By Debadutta Dash
Northwest Asian Weekly
Visiting Puerto Rico would never have come to my mind had we not been graciously invited to the Miss World Final by Ekta Saini, the mother of Shree Saini, the reigning Miss World America 2021. I didn’t know much about Puerto Rico besides it being a U.S. territory. I vividly remember the video clip repeatedly playing on cable news showing President Trump casually tossing rolls of paper towels into a cheering crowd at a church in San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. So, by visiting Puerto Rico, we thought we could at least support their tourism economy.
We booked our hotel and rental car through Expedia for a five-day stay in San Juan at the Condado Palm Inn, located in an upscale neighborhood next to the most popular Condado Beach. There was no direct flight from Seattle, so we got a connecting United Airlines flight via Houston while going and returning via Newark.
I was pretty disappointed with the hotel’s breakfast buffet with some solid mass of scrambled egg, bacon, and sausage. So, I stepped out to explore the neighborhood for a breakfast place. La Voila. Senor Baguette was a nice, cute breakfast spot within a few hundred yards of the hotel, known for excellent Puerto Rican coffee. My eggs benedict with avocado on the side were a perfect 10. The server, Abner, was kind enough to recommend a few local eating spots and beaches to visit. After breakfast, we just walked down to Condado Beach for a short walk before heading to Old San Juan, as suggested by Abner.
Fish is popular. Traditional breakfast foods include criollo-style beans (frijoles) with rice, grilled meats such as steak or chorizo, fried plantain chips called “tostones,” and many others. Mangu and Fufu de Platoon Verde are traditional Puerto Rican dishes. Fufu de Platoon Verde is a savory dish made from plantains, ground pork, and spices like mofongo, whereas Mangu does not include fried green plantain or fried pork and is usually served as an appetizer or as a side dish to fish or meat dishes. We tried some grilled red snapper, seafood paella, beans, rice, and Pique, the Puerto Rican hot sauce.
Fruits like papaya, pineapple, banana, and coconut are abundant. We bought some and had a nice lunch at the beach. Avocados are enormous; I got one which was almost 3 pounds. Caution: you can’t bring any agricultural products into the mainland U.S.
I found Juquilas, the most savory and sweet pastry made of flour, sugar, butter, and guava paste. These ingredients are kneaded together, flattened into disks, and wrapped around the guava filling before being fried in oil. Some were baked and looked like croissant rolls. I tried both, and they were simply out of this world!
Once you are in Puerto Rico, you can’t simply miss the great mix of cultures in this paradisiacal island that includes Spanish, African, U.S., and Taino ethnicity. The Mandarin House on Ashford near our hotel in San Juan, the Treasure Island Chinatown Tea House in Ponce, and Bangkok & Bombay Restaurant were buzzing spots reflecting a great cultural integration in the island. Right across the Chinatown Tea House, I could see the Centro Islamico de Ponce, one of the six Islamic Centers in Puerto Rico. I later read about the large-scale Chinese immigration to Puerto Rico during the 19th Century, and there are about 2,000 people of Chinese descent in Puerto Rico as per the latest census. The Muslim population will be around 5,000, largely consisting of Palestinian and Jordanian immigrants who arrived between 1958-1962. There are more than 3,000 people of Indian descent. We had an unplanned visit to the International Society of Krishna Consciousness temple after about a 60-minute picturesque drive to the top of the New Govardhan Hill in Gurabo. We were amazed by the view of the valley from the hilltop with the natural surroundings of many fruits-laden trees of papaya, banana, guanabana, passion fruit, and many more.
Once an impassable fortified city, San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico and its beating heart.
Old San Juan, also known as the Old City, transports you back in time as you walk through the cobblestoned streets and amidst the centuries-old buildings, so expertly restored, brightly colored, and transformed into everything. From theaters to hotels, cafes, restaurants, intriguing museums while reflecting a vibrant culture, Old San Juan has it all. Don’t miss a visit to San Juan National Historic Site and don’t forget to bring your camera.
Here are a few things I have summed up for your planned or unplanned future trip to Puerto Rico:
Puerto Rico is a tropical island, which means that it is usually hot, it rains frequently, and the humidity is incredibly high. It is hard to keep things dry. For a more extended stay, having access to a laundry dryer helps.
Taxes and roads are tough and rough. The Puerto Rico government recently passed the IVU—a Value-Added Tax (basically a sales tax) which adds about 10.5% to the retail price for most goods (fuel, food, and hotel rooms are exempt). Even with this, though, lots of essential government services are struggling. This is especially true of the roads, which will give your car a royal beating, even if you’re a cautious driver. There are potholes everywhere.
A rental car is a must. Mass transit doesn’t exist in Puerto Rico outside of San Juan’s capital. As a result, pretty much everyone uses personal cars to get around. Uber and Lyft are only in and around San Juan. The parking spots are tiny, so don’t rent big cars or SUVs even if you are used to them.
Traffic is a mess. Taxis are only shared in San Juan, around the airport, hotels, and very touristy areas, and ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft have no presence on the island. As a result, everyone in Puerto Rico commutes to work in their cars, which, combined with the abysmal road maintenance, means that traffic is an absolute nightmare to deal with—especially during rush hour.
Rum—Puerto Rico distills the finest rums globally, including Bacardi, Don Q, and their greatest secret, Barrilito (you can’t get it on the mainland).
Puerto Rico’s weather is perfect for growing the Arabica bean, which has a more exquisite, smoother flavor than the common robusta bean from Latin and South America. They have the only coffee the Pope drinks (AltoGrande).
Old San Juan. Five-hundred years of history make Old San Juan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a unique city. Charming cobblestone streets and colorful old Spanish architecture make it one of the most beautiful cities. I heard that if you visit while the “Sanse” fiestas are taking place, you will be seeing the largest block party in the world!
Beaches. Puerto Rico has warm weather year-round, making for an eternal summer, perfect for the beach. And beaches they have, from fine white sand in Culebra to coarse yellow sand in Maunabo, ferrous black sand in Mayaguez, and calcareous sand in Cabo Rojo. There are numerous beaches where you will find just yourself and a few seagulls. Many have picnic tables. My personal favorite was Playa Punta Borinquen.
El Yunque—the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest System, El Yunque covers 28,000 acres and receives more than 200 inches of rain per year. Several trails lead to beautiful waterfalls amidst lush greenery.
El Coqui and Gallina De Palo (Eleutherodactylus coqui) is a tiny frog endemic to Puerto Rico, whose male makes a loud call at night. This tiny amphibian has become a national symbol of identity for Puerto Ricans. Gallina De Palo, or green iguanas, are sighted everywhere. Just stay away from them.
Honestly, five days were not enough to visit and experience Puerto Rico. When you visit Puerto Rico, please assume that you’re going to try to see as much as you can of ALL of Puerto Rico and if it is for the first time, I suggest being at least open to visiting again. I would say that at least a week would be fine. One day, walk through Old San Juan, drink, and dine at night. One day for a trip to El Yunque (the rainforest). One day to visit Ponce, very much like Spokane, dry. The Art Museum is gorgeous; King Cream Helados, La Guancha Boardwalk, and the trio of Castillo—Serrallés, Cruceta del Vigia, and the Japanese Gardens are natural treasures. One or two days to soak up the sun and maybe chill or meditate at the Playa Punta Borinquen Beach at Aguadilla. If you’re in the Old San Juan/Condado/ Escambrón Beach/Miramar area, plan to walk around, and have a nice meal.
Puerto Rico as a destination is a complete package—beaches, nature, the food, coffee, the music, culture, and history. I will go back again, for sure.
Debadutta can be reached at email@example.com.