Puerto Rico - Vieques, Isla Bonita (y Mofongonita)
We recently took a trip (my second) to Puerto Rico. I went there with my best friend 7 years ago and it still holds out as one of my favorite trips of all time. We met new friends, we explored the island together, we drank Puerto Rican rum and talked for hours on the roof of our hotel, we danced and island hopped and swam in the sea in the middle of the night. It was magical! So I brought Dino this time.
The high season is during the winter when northerners flock to warmer climes and the islands aren't in their rainy season. But if you're looking for a deal, Puerto Rico is a cheap flight away during its off-season, May-September. Hotels and Airbnbs are also a steal!
16 hours in Old San Juan
As our flight arrived mid-day, we decided to stay one night in a hotel in Old San Juan. Da House is right at the gateway to Old San Juan. While The Ritz it's surely not, it has a quaint charm and its location, steps away from Castillo de San Cristobal, the largest Spanish fort in the Americas, can't be beat if you want to explore Old San Juan. Inside, the floors are decorated with gorgeous tiles and sun streams through huge skylights. Some rooms are very small so request a larger one if you need it but be aware that Da House also sits atop a very popular live music venue, Nuyorican Cafe, so rooms on the second floor facing out onto the street often shake with the beat of the salsa music playing below. Rooms start at $89 a night and the view from the rooftop pool is lovely day and night.
Our first day we wandered a bit through the streets of Old San Juan up Calle Norzagaray which snakes up from the fort along the ocean to Punta del Morro, the northernmost tip of Old San Juan. This is a beautiful part of the city. A huge green lawn stretches out over Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzi, a beautiful cemetery by the sea. At the top stands Felipe del Morro Fortress which looks out over the channel of San Juan Bay. It's the perfect place for a picnic!
The streets of Old San Juan are paved with gorgeous blue cobblestones and the architecture features brightly painted Spanish colonial homes. There is gorgeous vegetation everywhere you look! Old San Juan is only a few square blocks so walking it is easy and orienting yourself is quick. Caleta de San Juan leads down to the city gate on Bahia San Juan and I found to be the most charming street I have ever seen.
Old San Juan is full of all kinds of cuisine so do your research! Our first night we decided to try Punta de Vista, a Puerto Rican bar & restaurant on the top floor of the Hotel Milano. It's a totally casual dining experience but it features a great view of Old San Juan and a decent sized patio. Unfortunately, it rained just as we sat down so we had to move inside. I ordered the mofongo with pork smothered in an outrageously good garlic sauce. Mofongo is the national dish of Puerto Rico. The base is made from mashed green plantains, fried with chicharrones and stuffed with a meat or seafood and topped with a sauce, usually sofrito. I had it many different ways on this trip and will be trying my hand at it soon, so look for it on the blog!
The next morning we decided on breakfast at La Bombonera, a family run restaurant that has been going strong for over 100 years! Their specialty, mallorca, is a swirled sweet bun that they fill with either savory (eggs, jamon, cheese) or sweet ingredients and served as a sandwich. They also have wonderful jet fuel coffee to get you going with your day! I highly recommend this place for breakfast. The inside was recently renovated but maintains its colonial charm.
There are two ways to get to Vieques from San Juan: catch a hopper plane at San Juan airport or drive to Fajardo take the ferry. We booked an Uber to Fajardo which cost about $75 and then purchased the $2 a piece tickets for the ferry ride. We were told to get there early but I didn't think waiting in line for an hour was worth the trouble. We left on a Tuesday and the ferry wasn't packed. I'm sure on the weekends or during high season it's a different story but if you're there during the off-season, find the ferry schedule and try to show up a few minutes before the ferry is set to leave. The ferry sets you down in Vieques, the small port town and from there you can catch a taxi or a "bus" to your destination. The busses are vans that take groups around the island for a minimal fee. I think we spent $6 to get to Esperanza where we were staying at the south side of the island.
Malecon House is situated on Calle Flamboyan directly on the sea along Esperanza's malecon or boardwalk. We were expecting a beachfront but the beach here is too narrow for lounging and swimming, however, Malecon House has a small pool and Playa La Esperanza is just a few short blocks away. If you are looking for a relaxing getaway, I cannot recommend Vieques enough. The whole island is tiny enough to bike so we never felt rushed to get things done.
I think Esperanza boasts the islands most happening night scene but during the off-season, it was nice and quiet. The malecon is dotted with restaurants and bars and a few hotels and hostels. I felt like we got to try most of them during our 3-day stay. Bananas had the best cocktails by far. I'm not one for sugary drinks, but when in PR you have to have a pina colada (or 5) and this place had the best one I've ever had.
The next day we rented a scooter from Fun Brothers just down the road from the hotel and decided to explore the east side of the island and the beaches within the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. It's a fun ride by scooter or car. Along the way, you will probably run into one or more of the islands many wild horses. Our first stop was at Playa La Chiva, a long beach with many different roads leading to private spots. It felt as though we had our own private beach! We were practically alone as the day was a bit cloudy but the sea was warm and we snorkeled among the sea grasses and I saw my first wild stingray! On the other side of the bay at Punta Conejo, the beach is made up of dead coral. You can see remnants of a once healthy reef now above water in some places. We followed the road back to the fishing access road and snorkeled around a very rocky bit which has no name but where we saw brain corals, fan corals, spiny lobsters, tons of different brightly colored fish and gorgeous urchins. There are plenty of beaches to choose from and the beaches along the southern coast are said to be some of the most beautiful in the Caribbean so spend a day scootering along and beach hopping.
After a quick lunch, we rode the other direction to find Playa Negra, the islands only black sand beach. I say find because we passed the entrance, ran into a family who was also searching for it, then ran into another group of friends who were also having trouble finding it. Blink and you'll miss it because the entrance is set along the road far from the beach. To get there you park at a dip and curve in the road with a small sign that reads, "Welcome to Playa Negra" and walk through the jungle for about 20 minutes. The sand is fine like silt. There is a large area where you can camp out for the day but we had done enough swimming so we walked along the cliffs to the right as far as we could go. If you love collecting shells, this is the place to do it. We found gorgeous marbled remnants of conch shells and bright yellow clam shells. It was a very dramatic walk.
The next day, a huge storm hit the island and the rain was coming down in sheets. It was to be expected during the rainy season. We had a bit of a hard time getting a refund for the scooter as we had rented it for 2 days so I would recommend renting one day at a time. We had some lunch along the malecon and some drinks and took it easy the rest of the day. We had dinner at Rancho Choli, a tiny little spot "off the beaten path" and away from the malecon. It's run by a Puerto Rican couple and served up home-cooked authentic dishes. We had the pibil, stewed pork and a whole red snapper. Everything was served with rice and beans and these were possibly the best beans I've ever eaten. The rain was coming down all around us - the table are open air but covered - but the food was great and the music and company perfect.
That night, after the rain, we booked a trip out to Mosquito Bay, the bioluminescent bay I have been dying to see since I first learned about it. Through preservation and education, they have restored the bay to its natural glory. Conditions here make it the brightest bio bay in the world! We found Taino Aqua Adventures through our hotel and ended up getting a private tour of the bay. Juanito picked us up near our hotel and drove us out to the private road leading to the mangrove where all of the islands tour companies have their kayaks docked. At first, it seems like a trick of the light - some electric lamp glinting off the water, perhaps? Once our eyes adjusted to the dark, we realized that the water was literally glittering beneath and all around us. We had timed it perfectly - it was a new moon, after a rain and on a particularly dark, cloudy night. The dinoflagellates, microscopic organisms that glow blue when agitated by movement, fill the top few feet of water in the bay. Unfortunately, the phenomenon can only be detected by special cameras so I have no pictures of the experience but let me emphasize how magical this excursion was!!! Our tour guide was so knowledgeable and explained in great detail the reason for the brightness of the bay. We paddled out for an hour into complete darkness, every oar stroke glowing, fish darting beneath us perfectly visible in their glowing halos. Juanito said that the best is when you can see a group of baby sting rays. I was in heaven.
The next day we had lunch at Bili, a seafood place that has some of the best reviews on the island. In August, they are only open Thursday - Sunday. I had read really good things about it so I was excited to try it. Here I experienced an interesting take on mofongo. Our appetizer was a plate of bite sized mofongo made with cassava and cilantro aioli - amazing! For my main, I ordered the conch salad with tostones. I have had conch only a few times before and mostly fried and not prepared well, but this was fresh and tender and oh so deliciously briney!!! My husband ordered a burger that was so thick he couldn't bite into it!
Then we went for a run along the main road back towards Playa Negra and picked up a stray pup along the way. He ran with me all the way back to the hotel. The stray dogs and cats beg at the cafes along Malecon and usually, the restaurant owners don't mind letting them hang out. They really aren't a bother.
The last evening I was torn between El Blok and El Quenepo, two restaurants with great reputations and completely different atmospheres. El Blok is in the hotel of the same name with a modern menu and trendy space. El Quenepo is high end but traditional and romantic. We went with this one and I'm very pleased we did. Yes, I ordered mofongo again, and this one was the best I had on the trip and one I am going to try to recreate on the food blog! The name (El Quenepo) comes from the tiny lime-like fruit that is native to the island. The space is beautiful with soft lighting and tall shuttered windows draped in gauzy fabric.
We started with a delicious tuna poke with cassava chips. My mofongo was made with jack fruit and cassava, making it lighter than the traditional plantain variety, scented with fried cumin seed and loaded with seafood sofrito. The portions are huge so come hungry!
The next day we returned to the main island for three days in Old San Juan and a visit to the gorgeous rainforest, El Yunque all coming up in Part 2!