My heart is breaking for Puerto Rico right now. Images of San Juan and the devastation left behind by Hurricane Maria are stupefying. Some places in the city are feet under water. They say it might be months before power is restored to the island.
So let me continue to tell you about how wonderful this place is and hope that we do everything we can to rebuild and restore this magical place.
When we arrived back in Old San Juan we checked into our beautiful colonial flat on Calle San Jose which was perfectly situated to navigate the town with ease. We walked around the town again, this time exploring the inner streets of the old town. I absolutely love the aesthetic of Old San Juan with its blue cobblestone streets and a mixture of newly plastered and brightly painted building alongside facades that are chipping away to reveal layers of paint and brick beneath.
Our first full day back on the main island, we rented a car from the airport and drove east to the only tropical rainforest in our national parks system, El Yunque National Park. There are lots of trails to enjoy, with varying degrees of difficulty and points of interest so do some research before you go to decide which trail is best for you. One of the more popular hikes is La Mina trail as it ends at a waterfall and pool in which tourists are encouraged to swim. It was a hike I had done previously, and while beautiful, it is also very touristy so be forewarned.
While we had planned to turn up early in the morning, due to unforeseen circumstances we ended up at the forest pretty late - around 2 pm. It ended up being the best decision! We were visiting in the rainy season, so the park was already pretty empty. With the late hour, we practically had the place to ourselves. It turned out to be a magical experience.
We knew we wanted to do the peak and were advised by staff that we should do the Mt. Britton - Mt. Britton Tower - Mt. Britton Spur - El Yunque Trail to the peak and then back down the service road. It was a 3-hour hike, almost completely uphill with muddy terrain, with waterfalls and streams cutting through the trails. While I highly recommend this trail, to get to the top requires good shoes and stamina! Bring snacks and lots of water. While the temperatures ranged from warm and muggy to cool, the humidity is at 100% so hydration is key.
The beginning of the trail is paved with cobblestones and winds up the mountain. It rained intermittently through our whole hike but it was never uncomfortable. With so much rain and so much sun, the sheer abundance of plant life is staggering. Bromeliads grow on the palms, vines snake up and around trunks - everywhere you look in green and lush and gorgeous. And what a racket! With the native coqui, a tiny frog with a huge voice, all competing to be heard, the din is unimaginable.
I didn't know what to expect when we headed to Mt. Britton Tower. As we climbed higher and higher, the forest grew foggier and colder until it opened at the top of a hill to a medieval-looking 2-story tower on a mountaintop. The wind was very high up here and blew a thick fog across the mossy tower. We climbed the spiral staircase and suddenly, we were in the clouds. While I imagine on a clear day the view from atop Mt. Britton Tower is breathtaking, it was surreal to look off the tower into blank, white fog. It made it impossible to determine our elevation and with the wind blowing, it felt fantastical.
While I could have happily stayed there all day, we continued back down Mt. Britton Tower trail and made a right onto a nondescript forest trail, Mt. Britton Spur which leads you to the main El Yunque trail to reach the peak.
The Spur is gorgeous. You can skip it and get to the peak via the service road but I recommend the trail. More than once we passed through waterfalls rushing down the mountain.
Passed the turnoff for Los Picachos, which we skipped because of the late hour, there was a small trail to the right that I cannot find on any map. Look for it if you do this hike because it was absolutely the most dramatic spot of the hike. As we gained elevation, the trees grew smaller until we were walking through shrubs no higher than 6 ft. Though they were thick, I could sense a drop to my right. At the peak, there is a small ridge with huge boulders and a sheer drop to the forest below. The wind was so strong up here it was a little nerve-racking to stand upright. With the fog creating the illusion of sheer cliffs all around us, it felt safer to kneel and keep our hands on the rocks. I stood up - and I felt like a goddamn goddess!
The peak itself didn't impress me as much as the last little trail. But I did love the service road back down. There are all sorts of deserted communication towers and razor-wired government buildings that made it feel positively post-apocalyptic! We followed the road back to our car and hurriedly stopped at a few points along the way for some photo-ops as the park was about to close.
Yokahu Tower was unfortunately closed, but even from ground level, the spot affords a gorgeous view of the rainforest below sweeping down to the sea.
Leaving the forest we felt physically beat but mentally refreshed. The Japanese believe in something called forest therapy - that somehow being amongst nature and greenery does something to restore your mind. I wholeheartedly believe this too.
Old San Juan
Old San Juan day 2 and it rained and rained. There was a little fountain in our courtyard that fooled us into thinking it was either raining all the time or not at all. It was impossible to tell without opening the doors.
On our last day, we set out to see some of the streets and neighborhoods we hadn't explored yet and ended up in a beautiful garden in Casa Blanca, a residence and fort built in 1523 for Ponce de Leon. We decided to take the tour but an emaciated kitten in the garden caught our eye and we decided to return with food. We had seen so many strays in the streets we decided to get a bag of dry and a bunch of canned foods and spend the day wandering around, seeing sights, and feeding the cats of Old San Juan.
While Casa Blanca itself needs some more work as a museum, it's worth the $3 entry to check out the views from the terraces and balconies. I also fell madly in love with the kitchen!
From here, we walked down to Caleta de las Monjas and fed the cats along the fortress walls of the bay.
We exited the Puerta de San Juan and walked along the Paseo del Morro, the pedestrian-only road at the base of the fortress walls and headed south towards Paseo de Princesa. Here the buildings above reminded me of the gorgeous streets of Montmartre in Paris with the lacey ironwork balconies and the steep cobblestone streets. There was a festival atmosphere here unlike anywhere else in the town.
On our last night, we splurged on one of the highest rated restaurants in Old San Juan, Marmalade. Ok, look, the food was good, but nothing blew me away and I found the decor really outdated. The presentation was lovely and the service superb, but I would want to try something else next time around.