Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga

Structural Patterns

Reflections on Art, Technology and Society

Notes on Viejo San Juan and Vieques

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Direct flight from JFK to San Juan, Puerto Rico

I spent July 10th through the 16th 2021 in Puerto Rico with my partner Erica – a Saturday through Friday trip. Three nights in Viejo San Juan – Saturday through Tuesday afternoon and three nights in Vieques – Tuesday evening through Friday morning. I’m writing this to record a few observations.

Upon arriving to San Juan, we were unable to connect to the free airport wifi and our cellular was not working. Although technically we were in the United States, we had no cell service and I wish I had set up international roaming ahead of travel. So Uber was out and we took the first taxi offer to the hotel, a $30 ride trip to El Viejo San Juan.

Exterior and Interior of El Hotel El Convento, nice but Airbnb would have been half the price…

In Viejo San Juan, we stayed at Hotel El Convento, a beautiful block size convent transformed into a hotel, right in the center of Viejo San Juan. The entrance is on Caleta de las Monjas and across the street on Calle del Cristo is la Catedral Basilica Menor de San Juan Bautista where one can find the remains of Saint Pius.

Next to the remains of St. Pius at La Catedral Basilica Menor de San Juan Bautista

As one would expect from a Spanish colonial building, the rooms are largely accessed from long interior corridors that look down upon a central courtyard that offers a bar and lounging. Our hotel room was comfortable with balcony doors that open to a cute view of a walking street called Escalinata de Las Monjas. However, the grand total for the three nights was over $1,100. Not worth the price! When we first booked the trip, I looked at a few Airbnbs and I regret not reserving one. It would have been half the cost. Part of the reason for the hotel were the rooftop jacuzzi and pool, but they were both very small – only enough space for a private party to enjoy. I did take advantage of the exercise room one morning, so that was a small advantage. The lesson learned, no need for a nice hotel while Airbnb is available.

Enjoying a mofongo and shrimp brunch at Hecho En Casa

Also as one may imagine, Viejo San Juan is full of tourists and the primary streets such as Calle de la Fortaleza or Calle de Tetuan or Calle de San Francisco are composed of tourist gift shops, restaurants and bars. I felt a bit as if I was in Disneyland. The food was excellent; we did not have one bad meal. Our favorite mofongo was at Hecho en Casa at the corner of Calle de San Francisco and Calle de San Justo. Our first evening out, we walked past Hecho en Casa and I thought it was just a cool looking bar, but it turned out to be an excellent restaurant. I think it was on Sunday morning that we both ordered the mofongo with shrimp, served in a small cast iron pan lined with plantain and the shrimp in its sauce in the center was delicious. At night, it seemed that Calle de San Sebastian became the party street with it partly closed off from cars. The bars were packed and no one was wearing masks, so we elected to not enter any of the crowded bars. Erica was disappointed to learn that there were no salsa clubs. We did see a few people here and there dancing salsa at some of the crowded bars, but most people stood around drinking.

Castillo de San Cristobal, Viejo San Juan

The real party is not in Viejo San Juan; it is at la Placita de Santurce which is a 20 minute drive from the center of el Viejo San Juan or as we discovered over an hour long walk. We took the scenic 90 minute route along the water. As we walked the coast, we passed La Perla, Castillo de San Cristobal, el Capitolio de Puerto Rico where a Christian group gathered to listen to a woman preach about the merits of dedication. She put forth her 30 year marriage as an example of happiness due to commitment and perseverance. I questioned the Christian admiration of longevity or in general the societal veneration of longevity whether it’s a 50 year marriage or 35 years at the same job… I considered the long marriages of my parents and aunts and uncles and they nearly all include long periods of pain as well as periods of disdain or dislike or ambivalence. It seems that in old age, they return to a deep appreciation as they have one another. But are all the years of pain or anger or hatred or ambivalence really worth it? And regarding staying at a job for decades, the people whom I know with the highest salaries moved through various institutions – each movement presenting a greater salary and more freedom. So should we really put longevity on a pedestal?

We continued along, leaving behind the Christian groups adoration at this woman’s celebration of her marriage to Balneario El Escambron, touring that small park and then crossing Highway 1 to Miramar. We walked past el Condado to La Placita. A market by day, La Placita de Santurce becomes a street party by night. We went on a Sunday night and yet the streets were full. Unlike el Viejo San Juan, it is not filled by tourists, but rather Puerto Ricans of all ages dancing, singing and drinking. Before enjoying the street festivities, we had an excellent dinner at Asere Cubano Kitchen and Bar where we enjoyed dishes of ropa vieja. Following dinner we toured La Placita and as we noticed other clubs away from the plaza, we continued down a small street. The best dancing we encountered was at a club called Delavida where couples were showing off their best New York style salsa dancing to a live group. After the live music ended, we headed back to La Placita. I think the most fun was had at the outdoor karaoke bar Santurce’s Cafe where the singing was amazing. It was a shame that La Placita was not closed off to cars as the crowds had to regularly give way to vehicles. However, as taxis circled around, it was easy to catch a taxi back to El Viejo San Juan.

The following day – Monday, June 12th, we had a half day hike in El Yunque National Forest, apparently the only rain forest in the “United States.” The hike was muddy and taxing; it offered lots of sliding and climbing. And again too many tourists. Our group alone was about 26 people, far too many people to hear details from the guides regarding vegetation and the rainforest environment. And there were other groups of hikers that we encountered and had to step aside for. The goal of this particular hike was to reach the top of a waterfall and ride it down in two parts. Adjacent to the small waterfalls were slides formed of rock, so one climbs up, jumps into the water and slides down the waterfall – a quick 20 foot or so slide. Then swim and walk to the next little slide, perhaps 10-15 feet, slide down; then climb up a rock to take a 20 foot dive into a swimming hole. And then climb and slide your way back to the parking area. It would be great to do it again, but without the tourist group and just spend the day enjoying the falls and swimming holes. The half day trip is too short considering the long drive from El Viejo San Juan into el Yunque. Our guides were great, particularly the head guide Jaime who is very charismatic. Through him I learned that one should never ask a Puerto Rican if they’ve tasted their beloved miniature frog el coquí. Particularly do not bring up the idea of fried coquí!

The next morning we packed and enjoyed a final walk around El Viejo San Juan. The previous evening, we had dinner at El Asador on Calle de San Francisco and Erica did not finish her grilled chicken. So the next morning we headed to Supermax at Plaza de Armas for a loaf of bread to tear apart and tear open to fill with grilled chicken for delicious grilled chicken sandwiches, or at least I did – half a loaf sandwich for breakfast and the second half a couple hours later. After the breakfast sandwich, I picked up a cafe con leche at Puchy’s Cafe in Plaza de Armas and it was delicious.

The hotel staff had told us that we should arrive three to two hours early to our local flight from San Juan to Vieques, because those flights have a reputation for leaving early and also taking stand by people. We arrived two and half hours early and it was entirely unnecessary! Security was quick, we headed to our gate and waited over two hours. We arrived in time for an early flight to Vieques, but they didn’t have space for us. Best to arrive an hour ahead of your local flight, an hour and twenty minutes if you really want to play it safe.

The 11-seat Traveller from San Juan to Vieques

Our Cape Air flight was a small ten person propeller plain for which each person’s weight and weight of luggage is carefully recorded. Based on our weight, we were instructed where to sit in the plane. On the flight to Vieques was a large older man who anchored the plane at the back as he excitedly talked about working for Delta many years and having flown this particular plane decades back. The planes do indeed appear 40 years old and one feels every bit of turbulence. On the flight back from Vieques one young woman, perhaps a teenager with purple hair nearly threw up.

We arrived at Vieques, but there was not a taxi in sight. We tried to pick up wifi or cellular, but no luck. I walked up the stairs to a tiny outdoor bar where a group of Americans sat drinking beer and asked the barkeep, a fat older white man the number to get a taxi. He was immediately annoyed by me, I had to ask him for the number a second time and then ask if there was wifi – the answer was a quick “no.” So I headed back to the airport entrance where Erica was waiting. She asked the airport employees for help and after trying several taxi numbers they got us ride! Apparently, we arrived when the ferry arrives, and the taxis head to the ferry as there are more customers. In fact, in the taxi van we rode with a couple who had just come off the ferry. So, if I were to travel to Vieques in the future, I would reserve a car and try to set up a pick up well ahead of arrival.

Enjoying the pool at Hacienda Tamarindo

We stayed at Hacienda Tamarindo, about a 20 minute walk from the main drag of Esperanza. The first night we dined at the only restaurant that had a table available – El Quenepo where we both ordered the local tuna. It was a pan-seared tuna at $31 that was delicious, but not as great as Duffy’s pan-seared tuna at $19 that also included fried plantains, and rice and beans (Quenepo’s tuna plate merely had a few greens). The first night Duffy’s had a long wait and after having dined there on our last evening, I understood why – fun atmosphere and great food.

Since we didn’t have a car or cell service to call a taxi, we only visited the near by beaches. We spent the first afternoon at Playa Negra, named after it’s black sand and all day Thursday at Playa Sun Bay, two excellent beach days. We didn’t spend much time in the water as Erica doesn’t swim and at Playa Sun Bay she felt a fish playing around her legs that sent her in a panic. I felt it as well and followed her out.

Wednesday evening we did the bioluminescent kayak tour at Mosquito Bay. The kayak was transparent so that we could see the glow fo the microbes that populate the bay. Our guide who lovingly gushed about the natural beauty of the bay and Vieques in general told us in detail about the bay – it’s name, it’s microbes, the stars above and the many creatures he has seen in the bay, including sharks.

“Mosquito Bay is named after “El Mosquito,” a small ship owned by Roberto Cofresí, a pirate who was a Robin Hood-type character. Cofresí often hid El Mosquito in the bioluminescent bay, which was connected to the ocean by a small, easily defensible inlet.” The large ships that Cofresí robbed could not follow him into the bay. Eventually Roberto Cofresí was captured and executed.

Following the history and bioscience lesson, our guide pulled out a laser pointer, made a couple Star Wars jokes and pointed out a few of the constellations as well as Jupiter and the Milky Way. The view of the stars from the bay is brilliant. Apparently the people indigenous to the area thought that the bay was magical because it reflected the stars or perhaps they thought the stars were born from the bay, I don’t recall the tale that the guide shared. We both loved the bioluminescent tour and only wish he had more time kayaking in the bay.

I couldn’t help but observe that our hotel and seemingly all the restaurants of Esperanza are owned by white U.S. citizens who have settled in Vieques from states like Vermont, Maine, North Carolina… The only business that appeared owned by locals were a taco cart and a small bar. A beautiful element about the island are all the roaming wild horses. Families of horses just wander about the streets and fields.

An evening stroll along Paseo de la Princessa

The trip was great, one must only be prepared to join many many U.S. tourists when staying in Old San Juan or visiting Vieques.

Written by ricardo

July 22nd, 2021 at 9:05 am