“International travel on easy mode”
Let me introduce myself. I am Liz (Christensen) Powell, guest blogger, wedding calligrapher, and daughter of the Amateur Traveler himself. My husband Danny and I got married last month on the Eastern Shore in Maryland and jetted off for a Puerto Rico honeymoon two days later.
We essentially built a wedding venue from the ground up, renting, borrowing, or collecting everything. We planned, created, spray-painted, designed, gathered, or constructed everything in sight. After the wedding for 120, we hosted brunch the next day for 75 of our guests, followed by cleaning, packing, and (this sounds insane now) outlet shopping. We were ready for a break.
Day 1 – Bienvenido a PR
The next day, you could say we were VERY ready for our honeymoon. We landed in sunny San Juan, Puerto Rico around noon, after a quick and easy, direct 3.5-hour flight from D.C. Traveling to Puerto Rico is extremely easy. Since the island is a territory of the U.S., Americans don’t need a passport to get there, the currency is the U.S. dollar, and pretty much everyone speaks English. We used almost no Spanish during our trip (ugly Americans, party of two).
Outside the airport, we grabbed a cab at the taxi stand to our first destination (at a fixed rate of $19 for the 15-20 minute trip), the Marriott in Condado (reviews), the touristy area of San Juan where we spent the first night of our trip.
We arrived at the hotel a couple of hours before the normal check-in time but were able to get into our room right away. We soaked in the 270-degree view from the two(!) balconies of our ocean-view corner room, then I promptly fell asleep. When Danny finally convinced me that I’m not nocturnal, we went to see the concierge for a lunch reservation. He directed us to Orozco’s, where we discovered the wonders of mofongo. Mofongo is a dish of plantains or yucca, mashed, shaped into a dome and fried, and usually accompanied by meat. We had the trifongo, which is a mix of sweet plantains, green plantains, and yucca, and now one of my favorite foods. I will spare you the enumeration of every mofongo we ate but suffice it to say that we ate it 6 out of 7 days of our trip and kept a running ranking of restaurants by the quality of mofongo. Danny also discovered Medalla at Orozco’s, his beer of choice for the trip.
We spent the afternoon back at the Marriott enjoying the pool and the pool bar and strolling along the beach until the Gonzalo got in our way. Tropical Storm Gonzalo was said to be headed toward us, and the weather was looking a bit dicey. The Marriott put notes under each door notifying guests of the situation, and a board in the lobby provided storm updates.
Fun fact: When the island is under a tropical storm warning, it is illegal to sell alcohol.
Due to the foreboding weather, we opted to cross something off our honeymoon bucket list and order room service for dinner. In our room, we discovered a lovely tray of champagne and strawberries and a congratulatory note from the hotel! A Shark Tank marathon and an early night completed the first day of our exciting honeymoon.
Day 2 – Old San Juan
We woke up to a lovely day, with no sign of Gonzalo. Breakfast was included with our stay, so we dined at the hotel restaurant, La Vista. It’s a bit pricey if you’re footing the bill, and there are other options within walking distance, including a Starbucks directly across the street. At breakfast, we learned that Gonzalo had gone on to become a hurricane, with gusts up to 144 mph, and caused significant damage to Bermuda.
Our next stop was La Terraza in Old San Juan, which we reached by taxi. From the Marriott, you can take a taxi to anywhere in Old San Juan (15-20 minutes) for a flat rate of $15. There are city buses, which would have been cheaper, but we were in lazy tourist mode, so we didn’t even consider that option. La Terraza is on a narrow street in Old San Juan, which our taxi driver navigated like a champ. The hotel has the feel of a quirky B&B, with beautiful tile work throughout, a bar at the front desk, and a rooftop infinity pool. Princess, who was manning the desk when we arrived, became our cruise director, spending upwards of 40 minutes with us, showing us every restaurant in town on our map, booking us on a tour of the rainforest, and making our rental car reservation. Once that was all squared away, we set out into Old San Juan.
The main tourist destinations in Old San Juan are the forts, El Morro and San Cristobal, but they were closed on our first day there due to Gonzalo. We explored Old San Juan, with its charming, colorful buildings and gorgeous ocean views. We took a stroll along El Paseo del Morro, around the old city walls. The Paseo is a two-mile path around the West side of town, right along the water. This is as scenic and relaxing as it sounds, except for the cats. Old San Juan has a cat problem. It is an old city with old infrastructure, and the story goes that they would rather have a cat problem than a rat problem, so they spoil the cats rotten. There were bins of food every hundred feet or so, and I am not exaggerating when I say that we saw a hundred cats. I am not a cat person, and these cats look at you like you’ve invaded their turf, so are you going to feed them or what? Any time we stopped to take a picture or read a sign, the cats would start to edge toward us. In a word, creepy. We also saw at least 10 iguanas, but they were happy not to interact with us.
We had dinner at Cafe El Jibarito. A couple of people recommended this place to us, but we were underwhelmed. Soggy plantain tamale, greasy sauces, cafeteria ambiance. Skip it. We overheard the next table asking where the best local ice cream could be found because they had heard that San Juan is known for its gelato. Evidently, this is not true because they were directed to Ben & Jerry’s. Back at the hotel, we took a dip in the rooftop pool overlooking Old San Juan.
Day 3 – El Yunque
We ate breakfast at the hotel Yamile. Our guide from Natural Wonders PR arrived at 9 a.m. to pick us up for our rainforest tour. We collected the rest of the 12-person group from various hotels and drove the 45 minutes to the rainforest, El Yunque. We stopped at the visitors’ center, an observation tower, then a small trail, where we did a quick hike to see three waterfalls. Our next stop was a hike that led to a larger waterfall with a small, crowded swimming area. Neither hike was too strenuous, and Yamile was clearly used to dealing with inept hikers because the pace was quite slow. Normally, the tour involves natural water slides, accessed through private property, but the property owner had been in a small car accident and was unavailable to allow us in.
We made a quick stop by a small river before driving to Luquillo for lunch and beach time. For lunch, Yamile took us to a veritable strip mall of food kiosks, where the options were plentiful and fried. The last destination on our tour was the beach in Luquillo, which was beautiful, calm, and perfect for swimming. The van came to pick us up around 5:30, while some of the group continued on to kayaking in the bioluminescent bay.
The rainforest has no large mammals. In fact, the most exciting animal sighting of our tour was a cat. Yamile was a lovely guide and the tour was certainly informative, but all in all, it was a bit underwhelming for the $85 per person, and we would not recommend it for the intrepid traveler. Were we to redo this part of our trip, we would get the rental car a day early and explore El Yunque at our own pace.
After beach time in Luquillo, Asha, from Natural Wonders PR, drove us back to our hotel. We asked for dinner recommendations, and she suggested Cafe Puerto Rico, so we walked there. She also suggested Cafe El Jiberito, mysteriously enough. At Cafe Puerto Rico, we both ordered mofongo, and while it didn’t rank in the top (Danny’s cod mofongo was disappointing), the restaurant had a pleasant atmosphere and made for a lovely date night.
We ended the evening with an exciting swim in the rooftop pool, with a helicopter circling near and sometimes above our building for at least an hour, searchlight deployed. We did not get murdered, and we never learned what was going on.
Day 4 – El Morro & Rincón
Before our rental car arrived at noon, we walked from La Terraza to El Morro (Castillo San Felipe del Morro), the fort on the Northwestern point of Old San Juan. Let me preface this by telling you that I am not generally crazy about forts. My dad, history buff that he is, is nuts for forts, so I’ve seen my fair share. They are usually pretty low on entertainment value and information, with high entrance prices and nothing but a few placards in the way of information. It was with this mindset that I went into El Morro, and I was quite pleasantly surprised.
5 Reasons El Morro Is Better Than Other Forts I’ve Seen
- Spectacular views – Yes, many forts are on the water, but El Morro is perched high above the beautiful blue ocean, making for some stunning vistas. I took this picture from the bathroom.
- Information – There is more information throughout the fort than in some museums. A series of rooms on the main level tell the story of El Morro’s 400-year life, in all its drama, with each room representing a different time period. There is also a room dedicated to artillery, with cannons, mortars, shells, etc.
- Size – This place is huge. You could play hide and go seek for days and never run out of great hiding spots. There are 6 levels, complete with parade grounds, artillery ramps, stairways of every sort, sentry boxes, and even a lighthouse.
- Stamps – El Morro is part of the San Juan National Historic site, so you can get your National Park passport stamped here.
- Cost – The entry fee was only $5 per person.
We arrived right when the fort opened at 9 a.m., so we beat the heat and the crowds. We read every sign and explored every inch of the fort that we could find, and spent an hour and 45 minutes there. Two thumbs up for El Morro.
After conquering the fort, we stopped by a plaza and found a booth that sold mallorcas – Puerto Rican pastries often filled with sweet or savory filling. We tried the ham and cheese and the guava. They didn’t hold up to the description of La Bombonera’s famous mallorca’s, but they did tide us over for the next leg of our trip.
That afternoon, we picked up our rental car and set off for Rincón. Rincón is a surf town on the West side of Puerto Rico, about 3 hours from San Juan. Driving across the island gave us a taste of Puerto Rico that you can’t get in San Juan. In Rincón, we stayed at Dos Angeles del Mar (reviews), a family-run B&B with a handful of rooms, just a few blocks uphill from the ocean. John, the proprietor, is a New Jersey transplant drawn to Rincón for the surfing. Rincón is famous for its gnarly waves, and the water was especially rough during our visit because of Gonzalo. We experienced this first hand at the beach near our hotel.
For dinner, John recommended the nearby Red Flamboyan. The roads around our hotel were narrow and steep, and we weren’t sure about the parking situation, so we decided it would be easier to walk than drive. We were wrong. This road was not designed for pedestrians, and we had quite an adventure, especially in the pitch black on the way home. Luckily, we arrived in one piece to the restaurant, where the walls were open to the trees around us and the drinks menu was extensive and tropical. Maybe it was the rum drink talking, but this mofongo ranked #1 of our whole trip – beautiful presentation, reasonable prices, super delicious.
Day 5 – Rincón
We started the day with the hotel’s continental breakfast and some pool time. Dos Angeles del Mar has a great pool, and there were never more than two other guests during our stay, so we had the pool completely to ourselves.
Per our host’s recommendation, we sought out a beach with calmer waters, on the Caribbean side of Rincón. We drove 10-15 minutes to downtown Rincón and the nearby Balneario de Rincón (public beach). We spent the day reading and swimming (despite a bit of seaweed), with a mofongo break at Harbor Restaurant right on the beach, which looked closed at first, and a stop at the ice cream parlor across the way. In the afternoon, the tide came up to meet us on the beach and brought with it way too much seaweed for swimming, so we headed back to the hotel.
We spent a few hours enjoying the pool back at Dos Angeles (staying in the water to avoid mosquitos), before strolling down the street to Kahuna Burger Bar and Grill. We arrived around 8 p.m., which happens to be when the cook takes a 1-hour break, so we had rum punch, chatted with the American bartender, and waited. By the time our burgers arrived, so had an influx of American surfer dudes, and the live music was flowing.
Day 6 – Back to San Juan
After a quick breakfast at Dos Angeles, we hopped in the rental car and drove back to San Juan, where we returned the rental car and checked back into the Marriott in Condado. Again, we were able to check in before the standard check-in time, and we had a lovely ocean view room.
We grabbed lunch at Buns, a burger joint across the street from the hotel (tasty), before settling into our lounge chairs by the pool. Aside from a walk on the beach, we spent the afternoon relaxing by the pool, reading books, and enjoying our last full day of sunshine and warmth.
As a nice bookend to our trip, we went back to Orozco’s for dinner. Even after sampling a handful of other mofongos, theirs still held up.
Day 7 – Homeward Bound
We started the last day of our honeymoon with breakfast at the hotel. We were able to get our check out pushed back to noon so we could get some pool time in. We checked out and left our bags in the luggage room so we could stroll around Condado unencumbered. On our walk, we stumbled upon The Place, a hip burger joint with the walls hinged open, giving it an indoor-outdoor feel. Adding to the ambiance were the pigeons, which wandered around the restaurant and kept getting shooed out of the kitchen. The Place has three burger sizes: 4 oz., 8 oz., and 1 lb You customize your burger with whatever toppings you want, from a few different price categories. I ordered a 4 oz. burger, sweet potato fries, and a milkshake, and Danny had an 8 oz. We were somewhat perplexed when all of our burger toppings came on the side (hmm, maybe you could have assembled this in the kitchen?), but the food was yummy, and I enjoyed my tiny burger.
We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging at the Marriott and reading books, before taking a cab to the airport and heading home.
All told, we had a wonderful Puerto Rican honeymoon, complete with sand and sea and sights. The weather was warm and beautiful, the food was delicious, and travel was easy. What’s not to love?
Thanks to Marriott in Condado for hosting the honeymooners for a couple of nights… and for chocolate strawberries!