During these trying times of COVID-19, an escape from reality is a welcome opportunity to refresh and reset the mind. What better place than a quick getaway to Puerto Rico! With Frontier’s direct flight out of Orlando, we headed to the Island of Enchantment with a quick flight time of just over two hours.
Upon arrival at the Orlando airport, I was impressed to see the lengths that Frontier went to ensure safety and cleanliness in the check-in procedure. The agents all had their masks and gloves on, and the process was quick and efficient. The same goes for the flight attendants; it can’t be easy to provide exceptional service while maintaining proper safety protocols.
Once we landed at Luiz Muñoz Marin Airport in San Juan (the largest airport in the Caribbean), we headed towards the baggage claim. On the way there, we were greeted by individuals clad in full hazmat suits, offering free COVID-19 testing to all arriving passengers. And the best part: the results were provided within 10 minutes through a simple blood test.
Our plan was to explore the island as much as possible in the three days we had allotted for the trip. To accomplish this, we rented the perfect vehicle – a Jeep Wrangler from with a removable sunroof to enjoy the ideal sunny weather of Puerto Rico. The airport’s on-site car rental center, just steps away from the baggage claim area, made it a breeze to rent and drive off. Puerto Rico, here we come!
The first stop was to our hotel to check-in and drop off our luggage. We had selected the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino as our home away from home. Located right on the beach, this Marriott offers all of the amenities you would expect from a full-service hotel, with a little extra attention from the friendly staff. From the balcony of my room, a glance at the pristine beach, with palm trees swaying in the breeze, I experienced the first wave of relaxation washing over me.
With camera in hand, our first stop was Old San Juan. Home to the San Juan National Historic Site, we found buildings dating back to the 16th century, including the San Felipe del Morro and the San Cristóbal fortresses which included old city walls. Also known as “El Morro,” it is the most iconic fortification built by the Spaniards, covering a 140-foot-high peninsula at the entrance to the Bay of San Juan. The fortress consists of six levels facing the Atlantic Ocean, all of which were designed to create a devastating artillery fire over enemy ships. By the time of its completion around 1790, it had the reputation of being unconquerable and was the most feared of all the Spanish colonial fortifications.
Typically, El Morro is mobbed by tourists and finding the right spot for the famous picture of the domed garitas or sentry boxes can be challenging. The garitas are the prime places for breathtaking ocean views and picturesque backgrounds. Because of the pandemic, several areas of El Morro were closed, but the ramparts and outer walls were open. Herein was the blessing: we had it to ourselves!
Looking out across the bay, we could see another, smaller fortification, called El Canuelo, El Morro’s partner in the island’s defense: ships hoping to attack Puerto Rico would be cut down in a barrage of crisscrossing cannon fire.
Our next visit was to the Bautista Cathedral which houses the tomb of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, leader of the first official European expedition to Florida and subsequently the first governor of Puerto Rico. The cathedral is Puerto Rico’s grandest religious building, and one of its most important. It’s also the second oldest church in the Western Hemisphere and the oldest church on U.S. soil. The history of the church dates to 1521 and the earliest beginnings of the Spanish colonization of the island. The building isn’t the original church, which was demolished by a hurricane, but the current structure dates to 1540.
In between the sites, we walked past brightly colored houses that lined cobblestone streets and quaint plazas, alongside cocktail bars and renowned Caribbean fusion restaurants.
The historic architecture is a result of centuries of expansion that shaped the landscape, including Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture. These styles of architecture, with 500 years of history, submerge you into its culture with their detailed ornamentation, arches, and domes. Keep in mind that Old San Juan, properly known as San Juan Antiguo, is the oldest city in the U.S. and its territories.
Puerto Rican cuisine is influenced by an array of cultures, including Taino Arawak, Spanish, and African. Although Puerto Rican cooking is very similar to both Spanish and other Latin American cuisines, it is a unique, tasty blend of influences, using indigenous seasonings and ingredients. Locals call their cuisine cocina criolla (creole cooking).
A myriad of Bed & Breakfasts line the area, most notably the Casa Sol Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by Eddie Ramírez.
Styled in typical Spanish Colonial décor, it has only five rooms, each with its own private bathroom. Small enough to feel like home, yet large enough to accommodate your fun-seeking group of friends. A perfect location in the heart of Old San Juan when you want to be right in the middle of it all.
Of course, no visit to San Juan would be complete without the obligatory picture of the “I Love PR” sign on the water’s edge near the port. Every year, thousands of visitors pose in front of this famous sign as a testimony to their visit. Who are we not to follow tradition!
We must have walked miles within the “Northwest Triangle,” another moniker for Old San Juan. By doing so, we learned that this section of town is actually an island itself, connected by bridges to the mainland.
The next day we drove out to visit Cabo Rojo on Puerto Rico’s southwest coast. Its approximately two hours by car. The Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge is known for its diverse ecosystems, including mangroves and coral reefs. The area is known for its beautiful beaches, particularly Combate Beach, one of the best beaches in Puerto Rico. But we found more than just a beach. Trails from the red-and-white Corozo salt flats wind through mangrove forests toward secluded beaches.
A must-see is a visit to Los Morrillos Lighthouse, which overlooks limestone cliffs on the water’s edge. Constructed in 1882 to guide passing ships through the southeast entrance from the Caribbean Sea through the treacherous Mona Passage. The lighthouse is located over a white lime cliff which is surrounded by saltwater lagoons and marshes. The cliffs surrounding the lighthouse drop over 200 feet into the ocean. Salt flats surround the path to the Lighthouse. It’s a long trek so be prepared to do some walking.
We stopped in to visit the Combate Beach Resort, surrounded by the breathtaking coastline and lush tropical forests. A small boutique hotel with only 47 rooms, but big in amenities and activities, here you will find countless adventures including caves, lighthouses, historical remnants and natural wonders. So much to do, so little time! Cabo Rojo deserves another visit soon!
When driving through Puerto Rico, restaurants abound with the ubiquitous “fresh catch” signs everywhere. We decided to stop in Guayanilla to eat at El Triangulo Restaurant, a local beachfront restaurant known for its seafood fare. Prices are great, friendly staff and the coldest beers in town. I had to order the fish as it is their specialty. Amazing!
During the time of our visit, an island-wide curfew of 7 pm was in effect due to the pandemic. We headed back to the hotel to take advantage of the sunset views and relax poolside after a full day of driving.
On our third day, we started early towards the northeast of the island. Here we would find “El Yunque” the only tropical rain forest in the United States. Unfortunately, we were one week early…the park was not open yet. But through E-Vacations, a premier receptive tour operator for Puerto Rico, they arranged for us to horseback ride through the fringe of the rainforest.
Hacienda 8A, a family run business owned by the Ochoa family (here Spanish readers will understand the origin of the Hacienda name), is located at the foot of El Yunque rain forest. Comprised of over 300 acres for horseback riding or hiking in the countryside, Hacienda 8A is the perfect place for adventure and outdoor activities. Our ride lasted almost two hours exploring the countryside, incredible panoramic views and of course, the rain forest.
After the ride, we needed to cool off a bit from the midday sun. Charco el Hippie, located in Rio Blanco within the city of Naguabo was the perfect place. We used our handy, dandy Google Maps to find it. The drive was up a very narrow hillside, but the directions led us right next to El Hippie. It is a vast bowl-shaped pool with its own waterfall, tall rocks for diving and rope for the Tarzan wannabes.
Our last stop was the city of Naguabo. While most beach towns throughout Puerto Rico have waterfront promenades called malecones, the Malecón de La Playa Hucares is one of the island’s most iconic. There are 33 places to eat that border the malecón. We found a nice spot right on the water to enjoy a late lunch and enjoy the afternoon under the sun. Naguabo is said to be the birthplace of the pastelillo de chapín, which is a popular food in Puerto Rico. It is trunkfish wrapped inside a flour dough that is deep-fried.
After a fantastic getaway, it was time to get back to reality. We headed to the airport for our Frontier flight back to Orlando, feeling relaxed and reenergized. We are lucky to have a great destination so close and easy to visit. San Juan is on my return list!
Upon takeoff, I couldn’t help but take one last look out of my window at the Island of Enchantment!