Welcome to my place. . . San Juan, Puerto Rico
‘If you look in the right places there is plant life that glows in the dark’
Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, at dusk. Photograph: iStock
Originally from Maynooth, Co Kildare, Darragh Lynch is a 23-year-old business and law graduate. He is currently based onboard a cruise liner sailing around the Caribbean and works as a destinations expert. San Juan, Puerto Rico is a weekly port of call for him and has quickly become his home away from home.
Where is the first place you bring people to when they visit San Juan?
Upon arrival in San Juan there is always one place I will go straight to, or if travelling with a friend I often insist this is the first stop. The cafe Casa Cortes is located on Calle Fortaleza. It is a chocolate bar (not the kind you’re thinking about) that began in 1929 and the chocolate milk they serve is simply to die for. They also serve a delicious local snack - Mallorca bread con Jamon, queso y huevos. It’s a soft bread covered in powdered sugar, filled with iberico ham, melted cheese and a softfried egg. This doesn’t sound like it should be a sandwich, but it actually works on so many levels. As Casa Cortes began as a chocolatier, all of the orders in this cafe are served with a small square of chocolate. In true Puerto Rican style they sometimes serve the chocolate with a small slice of cheese, the two of which are supposed to be eaten at the same time.
The top three things to do there that don’t cost money are . . .
A walk around the old town of San Juan is an absolute must. There is an abundance of multi-coloured terraced houses lining cobblestone streets and the beautiful architecture around every corner means you never know what you could come across in Old San Juan. A short stroll from the main town brings you to the smallest chapel in San Juan - Capilla Del Santo Cristo de la Salud. There is a small altar located in an archway through which cars used to drive up until the 1950s. From here, it’s a short walk to the beachside promenade which snakes around the base of the Del Moro fortress. This amazing walk has a gigantic fortress on one side and the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean on the other. Close to the entrance of the promenade is a tree lined avenue that leads to the cathedral. Religion is something very important to the people of Puerto Rico. Christianity is the island’s main religion and it would be impossible to visit San Juan and not stumble across some amazing churches. The cathedral of San Juan is located beside the former convent. The convent has since been turned into an upmarket hotel but many of the old furnishings remain. The cathedral and the convent are must sees on a trip to the city.
The el Yunque national park is a 40-minute drive from the city centre and is the only rainforest in the US Forest Service. Here one can explore many of the different trails through the rainforest. It is amazing to explore it during the day as many of the trails lead to rivers with waterfalls where locals have set up rope swings for more adventurous hikers. But it is at night that the rainforest really comes alive, the sounds of tree frogs and crickets reach a crescendo as the sun sets and if you look in the right places there is also bioluminescent plant life that glows in the dark.
Where is the best place to get a sense of San Juans place in history?
The fortresses of San Cristobal and Del Morro are without a doubt the best places to get a feel for San Juan’s history. They are military installations occupied from the 1500s until the late 1700s by Spanish settlers. These imposing behemoths hang on the edge of old San Juan, a reminder of days gone by when attacks on the city were common from invaders. Now they stand as an attraction for the millions of tourists who visit Puerto Rico each year.
Where do you recommend for a great meal that gives a flavour of San Juan?
The best local cuisine and a must try is the traditional mofongo. This is a dish made of boiled, fried and then mashed plantain held in a large mortar-shaped bowl with the centre hollowed out. The middle is then filled with a choice of either chicken, prawns or beef. It’s a beautiful dish that goes down extremely well with a traditionally made mojito or a local beer. My go-to restaurant for a good mofongo is Raices, located on Calle del Recinto just two blocks from the cruise ship terminal. This is a modern restaurant with a traditional twist, the outside seating area is ornately carved wooden seating while the inside is styled to resemble a traditional Puerto Rican village with the servers donned in traditional dress.
What should visitors save room in their suitcase for after a visit to San Juan?
There are all manner of souvenirs or trinkets one could take home from San Juan. However one solid recommendation would be the the coffee as it is world famous and there are all manners of coffee shops where one can pick up some freshly ground beans to take home. If it’s souvenirs you’re looking for, the streets are lined with souvenir stores and venders selling handcrafted wooden carvings or metal ornaments created before your very eyes.
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