The warm Caribbean sun that seems to kiss the sand of Puerto Rico shined brightly on us when we landed a few weeks ago for a long-weekend far from the falling temperatures and falling leaves of New York in November. To be completely honest, Puerto Rico was never on my must-see list. I tend to go for more exotic travel, (see my article about Thailand and Costa Rica) but the combination of a cheap direct flight and free babysitting (thanks in-laws) was too much to resist.
The beaches of Isla Verde are located about 8 minutes from San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and since you don’t have to go through customs you can take off at 9 and dip your toes in the warm sand by lunchtime. Although the Jewish population is only around 2,000, it is the largest community in the Caribbean islands and boasts a Reform and Conservative synagogue and a Chabad that is within easy walking distance to many beachfront hotels, including the El San Juan Hotel and Ritz Carlton, both of which I was able to experience during my stay.
Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and founded by Juan Ponce de León (who also discovered Florida), there is a surprising amount of history on the island. Beginning in the 16th century, the city of San Juan was protected by Castillo San Felipe del Morro, (El Morro) and Castillo San Cristóbal, two fortresses sitting atop a high cliff protecting the entrance to the San Juan Bay, self-guided tours are available daily where you can explore the World Heritage site that took nearly three centuries to complete.
Old San Juan is a must-see on any visit. You can wander the cobblestone streets and colorful colonial architecture with ample shopping and cafes and there is a free trolley to take you around most of the important sites of Old San Juan. Chabad has a Jewish Welcome Center right in the heart of Old San Juan, on Fortaleza Street, offering kosher food, souvenirs and information about the local community.
We visited the two most popular beach areas for tourists, Isla Verde and Condado but made our decision to stay in Isla Verde because of the proximity to shul. The image above was the view from the lounge chair, where I spent most of the weekend reading and sleeping. Both the Ritz Carlton and El San Juan are very accommodating to Jewish travelers and offered elevator and room key escort service on Shabbat among other high-end hotel amenities, including a casino, the best Mojito of my life at the Ritz (see recipe below) and a fantastic nightclub at the El San Juan.
I thought the beaches on Isla Verde were wonderful. Calm, crystal blue waters and soft powdery sand were a refreshing change from the Florida beaches where I grew up where shards of sea shells and crashing breakers would leave my knees sore for days afterwards.
There are other great activities outside of San Juan, such as the El Yunque Rain Forest and a Bioluminescent Bay in Fajardo. I’ll have to try these another time.
All in all, I thought Puerto Rico was a great place for a long weekend. I wished I would have fared better at the casino, though. My experiment trying to learn how to play craps cost a hundred dollars and was over so quick I’m not sure what I learned, except that I’m no good at gambling. But if you spend most of your time in the water, basking in the warmth of the sun with a rum drink in your hand, it’s hard to spend a few days in San Juan and not end up a winner.
Here is my favorite Mojto Recipe.