Puerto Rico IV: Big News

She’s so fantastic. Super amazing.

Reading this week:

  • On the Missionary Trail by Tom Hiney
  • Simone by Eduardo Lalo
  • River of the Gods by Candice Millard

On our third day in Puerto Rico, we did wake up bright and early. Or earlyish anyways. During the trip we wanted to visit El Yunque National Forest, but pro tip for those that want to visit you need to get passes in advance and the correct time to do that is 30 days before you want to go, which is when the passes become available. A limited number are available the day before so we had to be ready and on our phones to snap up passes when they became available. We were ready and we did indeed snap up those passes.

By this point in our time in Puerto Rico we had managed to get a variety of Puerto Rican food for lunch, dinner, and even brunch, but we had not yet tackled the most important meal of the day. So for breakfast, on the suggestion of my super amazing girlfriend, we set out for a very cool old-fashioned diner named Mallorca where we got mallorcas, which are a Puerto Rican pastry that is apparently equally happy to be served with powdered sugar as it is to be served with ham, cheese, and powdered sugar. I opted for the straight powdered sugar version while my super amazing girlfriend got her mallorca with cheese and said she liked it.

Fueled, we were off for our next adventure, which was Castillo San Cristobal. I know a guy named Cristobal, so it was nice to finally check out his digs. Castillo San Cristobal is the other big fort in San Juan, the other one being El Morro which of course I covered last week. Our guidebook warned that if you visited both in the same day they might start to run together, what with them being two parts of the same interlocking city defense system, so we hadn’t done that.

While conceptually the two forts are pretty similar, we liked the vibe at Castillo San Cristobal a lot better. I think what it was is that it is more in the city. El Morro, as the name suggests, is out on a pointy point of land and it feels more like maybe you are out at sea or something. But Castillo San Cristobal is nestled firmly within Old San Juan, so as you look out you see the city and people and all that and it feels like you are in the midst of the hustle and bustle. But yeah like El Morro it has cannons and passages and I think we spent the largest chunk of our time hounding fellow tourists to take our picture. The single coolest part was probably in a dungeon-like area, where they had centuries-old graffiti of Spanish galleons, which is cool, but which had been drawn by “a Spanish captain held here to await execution for mutiny,” which is grim.

Leaving the Castille, we head back to our room to cool off and rehydrate and this was the most exciting part of the day, because my super amazing girlfriend found out she had finally been placed on the register for the foreign service!!!! This doesn’t mean she’ll be able to join the foreign service necessarily but it is a huge step and I am proud of her and she is the coolest person ever!!!!!!

To celebrate we got the hell out of San Juan. That’s not true, we had planned to leave anyways. My super amazing girlfriend had wanted to visit a rum distillery, and so we went to Ron del Barrilito in Bayamón. By visiting we actually missed the mark on the whole distillery thing, because they aren’t one, but oh well. To get over there we took the ferry, which cost an astoundingly cheap 50 cents and provided some fun views of the harbor if you weren’t too worried about leaving on a regular schedule. Ron del Barrilito is a Puerto Rican rum brand founded by an engineer with a fondness for port. What they do is take raw distillate, flavor it with dried fruit and the like according to their secret recipe, and then age it. We had a fantastic tour. We were the only two on it and our guide was a true Barrilito believer (he had a tattoo). We walked the grounds a little bit, looking at the outside of the house and the old windmill, then were brought into the bottling line and where the mix the distillate and everything, and then shown the aging warehouses which were of course filled with barrels. We learned some about the mixing process which I think is super impressive. A cocktail of your choice comes with the tour and it was great.

In the middle is the “Freedom Barrel,” which was barreled in 1952 and Ron del Barrilito says they’ll open up in the town square for everyone to drink when Puerto Rico gains its independence.

After enjoying the cocktail we head back to the ferry which we found out would not be leaving for like two hours. So we explored the waterfront there which was nice and watched two huge cruise ships pull into port. When we returned to Old San Juan we found it fairly packed but managed to find a quiet place for dinner, an experience only marred by the fact that a mango fell out of a tree and hit my super amazing girlfriend’s shoulder which really hurt her. Based on how delicious mangos are we both put aside any plots for revenge but this won’t be forgotten, mangoes. Also at some point we went to go see the tomb of Juan Ponce de León, again not thinking too deep about his legacy. All in all it was a fantastic day and we were left excited for our fourth day in Puerto Rico, which would see us break out of the confines of San Juan entirely.

The mortal remains of Juan.

Puerto Rico III: Mas Museos

Sun-kissed.

Reading this week:

  • Beautiful Swimmers by William W. Warner

Look I’m sorry to have cut you off on that cliffhanger last week. Normally it’s easiest to keep each day of a trip like ours to a blog post, but we’re only halfway through our second day. You see, my super amazing girlfriend and I, if you can’t already tell from my many many blog posts, are Museum People. We go to museums. We kept meaning to hit up a beach in Puerto Rico, and we brought our bathing suits and everything, but we kept going to museums because that is what we like to do. We are extremely worldly and when I am just fantastically rich I am going to donate to so many museums just so I can finally get invited to a gala or two. This means this blog post got split up because man we went to a lot of museums that day.

But we didn’t only go to museums! For example, after we saw all there was to see at the Museo de las Americas, my super amazing girlfriend got a piragua as a tribute to In the Heights. We relaxed in the Plaza del Quinto Centenario and watched the crowds go by and one specific guy try to master some BMX tricks. He was very good and this was very nice.

Refreshed, we went to the Museo de San Juan. We really didn’t mean to go to this many museums this day (though I don’t know why I am apologizing) but we just kept getting through them. This was a nice museum, not least for the air conditioning, though it was more courtyard than museum. Still! A very nice courtyard. The most embarrassing part of our experience here is that we got into the foyer of the first exhibit and didn’t realize there was a second door, so we thought it was just a very small exhibit. After we went to the second exhibit we figured it out and saw the rest of the first. These two exhibits were some art displaying the history of tourism in Puerto Rico, and the second was a lot of silver displaying the history of religion in Puerto Rico.

Having finished Museum #3 and ready for more, we exited, looked out over the horizon, and set our sights on the final major destination of the day: El Morro. Properly Castillo San Felipe del Morro, it is a big ole’ fort that protects the entrance to San Juan harbor. In my journal I described it as “super-duper impressive.” You approach over that big field where people fly kites and where the Dutch apparently invaded that one time, over a very long road. You cross over the moat and before you know it, you’re in!

The thing I find most impressive about these sorts of old forts is that we just kept using them. One of the last things we did was descend down into the original tower of the fort, which is now fully encapsulated in one of the defensive walls. But there is a handy sign saying those bricks were laid 500 years ago and it feels like it. The fort I suppose isn’t actually that massive compared to like, the Hoover Dam or something, but the walls are massive and thick and standing at the bottom of one you see how it got the reputation of being (according to the National Park Service site) unconquerable. It’s got stairways and warrens to help soldiers get all over the fort and with its commanding presence over the harbor I would not be enthusiastic about going up against it. But despite it being at that point 400 years old I like how during WWI and WWII the Americans just moved in and set up new guns and kept on going. Though again with those walls you see why!

Heading down into the tower.

From atop the fort there are fantastic views of the sea and the museum displays are very good about explaining the centuries-long history of the fort and its strategic importance to the Spanish and then the Americans. With big ramps and all the different passageways like I said it is a very fun place to explore, though we got Very Hot and needed to make sure to rehydrate. Satisfied we had gotten an insight into coastal defense, we eventually left and then wandered around finding souvenirs and then dinner (a task that was hindered by most restaurants being extremely loud despite this being a Sunday night), and well fed we returned to the room for the night.

Puerto Rico II: Museos

Reading this week:

  • Between Man and Beast by Monte Reel

Our second day and full first day in Puerto Rico dawned bright and early, except it didn’t because it was delightfully dark in our room and we were on vacation. Our first destination of the day was Casa Blanca, where we arrived shortly after it had opened.

Casa Blanca is one of if not the oldest structure on the island (and is therefore one of the oldest structures still standing in the US) and was originally built as a house for Ponce de León, whose legacy we never quite saw deeply considered on the island. It kept being used for various things over the next few centuries, and eventually we got to visit it. It was a really nice museum! It wasn’t large, but admission was only $5, so not a shabby way to spend some time.

We were still getting used to the immense beauty of Puerto Rico at this point so one of the best features of Casa Blanca was its viewpoint on said beauty, which was excellent. The displays in the house itself were mostly concerned with the construction and physical history of the building, with many many “windows” into the actual brick and masonry that the building is constructed of. These windows list the various approximate dates that these building materials were placed there. One thing I was surprised at here and would continue to be surprised at was just how out in the open everything was, in that they had centuries-old artifacts just chillin’ exposed to the ocean air. My instinct is to put them under glass but I suppose if they survived a few centuries already they would survive a few centuries more.

I really enjoyed the architecture of Casa Blanca with its openness and handy-looking kitchen, but the best part (besides the stray cat curled up beneath a bench) was probably the courtyard. It was this gorgeous tree-lined space with a fountain in the middle providing a cool oasis and all that right in the heart of Old San Juan and it was great. We gotta get one of those for our place.

As the title of this blog post suggests after this museum we continued to go to more museums. The next step was the Museo de las Americas. When going there we were thwarted by several things. The first was our inability to find the front door for a bit. There was some construction and confusing signs in my defense. The next was that we were very confused why there was no one at the entrance, which we eventually figured out was because the museum was still closed. So we had a lovely brunch at a place on the ground floor and when the museum opened we dove in.

The Museo de las Americas covers a lot of topics, from the African influences on the island to contemporary art movements. When we went they had a section on a contemporary art group, “Agua, Sol y Sereno.” That group puts on a variety of performances, involving sometimes these large masks and other caricatures, many of which were on display at the museum. One performance they would put on was a commentary on the food situation in Puerto Rico, where despite the lushness of the island much of the food was imported. I was just thinking to myself that I would have liked to see that one when we discovered that they were putting on a performance at the museum in like, 15 minutes. So we got to see that! It was very good, and I think we got the gist of it largely thanks to the museum displays. However afterwards there was a discussion portion which we could not understand (it was in Spanish, you see) but were too embarrassed to leave because there was no easy way out. It was my super amazing girlfriend that was brave enough to rescue us and get out of there. Still, quite an experience!

My one other comment on the Museo de las Americas is that they and in fact many of the museums we went to were very good about contextualizing what they were putting on display. I mentioned their African exhibit and what they are doing there is going back to African traditions that were imported by enslaved persons in order to show the roots of different aspects of Puerto Rican culture. It was very good and it was far from the last place that really worked to show the sources of traditions and other cultural aspects and how Puerto Rico has transformed them to produce the culture of today. It was really great!

Puerto Rico I: Arrival in San Juan

Reading this week:

  • The House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferré

Almost but not quite a year into our jobs, my super amazing girlfriend and I decided to take a vacation. We took that vacation to Puerto Rico and it was a blast. We had decided to go to Puerto Rico because we wanted to go somewhere exotic and foreign, but going someplace actually foreign was too much of a logistical hurdle. So, in the long tradition of exoticizing anyone with a different accent, we settled on Puerto Rico.

I am extremely harsh on us in that paragraph and this comes from guilt from seeing references to TikTok videos saying that people should stop visiting Puerto Rico. I have a lot of different thoughts on that topic and a deep interest in the United States’ territories, having lived in Guam for two years. In that vein I was very interested in visiting Puerto Rico to get a better glimpse into how the United States is treating the place and what the situation really is on the ground. Without pontificating too much based on a one week vacation, in the end I was surprised at how different Puerto Rico was. I had expected it to be a lot like Guam (which the US also took over in the Spanish-American War) but it felt much different than I expected. But first of course we had to get there.

Traveling to Puerto Rico went perfectly smoothly, and we arrived at right about lunchtime and immediately caught a ride into Old San Juan where we were going to spend a few days. Burdened with our luggage and needing to kill some time before we could check into our room, we stumbled around until we found a magnificent lunch place that I regretted not being able to rediscover the rest of our time there. While in grad school, only a whopping one year ago, I took two years of Spanish classes which were almost entirely wasted on me. I relate that to say that I didn’t know what it was that I was ordering off the menu, much to the surprise of my super amazing girlfriend, but like all the food we had in Puerto Rico it was delicious and filling. We had a couple of beers to kill some more time and basked in the literal warmth of Puerto Rico and the metaphorical warmth of being in a new and exciting place where we were bound to have memorable adventures.

When enough time had passed we head into the heart of Old San Juan to check into our room and then turned around again to see what we could see. This was great. Old San Juan is not a large place and takes like 15 minutes to walk from end to end. On this first walk we admired the park filled with pigeons, various old chapels/churches/cathedrals, and did some touristy photos in and amongst the colorful streets. The most gorgeous part was when we hit the north side of town and got our first look at El Morro, and the massive field in front where people were flying kites in the late evening. As we walked around a cargo ship drove right by El Morro and into the harbor, which of course I was gaga for.

Heading southward, we were then delighted to find all the street cats. We eventually made our way down to the Parque de Los Gatos, though man that park is an absolutely minefield for cat poop. Despite that the views of the harbor were beautiful and we took a bunch of selfies, as one does. We then headed down through the San Juan gate and strolled along the waterfront, taking many more selfies along the way. We proceeded to a pre-dinner Sangria at a tapas place before settling into a bar to get some grouper and fried plantains for dinner. On a short post-dinner walk (to aid in the digestion of course) we poked around even more of Old San Juan, and I admired people’s windows where there was no glass but only wooden bars, making an intimate connection between the street and their living room. Then it was back to our room to chill for the night and prepare for a big day two.