Don’t Cry For Me Puerto Rico!!!

I can’t believe it’s been over a month since my trip to FABULOUS Puerto Rico and I have yet to post anything about it. I’m honestly afraid I won’t be able to do it justice, considering my complete void of creative talent in the last several years. However, I found some inspiration just last week when a much beloved college writing professor and mother of my FAVORITE little boy in the whole wide world (Will Vanderslice :) found me on Facebook and actually commented on this terrible excuse for a legitimate blog… Thanks Stephanie! (this is what college was good for- motivation…)

So I’m spending the better half of my week nights trying to highlight the best, worst, and most photographed parts of our trip. It was so great that I’m pretty sure I’ll need a thesaurus next to me to keep from abusing all my favorite adjectives.

The first night of our trip was spent in Chicago- a city I haven’t experienced since I was 17 and fell much in love with all over again. Granted, it was 70 degrees and the Cubs had just won their first game, nonetheless, the charm of that place is addicting- I think I would love to live there.

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we weren't ready...
we weren’t ready…

with Alex
with Alex

We had the best time. Alex was great! We ate dinner at one of his restaurants (Rockit Bar & Grill- absolutely delicious, right across the street from the stadium), bought some Cubs memorabilia, and then bar hopped for a few hours, ending up at the best jazz lounge in the city- The Green Mill. Unfortunately Laura’s camera died way too early- this place was AMAZING! The bouncer asked us to please not speak and he wasn’t kidding… Traditional jazz music at its finest. Alex drove us back to our hotel (around 2:30 am) and we passed out with our clothes still on. *Yes, we are smart girls…)

Thankfully the 6 alarm clocks (including both cell phones, the coffee pot, and hotel wake up service) did their job and we made it to the airport at 7 without any complications (beyond our aching heads). It’s a total shame that airports don’t provide free wireless service anymore, btw… Don’t they make enough money off the exorbitant ticket and dining prices?

Chicago
Chicago
Bright and early style
Bright and early style

The 5 hour flight was on time and uneventful. We watched “The Proposal” (very cute) and tried to sleep, but like the children that we still are, were way too excited. We arrived in San Juan approximately 1:30 and Virginia Flores and her boyfriend (a guy from Canada) were waiting to whisk us away to our Condo in Ocean Park. They tried their best to give us a good tour of the city but it was pretty overwhelming… Lots of little neighborhoods and then business districts crammed in together. It was amazing how you would see a gorgeous posh high-rise right next to a run down shack with chicken wire and graffiti- I don’t really know what was going on there but it was a lot to take in, especially on such limited sleep.

Anyway, our first nights lodging was SUPER charming and within walking distance from everything in the city (this is San Juan we’re staying in now, not Old San Juan- see night 5 for more on that…)

Love these hand tiled steps
Love these hand tiled steps
very comfy... Fully equipped with cable and air conditioning- thank goodness!
very comfy… Fully equipped with cable and air conditioning- thank goodness!
Loved!
Loved!

The pros of this place- named the Postado Colonial- are that the owners were very accommodating- they picked us up and dropped us off at the airport, provided a quick tour of where we were, and were super friendly. The inside was clean, charming, and very affordable (I think we paid $80/night!). The only cons were that it was a little out of the way- although we made the walk no problem- and on the verge of the shadier part of the city. It was also at least a block or two from the beach. I would recommend staying in Old San Juan rather than the city/business part, however I’m glad we were able to experience both.

After dropping off our stuff we sat out to walk the streets and find something to eat ASAP. Not really knowing (or caring) what we had that first night, we settled on this seemingly quaint little Mexican place with a nice outside patio.

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Let me just say- you DO NOT want to eat here. It was a TERRIBLE experience and took us almost 30 minutes to even be greeted. We ordered a shot (immediately- God help us) and then waited for literally ANOTHER 30 minutes to get menus. The server was extremely rude and food way overpriced. It put me in such a grouchy mood- bad way to experience the first night in the city!

However, potential crisis avoided and we quickly turned our frowns upside down when it hit us that we didn’t have to stay there. We simply moved next door to this authentic Italian place, and had the best vegetable lasagna and Sangria’s in the city! I loved it, the service was great and we were happy yet again!

Viva Appaia's- Delicious!
Viva Appaia’s- Delicious!

Because we were so tired and it was getting late, we decided to grab a bottle of wine and relax in our condo instead of getting ready and going out. Kara was arriving at 1 the next day and we wanted to have a few hours of shopping before we met her and headed to the island. So we hurried back to our room and were out by 10 o’clock. That was the first of our many responsible decisions on this trip! (we are almost 30 after all…)

The next morning we were up by 6 and out the door exploring by 7. We walked, and walked, and walked some more, taking in all the shops, sites, and sounds of the beautiful San Juan!

Very pretty beaches
Very pretty beaches

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The pier in downtown San Juan (known as Condado)
The pier in downtown San Juan (known as Condado)

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Lots of these forts all around... (but just wait till you see them in the Old City)
Lots of these forts all around… (but just wait till you see them in the Old City)
Great breakfast at this charming French Bakery
Great breakfast at this charming French Bakery
Drinks at the Hilton
Drinks at the Hilton

One thing that I was surprised about is that we were able to walk into the back of these nice resorts (comfy hammocks, padded lounge chairs, gorgeous pools- right on the beach) without any one giving us a second look. I don’t know if this was the norm, but I can’t imagine laying out on a public beach when the private ones we so accessible!

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Pigeons EVERYWHERE

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We walked A LONG WAY that morning and I was wearing way too cheap of flip-flops. (Note to self- invest in comfortable walking shoes next time!) I was dehydrated and a bit on the grouchy side by the time we left to meet Kara at the airport. But once again, it was short lived, b/c everything was going off without a hitch!

We decided to go from the airport (where we met Kara) straight to the Island, which is about an hour from San Juan to Fajardo, the ferry station, and then another hour via the ferry to the island. Vieques island that is- a charming little spot in the middle of the Ocean that seems worlds away from the bustling city of San Juan. In order to get to Fajardo we had the option of taking a cab, the bus, or hiring a private driver. I thoroughly researched all of these options and am thrilled with the one that we took. John, our FABULOUS driver, was awesome. He loaded up all of our stuff and knew all the short cuts to the ferry dock. He was very very nice and even more- affordable! Only $65! I would highly recommend doing this b/c word is that cabs can really rip you off and the buses are apparently terrible.

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We got to the ferry dock in plenty of time to catch the 4:00 to the island. There’s not a lot to do in the ferry station so we walked to this little restaurant/hole in the wall down the road and ordered some delicious cuban sandwiches and $1.25 Medello’s. Fajarado is not the cleanest, nicest, or prettiest place I’ve ever visited- and bugs were everywhere. It felt the most foreign of all the places we went- and I did not love.

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pretty delicious
pretty delicious

We arrived on the Island around 5:30 and it was night and day different than San Juan. No big hotels or fancy restaurants- this place was unspoiled beauty at its finest. Gorgeous beaches, quaint little colorful houses, and very friendly smiling faces everywhere. We were within walking distance from our guest house, the Casa Di Amistad, so we hiked up a few hills (which 3 large bags, not the funnest) and waited on Julie, the house mom, to get back to let us in.

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Once again, I really loved our lodgings. Super cute, bohemian chic and very affordable. We booked a room with two double beds, private bathroom, and little living room/sitting area for just over $90/night! It had a shared kitchen, library, TV room, and awesome outdoor pool.

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We were still pretty tired and it started to get dark right away so we decided to walk to the local grocery store and make our own meal the first night instead of getting lost exploring the island in the dark. We reserved a jeep for bright and early the next morning and began studying the map of various beaches on the island… There were probably 20 unique beaches in all and each known for various reasons- some were good snorkeling spots, others were very secluded, some for the black sand, etc. We made some friends at the guest house and sat up drinking and laughing until bedtime around midnight. So far so good Vieques!

The next morning a non-English speaking lady picked us up early and drove us to our jeep rental. They were very friendly and once again, affordable! I think it ended up costing about $60 for 24 hours, not including gas. The island is only 20 sq miles though so not a big trek from one spot to another.

Kara was our driver
Kara was our driver
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Snorkeling 101

Here is a gallery of the sites and sounds of beautiful Vieques. We spent the day exploring and were so impressed with its simple beauty. There was nothing fancy about this place- it felt very remote, almost third worldish. I absolutely loved it and couldn’t get over the wild horses grazing next to us as we drove by! A surreal experience for sure…

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dscn0826One particular MUST DO when visiting Vieques is to take a guided tour of the famous Bio-Bay- a huge pool of water that literally glows from these tiny micro-ogranisms known as bioluminescent dinoflagellates. We met Abe and his wife (Abe’s Bio Bay Tours- the best!) with a crew of people and rode in the back of a pick-up truck to this secluded beach (swarming with misquitos- which was pretty miserable), stripped down to our bikinis, and paddled kayak style to the middle of the bay. With each stroke we realized more and more light was coming from below- the water was glowing!!! It looked like sparkling crystals streaming down your body. (Kara and I actually got in!)

Our one picture does not do it justice (and please ignore random guy in foreground!) Definitely worth the $25 fee for the tour!

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Leaving Vieques

Beautiful day for a boat ride!
Beautiful day for a boat ride!

So after two relaxing and adventurous days in Vieques we were refreshed and ready to experience the night life of San Juan over the weekend. We coordinated with our wonderful driver (John- highly recommended) to meet us at the ferry dock in Fajardo and drive us back into the city. He kindly dropped us off in front of our condo in Condado and we were again very happy with the choice. The view was AMAZING- we were literally RIGHT on the water!!!

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The Stella Maris condo was not extremely lux by any means but perfect for the 3 of us. It was very safe and smack dab in the middle of everything downtown (much closer than our guest room in Ocean Park on the first night). Once again, I must reiterate the perfection of this view…

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Just gorgeous!
Just gorgeous!

At this point it was close to dinner time and we knew we had to have a night out on the town. Kara’s doctor friend had provided a list of some of the best places in the city and we chose BudaTai as our Friday night destination.

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Chef Travino is famous for being on Iron Chef and his food was simply to die for. Literally- the best tuna, pork, and swordfish any of us had ever tasted! Definitely on the pricey side but WELL worth the money!

Tuna
Tuna
Swordfish
Pork
BudaTai
BudaTai

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While there we met some really cool doctors who were very familiar with the city’s nightlife. They insisted we visit this very festive outdoor bar area (I’m very upset- the name escapes me) and I’m super glad we did. Everyone was out in the streets, dancing to loud Puerto Rican music and having a wonderful time! Everything was within walking distance and I honestly felt very safe…

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Salsa dancing... Or trying...
Salsa dancing… Or trying…

We then headed to the Marriot (which was diagonal to our condo) and continued to dance and enjoy ourselves into the wee hours of the morning! It was a great night!

Marriot Lobby/Dance Floor/Bar
Marriot Lobby/Dance Floor/Bar
Best Sangria's ever!!!
Best Sangria’s ever!!!

Needless to say, the next morning was not the finer… With aching heads we donned our bathing suits and headed to the luxurious Conrad Hotel. (Note- when I am rich, this is where I’ll be staying!!!) The weather was just gorgeous and we needed some sun in a serious way. We lounged around like movie stars for the better part of the morning and afternoon- it was so relaxing!

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(The weather was literally beautiful the entire time. A little on the humid side but nothing compared to Arkansas. Temp was probably high 80′s and we got mega discounts b/c it was supposed to be the “rainy season”. Only rained 1 day!)

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After a quick lunch at yet ANOTHER amazing Puerto Rican eatery (no camera at this location and I forgot the name!!!) we headed back to the condo to try and grab a nap before some evening exploration. I say TRY b/c the condo below us was under construction and no one was able to do any sleeping. Slightly annoyed and VERY exhausted, we summoned up our ‘vacation energy reserve’ and grabbed a cab to Old San Juan…

And that is when I truly fell in love.

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Old San Juan is a totally different city than San Juan. It feels like your in some Caribbean Spain- with the most gorgeous and brightly colored architecture, steep winding streets of aged-blue cobblestone, amazing shopping, delicious restaurants on every corner- and that’s not even mentioning how wonderful the people were! We couldn’t believe this place- it was EXTRAORDINARY in every since of the word!

We spent the rest of the afternoon and late into the night exploring every facet of the city- and left (sadly) feeling like we’d only seen glimpses of it’s treasures. You definitely need 3-4 days to play in Old San Juan… Below is a gallery of some of the homes, shops, museums, forts, statues, and downtown festivities within the walled city…

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Before we headed back to our condo in San Juan we ate at yet another traditional PR restaurant and ordered yet another plate of one of our favorite dishes, Mofongo.

Mofongo is made from fried green plantains which is mashed together with broth, garlic, olive oil, and pork cracklings or bits of bacon then filled with vegetables, chicken, crab, shrimp, or beef. It’s one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted and miss it MUCH since I’ve been back.

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After such a full day of fun in the sun and tourism Laura and I decided to call it a night and go to sleep early. Kara, being the oldest and somehow one with the most energy, was adamant on more Salsa dancing and headed out for a night on the town. She had a blast- we worked on a special project to ensure our sleeping in…

View was great- 6 am sunlight, not so great.
View was great- 6 am sunlight, not so great.

The next morning we awoke around 10 and rented a car at Charlies Car Rental. It was time for another trip and I was secretly dreading it… The El Yunque Rain Forrest. Why dread you ask? Because forests, especially RAIN forests, are the perfect hiding place for my biggest phobia- snakes. However, this fear was totally unfounded… It poured so bad that we didn’t get to hike any trails!

Biggest bummer of our trip but why were we surprised- it rains there almost 100% of the time. We ended up driving up the mountain and taking a few breaks at some of the sights along the way. It was still worth it- only a 45 minute drive from the city and it was nice to have a car again.

Gorgeous waterfall!
Gorgeous waterfall!
Tons of unique vegetation
Tons of unique vegetation
100 year old castle at the top of the mountain
100 year old castle at the top of the mountain
view from the top
view from the top

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The rain behind us
The rain behind us- and terribly unflattering picture of all of us!

It was extremely beautiful and I’m sure most nature lovers would have dressed a little more for the weather… Or not cared about the frizziness of their hair. Either way- still super glad we were able to experience it! Plus, we had many more sites to see and only 1.5 days left of our trip!

We hurried back to the city and changed in time to take yet another ferry (this time from old San Juan) to tour the Bacardi Rum Factory, or the Casa Bacardi. It was pretty interesting… We learned how to make different drinks, saw the huge gallon drums of molasses used to make the rum, and then the bottling factory- where hundreds of millions of bottles were packaged and shipped every year. My favorite part of the tour was of course the tasting at the end!

The famous Barcardi Bat
The famous Barcardi Bat
Making Mojoitos
Making Mojoitos
Bottling factory
Bottling factory
Meg and Kara
Meg and Kara
Delicious!
Delicious!

I purchased a few bottles for gifts and myself (you can’t get the Dragonberry flavor in the States) and we hurried back to San Juan to get ready for dinner.

Trolley leaving the factory
Trolley leaving the factory

Next on our list of must-do restaurants was Marmalade in Old San Juan- completely fabulous in every way. From the beautiful modern setting and exceptional service to the out-of-this-world white bean soup (compliments of the chef!) and gourmet entrees, we were ready to spend the night! dscn0912

We stuffed ourselves silly and then headed to one of the only open bars in the city (it was Sunday night).

There we had great drinks and met our friend Francisco, a landscape architect and engineer (is that possible?) we who awesome in every way. We ended up spending most of the night at his place since the bars were virtually empty. Kara was able to practice her dance moves with a born and raised Puerto Rican and Laura and I entertain ourselves with the “make this reaction for the camera” game. It was all-in-all a great night and we couldn’t wait to come back in the morning!

Franco was a Salsa Expert!
Franco was a Salsa Expert!

Laura's "just met the Morman of her dreams" face
Laura’s “just met the Morman of her dreams” face

My "my baby daddy just proposed at the rodeo" face
My “my baby daddy just proposed at the rodeo” face

Kara's "Just nominated for African prom queen" face
Kara’s “Just nominated for African prom queen” face

From Franco's stairwell
From Franco’s stairwell

dscn0993 Fun times! The next morning was very exciting- we finally got to leave our condo in San Juan and check into our final destination, Da House Hotel in Old San Juan!!! It was so nice to be in the old city- and this hotel was just my style. Super classy AND affordable- the furniture, artwork, service, and decor was beautiful, and while it lacked the continental breakfast, elevator, and general hotel amenities (coffee pot, iron, hair dryer, etc) it was perfect for 3 girls on a budget- and right in the middle of town!

Da House Lobby
Da House Lobby

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The day was spent doing lots and lots of shopping- and we barely covered 3 blocks! There are awesome boutiques on every corner, from beautiful jewelry (Ginny sold us some beautiful glass necklaces and rings) to art to clothing and everything in between. It was definitely a shopaholics dream!

Getting ready to go out for our last night in Puerto Rico!
Getting ready to go out for our last night in Puerto Rico!

Our final night was spent at yet another amazing restaurant, La Madre’s, about 2 blocks from our hotel. The interior was super sophisticated and beautiful, with brightly colored walls, shabby chic tables, and a well lit and fully equipped bar in the middle of the room. The food and margaritas (only $5 for a wide variety of flavors) were even better! It was a bit sad to know this was our last night in the city we had fallen so madly in love with, yet we knew we had picked the perfect place to spend it.

La Madre's- Old San Juan
La Madre’s- Old San Juan

Meg, Kara, Laura
Meg, Kara, Laura

Passion Fruit Margarita- Yum Yum!
Passion Fruit Margarita- Yum Yum!

My favorite cousin ever!
My favorite cousin ever!

Meg and Lu
Meg and Lu

After several drinks and extremely full bellies we met up with our friend Franscisco and some of his friends at another great restaurant/bar, Tantra. It was Indian cuisine and the interior fit the theme perfectly. Vibrant colors and lighting, dark mahogany furniture and beautiful Indian music gave the place a totally authentic feel… We stayed up late and enjoyed great conversations and laughter with our much loved Puerto Rican friends. They were the best!

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Franciscopresenting us…

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Cheers to you Old San Juan!
Cheers to you Old San Juan!

The night ended late and we all fell asleep feeling very much at home in this enchantingly beautiful land…

Day 8 of our trip- Tuesday- came way too early. We had to be the airport at 2 but still felt there was so much left to see. We left our hotel bright and early to catch the trolley to some of the forts around the city. It was hot and we were tired… Coffee was number one todo list for the morning.

Kara leaving Da House hotel
Kara leaving Da House hotel

espresso shots
espresso shots

cute coffee bar
cute coffee bar

The forts on the island are very very old and give the place its European/Spanish vibe as much as the architecture and stone streets of downtown. There are several of them but we only had time to tour the largest, The Castillo de San Cristóbal.

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The Spaniards built this in 1783 to protect against land based attacks on the city of San Juan. It overlooks the massive ocean and feels towering and somewhat menacing once inside. The walk to the front gates took a loooong time but we were glad we drug ourselves out to experience it on our final day.

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Below is a photo gallery of photos from inside the fort and around the city our final day…

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We were exhausted by the time our cab met us at Da House to take our mounds of luggage to the airport. We were very sad to leave but knew Puerto Rico had been the experience of a lifetime! I encourage everyone to take a trip to La Isla del encanto. I know the three of us will be coming back to visit in the very near future!!! Thanks for such a wonderful time!

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