As scheduled, my couchsurfing host, Rene, picked me up at one of numerous public squares located throughout Old San Juan and we headed to his apartment in the financial district. Rene is around my age and arguably the most popular CS host in San Juan. He has more than 20 reviews on CS, all positive, with surfers praising his hospitality and gregarious demeanor. All the reviews were spot on. Rene immediately gave me the local perspective on San Juan and what a solo traveler needs to know—where the safe areas are, where the not so safe areas are, and how to get around economically. I can’t stress the benefits of couchsurfing in terms of getting the most out of a solo travel experience. My whole trip was absolutely amazing thanks to a few couchsurfers and their friends, and I was able to easily set it up before arriving at my destination.
Rene had a family affair on Saturday so I made plans to join Paul and one of his visiting military friends on a trip through central Puerto Rico and down to the southern coast. They picked me up around 11am, and we drove about an hour through some of the most beautiful and lush mountains I have ever seen. Paul, who had been living in Puerto Rico for several months on an extended vacation, brought us to what he thought was the best Lechonera establishment on the island. For those unfamiliar with Lechonera, a lechon is a whole roasted pig. Like an entire roasted pig on a stick. A deliciously skewered, seasoned, hunk of pork… and Lechoneras are the restaurants that sell them.
Going to a Lechonera is a typical weekend pastime in Puerto Rico, so the whole concept truly excited me, but what really made the experience special was just how amazing my slab of pig tasted! I’m not normally an adventurous eater, but during my entire weekend in Puerto Rico I was pleasantly surprised by the quality and flavor of the food.
Our next stop was the Army Base, Camp Santiago, located in Salinas along the southern coast of the island. My ex-army host informed me that the base occupies over 6% of Puerto Rico’s land mass, and is the largest such base on the island. I have not verified that, but it sounds quite amazing, if true. The base was not visually that spectacular, but the commissary had some of the lowest priced alcohol I have ever seen; I will never forget those prices. I’m talking $10 for a large bottle of Barcadi, tax free. It was even cheaper than the Barcadi Factory which I would ironically tour a few hours later.
We briefly pondered a trip to Rincon on the western side of the island, but the 2.5 hour one-way drive put that idea on the back burner. In lieu of the surfer town of Rincon, we headed back towards San Juan with plans of crashing the Bacardi Factory bar and scoring some free drinks. The scheme worked swimmingly. Within five minutes of arriving Paul struck up a conversation with what appeared to be an old drunk man from outside Chicago, and before we made it to the entrance the man pulled out a hand full of free drink vouchers and gave them to us. There you have it, 5 free drinks each. The atmosphere at the modern outdoor bar sitting on the Caribbean Sea couldn’t have been more relaxed, and I was in heaven sipping on a plethora of mixed rum drinks. I don’t think we ever did make it to the tour, but I heard you don’t get to drink on it anymore— ain’t nobody got time for that.
Our next stop on the tour of vices was naturally one of the many casinos in Puerto Rico. Once again our objective was to gamble at the cheap slots and benefit from free drinks. In reality, there is no such thing as cheap slots anymore, and the drink girls didn’t even bother walking over by our cheap asses. So we spent an hour losing money, then we decided to head out. The good news is that we lost enough money to get our parking validated, and that’s what they call a silver lining.
By this point we were all a bit tipsy, so we headed back to Paul’s vacation apartment on the beach and watched an amazing sunset from the 7th floor, played a Peruvian card game that I can’t even begin to remember now, and eventually took a stroll on the beach before I had to head back to Rene’s. All and all a pretty amazing day in a pretty amazing place with some pretty amazing people, and it only cost about $30. Not bad at all.