It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. Well, after a few hours of lounging underneath a beach umbrella, and even with the occasional dollop of sunscreen, I was once again wearing God’s straitjacket, and it was a hideous shade of red.

It was our last day in Puerto Rico. We had already attempted, as best as middle-aged Midwesterners can, to get in touch with our adventurous side. It was now time to relax on the beach, and we had overpriced fruity drinks and a couple of decent books to keep us company. The problem was, beaches and I have always had this sort of love/hate relationship.

And a sunburn is usually the period at the end of my vacation sentence. A necessary piece of punctuation, which tells me in no uncertain terms that it’s time to go home. That said, this trip was one hell of a sentence.

OLD SAN JUAN: In which our travelers explore the sights, meet some new friends, and get quite drunk.

I’m a planner. Not a good one per se, just one that needs to know what’s on the docket. If we’re going for a walk, I’d like to know the direction. Is this a walk I can do in sandals? Or am I going to need a pair of sneakers? Do we need a map? Or are we purposely trying to get lost?  I’ve learned that answering the simple questions allows for less fuck ups, and getting more out of the day.

That said, my plan was a basic one, which had more than a few holes in it. We were going to start on one side of the city, at the fort San Cristobal, and work our way to the del Morro fort, which lies on the northern tip of the old city.

Fort San Cristobal is a huge, sprawling fortress that was built by Spain in the 1700’s to protect against attacks on the city. Apparently, a lot of attacking was going on back then. Now, with most of the invading going on elsewhere in the world, it’s a historical site that visitors can explore. We toured the grounds for and hour or so, climbing to the top of the fort and looking out at the city and the sea through the various sentry boxes. The most interesting part of the fort is the tunnels that zig-zag underneath it, and the dungeons and rooms you invariably spill into.

In the dungeon there was a portion of the stone work protected by glass, where a prisoner had once drawn ships onto the wall. The guy was a pretty damn good artist, especially considering the lighting situation in that dungeon.

18th century graffiti is surprisingly sophisticated,

18th century graffiti is surprisingly sophisticated.

After we covered the San Cristobal grounds, posed for our obligatory selfies, and took in the great views of the city and sea, we were on our way.

As I said earlier, my plan was patched together rather recklessly. And we quickly learned that two major obstacles lie in your way during midday in Old San Juan. The first was a lack of water. The second was a lack of shade. It gets hot and sticky, and if you’re coming from forty degree days, filled with overcast skies and weird forms of snow-rain, then this might come as a shock to you as well.

Soon, we were scurrying around the city in search of both. Finally securing a couple bottles of water at a local café, and finding shade in the form of this beautiful tree near El Convento Hotel in the heart of the old city:

Seriously, this tree looks like it was made for a Darren Aronofsky film.

Seriously, this tree looks like it was made for a Darren Aronofsky film.

After a brief recharge, we were hoofing it to Del Morro. A walkway runs from Old San Juan proper through an enormous grassy park, up to the entrance of the fort. On the right, bordering the sea and the fort’s outer walls, sits Santa Maria Magdalena Cemetery. It’s a beautiful colonial era graveyard that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. I read that it was built there by the Spanish to symbolize the spirit’s journey to the afterlife. Those Spaniards were a poetic bunch.

After a visit to the cemetery, we walked through the grassy park, passing children who flew kites with the help of the ocean’s breeze. Upon reaching the fort, we were confronted by our first encounter with the many lizards of San Juan. They were the chill sort, sunning themselves on the fort’s walls, as tourists posed for selfies with them.

Full disclosure, I’m not a reptile person. In fact, reptiles of any sort trigger a sort of caveman switch in my head, which then sounds an alarm that sounds kind of like this “Awooga! Kill it with fire! Awooga! Run away!”

At first, I was certain the little dragon would scurry up the arm of one of these selfie-taking tourists, and rip open the person’s throat with a casual snap of its demonic little jaws. Fortunately, the little beast must have already fed (Probably on human flesh), because it just laid there, stuffed and sunbaked, as the cameras clicked away.

As evidenced by my own clicking camera phone:

If you look closely, you'll see that our lizard is being photo bombed by one of its brethren.

If you look closely, you’ll see that our lizard is being photobombed by one of its brethren who is sitting off in the distance.

After taking in Del Morro, with its giant walls and great views, we headed back into the city. At this point, we’d been walking for a few hours and needed a drink and some grub.

On the subject of grub: At this moment, I’m still in Mofongo withdrawals. Anyone that’s sampled local Mofongo or Trifongo dishes will undoubtedly share my plight. For those of you that haven’t, Mofongo is a mashed mound of plantains, which are usually served with a combination of fresh seafood, meat, or vegetables. My words don’t do them justice.

Also delicious were the Alcapurrias. These are fried dough sticks made with plantains, which have a spicy ground beef center (More on those later). Rounding out my vacation go-to grub list, were Tostones Rellenos. These are fried plantain cups, with the good stuff pressed into them. The ones I ate were filled with Octopus pulp. I had never heard of, let alone tried, any of these dishes. So you can imagine my inner fat boy’s delight when I took my first bite. If I had a gif of Gilbert Grape clapping, I would use it here.

We had reserved a room at La Concha in the Condado neighborhood. This area caters mostly to tourists. And while it was fun to walk Ashford Avenue (Puerto Rico’s version of South Beach’s Collins Avenue). The most fun we had was walking around Old San Juan at night. We popped into random little bars, while meeting our pickled counterparts, and friendly locals alike. At one bar in particular, we spent a late night slugging down shots of different rums with Luis, our bartender, who was possibly even drunker than us.

During our rum soaked night, we met our new besties Ta and Maria. They were a fun couple from New York, on a weekend getaway. They also happened to have the combined alcohol tolerance of Bukowski, if he were the size of a rhinoceros. Let’s just say, they drank us under the table. Hell, from what I remember of it, they drank us under all of the tables. Seriously, there are no tables left in San Juan. And it’s all their fault.

El YUNQUE and LUQUILLO BEACH: In which our travelers navigate treacherous terrain, climate change, and chickens in the road.

The afternoon before our trip to the rain forest, I stopped into Charlie’s Cars. You guessed it, a car rental shack near our hotel. I reserved a little compact car for our following morning’s excursion. We planned on driving around the island, heading to El Yunque and hiking the La Mina trail to its falls. This was all fine and dandy, but the path to this trail is not for the faint of heart. A tight, winding road that keeps climbing, isn’t something you want to drive up in the pouring rain. But if we weren’t looking for a little adventure we wouldn’t have headed up there to begin with. At least that’s what I kept telling myself between the muttered curses, and the constant tapping of my brakes.

While lower on the island it was a balmy 80 degree day, up the mountain it was at least 10 degrees cooler, with a constant light drizzle. The forest itself was something to see. Rolling, overgrown vegetation surrounded us from all sides of the trail, as birds cooed and hollered from overhead. Almost as if to say “This really is something, ain’t it?”

The hike to the waterfall wasn’t too taxing, about couple hours there and back. The La Mina falls itself was breathtaking. Nature’s power emanated from the crashing water. And though my wife had reservations, we climbed the slippery rocks and went in.

The water was frigid, and once underneath the waterfall, I was filled with a couple of concurrent and contradictory thoughts. One, was of how weak I was in the grand scheme of things. The second was of how empowered I felt to have the falls wash over me. It was as if they were mine. I guess this speaks to the profundity of nature. Swimming in a waterfall can bring out delusions of grandeur, and also humble you in the same moment.

La Mina Falls looking all sexy.

La Mina Falls looking all sexy.

After our trek through the rain forest, we got back in the car and I muttered some familiar curses, as we descended the winding road to the bottom of the mountain. Along the way, chickens kept crossing the road, and I always hated those jokes, and yes –to get to the other side– it was cheesy, but there they were –crossing the fucking road.

Once out of El Yunque, we headed to the other side of the mountain, where a beautiful local beach resides. Luquillo beach was where the locals were sunning and barbecuing, and they had the right idea. The water was tranquil, a cool breeze was blowing, and yours truly was trying Alcapurrias for the first time. I stood in front of the kiosk devouring my fried stick. The first words that came to me, after a couple of burps, were “This is what hot dogs are supposed to be.”

And so began my Alcapurria love affair.

ODDS and ENDS: In which our traveler figures out how to end a blog.

San Juan is as safe as anywhere else, but just like anywhere else, there’s still a whole bunch of ways to die. I guess what I’m getting at is they use ‘big boy’ rules, which I respect.

Was there a lifeguard on duty at any of the beaches we were at? No.

Is that a good thing? Probably not.

But I also know not to fuck around in the ocean. Stay within a few feet of water, especially when it’s choppy, and you’ll be fine. Big boy rules.

Could the window of our hotel room also double as a sliding glass door? Sure.

Were we on the 11th floor with no balcony and a deadly drop? Yep.

Did we fall to our deaths? No. Because we’re not clumsy idiots.

And as a frequent hotel patron, I respect a hotel room with a strong window game. And this place had mad window game:

"Oh my god! It's a window that actually opens in a hotel room! Someone get a camera!"

“Oh my god! It’s a window that actually opens in a hotel room! Someone get a camera!”

Our last night in Puerto Rico was a relaxed one, mostly because I had been poisoned by the god damned sun, and was now bed-ridden.

As we lay there watching a disturbing documentary about those old MTV spring break shows, and how young idiots ruined Daytona Beach, while older idiots put them up to it. I was happy to be enjoying a middle-aged spring break, and happier still to be doing it with the missus.

Sure, I wasn’t chugging beer bongs and running naked through the streets, but that’s a young man’s game. And I had more important things to worry about. Like where the aloe gel was, and how long after a glass of wine do I have to wait to take a Tylenol.

 

 

 

 

 

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