This was my 5th trip to Puerto Rico in the last 3 years. My partner Luis is a native Puertorriqueño -- and to think it took almost 9 years before I got to PR my first time in 2006! I think it’s safe to say, I am enchanted with this special Island, its history, art and culture and, of course, its people.
We arrived June 12th in the morning, proceeded over to Hertz at SJU. There was no line and no delays! Our car had just been washed and was ready to go. Next stop: family in Bayamon. But, a trip to Bayamon always means a stop at my favorite Panaderia y Reposteria – Castilla. I ordered 2 cafés con leche immediately, put in an order for a media noche and grabbed some Suiza Parcha (passion fruit) juice. I wasn’t disappointed in my media noche – a HUGE sandwich with large portions of meat unheard of in our local Cuban bakery in Burbank – Portos.
After checking with family, we set off for Pinones. I had a crap alcupurria (alcapurria de jueyes) and an ice cold Medalla! We settled in at the gorgeous beach and relished that we were finally back in Isla del Encanto, after months of anticipation. Ahh!
We then checked into our condo at the Ashford Imperial in Condado. The commons areas and exterior recently underwent remodeling and the place looks terrific! The lobby is reminiscent of the furnishings and sparse feel of the Lobby Bar at La Concha. The pool area has new furniture, a nicely lit waterfall and Jacuzzi.
We ended our day with the first of several terrific dinners at Levi’s Sport Center, El Rey del Churrasco (The Churrasco King) in Santurce. Although I opted for mofongo con camarones just to quench another longing! The service at Levi’s is polite, quick and efficient AND it’s open 24 hours a day! After dinner, we had a quick nightcap at the newest gay bar in Santurce/Condado – Circo. Its upscale décor, secure parking, excellent dance floor and nice crowd had us checking back into this place over the course of my stay. This first night got away from us – as we left Circo, we noticed the sun was rising! That didn’t seem to faze the rest of the club crowd, which was still going strong.
June 13 we got a late start, due to our crazy night before. We had a great lunch at Bebo’s and then headed towards the outlet in Barceloneta, one of our favorite stops. As Puerto Rico Day Trips notes, it’s the largest outlet mall in the Caribbean.
Along the way, we stopped a gorgeous beach in Manati, Playa Los Tubos. We had fun taking pictures of the whimsical Chupacabra and goat statues on the park grounds of the beach. Too funny! We then went to Laguna Tortuguero nearby
Sunday June 14th was Gay Pride Day in Boquerón. On our previous 4 trips together, the calendar never quite allowed us to attend either Gay Pride (San Juan or Boquerón). But finally having the chance, we woke up at sunrise for the drive across Puerto Rico to see what a pride festival on the Island is like.
The pride festival in Boquerón was packed with friendly folks in a partying spirit. It seemed the parade was hours late, but that didn’t stop the crowd from enjoying a gorgeous afternoon. As a veteran of Los Angeles pride, I must say, the parade participants in Boquerón put LA to shame. The costumes, makeup and hair styles were amazing and creative!
After that we headed to one of the restaurants in Joyuda where I had mofongo con chillo alijio (snapper with garlic sauce) for the first time! Yum.
As we wound our way back to San Juan, we found ourselves in the mountain town of Hormigueros. There I witnessed one of those magical things about Puerto Rico. We were videoing and taking pictures of the striking Catholic Church, which sits on a hill with a long steep staircase leading up to it, when we head the sound of drums. We headed towards a corner of the plaza to get a great cup of coffee, when the drums grew louder. In that corner, the town was performing and enjoying a bomba. There were at least 10 people singing and playing drums as participants from the audience were dancing. It was amazing to watch different ladies come out and move and hear the drummers beat to *their* movements. This was truly a quintessential Puerto Rico moment for me.
Monday June 15th, we again arose extra early to try to take a day trip via the ferry with family to Culebra. As we pulled into the ferry station in Fajardo and saw the line for Culebra wrapped around the block, along with 100 or so kids from summer camp, we knew we would not be going to Culebra and went with plan B. We walked right up to the Vieques window and bought tickets. We took a publico and paid for our return trip as well and spent a wonderful day at Sun Bay, enjoying the frolicking ponies. At 2pm or so, the publico driver was waiting for us we and returned to the ferry for the ride back to the mainland.
On the way back to San Juan, we stopped at the Luquillo kiosks for refreshments. Our favorite is Kiosko #33, La Mejicana. Luis had a great octopus/conch cerviche and I had piononos de carne and a pina colada con DonQ. YUM!!! The kiosk is owned by a couple, she’s Mexican and he’s Puerto Rican. The food is traditional comida criolle – she does it perfectly!
We drove to Old San Juan the morning of June 16th and spent the morning site seeing, shopping and eating. I had my parcha piraqua and also parcha sorbet from the street vendors. We headed back to Bayamon and to Panaderia Castilla again. On the way back to Condado we stopped at Supermax and I discovered bite-sized Passion Fruit paste made by Dulcura Puertorriquena. Needless to say, I’m a passion fruit freak, and I grabbed several packages and then again on subsequent visits.
Wednesday, June 17th, we had an early beach day at Condado and then headed back to Pinones for alcupurrias and fruit shakes! Later we had dinner with family (mi suegra’s sancocho) and took in a movie at the Caribbean Cinemas in Plaza del Sol. I learned that you can’t buy admission at the door with a credit card at Caribbean Cinemas. You can buy with credit card in advance with a third-party service (Ticket Pop?).
We returned to Old San Juan the next day, Thursday, June 18th. We parked and walked a few blocks when it started raining really hard! We forgot to bring the umbrellas that were in the condo, and waiting it out didn’t work. So, back to Condado to rest.
That night we met friends at LaPlacita de Santurce for a lively evening strolling, eating and drinking among the Puerto Rican people. Near the end of the evening, to our surprise, 8 very good-looking guys with drums, Batucada Sambaoe, put on a rousing performance. They tore into their drums for quite a while; working up a sweat, then in unison tore off their shirts, to the delight of the entire crowd! People starting dancing with each strangers and simply enjoying the beats. The leader of the group ended their performance by blowing fire from his mouth to amazing heights! It was intense. This was another quintessential Puerto Rican event for me. I didn’t bring my video camera, but realized Luis’ camera could record video. It’s a little dark, but here is the video of Batucada Sambaoe’s performance that night: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeHKvFqbaZE
On Saturday, June 20, our friends Ernest and Jim arrived from Los Angeles. On Sunday morning June 21, our friend Vanessa arrived from LA, too. The whole group had arrived!
Jim and Ernest stayed at the La Concha and we spent most of Sunday enjoying the pool and beach there. The frozen mojitos are the bomb! That night we had a scrumptious meal at Aguaviva in Old San Juan. I had a fried Chillo Entero (whole snapper) stuffed with mofongo con langosta. All 5 of us were very pleased with our meals. I noticed the menu has changed slightly – perhaps a sign of the times…. prices were lower. And the surf n’ turf now comes with shrimp instead of lobster.
Next up - Part II: An extended trip to Vieques, Noche de San Juan and Part III: El Yunque, two day trips to Culebra and an ill-fated trip to Cerro de Nandy (the mountain restaurant in San Lorenzo, recently featured on Andrew Zimmerman’s Bizarre Foods.)