San Juan, Puerto Rico
Saturday, November 24, 2018
It's been 8 days since we left our last port of call in Spain, at Málaga. We were to have had two more stops in The Canaries. But, due to weather, and trying to out-run an enormous storm in the North Atlantic, we were not able to visit. We may have been able to get to the islands before the storm but would have been in the worst of it as we left. Rather than risking threatening seas, we headed further south before making our turn to the west. There was much disappointment among guest and staff. Many of the guests, like ourselves, were eager to visit Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Santa Cruz de la Palma. The crew relishes port days when everyone has gone ashore. What was planned to be one day at sea followed by two at port before the five-day crossing, now would be eight days at sea to do little but eat, drinking, and sunbathe - more about that in other posts.
On the 24th, we found ourselves within sight of Puerto Rico just as the sun rose through the clouds. This treated us to nice sunrise view of San Juan as we pulled into the harbor. We were looking forward to this port for a number of reasons. One being that we had booked a walking food tour of Old San Juan. The packages available through the ship were beyond our comfort zone in terms of price. But we did have internet so found something on our own. There were several to choose from, others already booked. The one we chose, and glad we did, was Spoon Food Tours.
The Fort - Castillo San Felipe del Morro
As soon as we were allowed off the ship, which took some time as this was our first arrival back to the US. The ship had to be cleared by customs before anyone could disembark. Those who had tours were allowed to disembark first. Then everyone else, all passengers and crew, had to get off the ship and go through immigration. We headed off as soon as we could and got an Uber to take us to the meeting place for our tour. It was a quick ride away up the hill, we probably could have walked but we weren't sure how long it would take - and it was uphill! We arrived in plenty of time to wander up to the fort for a few minutes and enjoy the morning sun. It was getting hot very quickly. A few tourists had already shown up at the fort but were thus far largely outnumbered by the young people using the perimeter of the fort grounds to get in their morning run.
The fort itself is a US National Park. We didn't have time to go in, but I'm sure it would have been interesting. Check out the website for more information: https://www.nps.gov/saju/index.htm.
But now it was time to meet our guide at the nearby Plaza del Quinto Centenario, a plaza built in 1992 to commemorate the 500 years since Christopher Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico.
Soon our guide, Gabriela, arrived as well as one other couple. We waited a while for one other person but attempts to reach her were unsuccessful so we headed on our way. These tours are limited to 12 participants, we were fortunate to only be the four of us.
Our first stop was just adjacent to Plaza del Quinto Centenario in the Cuartel de Ballajá. This building was the former barracks for the fort. It's now home to the Museum of the Americas, and various other arts and culture organizations. On the ground floor you'll find Don Ruiz Coffee where you can enjoy some of Puerto Rico's finest home-grown coffee. Puerto Rico's coffee plantations are located on the south west side of the island and were 60-80% devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Production has been slow, as you can imagine, to recover. Due to this, Don Ruiz is only serving their coffee in the coffee shop as of our visit. None is available for retail sale. They're just trying to survive at this point. Gabriela further mentioned that most coffee you find in stores around the world that say "Puerto Rican" needs further inspections. In many cases it's a blend of Puerto Rican and others. Look for 100% Puerto Rican Coffee. This is much the same as you find with "Kona Coffee."
At Don Ruiz we enjoyed a cup of cappuccino accompanied by a ham and cheese sandwich on Puerto Rican mallorca bread, sprinkled with powdered sugar. It would be easy to get addicted to starting your days with this sandwich on the soft, sweet bread. If you're familiar with King's Hawaiian bread, it's close, but this was so much more fresh.
After our coffee and sandwich, we took a look at the coffee museum they have in the back of the cafe. Here you'll find miniatures models of coffee roasters and other equipment. Also on display are patron-decorated coffee cups. Read the chalk board walls to learn about the coffee roasting process including the chemical structure of caffeine for the chemists in the crowd.
Before leaving Ballajá we had a chance to walk about briefly. A couple local bands were having practice while a few tourists milled about.
Second Stop - Farmers' Market
After our coffee we headed toward our next stop, passing by the fort grounds and the cemetery below. This next stop was at a simple farmer's market. There wasn't a lot here but it was nice to see a few things we don't typically have in mainland US. Some of the vendors took time to explain to us what a few things were with the help of our guide. Aside from these and the usual fresh herbs and fruits was a couple making vegetarian empenadas. Further down, a man was using a machete to cut open coconuts for refreshing drinks. We ended up getting a couple of virgin mojitos made in front of us. Refreshing in the increasing heat of the day
Third Stop - Taberna Lúpulo
The beer joints of beer joints in San Juan. Taberna Lúpulo is quite the hot spot in the center of Old San Juan's nightlife. Live music and an astounding selection of (mostly) local brews. Also a popular spot for weekend brunch. Fortunate for us, even though this was a Saturday we had no problem getting in for our "brunch." On offer for our tour was what we’re calling a beer mimosa, and a french toast with papayas.
Walk About to Next Stop
One reason we chose this tour was because it was a walking tour. There were others to chose from that were by van. The van would certainly have been more comfortable in the heat. But we were certain that walking through the town would allow us much more flexibility to stop here and there at our leisure (to some extent) to take picture.
Please enjoy these few snaps of our journey through the town.
Mofungo at Hecho en Casa
Next up was Hecho en Casa for our first go at Mofungo. If you're not familiar, it is the "national dish" of Puerto Rico. Simply put, it's a mix of primarily plantains and meat. Everyone's mother or grandmother will have their own variation. But in all cases the plantains are fried then mashed in a mortar and pestle, or pilón. It's then mixed with meats and a sauce of broth, olive oil, garlic, and pork cracklings. What could be wrong with that?
Our guide couldn't have been more ecstatic about this stop! Mofungo is the ultimate comfort food here in Puerto Rico. As I said, everyone's mother, grandmother, or aunt had their own special recipe. But what always went into it was a passion and love for the family. This is not an easy dish to make. It's hard, physical, work to smash the plantains in the pilón, and can only be turned out in one or two servings at a time. A true labor of love to make this dish for the whole family.
I'm not a big fan of plantains, but this was delicious!
Last Stop - Princesa Gastrobar
I wish we could have stayed for dinner - the menu looks amazing!
We were lucky enough to get a mojito (a real one!) and a cup of chickpea soup. The broth was very flavorful with just-picked herbs. Not a lot else to say about it other than if you're in Old San Juan stop by here, it's on the harbor side of Old San Juan. Ask for this soup or enjoy one of the other interesting options from the menu. If you do, please let us know what you tried.