“Have you been to the west side of the island? That’s the most beautiful part but they do not speak much English over there. Most tourists stick to Old San Juan. They like the old buildings and the blue [cobblestone] streets. It’s also where the cruise ships dock.”
For a minute I almost forget that I’m the one who should be asking questions.
Like any good Uber driver, Cesar had engaged me in polite conversation after picking me up in Old San Juan. However, upon learning that I was visiting Puerto Rico to do research for an article about the island – he switched into full welcome wagon mode.
“Will you be visiting the rainforest? It’s the only one in the U.S. You should also do a night tour of one of the bioluminescent bays. We have the most in the world.”
I tell Cesar that I will be visiting El Yunque National Rainforest as part of my trip and that I have been to one of the bioluminescent bays during a previous visit. Given that he was partially right, I didn’t bother to correct his claim that El Yunque is the U.S.’s only rainforest. Covering 28,000 acres, it is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. but there's actually a number of temperate rainforests found throughout the country.
As for the bio bays, he was spot on. They are rare bodies of water that contain large concentration of micro organisms called dinoflagellates and when those little critters are agitated, they release a brief burst of light. It is very much a “see it to believe it” experience. Only a few of these bio bays are known to exist in the world and Puerto Rico is lucky enough to have three.
“Where have you going to eat? Puerto Rican food is the best.”
I make a joke about my tight pants and let him know that I had just finished visiting a bunch of restaurants in Old San Juan with Spoon Food Tours. I also agree that Puerto Rican food is fantastic and confess my love for mofongo, a Puerto Rican staple made with mashed fried green plantains.
On my food tour I had learned so much about the history of Puerto Rican cuisine, which started with the native Taino Indians, who lived on the island at the time of Christopher Columbus’ arrival, and then shaped over centuries with the introduction of the Spanish, Dutch, African, French, Italian, and Chinese influences.
I let Cesar know that I’m also planning to visit Lote 23, a new outdoor food market in San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood. It has more than a dozen vendors each offering very different types of food and drink.
“I’ve taken many people but I have not actually visited there yet. That area is now very popular at night with lots of restaurants and bars.”
I was staying less than one mile from Santurce the beachfront San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino in the Condado neighborhood. I asked Cesar if it was OK to walk between the two neighborhoods. He didn’t mince words.
“No. You still need to take Uber or get a cab. Crime was getting out of control a few years ago but it has gotten better. That is why you see all the police. They are keeping the bad people away.”
There was no missing the police. I had seen them on nearly every corner in Old San Juan and around my hotel in Condado. I spoke with other locals and they were in agreement with Cesar that the crime problem in Puerto Rico was getting better and that the increased police presence was being used as an effective deterrent. However, everyone still stressed the need to be streetwise and to avoid walking in certain areas at night.
Arriving at my hotel, I find myself wishing my ride was longer, we didn’t have a chance to chat about Puerto Rico’s many beautiful beaches or all the great rum that is produced on the island.
As I say good-bye to Cesar I ask him for his last name. “Ottaviani. My great grandfather was from Italy.”
I laugh. It was yet another reminder of why I love Puerto Rico. It has been a melting pot of cultures for more than 500 years and it is always full of surprises.
Where to stay
Condado is an oceanfront neighborhood just minutes from Old San Juan and the San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. It offers plenty of shopping, dining, and entertainment options to fit nearly any budget. The full-service, 525-room San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is one of Condado’s most popular hotels. It has a large pool area with a swim-up bar and beach access. The nearby AC Hotel San Juan Condado is one of the island’s newest hotels. It is a hip, contemporary property that caters primarily to adult travelers. The hotel’s rooftop pool and lobby lounges bar are big selling points.
How to get there
As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico does not require U.S. visitors to have a passport.
Direct flights between the Washington, DC area and the San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) are available: JetBlue from Reagan National Airport (DCA), United from Dulles International Airport (IAD), and Southwest from Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI).
Note: Uber has been operating in San Juan and other parts of Puerto Rico since July 2016; however, regulations regarding its operation are still evolving. At of the publishing of this article, Uber drivers are not allowed to pick up arriving passengers at the San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport or in certain designated taxi zones.