Birthdays are a great excuse to take a break from work (or in my case, to force your spouse to take a break from work) and have some fun. So I like to try to make a big deal out of my own birthday, at least with Chad. In fairness, I also try to make a big deal out of his birthday in May, as is evidenced by the fact that we began our new full-time travel lifestyle on his 41st birthday.
But this month it was my turn to turn 41 and I did so in San Juan. Chad graciously agreed to take most of the day off from working and I planned a fun day for us in Old San Juan, including a highly-rated architectural tour that I booked through Airbnb.
However, since we were going to need an Uber to reach Old San Juan and it is hard to know how long it will take with traffic, we left early enough to arrive an hour before our 10 a.m. tour. We used the time to walk down to the San Juan capitol building and admire the status along the Walkway of the Presidents, which commemorates each of the U.S. presidents who have visited Puerto Rico since it became a U.S. territory.
After that we met our tour guide Andy at the Plaza de Colon. There were about 10 in our group, which was a good size. There were a couple much larger group tours gathering there at the same time and I’m glad I chose this smaller architecture-specific one. The tour is organized by a nonprofit called the Puerto Rico Historic Building Drawings Society and Andy is a working architect. His passion for the city of San Juan and the architecture here was evident throughout the tour. It was just over two hours long (supposed to be an hour and 45 minutes but our group went a bit over) and we learned a lot.
In the Plaza de Colon (known to locals as the Plaza de Santiago), Andy gave our first introduction to the different architecture periods in Old San Juan, beginning with the Spanish but also with influences of the French, Dutch, Germans, and of course later, Americans. He also showed us the various clamshell symbols in honor of Saint James (reminding us of our time in Santiago de Compostela, Spain) and the 0 kilometer markers commemorating the start of the first paved street in the Americas.
We walked up the road and learned more about how to tell the age of the different buildings from their doors and balconies, the street pavers, and the tunnels and cisterns below the city. The tour also included a rooftop view of the pretty art deco Bancopopular building and going inside the San Juan Cathedral.
The cathedral was probably my favorite part because you can still go in the original section built over 500 years ago by the Spanish colonists from memory of the Gothic style. We also learned some interesting aspects of Puerto Rican politics here (the question of statehood continues to be a big one but locals think it is a moot point because the population of Puerto Rico is greater than 24 U.S. states; so giving statehood has the potential to shift political power in congress and the electoral congress). The Puerto Rican flag with a light blue triangle is said to reflect the independence movement and the one with the dark blue triangle shows support for remaining a part of the United States.
The tour was great and afterwards we digested all we learned over cocktails and a tasty (though super-slow) vegetarian lunch.
After lunch we visited the older of the two Old San Juan forts, which was very interesting and had great views of the city. We took the long way around to get to it along the Paseo del Morro trail.
After the fort we eventually found a bar to relax in and then came back to our place so Chad could make me one of my favorites for my birthday dinner, chicken paprikash. It was a really fun day. Special shoutout to my parents, whose birthday gift money paid for our tour and a new national parks pass which got us entry into the fort (and who are responsible my birth in the first place!).
After my fun birthday, we buckled down for two and a half days of work because we had plans to meet up with some of my dearest friends on Thursday afternoon. Long before our Puerto Rico plans and unbeknownst to me, they had chosen Puerto Rico as their spring break family vacation destination. When I visited them at home in January we learned of the coincidence and made plans to meet up. They were staying at a resort in Dorado Beach, about an hour from San Juan, so I made a one-night reservation to meet up with them for their last night.
Hanging out with my friends and their daughter was a lot of fun. We swam, we laughed, we went out for dinner and ice cream.
The next day, we all came back to San Juan together so Chad and I could show them Old San Juan. We’d been able to take an Uber out to Dorado but couldn’t get one to pick us up for the trip back so the hotel arranged a taxi van. This proved to be a great stroke of luck because the driver was also a tour guide who shared much more history and interesting information with us on the ride back. We were also able to negotiate with him to wait a few minutes at our apartment to drop off all of our stuff and then take us into Old San Juan.
In the old city, we started by seeing the fort (free entry for all of us thanks to my national parks pass). The driver dropped us off there but it is still a long, windy walk from the road to the entrance. Then we walked to the cathedral so we could show them the interesting old part and political statements. It was a lot for 10-year-old legs so we took a break to have a long lunch followed by paletas. Chad was thrilled that they had tamarindo flavor with spicy chamoy, which was a favorite of ours in Mexico.
We managed to walk all the way to the Plaza de Colon where we got a taxi back to our place to hang out while awaiting their evening flight. Their flight was delayed and eventually canceled so we had plenty of time to hang out at our beach together and go out to dinner at the traditional Puerto Rican restaurant near our house that our driver had recommended.
It was so fun to hang out with friends and share our time in Puerto Rico with them. It really made my birthday week feel extra-special.
Link to the tour we took. I highly recommend it! https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/174126