Thursday, June 06, 2013

Random Pictures from PR

Fish and pelican at the marina in Ponce.
The interior of the old church at St German.  Said to be the second oldest church in the western hemisphere.  I assume they mean 'Christian' church when they say this, otherwise I think some Native Americans might have something to say about that claim...
 Sunset at Lighthouse Park in Rincon.
 The fire truck at Las Bombas in Ponce.
 A market in San Juan.
 The sun sets over El Morro.
 The cathedral in Old San Juan.
 Another El Morro sunset picture.

Driving to San Juan

I apologize for the length of time it is taking me to get this done.  I have had an upper respiratory infection since I returned, and have been mostly sleeping.  That said, here goes.

After three extremely pleasant days in Rincon it was time to head back to the big city.  We drove Highway 2 back to San Juan.  Along the way we stopped at a grocery store and picked up some crackers and cheese for lunch.  We sat in the parking lot of the supermarket and looked at the sea while we ate.  Here is the view.
Yep, in PR even the supermarkets have nice views.

We made it to San Juan with no problems, turned the rental car in, and took a cab to our hotel.  Our hotel was Villa Herencia a very charming small hotel half a block from the main cathedral in San Juan Viejo (Old San Juan).  The location could not have been better.  This is the central courtyard.

 The next day we took a very fun market tour with Flavors of San Juan.  This was a great tour.  Our guide not only took us to the market and explained lots of things to us, but also showed us some very near architecture and told us some about the history of the area as well.  Well worth the money and highly recommended.  Next time we are in San Juan we plan on taking another one.
 One of the best restaurants we ate at was El Jibarito.  This place had very affordable food, with entrees around $10, and was one of the best meals we had, continuing with the PR tradition of the cheapest meals being the best.
 Here is a typical Old  San Juan street view.  Old San Juan is very cool.  It's kind of touristy, and the prices reflect that, since cruise ships dock right there in Old San Juan.  Even so, it is well worth visiting.  The Spanish Colonial architecture is amazing, and there are a ton of historic sights to see, and shopping galore.  A tip for anyone whose spouse might want to shop more than you do-there is a bar called El Batey in Old San Juan.  It is near the cathedral and the El Convento hotel.  It is a rough looking little dive bar, and is without a doubt one of the best bars I have ever been in.  This is what a bar is supposed to be: good music, strong drinks, and no food served.  Plus you can smoke a cigar in there.  I highly recommend it.  Again, it's a rough looking place, and some of the patrons look a little rough, but don't have an attitude or start any trouble and you won't have any problems.
 This was once the main gate into San Juan.  The road that enters this gate goes straight up to the cathedral. 
 This is the street that goes up from the gate to the cathedral.  I cannot imagine what houses on this street must cost, but I'd buy one if I could afford it.  Streets don't get much more picturesque.

In summary, Puerto Rico is awesome and you should go.  It has great food, friendly people, beautiful scenery, and US citizens don't even need a passport.  Please consider it for your next trip.  I know we will.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Rincon is Cool

Long story short, Rincon is really cool.  There is, really not a whole lot to do that is not ocean related.  They are famous for surfing and the like.  I don't surf, and am not a fan of swimming in the ocean (do you know what lives in there?) but even so, I really liked it.  It's a very laid back kind of town, and every body seems to live and let live there.

Down near the hotel was this small marina which had long since had the sand close off its access to the sea.  I can't imagine that made the locals really happy.
I am sad to say that we didn't try this place until our last full day there.  This is called Steps Quick Lunch.  Steps is the name of one of the beaches, and this place is on the short spur to the beach.  They sold empanadas, which were pretty good, and also the ubiquitous PR snack food pinchos, which is grilled meat on a stick.  We tried the steak and the chicken and they were both amazing.  At $14, it was the cheapest and one of the best meals we had there.
Rincon is also famous for its sunsets.  We unfortunately had clouds a lot when we were there, but saw a couple of pretty good ones anyway.
This place is called Club Nautico, which I imagine made more sense before the marina pictured above, which it is right next to, was blocked.  Now the bar on the first floor is called Joe's Bar, and it was a great place to eat.  Not cheap, exactly, but not bad, and with excellent food.  Also, Medallas (the local PR beer) are $1.50 all day every day.  We ate here a lot since it was right next to the hotel and really good.  If you ever get to Rincon you should try it.
We spent one morning on the beach.  This is just the beach nearest the hotel.  The closed marina shown above is right behind the trees in the background.  As you can see, we had the beach entirely to ourselves all morning.  This beach was fairly rocky, but the ones farther south are more sandy, we were told.  As you can see, it's not the classic, white sand, shallow water Gulf Coast beach, although I think those do exist in other parts of PR.  But it was clean, and you can have one all to yourself!
This is the view the other direction. Note the clouds.  It rained every afternoon we were there, but what are you going to do, it's the tropics?
Another sunset picture.
Every evening at sunset we went up to this very nice park at the lighthouse.  This was a really nice, well maintained park, and there were a good number of other people there doing the same thing.
This is a view from the park.
This is called Domes Beach, and it's supposed to be one of the best for surfing.  You may not be able to see them, but there are people there surfing.  The dome you see is from a proposed nuclear plant, which was found to be located on a fault after it was built.  I think there are plans to turn it into a museum at some point.
This is Mona Island, which is located between PR and the island of Hispanola (split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic).  It is 41 miles off shore.  There is supposed to be really good fishing there.  Next time in PR I would really like to do some fishing.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Road to Rincon

After having one last breakfast at the fabulous Café Café CocinaCriolla Espresso Bar we checked out of Hotel Melia and headed west on Highway 2 for the drive to Rincon.  The southern coast of PR is very dry compared to the rest of the island, and it was very interesting how much different it looked.  Nothing like a desert by any means, but you could certainly tell it was dryer.

We stopped for a bit in the little town of San German which has a very cute town square, which comprises the San German Historic District.

We also walked through the small religious museum in the main church on the square Iglesia Porta Coeli, which is supposed to be one of the oldest churches in the Americas.

After walking around for a while, we were hungry, although it was only about 11:30.  We could not find anywhere in town to eat, since restaurants in PR seem to open right at 12 for lunch.  We had planned on driving part of the Ruta Panoramica (Panoramic Route) through the mountains, but we weren’t sure we wanted to do the whole western section, which can take 5 or 6 hours.  Instead, we backtracked a bit to a town called Sabada Grande to get on the route there.  While in Sabada Grande we had a fantastic lunch at a little lechonera where I had the traditional Puerto Rican meal of meatloaf and rice and beans.  Everything was delicious, and very affordable.  It sometimes seemed like in PR the less you spent on a meal the better the food was!
After eating, we headed up Highway 120 into the central mountains.  We got on the panoramic route and proceeded to slowly wind our way west.  This was a lot of fun, but the hour and a half or so we did was plenty, particularly since it rained a lot of the time.  It was a beautiful drive even with the rain.  Small two lane roads winding through the mountains to a degree that we were usually going under 20 miles per hour.  The rain was washing purple flower pedals onto the road, so that we were often driving on a carpet of purple.  It was really nice.  This road winds though some small towns, and is very scenic and rural.  We often had to wait for chickens to get out of the road so we could pass.
One funny event occurred when we saw a horse half standing in the road at an intersection.  He had been tied up to a power pole next to the road and was happily grazing on the grass on the side of the road.  No one was around, so I assume someone planned to pick him up later.

A word on the roads and driving: the roads in PR are great.  The signs are, of course, in Spanish, but they are the same shape and the signs here, so if you can’t figure out that the octagonal red sign reading “PARE” means “STOP,” then you probably shouldn’t be running around unsupervised anyway.  Much was made on the forums about how crazy the drivers in PR are, but I did not find this to be the case at all.  When on the interstate going the speed limit, I was passing many more people than were passing me.  They will just stop in the middle of the road in rural areas, though.  Of course we didn’t have to drive that much in San Juan, but what we did was not bad either.  Like most things of this sort, people have made way too much of it.  If you have ever driven in a larger city you will have no problems at all.  The roads are well marked and in good shape.  Learn a few simple traffic terms in Spanish and you’re good to go.  One slightly weird thing is that while speed limits (and again, you should probably be able to figure out that Velocidad Maxima means Speed Limit) are in miles per hour, distances are listed in kilometers.  The effect of this (for me at least) was that it was hard to estimate how long it is going to take to get places.

About half way along our drive, we came to the Stone Tower, which was built by the CCC.
They say that from the top on a clear day you can see the entire west coast of PR.  Even though it was cloudy and rainy when we were there, the view was still pretty amazing.
After that we continued on to Mayaguez.  After driving around in various neighborhoods for a while, we finally found our way back to the main roads and headed north towards our ultimate destination on the west coast, the charming town of Rincon

We drove into town and quickly found our hotel, the extremely nice Blue Boy Inn  I really cannot say enough nice things about this place.  It was truly fantastic.  The rooms were nice, large and clean, the grounds were beautiful, and the breakfast was terrific.  Marc is a wonderful host and (along with Sara) runs a great place.  Also, there are crocodiles.  No, seriously.
Also less dangerous animals (although he looked like he had been in a scrap or two).
They also have everything you need: free snorkeling gear, beach chairs, coolers, etc.  They also have an area which functions as an honor bar.  Guests are free to use whatever is in the fridge, and if they have some left over when they leave, they can leave it for future guests.  There was beer, wine, etc.  There is also a grill for the use of guests.  This is one of the nicest places we have stayed at, and considering how great it was, I think the price (about $155 a night) was very reasonable.

Next, Rincon!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Ponce Museum of Art

We also went to the Ponce Museum of Art, designed by Arkansas' own Edward D. Stone.  Personally, I think the building is butt ugly, but that's just me, YMMV.
 That said, it is a fantastic museum, one of the best I have visited. It's not huge, but it is very well organized and have a fantastic collection.   They have a very extensive collection of works by Emilio Sanchez, who I was not familiar with, but now am a huge fan of.

We were allowed to take pictures without flash, so here is a picture by E Sanchez.  As you can see he was primarily concerned with the interaction of light with objects in the environment.

We also went down and saw the coast.  There were brown pelicans there, and some very large fish.  I don't know what kind they were, but the one in this picture is about three feet long.
Overall, Ponce was fine.  It was not the greatest place we visited in PR, but we are glad we went.  In retrospect, two nights (instead of the three we spent) would have been plenty, but we are glad we went there.  The people there (and in PR in general) are super friendly, and are always happy for people to visit their island.  Also, the food there is amazing.  Speaking of food, there is an old ice cream place in Ponce called King Cream where we went for ice cream every day. It was amazing and have flavors such as tamarind, coconut, and parcha, or passionfruit.  I highly recommend the parcha.  In fact, I recommend getting anything parcha-flavored you see in PR.

Next, the drive to Rincon and the west coast.


We arrived at Ponce and checked into our hotel, which was Hotel Melia.  This place is very old, and has been run by the same family for over 100 years.  The rooms were a little dated, but it was clean and affordable, and the people working there were great.  It also has an absolutely unbeatable location right on the main square.  The main square is, of course, dominated by the cathedral.
 Ponce also has a lot of really cool architecture in the historic center.  Here is a typical street scene.
 The main attraction is the Parque de Bombas, the old firehouse.  This structure was built for an agricultural exposition, and later served as a firehouse for a long time.  It is said to be one of the most photographed buildings in PR, and you can see why.  Inside is a small museum to local fireman.
We also took a tour offered by the museum which took us around the historic part of the city by bus, while a tour guide explained the sights.  Our tour guide, Israel, was fantastic!  He was friendly, and, even though we were the only people on the tour, he really gave it his all.  He waved to every single person we passed, stopping to talk to several, and everyone seemed to know him. He was really fun, and his obvious love for his town was contagious.  I highly recommend this tour, particularly since it only cost $2 per person.

 Another interesting thing we saw were these houses.  Many years ago the fireman saved the town from burning down, and in recognition the city granted them an area where they built these distinctive houses.  The descendants of the people still live in them.  They are painted red and black, just like the Parque de Bombas above, because that is the traditional color of firehouses in PR.  We indeed did see modern firehouses painted these colors.
Next, the Ponce Museum of Art.

The Pork Highway and Tibes

We flew into San Juan, and just stayed in the San Juan Airport Hotel the first night, since we wanted to make picking up our rental car easy.  The airport hotel was fine, if a little dated.

We rented through Charlie Car, a local Puerto Rican business, and they were really great.  We took their free shuttle from the airport, and picked up our rental car. We had originally rented a small SUV, but thought better of it, and changed to a compact car, in this case a little white Ford Fiesta.
We then left San Juan and headed south on Highway 52, which goes though the central mountain range and towards Ponce, our first city.  On the way, however, we took a detour and drove down the famous 'Pork Highway' located in the middle of the mountains in a town called Guavate.  If you have seen any cooking or travel shows where they go to Puerto Rico, you have no doubt heard of this place. Every weekend, people come from all around to these little restaurants called lechoneras to eat lechon, or whole roasted pig.  We ended up a one called Lechonera El Rancho Original.  A helpful person there helped us order some roast pig and sides.  The guy behind the counter hacks up your pig with a big machete.  Yes, that is as awesome as it sounds.  Here is what it looked like.
 We were there fairly early, and it seems that people here eat lunch right at noon, so it wasn't crowded yet.  A band was setting up, and it was a real party atmosphere, with families there, and everyone eating.  Here is the pig in the window.

 The roast pork was great, and the skin was indescribable.  The Rice dish is arroz con grandules, or rice and pigeon peas, a very common side dish in PR.  A pound of pork, two sides of rice and peas, the small thing of beans, a coke and a beer was less than $17.  A bargain any way you look at it.  I also got to try some mavi, which is a local drink made from the bark of a local tree.  It was refreshing and delicious.  Here is a concentration of places where we stopped, although there were places all along the road.

We could have stuck around for the music and party, but we were eager to get to Ponce, so we ate, shopped a little, and were on our way.  We went back out to the main highway and headed on to Ponce.

Ponce, which is named after the great grandson of the famous explorer Ponce de Leon, is the second largest city in PR, and is located on the southern coast.  On the way into town, since it was a little early to check into the hotel, we stopped at the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center.  This is a very important ceremonial site that was uncovered in the 1970s by a hurricane.  After touring the small museum and watching the video, we got a tour from a guide.  The center was active from around AD300-700, and consists of several large courtyards of varying size which are defined with vertical stones.  They call these 'ball courts' but frankly, I haven't seen much evidence that they were ball courts at least in the traditional Mayan definition.  They were certainly used for something, however, and were very interesting to see.

 There was also one where several triangular arrangements of stones formed a star around a central open area.

I'll have to read up on this area some more and find out why they think these are ball courts.  In any case it was very interesting and you should definitely go if you get the chance and are interested in this kind of thing.

Next, Ponce.