The beautiful beaches, excellent climate, the overwhelmingly verdant and lush landscapes, and colonial architecture of Old San Juan did not surprise me; I have done a Google search on San Juan, y'know.
1. I Remembered My Love of the Spanish Language
I studied Spanish in high school for three years and studied abroad in San Jose, Costa Rica for a summer between freshman and sophomore year of college. I've lived in California my entire life and lived in predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. Despite that, my Spanish is practically non-existent these days.
Or so I thought.
Language skills tend to lie dormant in the recesses of our brains when we don't use them. Like a rusty cast iron skillet, they can be restored with loving care and a bit of steel wool. Akin to the cast iron skillet which needs to be seasoned and maintained, language skills need to be practiced. After a day or two in San Juan, I found myself remembering verbs and nouns. I could order my food in Spanish and tell my taxi drivers to have a nice day. My tour guide complimented my accent and was kind enough to act impressed that I could speak enough Spanish to call him un payaso when he was joking around with my tourmates.
I once was the teenager who read Pablo Neruda's Veinte Poemas de Amor y Una Cancion Desesperada without translation. I remember spending the summer between senior year of high school and college trudging through One Hundred Days of Solitude in the original Spanish; I gave up, it's a challenging book in English. But I forgot how much I loved the Spanish language until I was attempting to speak it in Puerto Rico.
2. The Cat Thing
Puerto Rico does not have the brightest history when it comes to animal rights, i.e. throwing live animals off bridges and euthanizing 400 healthy but losing racehorses. But the feral cats of Old San Juan have a special place in the hearts of many Puertoriquenos.
Walking along the streets of Old San Juan you will come across alleys and parks with groups of cats adorably sunning themselves or eating from bowls of food. These are not pets. These are feral cats that groups like Save a Gato take care of. The group works to reduce the number of feral cats in the area, to save them from such fates as being thrown off a bridge or euthanized, by trapping, neutering, and releasing. These cats also receive treatment for fleas, deworming, and other necessary vaccinations. You know a cat has gone through this if their ear is clipped.
3. Puerto Rico's Strategic Importance
Despite reading an entire four hundred page book on the history of the Caribbean and the fact that Puerto Rico is a United States Commonwealth, I knew woefully little about the history of Puerto Rico. To sum it up, this is what I knew: Puerto Rico is an island, it used to belong to Spain and the United States took over from Spain during the Spanish-American War, and Puerto Rico has economic struggles. Though in my ignorance, I was not as bad as the customer in front of me at CVS who said, "They teach Puerto Rican history here until high school and then they start teaching real history." Dude, wtf, seriously?
Puerto Rico's importance in the Caribbean is paramount. The easternmost island in the Greater Antilles, Puerto Rico was the first major port for the Spanish and other trading vessels coming from the east and the last major port coming from the west. The two fresh water rivers flowing into the Bay of San Juan made it easy for ships to get fresh water and supplies.
This also made Puerto Rico a target for other colonial powers. Aside from the most recent takeover of the United States, the only successful invasion after the original Spanish conquest was the invasion of the Dutch in 1625. The Dutch were unable to capture the island but did manage to raze Old San Juan when they evacuated the island. As part of the French and Spanish war on England, the British attempted to conquer the island of Puerto Rico in 1797 with 7,000 troops and 64 warships. As you can surmise, they were also unsuccessful.
Puerto Rico is currently home to the longest inhabited executive mansion in the New World, La Fortaleza, the current resident of Puerto Rico's governor.
Enough of me spewing Puerto Rico facts at you. It has a fascinating history and you should learn more about it.
4. How Much I Missed the Sun
People from the rest of the United States work on the assumption that California does not have winters. Being that we are quite far north of the equator, we do actually have four seasons. They do not look like the seasons on the east coast or in the midwest; there's no snow in most of the state, the days are not as short as in say Michigan, and temperatures rarely drop below freezing. But the days do get shorter, the skies turn gray, and this year it actually go wet. After nearly two months of dark mornings and five pm sunsets, I'm tired of winter and welcomed the sunshine.
My first day in Puerto Rico the sun rose at five a.m or seemed like it. The sun shone every day with spots of clouds on the horizon. The light tropical showers were refreshing instead of drenching and the sun stayed out until past seven. I soaked up that Vitamin D like Ernest Hemingway in a Key West bar. And then I turned into a lobster. Fuck, I forgot to put sunscreen on the tops of my legs.
5. Puerto Rico is Expensive
My surprise at the expense of Puerto Rico is due to my own ignorance and inability to find cheap eats. Food in tourist areas is unsurprisingly expensive, on par with what pay for a nice meal out in California, and the food is not the same quality. There are inexpensive places to eat, but you will need to research and leave the tourist areas of Old San Juan and Condado to find them.
I stayed at an AirBnB because hotel rooms were running around $150 a night in the Condado area. I didn't realize when I bought my plane tickets that February is the height of tourist season in Puerto Rico. Who knew east coasters wanted to get away from the piles of snow in front of their homes? Transportation from the airport in a taxi cab cost $19 without tip and it's only about a fifteen-minute drive.
My food tour cost around $100 and my half-day tour cost $140 including tip. Both of these were excellent experiences and I'm so glad that I spent the money, but do not think of Puerto Rico as a budget destination. I'm sure there are ways that you can make it a budget destination if you take the time and effort to research.
6. The Ease of It
Puerto Rico was an easy destination for me after Sweden and Vietnam. Sweden was a struggle due to the minimal hours of daylight, constantly switching accommodations, freezing fucking cold weather, and the lack of good wi-fi. Vietnam, well, Vietnam was an adventure and I love it in retrospect, but it is not the easiest place to travel as a westerner or probably anyone.
Most Puerto Ricans in the tourist industry speak English; Puerto Rico technically is a bilingual destination. It will help if you speak a little Spanish, and it comes across as a nice gesture to try to speak the language even if you butcher it (like bad gifts, it's the thought that counts, right?)
San Juan is technologically up to date. You will find free wi-fi at cafes, my Airbnb had an excellent wi-fi, and apps like TripAdvisor and Uber are up to date. It's easy to get a taxi or an Uber in most tourist destinations. There's a free hop and hop off open air trolley that takes you around Old San Juan. With four different routes, it's fun just to get out of the sun for a bit and relax while taking in the sights.
Puerto Rico uses the dollar and you do not need to tell your bank you are traveling abroad. Large banks have branches here. Many American restaurant chains and stores have outlets here if you're like me and forget to bring sneakers. Your phone will work here and you will not incur international charges. Your debit and credit cards will work here without imposing extra fees. The driving laws are mostly the same, though there are some "quirks" unique to the island, and you can drive a car without having an international driver's license. No passport is necessary to enter and you don't have to go through the trial of customs on your way back.
Puerto Rico is a wonderful destination for getting away from the winter blues or want to experience the Caribbean without a passport. You can get as immersed in the culture as you like or you can eat from the incredibly nostalgic Sizzler salad bar. Don't forget, this is not entirely the U.S. and some things are different. You might see graffiti painted "Yankees go home!" and union and pension protests. Puerto Rico is not quite the United States and it's not quite its own country. It will be interesting to see what becomes of it in the upcoming years, especially under the Populist Trump regime.