Puerto Rico / Travel Photography / Travel Advice Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico left a strong impression on me and is one of the few places that I feel almost homesick for at times. We visited various cities and areas of the island outside of Old San Juan, because we knew we wanted an adventure and to see parts of the island that were a bit more rural. Old San Juan, El Yunque, Naguabo, Humacao, and the mountains of Guavate (nicknamed “Pork Highway” because of the array of lechoneras serving amazing roast pork scattered along the mountain road) were some of the places we explored.
Whenever I bring my camera on a trip, I feel a sort of pressure to represent the place in a way that is, if not objective, at least diverse. I felt this obligation in Puerto Rico because the culture there is so rich and varied. Film, to me, was the perfect way to try and capture the rich colors and atmosphere of the island. Traveling with film takes a bit more guts than using a digital camera, but usually airport security is pretty obliging and happy to do a hand-check for you.
We first spent a few days in the Old San Juan area, in a neighborhood called Ocean Park. We arrived in the evening, around 9:00 pm or so, at our Airbnb. It was dark, humid, and loud. Not with people’s voices, but with a deafening chirping that we assumed were excited birds and later found out were Coqui frogs.
Across the street was a brightly-lit bakery called Kasalta, which stays open until midnight and serves beer and wine. This was our first stop, and where we sampled about six types of pastries within our first twenty minutes of being on the island. To me, food is the quickest way to get to know a place; I like to consume the culture as soon as possible. At least, this is my reasoning for sampling a guayaba (guava) tart, tembleque, mallorca bread and a few other treats before even unpacking my suitcase.
We loved the Ocean Park area. It is a calm but lively community minutes from a beach with views of Condado. There are a few restaurants and bars sprinkled around, including our favorite, La Casita Blanca, in the Santurce neighborhood. In a white house surrounded with roosters, we had the most amazing whole roasted snapper, lemonade made with brown sugar, and a tres leches cake that I am still mourning the loss of.
Getting into Old San Juan from Ocean Park wasn’t the easiest. We had hoped we could hop on the bus that stopped in front of the apartment, but the schedule was erratic and sometimes it would not come at all. Instead, we took a cab in. We did manage to get the bus home, as the service is much more frequent leaving the city rather than going in. The cabs in Old San Juan are so incredibly efficient that they caused us to get the worst sunburn I have ever had. I was still on the phone with the driver when we heard him beep outside, leaving no time for me to apply sunscreen. Not that it would have helped that much; we had only packed SPF 30, and by the end of the trip were slathering on 70. While the drivers are amazing, don’t be surprised if they reverse down the street at 40 miles per hour at an attempt at a shortcut.
Old San Juan is a beautiful, charming town, with blue cobblestone roads and little shops lining the streets. I loved the colorful buildings and even the myriad of stray cats that came out at dusk, looking at you as if to say, “may I help you?”
Tucked away in the Cuartel del Ballaja Barracks is a coffee shop called Cafe Don Ruiz where you might have the best cup of coffee of your life. Feeling drowsy from the heat, I popped into the cafe for a quick boost, although I usually never drink coffee. We sat outside at a little table looking into the courtyard and I had an experience with that drink that was almost indecent. It made me into a casual coffee drinker, although I haven’t yet matched that perfect cup.
The most incredible part of Old San Juan, I think, is the huge open field near Castillo San Felipe del Morro. There is a breeze that offers relief from the 100° heat, and grassy hills where you can sit and look out over the ocean for as long as you like. Down an odd little road you will find Santa Maria Magdalena Cemetery, the headstones bleached white by the sun. If you continue down that road you arrive in La Perla, a neighborhood of Old San Juan with a troubled history and economic problems that continue today. It also has the most beautiful views of the ocean, coincidentally.
After a few days, it was time to leave Old San Juan and Ocean Park. With our beet-red hides, we ventured back into the sun to get our rental car, underestimating the walk to the location. Thankfully, our car was equipped with AC and the equivalent of an EZ-Pass for the tolls that we would hit along the way. We were heading to our next destination, Casa Cubuy in El Yunque Rainforest, about an hour Southeast from Old San Juan.
El Yunque was definitely on our list of places to go in Puerto Rico, although we weren’t sure if we wanted to actually stay in the rainforest or nearby. When we found Casa Cubuy at the South end of the forest near Naguabo, we decided being in the middle of nowhere was worth it. Far from a cushy hotel, Casa Cubuy felt a little like sleepaway camp… in the rainforest. The water trickled out of the shower head, fresh fruit plucked from the trees nearby was served every morning, and there were only two restaurants within fifteen miles, one of which was owned by Casa Cubuy. We loved it. Pull too far into the gravel near the ecolodge and your car might go flying off a cliff into the palm trees below, Jurassic Park-style. I always pulled the E-brake as soon as I could.
Driving in Puerto Rico, especially in the mountains, was a bit thrilling at times, as the roads tended to wind around blind corners, and in places were only one car-width wide. This video documents the experience pretty accurately. If I rounded a corner too quickly, I might have to brake for a family of dogs hanging out in the middle of the road, stray iguanas, or the break-neck approach of a local car. Rarely, and only if we were lucky, the way would be clear. After the first few times, I gained more confidence, although never reaching the speed of the locals. The views and experience were well worth it: at night, sleeping in the rainforest, we would either be lulled to sleep or kept awake by the deafening chirps of the Coqui frogs. In the morning we would wake to silence and heavy fog over the mountains, to watch purple scaly-naped pigeons sail through the valley.
Hiking in El Yunque is beautiful: fluorescent flowers, tiny green lizards and snails as big as your palm surround the wild trails. There are no maps to follow, and we’d be lying if we said we didn’t get lost a couple of times. We are birdwatchers, and saw some amazing species during our stay, including the Tody, a little pom-pom of neon orange, green and red that almost looks like a chubby Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. The leaves of the trees dwarfed even my 6-foot-tall husband.
The other restaurant on the mountainside was Noelia’s Best. When I say a little hole in the wall, I mean it. It’s not fancy, and you have to be up for a bit of a adventure if you choose to eat there. Noelia gave us a warm welcome, though we were some of the only people in the restaurant who weren’t locals. Noelia’s was where we had the best mofongo of our trip. She fries green plantains, mashes them with a mortar and pestle and mixes them with salt, pepper, “lots and lots of butter” and garlic, then forms them into a sort of delicious, edible sandcastle. Her dog sat by our table and begged, his eyes peeping over the edge of the table. Eating at Noelia’s is sort of like eating at your mom’s house. She is the cook, waitress, owner, and hostess. We didn’t get to try any dessert because, as she said pointing to a tree near our heads, they were all out of the breadfruit.
In our time at Casa Cubuy, we took a day trip and visited the Bioluminescent Bay in Fajardo, and the island of Culebra. Because these were about an hour from Casa Cubuy, we planned to hit them both on the same day. I had never been snorkeling, and I’m glad there is no photographic or video record of what I looked like, but once I relaxed into the feeling of it, it was amazing. There are several ways to get to Culebra and Vieques, the closest islands to the East of the mainland, but the easiest way for us was to take a charter with a group, since they also provided the snorkeling gear. The other options are to take a short flight or the ferry, which can get very hectic and busy on weekends.
After a quick nap in the car, we headed to Fajardo to explore the Bio Bay. At this point it was dark, and we would be going through a mangrove forest with low-hanging branches. We were assured that no kayaking experience was necessary for the trip, but the number of people periodically crashing into us and their surroundings suggested otherwise. Once we had made it out of the mangrove forest alive, we glided out onto a huge lake. Dipping your hand into the warm water excited the phosphorescent plankton swimming there, which left a trail of surreal, sparkling-blue phosphorescence. More spectacular yet were the large fish that darted about the lake, leaving trails of glowing bright blue like shooting stars.
Humacao Nature Reserve is a small park at the Southern tip of El Yunque. The iguanas here were large and numerous, and I wondered if their massive size was due to their unconventional diet. The proud specimen featured above had just finished eating a ham sandwich on white bread.
Speaking of omnivores, I am a recently reformed vegetarian, so “Pork Highway” was high on our list of places to see. On the way there, we stopped at Jendys Heladería Artesanal in Caguas. The owners at Jendy’s will let you sample their crazy array of ice-cream flavors that include garlic, pumpkin, passionfruit-cheesecake, guayaba, black bean, and sweet potato. I decided to get their suggested sampler comprised of “mini scoops.” You can look at the photo above and decide how “mini” those really were. My favorite was the black bean, an earthy and subtly sweet concoction with a slightly grainy texture.
After light snack of seven scoops of ice-cream, I was, naturally, hungry. We headed up to Guavate’s “Pork Highway”, a mountain road named for its innumerable lechoneras. If you decide to visit, go on a Saturday or Sunday and get there before noon, or you risk not finding a parking space, or worse, not finding pork. The atmosphere is one of a large block party with all of your family attending.
Our hosts had pointed us towards Los Pinos, a lechonera with an open-air patio and piles of unlabeled food behind glass. We had no idea what to order. Although our Spanish was pretty good and had improved as time went on, we were nervous and conscious of the line behind us. “Lechon y…y…amarillos, por favor.” We apparently did alright, and our food was weighed and given to us on a tray. There is no escaping the reality of how much you are eating at Los Pinos: the number shows on the scale for all to see. But no matter. The pork fell apart at the slightest touch, the sweet plantains were plump little yellow bundles of happiness, and we ate until we were stuffed.
Puerto Rico is an island replete with amazing history, landscapes, people and food. Although the island is not huge, its culture is so rich that I feel like we were only introduced to it. I hope to get to know it better in the future.
If you have visited any of the places mentioned or have other thoughts or questions, feel free to start a discussion below!
You can see a handy map of our favorite places here