Thursday, June 21, 2012

Exploring San Juan: Tales from the Back of a Trooper

Our Spring Break adventure did not get off to the best start.  Within a couple hours of landing we had cancelled our hotel reservation and were homeless with 4 days to go before our return flight to NYC.  Thankfully one of the girls had family just outside of the city so we were quickly rescued by our adoptive Aunt and Uncle and swept away in their Isuzu Trooper.  The Trooper became the main method of transportation for the six of us. Being the oldest and very stubborn, I rode in the trunk, which slowly became more like a flying carpet with blankets and throw pillows.  I had unique view of the city with strong reminiscence of riding in a woody station wagon.  While I was never able to get my bearing, literally going through San Juan in a different direction meant I was less distracted by traffic and could see more details of the city.  The major advantage of this set up was we had Aunt Rita as a knowledgeable tour guide who was also set on feeding us until we nearly burst. So after filling us up in chicken, black beans, flan, and breakfasts that would put diners out of business, Rita managed a trooper through the streets of Old San Juan and showed us to places off the well-worn vacation track.

Action shot on the way to Isla Verde
Isla Verde Beach - Out of the three beaches we went to this one blew the rest away.  It came close to surpassing every beach I’d ever been to before.  There was well over a mile of clean sandy beach lines with coconut trees.  The surf was a beautiful clear blue and had minimal seaweed especially compared to the thick beds of weeds we found at the beaches along the main strip of hotels.  There were gazebos, showers, and bathrooms available to beach-goers.  We were all far too anxious to defrost and absorb as much sun as possible before returning to the chilly northeast that we were all scorched to varying degrees by the recent sun storms.  Workers came to groom the coconut trees as we were getting ready to leave the beach.  They cut down branches and maturing coconuts so unsuspecting sunbathers aren’t knocked out when the dense fruits fall.  Some of the girls ventured over to the truck and came back if fresh coconuts so we could drink the water and munch on the fresh meat.  As a rule I don’t like coconut, but if I have to eat it, crack open with a machete on the beach is the only way to have it.

Lifeguard station on the beach
Mid-morning snack
Río Piedras - This neighborhood was several incredibly cramped blocks of stores that opened straight onto the street.  It was not the stores we would see in Old San Juan.  These were convenience stores, accessory shops, and everyday clothing.  I wouldn’t say that it was locals only but it was starkly different than any street close to the big hotels and cruise port. Honestly those four blocks are probably where I stood out the most but were the most familiar to me.  Elements of the market street kept taking me back to similar streets and stores I had seen in Europe, or NYC, Chicago.  The wares were a little bit different.  Understanding the labels was hit and miss.  But I still felt far less intrusive and out of places than I did walking past the big hotels full of vacationers.

Fort San Cristóbal in the distance
Old San Juan - Crazy transportation encounters are the theme of this trip.  We got a tip from Rita tthat we could take a free bus from Isla Verde to Old San Juan.  Turns out it was one free bus and one overcrowded, change only bus, whose drivers stopped and threatened to throw everyone off the bus for disrespecting him, to the bus terminal at the base of the hill of Old San Juan.  This is your classic colonial center with narrow cobblestone streets leading to different squares, often with fountains, in a slightly wandering fashion.  I can’t count how many old centers of town I’ve visited over the years.  That being said, the restaurants, bars, clubs, shops, and vendors found throughout the area are worth facing the public transportation or cramped parking.  While the rest of the group shopped, I wandered with another girl to see La Forteleza.  La Forteleza is made out of two fortified buildings, Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristóbal, along a sheer cliff lined by an impressive stone wall.  The lookouts now serve as prime vantage points for point-and-shoots rather than riflemen.  We were there at dusk and running late so we didn’t get to explore as much as I would have liked.  The setting sun and spring breeze looking out at the horizon felt like a scene from The Pirates of the Caribbean.

Lookout between San Felipe del Morro and San Cristóbal
Fort San Felipe del Morro

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