Wednesday, April 16, 2014

PR: El Yunque "The rainforest looks good on you"

(No, that's not powdered sugar left over from our mallorcas, 
it's the actual color of our legs pre-beach)

A big highlight of the trip for all of us was the rainforest, El Yunque (yoon-kay), which was about a 40-minute drive from San Juan.  After our big night out dancing and just about 3 hours of sleep, we rented a sedan and Gio drove us into this magical forest of rain.  

None of us had ever really been to a rainforest, and the best thing I can say is that it felt good.  It was a balmy 80 degrees and we were surrounded by the lushest greenery, refreshing air and rain, and I just felt free, energized and inspired, even.  Like I could really breathe.  It was exhilarating as we ran from waterfall to waterfall, in and out of the car from one monument to the next.

We requested that the guys taking the above shot for us in front of Cascada La Coca make sure to get "no thigh", and then when it was their turn for a photo, one turned to the other and asked pensively, "Do we want thigh?"

At Yukaho tower, it really started pouring.  The water stung but we didn't care, because the view was breathtaking.

The main chunk of our time in El Yunque was spent hiking to Cascada La Mina, a large waterfall in the middle of the park.  It took about 40 minutes to hike in, and it wasn't overcrowded at all.  The path was paved, as it would have been a complete mudslide otherwise.

But some parts were slippery, and one of us took a tumble.  I can't tell if the real fall or the reenactment was more entertaining.

Sometimes we walked along like penguins, other times like velociraptors or T-rex.  Then finally, we made it to the falls!  We had hoped to actually swim in the pool at the bottom, but since it was raining so profusely, the water was extra-powerful and it wouldn't have been safe.  Beautiful, still!

We were all pretty much soaked to the core by the end of the walk, and I was sporting a new style coined "mophead" by Brittany.

After changing into dry clothes in the car and leaving the rainforest, we headed to Fajardo to drop off the rental car and catch the ferry to Vieques.  It wasn't the most stress-free experience (to put it mildly for Gio, our brave driver), as roads were cramped, signs were minimal, and we ended up ass-backwards on a one-way street with a local parking man wagging his finger vehemently at us and a police car chastising us from their loud speaker.  These are the things memories are made of, and we got out with just a few frayed nerves.  When we told the rental car guy about out finger-wagger as he drove us to the ferry, he said, "Oh yeah, everyone knows that guy.  He's crazy."  Oh, good.  It's not just us.

Finally, I leave you with this gem from El Yunque.  I feel at liberty to post it because we all look equally ridiculous, but were really having the best time with the camera's auto-timer, as you can tell.  

"I made it!" -Gio

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

PR: San Juan "It is SO bue-tee-ful"

Puerto Rico.  A magical, tropical place of rooftop stone baths, powdered sugar breakfast sandwiches, wild horses, aquamarine waters, and palm oases.  

But first, you have to get there.  And that part is a lot less glamorous.

Once the three of us girls finally arrived in San Juan, we noticed that things were a lot more relaxed.  Taxi drivers are eager to properly introduce you to their land, simultaneously map-pointing and pedal-pushing, with a steady chant of, "It is SO bue-tee-ful."  He also reassured us in his enchanting accent, "Don't worry, there are no jellyfish.  There are no charks."

We stayed right in Old San Juan, the centro storico as my Italian friends would call it, at a boutique hotel called Casa Blanca.  It was a great mix of old world charm meets Caribbean flavor, especially with this beautiful canopy bed, a balcony, and of course, the rooftop baths.  

The first night, with grand yet ill-advised intentions of dinner, drinks, and a big night out salsa dancing after a red-eye flight, we headed to dinner at Punto de Vista for some mofongo.  No, it's not an evil curse or a rude name to call your mother-in-law, but a plantain mountain with a volcano of your choice of meat and sauce erupting out the center.  I can tell you that this was our first, but not our last!

We went to another bar after, attempting to bide our time and gear up for the highly anticipated salsa club, but once we reached the club at the ripe hour of 10pm, eyelids half drooping, the bouncer told us that the band didn't even come on until 11:30pm and we should just come back then.  "Sounds good!" we exclaimed, and promptly went to bed.

The next morning we set off bright-eyed to explore Old San Juan, which mainly consisted of visiting the city's two forts, Castillo San Felipe del Morro (16th century) and Castillo de San Cristobal (18th century), both UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  I'm going to be honest with you, the two blurred together in my memory day-of and any hope of distinguishing them now is for naught.  Nontheless, both were fun to expore, with several guerites hanging over the sea, mounds of cannonballs, and sweeping views of San Juan and the ocean.

(compliments of Gio)

I present: Kelly with Cannonballs
2014 (San Juan, PR) v. 2007 (Ferrara, IT)

The concierge at our hotel (fancy way to say cute, trendy girl at the front desk) had lots of great recommendations for us, and two of our favorites were breakfast and lunch that day.  Breakfast was at Cafeteria Mallorca just a block from our hotel, where we got the specialty of the house, the mallorca breakfast sandwich.  Picture this: a fluffy bun filled with a fried egg, ham, and cheese, then grilled with butter, and finally, surprisingly, generously topped with a snowy layer of powdered sugar.  Whew.

Then lunch was at a hole-in-the-wall joyously called Fattie's, which was a no-nonsense Jamaican-Puerto Rican fusion restaurant, with a grandma in the back fixin' up steak and fried chicken much to our enjoyment.

The rest of the afternoon we walked around Old San Juan.  Among other things, we received a very philosophical lesson on the ways of love and respect at the museum of Felisa Rincón de Gautier, first female to be elected mayor of a capital city in the Americas, stopped into the humble cathedral, took a peek through the gates of the governor's mansion, and drank piña coladas at Barrachina, which claims to be the original birthplace of this tropical drink.

The architecture of San Juan was beautiful, in the tradition of Spanish Colonial, strangely reminding me of a combination of Angra, Terceira (Portugal) and New Orleans.

Our favorite little street, branching between the cathedral and the governor's mansion, was lined with phenomenal trees and quaint little stores, not to mention many colorful houses with "for sale" signs attached.  We're currently in touch with a local real estate agent.  (Ugh, I wish!)

That evening (after another quick rooftop soak), we went to a much-praised convent-turned-hotel named...wait for it...El Convento.  The rooms surround a large open center filled with tropical trees and various bars and restaurants.  It was nice and warm and had a cool indoor/outdoor vibe, reminding us of the restaurant in Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland.

After appetizers at El Convento and a marginally disappointing dinner at Cafe Puerto Rico (I know, the name should have warned us, but it came recommended!), the second night we were finally geared up for mojitos and salsa dancing at NuYoRican, right around the corner from our hotel.

It was such a fun time!  A live band really set the mood, and I promptly fell temporarily in love with our bartender, Jose, pronounced Ho-sway (Scout's honor), and anyone was free to dance with everyone.  The rest of the cast of characters included Pedro, the United Airlines pilot, Mike, the southern Spanish teacher, Will from Paris who loved to spin a dizzying amount, and the very young, very forward Rafael ("I plan to marry a white girl").

Quiz: What might you hear from a beautiful, tall Puerto Rican man right after you head-butt him while attempting to salsa dance (cue terribly stereotypical yet accurate Puerto Rican English accent):
  1. You are a leader.  You do NOT know how to follow.
  2. You are aggressive.
  3. You are a killer.
  4. All of the above.
I think you can guess the answer.