Why travel south when the summer heat is in our backyard? Because some of the best flight deals happen during what is known as the shoulder season (the period leading up to busy season in October through the winter). By using Kayak’s explore option, I was able to find an affordable roundtrip flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for much less than it would cost to rent a cottage.
I landed at 3 a.m. on a Friday morning around at San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in the midst of extreme rainfall – which really shouldn’t have surprised me considering it was the Caribbean’s hurricane season – and caught a taxi to the Verdanza Hotel Isla Verde. The hotel is in a prime location – close to the airport, a five-minute walk from the beach, less than a minute walk to the closest casino and a short taxi into the historic downtown of Old San Juan. It has 222 guest rooms, an amazing outdoor pool with cabanas, free WiFi, two restaurants and well-maintained grounds. Best of all, they offer a number of packaged deals to make planning your vacation to Puerto Rico a breeze.
With only a couple hours of sleep, I headed out to Condado Beach to meet the crew from Velauno for a quick kayaking lesson before hitting Laguna del Condado. This calm lagoon is perfect for beginner paddle boarders who can also take a lesson from one of Velauno’s instructors. After a few hours out on the water and the beginnings of a sunburn, I came back to shore just in time to avoid another rain shower.
In the midst of this tropical storm, I figured it was best to head back to Isla Verde. As suddenly as the rain came, it was gone and it was perfect weather to hit El Alambique Beach down the street from the Verdanza Hotel. Bring a towel and rent a chair for $4. This public beach is beautiful and not too crowded.
I decided to approach my sightseeing of Old San Juan from the outside-in by booking a harbour sunset tour with East Island Excursions . This sip-and-sail tour is an opportunity to taste dishes from local restaurants, enjoy some rum cocktails and capture a few sunset photos of Castillo San Cristóbal, the Fort of Old San Juan. The Amazing Grace has two restored cannons on deck, which the ship’s captain let me set off in a lightweight re-enactment of some of the action that has taken place in Puerto Rico’s long history.
Many locals provided great suggestions of where to experience the best night life in San Juan. Some suggested La Factoría, ranked as one of the best cocktail bars in the world, while others suggested visiting La Placita where all the locals hang out. I decided to opt for the typical tourist experience by visiting Señor Frogs where I could feel as if I was a college student on spring break. The feeling the next morning harshly reminded me I am not nearly as young as I used to be.
Rum is a big part of Puerto Rico’s history, present and future. After its humble beginnings in Santiago de Cuba where Don Facundo Bacardí Massó began experimenting with the distillation of rum in the early 1880s, the Bacardi Corporation was re-established in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1936 due to conflict in Cuba.
Sitting on 127 acres of land in the town of Cataño in Puerto Rico, Casa Bacardi is the largest premium rum distillery in the world. It’s nickname “The Cathedral of Rum” was coined by then governor Luis Muñoz Marín (yes, the same gentleman the airport is named after) and is one of the top tourist attractions on the island drawing more than 250,000 visitors a year.
I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with Juan Cartagena, Bacardi brand master, taking a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility paired with the historical journey of Bacardi Rum. What makes Casa Bacardi a must-see while in Puerto Rico extends beyond the beautiful architecture, grounds and interactive exhibits – it’s the staff who run the place. From the groundskeepers who wave hello with a smile, to the engaging tour guides who are ready to answer all your questions, to the bartenders who serve up your cocktail of choice with such flair that it puts Sam Malone from Cheers to shame, Casa Bacardi has nailed the perfect personalized experience for their guests.
They offer three tours: the Historical tour, the Rum Tasting tour and the Mixology tour. And Cartagena let me in on a little secret – they’re working on a Rum and Food pairing tour coming soon! I had the opportunity to try the Mixology tour and highly recommend it. This hands-on class teaches you to make the perfect Cuba Libre, mojito and daiquiri.
Casa Bacardi ranks as my favourite experience in Puerto Rico and one you shouldn’t miss out on. My advice, leave your rental car at the hotel and head to the Cataño Ferry . It’s 50 cents one way, per person from Old San Juan. Once you’re on the other side of the bay, you can catch a shuttle for only $3 per person right to Casa Bacardi. Remember, always drink responsibly and don’t drink and drive.
That night, I took out my Lonely Planet Guidebook on Puerto Rico , a very handy gift from my friends at Raincoast Books, and started to venture around Old San Juan for a place to eat. The Plaza de Hostos is filled with vendors selling handcrafts, snacks, treats and cigars, which make for great souvenirs. Use the map on Page 53 to easily navigate the streets and find what you’re looking for.
A little traveller’s tip: The streets of Old San Juan are lined with beautiful cobblestones, but they’re really tough on your feet. Be sure to pack comfortable running shoes. Personally, I like to rock something with both comfort and style like the new K Swiss Surf N Turf OG 50th . The breathable canvas exterior is perfect for a day of walking in the Puerto Rican heat; an ideal travel shoe.
The next day, and my last day in Puerto Rico, I was hit with the same extreme rainfall that greeted me at the airport. I wasn’t going to let a little torrential downpour stop me from experiencing the Guinness World Record Holder for the longest zipline on Earth at ToroVerde Adventure Park in Orocovis, Puerto Rico. The Monster is 2.5-kilometre long, equivalent to 28 football fields and crosses into the next town. This adventure park has a number of ziplines, suspension bridges and a maze that looks like the course from American Ninja Warrior. This is the destination for those who love the thrill of an adrenaline rush. And for those who are travelling with that adrenaline junkie, but aren’t as keen to push their limits, ToroVerde has a restaurant that features a gorgeous view of the entire park.
I figured I’d end my quick weekend escape by treating myself to dinner at Zest in the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel. Situated right by the beach, Zest is the work of award-winning Executive Chef Raúl Correa with a sub-aquatic motif reminding you that the ocean is mere steps away. The menu highlights the best of modern Puerto Rico and Latin American cuisine put together using locally sourced and seasonal products. The serving staff has excellent taste in pairing craft cocktails with each dish. My advice is to dive in with a traditional Puerto Rican dish, the pan-fried red snapper mofongo.
On the way home, I had a connecting flight through Philadelphia with a six-hour layover. With unexpected flight delays, that layover was stretched out to 10 very long hours. Luckily, I stumbled upon Minute Suites, which rents pod hotel rooms out by the hour inside the airport. With locations at the Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Dallas airports, they’re the perfect escape from the terminal’s chaos.
Each room is equipped with a couch, pillows, blanket, white-noise control, a flat-screen TV and computer. If you have a layover at one of those three airports, you can book a reservation in advance right on their website .
Puerto Rico is an affordable and easy destination for a quick escape; an opportunity to break away from life’s routine. My three-day adventure wrapped up quickly with plenty of stories, memories and experiences to take back to the office Monday.
Writer’s Note: This trip was in part sponsored by the respective tourism operators through in-kind services. All opinions expressed are independent.
Brandon Sousa is a communications professional in his 20s who loves to meet new people. A Metroland Media Toronto paper boy as a kid, he uses traveling as a means to explore new cultures, new personalities and new adventures sharing it with insidetoronto.com Addicted to social media, he keeps a record of his journeys by tweeting every step of the way. Follow him at @brandon_sousa