Puerto Rico: Day 1 “I’m Just Tryna Let My Hair Down”

Puerto Rico: Day 1 “I’m Just Tryna Let My Hair Down”

I woke before my alarm at 3:40am. I had finished packing the night before, and laid out my airport outfit – a black bodycon tank dress, magenta Puma slip-on sneakers, and a denim jacket. I applied a Bordeaux-colored lip stain to spruce up my bare face. I poured a cup of coffee for a friend who graciously agreed to drop me off (saved on parking fees or an Uber!). Traveling was fast and smooth – I flew Southwest, with an hour layover at BWI (roundtrip tickets were $310 total), and I arrived at the Luis Muñoz Marín Airport 40 minutes earlier than expected!

I had read that the line for taxis could get pretty long and that Ubers couldn’t go into the airport, so for comfort and convenience, I had ordered a car the night before, to pick me up – the booking process was a breeze. I used Puerto Rico Green Transportation. I was tempted to book the Porsche Panamera – because, why not live my best life (haha)! However, I decided on their Lincoln Navigator (which had dropped in price since my initial browse!). My top choice would’ve been their blacked-out Escalade ESV Platinum, but at $30 more, I decided to reign in my excited emotions and make sounder decisions; getting a car, period, was enough. 

Promptly as my plane landed – like, literally still taxiing, I got a call and then a text from my driver letting me know he was here and would meet me by baggage claim. As I made my way through the small airport and down the escalator, I saw a line of about 5 people, holding signs. I scanned the signs and saw one with my name on it. “(driver’s name)?” I asked, approaching with a smile. 

My two bags were some of the first that came down the luggage conveyor belt. “That was easy,” he commented. He took my bags and led me outside; and much to my delight, he led me over to the company’s Escalade that my little heart had desired (haha). As I settled into the plush captain’s chair, the driver connected my iPhone and we set out to Old San Juan to the vibes from Sir’s new album. He pointed out some sites along the way and maneuvered through OSJ’s tiny streets with ease. “Can you make it down here? I can walk from here,” I offered as he turned onto my street. It took a 7-point turn but sure enough, he took me all the way to my door step. This was about $50 + gratuity.

It had started sprinkling as soon as we left the airport, but after the 20-minute drive, it was sunny and warm – my glasses fogged up as soon as I stepped outside. I had decided to try Airbnb for the first time, and had booked an entire apartment to myself. I chose a 2-bedroom, 1 bath, top floor apartment with a full kitchen and 2 balconies. Reviews had said that it was close to the hustle and bustle but tucked away on a quiet cul-de-sac. Perfect. Check-in was supposed to be at 3pm, but I texted the host when I landed and she said the apartment was ready for me.

It was so lovely! I set my bags down, opened all the windows and explored. There were several bookcases, filled with the likes of BorderlandsThe New Jim Crow, The Feminist Porn BookThe Warmth of Other Suns, and books of poetry. There was art everywhere! Scented candles and incense decorated every table – I searched for and found a lighter in the kitchen. Affirmations were posted on the fridge… the vibe of the space really resonated with me – Excellent choice! I had already been in contact with the host and had a few recommendations for great music lounges and cafes to check out. I stayed here for the first 3 nights of my trip for a total (including taxes and fees) of $383.63. As a solo, female traveler I definitely felt safe and comforted at this location.

I settled in a little after 1pm, and was hungry! After letting my grandma and my closest friends know that I made it to Puerto Rico safely, I was on the phone with my best friend as he and I both browsed menus and reviews for nearby restaurants. After searching for nearly 30 minutes, I decided to just get up and walk around – I’d passed a bunch of eateries on the way to my place. I put in my earbuds and kept my friend on the line as I went outside – he laughed at me because he knew I was nervous. “You need to be staying mindful of your surroundings, but I’ll stay on with you,” he said. At some point, I walked past Deaverdura, a place my host had recommended for mofongo. Mofongo is a signature Puerto Rican dish of, essentially, mashed plantains. From what I understand, West African slaves had introduced fufu to the island, and it was adapted by the Tainos, using the foods on the island and accommodating their taste preferences. 

“I’ll talk to you later; I’m okay,” I told my friend as I turned around and headed into Deaverdura. There was a L-shaped bar at the back of the room. Jovial locals sat around laughing and toasting, drinks flowing. A woman and her daughter occupied one of the tables. A cheery, raven-haired woman came from around the bar. “Just one, can I sit anywhere?” “Please, please,” she ushered me. “You are very beautiful, are you a model?” I chuckled no. “Tu pelo es bonita, very pretty,” she exclaimed, motioning her hands excitedly around her head. “Thank you.” I chose a table in the middle of the room, sitting where I could enjoy the revelers, and take a peek outside at the street’s wanderers. I felt peace and happiness. The woman explained that she didn’t speak much English, but I explained I know just enough Spanish for us to make it work together. 

She treated me to a drink of fresh passionfruit… “con rum!” of course. I had two over the course of the hour or so I was there.

I asked about mofongo – I hadn’t seen it on the colorful, chalkboard menu on a wall. She told me it wasn’t one of the main dishes that day, but she could make me some if that’s what I wanted. I ordered the skirt steak… with a side of mofongo. “Muchas gracia– ” I had noticed they dropped the “s” at the end of words, like the Spanish spoken in the Dominican Republic.

A man at the bar – he looked in his sixties, silver hair, mid-height but a little portly, in a tailored deep blue suit. He hadn’t drank as much as the others and moreso observed the conversation around him; I pegged him for the owner, the energetic woman his wife. We had exchanged several smiles – I’d be looking around, and catch his eyes locking with mine. He lifted his glass to toast and I smiled with gratefulness. 

The food was absolutely delicious! 

The steak was so tender and juicy, and the mofongo was definitely filling. I took my time eating. “House sauce, hot sauce, cilantro. “This,” she said, highlighting the cilantro sauce, “for the steak.” “Wonderful, thank you.”  

A man I had noticed in the kitchen, noticing me, came over to my table. “Is everything good for you?” he asked. “Yes, it’s so good. Are you the chef?” “Yes, (his name),” he said with a thick accent, “I’m glad you like it.” I reached out my hand to shake his. 

He was about 6’3, bronzed skin and dark eyes; maybe 35-37. Solid build – his toned biceps flashed from beneath his crisp, white tee. A sparkling smile glimmered in between our sentences. I counted three pieces of skin art on his arms – two scenic depictions and a name. 

We began chatting and at some point, he took a seat across from me. 

“Can I take you to a beach? We can watch the sunset; it’s very beautiful.”

“That sounds awesome. No promises, though. I’m pretty tired, so I might go to sleep.”

We exchanged numbers. The woman handed me a little notebook and asked me to write in it. It was a brown leather book with little notes from people who had come in and out of the restaurant over the years. I wrote a little paragraph, signed it, gave her a hug and thanked her for the hospitality, and went on about my evening. I spent about $30 (before the tip) here; the drinks definitely drove up the cost, but they were so refreshing!

I found my way through Plaza de Armas and spotted a sign that read “The Poet’s Passage.” Yes!

It is a spaced owned by Lady Lee Andrews, a local author. The space was so cozy – Moorish chandeliers, poems and affirmations on all of the merchandise… I started speaking with the young woman at the cash register. She told me about the open mic nights on Tuesdays (I was bummed that I’d miss it, but it gave me a reason to come back), and about the artists featured throughout the gift shop. I asked her about a magnet I’d seen that said Calle de la Resistencia. “Wait, is that a real street?!” “Haha, no…” She went on to explain about the recent protests against Governor Rosselló and of her experience on the front-lines of the uprising. An artist had written that slogan on a wall, and the magnet was a collaboration to capitalize on the phrase and cement that moment. I bought one. I continued on and walked by the umbrellas on Calle Fortaleza. It was a popular photo spot from what I noticed online, but eh. I wandered up and down the hills of Viejo San Juan until an art gallery on Calle del Santo Cristo caught my attention.

Galería Éxodo. It was an absolutely stunning space filled with African, Caribbean, and Taino folk art. Life goals would have been able to purchase a piece, but my favorite ones where upwards of $3,000. However, I still enjoyed the intricacy of the work, and celebration of Black and brown culture and women. I was overwhelmed with the beauty held within the gallery. I wandered up stone steps – Taino clay figurines lining the floor – and onto the second floor with an open courtyard, complete with a water feature. This gallery is truly a somewhat hidden treasure – I could’ve spent hours in there!

As the sun started to set, I made my way up the hills until I found my street and headed home. It soon started to rain as I got inside, and I cozied up on the covered, back balcony and just listened to the water falling.

I took my shower, ate an ice cream sandwich that was left in the freezer, and made my way into bed. I had to cancel on the chef because my sleep was more important at the moment.

Just then, I got a message that the coffee plantation and waterfall tour that I had booked for the next day was cancelled due to weather concerns. I had a quick moment of panic as I tried to figure out what I was going to do all day tomorrow, but then I realized I could do anything, and started browsing available Airbnb Experiences.

I found one called “Hidden Waterfalls and Natural Pools” that went into El Yunque Rainforest – a place I hadn’t put on my original itinerary, but kind of really wanted to visit. I messaged the host and asked if he was still running his tour tomorrow, even with the probability of rainy weather. He replied within 30 mins letting me know he was still doing a tour and had several other spots on the island we could go to as well. I wanted to avoid paying an Uber to take me to the listed meeting spot so I asked if he could pick me up; he agreed and I booked the tour.

As I began to drift off to sleep, I remember thinking, “I’m really here. I did it. I’m doing it. This is wonderful. Let’s gooooo! Thank you!” I had a feeling of faith that this would be a beautiful experience for me and that I could handle it, and I was proud for committing to myself in this way, for loving myself this way. I did some deep breathing, staying in gratitude for those very moments until I went to sleep…

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