Sassy, Sultry and Inviting- Puerto Rico!

Beauty is all about us, but how many are blind! They look at the wonder of this earth and seem to see nothing. People move hectically but give little thought to where they are going. They seek excitement … as if they were lost and desperate. – Pablo Casals

rw2 and I started traveling about 13 years ago when his dad graciously sent us on a cruise for our 10th wedding anniversary back in 1998. Through several tropical, caribbean islands we made our way through the typical cruise itineraries, cheesy entertainment and endless food. After having disembarked, we quickly realized that this type of travel was not for us. Although we don’t have anything personal against the kind people at Royal Caribbean or those that cruise regularly, we switched our travel methods to that of our own devices and itineraries.

Finding ourselves in San Juan, Puerto Rico for the afternoon before we hopped our plane back to Chi-town, we meandered through the cobble-stoned streets of an ancient city steeped in history, art and culture. Having only a few hours to kill we didn’t get to see everything that the old city of San Juan had to offer, but a recent 4 day weekend offered us the opportunity to return.

Spanish colonization, followed by being ceded to the U.S. after the American-Spanish war, Puerto Ricans were given U.S. citizenship in 1917. The heavy Spanish influence is apparent in the city itself, food and culture but the Puerto Rican flair is dominant. We stayed at Hotel El Convento, a 300 year old convent that has been converted into a luxury, boutique hotel. It’s interior courtyard, location in the heart of old San Juan and Spanish/Caribbean flavors made it a fantastic place to stay. The complimentary wine and cheese every evening was tasty and relaxing and the tapas restaurant found us lounging most days while the daily afternoon thundershower rumbled through.

On our first visit to the 100 mile long, 35 mile wide island of Puerto Rico, we toured Castillo San Cristóbal on the northern shore of Old San Juan. This is a U.S. National Historic Site and is maintained by the National Park Service. On our recent trip, we toured the other fort, Castillo El Morro which is only a short distance down the street from San Cristóbal. Being a U.S. National Park junkie, I swiped my yearly pass and in we went. The location of Puerto Rico was ideal for transportation of goods throughout the caribbean and from europe so these two forts played a pivotal role in trade and defense of it’s people throughout history. The city walls spread along the coast and make a lovely, romantic walk in the early evening as you walk along the Bay of San Juan. We came upon a local park along the bay that was having a music festival. Several singers and bands preformed on the outdoor stage with the lovely bay in the background. Loads of families, food vendors and a small market gave it a carnival like atmosphere and we were happy to act like ‘locals’ for the evening.

We like to find as much hiking as we can whenever we go somewhere new and PR did not disappoint. El Yunque is a U.S. National Forest and is the only rain forest climate in the national park system. With promises of waterfalls, stunning views, bird sightings and miles of trails through dense, lush rain forest surroundings, we anxiously reserved a rental car for a day of mother nature at her best. Unfortunately, she had other plans as we woke up to pouring rain with no promise or hint of it subsiding for our day in the great outdoors. Instead, we lazed, again, in the plant-surrounded tapas restaurant, sipping mojitos, reading and enjoying the intense tropical rain storms throughout the afternoon. Yeah, it was a *real* disappointment (wink, wink).

The next day was a bit more promising in the weather department, so we hopped a ferry from Old San Juan to Cataño to visit the Bacardi distillery. As loyal Guiness drinkers, we visited the beer drinking mecca of St. James Gate brewery while in Ireland. It’s multi-level museum gave interesting insight into one of the most famous, and delicious, beverages ever concocted. Even though our kids were not of drinking age, the historical, social and financial aspects of the beer and brewery gave us all a very fun day.

Alas, such is not to be said of the Bacardi distillery in Puerto Rico. The lush and beautiful grounds were aesthetically pleasing, but the rest of the tour was not. A 1 minute tram ride took us from the visitors center to the main building of classic art deco style. There we were given a brief history of the Bacardi product, shown several drink recipes and shown a video recapping the history that seemed to be more commercial than historical. After our less than 30 minute tour, of which we saw 3 vats in the actual process, we were shuttled back to the gift shop/visitors center. We passed a small building that said ‘museum’ but were not invited to go inside. A less than enthusiastic bartender poured us 2 complimentary drinks and we were soon asked to move from our tables so they could put up the chairs. All in all, nothing spectacular and nothing notable. I suppose if you are an avid rum drinker and Bacardi is your brand, this may be worth it for you, but I wouldn’t count on it.

A small plaza a few blocks from our hotel offered a rare jewel that we unearthed quite by accident. Beth has been a cellist since the 7th grade and has studied cello performance at Roosevelt University as well as been in numerous local orchestras as well as the assistant principle cellist for the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra for the last 28 years. So, it was a pleasant surprise to find the Museo de Pablo Casals tucked away in the sleepy little San Juan Plaza.

The world famous cellist and humanist Pablo Casals passed away in 1973 but his music lives on. You can experience it at the Pablo Casals Museum in Old San juan. Hundreds of recordings and video tapes of the Casals Festival, since its beginning in 1957, are available in the main music room on the museum’s second floor and in the plentiful memorabilia around the building. Original manuscripts of Casal’s music, his cello and piano are on display in the main hall. There are medals and decorations by heads of government, diplomas, letters and photographs. The music rooms are often occupied by serious young students who come to appreciate the extraordinary contribution the Spanish-born maestro made to the culture of Puerto Rico and the world. Casals lived in Puerto Rico, where his mother and his wife were born, from 1956 until his death. His legacy includes the Casals Festival, the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, the Conservatory of Music and the Children’s Special String Program.

Again, our travels did not disappoint. We met several U.S. travelers as well as rubbed elbows with the locals. Their kind, warm and inviting hospitality made our trip extremely memorable and made Old San Juan a much desired destination to return to. Perhaps we will find ourselves there with more time to spend than just an afternoon, a four day weekend or beyond. With an average yearly temperature between 75 and 85 degrees fahrenheit, who couldn’t spend a significant amount of time there? Gracias, Puerto Rico. Véale pronto.

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