Weekend in Puerto Rico and San Juan

Puerto Rico is back open for tourists

El Yunqe Rainforest

The 29,000 acre rain forest is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System. Entry is free, but portions of this area are gated to reduce congestion and monitor the number of cars entering. A number of sections are still closed due to damage remaining from hurricane Maria. Highlights included the spectacular La Coca waterfalls, where the water of the falls drop 85 feet onto a huge rock formation at the bottom of the falls. The falls are easily accessible from the main road.

Then we walked to the top of the Yokahu Tower, constructed in the 1930s, where we could view 360 degree panoramic views of the rain forest, the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The tower is a very short walk from a parking area. Another easy walk from a parking area took us to the circular natural pool Bano Grande, with its stone bridge. This is a man-made pool from the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps era. Located in northeastern Puerto Rico, the rain forest is approximately 26 miles southeast of San Juan and the drive took a little less than one hour.

Enjoy the Rum

Across the bay from San Juan in the town of Catano, is the Casa Bacardi Visitor Center. Exiled from Cuba, the Bacardi family built a distillery here in the 1950s. Today it is one of the world's largest. The $15 entry fee for the historical tour included a premium rum cocktail on the waterfront bar pavilion and a 45-minute tour which included how rum is made in the bottling plant and distillery called the cathedral of rum. The guided tour included a short film featuring information on the family's craft and innovation. We learned that rum is one of the island's top exports and how the best rums are aged, normally for around four years! We had a taste of the special reserve edition which is aged 16 years, costs $160 and is not available elsewhere.

Old San Juan

To get oriented, we went on a two hour walking tour with freetour.com. Our guide was quite knowledable. The tour leaves at 11 a.m. from Columbus Plaza and the fee is through tips. A $10 "tip" is considered appropriate. During the tour we rambled through the 16th century cobblestone streets. The neighborhood is approximately seven city blocks square. We enjoyed seeing Columbus Plaza (Plaza de Colon) which boasts a monument to Christopher Columbus who "discovered" Puerto Rico in his 1493 voyage. The statue in the middle of the square was dedicated in 1893. Christopher stands regally on top of a pillar and the statue is surrounded by a fountain below. Bronze plaques on the base relate episodes in the life of Columbus.

The Cathedral de San Juan Bautista sits on Calle del Cristo. One of the oldest buildings in San Juan, the white gothic Catholic shrine was reconstructed in 1540 after a hurricane and additional work was done in the 19th century. The church contains ornately decorated vaulted gothic ceilings and colorful stained glass windows. The church is also known as the Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint John the Baptist and it is the Roman Catholic cathedral of the archdiocese of San Juan. The remains of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon are contained in a marble tomb which depicts a woman drinking from the fountain of youth. The Cathedral is the oldest church in the United States and donations are requested.

Hidden in a corner of old San Juan near the entrance of cruise ships at 1 Fortaleza, Casa de Salud contains a nursing home and hospital that overlooks the bay. Built in 1524, the convent has a small chapel with a beautiful gold alter piece and lovely stained glass windows. The court yard contains a large religious sculpture. From this point, there are magnificent views from high above the old city. Also known as the House of Health of the servants of Mary, this facility is run by nuns and donations are accepted.

On a rocky promontory at the northwest tip of the old city, El Morro is a fortress built by the Spanish beginning in the sixteenth century. The fort was the site of unsuccessful attacks by the English and the Dutch in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Rising 140 feet above sea level, the massive six-level fortresses is a labyrinth of ramps, barracks and towers. From the fort with its thick walled masonry, we had a commanding view of San Juan bay, the harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. The fort became obsolete with the beginning of the twentieth century. Administered by the U.S. Park Service since 1949, the fort has a series of historical displays, including a beautiful little chapel.

Holocaust Memorial

The Holocaust Memorial sits among a series of monuments between Constitution and Ponce de Leon Avenues, across from the Capitol Building and just a few miles away from old San Juan. Inaugurated in 2012, the steel memorial contains the images of a family of four whose shadows are cast in black granite. The very moving statue is titled In the Shadow of Their Absence. The inscription on the memorial reads "Let six million candles show against the darkness of these unfinished lives."

Where to Eat

If you are Jewish and kosher, the Jewish Center of Puerto Rico is located at 18 Calle Rosa in the Isla Verde area of San Juan. The Center has kosher food for sale, including kosher chocolate. The building includes a small synagogue, a kosher kitchen, a social hall and classrooms. Although the Center is run by the Chabad movement, Rabbi Zarchi explained that the community of approximately 75 Jewish families represents a variety of the Jewish denominations. The Super Max supermarket chain has a nice variety of food for sale in numerous locations around San Juan.

Cinema Bar 1950 is located in one of the most historically rich spots in the capital of the city on Cuartel de Ballaja, near the Castillo San Felipe del Morro. The restaurant specializes in Puerto Rican cuisine and te decor is fun, with pictures of local Puerto Rico natives that have gone on to fame in the arts.

El Yunque Treehouse is an excellent place to have lunch before or after enjoying El Yunque. During our meal, a very good piano player provided entertainment through well-known songs in both English and Spanish. The other options nearby are roadside stands. On the way out, three huge colorful live parrots talked and said "Hola" as we left!

Visitors should definitely try Mallorca. The sweet pastry is buttered, grilled and then sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Helpful Facts

No passport is required for U.S. citizens.
The currency is the U.S. dollar.
Old San Juan is hard to drive through with its narrow streets and traffic. Plan on exploring on foot.
The Caribbean sun is very strong, so sun tan lotion, hats and water are musts
A guidebook is helpful.

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Saul Schwartz lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife Fern. He loves to travel throughout the world and share his experiences through stories and pictures. Saul has published many articles, but most focus upon his passion to travel.

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