San Juan, Puerto Rico is not a great place for vegans. There are one or two restaurants here and there that might offer a vegan-like dish, but by and large, if you’re on a plant-based diet (as my wife and I are), you’re on your own. That’s what leads Donica and I to bring a portable blender on our second trip to Old San Juan. At the very least, we figure, we can pop into a supermarket, buy some fruit and greens, and make healthy smoothies for breakfast. Which we do. This is a very different way of traveling compared to the journeys of my youth. Back then, the whole point of traveling was to go somewhere exotic and sample the local delicacies which, inevitably, had meat, eggs or dairy. When in India, for example, you have to try a mango lassi. When in Florence, you can’t miss the blueberry steak (!) at Acqua Al 2. While visiting eastern Thailand, you need to try the fried grasshoppers from a cheerful street vendor. It was never in my playbook to bring something like a blender from home so I could make my favorite breakfast, a smoothy – from home. Isn’t travel all about getting away from home?
Anyway, like I said, Old San Juan isn’t exactly vegan central. It’s definitely good for mofongo, essentially green plantains mashed with salt, garlic, broth and olive oil. It’s good for beans and grilled chicken and Cuban-like sandwiches. And it’s great for overall wandering about. Located at the northwest triangle of the islet, Old San Juan is the oldest settlement in Puerto Rico. Venerable buildings abound, from La Fortaleza to the city walls, from El Morro to the San Cristobal castle. Interestingly, the original settlement was founded by Ponce de Leon, he of the “fountain of youth” fame. Columbus later deemed it necessary to honor John the Baptist, hence the town’s formal name of “San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico.”
Walking around Old San Juan is a pleasure. Many of the streets are cobblestone. The buildings fall into the “old colonial” style of architecture and are pleasing to the eye, painted in bright, neon colors. As the town is built on a hill, your climb up and out to the well-preserved fort affords beautiful harbor views from every direction. The town itself is dotted with restaurants, art galleries – and even a Ben and Jerry’s (for the cruise ship folk). Go there for atmosphere, the shopping, the vibe – just not for the vegan food.
(Although it’s strange to bring something like a blender to an exotic place like Puerto Rico, we always bring something from home when we’re traveling. We tote along our comfort items: our electric tooth brushes, our Ipads, our favorite comfy slippers. Most importantly we bring ourselves, with our home-based values and judgments. What might it be like, I wonder, to show up in a foreign country with an empty suitcase, literally and figuratively? You arrive with nothing and then buy whatever you need locally: clothes, books, even your toothbrush. Nothing from home – a tabula rasa…a clean slate. Going 100% native for a week or two. Wouldn’t that be incredible? Do I have the guts to do it for my upcoming December trip to New Zealand. Beginner’s mind, beginner’s backpack? I’ll keep you informed!)