My husband and I touched down in San Juan early on a Tuesday afternoon. We checked in to our hotel in Old San Juan and began wandering like true Midwestern tourists. The best description of Old San Juan I came up with is "Europe and Mexico had a baby." I know this is not the most apropos definition, but I think it captures the city's Old World feel and Latin flare.
The city is home to two forts built by the Spanish from the 1500s to 1700s. We had time to explore "the newer" one, and marveled at its complexity and scale.
Then, because food is constantly on my mind, I had to eat. I had previously read about Cafe Berlin as a prime place for vegans in Old San Juan, and decided to check it out. In a world where fresh food seems unusually scarce and reliance on seafood and meat is heavy, it was nice to find tofu on a menu.
We asked to sit outside. The waitress probably thought we were insane to voluntarily choose the humidity. But, I felt like I hadn't truly been warm since about November, and welcomed the stickiness.
I kicked things off with a frozen Manjito - a mojito mixed with mango and blended. It did. not. disappoint. I may or may not have sucked down two in the time it took my husband to finish one (he's behind the glass in the plaid shirt, impressed by my drinking skills).
For my appetizer I had some steamed dumplings with tofu, spinach and red peppers. Not exactly Puerto Rican, but the saltiness of the soy sauce hit the spot in the heat.
Next came the best food I ate on the entire trip - mofongo. This traditional plantain-based dish is primarily mixed with chicken, pork or seafood, but mine came plain. It had a strong garlic favor and reminded me of a dry risotto. I could have eaten three dishes, but alas, dinner was not that far away.
Once the rest of our group trickled in on flights from across the country, we settled in for dinner at El Picoteo, a semi-outdoor restaurant that looks like it came right out of a movie. It was too dark for any quality photographs by the time we arrived, but I enjoyed a delicious bowl of white bean hummus and pita, as well as a vegetable empanada.
The next day we drove an hour around the rainforest to take a ferry to Vieques, our travel destination. Located just 7 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico, the island is a mere 21 miles long by 4 miles wide. It was the site of a U.S. Naval bomb testing site from the 1940s to 2003, and as a result lacks a significant tourism industry. Much of the land is a "wildlife refuge," which I took to mean as places they hadn't finished cleaning up yet. The poverty was also striking - I had thought that technically being part of the United States would provide Viequians with some additional resources, but that didn't appear to be the case.
My opinions on all of that aside, the island was stunning. Wild horses grazed quietly along the roadside,
and we were hard-pressed to find crowds on the beaches we visited.
We found abandoned buildings, like this sugar mill, slowly returning back to nature,
and took wild rides on dirt roads through untamed wilderness in our Jeep Wranglers.
We went out after dark in clear canoes on the Bioluminescent Bay, perhaps Vieques' most notable sites. The water glowed wherever our boat or oars went through. As lame as it may sound, it gave me a child-like wonder for the world I hadn't experienced in a long time. As we all get older, I think even special things start to feel normal. We had all been on vacation before. We had all laid by a beautiful beach. But none of us had ever seen anything like this.
|Image courtesy of http://earth-phenomenon.tumblr.com/post/34288123642/bioluminescent-bay-of-vieques-island-puerto.|
Instead of fresh food, I took advantage of all the canned food I was unlikely to find in my local grocery store and set to work making a traditional Puerto Rican dish: Rice and Beans. I was able to find all the ingredients in the little grocery store on the island, and made a double batch to feed myself and my 8 other travel companions. I substituted the chicken stock for plain old water, but I don't think the flavor suffered at all. The first night, I served it over rice with fried plantains (but the pictures turned out terrible in the dark). For leftovers, I ate it alongside a mushroom taco with fresh avocado.
We ate at Duffy's in Esperanza, and it was probably one of the worst meals I've ever had. Ever. Trying to avoid the frozen garden burger (the waitress readily admitted it was bought in a package and slapped on the grill) for $12, I opted for a hummus burrito, which sounded at least kind of somewhat interesting. Wrong. It was a burrito stuffed with maybe a half-cup of hummus, the rest of the tortilla all wadded up underneath. It was topped with a scant amount of tomatoes and onions, and served with salsa that most definitely contained cocktail sauce. I don't consider myself a complainer and was hungry to the point that I would have eaten almost anything, but this was just beyond.
Luckily, the next day I found the food truck of my dreams: Sol Food.
They had an array of side dishes that they actually told me were vegan before I even had to ask. These are my people, I thought. I ate there again for lunch the following day, delighted that I didn't have to explain myself to any confused or disinterested wait staff. My favorite was the sweet potato salad, which came with a savory, slightly spicy green sauce.
Unfortunately, like all good things, the trip came to an end after an incredibly frustrating layover in O'Hare (what trip would be complete without it?). But on the first plane out of Vieques, there was no cockpit and a full flight, so I got to ride shotgun.
Overall, Old San Juan is incredibly charming, and you could probably eat there healthily and happily for as long as you wanted. If you love the thrill of somewhere you've never been before, have an adventurous spirit and are willing to forgo the comforts of an all-inclusive or luxury resort, Vieques is the place for you - but don't go for the food. But as the saying goes, food tastes better with friends. I hope I'm lucky enough that my travels take me back to both Old San Juan and Vieques again.