Several years ago, as a junior college student, I made a friend (which later bloomed into a relationship) who was from Caguas, Puerto Rico. I didn’t know what impact the young man would have on my life at the time, but looking back, I can see that a great portion of my diversity blossomed from our time. Last week, I shared a traditional Puerto Rican arroz con gandules recipe that I picked up over the years and also shared how I fell in love with Puerto Rico long before I got there. I had been blasting reggaeton in my showers, silently cheering every time I spotted a beloved Puerto Rican flag and had fully embraced Spanish as a second language.
When summer came, my then-boyfriend decided that it was time to go back to Caguas and spend the summer with his family. While I was sad, it was an opportunity. I worked the arrangements out with my mom, and my mother being the exquisite world traveler that she is, saw the grand opportunity as well. We packed out bags and set out for San Juan Puerto Rico. Skipping ahead two years, we found ourselves in Puerto Rico once again but in Isla Verde instead. Both visits made for remarkable memories. I’ll never forget fighting traffic with my mom under the Caribbean sunlight and trying to quickly translate Spanish road signs while she’s behind the wheel. I’ll always remember jumping ten feet in the hair screaming for my mom all because we saw a lizard the size of a dog! Can you imagine? Two African American women stopping dead in their tracks and hearing me say, “OMG!” with panicked expression? For the price, it was a quick getaway that felt like a whole new world on a domestic budget.
If you’re anticipating your trip the island, or just want to dream about what it will be like, take a dive into Puerto Rican culture (and the fun part, Puerto Rican food) before you get there. You can find my Arroz Con Gandules recipe here. The recipe is boiled down to five super easy steps that you’ll have no problem walking through. It’s everything I love in international food: simple ingredients and low maintenance effort.
Flights to Puerto Rico are very affordable! This is what makes it such a popular travel destination! I always look to Airfare Watch Dog to help me find the cheapest rates in any given window of time. When we went to NYC, we got our round-trip tickets (seated together) for $80 each. You can read more about that here.
Go to Airfare Watch Dog, set your destination to San Juan, Puerto Rico (SJU). As of today, I found round-trip tickets as low as $322. If you’re not happy with the price as is (which is a steal already), follow AWD on Twitter and they often tweet out low steals!
My favorite thing about my stay at the Caribe Hilton is the atmosphere. This hotel provides everything that you would expect at a Puerto Rican resort. If you like calm, beautiful, private options, choose Caribe Hilton. Did I mention a private beach for guests? Rates vary but are currently starting at $179 a night and it’s completely worth every penny.
Caribe Hilton images from Flickr: Shelly Prevost
A second favorite is El San Juan Resort & Casino, a Hilton hotel. If you like live events and great action, this is the place to choose. A small casino is located on the ground floor as well as an event hall that sparks new and exciting things to join in on, this is the best option. Rates start at $169, comparable to Caribe Hilton.
Where do I begin? Eat everything offered to you. The food is so rich in flavor, you don’t want to miss a spontaneous opportunity because I suggested something different. The base foods of Puerto Rican cuisine are fairly consistent. You will encounter, rice, check, beef, plantain, pasteles, etc. On one of my last days in Puerto Rico, someone suggested that I try a local fruit called quenepas. It has become one of my favorite fruits that I rarely can get my hands on. I would have never known about it if I stuck to what I know. Your best bet is to find a restaurant and ask a local or a waiter for their personal suggestion.
Whatever you do, accept the challenge.
Here are a few additional suggestions: El Jibarito – 280 Calle Sol, San Juan / Orozco’s Restaurant – 1126 Ashford Avenue, San Juan / La Casita Blanca – 351 Calle Tapia, San Juan / Bagua Restaurant – 51 Maria Moczo, San Juan
El Yunque (free – $5)
You may be asking yourself, why would I want to go to the jungle? Because this is the coolest jungle you’ll ever have an opportunity to visit. This extravagantly large rain forest that boasts as the only tropical rain forest in the United States National Forest System. It’s perfect for all ages. What’s even better is that entrance is free. You can freely explore as the path is clearly marked and safe. If you want a guided tour, it’s $5 on Wednesdays.
Old San Juan / El Morro (free – $5)
El Morro is a 400 year old fort in Viejo San Juan that has so much history, you’re guaranteed to visit for hours. You have an option to do a self-guided tour or to freely roam and catch the beautiful views. Children up to 15 are free, and those over 15 only have a $5 entrance free. Since you’re already in Old San Juan, you can roam the small streets for lunch and shopping soon after (or before) exploring El Morro. Transportation fees are minimal to get around in this area.
Pinones Boardwalk ($5-20)
If you need to feel the Caribbean breeze against your skin or simply are looking for something with a little more action, Pinones Boardwalk is a great option. You can rent a bike for $20 (full day rental) or just take to the boardwalk on foot. The bikes are in pretty rough shape but if you’re an experienced rider, you should have no problem making due with what’s available.