Postcards: Puerto Rico
I jumped on the opportunity for a quick getaway this past week with my daughter, whose schedule otherwise has her hopping across states here and countries overseas.
A quick search for a location offering what we wanted -- predictable sun, water sports, beachfront hotels and reasonable air fares -- led us to Puerto Rico, a place I last visited 30 years ago.
Puerto Rico has had its troubles. In early May, the territory filed for bankruptcy-like protection in order to restructure some $70 billion in debt and stabilize an economy that’s been slumping for years. And in a less-than-resounding election on June 11, its residents said “yes” to statehood, a largely symbolic gesture that is at the very least a first step toward becoming the 51st state, a path many expect would speed its recovery.
We wondered whether the effects of an unsettled Puerto Rico would show on its beaches and had dampened the sunny outlook of its people. Thankfully, we were not disappointed.
My husband joined us for the first leg of the trip, driving two and a half hours west from the airport in San Juan to Rincon, a town of approximately 15,000 nestled in a remote northwest corner of the island (hence the name Rincon, Spanish for “corner”).
Along the way we traveled on roads dotted with burning red-flowered trees I’d never seen before. I later learned that these Flamboyant trees (pronounced “Flamboyan”) are considered Puerto Rican icons. Visitors can find them not only along the roads, where they were originally planted to provide shade for those traveling by horseback, but also as drawn and painted by artists at local markets.
Rincon is best known for its beaches, many of which you have to seek out as they’re hidden by brush and nature.
It’s a mecca for surfers, and local lore has it that some residents first came here for the World Surfing Championships in 1968 and never left their haphazardly constructed beachfront huts.
Think sun-weathered faces, beat up VW vans with surfboards piled on top, tie dye shirts, shell jewelry, tropical fruit and seafood.
You won't find any big chain hotels here, as the town has been largely untouched by commercial development.
On the recommendation of a friend, we stayed for three nights at Tres Sirenas, a gem of a beachfront boutique hotel which, as measured by Trip Advisor, has plenty of returning guests.
Tres Sirenas certainly lived up to the rave reviews, featuring personal touches that make boutique hotels my stay of choice and offering a quiet shoreline with plenty of watersport options. My daughter found great surfing minutes away, while we settled for ocean paddle boarding just steps from our place.
Rincon has a growing and vibrant downtown, with well-reviewed bars and restaurants and also a growing food truck selection. At a farmers market held on Sundays in the town center, surrounded by old churches and local vendors, we met several transplanted New Yorkers, mostly women, who’d settled there, drawn by a low cost of living, amazing weather, and the possibility of making a living hawking their wares.
We could have stayed the entire week in Rincon, but booked plans sent us back east after three nights.
Our return to San Juan brought back the place I remember, glitzy big-name beachfront hotels that offer plenty of reasons not to wander off the property, at a steep price.
We stayed in the Isla Verde neighborhood at the same hotel we visited decades before, the El San Juan, which has been expanded and, happily, updated.
Although part of the Isla Verde scene, the El San Juan manages to maintain an old-world style. Dark wood and low lights fill its cavernous lobby, service folks at the pool and beach don crisp navy and white outfits, and to a person its staff is eager to please.
I set out my first morning doing what I loved to do as a kid growing up two blocks from the beach: walking the shoreline in search of shells and sea glass.
As expected, I passed several high-rise hotels and resorts but then stopped to find out what was behind some pine trees on a flat patch wedged between the buildings.
I've seen plenty of beaches in my life, but this was a first: a cemetery, right on the beach. Talk about living happily ever after in paradise.
As I later learned, local veterinarian Dr. Ramon Fournier Marquez established Cementerio Isla Verde in the 1930s as the first private cemetery in Puerto Rico. If you’re a graveyard person (I’m not), you can read more in this blog post on a site called Adventures in Cemetery Hopping.
San Juan is more than just a collection of beachfront resorts, of course; its old town pre-dates the Mayflower landing in Massachusetts.
We spent an afternoon taking in the sites of Old San Juan and walking its streets, lined now with colorful row houses reminiscent of those in Charleston and in the throes of what appears to be revitalization. Townhouse and building renovation projects were underway nearly everywhere we looked.
We walked the stretch from the well-known Fuerte San Cristobal, a fortress in the truest sense with its high and thick walls buttressing the ocean, to the equally daunting El Morro, which dates back to 1539 and is said to be oldest Spanish fort in the New World. Both offer stunning ocean and city views.
Along the way, we stumbled upon a basketball court tucked in one of the neighborhoods downhill from the forts, proof yet again that wherever our family goes, we find some hoops. This one was named in honor of the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony.
Moving inland, we strolled the streets in search of chocolate – a must find for me, along with bookstores, wherever we go – and stopped in a few shops along the way for some reminders to bring home.
We found chocolate everything at the Casa Cortes ChocoBar, and for the aficionados among us, it did not disappoint. We weren’t quite ready for chocolate-infused entrées, but the frozen drinks were heaven.
And a little further up the street, we found Mi Pequeno San Juan, a small shop that sells hand-painted tiles, magnets, trivets and more that all feature the colorful houses of the old town that had captured my fancy.
Perfect reminders of a place reinventing and re-energizing itself.