Puerto Rico, Part 1
"HOLA!" My new husband beams as we step off the plane into paradise. We've counted down the days for ten months. After the hustle and bustle of family in town for the wedding, last minute details, nausea (mostly on my part), extreme stress, and a relatively smooth wedding, we are overjoyed that this moment has arrived. As we enter the airport, we notice it is small, and there is nothing at all familiar about where we currently find ourselves. The people we pass seem happy, the language is certainly foreign, and no one is barreling through the airport late for “a super important” flight. After waiting a suspiciously long time for our luggage, we load our tiny, silver rental car. The windows are rolled down, the radio is blaring an infectiously catchy Latin tune, and the scenery is fascinating.
We navigate using the Spanish road signs, as we wind our way through the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan. On either side of the streets, we find beautiful, Spanish-style colonial architecture. These buildings that line the streets are pastel in color – yellow, blue, green, pink – and topped off with tile roofs and solid, heavy wooden doors mahogany in color. While admiring the architecture, we squeeze through the mayhem that is driving in Old San Juan. Many of the streets are one-way, and not clearly marked. They’re also quite narrow (originally made for horses), and we notice maybe 3 stop signs in the entire area. Which means stopping and turning onto new streets is an adventure, albeit a fun one! Eventually, we turn the corner to take Calle Del Cristo, and find our San Juan home, El Convento. This hotel is the oldest on the island, constructed in 1646 as a convent. As we step out of the car, we’re met with heavy, humid air, and perhaps the friendliest valet I’ve ever met. Already brimming with valuable information from the valet, we follow him across the street into the hotel. Glancing back, I notice we’re cattycornered from Catedral de San Juan Bautista, a beautiful cathedral built in the 1500’s, and reality dawns on me. We are truly here!
As we round the corner to face El Convento, its full grandeur is visible. The elegant building is warm yellow in color, with white details framing the wooden doors and shuttered windows. As we step through the doors, it’s apparent we’ve entered another time. The checked tile floors, the Spanish details, and the old paintings of saints stand ready to greet us. Soon, we’re winding our way through the courtyard on our way to the room. The immense courtyard hosts it’s own restaurant, with the hotel built around it. By looking up, we see that all 5 floors are open to the courtyard, framing it in a rectangular shape. We open the wooden door to our room to find sunlight streaming through the broad open windows, along with an incredible view of mountains, ocean, and the old city! We quickly toss our belongings into the room and spend the evening wandering the streets of Old San Juan.
The next day we further explore the old city, beginning with breakfast and ending with the castillos: Castillo San Cristobal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Castillo San Felipe’s construction began in 1539 (that’s older than Jamestown!), with Castillo San Cristobal’s construction following in 1634 in order for the Spanish to fortify their new establishment. They are massive, beautiful structures built to maintain the Spanish advantage against would-be intruders. We pour over every inch of the villages, wondering aloud what it might have been like to live here all those hundreds of years ago. The edges of these structures contain towers for guards to stand watch. Sleeping quarters, a dining hall, a chapel, underground chambers, vaulted rooms, and much more lie in between. At the top level, and from any side, we have breathtaking views of the clear, blue ocean. After enjoying hours in the castillos, and the breathtaking views of the ocean, we walk back toward the interior of the city. There’s an energy in San Juan that’s difficult to put into words. And, the citizens are friendly, with a spirit that reflects true hospitality and endurance.
Mojitos are next on the list. The Mezzanine at St. Germain is perhaps the best decision we’ve ever made in regard to food. We ascend the old iron, spiral staircase and step into a small room. The walls are covered in beautiful, unique mirrors and lamps. The décor is chic, with marble topped tables and antique-style chairs. Amanda greets us as we take a seat at the bar. She speaks of her magnificent Puerto Rico in a beautiful accent, while never missing a beat mixing that mojito. We chat happily about the culture and history of this stunning island while we wait for our meal. And, oh my, is the wait worth it. We attack our Grouper Fish Tacos with full gusto, mildly attempting to slow down and savor. The perfectly seasoned grouper, cilantro mayo, and coleslaw truly melt in your mouth. It’s not an exaggeration to say it’s one of the best meals I’ve ever enjoyed! Our testament to this is that we dine here several times before our departure.
After the excitement of the day, we opt to unwind in the rooftop Jacuzzi back at El Convento. We gaze at the city, sprawling with its beautiful old-world charm, and listen to the buzz of the nightlife. We discern Latin music pouring from passing cars and apartments. Street musicians zealously strum their instruments, hoping for sweet affirmation of their passion as pedestrians pass by them. The simple beauty of this city, the warm breeze from the ocean, and the sounds of happiness in its many forms lull us into relaxation. And, at that very moment, I wonder if I can summon time to please slow down.