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Our recent Southern Caribbean cruise departed from San Juan, Puerto Rico. We’d never been to Puerto Rico before, so we took the opportunity to come the day before and then left late so that we could take tour Old San Juan. We were forewarned that power had not been restored to all areas of Puerto Rico since the hurricane in 2017 but it did not have any effect on our visit and tourism dollars will help rebuild. In hindsight, we wish we had spent a few more days in San Juan and enjoyed some day trips from San Juan to other parts of the island.
Getting to Old San Juan
From the airport, you have two options – hire someone in advance or use the taxi stand. Uber drivers are prevented from picking up passengers at the airport, so that is not an option. What I liked about this system was that it was organized. There is one line and the people write out where you are going and personnel assigns you to a driver. You’ll know from the beginning how much your trip will cost you. Our trip to Old San Juan cost $24. For reference, the prices listed above were in effect in May 2018.
Stay at the Casablanca Hotel
We only had one night to spend in San Juan but I knew that I wanted to stay in Old San Juan. As mentioned in several reviews, why stay at a beach when you’ll be enjoying some fabulous beaches on your cruise? Instead, we focused on finding a hotel with good reviews and centrally located in Old San Juan.
I chose the Casablanca Hotel because of the massive rooftop stone bathtubs! I wish it hadn’t been so rainy so that we could have enjoyed soaking in them! What a lovely, romantic way to enjoy the sights and sounds of Old San Juan while enjoying a glass of bubbly! Unfortunately, the hotel bar was undergoing renovations (this is twice this has happened to us – the other was in San Pedro, Belize).
While I greatly enjoyed both the location and the atmosphere at the Casablanca, there are a few other places I am tempted to try if we come here again. Just once, I would like to splurge and stay at El Convento. I also spotted the Decanter Hotel across the street from El Convento. You can read my full post about the Casablanca Hotel here.
Try Mofongo at Barrachina Restaurant
When you’re in Old San Juan, you’ve got to go to the place where the Pina Colada was created. We started with Spanish Sausage (Chorizos al Jerez) for $10 which we split. This dish was very much worth it! And we had to try a local favorite – mofongo, one shrimp and one steak. Mofongo is mashed cassava (can also be green plantain but I’m pretty sure ours was cassava) seasoned with garlic and spices used as a base and covered with your protein in a brown sauce. I’m going to say that this is an acquired taste. We paid $18 and $20 each for our mofongos. While the setting was nice, we had terrible service from our waiter, which I’m sure affected our experience. The other waiters were terrific and efficient, but ours would have rather been anywhere else and it showed.
This restaurant received a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence each year from 2012 to 2016. You can read more about this restaurant here.
Enjoy Cocktails at El Convento
One day I will splurge and stay at this former convent turned hotel. In the meantime, you can soak in the atmosphere by enjoying a cocktail in its fabulous garden bar. Unfortunately, it was raining when we visited, so the bar was pretty empty. We did get to see a couple get married at the church across the street, holding their reception here. How romantic!
Experience the Plazas
There are so many little parks as you walk around. My favorite spot was this one outside El Convento and the church. How more “old town” feeling can you get than having an accordion player?
The sights of Old San Juan are best enjoyed by foot. Cobblestone streets, street signs on the sides of buildings. The colorful houses and buildings. The fabulous doors.
Take the Trolley If You’re Tired
Operated by the city of San Juan, the trolley is free to ride. You can find maps and tips here. It is a hop on, hop off trolley with multiple routes that takes you along the touristy spots you’ll want to see.
A Note About The Port
If you’re cruising on Carnival or if your cruise ship stops in San Juan, the terminal in Old San Juan is where you’ll be. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that Royal Caribbean left from the International Terminal, which is not within walking distance of Old San Juan. A taxi from the historic port to the international terminal costs $14 – we hired an Uber driver for $7. If you’d like to stay super close, your best bet would be to spend the night at the Sheraton Hotel, which provides a shuttle to the terminal. (This is not the same Sheraton Hotel located across from the Old San Juan terminal!)
What To Do With Your Luggage
Our cruise arrived in San Juan early in the morning. Our flight home wasn’t until 5 pm. While we would have loved to walk around Old San Juan, we worried about what to do with our luggage during the day. This isn’t an unusual circumstance. If you stayed at a hotel before your cruise, ask if they will keep your suitcase for the day. Several restaurants in Old San Juan will also store your luggage for free (Barrachina is one of them). The easiest solution for us, take a tour. Tour operators wait for disembarking guests and will take you and your luggage on a tour of Old San Juan.
Take a Tour of Old San Juan
One of the tour providers, Happy Tours, assigns tourists to vans based upon similar departure times. They will get you to the airport at least two hours before your flight. What I didn’t like was that we got there early and we were made to wait for over 30 minutes while they filled our van. Our driver was also new and not very good. He might improve with time.
There is nothing better than being in an air-conditioned van when it is hot and drizzly. He drove us around town, explaining about the port terminals and some history. The stop at the famous Concha Hotel was too long – but it made me realize that the beaches on the historically famous deco area of Puerto Rico reminded me of Miami Beach.
I enjoyed the stop at the Congress. Because we were there on a Saturday, we got to pull up all the way to the front and stop. This is where I learned that the primary industry in Puerto Rico is pharmaceutical products.
We had a bit over an hour to explore Old San Juan. This was great for those who hadn’t had a chance to do so before their cruise. There are plenty of authentic food options near here. Based on our driver’s recommendations, we ate at Grandma’s Kitchen at the back of the Old San Juan “Food Court.” I tried a pastelon de amarillo – which I can best describe as a lasagna using fried plantain instead of pasta. It was delicious! And for $7 including a soda, this meal was a deal! Allan had a plate that had a LOT of chicken that he said was delicious too.
Our Next Trip
I wish we had visited the two old forts in the area – Castillo San Felipe del Morro and the Castillo de San Cristobal. The largest fortification built in the new world, the Castillo de San Cristobal, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. I wish we’d explored it. El Morro is probably the most recognizable of the two forts. Admission costs $7 and includes both forts. The National Park Service website contains useful information. Next time, we’re visiting these forts instead of just driving by them!
I really enjoyed the sights and sounds of Old San Juan. I would like to come back and stay for several days in the future. If I do, I would love to make sure that I have a full day and evening here so that I can explore the Bioluminescent Bay. The Bacardi Rum tour came highly recommended, so I need to add it to my list.
Have you been to San Juan? What was your favorite place to visit or food/drink to try?
Annick, The Common Traveler