Friday, August 25, 2023

San Juan, Puerto Rico was Sweet!

Back on July 27th, 2023, just a few weeks ago, Maxx and I jetted off on our first adventure in over a year and headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico!

And though it was a short trip, it was quite a sweet one <3 

On our first evening:

We dined at Santaella, an intimate, low-lit bar with small tables underneath rustic chandeliers, and an entire wall made of glass that looks out on a lush, jungle-like garden. 

We loved this meal. We sat at the bar and had a drink, both of us starving since we had not eaten much that day having been traveling for 6+ hours. We chatted and enjoyed looking around, observing the clientele, and watching the all-male-waitstaff work (at least I enjoyed that part ;-). I'm not sure it had the same impact on Maxx). 

We ate: 

-Green banana & root vegetable fritters topped with white crab and herb salad

-Croquettes of the day

-Fresh wahoo 'ono' and salmon ceviche in tropical juices, tomato, sriracha, sweet potato purée

-Tomato salad on focaccia toast with parmesan ice cream (yes, you read that right, ice cream, and man, it was delicious and so different)

-Fresh avocado salad, local fresh cheese, ginger dressing, thinly sliced ​​onion rings, micro herbs

-Crisp whole fresh red snapper, cilantro mojo, fried green plantains "tostones"

-Cream cheese and tart cherry bread pudding with nuts and vanilla ice cream

And oh my gosh, wow, was all of it delicious. We had a great time, talking about all sorts of things and eating all this awesome food. It felt cozy and relaxing, romantic, and also a bit thrilling since we'd just gotten to San Juan and begun our adventure <3.

The following 6 photos were taken when we wandered around the neighborhood of the restaurant before going inside to eat, and then two photos were taken of one of our dishes (the Fresh wahoo 'ono' and salmon ceviche in tropical juices, tomato, sriracha, sweet potato purée).

Day Two was Friday, July 28th, also my 38th birthday :-D

One of Maxx's gifts to me was driving us to the jungle, El Yunque National Forest, about one hour from San Juan, the only jungle in North America.

We spent the day hiking, largely alone, which we loved. We hardly passed anyone on the trail. It was quiet, breezy, and balmy out. We heard the calls of various birds throughout the day, though had trouble spotting them, to our slight disappointment. We saw incredibly cool plants, anemone-like red roots coming out the bottoms of trees that looked like tentacles, and bright neon red, pinecone-esque-looking things stuck on the sides of trees. The single leaf of a fern or other plant was three times the size of my body in length! It made me think of Jurassic Park.

At one point, a downpour suddenly commenced, dumping from the sky. Luckily Maxx and I were already standing underneath a worn stone shelter of sorts, so we stayed there and just watched the rain gray out everything around us, the air smelling earthy, the scent of rainwater permeating.

The downpour ceased almost as soon as it started, about 5 minutes later, and so we hiked back out into the jungle, the air, a refreshing bit cooler.

At one point, Maxx and I hiked up a steep set of stone stairs to a lookout that was perched high above the hills and jungle. While up there, we spotted a little brown and green lizard moving so fast along the side of a concrete wall in front of us that it was almost a blur. The wall wasn't tall, it ended at our waists, and we ended up just standing there for 20+ minutes watching this little lizard moving around, only to be ambushed by another lizard, a much bigger one, maybe a bit longer than my middle finger, and in bright, electric, neon green. 

The two of these lizards then had a hilarious standoff for several minutes until the big green guy scared off the little one. Then we watched the bright green guy launch himself off the wall and into the nearby stalks of greenery, observing him move from stalk to stalk, sometimes jumping to the next one. This was so neat, Maxx and I both remarked on it. We'd never seen anything like it. 

And part of the reason this happened is because we were patient, because we weren't in a hurry, because we decided to just stop and observe for a while to see what happened, and we didn't get antsy, or impatient, or bored, but instead, were curious and interested and engaged with the small details of nature and life around us. We just relaxed into the moment and thus, got to watch really neat things unfold.

So, the below photos are all from our day in the jungle, which was a relaxing, atmospheric, awesome time.

Look close here and you'll see those interesting, red, anemone-like roots coming out the bottom of this tree I mentioned previously.

It was a super misty, foggy day, which was atmospheric, but also didn't allow us to grab the kinds of photos we might've hoped for.

See in the bottom right hand corner of the photo? The walking trail? Maxx and I had just walked along that very path before I took this photo.

Look closely in this photo too, at the building with the green roof that is slightly off to the right from the middle of this photo. See next to it, the black walking path? Maxx and I walked along that trail recently before I took this photo.

It was super windy up there <3

So this photo above and the ones just below come with a cool moment between Maxx and me.

We had to climb up a pretty steep, slippery sheet of rockface to get up to this viewpoint.

I was utterly terrified and almost didn't do it, nearly turning back. Maxx had already scaled the summit and I just felt stricken with fear, clinging to the side of the rock that was a straight up-and-down surface, so afraid of slipping and falling, of breaking another bone.

Maxx did a lot of low-key, steady cheerleading and encouraging, trying to help me figure out where to put my foot. Then he reached for my hand and said, "Let me just pull you up." I almost said no to this too, scared I might pull him over the edge with me, but then I let him and sure enough, he leaned over and lifted me up seemingly effortlessly. 

My retelling of this does not convey the drama, the humor, the atmosphere, or the sweetness of the story in full justice, of course. Only Maxx and I experienced that because we were there ;-). But still, that's the gist of it, and it was a bit of an adrenaline rush for sure.

The photos below are us enjoying the sense of accomplishment and calm that came after having scaled the small, brief, though difficult rock face.

And then for a brief flash of a moment, the mist cleared and we were able to see everything!

The photos below are of the cool lookout structure we stumbled upon, hiking to it up an old stone staircase. This is where we saw the little lizards having the standoff and then doing all sorts of other cool stuff that I mentioned above ;-) 

After having hiked through the jungle all day and now famished, on our way back to San Juan, we spotted a food truck on the side of the road. Maxx remarked that these tend to be quite good in countries like this, so we pulled over without hesitation. We were not disappointed. The fish tacos were PHENOMENAL. Fresh mango and guava spilled over the tops of them, so delicious, just, wow. I thought of my mom while eating them, wishing she could sample them because she loves fish tacos and these would've blown her mind.

Later on back in San Juan, we had dinner at a place that a local recommended to us as we were wandering around San Juan. Both of us, at that point, were tired, hungry, and getting grumpy, so I stopped and asked a young man working in a local car garage if he was from this area? And if yes, what was some great food he recommended? (Not touristy stuff, but locally loved). So we went to where he suggested, and it was quite tasty!

Before dinner, though, since we had to wait about an hour to get in for the food, Maxx found a bar called La Factoria, which is supposedly one of the 50 best bars in the world, so we decided to go get a drink while we waited for dinner. 

Here's what we read about La Factoria: 

La Factoria may be the best-known bar in Old San Juan. It anchors Calle San Sebastián, which is the party street in Old San Juan, but it is a bit tricky to find as it has no sign. It is a cocktail bar. It has been included in lists like the best 50 bars in the world. The surprises don’t end with the lack of a sign. Its unmarked location includes “secret passages” to 6 different bars with different drink menus. This is a bar that is going out of its way to be different. It is also the “only bar in Latin America to be named and/or nominated for the TOTC Spirited Award, TW50BB, and James Beard Award all in the same year (2018)”. So… something they are doing is definitely working for them.

And yes, it was way cool, the inside like a worn, slightly crumbling, factory-in-a-past-life, with lone lightbulbs strung between walls, dim lighting, and everyone crowded into one room with lots of open, floor-to-ceiling windows lining the place. 

Unfortunately, I was tired and quite grumpy, so I was not able to enjoy it here as much as I could have otherwise, but we went back again, and this was great the second time around :-)

Then, the photos from Saturday, July 29th begin just below.

We spent the day just wandering around Old San Juan, which was relaxing, and fun, as well as very, very hot, the heat and humidity nearly suffocating. 

Upon my suggestion, we caught a five-dollar Uber to the nearby beach and went for a dip for about half an hour, which was a refreshing, welcoming breath of fresh air, as well as made for some fun people-watching. We trod water, bobbing in the waves, watching the mass of people playing and interacting on the shore close by.

Then upon getting back into old San Juan, we showered and went to get a drink at La Factoria again, and this time I was ready, upbeat and excited. I sampled the Lavender Mule which, at the time, I did not realize was the drink they are famed for, and it was, in fact, quite good. Maxx had me ask the bartender to make him an original drink based on his favorite tastes, so I did, telling the bald, bespectacled bartender that Maxx loved citrus, ginger, licorice, and cardamom. 

Then we headed to dinner at Vianda, Maxx's birthday dinner to me, which has recently been selected as one of the 20 best new restaurants in America. Since we're both foodies, we were quite excited about this meal in particular. 

For my entree, I had the Bacalao, the cod in coconut broth with fried rice and shitake, and it was one of the best fish dishes I've ever eaten in my life. Wowza. Maxx agreed with my assessment upon taking a bite of it. 

This was a lovely dinner experience, both because of the food and just the entire evening. It was quiet, romantic, the food was awesome, funky and evocative music was playing (one song in particular that I'd never heard before until that night but that played and I loved: "When Will I Learn" by Tora), and I was able to have the birthday cake I'd been yearning for in the form of their Chocolate and Raspberry Jar on the menu, a moist chocolate cake layered with mousse and raspberry. SO good. I totally loved all of this. Maxx's company, our conversation, the music, the atmosphere, and the food. It was a grand time :-D

I just loved the look of this building, with the lush, jungle-like porch.

How gorgeous, vivid, funky, and lovely are all these colors of Old San Juan? <3

See Maxx in the lower left corner of the photo? ;-)

This picture is particularly symbolic and hilarious since, the man on Maxx's left who is clutching and typing away on his cell phone? Man, if I thought people's addictions to their devices were out of control in the States (and they are), I was MIND BLOWN by this situation in San Juan.

It was like something out of a science fiction movie. EVERYWHERE we went, every single cafe, every meal we had, every street we walked down, every brunch we ate, there was someone (and oftentimes, many someones) taking calls on BLARING volume RIGHT next to us. I could not believe it. We must've seen and been sitting next to this easily 8+ times a day. People were taking phone calls on speakerphone everywhere, the grating blare of electronic noise a near-constant backdrop to our trip everywhere we went. This was shocking, distracting, often irritating, and a bummer. It was the one irritating, sometimes disheartening aspect of our experience there. Otherwise, though, the trip was a grand one.

So I thought the above photo was a perfect one for capturing the essence of what surrounded Maxx and me for the entirety of our trip.

How incredibly creative, lovely, and awesome are the handmade facades lining the balconies of this building? SO cool.

I loved this, how pretty much from anywhere you walked in Old San Juan, you could peer down a street and see the ocean right there <3

I love the above two photos of Maxx, the cool backdrop I caught him walking against.

How pretty are some of these balconies, and all the spills of flowers over the tops of some buildings <3

I thought this building was so charming and pretty, like some kind of sweet confection.

See the kitty lying in the shadows of the above photo? The cats of San Juan are a thing. The city is filled with stray cats. The cool thing about this is that the citizens of San Juan seem to try and care for them. When out walking, you'll see small bowls of water under trees, little trays of cat food just out and about, so this is very sweet <3

So, several times when Maxx and I were out walking, I remarked, "Wait, we have to save some water in our water bottle so we can give it to one of the kitties if we need to!", to which he rolled his eyes affectionately and smiled.

On our final, whole day in San Juan, we spent the day wandering the old city again.

We were SO hot and sweaty that day, just absolutely melting, so we took this photo as a joke of sorts since we knew our hair was plastered to our heads haha.

Can you spot the side of the Iguana up in the tree? Maxx and I were passing under this tree and he just happened to look up and spot it. Something that, as we people watched, no one else passing by seemed to spot. So Maxx and I stood there for a while, just observing it. Super cool.

This is the same tree as the photo before this one, this huge branch on which the iguana was hanging out.

I just thought this was a lovely little square, so I snapped a photo ;-)

Afternoon detour for a chocolatey, mousse-y snack ;-)

So the above photo is a peninsula of sorts that Maxx and I just happened to stumble upon which is where San Juan's, Save a Gato, is housed.

This is a pretty neat organization that adopts homeless cats in San Juan out to people in the U.S. and elsewhere. Pretty awesome.

So we spent like 30 minutes wandering the little park and free-range, open area, surrounded by cats. There must have been 40+ of them within our sight, lying around, sleeping, prowling, eating, just hanging out. Maxx sort of had to drag me out of there ;-). I was just swooning over them all.

Check out the link to the Save a Gato organization here!

And pass it along if you know of anyone looking to adopt a kitty in need <3

Another totally lovely building that makes me think of a Petit Four or other enticing cake or sweet treat.

On our last evening, we dined at Casita Miramar, which was also excellent. 

The Buñuelos, taro fritters over chorizo cream and mustard aioli, were to die for (and are pictured just below on the left).

This Tres Leches cake? SO good.

On our last morning, Maxx and I walked across blazing hot San Juan to head to the vast, football field-length grasses of a fortress we'd seen two days before. Maxx pointed out that this would be a perfect place to do a workout.

So we went there and each did our own workout quietly but alongside one another, Maxx doing sprints, jump squats, some band work, and other stuff, while I did mostly band work and a bit of jogging.

Below are the photos I took that morning of the beautiful views we saw and the...way cool dudes and dudettes who shared our workout space with us ;-)

The TINY white-shirted dot in this photo is Maxx, to give you an idea of the area we were working out in. We stood by the small stone structure he is almost next to and did our workout there.

I LOVE this photo. It's an awesome view of San Juan and the adjoining coast.

See the big green gal or guy making her or his way across the wall?? SO cool!! He or she was easily the length of my arm.

Look closely along the bottom of the photo above. See the iguana??

Can you spot the green tail just disappearing from view? This iguana was walking a straight 90 degrees down the side of the wall, which we watched with wide eyes, just before I snapped this photo.

Again, see the iguana in the photo above? ;-)

Annnnnd one more, can you spot the iguana? ;-p

Maxx, ahead of me on our final walk through Old San Juan. We'd just finished our workout and were heading to check out another fortress we'd spotted during our trip but had not seen up close. Then we had to head back to the hotel, check out, and go to the airport soon thereafter.

I spotted this tiny, dimly lit, cramped little pastry shop on our first day there, remarking it looked SO good, but then it was closed every day except for the morning of our departure, so we made a point to head here to sample it before heading to the airport. And WOW. So, so delicious, similar to the caliber of sweet rolls we've sampled in Denmark and Iceland.