Puerto Rico – November 2014

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Photo’s are here, or just click on the photograph above…

We have never been wholly convinced by the idiom (in those places with weather unpredictable enough for the locals to propound it) “if you don’t like the weather wait 5 minutes and it will change”. Usually it implies the norm is really awful weather 😉

However, that doesn’t seem to apply to Puerto Rico…. here, you don’t even have to wait 5 minutes for an improvement or, for that matter, a significant deterioration. In any 60 second period it can be perfectly calm and simultaneously blowing a gale … you can be drenched with monsoon-type horizontal rains (too sudden and heavy to have time to actually put up your umbrella) and boiled in the beating tropical sun, and there will, of course, be both black clouds and brilliant blue sky overhead 😉

This, of course, is partly what happens when one’s beloved husband books a romantic surprise vacation (for the first time in 20 odd years 😉 ) for you for Thanksgiving  and fails to fully analyze the likely weather patterns at the end of hurricane season in the Caribbean 😉 Usually matters of travel are best left to “the expert” to pick the premium time of year and arrange the schedule, hotel etc etc.. so this vacation surprise was an act of extreme bravery on Geoff’s part 😉

Having said that, he did remarkably well with the choice of hotel in Old San Juan albeit with the help of one of my close friends who was a recent guest at El Convento …. a converted convent (obviously!) and we had a lovely room overlooking the sea and rooftops in the old town 🙂

The peninsular of Old San Juan is predictably immaculately preserved with brightly painted and restored Spanish colonial architecture. It is surrounded by the Atlantic and the Bahia de San Juan and protected by high city walls and fortifications and is capped at each end with Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal. A lovely place to wander the peaceful cobbled streets, but without the exotic charm of somewhere like Cartagena, Columbia. Both are blighted by the regular arrival of gargantuan cruise ships and all of the tourist junk in the stores that that encourages, but Puerto Rico has succumbed (unsurprisingly I suppose, as it is an unincorporated territory of the USA ) to the full horrors of the US chain store and fast food outlets which is really kinda sad….

In essence, whilst a very pretty place, it lacks something of the authenticity of a Central or South American country which surprised us for a hispanic country…but at the end of the day this is the Caribbean and we should have expected it to be more sanitized.  It isn’t the same in all towns here but for the capital city we rather felt that it really is a shame that there is none of the chaotic daily life in the plazas such as you see in Columbia, Argentina, Paraguay, Peru or Guatemala; and none of the hawkers selling freshly squeezed juices, or the artisans setting up and selling their (quality) homemade crafts on the street corners, or the general hubbub of the squares being central to the towns people’s social lives… These are the things which enchant us in other hispanic countries.

Having said that we did really enjoy our time here … trying to practice our español with locals who speak fluent english ;-)… drinking really good coffee and watching the world go by in cafes and bars… and… when Geoff wasn’t sitting back in the hotel working before the Thanksgiving Holiday officially began, he managed to enjoy one or 2 of the specialist cocktails at the famous cocktail speakeasy – La Factoria 🙂 Most of all I enjoyed meandering through the cobbled multi-colored side streets avoiding the lower roads and port area clogged with cruise shippers …. yikes!!

One thing which did really impress us (being kitty people 🙂 ) is that Old San Juan is very kitty friendly. We fell upon a cat shelter by chance down by the city wall…. some may say we were guided by the weavings of 200 purring kitties between our legs…. there are a LOT of cats living in the streets here….and we were beginning to wonder why they were generally looking in pretty good shape for street cats and then all became clear! There is a non-profit called Save a Gato and we got talking to one of the volunteers who told us they implemented a spay and neuter program through the city to keep numbers down (which is amazingly proactive and better than most US towns), they also provided medical treatment and fed what they called their colony of cats – in the region of 3000! We even met a local who housed 11 cats and still fed and cared for a dozen street cats … all lolling about lazily in the sun without much of a care in the world 🙂 A far cry from the conditions most street animals endure….

The highlight of our time in San Juan itself was the excursion we were firmly advised not to take 😉 Warned off by the hotel staff, our favorite breakfast server at Caficultura (the best coffee shop in the city 🙂 ) and a barman on our first night, that the Tras Talleres (Rear Workshops) area of Santurce, backing onto a particularly unappealing Puerto Rican version of “the projects” was to be ventured into only as an act of insanity or absolute necessity. It was explained that the 2 previous drugs kingpins of the neighborhood had both been killed in the last few years leaving a void for control which remained to be filled and until the battle is won the law of the jungle applies there…..as is normal in these situations, with no defined leader, crime has been allowed to run rife and gun battles are commonplace  ….. ummm … slightly awkward news as this is the centre of street art for the city and for the top Puerto Rican street art festival of the year…. wasn’t quite what we were expecting to hear :-/

So… having dutifully considered all of the good advice, we chose to ignore it, and, having failed to convince a taxi driver to take us there too :-/  …we took public transport instead 😉 and hopped on a bus with the locals 🙂

Frankly, it wasn’t very scary in the broad light of day despite the gloom cast by the torrential on/off rain and enormous black clouds loooming overhead threatening worse to come…. or was that frisson of doom simply psychological?

In any event, in true Puerto Rican style the monsoon had stopped by the time we wandered 4 blocks into no-man’s land and happily the street art was supremely brilliant …. still ….. neither of us (mainly me!!) felt inclined to wander too far off the main thoroughfare and I, for one, was relieved to escape without having to dodge bullets …. one wonders if the locals were exaggerating …

A further potter about La Placita local market in Santurce – the quietest market we have ever seen – largely occupied by bored looking vendors was a bit of anti-climax after the Tras Talleres art… perhaps the locals were enjoying a siesta? 😉

Thanksgiving was a fabulous day spent out on the west coast in the Rincon peninsular – the day suitably frittered snorkelling, beach walking and relaxing in the sun 🙂 Loved Sandy Beach – palm trees lining the dark sand beach, big crashing waves and clear dark blue and turquoise water ….. Steps Beach was also very pretty – coral slabs on the shoreline and calmer blue waters but the piece de resistance for floating and snorkeling in the calmest caribbean waters in the area was at Crashboat Beach ….. the farthest end (and seemingly a million miles away) from the food trucks, shrieking kids and loud music 🙂

Geoff relaxed so much during our beach excursion that he lost both a hat and a snorkel in just a few short hours! 😉  …he did however, manage to bring back an unexpected visitor instead… back at the hotel we found a hermit crab had  made its way into Geoff’s swimming shorts (thankfully he wasn’t wearing them at the time) so it had to be rescued and taken down to the sea wall in Old San Juan that evening to be re-homed in the Atlantic… hope it wasn’t too much of a shock moving from the Caribbean side of the island 😉

We were very thankful by the end of Thanksgiving Day that we actually made it back safely to the hotel, despite the locals efforts to kill off all tourists with their spectacularly inept driving skills. After some analysis we agreed that drivers in Puerto Rico are something of a cross between American drivers and Brazilian drivers (we’ll let you draw your own conclusions) 😉 They are nothing if not relentless in pressing ahead at great speed with seemingly little regard for other road users despite the dangers the road may present. By the end of our day trip, we barely even registered the car doing 75mph in the outside lane of a 50mph road – on fire – smoke billowing from the engine and flames licking at the hood of the car… Geoff murmured as an aside… “mmm – that car appears to be on fire…oh well… whatever…” 😉

Our final excursion was to hike in the El Yunque rain forest and drive the coast road through the state forest and along the beautiful coastal route of Piñones. The beaches were backed by extensive pine forests and were all but deserted for miles on end …. save the rather persistent stray dog who took a shine to Geoff as potential new daddy …poor creature 😦 We were rather non-plussed by the rain forest – a couple of average looking waterfalls and a short paved trail through the undergrowth does not a spectacular rainforest make 😉 Perhaps New Zealand, Costa Rica, Vancouver Island etc etc etc spoilt it for us…. not sure why it gets such rave reviews but there ya go – each to his own!

Onwards and upwards!!!

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