Magellan’s Solo Trip to Puerto Rico: Why I Never Made it Out of San Juan
Second Subtitle: How to Free Your Inner Lazy-A**
I finally got it together long enough to post this trip report. I spent a week this summer in San Juan, Puerto Rico. And it was a mighty damn good week!
For those Fodorites out there who have read my previous trip reports, this was yet another first for me: this was the very first “tropical” vacation that I’ve ever taken, e.g. one that involved lying around on the beach.
For me, a “vacation” means running around non-stop – usually in a very expensive European city – to every single museum and historical spot I can find (something that I actually plan to do again this November). On every trip I’ve taken so far, I’ve walked so much that I can barely make it from the bed to the bathroom at the end of the day. I’ve never really even considered a beach vacation.
Honestly, I’ve avoided going anywhere tropical due to two rather daunting challenges: 1) I have a tendency to burn easily (read: FRY) when I’m in the sun for more than 15 minutes, and 2) I have a hard time sitting still long enough to enjoy the beach. In fact, the mere thought of sitting around doing nothing at all usually makes me start twitching and bouncing off the walls. But this time I was determined.
To tackle challenge #1:
I spent the week before my trip attempting to get some “base color," e.g. tanning in my living room. Whever I saw a strip of sunlight, I ran to that spot and laid there on the floor without moving until it went away. (You’d be surprised how much sun comes through the fog on certain days in San Francisco!). This strategy paid off because I did actually achieve some base color and was subsequently able to withstand several hours of sun once I got to the island. The 50 SPF sunscreen, plenty of hats and sunglasses, and a strategically placed beach umbrella also helped a bit. (God bless those cabana boys for dragging my beach chair umbrella around the beach every day!). The end result: after a week in Puerto Rico, I got a REAL TAN! My first one since 1989!
The bigger challenge was #2.
Prior to my trip, I struggled daily with this question: “Can I, Magellan, actually go on a tropical getaway and RELAX?”
My friends all bet against me (bastards!) and said there was no way in hell I’d be able to do it. Well, long story short, I’m proud to say that I was eventually able to relax, and I successfully managed to “lounge” on the beach for several days in a row. In fact, I was so relaxed let’s just say that by the end of the trip it was a miracle that I actually roused my lazy a** long enough to get to the airport and come home.
I know, I know – you’re wondering, “Wow, that crazy type-A, latte-clutching, multi-mile running Magellan does it again! How did you manage to relax, Magellan? What’s your secret? Please tell us, oh wise sage.”
The answer, my friend, is simple: ALCOHOL. And lots of it. The trick, though, is that it must AT ALL COSTS be carried to you by a smiling cabana boy. Frequently. And I mean VERY frequently. That’s my secret for a successful beach vacation. At no point in time during said vacation should you even consider sobering up.
FROM BIG PLANS TO NO PLANS
Let me tell you, I had big plans – BIG plans, sister! I had a 22-page itinerary with activities planned down to the second. I had plans to head to all sorts of places on the island: I was going to rent a car, drive to Ponce, head to Rincon and take surfing lessons, then head to the bio-bay, and, oh yeah, I was going to go and see the rainforest.
But when I arrived at my hotel, I stopped dead in my tracks. The first thing I saw was that marvelous turquoise water – I’ve never in my life seen anything that color. Then my toes screamed in delight at the soft white sand – it was like being caressed with warm velvet. Oh, and that breeze, the way it tossed the palm trees gently back and forth. I was mesmerized. And then - like an angel descending from heaven – all of a sudden a hand came down toward me bearing the most glorious piña colada I’d ever seen. It was love at first sight.
(Cue sound of record screeching soundtrack to a halt). But then I woke up. “No, no!” I said. "This is all wrong!” I was on VACATION! I had THINGS TO DO!
The next morning, I insisted on sticking to my old ways with grim resolve. I made myself get up early and I headed to Old San Juan. Yes, it was totally worth it – the old city is spectacular. And yes, I successfully executed the appointed vacation tasks, e.g. to see everything I possibly could in an 8-hour period, to walk until my feet bled, and to take 350-Photos-That-I-Will-Never-Look-At-Again.
Oh, I played my role well. I happily admired the quaint, historical architecture. I reveled in the glorious fort. I stared in slightly frightened awe at La Perla. I wandered in and out of all of the wonderful little arts and crafts stores. I sampled tasty fried delights, iced coconut milk, and stuffed myself silly with plantains and mofongo. I did some serious walking that first, misguided day. And I fully intended to continue at break-neck speed for the next week.
However….just as when images of a particularly gifted lover pop into your head at the most inopportune moments (usually during an important presentation at work), so was the case here: images of that sparkling water, that silky sand, those palm trees swaying in the soft breeze, AND THAT GLISTENING PINA COLADA kept rudely intruding into my well-organized mind. ALL DAY LONG….Pop! Right into my head they appeared, completely disrupting my best laid plans. And. They. Would. Not. Stop.
So, after battling myself for hours on end, I finally surrendered. With full knowledge of what I was about to do, I tossed my pristine itinerary into the nearest bin. I crawled shamelessly on my hands and knees back to that beach, parked my rump in the first beach chair I saw, and didn’t move for the next six days.
My Inner Lazy-A** was free, and there was no going back.
Ok, ok. I know there are some of you out there who are tired of hearing about my self-indulgent battle with uptight inner demons. You want the real details – where I stayed, what I ate, etc. This part is for you.
AIRLINE AND THAT BIT Honestly, I have no recollection of what airline I used or how I got from the airport to the guesthouse (I think maybe I took a cab). All I remember about the flight was that when we landed in San Juan, almost everyone on the plane claped and cheered. The local who sat next to me said you can always tell who the Puertorriqueños are because when they come home to their beloved island they can’t help but cheer when they see it.
TIP Before I forget....when you’re leaving San Juan to go home, remember to get your luggage stamped by the U.S. Agriculture Dept BEFORE you stand in line at the ticket counter to check in your luggage. It really sucks if you forget to do this first.
Sitting on the balcony outside my room, watching the fantastic sunset, listening to the coqui frogs sing their nightly song. Strolling along the shoreline in the early morning, bare feet in the warm water. Munching on plantain chips with an ice cold beer. Eating coconut flavored ice cream. Feeling happy to be stuck on a bus for an hour because downtown traffic had completely stopped when Johnny Depp’s entourage went by during the filming of The Rum Diaries (No, I didn’t actually see him…but still. I was so close!)
WHERE I STAYED
The road to relaxation was made easier thanks to my fabulous lodgings. I stayed for a week at a Fodor’s Choice recommendation, the Numero Uno Guest House in the Ocean Park neighborhood of San Juan - RIGHT ON THE BEACH! Thanks to the wonderful staff, this was by far the most relaxing beach vacation I've ever had (Oh wait, this WAS the first beach vacation I’d ever had). The staff members and the owners were very professional, but also friendly and fun – full of good tips and information. I really did feel like a guest in a very posh home. The restaurant was tops – pricey, but totally worth it for a splurge on a romantic dinner (with myself) on the beach. They also gave me a coupon when I paid my bill on my last night, which covered part of the cost of the dinner – a very nice touch.
Numero Uno Guesthouse is the perfect place for a solo trip, a romantic getaway, a honeymoon, or fun weekend with a few good friends. I loved it!
LOCATION: PROS AND CONS
Both the best and worst part of staying in Ocean Park was the location. It’s absolutely fantastic if you never intend to leave the beach. However, if you want to be around constant night life and want to have it all at your front door, then you might be better off staying in old town or near the casino area.
Ocean Park itself is totally safe, and I was never harassed or bothered once. Most people were great. If I could think of one word to describe the people I met in Puerto Rico it would be FUN. Almost everyone I met seemed to be happy, fun, relaxed, and friendly. I was amazed at how many people I saw partying and dancing and having a good time – of course, I was on the beach so that might have had something to do with it.
However, I discovered upon venturing out on foot at night for nearby restaurants that there were places where I felt really on edge, (e.g. at night going down Loiza to Bebo's). My advice is that if you stay in Ocean Park and you're walking alone, trust your instincts, keep your wits about you, bring your cell phone (with the number for Numero Uno pre-programmed in) and don't drink before venturing out in the neighborhood alone. No need to be afraid all (I went out almost every night to dinner alone – see FOOD below) but by all means be alert. That said, I was never bothered at all and there were police everywhere.
I asked one of the locals about the police and if that meant it was unsafe. He said that the area was perfectly safe because everyone there knows that the police “come down really hard” on criminals that harass tourists. He said the community stays afloat because of tourism, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to leave the tourists alone. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it sounded good to me.
At any rate -as a solo female - I usually like to stay in areas where there’s a lot of foot traffic and an easily accessible night life – e.g. places that are easy to walk around in/from/and to. Practically speaking, if I had to do it over again, I would have stayed a few nights in Old Town first so that I could go out at night easily. Then I would have spent the second half of my trip at Numero Uno on relaxing on the beach.
FOOD On those rare days when blood was actually circulating in my veins instead of alcohol (those were the days that I managed to shower and dress) let the truth be told: I did actually make my way to several great restaurants in the Ocean Park and Isla Verde areas. My absolute favorites:
Casa Dante – By far the best Creole-chicken-mofongo thing that I had on my entire trip.
Bebo’s – I walked to Bebo’s from the guest house all by my lonesome (not the most pleasant walk. Tip: Walk down McLeary, NOT Loiza). The restaurant was a bit (ahem) “aesthetically-challenged,” so I expected the food to be not-so-good. To my surprise, the chicken mofongo was fabulous! And the sangria was amazing. Go, Bebo’s! Good place to bring a family too– very kid-friendly and lots of families there.
Yee Yu’s – Not far from Bebo’s on Loiza. This place was GREAT. Nice atmosphere, fantastic food. I had the plantain chips, and the Monday night special which was this beef and raisin thing. Divine! The wait staff were really friendly and helpful. SO GOOD!
Kesalta (of course): I ate at Kesalta the most because by the end of the trip, the cab fare back and forth to the restaurants cost me so much that I ended up just getting sandwiches to go from Kasalta and eating them on the 2nd floor balcony of the guesthouse. The generous helping of pickles that came with turkey club sandwich were the closest that I came to eating a vegetable the entire time.
CAB: Cab fares was my biggest gripe, as it was about $15-$17 each way to certain places like Condado and Isla Verde. So my “cheap” dinner of $25 turned out to be about $65 a night due to the added cab fare. That sucked for someone traveling solo. If you have someone to split the cab fare with, then it’s totally worth it.
BUS: I took the bus EVERYWHERE during the day (Thank you, Nice Bus Driver of line C53!) The C53 bus picks you up just across from the laundry mat & corner liquor store a block or two up the street. Make sure that you have tons of quarters/change because the bus driver does not have change (75 cents a ride, no transfers).
LIQUOR AND OTHER ESSENTIAL ITEMS (Ok, let’s be honest here: are there really any other essential items besides liquor?) Little liquor store is 2 blocks away on the corner and Walgreen's about 4 blocks away. Internet is about 5 blocks away inside a little post office type place - it’s about $3.75 for 15 minutes or so (they’re only open until 5pm – no printing).
A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS
Ok, so I’m not totally selfish in my claims about my ability to relax. As a matter of fact, I owe a lot to those wonderful people down there in San Juan who helped me out. In addition to the cabana boys and the fabulous folks at Numero Uno, my journey into relaxation was also assisted by the following people:
*Crazy –Friturra-Guy-with-the-Chef’s-Hat-Who-Shouts-“Hello”-30-Times-a-Day. This guy was a hoot. He provided fantastic beef and chicken fritturas and other treats right on the beach for $3 (not to mention his kind offer to share a sip of his sangria out of an old beer bottle- thanks but I’ll pass). Excellent food - and the gentleman certainly knows how to put on a good show. Just bring your earplugs with you on Sundays, when the party is in full force on the beach and the “Hello” he belts out will start to grate on your every last nerve.
*Sane-Empanada-Guy-with-the-Cop-Glasses. He sells the loveliest, flakiest fritturas and empanadas and brings them right to you in your beach chair– also for a mere $3. Again, really excellent flavor. Don’t let the cop glasses scare you –the guy’s a real gem.
*I’m also indebted to Agua-Y-Cerveza-Man, who – with great care – brought ice cold beer right to me on the beach first thing in the morning (Wait, is that wrong?). In other words, as you may have noticed I didn’t have even have to get up off my a** in order to eat or drink. On the whole, I’d say this was a very satisfying experience.
*Frowning-Counter-Girl at Kasalta, whose disgruntled demeanor only added to the charm of eating ham and eggs out of a Styrofoam container. Kesalta is perfect for when you can’t stand another empanada and you just want to throw on your shorts and hat and run down the street for a bite. TIP: Try a Coco Rico, coconut flavored soda pop. Yummy!
*And, last but not least, I’d like to thank "Estefan"-the-Flirty-Liquor-Store-Guy who acted like it was some kind of compliment to tell me that I needed to watch my diet (!) This, at the very same moment that he happily took my money after charging me $15 for a tiny bag of baked (BAKED, I tell you!) Lay’s potato chips and a six pack of Medalla (the aftermath of which left me half-baked). Although Estefan's comment did make me realize that it might be time to get up off my bum and go running in order to burn off the 27 beers I’d consumed that week, I’d also just like to say (for the record) UP YOURS, Estefan!
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL So, long story short on this wonderful trip to San Juan, I finally learned how to relax. I made peace with the fact that sometimes a vacation doesn’t always have to be about how many things you can cram in to one day. Sometimes, throwing your itinerary right out the window is the best medicine on earth. There’s something to be said for just being still for days at a stretch, staring out at a brilliant, multi-colored sunset and contemplating the perfect blend of coconut and rum. Sometimes it’s more important to free your Inner Lazy-A**. Yep, sometimes that’s all you need.
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Magellan’s Solo Trip to Puerto Rico: Why I Never Made it Out of San Juan
Magellan’s Solo Trip to Puerto Rico: Why I Never Made it Out of San Juan