Places to Eat in Old San Juan

  1. Barrachina -You can’t eat in Old San Juan without going to the birthplace of the piña colada!  The drinks are a bit different than they are in the States; they are creamier, smoother, and more delicious.  And don’t worry, the food is excellent too!  Make sure you check their website before planning your evening, however.  Some nights they close earlier than others.
  2. Waffle Era Tea Room – Have you ever wanted gourmet waffles?  Of course you have.  This is a must-stop breakfast location while you’re in the city.  Their menu is divided into savory and sweet waffles as well as by size (small wafflitos and plate-sized waffles).  I suggest you get two wafflitos – one savory and one sweet!  You won’t regret it.
  3. Caficultura – For a nice afternoon coffee, there’s no better place than Caficultura.  They’ve got all the fancy coffees Americans are spoiled with, and a lovely hipsterish atmosphere.  Be forewarned!  This is definitely the coffee place for tourists.  Not a bad thing, but if you’re aiming for cultural immersion, I suggest you go to #4.
  4. Café Manolín – Suggested by our hotel clerk as “where Puerto Ricans eat breakfast,” we visited this place twice, once for breakfast and once for lunch.  Breakfast was both delicious and cheap.  We sat at the diner counter and watched Puerto Rican businesspeople drink coffee before heading to work.  We returned another day for lunch, which was a little disappointing.  The food was not as great, and a cruise ship full of tourists had also found the spot.  I suggest you go early, and make sure you order coffee!  It was wonderful.

Do you have a favorite restaurant in Old San Juan that I missed?  Comment and let me know!

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Day 2 – Cancelled

Michal and I woke up extremely refreshed after 10.5 hours of sleep.  We talked with our hotel manager about renting a car tomorrow on our way out, and he quipped, “Won’t you be tired from partying?”  …Not a problem for us.

Today was our rainforest/kayaking tour, and their list of things we ought to take included a poncho.  Naively, I had rolled my eyes at this suggestion, because rain?  Of course not.  It’s vacation.  This dumb decision meant we spent the morning speed walking down streets to the Walgreens we found last night.  “Where are the ponchos?” we gasped as we crashed through the entrance.  “…Right there,” the woman behind the counter answered.  We were standing next to them. 

Now fully prepared, we went to a waffle restaurant for breakfast.  It was DELICIOUS and a wonderful beginning to our day.  We got a bit lost trying to find our way to the meetup spot where our tour guides would pick us up.  We arrived a few minutes late, and no one was there.  I pulled out my phone and saw two missed calls from someone in Puerto Rico.  When I called back, the woman who answered sadly informed me that, due to the rain, El Yunque National Rainforest was closed.  No tour.  Don’t worry, she said, the kayaking part of the trip is still on.  But no rainforest.

We trekked back to the hotel, climbed five flights of stairs, and stared sullenly at the pool of water that had blown in through the window and crept across the floor.

Determined to make a day of it, we packed up our computers and looked for a coffee shop.  The manager of Da House had suggested a really great place, so we barged in from the rain.  “We’re closed,” the men cleaning the floors said.

“Is there somewhere else we could get coffee?” I asked.

“The kiosk in the plaza has coffee,” he said.

“Well, we want to write in our blogs.”

“They have free wifi in the plaza.”

“Yes, but….it’s raining.”

“Ah, yes.  The rain.”

We wandered the streets of Old San Juan until we found a bar that served coffee and had wifi.  My computer worked fine, and I joyfully scoured the Internet after a two day separation.  Michal’s computer, however, would not connect to the Internet, and she has slowly gone mad while I’ve written this post.  To save her from self-destruction, I’m getting off now, and hopefully we’ll find something amazing to fill the next three hours.

My one hope is that a rainy kayak trip through the bio-luminescent bay is supposed to be stunningly beautiful, as the rain hitting the water “sparkles like diamonds.”  HERE’S HOPING.

Day 1 – Old San Juan

IMG_2456Da House was freezing. In the middle of the night I grabbed my decorative scarf and layered it over the thin sheet and blanket. It did nothing to warm me, but at least I felt pro-active. In the morning, Michal found the AC controllers. Too little, too late! We GPSed CasaBlanca, our Groupon-found hotel, and walked…down the alleyway maybe 200 yards to its doors. 

Leaving our luggage with them, we found the diner that the manager of Da House had recommended. It was delicious, cheap, and filled with men and women in their workday attire. With no real itinerary in Old San Juan other than “see stuff,” we wandered down street after street as things caught our eye. The buildings are cheerfully colorful, decorated with balconies and hanging plants. The whole city is gorgeous.

We accidentally walked through the back way into El Morro, the fort at the tip of Old San Juan. We passed through Cat Land, a mini parking lot where each jeep had at least three cats sunning themselves. I petted one, and five more jumped down and ran to me. This was extremely validating for my cat-obsessed identity, but Michal was less excited, so we kept walking.
The fort was old and interesting and included more stairs than we were prepared for. There is a good chance our trek through the rainforest tomorrow will be harder than anticipated. For two women interested in history, we sure didn’t read any signs or learn anything. We laid in the grass for a while, then walked down the other side of Old San Juan past cemeteries and more beautiful buildings. Since paying to enter one fort gives you access to the other, we made our way to another fort and wandered a bit. By this point we were sweating profusely, so when we found a shaded room inlet with windows that sucked a breeze past us, we cooled off like soldiers did hundreds of years ago. Probably the cool guys invited their friends into this room and everyone else had tough luck.

We made our way back to CasaBlanca, changed into swimsuits, and walked just outside of Old San Juan to a beach that had been recommended to us. The tide was high and the waves were pretty intense. Our halfhearted interest in finding somewhere to try surfing for the first time disappeared. Instead, we lounged around, took ridiculous pictures, and got incredibly sandy. Walking back through the streets of Puerto Rico with a disgusting film of beach all over was humbling.

But totally worth it, because when we got back to the hotel, we climbed six flights (no elevator—another indicator that I am horrifically out of shape) to the ROOFTOP BATHTUBS. Yup. We cleaned off, washed our hair, and bathed under the clear blue sky. Thankfully we still had our swimsuits on, because other hotel residents soon wandered to the roof as well.

After cleaning up and getting pretty, we went to Barrachina, the birthplace of pina coladas. I discovered this fact, of all places, in Rick Riordan’s last Percy Jackson book, The Blood of Olympus. The drinks were good, the food was delicious, the conversation was so fun. After dinner we walked around the same streets as this afternoon, now lit up with Christmas lights. While it was beautiful, I would definitely not like to celebrate Christmas in Puerto Rico. A humid holiday is just too weird for my Northern blood.

We went to bed early, which is extra ridiculous because our bodies are an hour earlier than local time. In my defense, though, Da House was freezing, and I didn’t get much sleep last night. And tomorrow we journey into the rainforest! So I’d better be well-rested.

We’ve Arrived

Nothing ever goes quite like you plan when traveling, and this is especially the case when two people with laid-back travel mentalities leave the country together.  As Michal and I deplaned, I wondered allowed, “Do you think we’ll have to go through customs?  Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory?”

“Yeah, probably.  Well, maybe not,” Michal answered.  “I maybe should have done even the smallest amount of research before our trip.” 

Turns out, NO, you don’t have to go through customs.  It is also true that San Juan International Airport looks like any other American airport, filled with Auntie Anne’s Pretzels and Hudson Booksellers.

We arrived at 12:30 a.m.  My original plan was for us to sleep in the airport for a few hours before hitting the city.  However, when we were standing in an abandoned gate of the brightly lit airport, Michal strongly suggested we book a cheap hotel for the night.

“Here’s one for $80,” she said, scrolling on her phone.  Her cell service works in Puerto Rico, mine doesn’t.  Neither of us know why this is.

“Alright,” I said.  “What’s it called?”

“Da House.”

“No…really?”

Since everyone on our plane had already fled the airport, we walked alone through the empty halls.  “I wish I had a switchblade,” Michal said.  “This looks like where the zombie apocalypse is going to take place.”

“If it is, my plan is to just give up and let them bite me as soon as possible.  I mean, so long as the transformation is instantaneous.  I don’t think I could handle the stress of trying to survive.”

We were not, thankfully, attacked by zombies.  Instead, we found a cab and sheepishly gave the driver directions to “Da House.”  It’s just inside Old San Juan, and our disinterest in the dark streets suddenly turned to “ooo”s and “aah”s when we crossed into adorably quaint colorful old buildings territory.  It had started to rain, and our cabbie let us out by a glass window labeled, well, Da House.  We ran down the alley to the door and climbed two flights of stairs to the most randomly decorated hotel lobby I’ve ever seen.  There were at least five kinds of tiled areas on the floor, and decor that felt sometimes Caribbean, sometimes Asian.  Perhaps I have no taste, but I kind of liked it.

We booked our room, got breakfast recommendations, and headed upstairs to a sparse but clean one bed room.  A tiny bathroom provided sweet relief from the ick of plane grease.  Double doors led to a small balcony that overlooks a dance hall.  An active dance hall with amazing Latin music that is probably going to keep me up until 2:30 (at which point the manager assured us they would stop).

This experience has led to my developing a new travel rule for myself:  Always stay in two hotels/motels.  Tomorrow we will head to our scheduled hotel, a nice place called CasaBlanca that we found on Groupon’s getaway deals.  It should be pretty fancy.  But there is something wonderfully charming about this walk-up alleyway hotel.  Highbrow and lowbrow.  It’s fun to experience it all (if you can).