Jon Sheller and Nalena Santiago, dancing as husband and wife.
On its license plates, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico identifies itself as the “Isla del encanto.” It’s not really “island of enchantment,” I guess a more accurate translation would be “Charming Island” or “Island of delight.”
But, I feel enchanted. Puerto Rico, more than most places I have visited on brief trips, will have a special place in my heart.
Why? What did I love so much about a hot little slip of volcanic soil on the north edge of the Caribbean Sea between the Virgin Islands and Hispaniola? I’ll explore that, blog friends, as we go along.
To introduce my discourse on our recent trip to Puerto Rico, in the spirit of the travel guide that helped shape our journey (Top 10 Puerto Rico by Christopher Baker), here, from 10 to 1, are the top 10 things I was enchanted by in Puerto Rico:
Lizard on the wall--I think it's our hotel in San Juan, but not sure.
10-The animals and plants. Lizards on the walls. Snails and caterpillars the size of yogurt lids or railroad spikes. Colorful, tropical flowers. And, although mosquitoes are very dangerous in Puerto Rico, I did not have any worrisome encounters with animal, insect or plant—it may be in the tropics, but Puerto Rico doesn’t seem to be an unpleasantly toothy place. Stray dogs meander and hardly bother to bark at all. Huge spiders go about their business and frankly would rather not have anything to do with humans. Overall, Puerto Ricos flora and fauna provide a feast for the eyes of a flower lover.
9-The weather. We were warned that it would be hot, hot, hot. Well, it was hot, hot—but not hot, hot, hot. It felt like Iowa in July, and the seaside was often cooler due to ocean breezes. Of course, we did not experience a tropical storm, which might change my weather outlook, but even though it rained more days than not in Puerto Rico, we had more sun than rain each day. It was very nice.
8-A sense of history. Old buildings in Iowa might have been constructed in 1940. The original state Capitol in Iowa City, about as old as an Iowa building gets, dates from the 1840s. In contrast, Spain began building things in Puerto Rico in years that begin “15.”
Irma greets Lizzie at El Yunque park. Lizzie was very popular both with the Santiagos and with all other Puerto Ricans. Travel with a baby, if you can.
7-Beautiful people. Both inside and out. I’m sure there are rude, unfriendly Puerto Ricans who are lazy and ugly, but they were all hidden away during our visit. When I told a friend my son was marrying a Puerto Rican woman, her response was “I bet she’s beautiful,” which implies all Puerto Rican women are beautiful. Nalena certainly is, but I must admit that the friend had a point. Most Puerto Ricans are hotties. And both Puerto Rican women and men seem chronically polite, at least when they are not driving.
6- Breathtaking scenery. Beautiful beaches, lush steeply hilly countryside, dramatic skies, interesting tropical foliage—Puerto Rico itself, not just the people, is easy on the eyes.
5-The Americanness. Most (not all, but most) Puerto Ricans speak passable English. Street signs were quickly identifiable by shape and color, if not by words. The U.S. dollar is the currency, and no special shots nor passports are required. It’s home.
Solo is "only." Distances are in kilometers. Luckily, speed limits are mph.
4-The foreignness. Spanish being spoken everywhere, with all street signs written in Spanish. Small streets and sidewalks that aren’t “American” big. The caverns we visited were described as a “national treasure” by the introductory DVD in a way that made it clear that the nation being referred to was Puerto Rico, not Los Estados Unitos. It was nice being somewhere “else.” You do have the sense that “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
3-Food, glorious food. When we went to Seattle, I wondered if I could again stomach Iowa “seafood.” Yes, I can, but I have a similar problem now. Puerto Rico was full of food delights, which of course I will talk of later.
2-The popularity of grandbabies. Puerto Ricans love small children. We traveled with Lizzie Moscou and her parents, and having a 7-month-old curly haired granddaughter was an instant icebreaker. If you travel to Puerto Rico, plan ahead and conceive, rent or buy a little one. You’ll get a lot of smiles.
1-Nalena Santiago and Jon Sheller were married in Mayaguez June 12. It was a sweet, wonderful and charming ceremony that united two sweet, wonderful and charming souls. Doesn’t get any better than that.
Anyway, more on my Puerto Rican adventure:
Capítulo Uno: Eating in Puerto Rico
It’s a good idea. Puerto Rican cuisine seems based on four things: fish, rice, beans and plantains, with some yucca thrown in for variety. But these things are combined and recombined, along with tropical fruits, in ways that produce results that can only be called “yummy.”
From an upscale San Juan French restaurant to the small kiosk food vendors on the Isla Verde beach, the only food we didn’t enjoy in Puerto Rico was the few meals where we went “American.” A Burger King is not your best choice in San Juan for desayuno, my friends. But a chicken taco from a beach kiosk is actually a mild chicken and vegetable filling fried inside a pastry shell that we could consider a hand-held meat pie. And it’s good. Plantains can be fried or mashed, or mashed and then fried, and they are good. One of the side dishes I had looked exactly like mashed potatoes, but it was a medley that included mashed yucca, and it was sweet, creamy, light and divine. When Jesus wants mashed potatoes in Heaven, they are cooked by a Puerto Rican chef who tosses in plenty of yucca.
One of the nicest meals we had was our Monday breakfast in old San Juan. We stopped, for no particular reason, at a tiny café that could not have been more than a dozen feet wide. It was a sort of dive diner in appearance, but the host quickly ushered us to a back room, which turned out to be a hidden open-air patio with palm trees and statues of Saint Francis all around. It was a very tiny patio, with barely room for one deck umbrella and two tables, but we ate a hearty and good breakfast. I wish I could say I ordered the yogurt and fruit combo, but that was what everyone else ordered. I got eggs, sausage, toast and potatoes. The potatoes are hard to describe—they were yellow and seemed to have been both boiled and fried. The toast was large pieces of flat Puerto Rican bread, which is a little bit like French bread but not as dry. I liked my breakfast, but loved the fresh fruit and yogurt that others shared with me.
That’s what we did in Puerto Rico—shared all of our food so we could experience what everyone ordered. It was a good idea, so travel with friends whom you trust to have good oral hygiene.
We even ate at a Puerto Rican fast-food chain, “El Meson.” I am not sure if the name refers to the Spanish word that has an accent on the O and refers to a rustic restaurant, but never mind. We had both breakfast and lunch at El Meson and enjoyed both—partly due to the bread.
We had excellent pizza with Nalena and Angel Santiago the first night. One night, we ate at a combo bar and grill in the same neighborhood as our hotel in San Juan. We ate at a restaurant that Angel called “American food” on the east coast after visiting El Yunque. It didn’t seem American to me—it, like the mild Puerto Rican beer I enjoyed with my meal, was much better.
Capítulo Dos: Life’s a beach
Ben and Jon during our Ocean Park beach outing. Seven year age difference between the two boys, so Ben has time to meet a nice Puerto Rican girl, too.
Not everything went well in Puerto Rico. Driving was difficult—Puerto Ricans have a very lax attitude about traffic rules, as in, there really aren’t any. San Juan is only twice the size of Des Moines, but felt like a much bigger city, partly because it’s squeezed into a small geographic area and very crowded. A drive of 5 miles might be a 30-minute journey. A lot of the cars in Puerto Rico have bangs and dings on the side, and when you see how Puerto Ricans squeeze through small gaps and treat lane marks as suggestions, it’s not a surprise. The other reason San Juan seems so much bigger is that it is cheek by jowl with other Puerto Rican towns—although the population of San Juan is only twice that of Des Moines, the San Juan metro area is far larger. San Juan is a big city squeezed into a small space.
When you need a break from traffic in Puerto Rico, head to a beach. We went to several—one by accident on a day when we unsuccessfully sought to go to the Parque de las Cavernas del Rio Camuy. We went to a coral beach on the west coast, the “accidental” beach on the north coast, and two San Juan beaches—Isle Verde and Ocean Park.
The water was warm and clear at all of the beaches, but the best were in San Juan, where consistent waves from the Atlantic Ocean washed sandy shores. Isle Verde was more crowded—we were there on a Sunday—but also had more “stuff,” such as food vendors. Ocean Park was quieter, but I suspect it would also have been crowded if we had been there on a weekend.
On the Sunday outing, after some prodding, Nikayla finally got in the ocean, and seemed to really like it. Both Tristan and Lizzie liked splashing in the waves, too.
If you go to a beach in Puerto Rico, note the signs. Some beaches are definitely not for swimming, due to dangerous currents—but the ones that are made for swimming are very fine.
Capítulo Tres: Getting Married
One of my family members said that Jon and Nalena’s wedding was the fanciest they would probably ever attend. The location was certainly exotic—getting married in a cathedral-sized church on the town square of the island third largest city and then having a reception at a beach resort—but other than that, the ceremony seemed pretty simple, normal and laid back to me.
I got to taste mojito at the Friday pre-party, and the party was fun and relaxing. It was a bit tough being dressed well in the afternoon heat the next day for the wedding, but the church was air conditioned, and the reception hall, too.
The food was grand at the reception. The music was way too loud, but that’s apparently how Puerto Ricans like it.
Nalena, Jon and Nalena's family pose after Jon and Nalena were married.
Seeing Jon and Nalena get their union blessed was an experience I cannot describe adequately. It was a bilingual service, done well. Nalena was beautiful, Jon was handsome, and I struggled through some primitive Spanish at the reception, which seemed to be appreciated.
What can I say about Jon and Nalena? They come from different places, but there are similarities. Both Iowa and Puerto Rico are American backwaters, to some extent. 3 million people call Iowa home. 4 million live in Puerto Rico. Both are rectangular land masses, but Iowa is about 300 miles wide and 200 miles deep, while Puerto Rico is at most 110 miles wide and 40 miles deep. You could fit about 15 Puerto Ricos in Iowa.
Anyway, Jon and Nalena seem like kindred spirits, and I loved sharing the start of what I hope is a long journey for them.
Capítulo Cuatro: Places to See
If you are lucky enough to travel in Puerto Rico, where should you go and what should you see? Heck, I don’t really know. I was only there for a few days, and only saw portions of even the places I did see. But here are a few ideas:
1) Do see the Caverns, but go early in the morning. The park only allows so many visitors daily and fills up. It is worth the trip. Getting there by going west (oestre) from San Juan seems a lot easier than by coming from the east (estre). We tried and failed to go there on our first full day in Puerto Rico, but succeeded in our last. The caverns are more impressive and less kitschy than the caves near Hannibal, Missouri (although if given the chance, see the Hannibal caves, too).
2) Do travel to El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. park system. We did not see it all, did not, for example, take the hike to the anvil-shaped peak that gives the park it’s name (along with the a sound-alike native diety), but what we saw we enjoyed. It rained a lot when we were there, but good company (the Santiagos, minus Nalena who had gone back to Seattle with Jon by then) and breaks in the rain made for a pleasant hike. Wear comfortable, grippy shoes and clothing designed to get wet. Irma Santiago bought an umbrella, but surrendered it quickly to Amanda to keep Lizzie dry, which was a sweet thing for Irma to do. I don’t even know the names of of the plants I saw, and I heard, but did not see, lots of birds. There is definitely more to see in this large park than we squeezed in our brief visit, but it was fun.
3) And go to Old San Juan. The forts are worth the modest price of admission, the stores vary a lot and are touristy trappy, but still fun. Lots of restaurants, and I don’t know if they are all good, but all that we tried were. We look a long walk along the shore under the city walls, which was hot and tiring, but definitely worth it. We also purchased an ice treat from a vendor, a bit like a slushy but made from hand-shaved ice and much more strongly flavored. Yum.
Lizzie and Amanda in Old San Juan.
4) The west coast. There is not a lot to do at the Plaza de Colon in Mayaguez, but it’s worth seeing, especially at night. The lighthouse at Rincon was also a fine sight.
Well, all for now. I need to rest to recover from this trip. Jon, Nalena, best wishes seem a bit superfluous when you’re off to such a wonderful start, but best wishes nonetheless. Angel, Irma, Pamela, gracias por todos.
We’ve been to several “snowbird” climates—Phoenix, New Orleans and Puerto Rico. If we win unexpected millions and retire wealthy, we’ve already decided.
Open a Medalla or ask the bartender to mix up another mojito. We want more of Puerto Rico.