San Juan | Old San Juan
This post has been a long time coming...actually, 4 years to be exact. I meant to write it many times over and then life just happened. Excuses after excuses, I just never got to it.
I am writing it now because Puerto Rico will always have a special place in my heart. Literally. It does. Genetically and emotionally. When I was younger, I wanted nothing more than to visit. A thousand times over, but it never happened. And it continued not happening until my 30th birthday. A wonderful gift from my mother.
She was able to show me the island, her hometown and family. We had the opportunity to see cousins who even took the time to cook me a vegan dinner. The whole trip was a blessing..
For the first half, we spent it exploring. We explored parts my mother had never been before and some she had. We stayed in San Juan at the La Concha Hotel where we had an incredible view of the ocean (above image).
I found a nearby cafe that had delicious acai bowls and invigorating coffee. Punk Burger Bar Bistro (I know, strange name) became a staple. I ate there most mornings (acai bowl and coffee) and even got a bowl to-go when we went far into the jungle one morning to find a wellness retreat (I'll tell you more about that later).
I loved coming face to face with the distinct characteristics that make San Juan and Old San Juan two pieces of one giant puzzle. The history, the architecture, the culture are all alive and well in both, but the feelings I felt when walking down the cobbled streets and eating at the cafes in Old San Juan were noticeable.
I had a few favorite spots; Cafe Berlin and Verde Mesa. Both had exceptional vegan and vegetarian fare and both were a juxtaposition in ambiance from each other. More than once, we dined for lunch at Cafe Berlin during our stay.
Growing up, my grandmother would cook incredible Puerto Rican dishes; arroz con gandules, tostones (my mom would make me these as well), flan, steamed yucca....but never mofongo. I didn't have mofongo till later in life. Mofongos are fried (or baked) plaintain dishes that are mixed with garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper and then mashed into a tight ball. After that, the tight mixture can absorb the other components added. Traditionally, that would either be pork cracklings, chicken broth or seafood.
When I dined at Cafe Berlin they had both a traditional plaintain based mofongo and a yucca based mofongo; all vegan. Since I had never seen a yucca version before, I HAD TO TRY IT (above picture on the left). It was moist, flavorful, full of texture....it was so incredible, I went back multiple times to have it.
When it came to Verde Mesa, we walked a little ways across town to the other side of Old San Juan for a totally different kind of experience.
The food was veggie heavy and the decor was eclectic; a mixture of Mediterranean and French flares. It was cute! and you felt transported to the Rivera. That evening I stuck to a giant salad filled with grains, vegetables, sprouts, beans and light vinaigrette dressing with an appetizer of hummus and toast. Everything was fresh and absolutely delicious.
After dinner we walked the enchanted streets I had pictured for years. We walked them any chance we got.
My mother grew up in Puerto Rico till the age of 8. She went back years later as a teenager for a stint, but then went back to growing up in New York with my grandmother, grandfather and her brother. I never met her father (he passed before I was born), but I knew my grandmother well. In fact, she's alive and well at the age of 100! I am incredible grateful for the time I took to live in NY after college to work in the ad world. I was able to spend some time with her before her memory of me began to fade. if she wasn't asking me why I wasn't married, we were stuffing our faces with delicious food or going over found memories when I would visit. Back then, her memory was sharp, extremely sharp.
Having the opportunity to visit my mothers hometown, see cousins and walk her old stomping grounds was an incredibly special experience. Not only did I get to watch her reminisce, I got to see her and my cousins speak in spanish at lighting speed. Most of the time, I just sat there and nodded.
While in Aguadilla, it was such a treat to visit my cousins home and spend time with them. The added bonus was when she decided to make dinner with all vegan components! The food, the produce, everything was so fresh and contained no animal products. I told her how impressed I was with the yucca mofongo at Cafe Berlin that she decided to make a similar version, sans frying, because she just so happened to have fresh yucca on hand!
She used a traditional mortal and pestle set to mash the steamed yucca and then added the fresh garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper to the mixture.
As well, my cousin had already prepared arroz con gandules (a favorite PR dish of mine) and a delicious, simple green salad with lemon, olive oil and a little dash of salt.
I felt so fortunate to sit right there at the counter and watch her put everything together–what a moment. A part of me felt very comforted in being able to tap this undisclosed feeling I've never been able to tap before.
From there, we enjoyed a wonderful meal at their beautiful home before parting ways to head back to San Juan. Torrential downpour awaited us–island life on our commute back, one minute its crystal clear skies and the next minute, you can't see two feet in front of you.
Casa Grande Mountain Retreat
Spontaneity - The spice of life.
Even with the minimal amount of time we had on the island, we decided to pack it FULL! I had arranged prior to landing in PR that I was going to set aside half a day to set off away from the structured path and go somewhere remote. I wanted something wellness related; if yoga was a part of the experience, even better. After some research, I found that Casa Grande would allow us to "crash" part of their retreat.
I was ecstatic!
From San Juan, at 6am, the drive was about 2 hours into PR; winding, small roads excluded. Which means, about 2.5-3 hours later, we arrived.
The journey was incredibly worth it.
We were in the jungles of PR; a part of the island that neither I nor my mother had never seen before. It was exciting being away from the city and out in the middle of nowhere.
Before we settled into a class, we had a little meet and greet with everyone. Fresh air filled the studio and a new instructor took me through a class, I was feeling fulfilled and grateful for the incredible experience. The teacher invited us to stay for a restorative session after our first class, but explained that there would only be room for one more addition. This ended up being perfect because it allowed me to escape for an hour to hike the grounds solo while my mother enjoyed the restorative class.
I'll say this, I've trekked a fair amount of hikes in my life, but I've never been on one in the jungle, remote and by myself. The saving grace for going at it alone was the trail was located inside the grounds. No fear of getting lost (fully) or of anything truly dangerous happening, but as you know in life, you never really know. Not to mention, this wasn't a typical LA hike with paved roads or cut brush. This was spiders, overgrown brush and little red, barely there dots on trees to indicate some sort of trail.
I hiked for about an hour, trying to push back unwarranted fears in my mind. You know the ones I'm talking about. Where they won't come to fruition, but your mind likes to harness the uncertainty you're feeling and make you question reality. Ya, those ones.
I wasn't going to die from a spider bite, I wasn't going to get lost forever, I wasn't going to perish from dehydration, I wasn't going to assaulted by a rouge hiker, I wasn't going to be abducted by aliens....
None of those things were going to happen AND none of them did. I hiked, I made it back and had a second breakfast.
The only thing that did happen was an unexplained rash I developed on my arm. Something irritated my skin, plain and simple. We applied some extra strength cortison cream and moved on. SO, FEARS! SHOO, SHOO. YOU ARE NOT WANTED HERE!
Arecibo Observatory (Hello, Double 007) | Camuy Caves
I grew up watching Double 007 movies. My dad was a lover of them and in turn, I became one. If you asked me what my dream car is I would say an Aston Martin, baby.
So while in Puerto Rico, we went to the Arecibo Observatory (featured in GoldenEye).
"For more than 50 years, the observatory's 1,000-foot (305-meter) radio telescope was the world's largest single-aperture telescope, from its completion in 1963 until July 2016 when the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST) in China was completed. It is used in three major areas of research: radio astronomy, atmospheric science, and radar astronomy. Scientists who want to use the observatory submit proposals that are evaluated by an independent scientific board." - Wikipedia
The observatory and the interactive, informational section was a very cool experience. I got lost in facts and walked the perimeter.
From there, mom and I drove to the Camuy Caves. We knew on this trip we wouldn't be able to get to the famed El Yunque Rainforest on the other side of the island, but that we could get to the Camuy Caves; only 30 minutes from where we were.
Camuy Caves (also known as Rio Camuy) is one of the worlds largest cave networks.
"Natural works of art such as spectacular stalagmites and stalactites were carved and formed by waters of the Camuy River, which is estimated to be approximately 45 million years old."
Seeing the intricacies of natural formations inside and outside of the caves was breathtaking...I mean, it always is, isn't it?
Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro)
El Morro is one of the most iconic citadels. It was created to guard the entrance to San Juan Bay and defend the port against seaborne enemies.
I remember, when I was younger, trying to recreate a painting of El Morro and getting so frustrated at my brushstrokes and the representation of the picture, that I ended up destroying the canvas (angst much?). At the core, my perfectionist nature when it came to my craft hindered me from being able to see the beauty in my artistic ability. I wanted to get it right! I had never been to PR and I wanted to represent it accurately...whatever that means. I know now, that my frustration came from a place of feeling disconnected to the image. That knowing in my blood PR was a part of me and I was about to paint an aspect of it, but I myself had never been. As an adult, I see how it weighed heavier than I could understand. A world traveler who has never been to Puerto Rico, Russia or Poland.
Going to El Morro (back to the scene of the crime) was powerful.
Left: View from the top of the Citadel. Right: View from El Morro out to sea.
My first trip to Puerto Rico was fast, but we tackled it with elegance and vigor.
- We embarked on hour long drives to see parts my mother and I had never seen before
- We visited family
- We ate at wonderful restaurants
- We walked cobble stone streets late at night
- We saw where my mother grew up
- We got caught in sudden, torrential down pours–island life
I couldn't be more thankful to have taken this once in a lifetime trip with my mother. She is an amazing lady in every way and has tried to provide me with best experiences and opportunities she can. It's not always sunshine and rainbows (the trickiest relationships are between mothers and daughters), but that doesn't mean she's not my biggest cheerleader and I'm not hers.