La Vuelta: Old San Juan

I’m discovering that one of the wonderful things about riding a bike is that I can combine it with one of my other favorite things: traveling. If you don’t mind dis-assembling your bike and putting it in a case, for a $75 luggage fee on Southwest you can make any trip a cycling trip. Of course La Vuelta is a serious cycling ride, not a leisurely ride, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find time for some new experiences. (Did you know that “La Vuelta” in Spanish translates to “The Vuelta?” Rosetta Stone success story right here.)

After a year of planning, the time finally came for our trip to Puerto Rico for La Vuelta. The ride began on Friday, so we flew in on Wednesday to get acclimated, re-assemble my bike, register for the event and see the sights. San Juan was a direct flight from Orlando (it only cost $99 one way on Southwest) and from my window seat I got a nice view of the Bahamas. As the plane flew over the island of Puerto Rico the sheer enormity of the ride ahead smacked me in the face. I thought, “Only an idiot would try to ride a bike around that island in three days.”

YEA.

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I have to tell you, my expectations for San Juan were not very high. My other Caribbean experiences had been underwhelming (at least): I’d seen Nassau many time on cruise stops and it is non-charming. Paradise Island is opulent, but commercial. Jamaica is so poor that I feel guilty (and unsafe) the whole time I’m there, and Cancun is one big concrete slab laid on top of a beach squeezed full of chain hotels and touristy bars. So I headed for San Juan with the fresh headlines of the Puerto Rican government’s economic crisis on my mind and prepared for a “rustic” experience.

I shouldn’t have worried. I want to tell you, I have never been in a more uplifting, beautiful, or more friendly land in my life. We weren’t on the ground in San Juan for more then a few hours when I started to have fantasies of moving there. (That’s the acid test for any vacation, do we start to grab fliers from the local realtors?) The culture of San Juan is the nicest combination of Caribbean life and that of our own, in many ways, I felt like I was still in Florida. (By the way, EVERYONE in Puerto Rico has a relative in Kissimmee, Florida.)

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Old San Juan is only minutes from the airport and we stayed in a Sheraton directly across from the cruise ship pier. The Sheraton’s casino had only recently closed, as have many of the casinos on the island, giving the hotel a bit of an Atlantic City vibe, a street of broken dreams and promises that died young. It was nice enough, if not spectacular, and the staff was very helpful. There was a Walgreens, a Subway, and a Senor Frogs within 2 blocks of the front door, and the old town of San Juan (and the starting line of the Vuelta) was only another two blocks away.

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Old San Juan was everything I’d always hoped Nassau would be. When you get off the cruise ship in Nassau, you find about three short blocks of charming shops and restaurants… and then nothing. Old San Juan, on the other hand, is blocks and blocks of charm: all kinds of restaurants, shopping, churches, schools, and neighborhoods. I never once felt uncomfortable or threatened while I was there,  nor did I feel like I was in a government designed tourist zone like in Cancun. It just felt… nice, an equal mix of locals and tourists, everyone relaxed and friendly.

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My only reference for this experience was Michael Corleone in Havana, sitting in the town plaza having a drink with his brother Fredo. In all the times I’d been to the Caribbean I’d been searching for this feeling: being surrounded by a beautiful Latin culture while living the life of a vacationing tourist, Salud! Salud! Salud! This was heaven, I thought, as Teresa and I sat in a plaza of our own and had dinner. Selecting a restaurant was not easy, in my afternoon scouting trip I passed no fewer than 2 dozen restaurants that all seemed like possibilities. Finally we settled on one a block from the hotel, simply because we wanted to eat outside. Here’s what I had:

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Whole fried snapper is a Caribbean delicacy, they scale it and drop it in a frying pan and flip it over after a couple of minutes. You just peel the meat off… I’m just sayin… it was delicious. (I had it again later in the week in Mayaquez, an even bigger fish, and man it was good.) Yea I know, it has eyes and a face: don’t worry about it. I’m a “pescatarian,” I don’t eat meat, but I do eat fish, and this one did not die in vain.

download (10)Some cyclists from La Vuelta did a 45 mile warm up ride on Thursday, a tour of San Juan, and I got to see what life is like outside of the old city. San Juan is a large metropolitan, modern city. With its rolling hills it reminded me of Atlanta, at least a little, with plenty of traffic. I’d hadn’t expected to find such a big city in the Caribbean: but that’s why I like to travel, there are so many things in the world I don’t know about!

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After our ride my favorite part of the old San Juan stay was the walk Teresa and I took through the old city. We found a road, the Paseo de la Princesca, along the outside of the city’s old wall. There we found beautiful gardens, sculptures, and the bronze Raices (Roots) Fountain, to commemorate the origins of Puerto Ricans – a people with descendants from the Taino Indian, African, and Spanish, all blended and rising out of the sea with dolphin escorts.

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I’m sure the reason that this was my favorite part of our stay was because of the absolute serendipity that led us down this path, we had no expectations and simply found history, natural beauty, and art when we least expected it. Isn’t that why we travel? Because not knowing what is around the next corner is always the best part!

So, my recommendation is this: with or without a bike, you need to visit Old San Juan! I promise, you’ll have an adventure you won’t soon forget.

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