Puerto Rico – Tropical bliss without a passport

San Juan, Puerto Rico 1/1/2013 to 1/12/2013

If you are ready for a tropical get away but do not have a passport, Puerto Rico is an excellent choice.  Since it is a US Territory, no passport is needed.  Visit the historic forts, do some shopping, try regional foods, go hiking through the rainforest, go kayaking through a bioluminescent bay or spend the day caving and rappelling.  There are no shortages of activities!

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Castillo de San Cristobal, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Every year we decide to try to escape the cold and the craziness of the holidays by jet-setting off to a warm tropical paradise. It’s something that I suggest everyone try at least once in their lives. We usually leave a day or two prior to Christmas, however we decided to leave on New Year’s Day this year due to the flight specials. Some deals are just too good to pass up. We like to stay in the area that connects Old San Juan to Condado. It’s centrally located and you can practically walk to just about any restaurant, shop or event in either Old San Juan or Condado. This year we stayed at the Hilton Caribe. We picked it because it actually has a beach, which is surprisingly not common with San Juan hotels. The Hilton Caribe is a nice property, nothing overly special and there were a good amount of young families. We usually try to avoid places with too many kids but this was not too bad. The accommodations were nice with an impressive fitness center, pool and lounging area were great with a fantastic sunning deck that jets out into the ocean. I would recommend avoiding the restaurants as they are very pricey and quality was not very high, although we did not eat at Morton’s. With that said, below are some recommendations of amazing restaurants that are within walking distance, starting with my favorites.

Tim’s Recommended restaurants:

  1. Ropa Vieja – 1025 Ashford Avenue, Condado This is one of our absolute favorites for local food mixed with Cuban influences. It’s a small place, so get there early. The beef is amazing, but anything on the menu will be fantastic.
  2. Casita Miramar – Ave. Miramar #605, Esq Calle McKinley, San Juan This is a small local place as well, so get there early and ask to sit out on the terrace if it’s open. The menu is written on blackboards and can change daily depending on what is fresh or in season. Amazing seafood. I had crab stuffed avocado which sounded odd, but was one of the best things I ate the entire trip. Also, try the sangria. They usually do a white and a red. The red is my favorite. It does pack a punch for sangria and they are easy to drink!
  3. Lima (Peruvian) – 667 Ponce de Leon This was a wow restaurant that we happened on by chance when we were going back to Casita Miramar and an older local woman that we stopped and talked to because she was walking her dog, pointed us here. I decided to be adventurous and order the octopus salad. I figured, it’s just a salad, so if I don’t like it it’s not much of a waste. I could not have been more wrong. Everything on the menu, even if it looks like a starter, is a full meal in itself. We ordered enough food for about 6 adults. Unfortunately, there was only 2 of us. And before I forget…. OMG, the octopus salad was delicious!
  4. Pure and Natural – 1125 Ashford We like to eat pretty healthy so this place was a great find, although easy to miss. It’s pretty much just frequented by locals and does not look like a place to eat from the outside. We walked by it several times while looking for it. They have an all natural menu and tend to run out of ingredients, so it’s good to have a backup order in mind. They also do fresh juicing and smoothies. Least expensive and really good food, especially the Ahi.
  5. Pikayo – Conrad Condado Plaza This is more of a gourmet foodie chef run restaurant which means it is a bit pretentious, however the food was very good.
  6. Al Denta (Itialian) – 309 Calle Recinto Sur Good late night place to grab food. This was more like the Italian we had in Italy, so it’s definitely good and sits out on a small terrace. We ended up talking with several tables around us as it’s an environment that really leads to social behavior.

When in doubt, check out Trip Advisor as there are a lot of fantastic restaurants throughout the Island, but keep in mind it is always best to get to a restaurant in San Juan early in order to avoid long wait times to be seated. I am also a big fan of finding the nearest grocery or convenient store to stock up on water, snacks and even your choice of alcohol, if you drink. This can save you a LOT of money in the end and make it easier to splurge on the items that you really want to spend your money on and make a few memories in the process. Speaking of…. We created some pretty amazing memories by splurging on a couple day and even a night trip. These are all worth it, but again, I’ll start with my favorites and go down the list.

Tim’s Recommended Adventures:

  1. Caving with Aventuras Teirra Adentro.  Check them out at www.aventuraspr.com  Now, I have done quite a few adventures throughout my worldly travels, however this is at the top of my list.  this was incredible, but not for the timid.  First of all, you have to sign a waiver that basically states that you may die.  After that, the team at Aventuras puts you through a training period so that you are as prepared as you can be.  Then the fun starts by actually getting down to the cave opening.  This starts off with several ziplines and ends with a 350 foot rappel into the mouth of the cave.  OK, that alone was worth the cost of the adventure, but then the rest of the day was spent exploring the caves, including an underground cliff jump in the pitch dark about 20 feet down into an underground river.  There are also scorpions, crabs, mud pits…..  Let’s just say, this is an adventure you will always remember!  The picture below is our team at a very well earned lunchtime.  Keep in mind:  Bring synthetic clothing as you will be wet.  Also, be prepared for whatever you wear to be destroyed.  It’s that fun that it will kill your clothes.  True story!
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    The mouth of the cave that we rappelled some 300+ feet into to start our caving adventure

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    A well deserved lunch in the cave

  2. Kayaking in one of Puerto Rico’s 3 bioluminescent bays.  You may be asking yourself, what in the heck is a bioluminescent bay?  It is a bay that is filled with glow in the dark plankton that creates a magical experience at night, especially noticeable the closer you are to a new moon. We choose the bay in Fajardo due to time constraints.  The bay in Vieques, known as Misquito Bay is supposed to be the best in the world but it takes a little more planning as it’s on Vieques Island.  When we booked our trip on Expedia, they had a special going in which they provided a free excursion of our choice through the Puerto Rico Board of Tourism. We decided on a night kayaking trip through the Fajardo bioluminescent bay and booked this trip with our hotel concierge.  Super easy.  This was a really fun night.  We were picked up right at the hotel and after about a 45 min drive we were ready to start our trip.  It starts by kayaking into a through a lengthy mangrove tunnel, which was very cool by itself.  As we got closer to the bay, we started to notice that the water from the oars was starting to glow and that the water had a faint glow that followed any movement.  Once we were out in the actual bay, the water around the fish and turtles swimming glowed.  It reminded me of something magical or something you would see in a Disney movie.  A couple things to keep in mind: wear a swim suit and flip flops.  
  3. Hiking El Yunque rainforest.  This is a great day trip if you are looking to get a little exercise, see some of Puerto Rico’s natural beauty, climb to the top of the watchtower or go for a little swim at the bottom of a magnificent waterfall.  El Yunque is only about a 45 minute drive from San Juan and has some great hiking trails and breathtaking views.  to get directions and learn more visit: www.fs.usda.gov/elyunque

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    View from the watchtower in the El Yunque Rainforest

  4. Rent a jeep and explore the island!  This is an easy way to get out and really explore Puerto Rico.  Grab a map, or don’t, either way it is a full day’s activity if you wish to drive the island and see the diversity of the island and the Puerto Rican way of life.  A word to the wise:  If you plan on going during a high volume time such as Christmas, reserve your vehicle early as there can be limited supplies of vehicles for rent on an island.  the picture below is the view from the watchtower down to the coast.
  5. Spend a day in Old San Juan. Old San Juan has a charm that you just will not find anywhere else.  From the blue cobblestone streets to the small funky shoppes to exploring the old Spanish forts, Old San Juan has a little something for everyone.  There is also a very cool park that I recommend if walking to Old San Juan from Condado that starts just after entering Old San Juan from Condado.  The park has quite a bit of charm and will take you almost the entire way to ”downtown” Old San Juan.

If you have any thoughts or additional places or adventures to check out, please feel free to add a comment.  Otherwise, that is it for now. Until next time, make your life an adventure!