Things To Do in San Juan, Puerto Rico
It has been more than a year since COVID-19 shut down the world and left most of us isolated within our homes. At first, the introvert in me took this new lifestyle in my stride. I was finally able to catch up on all the movies and television shows I had been too busy to watch, discover new recipes, and build some cool LEGO sets. That last part, I admit, is a little sad. It didn’t take long, however, for the traveler in me to start getting impatient. So I began looking for ways to safely quench my explorer’s thirst.
Since the United States was handling this pandemic about as well as David Benioff and D. B. Weiss directing the final season of Game of Thrones, Americans were rightfully barred from visiting most countries. In an attempt to leave the country without actually leaving, I chose to visit the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. Little did I know, however, that this would be the safest decision I could have made.
Prior to traveling, I was required to fill out a Travel Declaration Form online by the Puerto Rican government and take a COVID test 72 hours before my arrival. Once I arrived in San Juan, authorities looked up my form and asked to see proof of a negative test before allowing me to leave the airport. As inconvenient as it was, I was thoroughly pleased with their response to the virus, and felt 100 times safer. It didn’t stop there, though. Every place I entered, whether it be a shop, restaurant, or a Walgreens, an employee would check my temperature and provide hand sanitizer. Not to mention, everyone wore a mask, inside and outdoors. America, take note.
For those wishing to travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico who want to continue using safe social distancing practices, here is a list of some great things to do:
Hit the Beach
Pre-pandemic, going to the beach would have been a no-brainer. But now, you might be a little weary of safely navigating a crowded shoreline. But worry not in Puerto Rico. San Juan’s beaches are large and stretch for miles, ensuring sunbathers enjoy a comfortable distance from one another.
During my week in San Juan, I frequently visited Ocean Park Beach. The area was very low-key. Kitesurfers, body surfers, and volleyball players stuck to their spots on the beach, allowing the rest of us to safely spread out. The lack of high-rise condominiums in the area meant more sun too. Regular readers might be asking, “Tyler, did you learn your lesson from the ten previous times you got burnt?” The answer is yes. So I duly lathered myself head to toe in sunblock. I still got fried.
If you want to hide from the sun’s rays for a little bit but still want to stay on the beach, Numero Uno is a great beach bar. Recline under an umbrella on your own bean bag with a cold drink in hand and watch the kite surfers soar up and down the coast. They offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You will have no reason to leave.
Old San Juan
Remember cruise ships? Well, dozens used to dock at the San Juan Cruise Port. They dumped more than 5,000 tourists into Old San Juan every day. Since COVID has rendered the cruise line industry as nonexistent as my singing career, Old San Juan is virtually empty. You’ll be able to roam the gorgeous streets with little chance of running into another soul.
Be sure to visit the San Felipe del Morro Castle. Although tours inside the castle have been suspended, visitors are still allowed to walk around the enormous grounds to take lovely photos and (try to) catch iguanas. I don’t know if that last part is permitted, but no one attempted to stop me. The views around the castle of the ocean, the bay, and Old San Juan are wonderful. At dusk, the sunset is even more magical.
Although not having thousands of tourists is a blessing in these times, businesses in Old San Juan are struggling. I really recommend stepping into as many stores, restaurants, and galleries as possible and supporting them in any way. Visit La Vergüenza for some great mofongo, a staple Puerto Rican dish made of mashed plantains. If you want to beat the heat, head over to Nono’s for an ice-cold beverage and enjoy the sights and sounds of a typical Puerto Rican tavern.
Parque de los Gatos
What better way to reduce the spread of COVID than to simply just avoid people? South of San Felipe del Morro Castle sits a hidden park called Parque de los Gatos, or Cat Park. Here, dozens of felines roam the grounds looking for some warm affection from passers by. I didn’t expect much when I arrived. Cats are finicky creatures to begin with. However, moments after sitting on a nearby bench, the friendliest cats I had ever encountered immediately surrounded me. Sure, they were a bit rough around the edges and a tad mangy. But by now you should be keeping hand sanitizer handy anyway.
Another way to avoid any crowds and still get some picturesque views of Old San Juan and the surrounding areas is to take a romantic sunset cruise on a catamaran. Booked through Sail PR, we boarded Ohana 2 and were introduced to an exceptional crew. Their main goal was to keep us all safe, but still enjoy everything the vessel had to offer, like the open bar.
After temperature checks and hand sanitizing, the captain and his crewmate allowed us to venture to the front of Ohana 2. We sailed through the empty bay that was once lined with cruise ships. As we worked our way around Old San Juan, the captain’s mate brought us an endless supply of drinks. He also acted as a guide, sharing the history of the city and pointing out interesting sights you might miss from the streets. It was incredible seeing Old San Juan from a distance.
As we crept up on San Felipe del Morro Castle, the captain let the catamaran idle in the bay. That meant we could all take in the majestic view. To our right the Spanish castle, to our left the sun slowly setting behind the mountains and clouds.
Lastly, and an even better way to avoid city crowds, is to hike through Puerto Rico’s rainforest, El Yunque. Although we had to share a van with other tourists to reach the national park, our efficient guides took temperature checks, provided hand sanitizer, and preached COVID-safe practices. The excursion itself was so much more exciting than I was anticipating.
Stepping into El Yunque was like entering another world. The sunlight couldn’t reach the ground due to how thick the canopy was. Hundreds of different types of trees and plants lined the walking paths. Also, Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc back in September 2017, destroying a lot of the original paths. Our guides had to lead us through some makeshift routes including scaling and descending a mudslide. As you can no doubt imagine, you will get absolutely filthy.
Cliff Diving Take Two
Throughout the hike, there were tons of activities to do. We waded through rivers and slid down mini-waterfalls, but the most thrilling thing was jumping from a 33-foot cliff into the water. If you read about my excursion to Costa Rica, you’ll know that the last time I attempted a feat of this magnitude, I landed square on my back and rearranged my internal organs. I knew this cliff jump was the only way to redeem myself.
After hearing the collective gasp of our group as Rachel Albright landed on her behind (there is video evidence), panic started to set in for me. Will I fail again? Will I burst a kidney? Will I die? After standing on the edge of the cliff and contemplating every poor choice I had made up unto this point, I took the plummet. And landed as straight as a pencil. Success! My pride only lasted mere minutes, though, as our guide proceeded to do a double backflip off the cliff and land perfectly in the water. Why wasn’t this dude in the Olympics?
If you have been adhering to pandemic protocols and need a little getaway to alleviate the stress that this has all brought upon us, Puerto Rico is a safe destination for you. While your ideal version of a Puerto Rican vacation may be a bit hampered, there are still plenty of responsible, yet fulfilling, activities to take part in. Every traveler has their own unique way of exploring, but in times like these, we have a duty to follow all safety guidelines regardless of any inconvenience they may cause. Without a doubt, we can all do what’s asked of us and still satisfy our wanderlust.
by Tyler Black