Home is home. It's my nest. It's the garden where I planted my first seeds. Home is casa, home is sabor, home is tradición, and home is familia.
Home is Puerto Rico, forever and always.
Every year I try to make my way back at least twice, especially for Christmas. This time around I had the opportunity to bring someone incredibly special with me, my best pal (who also happens to be my boyfriend) and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had while visiting the Island since I moved to NYC.
Truth is, I’m no longer a local. It's an estranging feeling when you come to terms with it but this trip has brought me some sort of peace with the thought; it made me see my place of birth in a whole new light and with a newly discovered sense of wonder, and I swear I couldn’t have asked for a better partner to share it all with.
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 19, 2015 – DAY 1
Old San Juan
This was Terry's second time on a plane and first time visiting Puerto Rico. Naturally, I had to take him to one of the most beautiful areas on the island, the Old San Juan. Ever so colorful during the day and an amazing hangout spot at night. The Old San Juan is rich with Puerto Rican history and culture. Still maintains a romantic Spanish colonial feel, the Old San Juan is bustling with life! From its cobblestone streets to its breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean by the Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro), the Old San Juan is probably my favorite place to visit whenever I manage to find my way back to Puerto Rico for a short vacation.
That night we were pretty exhausted from our flight and from all the adventuring done along the Old City. My friends were eager to meet up with us and we were on the same page when it came down to agreeing on a meetup location. We were looking for a chill spot where we could all catch up and have a few beers while we were at it. If you’re ever in this mood, and in the San Juan Metro area, Kantares is a solid spot! It’s festive-bohemian atmosphere, live acoustic music, and overall relaxed environment was exactly what we were looking for.
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2015 – DAY 2
Surfing Lessons | Pary de la Cuevita
A few weeks before our trip, I asked Terry if there was anything specific he wanted to see or do during our stay. His response was immediate, surfing lessons and horseback riding to a waterfall in El Yunque Rainforest. The surfing lessons were doable, so was the horseback riding… Now, taking those horses to a waterfall in a tropical rainforest where the highest peak rises to about 3,450ft, not as much. But we did go surfing and mounted some rowdy little horses to the Mameyes River.
The surfing lessons were amazing! We left the guys at La Punta Surf Club a solid review because they rightfully earned it. They got in the water with us and were extremely helpful with the entire wave catching, finding your balance, standing up, and getting your sh*t together process. I need to point out, it was a super cloudy Sunday morning and the ocean currents were out of control but Migue and his crew kept us in check at all times. To my surprise, Terry was a natural! He stood up on his board in no time! Me, on the other hand… Let’s say I still need a little more practice.
We were pretty beat after our lesson but our schedule was full of events and we had little time to rest between activities. You have to understand, Christmas in Puerto Rico is pretty much party central 24/7. So quick shower and straight to La Cueva del Mar’s Christmas Party, better known as “El Pary de la Cuevita”. If you’re ever around for the holidays, check if you can make it to this event – it’s something else. Delicious Puerto Rican food, savory drinks, shots of Puerto Rican moonshine flowing left and right, great live music, and a carnival-like atmosphere. I absolutely love stopping by here and catching up with my friends while enjoying the festivities. Even if you can’t make it to their Christmas party, you should stop by for their food, it’ll blow your mind. Pro-tip: Get the fish tacos or the dorado empanadillas with a cold Medalla.
MONDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2015 – DAY 3
On Monday, I wanted to take Terry and a group of my friends to the island of Culebra, but unfortunately, you have to get insanely early to the Fajardo Ferry Terminal to get ferry tickets to the island before they sell out. As you can imagine, our initial plan to go to Culebra didn’t work because who can wake up at 5am after surfing and partying like crazy the day before? Exactly.
The awesome thing about Puerto Ricans is that we are very resourceful. One of the guys in our crew knew a yolero (dinghy captain) at Las Croabas who would take all 12 of us to Icacos Island on his yola. Given the circumstances, the idea sounded pretty grand and Icacos is a beautiful island right off the northeast corner of Puerto Rico, known for its crystal blue waters and sandy white beaches. What could possibly go wrong?
Kids, when spending an entire day at an isolated beach, make sure to bring food, water, sunscreen, a big umbrella, possibly a beach chair, and any other resource you might need for survival purposes. Think of it as your modern-day version of Castaway. We had a freaking unbelievable time at Icacos! But when the sun is shining so bright and you are that close to the Equator, dehydration happens. When all of these tropical factors come together, and all you’ve been consuming throughout the day has been beer, alcohol, beer, alcohol, beer, and more alcohol, things can get ugly.
Our dinghy ride back to the mainland was quite the adventure. Three-fourths of our party was drunk. One of them was drifting in and out of consciousness. Somehow the dinghy got two holes in it and strings of water were coming in and flooding the dinghy with all 13 of us (including the yolero) holding on for dear life, middle of the ocean, halfway back to Puerto Rico. Two of the guys on the back were scooping out water while we were struggling to keep that one kid alive and yeah, we finally made it to shore and we all lived happily ever after. Pro-tip: Plan ahead, get early to the ferry terminal, bring snacks, and hydrate.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 22, 2015 – DAY 4
Guavate & El Ranchito Original
Have you ever heard of pork heaven? It exists and it is called Guavate, a sector in the mountains of Cayey, PR known for its cooler temperatures, succulent food, and cheerful live music. Guavate is filled with lechoneras all over the place. These are outdoor-type restaurants that specialize in cooking that scrumptious roasted and very well seasoned whole pig, better known to us as lechón.
A bunch of us met up in Cupey, the largest barrio in the municipality of San Juan and also my hometown, and we headed out to Guavate. Once there, we went straight to El Ranchito Original, our favorite lechonera where another bunch was able to join us. We didn’t waste time in ordering our food and immediately chowing down some of the best Puerto Rican delicacies. I’m talking about arroz con gandules, pasteles, yucca, amarillitos, guineitos en escabeche and all that good stuff! Of course, we accompanied our outrageous feast with some delicious Medallas and piña coladas.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2015 – DAY 5
Hacienda Carabalí | Paddle Boarding | Ocean Park | La Placita
On our last day, we had to end things with a bang. We went horseback riding for two hours at Hacienda Carabalí, where we enjoyed the unbelievable views of the fauna and flora surrounding the tropical rainforest. One of our tour guides was nice enough to carry the huge beach bag that I’d brought along with our towels, sunscreen, and a couple of other goodies in anticipation of the tour’s pit stop at the Mameyes River. That was probably the most memorable part! Pants off, shirts outta the way and down to our bathing suits, we took a nice little swim to refresh our overheated bodies. The struggle was real.
On our way back, we were joking about our tour guides having paired up our horses to us based on our personalities. Terry’s horse was all chill and mellow, while my saucy mare had a bit of a feisty attitude and was always doing her own thing, not following directions. Pretty hilarious! Once done with horseback riding, I remembered Terry mentioning something about wanting to paddle board along the Condado Lagoon, and because it was his last day in PR, we just made it happen. We received a 5-minute training, were handed our paddle boarding gear and spent the rest of our evening paddling our inexperienced selves against some crazy Caribbean winds. Hands down, this was one of the scariest and most thrilling experiences ever! Absolutely no regrets.
At night, everyone wanted to say their goodbyes to Terry as he was heading back to New York early next morning, so we all met at La Placita. How do I even begin to talk about this place? It’s magical. A fun-filled area in Santurce (another one of San Juan’s barrios) filled with bars, the public market, more bars, great food, and animated music. Words won’t do it justice. I’m pretty sad we didn’t take pictures that night, we were having so much fun we simply forgot! But next time you’re around my dearly beloved island, make sure to come to La Placita, you’ll have the time of your life. Pro-tip: Get a whiskey with coconut water at El Coco de Luis. Cheap as hell and oh so delicious!
If you have any questions or would like for me to give you suggestions for your upcoming trip to Puerto Rico, feel free to reach out! Home is home, but there's nowhere quite like Puerto Rico. Promise to make more of these PR travel diaries whenever I find myself back there.