Everyone’s Clapping Again

Wednesday,  December 28, 2016: San Juan, Loíza, Río Grande, and Luquillo, Puerto Rico

I decided to buy a ticket from New York to San Juan for a flight landing at 3:30am. The arrangement would allow me to sleep while travelling and enjoy a full day before picking up my friend and driving to Río Grande. It was a full, if depleting day, spent mostly guzzling PR-style coffees at Isla Verde’s lovely Panadería España. In the afternoon, we took a scenic drive to Piñones, a beach and food kiosk paradise and spent the evening at the peaceful Playas del Yunque. San Juan’s eastern neighbors aren’t the most exhilarating locales, but they make for good vacationing.

Summary of the Below Verbosity

Getting There and Getting Around
  • San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport: SJU has by far the most flights of Puerto Rico’s airports, it’s located right next to Isla Verde and close to everything San Juan, and is a reasonable drive from anywhere on the island
  • Alamo via Holiday Autos: I had a mild panic attack when I tried to book a rental car for the week and found that all of the major agencies were booked solid. Via Kayak, though, I found a deal on Holiday Autos, which had some Alamo options somehow available. Given that Alamo’s website and call center said it had no availability, I was a bit nervous about contracting with this third party, but you get an Alamo confirmation number, pay Alamo directly at the airport (after paying Holiday Autos a small percentage up front, and I evn was upgraded from a compact car to a midsize SUV for now fee. If you can’t find something through Alamo, Enterprise, Avis, etc., it’s worth checking resellers like this one
Neighborhoods and Towns
  • Isla Verde: A pleasant beachside community in Carolina, the eastern part of greater San Juan
  • Río Grande: A few districts over from San Juan, Río Grande has a number of decent resort areas frequented by both Puerto Ricans and visitors
Lodging
  • Playas del Yunque: Upon hearing about my trip, a friend who’s from Puerto Rico very generously offered to lend me his family’s vacation home in Río Grande. We only took him up on his hospitality for a night, when we needed a spot to rest before an early morning flight to Vieques. Playas del Yunque are conviently about halfway from the airport to the Fajardo airport. I was hesitant at first, having had a subpar experience staying in this area in the past, but despite it’s proximity to Loíza, Playas del Yunque was everything Aquatika wasn’t: easy access to a aspacious and beautiful  beach from which you can see for miles along the coast. The apartment is up past the Wyndham; here is an example rental
Coffee
  • Panadería España: This combination bakery, café, sandwich shop, and liquor store is located in a strip mall in Isla Verde. Parking is scarce, and I was told wifi was not available, but it has a festive atmosphere and the pastries, coffee and Cuban sandwich are all great. Supposedly, President Obama had the Cuban here when he visited PR. It’s geographically close but not easily walkable to the beach, and has no outdoor seating that I saw. Knowing I’d need a place to work all day on Wednesday, I picked it because it had great reviews online, was close to the airport, and opened early
Food
  • Piñones: In addition to hosting a nice beach and a state mangrove forest, Piñones has a solid collection of sometimes dilapidated kiosks serving Puerto Rican food
  • Kiosko el Boricua: Supposedly the best of Piñones kiosks. The food stand, bar and patio sit on a grassy patch across the shady road from the beach. This is true of many places in Puerto, but definitely don’t come here if you’re in a rush. The line moves slowly and the cashier is in no rush to take your order. The food’s worth the wait. I tried a pionono, a pastelillo and an arepa. Note that if you want mofongos rellenos and the like, you have to order in a different line from those pastry-type meals. Parking is a bit of a mess; some spaces sit on the street, but none was available when we arrived. I pulled into a yard next to the kiosk, and a lady standing on the porch of a nearby house told me parking cost three pesos. I never ascertained for sure whether she had jurisdiction over the yard
  • Lolita’s: Solid Mexican restaurant in Luquillo. The setting isn’t idyllic – it overlooks a highway – but the patio is pleasant and the food is a tasty alternative to mofongos and arepas everyday. According to my hosts, this restaurant is one of the two must-gos near Playas del Yunque. It’s a bit hard to find, though: The restaurant isn’t entirely nondescript, but the turns off of 3 are really easy to miss. We missed them several times
Shopping
  • Walgreens: Puerto Rico has many Walgreens at which you can buy what you’d by at Walgreens anywhere else

Notes

Everyone claps when a plane lands at San Juan. It’s a fun tradition and also a rude awakening, literally. My overnight plane ride from New York was shorter than I expected. At its beginning, the flight attendant or pilot announced: Three hours and thirty minutes from takeoff to touchdown. So much for five solid hours of sleep. After about two, rowdy applause roused me from a shallow slumber, and I still had two and a half hours to kill till La España opened. Chantel wouldn’t land till mid-afternoon, at which point I could pick her up and hopefully retire to Río Grande. I began to question the decision to arrive in Puerto Rico at 3:30 in the morning. I grabbed a coffee at an airport spot and set up shop at a table, writing and reading till about 5:30. The airport has not-free wifi, but my phone’s LTE and personal hotspot were working great at the airport.

Once I picked up the rental car from Alamo, Google Maps was not. The first day of a vacation is almost always a bleary-eyed frenzy for me, and I spent this first morning learning of turns after I’d driven past them, not quite fighting to stay awake but more in a caffeine-supported haze, and barely surviving in feigned Spanish fluency.

  • The rental agent addressed me in English, but in that he was alone that morning. Because English is so widely spoken in Puerto Rico, someone who looks like me usually has to force it to get conversations going in Spanish, but on this day, I wasn’t being taken at sight for English-only, and I was quite proud
  • I programmed the closest Walmart into Google Maps and hit the road. From the airport, I got on the highway, and by the time the app heralded the first exit, the exit was in my rearview mirror. I crossed the same body of water twice, looped around the same exit ramp twice, and felt like I was traversing the same streets over and over again. AT&T’s coverage throughout the island is solid; Verizon’s is spotty. Even in areas of good service, Google Maps on Verizon always seems a turn behind. So you’ll eventually find out that you missed your turn, but there isn’t much you can do in advance
  • A combination of Google and sign-reading got me within striking distance of Walmart’s supposed location. The directions showed a left turn up a hill. I turned in and pulled up next to the security booth for a gated community. I asked them if Walmart lived in this neighborhood. They pointed in the other direction, and I held up traffic and turned around. Google Maps was not going to bring me to the Supercenter
  • Fortunately, I soon passed a Walgreens. The familiar layout and product assortment comforted me after a stressful drive. I bought toilertries, sunscreen, bug spray, and bottle water. I was now ready to sit at a coffee shop.
  • On the drive to La España, I passed Calle James Bond. Maybe it’s not a landmark, but it is an amusing street name

At the bakery, I parked, ordered coffee and a pastry, and asked for the wifi code. The cashier said no. Either they didn’t have wifi or he didn’t feel like providing me with the password. (My computer did detect a La España network, but maybe it’s not public.) Fortunately, the LTE was good here. The pastries were great, the coffee was great, the Cuban sandwich was great, and the atmosphere overall was lively and welcoming, aside from the two tables full of Puerto Rican police officers posting up near my table and making me slightly nervous. (Note: I wasn’t doing anything illegal, but eight armed officers of the law coming near you and not leaving for an extended period will put you, or at least me, on edge.) My friend’s parents, who were lovely, stopped in for a snack and to drop off the keys to their apartment, and a friend I knew from last time I came to Puerto Rico dropped in to hang out as well. The cops may have had their coworkers coming and going at their tables but I felt that I was also holding forth.

Once Chantel arrived, we cruised along the coast to Piñones and enjoyed Puerto Rican treats at Kiosko el Boricua. We returned to the apartment, where I hung out and I did some work till the day wrapped up. After another Walgreens run for some new sandals (mine had broken at some point in New York), we got dinner at Lolita’s. They served a good variety of Mexican food and I got the churrasco. I told the waiter medium in response to his question of how I’d like it, and he gave me a very strange look. I thought maybe I’d misinterpreted his question. I asked for clarification. He said I definitely wanted medium-well or well done, and I think he said that somebody famous whose name I didn’t recognize had said that Lolita’s medium-well churrasco was the best thing you could eat on the island. It was delicious. That night, I slept well.

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