Girls’ Weekend in San Juan

Girls’ Weekend in San Juan (January, 2016)

I can’t remember exactly when the tradition started, but for the last 10-15 years my sisters and I have planned an annual “Girls Weekend” where we take our mom on a little getaway so that the four of us can spend some time away from work, kids, husbands, etc. Over the years, it has evolved from a simple road trip to New Hampshire, Newport, or Maine into something a little more elaborate. This year we went to San Juan, Puerto Rico!

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We left New York VERY early on a frosty Thursday morning in January, and landed in sunny San Juan about noon. From the airport, it was a quick cab ride to our nearby hotel – the Intercontinental San Juan, in Isla Verde.  Because we had arrived before check-in time, we had some lunch and sat by the pool until we were able to get into our rooms. We had booked two oceanfront rooms, and we had beautiful views over the pool to the Caribbean beyond. The rooms were spacious, though in need of some updating, but we didn’t plan to spend much time indoors, so that wasn’t really a concern. The resort has a nice pool area, plenty of lounge chairs by the pool/beach, and an assortment of dining options, from a casual toes-in-the-sand lunch spot, to a Ruth Chris steakhouse. The location was very convenient to the airport (about 10 minutes away), and the beach was lovely, but I think if we had to do it over again we’d stay in the Condado area, which has more shops/restaurants within walking distance.

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That evening we enjoyed a cocktail at the hotel before hopping in a cab to Condado (about a 15-minute ride) where we had made dinner reservations at Oceano. We sat outside, just steps from the water, and enjoyed sangria and Puerto Rican specialties including fresh seafood and delicious mofongo. It was a perfect start to our weekend!

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On the way back to the hotel, we asked the taxi driver for his favorite breakfast place, and he recommended the Bistro Café, which he said was “just down the street” from our hotel, so we made plans to walk there in the morning. The walk turned out to be a little longer – and sweatier – than we had anticipated, but it was more than worth it! We were the only non-locals in the place, and our friendly, patient waiter took the time to translate and explain every mouth-watering item on the menu (including about a dozen specials). We enjoyed some of the best coffee I’ve ever had, along with waffles, eggs, fruit and more. The owner stopped by our table to chat with us, and they seemed genuinely pleased that we had stumbled in. I would go back there in a minute!

The rest of the day was spent lazing by the pool, reading, swimming, and walking on the beach. There was a lot of seaweed, so we didn’t swim in the ocean, but the beach itself was wide and walkable, and remarkably uncrowded.

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I had made plans to catch up with my college roommate (who is from San Juan) that evening, so we met her for cocktails at our hotel and then she and I headed out to La Placita, which is apparently where all the “cool kids” go on Friday night 🙂 This pedestrian-only area near Condado is an open-air farmers’ market during the day, but on certain nights of the week it morphs into a night spot with carts selling cocktails and cigars. It reminded me of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, with all the people walking around with open containers of alcohol, but everyone was dressed up for a night out (because it’s Puerto Rico) and the music wafting out of the bars and restaurants was Latin, rather than jazz. It was very cool!

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We had a cocktail in the plaza and then headed upstairs to have dinner at Asere Cubano Kitchen and Bar. The restaurant has a really cool “speakeasy” vibe, and we enjoyed Ropa Viejo, tuna tartare, and other small plates, and then ended the evening with one last cuba libre on the second-floor verandah overlooking La Placita.

Saturday morning we had breakfast at our hotel and headed into Old San Juan for the day. It’s about a 25-minute cab ride from Isla Verde. We had the taxi driver drop us off in the main square, and then we just wandered. There are shops, galleries, museums, restaurants, bars and two historic forts — El Morro (Castillo San Felipe del Morro) and San Cristobal (Castillo de San Cristobal).  We explored El Morro (more than worth the small admission charge), and watched families fly kites on the huge grassy field outside the fort. Nearby, we sipped Pina Coladas at (supposedly) the bar where they were invented. We spied on two weddings at a gorgeous old church. We bought souvenirs at a local gallery. And then we ended the day with delicious tapas and wine at El Picoteo restaurant at the gorgeous El Convento hotel. NOTE: If you are headed to San Juan and don’t want/need to be at the beach, I highly recommend El Convento.

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Sunday was our last day, but we had an evening flight, so we checked out and stored our bags at the hotel while we did a guided tour to El Yunque rainforest.  We had booked it spur-of-the-moment through the hotel tour desk, so we did not have a chance to research the different available tour guides and companies. Our guide turned out to be terrible, so I would not make that mistake again (Pro tip: book in advance, and do some research first, LOL) but El Yunque itself was interesting, and I would still recommend it as a nice excursion out of the city. We saw waterfalls and mountains, we climbed a lookout tower for views over the countryside to the ocean beyond, and we stopped for some questionable roadside snacks. Other available tours to El Yunque do some hiking, ziplining, and swimming, so I think I’d try one of those next time.

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view of the lush green mountains of the El Yunque Rainforest in San Juan

When we got back to the hotel, we had some time to sit by the pool before using their hospitality room to get cleaned up and changed. We enjoyed one last cocktail on the terrace, and then took a cab back to the airport for our flight. We were back in New York just after midnight, and are already planning next year’s trip 🙂

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