Old town San Juan

San Juan and El Conquistador Resort, Puerto Rico – April 2015

Three wonderful years of marriage have come and gone for us! We feel so thankful to be able to share our lives with each and to travel and see all of God’s great creation!

To celebrate 3 years, we hopped onto one of the recently opened Southwest flights to San Juan that the company acquired during the AirTran merger. It’s hard to leave Nashville this time of year since mid-April is usually the peak of spring – the leaves are out, the grass is a bright, fresh green and the flowers are on full display. Usually, we remind ourselves that it will be there when we come back and try to pick destinations with similar weather, like the tropics. In this case we still had a year’s worth of free flights with the SW companion pass to maximize, so Puerto Rico was an easy choice for approximately 20k total SW points for the two of us.

After an early morning set of flights out of Nashville, we arrived in San Juan around noon. Our place of stay was a one bedroom apartment that we found on Airbnb and which was located at the top of hill in the old city of San Juan. The location was perfectly placed on a quiet back street just one block from the northern perimeter walls, in walking district of all the restaurants, shops and sights of the old quarter. We paid $75 per night, which was a steal in that part of town (hotels were between $150-$200 for the same period). The facades of the apartments facing our cobblestone street were painted in colorful hues which glowed at sunset.

Our street in old san juan
Colorful doors in old san juan
Colorful buildings in old san juan

We enjoyed a day and a half exploring the old town by foot (usually hiking up and down steep streets). The whole area is small – approximately 8 x 10 city blocks – but there was enough to fill a couple days. The forts that define the perimeter of the city are a world heritage site. There is loads of colonial character and it seemed that all the trees and beautifully flowering bushes were all in bloom at the same time.

Plaza with fountain in old san juan
colorful bushes and trees
The old san juan is surrounded by high fortress walls and neat turrets

The cruise port near the old town is one of the busiest in the Caribbean, and since there are something like 1.5 million tourists that daytrip in on a yearly basis, the prices of things are somewhat inflated. In general, we weren’t that impressed with the food or drink in the area, especially for the cost.

Our favorite thing to do in the old town is a stroll through the fields at the point of the peninsula on top hill near the el Morro fort. It’s a huge field separating the fort from the city and it’s a credit to the government there that they have retained it and not chosen to build apartment buildings or something on it instead. We were there on Easter weekend so the field was full of families enjoying time in the sun together – having picnics, chasing youngsters and walking their dogs. The grass is neatly trimmed and because there is nearly constant breeze from the ocean, it’s a perfect spot to fly kites. We had never seen so many kites in the air! We estimated at least 150 of them – some were so high up they were just small dots in sky like a star.

great lawn in old san juan
Kite flying in old san juan

On our third day we rented a car just outside the city (and got a free ride to the rental place from our friendly Italian Airbnb host named Stefano). Our plan was to visit El Yunque – the only rainforest in the US – and then see the fascinating Arecibo radio telescope. Unfortunately, the latter was closed for the day so we just went to the rainforest:

Another national park off the list!

The rain forest park was a little underwhelming. We visited around noon which is probably a little too late as it seems that was when all the cruise ship passengers come in. Since there is only one main road into the park, with just a handful of trails listed on the park map to discover, it was hard to escape the crowds. It could probably be done with more time. Also, as we approached the lookout tower at the highest point of the forest, and which is supposed to provide some killer views of all Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, it started to become foggy and rain. So that stunk. We did enjoy La Mina falls, the hiking trail to which had lots of little natural swimming pools full of warm water.

La Mina in El Yunque

After the forest we drove to the beach at Luquillo, which ended up being one of our favorite beaches of our vacation. The water was shallow and warm with no waves, there were beautiful palm trees lining the beach and it was peacefully quiet on a Monday afternoon.

Quiet and pristine Luquillo beach

We also had our favorite meal in one of the restaurant “kiosks” that line the beach. There is a Puerto Rican version of ceviche which uses fewer vegetables and is primarily fish meat brined in lime juice. It’s tasty but not as good as the ceviche in the Yucatan. The rice and fried grouper were fantastic though. I highly recommend checking out this part of the coast – it was the perfect mix of locals, good food and beaches. If we came to Puerto Rico again I would probably stay outside of old town San Juan in somewhere like this and then just rent a car with the money saved due to cheaper lodgings.

Our favorite meal during our trip - grouper ceviche and seasoned rice.

During our San Juan visit we also drove down to Condado beach and Isla Verde – about 10 min south of the old town. Both have nice beaches but nothing to go out of the way for. In addition, they are the main beaches frequented by the inhabitants of San Juan and lots of tourists, so they were crowded and expensive in places. Here is the beach in Isla Verde:

Isla Verde near San Juan

We then spent four nights on the island of Vieques (see separate blog entry here)

After Vieques, we completed our week long trip with two free nights at the nicest hotel in Puerto Rico – the El Conquistador resort in Fajardo – a Waldorf Astoria collection hotel. We got the nights for free from the Hilton HHonors Reserve card from Citibank after signing up and completing the minimum spend. We also got a free upgrade on our room – from a garden view to an ocean view – since the card gave us Gold status. Our room was going for $500 per night on hotels.com, and while I would never pay that much for a room it was worth at least $300-$400 for us. I’ll let the pictures of the resort do the talking:

Beautiful grounds of El Conquistador
Beautiful grounds of El Conquistador - reminiscent of an Italian villa
Beautiful grounds of El Conquistador
Beautiful grounds of El Conquistador - they do weddings here.
Bonsai trees

The resort is on top of a hill and that’s where our room was. It afforded an absolutely amazing view of the ocean and was a great place to have coffee in the mornings and a glass of wine at night:

Our hotel room view in El Conquistador

Also, we rode the funicular down to a ferry dock at the base of the hill where we took a 20 min (bumpy) boat ride to Palomino Island, a private island owned by the hotel.

El Conquistador has its own funicular
Palomino Island near Fajardo
Palomino Island near Fajardo
Sun halo
Freakin huge iguanas on Palomino island near El Conquistador

There was also a small water park which we opted to skip. The resort was kind of set back from everything else in the area which made it impractical and expensive to go off the 500 acre property. Of course, that worked out well for hotel as all we had to do was to provide our room key to change any and everything to our room. We ended up spending another $200 just for food, drinks, and a ($78) ride back to the airport for our two day stay. At times it felt like we were on a cruise ship. All in all it was a very relaxing end to our vacation, the uncommon luxury and beautiful grounds were a nice change from our normal digs, and I’m glad we made the visit. I think it would have made the other apartments we stayed at look pretty shabby if we had done the resort first as well.