Monday, March 09, 2015

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

We decided to explore Old San Juan with a walking culinary tour, run by Flavors of San Juan.

The first part of the adventure was finding where to meet our guide as quite a few of the streets in the port area lacked any street signs.

As we wandered trying to find the right location, we walked past the Federal District Courthouse and Post Office for Puerto Rico:

We then found the right place - the square in front of the Banco Popular De Puerto Rico, complete with the cat giraffe statue described in the instructions for finding the right location to begin the tour.

Yes, a cat-giraffe. Not sure what it means, but apparently it's lucky.

The guide, per the instructions was to be wearing a bright green polo shirt.

And indeed she was:

Her name was Rosio and she enthusiastically ran a fantastic tour of the history and food of San Juan. With two other couples for a total of 6 adults and 2 kids, we headed off on the tour.

The tour started off at Aromas Coffehouse with Puerto Rican Cafe con leche with mallorcas for breakfast. The coffee was truly outstanding and the mallorcas (a breakfast sandwich of ham, eggs and powdered sugar)wa alos great.

Suitably caffeinated, we learned a bit about San Juan's founding and construction of the city's walls and headed to our next stop.

The next stop was a big hit with the kids, and everyone else for that matter.


Senor Paleta makes them right at the store and they were good. With choices that included coconut, mango, nutella, passion fruit and more it was a hard choice to make but all were great.

The we learned about the architecture of the city, including seeing the thinest building in Old San Juan:

Built in an alleyway between two other buildings, its not much wider than two people standing side by side.

Then we went to see a church erected in the days when the Spanish controlled the island marking the site where a miracle occurred:

Behind the church is a sheer cliff and apparently as nobleman on a horse fell off the cliff while racing down the street. He apparently said a prayer to be saved, the exact details of which is not preserved, and he was indeed saved. The horse, not so much. So a church was built to mark the location.

It's right beside the Parque De Las Palomas, Park of Pigeons, which, true to its name, had a real lot of pigeons.

Then we went to Cafe El Punto, where we had a sample of ceviche and plantain empanadas.

The kids impressed everybody by giving the ceviche a try. Most kids apparently are fussy wusses who won't try new things. Accompanying the empanadas was an option to try pique, the Puerto Rican hot sauce. I tried it and now I need to find a local supply 'cause it was awesome - a smooth heat that really enhanced the flavor of the food.

We kept on walking, including past the governor's mansion.

The two guys in suits were part of the more subtle yet obvious security personnel around the mansion area.

We learned about the government structure of the island and it was interesting for the kids to understand the concept that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, not a state of the US, so they generally do not pay Federal Income Taxes. Before you get too excited and head for the island, they do pay local income taxes and other local taxes that more than make up for the difference. Interestingly enough, Puerto Ricans can have both United States and Puerto Rican citizenship, which is recognized by Spain as a separate citizenship status that can get them quick acquisition of Spanish citizenship.

All that history led to our next stop, an opportunity to make a historic dish with our own hands, mofongo.

In a historic restaurant Rosa de Triana in a building formerly used as Old San Juan's original city hall (dates to 1523!) complete with a dungeon and a secret tunnel.

One of the cells beside the seating area.

Mofongo is made from fried plantains mashed in a mortar and pestle with garlic and butter and once proper;y mashed you spoon in some chicken in sauce and have a fine meal. You also work off the meal beating the plantains into shape.

To say it was great would be an understatement.

Then for dessert we went to Puerto Rico's oldest chocolate maker's restaurant, Casa Cortez:

Cortes, a maker of chocolate extraordinaire on the island since 1931 recently opened the restaurant. You can order whatever you like, and chocolate is in everything.

We received samples of hot chocolate made from melted chocolate bars that are specially sold for the purpose, along with a Churro, a portion of milk chocolate and a piece of cheddar cheese.

The cheddar went well with the chocolate which was a pairing I'd never thought of before.

Our guide also had those of us daring enough to try it put the cheddar into the hot chocolate. The tradition of doing so dates back to the Great Depression in Puerto Rico where it was a good way to get a lot of calories in hard times. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either, so I don't think I'll be continuing that tradition. We did buy a few of the hot chocolate making bars for home and the kids have already used them up over this harsh winter.

We then walked past the pinkest building in San Juan:

Then we went up to the roof of The Mezzanine at St. Germain, which they opened up just for us and we had pina coladas (the kids got pineapple and coconut juice sans alcohol) while relaxing and looking at the city skyline.

It was a great tour indeed, and if you're ever in San Juan and want a unique experience, Flavors of San Juan hosts a great, informative and tasty tour.


juvat said...

Looks like a great time. Did you find the tour on your own, or was it a ship sponsored one?

Aaron said...

juvat: It was indeed. We found the tour through a shore excursion travel agency through Costco rather than the ship. That was the reason why we had to navigate to the spot on our own.

Old NFO said...

You saw more than I ever did of old town... :-) We stayed the hell out of there!!!

Aaron said...

Old NFO: I suspect they cleaned it up a bit since you last visited. Between the very clear "Don't mess with the tourists" vibe and the police presence of what seemed like an officer on every block it was very safe and quite a neat place to explore.