San Juan Vacation – Part I

So our 15th wedding anniversary trip was thwarted because, well, 2020, so we’ve still been talking about doing something for the past few years. We’ve also wanted to get back to Puerto Rico because the last time we went, we had two relatively small children, neither of which wanted to do the touristy things we wanted to do, so we didn’t fight them at the time and figured we’d go back later.

We almost went last year, even! We looked into flights and had my Mom on stand-by to come watch the kids, but ultimately we decided against it. It wasn’t the cost, but more the still-present COVID restrictions in San Juan, and the logistics of getting to a plane flight while not having the kids miss school or anything.

Enter 2023, where now I’m running for School Board (more on that later), I may be needed to go to Utah for our Field Biology class again, and our own family vacation plans were up in the air because Meg’s Summer program at Truman State was either going to be in June or July, and we wouldn’t know until mid-March. After poking around a bit, Brooke bit the proverbial bullet and booked us a trip to San Juan! This trip would be something of a combination between our 15th anniversary celebration, my 40th birthday (last year) and Brooke’s 40th birthday (this May).

My Mom came in (thanks, Mom!) on a Monday night in time for me to go to a meeting on campus, then after the meeting was over, Brooke and I went to Kansas City to stay in a hotel, as our flight was at 6:00 am the next morning. This wasn’t my first choice, but it would allow us to land in San Juan around 4:00 pm that day, giving us some time that evening to still explore a bit.

The flights themselves were fine! We stopped in Miami on the way down and had a bit over an hour of layover time, and we made it to San Juan a few minutes ahead of schedule. Brooke scheduled a rental car, so after we grabbed our bags (only had to take two, so a bit easier than the last time when we had two little people with us) and called the shuttle. They picked us up and we piled into a full van with a bunch of other folks.

This was the first red flag. The line waiting outside of the rental company was the second. The hour and a half(ish) we waited to actually get Brooke to the check-out counter was the rest. There were two or three folks behind the counter trying to get people into cars, but each time a customer got to the front, they ended up arguing with the employees about fees, insurance, and other policies that were all advertised all over the place. Like, we understood the frustration, but everyone in there was hearing the same thing, and yet each time someone finally reached the front of the line, they re-litigated it as if they would get a different answer. When Brooke got to the front, we paid whatever we had to and high-tailed it out of there.

The hotel Brooke found was in a neighborhood called Condado, which had a lot of resort hotels and restaurants present. It took us a bit to figure out how, exactly, to get to the hotel, but once we did, we got the hang of navigating the area. The hotel was really nice, overall, though our room didn’t actually have a window overlooking anything. There was a window, but it faced a hallway, so it was something of an internal room. Still, the room itself was nice, the breakfast each morning was good, albeit crowded, and the location was within walking distance of a ton of restaurants, coffee shops, a convenience store, and was surrounded by water. Not bad!

That night, we stopped at a restaurant a block from the hotel called Semilla Kitchen & Bar. It was a Tuesday night, so it wasn’t crowded in the least, but we got a few drinks and some appetizers. The fish we had was spectacular, of course, so it was a good introduction to the trip!

The plan for the next morning was to check out Bacardi’s distillery on the other side of San Juan. The last time we went, in 2019, the kids were quite young to be visiting a distillery, and indeed, you still need to be at least 18 to even go on the tour. This time, we could go and check it out!

The tour Brooke signed up for involved a cocktail when we arrived, a tour of the Bacardi family museum (that was really a single room with some art on the walls depicting the history of the family), and a tasting of some rums.

The dude who ran the tour was spectacular. I’ve been on my share of brewery and distillery tours before, but this guy believed what he was saying, and really sold it. He had bought in to the Bacardi family rhetoric, how the distillery takes care of the workers, and how much the company means to the people of Puerto Rico. He also did a marvelous job with the rum tasting, which included their cheaper varieties that we can get here on the mainland, but also 4 year, 8 year, and 10 year varieties that are a bit harder to find. All of them were quite good, of course.

After Bacardi, we went back to Old San Juan to walk around, which took a bit to find a parking spot in. We visited the same places we went to in 2019 and it all felt very familiar, though this time it actually felt more busy, strangely? June 2019 was obviously pre-pandemic, yet we think there were a lot more tourists this time around, post-pandemic. Perhaps it was the shadow of Hurricane Maria in late 2017 that still kept people away at the time, but now, there were people everywhere, and parking was pretty limited. Brooke found a (literal) hole-in-the-wall parking place for less than $20, so that worked out for our purposes.

For lunch, we went to Cafe Manolin, where there was (you guessed it) a relatively long wait. A ton of people in there, so we sat at the diner counter, while others waited for tables for 20-30 minutes. It was pretty densely packed in there, but Brooke wanted her mofongo, so we did must what be done!

After that, we checked out Scryer Rum Barrelhouse & Rooftop, mostly because the last time we were there, the rum distillery market was very, very limited. Don Q was a big brand, as well as Bacardi, but other brands were hard to find or non-existent. Scryer was relatively new (started in 2018 in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria), to the point that in 2019, we hadn’t seen it in stores or anything. At Semilla the night before, I’d asked for local rums and that was the one they pulled out for me, so we figured we’d seek it out. The location was an open-air place where you could see the barrels behind glass, and just across from them was a bar with their wares.

We didn’t stay long. We’d already had some rum at Bacardi, so after we each had one at Scryer, we moved on to try and find mallorcas again like in 2019, but sadly, Cafe Mallorca (which was around the corner from where we were!) was closed. As in, they weren’t supposed to be closed (according to Google), but when we got there, the dude on the other side of the class flipped the “open” sign to “closed,” so that was disappointing.

After that, we walked a bit further toward the old fort that we spent a lot of time at in 2019. This time, we didn’t think we needed to see the same thing again, though it was nice to say “hi.”

We drove back to our hotel in Condado and decided what dinner plans were going to be, and honestly, we weren’t all that hungry, so we stopped by a beachfront hotel bar called Tryst that had some appetizers and waves hitting the beach. We walked around for a little bit afterward and stopped by a convenience store for some rum and snacks (and a sandwich). Was it spectacular Puerto Rican food? I suppose not, but it “hit the spot,” so hey, not complaining.

The next day, we had an art museum and a beach in the cards! But that’s another post. 🙂