San Juan, Puerto Rico-No Passport Required

Twenty years ago, my husband and I traveled to Puerto Rico on a business trip. I found it to be one of the most pleasant and beautiful locations I’ve ever visited. The other day, a friend had told me about her recent trip there, so I pulled out my photo album to reminisce. Once I saw the photos, I did some online investigating to see what was new. It’s now one of the few places Americans can visit without needing a passport, so that alone makes it worth considering, especially for a winter vacation. It’s comparable in price to other tropical areas, and is not as lengthy an airplane ride as to many luxury destinations-yet, one does have options other than 4 or 5 star resorts. It is also family-friendly, and not geared to primarily older travelers or single travelers. Plus, it’s not overwhelmingly touristy like theme parks, either. It offers a wide variety of water sports, golf, entertainment and sightseeing, and with unusual architecture, it’s also like a trip back in time. Although distinctly foreign-feeling, for United States citizens, it’s technically visiting a distant relative.

I was saddened to discover that the hotel where we stayed, the Hyatt at Dorado Beach, had closed two years ago. It had the most fantastic pool and landscaping I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy, and that includes Hawaii and Las Vegas. That was becaue it offered something fairly rare at the time: a river pool. Such a treat is a long, meandering stretch of warm, flowing water that allows folks to stretch out on rafts and be carried under hundreds of swaying palms at an unhurried pace. At the Dorado, the ocean was within sight, visible through the thousands of tropical flowers and landscaping, and, for the most part, no other humans were noticable due to the spacing of the guests. I therefore felt like queen of this little paradise, having it all to myself. Apparently I was not alone in loving a river pool; several other Puerto Rican hotels now offer similar attractions.

From the photos on the web, Old San Juan is pretty much how it was two decades ago. For the person who loves history, they can get a lot of it within 5 hours in this lovely town. Residences typical to what we call “townhouses” line the famous cobblestone streets, and they are a mix of New Orleans charm (wrought iron balconies) and Bermuda color (brightly painted facades). Many streets are closed to car traffic, but some of the nicer ones are lined with plants and outside cafes. I spent a good bit of time on side streets, many of which transacted business in Spanish. Shops were a far cry from those elsewhere; they were somewhat small, dark, cluttered-and hot. I wondered why some weren’t better organized, and was bemused by the emphasis on religious items. Catholicism’s saints were depicted almost everywhere in statues and pictures, along with votive candles, oils, medals, and related articles. It lent a somewhat spiritual, albeit commercial, air to browsing…like variations of Buddha in Chinatown stores and Hindu deities in Indian groceries. My purchase that day was a crystal bead necklace, which I still have. It was a prized possession for years until I saw the crystals one day at Michael’s. It’s still important to me, however, because it was a souvenir.

We visited the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (which houses the tomb of Juan Ponce de León), and saw plazas, museums and historic sites. Old San Juan areas are still somewhat enclosed by massive walls of forts, the most famous of which is La Fortaleza, which is also the executive mansion for the Governor of Puerto Rico. It, in addition to Old San Juan itself, was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1983. Since the town is a major tourist destination, a free visitor trolley reportedly still carries guests around the area.

“Puerto Rico” means “rich port” or “good port”, and this particular town was given the formal name of “San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico” in honor of St. John the Baptist. Consider it if you’re searching for a relaxing-yet intriguing-get away.

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