan.
IF YOU GO TO SAN JUAN . . .
Know before you go:
No passport is required for U.S. citizens. The U.S. dollar is the currency, and although Spanish is the official language, English is widely spoken. The area code is 787 and some U.S. cellular phones pick up a signal.
Most major airlines fly to San Juan, but finding direct flights can be tricky and costly. I flew on an American Airlines package that stopped in Charlotte and cost $327.
You can rent a car easily in San Juan, since the driving regulations are the same as in the U.S. Because much of the sites are close together, taxicab rides are reasonableThere are public buses in San Juan, which cost only 25-cents per ride, but the buses run slow and aren't very reliable. There's also a tourist trolley in Old San Juan.
Where to stay:
We stayed at the Regency Hotel, an inexpensive, small, two-star hotel in the Condado District, which was close to shopping areas, cafes and the beach. For $89, we got a lovely pool and deck area. In the high winter season, beginning in December, prices increase to about $132 a night; (800) 468-2823.
-- For those who prefer history to beaches, Old San Juan has two special hotels. El Convento was built in 1651 as a Carmelite convent, but has been many things since then. Renovated in 1997, it has 67 rooms and good reviews on www.tripadvisor.com. Prices $250 in off-season, almost $400 December to April. (800) 468-2779 or www.elconvento.com.
What to do:
San Juan has beautiful beaches, but go to Old San Juan to see the architecture, shop and eat. El Morro is the 16th century fort that protected Old San Juan. The original San Juan Cathedral was built in the 1500s, but was destroyed at least twice by hurricanes; it was restored in 1912, and is a rare New World example of medieval architecture.
-- Visit the Barcardi rum plant, one of the largest distilleries in the world. Hour-long tours are free, but it costs about $3 to catch a ferry and cab from Old San Juan.
-- Shoppers shouldn't miss the Plaza, as locals call the Plaza las Americas mall with about 300 stores, a movie theater and 20 places to eat. Local vendors sell artwork and crafts in the hallways.
-- El Yunque is easy to navigate, even if you don't hike regularly. Wear comfortable shoes and take a poncho if you don't want to be drenched by the waterfalls.
Hurricane Jeanne: Although Jeanne, as a tropical storm, blew through Puerto Rico last week, the island suffered little more than power outtages and some street flooding.
Puerto Rico Tourism Company, www.gotopuertorico.com, (800) 866-7827.