Monday, January 6, 2014

Escaping the NY cold

I've always been a tropical girl. Despite the fact that I love NY, I can never get used to its bitter cold. The last few years, I've been coming back and forth to the city every winter to be with my family and have always thought of winter as novelty since it gives me the opportunity to wear cute coats, scarfs and hats that I would not otherwise wear in Manila. Now that I've permanently made NY my home, the winter novelty has worn off and it has become a reality. In short, I'm not fascinated by -15 degrees weather anymore.

When Brian and I were planning a December getaway, we were both in agreement that we needed to escape to somewhere warm. The Philippines would have been the perfect destination but since my family's in town, we couldn't fly away too far. So, where do people in the US fly to when they want a sweet, tropical escape? 

Puerto Rico. 

Prior to booking this trip, I was not even aware that Puerto Rico is a US territory. It being a commonwealth nation, PR is governed by the US, Obama being its president. Although Spanish is the native language, everyone speaks English and the currency is US dollars. A three and a half hour flight from NY transports people to the world's rum capital and the city that boasts of the finest piña colada. Aside from great alcohol, Puerto Rico is also a nature lover's haven. The first thing that I noticed when we landed in San Juan Airport were the lush greens, flowers, plants and mountains that stretched along the highways. The sounds of animals and sights of iguanas was such a welcome break from NY's concrete jungle and police sirens.

Impressively, Puerto Rico is home to El Yunque, the only rainforest in the US as well as pristine, Caribbean beaches, making it the perfect travel destination for winter-avoiding people like B and I. 

The view from the top of Castillo de San Cristóbal, San Juan, Puerto Rico 

El Yunque Rainforest

Visiting the El Yunque rainforest has always been at the top our itinerary. I'm such a nature buff and it's always been part of my bucket list to see and explore an actual rainforest. So, when I read about El Yunque, I knew that it would be my chance to tick it off from my list. We stayed at The Wyndham Resort in Rio Grande which is right next to the El Yunque rainforest. 

A 5-minute drive from the hotel took us to El Yunque. We were adamant in doing 'touristy' things so we drove all the way up to a trail that was not heavily populated by people. Well, there's a reason why it wasn't crowded---The trail was steep, slippery and quite a hike. 

Where's Brian? Can you spot him? The hike was a bit difficult!

However, seeing and swimming in this took all the fatigue away:

Belittled by nature: One of the many breathtaking waterfalls at El Yunque

It felt like we had our own private waterfall. Nobody else was there because the hike was quite difficult. Even if there's a trail, the slippery and muddy road is quite dangerous. Then again, nothing good comes easy, right?

Even if we thoroughly enjoyed our first trail, we decided to check out the most popular trail, The Big Tree Trail only because we're curious to find out if the La Mina Falls is even more glorious than the first one that we explored. 

The Big Tree Trail is very, very easy. Kids and older people can easily hike this trail as pathways are in place. A 20-minute hike will take you to La Mina Falls. While it's just as breathtaking, what turned us off was the fact that almost 50 other people were there to marvel the falls. So, if you want a little more privacy and a view of an equally breathtaking falls, you have to work for it. 

At the La Mina Falls. Check out the picturesque view... of tourists!

Old San Juan

Blue bricked roads, rows of colorful houses lined up along the Atlantic Ocean coast, beautiful, welcoming and friendly people--The charming old San Juan actually reminded me of Greece, only the houses are not white. We completely enjoyed our afternoon strolls in this ancient city, eating traditional Spanish food, drinking Medalla (local beer) and cooling down with a glass (or two!) of the world's finest piña colada.

Barrachina, Old San Juan

What's a trip to Puerto Rico if you're not going to have a sip of piña colada? When in Old San Juan, I highly recommend a stop at Barrachina, the birthplace of the original piña colada. It's one of my favorite drinks so I had more than one...And we visited the place twice! They serve the best tastng piña coladas. Seriously.

Castillo San Cristobal

The Castillo San Cristobal was built as a fortress that guarded Puerto Rico from attacks during World War II. It is the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World at 27-acres huge! If you are a history lover like me, you will love imagining how walking the fort must have been like during the war. It's well-preserved and walking it instantly transports you to the old world. Aside from this, the view of the Atlantic Ocean from the top is mesmerizing. 

We stayed in Puerto Rico for 6 days. There were other sites that we wanted to visit like the Bioluminescent Bay in Vieques and the tropical beach in Culebra but since it was peak season, all tours at the Bio Bay were fully booked. It's a must-see in Puerto Rico so I'm saddened by the fact that we were not able to do it. I would recommend booking this in advance! 

Culebra, on the other hand was quite an experience. Despite lining up at 6.30 AM for the ferry ride to the island, unfortunately, all tickets have been sold out. Seems like people there lined up at 5 AM just to make sure they get their hands on those highly prized ferry tickets! For those who have no patience to line up and have extra cash to burn, you can purchase a 15-minute airplane ride for $80. They did say that the pristine, Caribbean beach is worth every penny!

Despite missing out on those two sites, Brian and I had a very relaxing and wonderful time at Puerto Rico. It was the perfect venue to welcome 2014 in. The food is amazing! I would have posted photos of them if we didn't devour them as soon as they were served to us (I was able to capture a bit in my Instagram, so, please feel free to check it out!); The people are friendly; The weather is priceless; The sites are to die for! If you're planning a quick escape from the cold, Puerto Rico is the closest and easiest destination for you.

We will definitely come back!

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