SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Sometimes you just need a quick trip to the beach. But as an American without a passport — mine had been stolen — I had limited options for an easy but interesting getaway.
I decided to try Puerto Rico. The island, which is a U.S. territory, offers for Americans all the comforts of domestic travel — easy entry, no extra charges for cell phone service, and the U.S. dollar as the currency. But Puerto Rico also has Caribbean beaches and Latin culture along with waterfalls, colonial Spanish history and good food and drink. That made it more appealing to me than a stateside beach.
I convinced my first-grade pen pal to join me at the very last minute, and we spent five days relaxing on the beach, exploring old San Juan, hiking through the island's rain forest and, of course, enjoying tropical drinks as we pondered our futures.
Puerto Rico has two seasons: wet and dry. Prices tend to be lower in the rainy months, April to November, but that's because you run the risk of getting stuck inside your hotel room waiting for the rain to subside. Traveling there last fall, I knew this going in, but was willing to take my chances.
Take my chances I did. The first full day on the island found us in the middle of a possible hurricane that led the government to shut down alcohol sales at all restaurants for a few hours. Talk about a buzzkill.
Ultimately, the ban was lifted and my friend and I were able to enjoy margaritas and pina coladas while eating mofongo, a plantain mash that can be served with meat, seafood, chicken or vegetables.
The hurricane ended up passing by the island overnight, so the next day we were able to explore historic Old San Juan, which includes a National Historic Landmark district and UNESCO World Heritage sites. Christopher Columbus landed here in 1493 and Ponce de Leon founded a settlement on the island in 1508. Centuries-old waterfront forts, La Fortaleza and El Morro, were built to protect it from invasion. Puerto Rico remained a Spanish colony until 1898, when the U.S. took over following the Spanish-American War. La Fortaleza remains in use as the governor's mansion.
A large gate and tunnel, Puerta de San Juan, still lead to the old city through what's left of the tall walls that once surrounded it. Pink, blue, green and yellow buildings caught our eyes as we wandered the cobblestone streets with their fountains and plazas.
We also spent a day at El Yunque, Puerto Rico's famous tropical rain forest. Many visitors rent a car and make the trek on their own from San Juan — it's about 30 minutes away — but we booked a guided tour through our hotel that included a hike and swimming beneath a waterfall. There are several different places where you can swim, but be prepared for a bit of adventure, including slippery rocks and a river with a rope swing.
After a couple of days of sightseeing, we were ready to indulge in the main reason we'd come here. Our hotel, like many in San Juan, was right on the beach, and that's where we headed.
If You Go...
EL YUNQUE: http://www.fs.usda.gov/elyunque .
SAN JUAN NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE: http://www.nps.gov/saju/index.htm
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