Day 1 Friday December 16th
Left a wintery wet New York for San Juan…peeling off layers in 29c heat. Hire car and a stop at Amigos in Luquillo to buy food and meet Adlin who had us follow her high in to the winding hills to our Airbnb. Set down 80 wooden stairs, enclosed by tropical rainforest and overlooking mountaintops grazing the clouds…first impressions were fantastic. In the simple kitchen we cooked sausage sandwiches loaded with mustard, eating them on the deck waiting for the sun to lower behind the palms. We felt smug; then dusk settled and thousands of Coqui frogs screeched in chorus. A stunning cacophony. They stopped at 6am; surrendering the morning to the roosters, a bellowing cow and the local dogs barking to each other across the hills. I’ve lived most of my life in big cities…the noise here astonishes.
Day 2 Saturday December 17th
A sudden tropical rainstorm cascades from the roof deafening and fantastic. Within minutes it stops and palm leaves bend in the weight of water. Tiny lizards flick around the verandah. Dave talks to a larger lizard which has taken residence in the kitchen. A lazy morning we don’t drive out until 12; dazzling sun but on the motorway the rainstorm returns, visibility reduced to a few feet, cars slow…hazard lights blur red across the windscreen. A second’s respite from the hammering each time we pass under an overpass.
Into San Juan where we park in a large car park and walk the town; in rain at first so we head up blue cobblestones slippery underfoot, through narrow streets to the Museo de San Juan, the ocean suddenly visible. We see two exhibitions one on religious artifacts and the other of a contemporary Puerto Rican artist Antonio Martorell who at 83 is still producing beautiful large scale works… some of them huge; acrylic on felt and a circular piece, acrylic paint on carpet…clothes rolled in paint and pressed to the felt.
Back on the glistening cobblestones, the sun is out..brightly painted buildings like confectionary. We head down to Paseo de La Princesa a 19th century esplanade where an artisan market runs through…crafts, local sweet treats, food trucks and kiosks line the space behind. Looking up to Fort walls, statues, steps, benches, antique street lamps and near the harbour walls the large Raices (Roots) fountain depicting the islands cultural heritage of Taino, African and Spanish. I take a photo for a family in their matching red festive T-shirts.
We eat at a restaurant called Raices recommended by one of the museum staff, crowded with locals and visitors. We order a traditional dish of Mofongo, mashed plantain and pork…it’s okay but dry and the fish tacos are fried and topped with shredded fake crab sticks. $60 for 2 average meals and a soft drink each is expensive but we’re in a major tourist destination. Local people are celebrating a birthday at a table close by, a cake is brought out decorated with a basketball player and restaurant staff surround the diners to sing happy birthday whilst banging on drums. It’s uplifting and fun. We stop at a major American supermarket on the way back, the prices the same as New York but then everything must be imported. We haven’t found local food markets.
Day 3 Sunday December 18th
Into Santurce to look for the street art murals, visiting first the Museum of Contemporary Art. An artisan market is trading in the grounds of the impressive building, a former school…it spreads inside to the tiered red brick walkways from which different doors lead in to different gallery exhibitions. A large woodcut by Martin Garcia Rivera (Puerto Rico), ‘Lost Forest’ wood print inside a wooden box installation by Rimer Cardillo (Uruguay), Bamboo brushes by Natalia Ortega Gamez (Dominican Republic). Two installation pieces by Daniel Lind Ramos (Puerto Rico) the bases looked like metal but made from coconut palm petioles; the layers of the trunk. In another gallery an archive photographic exhibition ‘The Museum of the Old Colony’ images used as propaganda to promote America as exemplary colonists after the US took Puerto Rico from Spain. ‘A real Yankee Doodle Dandy’ (1948) looking like an early Mod on his bike. A tiny Caribbean island, the Commonwealth (or Free Associated State), Puerto Rico is currently an unincorporated U.S. territory unofficially observed as a 51st State of America.
My favourite piece ‘Happy in their Time’ by Rigoberto Quintana (Cuban living in Puerto Rico). Acrylic on canvas 96 x 84 inches. The muted colours are wonderful, the detail extraordinary.
We ate empanadillas at a modern coffee shop, ok but very dry. A look online directed us to Calle Cerra where most of the bars and buildings had a mural or graffiti. These are the streets known in San Juan for street art; muralists from Puerto Rico and around the world invited to paint here.
Artist credits: Top left and second left by @mrbbaby Third left chrome turtle by @bikismo Bottom left artist unknown. Top right pigeon by @adelerenault and above it a piece by @zayasart Lower right also by @zayasart
Artist credits: Top left by @drepstah Second left by @dface and bottom left artist unknown. Top middle by @tallerbrincaverja The dog in the centre I think by Gatta Tattoo Art Bottom middle by @abey Top right by Romanos Middle right by @susanacachoart and the chrome rabbit bottom right by @bikismo
Artist credits: Bird top left by @felipeortizart Middle and bottom left by @susanacachoart. Top middle building graffiti artists unknown. Bottom middle rooster possibly by Elso. Fabulous ostrich on the right by @bobsnowart
Two of my favourites; this piece by @angurria
And this powerful statement wall by @_ninafoto_
Luis Albertorio @albertorioluis working on his first mural, large scale filling the length of a wall: colourful and uplifting. Luis works full time finishing at 5pm to work on his mural. I complement his colour choices, I love the inky blue background. A warm friendly person…every street artist I’ve met has been friendly, inclusive and happy to share. The streets are your free galleries…explore them!
Back at the house after another 45 minute slog on the belching potholed motorway Dave cooked fajitas and we ate ice cream on the verandah; waiting for the frog cacophony to kick in. So far it’s been mercifully mosquito free…among the din of their mating calls the Coquis must feed on them.
Day 4 Monday December 19th
Nothing doing but lazing; reading, learning Spanish, cooking and eating the local coconut sweet treats we’d bought in San Juan. It’s rare we travel and stay in only one place; we’re both glad we chose the hills and not the beaches.
Day 5 Tuesday December 20th
Another sudden downpour passed quickly. Drove 25 minutes to explore an easy trail in El Yunque National Rainforest. Cleared paths and a free trail…beautiful but crowded with other Christmas visitors. Towering bamboos with thick trunks, decaying uprooted trees a source of life for ferns and tiny purple flowers. Large flat shelled snails hugged the trees and clung underside of broad tropical leaves. Trees and palms filtered the sun to the forest floor where life surges upward towards it. The short trail ended at a river where people enjoyed clambering the rocks to lie in the water. Fun especially for the kids but noisy and no chance of birds this close to so many visitors. We’ve visited a lot of rain forests on our travels so we cut this one short; walked back up the trail and drove West to Toa Alta.
It’s not fun on the motorway, people weave across 3, 4, 5 lanes to get ahead. Dave’s a great driver but he needs eyes in the back of his head for this. It’s erratic, unnerving…my foot hovers over an imaginary brake pedal. 7 minutes from Toa Alta we pass a Burger King called ‘La Casa del Whopper’, trucks belch black smoke. The motorway here is well maintained other than the odd pothole and there’s hardly any litter ( New York is way worse). Considering the hurricanes that have raged through Puerto Rico, one recently, it’s impressive how well everything works, how fast they rebuild and repair. The sky turned a heavy grey with low cloud and on reaching Toa Alta dropped lower til it felt like it was skimming the roof of the car…but rain didn’t follow. Driving around the town through streets of low level battered concrete and acres of rusting wrought iron security grilles. We gave up and found a less stressful route back following the coast… and magically the cloud lifted, the road was lined with palm trees and a sudden view of the ocean…the most beautiful blue, waves crashing on to black rock. Parking we walk on immaculately manicured green, the ocean one side the road the other, a handful of local people relaxing on the grass watching the waves, eating sandwiches. It’s gorgeously unexpected.
Back on the road through Toa Baja…like a different day from only 40 minutes earlier but then back to the grind of the familiar motorway, cars cut us up…my hands are clenched.
Day 6 Wednesday 21st December
Lazy morning then a late decision to drive to see the beach and food kiosks in Luquillo…they feature regularly on blogs and in travel guides. But it’s awful. A long thin strip of sand empty at one end then crowded anywhere where there’s a place selling food. A tatty strip of food kiosks selling deep fried pork; bars, booming music, overpriced sun hats and cheesy T-shirts. The beach flanked by the strip of tattered kiosks, the kiosks on the other side flanked by a busy main highway. Half of the kiosks closed; shuttered behind metal grilles, paint peeling surrounded by discarded litter, lumps of abandoned concrete and rebar. There’s other less frequented beaches further from the main area, quieter…but we’re not tempted by beach.
Reading a guide book I find mention of a local market so we drive further to the neighbourhood of Rio Piedras. Streets of ramshackle concrete apartments bloom with mould. The indoor market is housed in a large concrete building, almost deserted half of it shuttered; I expected vibrant colours, music and the bustle of pre-Christmas shoppers but it’s quiet. People smile and greet us. Chunks of salted cod, fruit and vegetables basics, kiosks selling local sweets, hair oils, lotto tickets…it’s a local traditional place and friendly.
We get in to a great conversation with Juan who was singing to his friends. His wife of 59 years died 5 months ago, the market is a place for him to socialise, to meet his friends. He assumes we are Americans…understandable as most tourists to Puerto Rico are, we haven’t heard any other Europeans. Juan worked for years in New York starting in the 1950s on ships earning good money. 86 years old and healthy “totally clean inside”. He asked us how much our Airbnb cost, how much was the car rental, what’s our rent in New York…then told us how much he paid in the ‘50s. Quite the character, a good raconteur…we enjoyed listening to his stories.
The market spills in to the streets on to tables with plastic awnings selling clothing, cosmetics and hundreds of plastic toy semi automatic guns…some of them huge. I remember the cap guns we had as kids…I’m shocked by these toys but other than scale are they any different?
Back on the motorway we stock up on food again from Ralph’s supermarket, a US chain as it was simply the best option with the most choice. We’ve struggled to find small independents and food markets. We’ve spent $400 on a couple of trips for breakfasts and dinners, fruit and ice cream…3 bottles of wine. Still much cheaper than if we ate out 2 or 3 times a day but groceries are the same price as New York…mostly imported and we were told that many crops had failed due to hurricane flooding this year. Food prices have rocketed since covid…the knock on effect on low income households is traumatic.
Day 7 Thursday 22nd to Day 8 Friday 23rd December
Thursday spent at the house, enjoying the downtime, the scenery. On Friday we head out for a day trip, following Adlin’s advice to drive the scenic highway route 3…through small towns, under mountains, roadside bamboo shooting upwards through the tree canopy, telephone wires pulled low by the weight of vines. Fields of crops; palm leaves, bananas?… fields for sale ‘Se Vende’. At Yabucoa, we hug the coast…the sea a sparkling azure blue, greenery thriving at the side of the road, climbing over everything creating an undulating humped border as it ropes between telegraph poles. The road climbs…my ears pop, we get out to look across to the sea.
Down the 901 through Maunabo, a developed sprawl of low level concrete cutting through the palms to the ocean where a lighthouse sits on a rocky promontory. The road bends up around and down, perfectly cut grass, colourful houses with potted plants, a man in a straw hat on a petrol mower is followed by 5 white egrets running behind him for insects. A skinny dog, then 2 fluffy chihuahuas watch us from the edge of the road. We stop at Punta Tuna to visit the lighthouse where in my developing but basic Spanish the smiling guard tells us we have 20 minutes before he goes for lunch. It’s plenty of time to see the rusting 1893 lighthouse set in attractive gardens with beautiful views across an empty golden beach. Back in the car we play The Specials in memory of Terry Hall who sadly died on 18 December…but the satnav keeps interrupting, we give up. The tide is in, no sign of beach as we drive through Puntillas. In Saluda we look at the satnav, we’re passing the Sea of Tranquility it reminds us of the movie ‘The Princess Bride’.
We’re hungry, hope to find a good place to eat pork but for now we fall back on bbq Pringles. Towards Arroyo it’s much more developed; American chains KFC, Walgreens and local restaurants line the PR3 highway. We turn off on to Avenida del Rio; passing behind a row of squat concrete bungalows bunched up close. Cursing at potholes. We turn back on ourselves returning to the PR3 South to the town of Guayama to its Plaza de Recreo Cristobal Colon. There we meet Francisco and his family; he was from the area before moving to the US where his 3 kids were born. He was “mind blown” that as tourists we were visiting far from the usual tourist places. He left Puerto Rico, joined the US Airforce, was stationed worldwide including Afghanistan, met his wife; he’d travelled so far yet was still surprised we’d visited his old city. We talked, moving to the shade of the palms in the pretty square and follow his advice to get ice cream from Rex Cream on Calle Callimano Martinez; a place he visited as a boy.
Leaving Guayama we get on to PR179 winding up in to the mountains on a road that loops back on itself as often as it goes forward. We pass three dogs trotting down the road tongues lolling, walking close together in varying sizes; they look like a Disney movie. We’re driving the rainforest peaks we’ve been admiring from the main highways, my ears pop and un-pop as we reach higher elevation. Driving down from the mountain we’re suddenly out of the trees and spat in to Cayey, packed with people and long lines for the luchera suckling pig…too long for us to want to stop…we want to try it but it’s getting late with another 67km to drive. We pass more shack style bars and roadside pig roasts, cars jammed in every available parking space…lines of people. San Pablo has a large hospital, commercial buildings, fast food chains with looming signage. On PR32 we drive through Caguas, the road gets more congested, concrete and asphalt, too many cars drive too fast and cut across lanes… weaving. Every time we drive these motorways our stress levels ratchet up. Home. Cook. Eat. Then the frogs kick in.
Day 9 Saturday 24th Christmas Eve and Day 10 Sunday 25th Christmas Day
Dave cooked chilli. I swung in the hammock learning Spanish and read my book, made calls to family in the UK and Africa…sent texts and replied to texts, Christmas greetings…the distance between us closed by WhatsApp. I’m dragged back to memories of youth again when the news breaks that another musical favourite has died; Maxi Jazz, forever remembered for the soaring dance-track ‘Insomnia’.
Day 11 Monday 26th December
Old San Juan city walk following a map from a Lonely Planet guidebook downloaded from my local library before we left. We walked by the Art Deco bank and followed the towering fortification walls of El Moro Fort. Through the red Puerta de San Juan (entrance door) in a wall dating to the 1630s where colonists once unloaded supplies.
In the Cathedral de San Juan on calle del cristo a christening was taking place, everyone dressed in white. The marble tomb of Ponce de Leon flanked by windows glowing soft amber.
At the Plaza de Colon there’s the ubiquitous statue of Columbus among the trees and cafes. Crossing Plaza de Armas central square and up Calle San Francisco to City Hall to the Plaza del Quinto where a centenario totem pole towers overlooking views of the sea. Seated in a restaurant but advised by the waiter that the kitchen was overwhelmed, we left and wandered the streets looking for another place to eat; everywhere crowded…one cruise ship already docked and another pulling in. They unload and immediately the streets are gorged with people. I wait patiently to photograph the beautiful architecture, find the back streets…manage to frame my images without the crowds.
At Park de las Palomos (pigeon park), the birds fly from holes in the wall; signs everywhere discourage feeding them. Down a quieter street at 258 Calle de San Justo, we find Spiga, a tiny cafe and bakery offering handmade pasta dishes, pastries and sandwiches on sourdough…we squeeze in to a table next to some locals and eat delicious sandwiches. The staff are great and conversation flows amiably. We buy more food to take away. Afterwards we queue to get out of the car park, queue to get out of the town and a sudden downpour causes queues on the motorway heading back. Old San Juan is beautiful but crowded…too many shops selling tourist tat and slogan T-shirts…a visit out of the Christmas high season would be more laid back; but I’m glad this friendly island, often devastated by hurricanes and then by the global shutdown caused by Covid, is getting the business again.
Days 12 and 13 Tuesday 27th and Wednesday 28th December
Aaaaah we did nothing but lounge around the wonderful airbnb…2 days of blissful hammock swinging, reading and eating…the holiday Dave dreams of.
Day 14 Thursday 29th December
Back in to Santurce to visit the fabulous Museo de Art de Puerto Rico with its wonderfully illustrated museum exterior.
So much great art here. An exhibition of canvases by Puerto Rican artist Enoc Perez. Really unusual technique using oil sticks to transfer photographs to canvas.
A fantastic mural ‘El Velorio’ by Antonio Martorell (2000). Charcoal, chalk, pastel and crayon on paper.
Mural ‘La Plena’ 1952-54 by Rafael Tufino. Casein on Masonite.
A wonderful installation of clay impressions on paper by Jamie Suarez. 2004. Each one around 6 feet high.
We wandered through the small but pretty sculpture garden behind the museum. Palms with scarlet bark and magnificent gnarled trees.
We ate at a favourite with locals and tourists; ‘Abracadabra’ a lively atmosphere and decent food…creatively decorated with a circus/magic theme…then wandered deserted streets, strangely quiet after the bustle of the restaurant. Architecturally interesting with buildings from different eras, but many places boarded up, falling apart. Paste up street art of what looked to be local people…one of them (the painter holding his paintbrush) a memorial piece.
Eucalyptus Deglupta. No filter and not painted…the Eucalyptus trees in Santurce reveal amazing colours when the bark peels. Never seen any as extreme as these before…known as rainbow bark.
I logged on to learn that the British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood had died; an innovative bold designer, did it her way right to the end. A punk icon and a strong voice for climate change issues. These December deaths cause introspection, nostalgia for our youth. But back to the Airbnb where the tiny Coqui frogs are LOUD; earplug loud all night til dawn. I knew there was one in our bathroom someplace because the shrieking call at night was so close. I finally found him stuck behind a mosquito screen which I was able to unscrew. Got him out with an empty clean ice cream tub and released him back to the wild. Stuck in there for the 2 weeks we’ve been here, it looked healthy…definitely hadn’t lost its voice.
Day 15 Friday 30th December
We stayed at the Airbnb all day. Rain drifted in, sudden bursts across our hilltop…from dazzling sun to a build in the breeze to downpour. Refreshing. I swung in the hammock and watched it bounce off tropical leaves.
Day 16 Saturday 31st New Year’s Eve
And so we leave Puerto Rico. I have enjoyed our time here, met a lot of friendly interesting people and seen some fantastic art. There were a few downsides for me; local culture is strong but it’s hard to find a good traditional food market or small local shops; ultimately pushing retail commerce in to the big American stores like Ralph’s and Walgreens. The local neighbour told me it’s a love/hate relationship…being a protectorate of the US means that forests and mountains are under strict conservation rules which prevents unchecked development…but it also brings the US fast food culture, chains, big box stores and the ugly plastic highway signage which accompanies that. The coast is filled with tourism development in the high rise hotels…but this creates an economy essential to the island. From what I’ve read, rushed civic planning and the sudden influx of factories that moved here for lower tax breaks have altered the island forever; but of course they’ve brought jobs, stability and money. Choosing an independent holiday over sitting on a beach did result in sitting in traffic on potholed highways to get anywhere…but I’d still choose the Airbnb in a local neighbourhood at the top of a hill, even with the cacophonous Coqui frogs.
Luquillo Airbnb https://abnb.me/LRetgly05xb
Old San Juan Museo de San Juan https://www.facebook.com/MuseodeSanJuan
Old San Juan El Morro Fort https://www.nps.gov/saju/planyourvisit/index.htm
Old San Juan Santurce Museum of Contemporary Art https://www.museomac.org
Old San Juan Santurce Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico https://www.mapr.org/es
Old San Juan Santurce Street art https://www.discoverpuertorico.com/article/street-art-tour-santurce https://www.theartwalkpr.com/experiences-1/calle-cerra-street-art-tour
El Yunque National Forest https://www.discoverpuertorico.com/article/visit-el-yunque-national-forest
Maunabo Punta Tuna Lighthouse https://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=1173
Old San Juan Spiga Instagram @spiga_vsj
Old San Juan Santurce Abracadabra Cafe Instagram @abracadabracafe
Guayama Rex Cream Instagram @rexcream1964
Enoc Perez enocperez.com and instagram @enocperez
Jamie Suarez Instagram @arqjaimesuarez
Rafael Tufino https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rafael_Tufi%C3%B1o
Antonio Martorell Instagram @antonio.martorell
Martin Garcia Rivera Instagram @soymartingarciarivera
Daniel Lind Ramos Instagram @daniel_lind_ramos
The Museum of the Old Colony https://archive.nytimes.com/lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2017/11/15/a-new-museum-for-an-old-colony-puerto-rico
Rigoberto Quintana Instagram @rigo_quintana
Street artists credited with their instagram names with the images above.
Fantastic photos – better than other travel guides online