"Wait. You're in Puerto Rico and NOT at the beach?" a friend messaged me when I posted a photo of the historic El Morro fortress on my Instagram feed. It was a question I'd gotten used to answering ever since I'd booked a trip with my husband to the island a few months earlier.
Yes, I decided to go to Puerto Rico in the dead of summer, and, yes, I decided to stay in a landlocked hotel in Old San Juan. And, yes, it was one of the best (albeit warmest) travel decisions I've ever made.
Over the last few years, the two of us had taken a number of Caribbean treks that ended with us plunked on a beach, watered-down mai tais at hand, not bothering to venture off the resort and into surrounding locales. "Wait, what island were we on when I fell off the paddleboard?" I'd ask my husband. Who knew? At some point, the palm trees and pretty blue water all bled into one.
But I'll remember San Juan clearly for a very, very long time. By getting off the beach, out of the hotel, and onto the cobblestoned streets, I was really able to sink my teeth into the culture and ambiance of the oldest city under the U.S. flag. Just several hours away and with no passport restrictions for U.S. citizens, San Juan is easy to navigate and even easier to fall in love with.
I woke up to the sunrise over the tops of 16th-century buildings and went to sleep to the sounds of Carlos, an elderly man with a crystal clear voice who camped out in the plaza in front of our hotel every night, playing traditional songs. In between, I learned to recognize the birdlike chirp of the coquí, Puerto Rico's famed frog.
I spoke with native Puerto Ricans about their economy, their political system, and what it really means to live in an "unincorporated territory." ("We can deal with not being able to vote for the president, but we drew the line on the Olympics - We have our own team!" I was told.)
I walked past architectural gems and saw French balconies here and hints of Moorish influence there. One building was designed as half Spanish Revival, half art deco - a colorful and odd nod to colonial rulers past and present.
And, oh, the food. I mashed my own mofongo, sampled homemade pique sauce, and wolfed down alcapurrias and rellenas from off-the-beaten-path spots recommended by locals.
To smell, to touch, to hear, to taste - indeed, to feel - Puerto Rico is a beautiful thing, and it just can't be done from under a beach umbrella. And even when standing on the streets of Old San Juan, the blazing midsummer sun beating down on me, I realized that was more than all right.