The city of San Juan, Puerto Rico is filled with beautiful beaches and vibrant culture. From the food to the history, there is never a dull moment. (Photo by Lanie Phillips)
By Lanie Phillips
Stepping out of the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, you would have no idea that the territory is technically a part of the United States. A wave of humidity hit my face as I walked through the door and sounds of horns honking, taxi drivers yelling in Spanish and conversations of confused tourists immediately filled the air.
My group of 15 friends was herded down to a cab station past the crowds and piled into a 12-passenger van. The driver, Victor, asked several of us to “duck down” because the airport supervisor did not allow the drivers to cram so many people into a cab. We immediately complied, as he was saving the group a lot of money. The broken English that characterized the conversation that followed was foreshadowing the rest of the trip. As he took us to the house we had rented, he spoke about local tourist attractions. He said, “Be careful of the beach vendors, they will rip you off,” and told us “not to leave until we tried ‘tostones’ or garlic plantains.” We drove along the shore of the ocean and could see the sandy beach and palm trees along the way. As we pulled up to our house, Victor gave us his card and encouraged us to call him if we ever needed a ride.
The house we had rented was painted white with blue trim. It had gates that surrounded it, lined with barbed wire. Across the street stood a glass mansion accompanied with three around-the-clock guards that we would become friendly with as the week went on. Their presence also made our parents breathe a sigh of relief, especially after hearing of the barbed wire fence. We later found out from them that the family that lived in the house owned the grocery brand “Goya.”
We had decided to spend our first night in Puerto Rico at “La Placita” at the recommendation of a friend from home who is originally from the area. Immediately after climbing out of the Uber, which conveniently still worked throughout Puerto Rico, you were swept up into the vibrant amount of culture. Music traveled through the streets and the scent of Puerto Rican food filled the air, specifically the fried plantains that Victor had recommended. There were artists stationed on every corner with their work displayed that you could purchase for no more than five dollars. I bought several post cards with pictures of local landmarks to send home to my family. We ended the night venturing into a bar where La Placita proved it was even better than we had been told.
Venturing into the forest
The next morning, everyone woke up and booked Ubers to El Yunque, a national park in Puerto Rico famous for its waterfalls and rainforest. However, the research that had been done prior to the trip had fallen short and we were soon faced with the potential to end up either stranded or paying several hundred dollars. The language barrier created even more complications and the lack of Spanish spoken by the group, paired with the speed with which the driver spoke at, was not a good match. Jose, our driver, was finally able to inform us, via a translation app, that Ubers were not allowed into the National Park, risking a fine of $1,000 fine and jail time. However, one of Jose’s fellow Uber drivers, Alicia, spoke to Jose by screaming across the highway while driving and convinced him to take us into the rainforest in exchange for $120. We were more than happy to oblige, given that we would otherwise be stuck halfway between El Yunque and our temporary home. The group motto for the day became the song “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls,” which would be started again and again by the entire group throughout the adventure.
After what seemed like ages, we were dropped off at the entrance to our hike. Immediately after entering, the humid air was filled with laughter, birds chirping and water running. We decided to pass the large waterfall that hundreds of tourists were gathered around and ventured deeper into the rainforest to find a smaller waterfall with our own private pool below. The atmosphere of the group completely shifted as we sat around the base of the waterfall, telling stories and building rock structures. We spotted exotic animals, collected rocks as mementos and took professional-quality pictures. A tumultuous morning had finally turned out greater than our expectations.
Taste of city living
The next afternoon, after an active and adventurous day behind us, we decided to venture into the city and visit Old San Juan. This time, our Uber driver spoke almost perfect English and had completed college at Boston University before returning home to Puerto Rico to raise her daughter alongside her family. We jokingly commented on how nice it would’ve been to be able to communicate with Jose as we could with Marisa during our excursion to El Yunque. I asked her about a famous bar, ranked in the famous list, “Top 50 Bars in the World,” called La Factoría and she giggled and told me to “put my lipstick on and smile pretty because the minimum age is 23 to get into the bar.”
Later on in the car ride, she drove us past the capitol building and through Old San Juan before dropping us off in the middle of the town to wander. The colorful buildings reminded the group of Rainbow Row in Charleston, South Carolina. Surprisingly, the town was not too crowded and there was barely any car traffic, leaving it very easy to meander through the streets. Before leaving, we toured Castillo San Cristóbal, a famous fort. We saw the soldiers quarters and talked about the history of Puerto Rico. “It was amazing to see how well preserved the fort was after more than two centuries,” said Sarah Jane, who traveled in our group. “I got to learn about the way of life within the fort — they had celebrations in the courtyard, no animals were allowed and they slept in corridors of about 20 people.”
On the last day of the trip, we decided to stay in town near the house and absorb as much of the local culture as we could. We lounged on the beach, chatted with vendors who walked by with their dogs and dined at restaurants that did not require a car to get to. Pinky’s was the first stop for breakfast. Egg and bacon burritos, peanut butter and jelly smoothies and café con leche were on the menu for the group. The portion sizes were huge and prices extremely reasonable. Jenny, another member of the group, was the one who found the restaurant. “After existing on macaroni and cheese and hot dogs for the majority of the trip, I yelped ‘best breakfast near me’ and Pinky’s was the best ranked breakfast in the area,” said Jenny. “It also was less than a quarter of a mile which made it even better.” We got our fill of delicious rice, beans, lobster empanadas and fish tacos for dinner on the last day in San Juan.
Saying goodbye to San Juan
Early the next morning, the time had finally come to head back to America. Victor, our first driver, picked us up and drove us to the airport. At 5:15, the group was much less chatty, but Victor was excited to hear about the duration of the trip and all of the activities we had packed in. With tanner skin, a lot of sunburn and several priceless experiences under our belts, we happily recounted our week to him. One positive characteristic we noticed about the people of Puerto Rico, compared to other beach towns we had visited for spring break, was how friendly all of the locals were. They were constantly willing to stop and chat, offer recommendations or give directions. Although the language barrier was an obstacle, everyone agreed that the trip was absolutely worth it.
Edited by Avery Williams