Why Not Go to New Orleans?

A few weeks ago, Michal texted me, “I found round trip tickets for $80.  Want to go to New Orleans?”

“YES,” I immediately responded.  Within two days, our flight was purchased, our hostel was booked, and a kayaking swamp trip was scheduled.  We arrived at midnight last night!

Michal is one of my favorite people to travel with.  We both love food, history, feminism, literature, and cute boys.  We’re adventurous but laid back, equally ready for fun and rest.  I anticipate our weekend in New Orleans to be amazing, just like our vacation in Puerto Rico in December of 2015.  As I look forward to our new memories, I’m looking back at some old ones.

  1. Exploring Old San Juan.
  2. Rainforest Cancelled but Bioluminescent Kayaking Is a Go!
  3. Road Tripping Through a New Country.

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!

10 Lessons Learned in Puerto Rico

1.  Book must-see activities months in advance.  Michal and I agree that our favorite part of our Puerto Rican adventure was kayaking through Laguna Grande Bio Bay.  We booked our December trip with Puerto Rico Kayaking in October, and this preparation might have been our saving grace.  The day after our adventure, we told a taxi driver about it, and he said, “That’s amazing that you could go.  I heard they are booked solid through January.”

2.  Ask taxi drivers for travel advice.  Taxi drivers have a unique perspective.  They transport visitors to popular tourist attractions, but they are also local men and women who have insider knowledge.  One driver told us that most tourists go to a particular rainforest path, but that all the locals use Angelito Trail, a much smaller and more private trail that leads to a beautiful waterfall.  Unfortunately, we were out of time to see something new, but the lesson was learned.  Taxi drivers know more than most travel books.

3.  Create Plan Bs for rainy days (and Plan Cs).  When our rainforest tour was cancelled, Michal and I wandered the same streets of Old San Juan that we had explored (in much better moods) just the day before.  We wound up back at our hotel room watching Buzzfeed videos.  If we had prepared more fully, we might not have wasted an entire morning.  This is especially valuable advice for short trips.  Half a day isn’t much for a week or more trip, but with only three days in Puerto Rico, the blow was significant.

4.  Don’t accept one person’s opinion.  When Michal and I planned to rent a car to see another part of the island, we were first told that the Rio Camuy Caves would definitely be closed.  Dismayed, we asked someone else, who assured us that of course they would be open.  We asked around, found that more people believed they would be open than closed, and risked a trip west.  This turned out to be the right choice–one we might not have made if we had listened to the first person we asked.

5.  Ask locals where they eat.  Some restaurants demand your attention and are worth the flamboyant signage out front.  But if you want to experience dining on a local level, you have to ask a local where to eat.  The deskman at Da House recommended two breakfast places to us:  one that did fancy coffees like the United States, and one diner that served Puerto Rican breakfasts to men and women on their way to work.  We tried both places–the first was delicious and full of tourists.  The second was delicious and full of Puerto Ricans.  Both great experiences, but we would have found only one of them on our own.

6.  Check daily tourist influxes.  We lucked out by exploring Old San Juan on Monday.  We were among only a small group of tourists wandering the streets with cameras and giddy smiles.  It felt like an intimate exploration of the city.  On Tuesday, we found the streets gluted with stereotypical American tourists.  Sidewalks were crowded, restaurants were full, and people were complaining at every corner.  It was much less magical.  We later found out that cruise ships dock in Old San Juan on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, at which point 3,000 people (per ship!) swarm into the city.  If possible, when you visit a cruise ship destination, try to find out when the ships arrive–and plan to explore on a different day!

7.  Don’t assume attractions are open every day.  Perhaps because I am American, perhaps because I’m selfish, I tend to assume that the world ought to run on my schedule.  This means that I am constantly shocked that tourist attractions are not always open when I want them to be.  Barrachina, the restaurant where pina coladas were invented, was open late on Mondays and Tuesdays but closed early on Wednesdays.  Luckily, I discovered this before our trip and changed our original plan to visit there on our last night.  Always check the dates and times of places you want to visit.

8.  Make friends with your hotel managers and deskmen.  I cannot overstate how important this is.  Aside from the bio bay tour, nearly everything Michal and I did was at the recommendation of our hotel workers.  They encouraged us to rent cars and go exploring.  They recommended new places to eat and secluded beaches to visit.  They also were extremely helpful, booking us rental cars and calling taxis to pick us up.  We would have been just slightly more than useless without the men who helped us at Da House and Casa Blanca.

9.  If you cannot reach an attraction, call a tour company.  When we were trying to decide whether or not to risk seeing the caves, we called the company five times with no success.  Our hotel deskman shook his head and assured us they tend to not answer the phone.  Instead, he called a tour company that takes people on crazy adventures through the caves.  They would know whether or not the caves were open, and sure enough, their confirmation is what convinced us to make the trip.

10.  Rent a car.  We were warned by friends who had visited Puerto Rico that the traffic was crazy.  From our previous traveling experiences, we were terrified of driving on foreign soil.  But the confidence of our Puerto Rican advisers (and the fact that it was a slower tourist season) convinced us to give it a try.  Our day in a rental car was amazing!  We had the freedom to explore at our leisure, to change plans, to try random roads.  It also gave us a deeper feeling of belonging when we claimed the roads as our own instead of relying on someone else to cart us around.  If you can handle driving in a US city, there is a good chance you can handle driving in another country.  Or at least in Puerto Rico.

Michal’s Puerto Rico Experience (Guest Post)

Michal is an ideal travel partner–adventurous but laid back, thrifty but generous, and funny but thoughtful.  She is a kindred spirit, and we share many passions, including a love for both traveling and writing.  Here is her take on our vacation to Puerto Rico in December 2014.

I’m an experienced traveler.

Self-indulgent as that sounds, it’s true! I’ve lived in France, Greece, Turkey and Italy and have learned the painful lessons that come from overeager and excessive packing, trusting the cute gypsy child in the metro and cringe-worthy conversations elevated to trainwreck status by crippling language barriers. I have spent the night in an airport with rioters setting taxis on fire just outside, been proposed to by a traveling musician and an olive oil merchant and survived the horror story that is a socialist hospital late at night. I own almost every Rick Steves book and I Duolingo three languages a day at work while I surreptitiously check for good flight deals. 

Somehow, for some inexplicable reason, Puerto Rico caught me unawares and unprepared.

I’m going to go ahead and blame the holiday season and my decision to go on too many Tinder dates for my distracted state prior to our departure.

Tricia is the most fun in the world, so I was in good company for the wacky adventures this island brought our way. Despite the extent to which I have traveled all over the world, this trip opened my eyes to the reality that travel is a lifelong learning experience, and that every trip you take makes you better prepared for the next one! So with sheepish chagrin I bring you my top three Puerto Rico takeaways:

  1. It should be mind-numbingly obvious that you should plan around rainy days, and also that it, ahem, rains quite often in the rainforest, but of course I didn’t think to make a Plan B or Plan C in case of a torrential downpour. Our original plan was to take a tour of both the El Yunque Rainforest and see a bioluminescent bay that night, but with the rain that occurred on day 2, our hike was canceled, leaving us incredibly mad and also, unsure what to do with a four hour block of time. The Caribbean has temperamental weather, come to find out, and if you’re going to visit Puerto Rico, it’s best to have several plans set out beforehand for each day so you can make the most of your time instead of having to panic, almost cry over some terrible coffee and regroup while you try desperately to find some wifi. Most of the trips I go on last several weeks, so the times I’ve run into inclement weather, I’ve always had more time and flexibility to see what I wanted to at a later date. With this being a much shorter trip, I didn’t even think to plan ahead more thoroughly to maximize our time.
  2.  People don’t pick up the phone in Puerto Rico. Kind of like Europe, people here are on their own timeline. They can’t be bothered that you are bothered about something and need information, so again, getting as much planned before you go is crucial. In our haste to redeem the time we lost on day 2 of our trip, we spoke to at least 6 different people about whether or not they thought the Camuy Caves would be open after the rain, and every single person had a different opinion. “Of course it will be open, it’s only a little rain.” “Don’t waste your time, it will be closed because our island was practically flooded last night.” And despite phone numbers being listed on different sites for things like Camuy Caves, we never got anyone on the phone to actually ask the only people who could tell us for sure whether it was worth our time to rent a car and drive out there. We almost decided not to risk it, but in the end we did because we talked to several locals who are familiar with a variety of tour companies with the inside scoop. Getting a variety of opinions paid off because the park was indeed open! So just because you get a no from one person doesn’t mean that’s the end of the story. Keep on asking, and utilize the network that the hotel staff have. They know people in high and low places, all of which could give you the information you need.
  3. Before you give up, use the 2 More Minutes Rule. There were several times that in our tiredness and desperation, we almost gave up and turned around. But we said, “okay, we’ll drive a little further, maybe it’s just up ahead” and sure enough it was! At one point we almost turned around because we were only using a map instead of our iPhones (adventurous, I know) and felt for sure we had passed the town we were looking for. But given a little faith and a few more minutes, we found it. Had we not given up after driving the wrong way down one road and tried the other way, we wouldn’t have had to trespass on someone’s land to see the ocean, but instead would have found the luxuriously enormous parking lot, bathrooms and pristine beach that were just over the hill in the opposite direction. And the night we arrived we almost just slept in the airport out of exhaustion but we reached out to that one last hotel and sure enough, someone picked up the phone. When you feel like quitting, try one more time, because fortune favors the tenacious.

All this sounds so Negative Nancy….go to Puerto Rico!!! It’s beautiful, and in December no one is there so it’s the perfect time to go. It’s cheap, easily accessible to all our Texan friends and a refreshing change of pace. We drank the best mojitos I’ve ever tasted, met incredibly friendly people everywhere and kayaking at the Bio Bay is going to go on my list of Favorite Travel Experiences. If you like being stunned into silence by the beauty of the natural world and also scaring outdoor-activity newbies with your kayaking paddle, that excursion is for you. You can rent a car for, not kidding, $6 a day, and why would you not go eat at the restaurant that brought the world the pina colada? Hilarity of our slight misfortunes and all, it was a stellar trip, and one I would highly recommend.

For more of Michal’s intelligence and wit, check out her Christian feminist blog, From Eve to Me.

Day 3 – Road Trip

The night deskman at Casablanca is incredibly friendly and helpful. He convinced us to rent a car and explore Puerto Rico on our own, which is exactly what we did today. This was an especially advantageous decision since our trip originated with Michal emailing me, “I’m turning 25, want to go to Puerto Rico?” and me responding, “YESSSS.” At 25, Michal is now old enough to rent a car, and what better way to inaugurate the privilege than in a foreign country?

Driving in Puerto Rico is surprisingly easy. The road rules are the same as the United States, so the only real danger is the lack of turn signals used on the freeway. There were a couple times that our hearts leaped into our throats as cars swerved into our lane, but we found solace in repurposing Aragorn’s war speech, “There may come a day when we need car insurance, BUT IT IS NOT THIS DAY.” And thankfully, it was not this day. We survived unscathed. 

Yesterday’s trip to the bio bay took us east, so today we drove west along the northern coast. Since Michal was such a great driver, I convinced her to let me test my navigational skills by turning off the GPS and using only the map. We only got turned around a couple times, but quickly recalibrated. “I’m like Magellan!” I cried, “If he had…explored only a few roads with an extremely detailed map.”

We went first to the Rio Camuy Cave Park, where the ticket booth had a sign telling us nothing would happen until 12:30. We bought ice cream to eat and watched stray cats show off by falling asleep amongst the crowded benches. An hour later we had boarded a tram that drove us and 40 other people down steep crossbacks to the cave entrance. The whole area was vaguely rainforesty, which alleviated some of my disappointment from yesterday’s cancellation.

The caves were absolutely gorgeous, massive and imposing and awe-inspiring. “Do you think we’ll see a balrog?” I asked Michal. Her face lit up, then fell. “I don’t know if I would be excited or terrified…”

The best part, however, were the entrances where light and plants tumbled into the darkness. “How crazy is it,” I told Michal, “that this has been around for millions of years, and no one knew about it? Just this astoundingly beautiful thing being beautiful and no one around to see it. Now there are guardrails and tour guides! We can see everything with minimal difficulty. I am so glad I live in this era. We are so lucky.”

When the guide ended, we ran to our rental car and drove to the Aricebo Observatory. The map and roadsigns took us through neighborhoods and cow pastures on roads that barely fit two cars. Every time we doubted our location, another sign appeared beckoning us onward. Out of nowhere, a massive “Bienvenidos!” sign welcomed us to the Observatory. We parked quickly and ran toward the stairs that led up a mountain. The site closed at 4:00, and it was 3:05. A guard sitting in a tent at the bottom of the stairs smiled at our desperate faces and said, “You don’t have to run. You have plenty of time.”

We couldn’t have run much further even if we’d wanted. The stairs kept going and going. When they stopped, we simply climbed a steep hill, and I discovered muscles I’d forgotten existed. Panting loudly, we finally reached the top. We ignored the nicely designed museum talking about science and astronomy and slipped into the back of a video presentation in the auditorium. There we learned that scientists use the observatory for sciencey things for the sake of science. Nearly all of it went over my head because I was distracted by the retro 90s people being interviewed. The one fact I did catch was that this observatory keeps track of asteroids and can use radar to figure out their size, shape, and velocity.

I didn’t really care about all that, because at the end of the presentation I scurried over to the wall where a poster of Goldeneye hung to take a selfie. Then we followed the guide outside to look out at the world’s largest telescope. She explained the significance and the reasons for its location in the jungles of Puerto Rico, but I mostly imagined Pierce Brosnan and Sean Bean fighting to the death along its precariously high structures.

Our interest satiated, Michal and I headed north to the coast. Our friend at Casablanca had told us of a beach we ought to check out, and the sun was on its way out. Unfortunately, we hit traffic. The drive took 40 minutes longer than we anticipated, but finally we saw a sign pointing us to [that beach]. We turned, drove to a T in the road, and turn left. We passed a restaurant called El Horno de la Abuela that had been advertised often on the road. But…no beach. Having given up hope, and desperately hungry, we made our way back to the restaurant and parked. Determined to have at least a tiny beach experience, we hopped the guardrail and stood in someone’s backyard of sand, staring at the waves in disappointment.

The food at El Horno de la Abuela was delicious, which brightened our spirits. Plus, we sat outside looking over the ocean as it grew pink in the sunset and discussed interpretations of Song of Solomon, so it was hard to stay mad. Filled with fattening vacation food, we got back in our car for the last time. Just for kicks, we decided to drive to the right of the T instead of left, just to see if perhaps we had taken a wrong turn.  Literally thirty seconds down the road, a large sprawling beach with a friendly sign appeared.

I read @ghettohikes aloud to Michal as she drove us east.  I cried with laughter, which made Michal crack up. In hindsight, this was probably a little dangerous. Regardless, we made it back to San Juan in a little over an hour, returned the car, and rode back to our hotel. To celebrate our last night on the island, we went out for dessert and discussed World War II and racial discrimination. Our conversations over food are hella intelligent.

After checking in with our Casablanca night deskman, we trudged up the five flights of stairs for the last time. This trip has been phenomenal. My first time traveling with Michal was a total success, as we share similar interests and passions, but more importantly in a traveling buddy, similar levels of adventure and caution. Puerto Rico is beautiful and interesting, a great place for lazy beach outings and shopping, but also full of fascinating day trips to bioluminescent bays and gorgeous caverns. If next week weren’t Christmas, I would be seriously upset about leaving this island behind.

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 2.5 – Bioluminescent Bay

I’ve been told that the wonder of holding a newborn child makes you forget all the horror it took to bring it into the world. Kayaking into a bioluminescent bay at night is like that; the cancelled rainforest excursion no longer seems quite so depressing.

As we walked through Old San Juan to get to our tour meetup spot, we noticed an unusual amount of large white people amassing on sidewalks and taking up space in restaurants. Since yesterday had felt refreshingly tourist-free, we were confused. Then we walked by the piers and saw three massive cruise ships docked for the day. Apparently San Juan is invaded on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays by day-long tourists fresh from the ocean. 

Someday I think I’d like to take a cruise, more to confirm my disinterest than anything else. I wouldn’t like to jump in and out of a city for a few hours at a time, though I guess the short schedule is offset by the ability to visit several places in one trip. Still, I’m glad Michal and I have had Old San Juan largely to our tourist-selves, free to wander the streets and pretend we belong here.

The Kayaking Puerto Rico van pulled up on time, and we joined six other people in an hour and a half long drive to Laguna Bay. Once there, we joined ten other participants in getting outfitted in lifejackets and listening to kayaking safety instructions.

It was 5:45 when we got in the water. Michal, being from water-loving Austin, sat in the back and captained our two-man kayak. Although we developed a pretty good rhythm and avoided getting stuck in any trees, I couldn’t help but notice that if this were the Fellowship traveling down the Anduin, I was a hobbit and Michal was a boss Aragorn.

That was not the last of our nerdy Lord of the Rings references. The whole experience felt decidedly epic, cutting through the water as we made our way across the docking bay to a break in the trees. There we passed into a natural waterway maybe twenty feet wide. The trees arched over us, creating a tunnel of branches and leaves for us to pass through. Some kind of lizard perched in the trees above us, confirming Michal’s worry that they could drop on our head. None did, mostly because I side-eyed them pretty hard.

It took thirty minutes to paddle to Laguna Bay where the small space suddenly opened up around us. Our lead guide gathered us together in the dimming light to educate us on bioluminescence and the baby plankton that were soon to astound us. Darkness fell, and he told us to hold our fists in the water and open and close our hands rapidly. I slipped my hand into the water, and after a few awkward seconds, a faint glow appeared in my palm. I HAD MAGIC POWERS.

Another guide had paddled to the opposite side of the bay, and he flashed a light to summon us to him. Apparently the plankton were more bioluminescent over there. Michal and I made our way toward him, and I focused on my rowing form until Michal cried, “Tricia! Look at your paddle!” I glanced to the right as my paddle cut into the water, leaving a blue streak behind it.

We coasted to a stop and dipped our hands into the water. Every time we moved, the water glowed, pooling in our palms and trailing out like we were conjuring blue fire. Someone in a kayak next to us suggested, “Fling it on your legs!” so we unthinkingly began splashing ourselves, gawking at the blue sparkles glinting against the dark night.

“I like the fat plankton,” Michal said.

“What?”

“Put your hand in, see? Some are bigger than others.”  Sure enough, the normal blue haze had gotten more intense, and amongst the magical cloud were sparks of brighter color.

“What do you think a psalmist would say if they could see this?” Michal wondered aloud.

“’Praise the Lord, O ye plankton. Shine bright and…” I composed.

“Shine bright like the stars!” Michal added.

“Shine bright like a diamond!” I corrected.

Michal laughed. “Who knew Rihanna was actually talking about bioluminescence? But seriously, God is so cool to have created this place. There’s no reason for it to exist except for our enjoyment.”

“That’s true,” I agreed. “Krill eat other kinds of plankton in other places. There’s no need for them to be sparkly. How fun that God just made this random pocket of beauty that’s waiting for people to come and be in awe of it.”

“I want to see everything in the world that God has made.”

“We can check for Groupon deals when we get back to the hotel.”

The beauty of the water was matched by the beauty of the sky as the clouds parted above us in an ever-widening circle, revealing an enormous amount of stars. Michal mentioned their similarity.

“Regina Spektor has a song where she says, ‘The sea is just a wetter version of the skies,’” I said. “She’s right.  Everything is just so beautiful. I’m happy. Really, really happy.”

“Thank God this wasn’t cancelled.”

Full dark had fallen when our guides ushered us out of the bio bay and back into the corridor of trees. It was pitch black inside, and it would have been impossible to navigate if our kayaks hadn’t had small lights attached to the backs so we could see the boats in front of us floating single file, bobbing in the darkness.

“It looks like we’re sailing into death,” Michal said.

I gasped loudly. “We’re going to Valinor! We’re sailing into the Undying Lands like Frodo!”

“THIS IS THE BEST THING IN THE WORLD,” Michal cried.

It was eerie and beautiful, riding the current in the darkness, paddling only to cut around corners and avoid bumping into the trees that suddenly loomed into our limited field of vision. Too soon we pushed into the docking bay where lights from the land poured onto us and we had to get out of our kayaks. On solid land, Michal and I stared at each other. Then we broke into grins and jumped up and down, clutching each other’s arms.

“This was amazing!!”

“A once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“Life is so fantastic!”