Holidays in Puerto Rico

Benji and Irene in El Yunque

One of my greatest joys is traveling. When I was young, while other kids were reading comic books, Hardy Boys, and Goosebumps, I was reading maps, fantasizing what it must be like on another corner of the globe. I could name every country and their capitals, major cities, and natural geographic features. Hence it is not too surprising that I would eventually choose somewhere across the seas to live and study, here in St. Maarten. It is also not too surprising that I spent most of my winter holidays traveling, but this time with my other greatest joy, Irene ;).

One thing great about St. Maarten is that it is not only a destination for traveling, but also an jumping point from which to do more traveling. Having St. Maarten as a home base is an opportunity. Ever since becoming a Caribbean med student, I have already traveled to Anguilla. This past week, Irene and I left our home in Georgia and headed to Puerto Rico for 8 wonderful days together. As it was only $100 more for me to make a long stop in Puerto Rico before coming back to St. Maarten, versus flying straight from Georgia to St. Maarten, I couldn’t say no. And being in a place that celebrates Christmas for 2 months and among a people that knows how to do a New Years fiesta right? The timing just couldn’t be better!

Irene and I joining the Puerto Ricans in welcoming the New Year!

AUC students, the flight between St. Maarten and Puerto Rico is only 35 minutes, so it is a great idea for a long weekend trip or a break trip between semesters.There is lots to see, and even after staying 8 days, there’s still much yet for us to explore. We’ll save it for next time!

Puerto Rico is located farther than Cuba, farther than Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and farther than many other places you’d normally think of to be very culturally “foreign.” It was a surprise for us then how much like home it was when we first arrived. The “interstates”, buildings, outlet malls, road signs… everything looked as if it were back at home, except for the fact that everything was in Spanish and the people walking around were all Latino. It did not feel like we had left the United States at all, probably because we didn’t. Puerto Rico has the best of both worlds. It blends the beauty of Latino culture with the high standard of living of the United States. Having this blended culture and being in the tropics, it has much to offer. So let me share with you our trip to Puerto Rico! Here are some places Irene and I enjoyed going:


1. Old San Juan:
When people tell you “Go downtown, they got cobblestone!,” they really mean go visit the oldest city in the United States, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the most beautiful, most lively colonial towns in the Caribbean. The old walled-city with a rich port is where Puerto Rico gets its name. Here, you find Spanish-style buildings painted all the vivid colors you can think of, with lots shopping and chic places to eat by day and never-ending salsa clubs by night. The most famous of these clubs is the Nuyorican. Irene and I stayed at this awesome (and affordable) boutique hotel called Da House. I’d also recommend staying at artsy and bohemian Casablanca Hotel. There are countless restaurants here that range from local cheap eats to Latin-Asian fusion to classy Puerto Rican. Old San Juan is the beating heart of San Juan.

2. El Morro:
Built in 1589, this is the fort protecting the walled city of Old San Juan from invaders of the past. Today, the fort is designated a national historic site, and in many ways still protects the city… from the massive waves below. Puerto Rico has some of the largest waves I’ve seen in my travels… so surfers look out! A walk to the top of the fort offers amazing vistas. No wonder, they built it here!

3. Vieques:
Also known as the Spanish Virgin Islands (along with the island of Culebra), Vieques is quaint, lush, and beautiful. There are lots of things to do here, from a diverse number of beaches to choose from ranging from white sand to black sand. We stayed in Esperanza, on the Caribbean side of the island. It’s a great place to go kayaking, snorkeling and swimming. Vieques also has the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay.. which brings me to the next attraction.

4. Bioluminescent or Phosphorescent Bays:
A special type of microscopic dinoflagellates thrive in these waters, and they glow in the dark in response to light. Irene and I took a kayaking tour to the brightest of these bays in Vieques after the sun set. As we swam in the water, the water around our legs and arms lit up. The water around which the dinoflagellates gave off light also warms up. As fish swim by, a trail of glowing light follow their paths. It was magical, like something out of a Disney movie… it just didn’t seem real, but it is. There’s nothing quite like it in the world, and I would definitely recommend visiting Vieques for this.

5. Arecibo Observatory:
Arecibo Observatory is the largest single radio telescope in the world, and has played a key role in many astronomical discoveries. It is also used by SETI to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It looks like something from a James Bond movie, probably because it is, in Goldeneye. Why in Puerto Rico? First, it is closest place to the equator within the United States, only 18 degrees north of the equator, and therefore giving it a closer glimpse of the planets. Second, the telescope is located in the “karst country” of Puerto Rico where limestone hills abound and natural sink holes form perfectly-round craters in which to place a perfectly-round satellite. And lastly, it is located in the middle of nowhere, away from radio disturbances. Irene and I were amazed at the telescope’s size and at what science can achieve in revealing to us about the universe we live in.

6. Lares:
Lares is a small town clinging onto the side of a steep mountain slope in the middle of Puerto Rico. It is famous for three completely unrelated things. Historically, it is the site of Puerto Rico’s first uprising for independence, from Spain, known as “El Grito de Lares.” More recently, it is known to be the hometown of Miss Universe 2001. Hence, the welcome sign to the city proudly proclaims itself as the “Place of Beautiful Women.” Hands down, the Ice Cream Shop of Lares has THE best codfish ice cream! :p Culinarily, the town is known for the unorthodox ice cream shop in the center of town, serving flavors you’d never expect could be turned into ice cream, like carrots, avocado, rice-and-beans, ginger, and corn. I sampled the garlic, avocado, potato/squash casserole, and rice-and-peas ice creams, before settling down with a big scoop of the codfish ice cream. Irene stayed “more traditional” (relatively-speaking) and got the potato/squash casserole ice cream.

7. Plaza Las Americas:
Plaza Las Americas is hands-down the best mall in the Caribbean, and one of the nicest and largest malls I’ve been to in the United States (in fact, it is the third largest in Latin America and 12th largest in the United States). We went three days in a row, and shopped for a total of 11 hours, and still didn’t get through all the stores. I normally don’t buy a lot of clothes, and I’ve been wearing the same stuff for years, but seeing that I won’t have another chance to shop like this after returning to St. Maarten, I got myself a new wardrobe.

8. El Yunque Rainforest:
El Yunque is the only rainforest in the U.S. National Forest system and the one with the richest diversity of tree species. It’s a great place to explore the endless wildlife and beautiful waterfalls. They have trees thousands of years old and endangered tree frogs. Irene and I hiked two miles along La Mina waterfall trail, and Irene took a dip under the waterfall. It was beautiful and fun.

9. The Bacardi Rum Factory:
The Bacardi Rum Factory in CataƱa is the largest rum distillery in the world. They give a fantastic museum guided tour that is free, as well as give you two vouchers for two free drinks (containing Bacardi rum of course). The factory is easy and cheap to get to, with a $0.50 ferry ride from Old San Juan and then a $3 taxi ride to the company campus. I normally don’t drink, and lacking the experience as well as the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme, I turned red pretty quickly. Two small drinks is a lot!

10. Celebrate New Years Puerto Rican Style:
New Years in Old San Juan was amazing. They set up a stage in the plaza where many famous Puerto Rican stars came. Everyone (except other non-Latinos like us) was singing and dancing along with the band on the stage. I felt the pride of the Puerto Ricans. The unity of their voices showed their inseparable bond as a people, not merely as Americans, but uniquely as Puerto Ricans. This new years, Irene and I fell in love with a new culture and a new people, living on an island so similar to the mainland United States yet so different as well.