Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Panadería España Repostería

Recently someone asked me about the best food I had in San Juan, and I realized that I never blogged about one of the most amazing eateries I've found in all of my travels! My mistake! Well, here it is:

If I had to submit my "must eat" San Juan foodie destination, it would be Panadería España Repostería on the main strip in Isla Verde. I was lucky enough to live super close to this place, although it took me a month to try it because it is always packed with locals (I was inimidated!). I wish I had tried it sooner, this is really a gourmet haven on a strip lined with Burger Kings and Long John Silvers. It is a Spanish deli/bakery/anything you could possibly want-ery, and all of their (amazing) food is freshly made daily. Their selection of sandwiches feature freshly carved (not briney "deli-style") meats, like pastrami (my fave), cubano, lechón, steak, etc. Their soup selection was actually my favorite, as their fabada (a Spanish bean stew) and Caldo Callego are to DIE for. They are served in a big bowl with hunks of buttery, garlicky bread. Those soups are one of the things I miss most about Puerto Rico! Next up are all sorts of salads, like ensalada de pulpo (octopus salad), ensalada de camarones (shrimp salad), and potato salad. They also have a selection of fritters and other fried goodies, which I never tried but I am sure are delicious, as they are big sellers. Other Spanish favorites include tortilla española with or without Spanish chorizo, fresh paella, and tons of cured Serrano ham. To top it all off, there is a dessert selection to top all dessert selections. With more gourmet cakes, pies, and pastries than you could possibly want to try in the balmy San Juan humidity, Panadería España rounds out its delicious food selection, making it far and beyond my favorite foodie destination in all of San Juan.

Oh, I wish I had bowl of fabada at this very moment, and I don't even have a picture of it...I guess I'll have to wait until the next time I visit San Juan. :(



No big flashy lights to mark this Spanish food Mecca

Paella...drool

Can you see the rolled cakes and the giant hanging Serrano hams?

Sandwich Cubano and Pastrami Sandwich

Tortilla Espanola (sin chorizo)

Caldo Gallego

Caldo Callego and a deconstructed Pastrami sandwich


Panadería España Repostería
Centro Comercial Villamar, Marginal Baldoriti de Castro, Isla Verde
A5 bus line
(787)727-3860

Friday, November 21, 2008

Rainy Day in San Juan: To The Art Museum!


Sometimes it rains in Puerto Rico. Or sometimes you're so sunburned that you don't want to be outside. Or sometimes you like art. In any case, the Museum of Art in San Juan is a really great way to spend the day, and it's a quick hop off of the A5 bus. The art will really give you insight into the history, struggles, and culture of the Puerto Rican people. Plus there is a restaurant inside called Pikayo that is consistently rated among the best in San Juan, but you may need a reservation and some money to burn.

Sorry I don't have pictures, you can't take photos inside the museum. You'll have to go see!!!

Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico
Avenida De Diego 299
Santurce, Puerto Rico 00909
787-977-6277
http://www.mapr.org/inicio.aspx

Horarios:
Martes a sábado: 10:00 a.m. a 5:00 p.m.
Miércoles: 10:00 a.m. a 8:00 p.m.
Domingo: 11:00 a.m. a 6:00 p.m.

*Las galerías cierran 10 minutos antes de la hora
de cierre.

(P.S. I know I am the lamest blogger on the planet, but from now on, my postings are going to come at a super slow pace. Namely because 1. I am not on the island and 2. I am always studying. Sorry!)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Chicago Burger in Old San Juan


*Overpriced, overrated. Meh.
*Decent mojito selection.
*You can do better, you're in Old San Juan for crying out loud.

Chicago Burger Company
100 Calle Braumbaugh
San Juan, Puerto Rico
http://www.sheratonoldsanjuan.com/dining.htm

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Puerto Rico is Rum-tastic!

Today is National Rum Day! In its honor, I thought I would post a little on one of Puerto Rico's most popular attractions (and exports).

Me enjoying my free Bacardi Gold

So I am willing to bet that if you take a little walk over to your liquor cabinet and pull out your rum, it's probably Bacardi. Bacardi is one of the world's largest producers and exporters of rum, and although there are several Bacardi factories and headquarters around the world, their Casa de Bacardi distillery in Cantaño, Puerto Rico, is their largest and also open to the public. For FREE! I love free things!

Casa de Bacardi

The Bacardi Factory is on many people's "to-do" list when they visit San Juan, and rightfully so. Even if you aren't a brewery/distillery buff, it's hard not to recognize the importance of rum to the history and culture of Puerto Rico. Many people associate the island with its "fine Puerto Rican rums," and there are certainly many produced here, among them Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Palo Viejo, Don Q, Boca Chica, Llave, Castillo, del Barrilito, Rico, and Cañita Cura'o. Puerto Rico is also famous for their rum-based drinks, and while the the piña colada its "official" beverage, you'll find a whole host of others, like mojitos and Cuba libres, on all restaurant menus in San Juan.


Courtyard room at Casa de Bacardi

So is a trip to the Casa de Bacardi worth a half day of your Puerto Rico vacation? Well, I guess that depends on you and your vacationing style. I liked it because, as a student, I am pretty poor so am limited to cheap or free excursions. The Bacardi tour is free, and included are TWO free drinks at the Bacardi Bar. The tour itself takes about an hour, and goes through a "Spanish courtyard" room and introduction, a little movie on the history of the Bacardi brand, a replica of an old distillery and Don Bacardi's original office, a demonstration on how to make mixed drinks with Bacardi, an interactive area where you can watch movie clips about Bacardi's production and my favorite, a "smelling area" where you get to smell rum at various points during its production as well as different types of Bacardi rums. At the end you can email your friends a video postcard and take a picture in front of a wall of Bacardi bottles, and then they take you to the store, where you can spend $16 on a "mojito muddler." Yes, it's a slightly commercialized tour, but it's also informative and well put together and did I mention that you get two free drinks? ;)

The demo bar at Casa de Bacardi

So that's it for Bacardi. But interestingly, in my "cultural study" of the people of Puerto Rico, it has seemed that most Puerto Ricans, at least on the island, actually drink Don Q rum. I really don't know why, some say it's cheaper, some say it's smoother, and some claim that you won't get a hangover. I say my rum palate sucks and it all takes like lighter fluid to me. Plus, the chance of me not having a hangover from rum is approximately zero, so I really cannot judge. But, it's just an observation.

Me and Beezers in front of some Bacardi bottles

Don Q also has a tourist attraction in San Juan, directly across the street from Pier 2. It is called Casa Don Q, and basically it is just a giant room where you will pretend to read some facts about the history of rum while coyly making your way over to the rum bar, where you can sample FREE drinks made with Don Q rum. That's right, while walking around Old San Juan, you can take 5 minutes of your time to stop by Casa Don Q and have a free drink. The advantages of visiting Casa Don Q is that
1.) The hours are much better, and if you miss the ferry or the last Bacardi tour (around 3:30), Casa Don Q is still open until 8:00 (except on the weekend, when it's closed)
2.) You can walk there in 1 minute after getting off your cruise ship (if you're the cruise ship type).
3.) It doesn't take a 1/2 day to visit Don Q. Actually it takes about 5 minutes. Unless you are a serious sampler.
4.) If you need a souvenir for your boozehound uncle, the gift shop at Don Q is much less expensive than the one at Bacardi.

Bacardi's advantage? Well, it feels like an actual excursion, with the ferry and taxi rides and the much longer and finely produced tour. Additionally, I felt like I actually learned a lot on the more informative Bacardi tour. Most importantly, the Bacardi tour is at the actual distillery site itself, and while you don't really get to see much of the working factory, you know that somewhere on the property, thousands of gallons of distilled molasses are being bottled and shipped around the country and into the eager hands of pre-gaming college students. Casa Don Q is just a room inside an Old San Juan waterfront building, the actual distillery is located in south of Puerto Rico.

Bacardi!

So what is one rum-savvy traveler to do? The answer is obvious...

Renee's Rum-tastic Puerto Rico Adventure:
(This tour has not been endorsed by the Puerto Rico tourism board or your mother. )

*Get yourself out of bed before noon, get to Pier 2 in Old San Juan, and take the 50¢ ferry over to Cataño.
*Have the taxi driver (yes, the one screaming "Bacardi!" that you think is schizophrenic) take you, for $3/person, over to the Bacardi factory. You could walk there, I did once, but it is SO worth the $3 to drive.
*Have your two free drinks while waiting to take the tour. If you're feeling snacky, pick up a piece of rum cake at their little snack vendor, but I will warn you, I've had much better. (Specifically, I've had amazing Puerto Rican rum cake here, and you can order them. But that's for another blog.)
*Take the Bacardi tour.
*Take the taxi/ferry back to Old San Juan's Pier 2, cross the street, and hit up Casa Don Q.
*If you're into mixing beer and hard liquor, head about one block up to the Old Harbor Brewery, the only microbrewery in Puerto Rico, to try their $9 sampler, which features a sample of their 5 house beers. I mean, you've already had rum. Liquor before beer, in the clear, remember?
*You must be hungry, so have something to eat at any one of Old San Juan's fine restaurants.
*Refreshed! Now it's time for a rum bar to taste all of the Puerto Rico's rum. In Old San Juan, you can check out the Caña Rum Bar in the Hotel El Convento, or alternately you can take the A5 bus to the El San Juan Casino in Isla Verde to hit up Koco's swanky rum bar.
*Stumble home and relax. You've had a day to remember, although you probably won't remember a thing...

Casa Don Q
Open Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Marina Street in Old San Juan, across from Pier 2

Casa BACARDI Visitor Center
Cantaño, Puerto Rico
Tours
Monday-Saturday
from 8:30 AM to 5:30 PM
(Last tour at 4:15 PM)
Sunday from 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM
(Last tour at 3:45 PM)

Click here for a full list of Puerto Rico's rums

Friday, August 15, 2008

Chupacabra Sighting in Texas

Texas, you never cease to amaze me. In honor of this video from CNN of a "possible chupacabra sighting in Texas," I thought I would give credit where credit is due and let everyone know that the chupacabra is not from Texas (although he does have a blood-sucking Texan cousin that actually made it all the way to Washington D.C.) :)

The chupacabra is, of course, from Puerto Rico. The word "chupacabra" literally means "goat sucker" and it comes from this creature's M.O. of sucking the blood and life out of goats and other livestock and leaving their drained bodies as nothing but bags of skin and bones. I had heard the word before but I didn't know much about it until I went to Puerto Rico. One night my adopted Puerto Rican mother and I were sitting on her patio, drinking our nightly Bacardi and guayaba juice, when her granddaughter came running outside to avoid her bath. My mother said, "Nena, I wouldn't stay out here if I were you, we just heard the chupacabra in the bushes." The little girl froze for a moment, turned white, and then ran back inside the house. "What's a chupacabra?" I asked. She died out her cigarette and leaned in closely. "You don't know about the chupacabra?" she whispered. Lourdes was a dramatic storyteller, and I could tell this was going to be a good one. "Not really," I said. "Oh well you have to know. You never know when one might appear...."

So it goes that in the early 1990's, there was a secret underground military base near Fajardo in Puerto Rico. Scientists there were experimenting with mixing the DNA of aliens with other animals, like dogs, lizards, and humans. Apparently there was a security breach at the facility, and one of the "creatures" escaped. Newspapers began reporting the death of livestock across the island, and curiously, the animals were typically found with two large puncture wounds in its neck and its blood completely drained. Some blamed satanic cult rituals for these killings, but as more and more animals were found dead across the island, people began "seeing" the creatures responsible, which were soon named chupacabras. Some described it as dog-like, some more alien-like, some more human-like. This website describes the 3 forms it can take:

The first and most common form is a lizard-like being, appearing to have leathery or scaly greenish-gray skin and sharp spines or quills running down its back. This form stands approximately 3 to 4 feet (1 to 1.2 m) high, and stands and hops in a similar fashion to a kangaroo. In at least one sighting, the creature hopped 20 feet (6 m). This variety is said to have a dog or panther-like nose and face, a forked tongue protruding from it, large fangs, and to hiss and screech when alarmed, as well as leave a sulfuric stench behind. When it screeches, some reports note that the chupacabra's eyes glow an unusual red, then give the witnesses nausea.

The second variety bears a resemblance to a wallaby or dog standing on its hind legs. It stands and hops as a kangaroo, and it has coarse fur with greyish facial hair. The head is similar to a dog's, and its mouth has large teeth.

The third form is described as a strange breed of wild dog. This form is mostly hairless, has a pronounced spinal ridge, unusually pronounced eye sockets, teeth, and claws. This animal is said to be the result of interbreeding between several populations of wild dogs, though enthusiasts claim that it might be an example of a dog-like reptile. The account during the year 2001 in Nicaragua of a chupacabra's corpse being found supports the conclusion that it is simply a strange breed of wild dog. The alleged corpse of the animal was found in Tolapa, Nicaragua, and forensically analyzed at UNAN-Leon. Pathologists at the University found that it was just an unusual-looking dog. There are very striking morphological differences between different breeds of dog, which can easily account for the strange characteristics.

Cree-py!
Apparently the chupacabra could also swim, because he soon made his way off the island of Puerto Rico and through the Americas, including the US, Mexico, and almost all of Central and South America. Surprisingly it hasn't made its way up to Canada...YET. Mua ha ha. Lots of people have reported sightings or even tried to find the chupacabra, including one man who spent $6 million of his own money to do so. Yikes. But to this day, this elusive beast remains unexplained and unidentified, and continues to haunt the imaginations of Puerto Rican children and adults alike.

And now, apparently, the chupacabra has decided to terrorize the small city of Cuero, Texas, a town interestingly named after the Spanish word for "leather" or "animal hide." Smells like a conspiracy to me! Although Cuero is also known, apparently, as the unofficial "turkey capital of the world" with their school mascot known as "the Gobblers," so truth be told the townsfolk might just be bored and need something to do...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Parasailing in Isla Verde


There is me and Abby sailing way above the waters of Isla Verde. We woke up too late for horseback riding, so instead we went parasailing for $60. Totally worth it.


For parasailing in Isla Verde, sneak through the El San Juan Hotel, past their gorgeous pool and onto the beach in front. Here you will find little booths for parasailing, banana boating, jet skiing, and whatever other watersport you fancy. We had an amazing view of San Juan and the ocean on our trip!


After you work up an appetite parasailing, we recommend heading over to El San Juan's beach bar for some refreshing drinks and a light lunch. A little pricey, but very good food!

Asthma in Puerto Rican Children

I feel like I never blog anymore!!

No seriously, I have been super busy lately, so I probably won't be posting as many "fun" blogs, although I still have lots of pictures and stories to share, so I will get to them eventually.

But for now, I thought you might like to read a little tidbit on asthma. Did you know that Puerto Ricans have far and away the highest rates of asthma of all racial and ethnic groups in the United States? And despite some well-formed hypotheses, we still aren't entirely sure why. Read on!

The Facts:

Puerto Ricans have the highest asthma prevalence among all racial and ethic groups in the United States. In a large-scale study of Latino populations, one out of every five Puerto Rican children between 6 months and 11 years were reported to have ever had asthma.1 In Connecticut, where the majority of Latinos are of Puerto Rican descent, it was shown that 24.5% of Latino families have at least one asthmatic child, compared to 17.7% for African Americans and 9.6% for Whites, and that these differences are not accounted for by socioeconomic status or maternal age.2 Connecticut’s Hispanic children have a lifetime asthma prevalence rate of 18.4%, compared to 11.3% for blacks and 7.4% among non-Hispanic whites.2 Disparities in the prevalence of asthma in Puerto Rican children persist even among Latino subgroups. The lifelong prevalence among mainland Puerto Ricans is 20.1%, compared to 8.8% among Cuban Americans and 4.5% among Mexican Americans.1 Of the estimated half-million Latino children with asthma in the United States, a whopping 2/3 are Puerto Rican1, despite the fact that the large majority of US Latinos are Mexican Americans. Age of onset is also earlier for Puerto Ricans than Mexican American children, with more than 50% of Puerto Rican children having their first asthma attack before 1 year of age.1

Why?

Many studies have tried to investigate the reasons for the tremendous discrepancy in asthma prevalence among Puerto Ricans, and most hypotheses are now multi-factorial, including genetic, socioeconomic, and cultural factors. Genetic studies of inflammatory response processes indicate that many Puerto Rican children with asthma have increased levels of a variant alpha1-antitrypsin phenotype.5 Alpha1-antitrypsin is a glycoprotein that protects delicate tissues from inflammatory cell enzymes. It was speculated by the authors that the presence of this variant form may predispose these children to asthma.

Interesting evidence that may support a “genetic” hypothesis in Puerto Ricans comes from the drastically different asthma prevalence among Mexican Americans. Despite having a lower socioeconomic status than whites and a lower rate of health insurance than Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans have significantly lower rates of asthma than both of these groups, even when controlled for socioeconomic status and parental smoking behavior. 1,4 Initial and serial testing of pulmonary function in Mexican American and white children showed non-Mexican-American children had significantly lower maximum expiratory flows (Vmax50%) in each year of testing, suggesting that Mexican American children may have larger airways than their white counterparts.4 Perhaps further studies will investigate more fully the differences in pulmonary function of Puerto Rican children.

Other studies point to the living conditions of Puerto Rican children as a possible explanation for their high rates of asthma. Puerto Rican children are the poorest children in the United States6, and it is well documented that poverty increases risk for certain illnesses. Other studies have suggested still other risk factors, such as differences in family structure and migration patterns, that may account for some of the discrepancy in prevalence.7 It has been reported that among Latinos, Puerto Rican women of reproductive age are more likely to smoke (33.5%) than Mexican American (23.2%) or Cuban women (22.6%), thus putting children at greater risk of complications due to second hand smoke.3 Another risk factor for asthma is prematurity and low birth-weight,8 and it has been suggested that the high rate of low birth-weight births to Puerto Rican mothers may also play a role in the development of childhood asthma among Puerto Rican children.

1.

Charter-Pokras, O.D., & Gergen, P.J. (1993). Reported asthma among Puerto Rican, Mexican-American, and Cuban children, 1982 through 1984. American Journal of Public Health, 83, 580-582.

2.

Beckett, W.S., Belanger, K., Gent, J.F., Holford, T.R., & Leaderer, B.P. (1996). Asthma among Puerto Rican Hispanics: A multi-ethnic comparison study of risk factors. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 154, 894-899.

3.

Pletsch, P.K. (1991). Prevalence of cigarette smoking in Hispanic women of childbearing age. Nursing Research, 40, 103-106.

4.

Dodge, R. (1983). A comparison of the respiratory health of Mexican-American and non Mexican-American white children. Chest, 84, 587-592.

5.

Colp, C., Pappas, J., Moran, D., Lieberman, J. (1993). Variants of alpha 1-antitrypsin in Puerto Rican children with asthma. Chest, 103, 812-815.

6.

Bureau of the Census. (1997). Selected social characteristics of all persons and Hispanic persons by type of origin. Retrieved August 12, 2008 from

7.

Lara, M., Morgenstern, H., Duan, N., Brook, R.H. (1999). Elevated asthma morbidity in Puerto Rican children: a review of possible risk and prognostic factors. West J Med, 170, 75-84.

8.

Oliveti, J.F., Kercsmar, C.M., Redline, S. (1996) Pre- and perinatal risk factors for asthma in inner-city African American children. Am J Epidemiol, 143, 570-577.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

OK Kola Champagne is not OK.

I don't really drink soda, but my adopted Puerto Rican mom, Lourdes, insisted that I try OK Kola Champagne, which she buys by the case. This is how the conversation went:

Me: *scrunched nose*

Lourdes: Good, right?

Me: This tastes like super-sugary bubble gum dipped in Splenda.

Lourdes: I know. I took that diabetes test at the doctor's and when I drank that orange $h!t, I was like, DAMN! This is good! It tastes like Kola Champagne!
(Lourdes is originally from the South Bronx, and uses colorful language)

Me: You liked the taste of the Glucose Tolerance Test?

Lourdes: Hell yeah! Because I love Kola Champagne. It's hard to find that $h!t in New York!

So there you have it. Kola Champagne: for a sugar-weary white girl from CT, it's like an orange-y, bubble-gummy Glucose Tolerance Test. But to many Puerto Ricans, it evokes memories of balmy summer days on the island and childhood trips to the local bodega. Or maybe of their last trip to the doctor.

Love it or hate it, Kola Champagne, invented in Puerto Rico, is wildly popular here on the island. And for a truly Puerto Rican experience, it's certainly worth a try. Especially if you really, really love sweet stuff.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

TACO?!?!?!?!

People who know me well know that I am practically Mexican. At least 10 Puerto Ricans in the past 2 months have asked me if my family was Mexican because of my accent. So, I suppose, I speak "Mexican." I also eat Mexican, and at home, at least 50% of the food Scott and I prepare is Mexican. We're Mexican food snobs, actually, and turn our noses up at Tex-Mex joints. Cheddar cheese on a flour tortilla? No, my friends. No.

<---- SO WHAT THE HELL IS THIS THING?!?!?


Puerto Rican shrimp taco

The first time I ordered a taco in Puerto Rico, I was totally confused. I thought that the person had confused the phrase "taco, por favor" for some island phrase meaning "throw something in giant wonton wrapper and fry the crap out of it." Fine, I took a few bites and then dumped it. I actually hate deep-fried foods, which has been a big problem for me in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans love to deep dry everything. I actually had a waiter the other day ask if I wanted my agua deep fried. He thought he was hilarious, I just thought he was a cheeseball. But in all seriousness, the Puerto Rican love for this cooking method, while producing a delicious cuisine, has had some serious health effects, both in island and mainland populations.

Anyway, turns out that thing really was a taco, at least according to Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rican tacos are nothing like Mexican tacos. Generally they involve some sort of wrapper, which really reminds me a lot of a wonton or egg roll wrapper, which they fill with a variety of things, including meat, seafood, or cheese, wrap up like a burrito, and deep fry. The texture of the wrapper (and the shape) is what distinguishes it from the more popular Puerto Rican pastelillo (or empanadilla, if you are in western PR), which is more flaky, like a turnover. I actually prefer the pastelillos, especially when they are filled with picadillo, which is basically ground beef spiced up with some Puerto Rican ingredients, such as sazón , capers, and sofrito.

These pastelillos are bubbling away in a giant vat of lard!

Pastelillos are fairly easy to make at home. Wrappers can be found in many Latin markets, or you can find a recipe here. You can fill it with just about anything, meat, cheese, crabs, conch, shrimp, or fruit (like guayaba) if you want a dessert turnover. They even serve pizza pastelillos everywhere, and they are usually one of the better sellers. There's really no escaping the American influence on this island. Anyway, pastelillos are then fried in small batches to allow room for expansion. They can be fried in oil, but a woman in Fajardo advised me that they are best when fried in lard (see above picture).

Scott could not resist. Look how guilty he looks!

So there you have it, Puerto Rican tacos and their cousin, the pastelillo. Although I have been searching for good Mexican food on the island (Taco Bell and Taco Maker just don't cut it), I've been relatively unsuccessful so far. Perhaps the long-standing boxing rivalry has made Mexican food undesirable around these parts. Actually, now that I think of it, I never saw any Puerto Rican restaurants in Mexico...

More Puerto Rican History!

Now that you are (not) an expert in pre-Spanish Puerto Rican history, it's time for a super-brief modern Puerto Rican history lesson.

But, since I've been a SLOTH this week, I am going to turn that job over to my good friend at Speaking Boricua, one of my favorite blogs about Puerto Rico.

Speaking Boricua's Speedy History of Puerto Rico:
Brief History of Puerto Rico, Part 1
Brief History of Puerto Rico, Part 2

Also interesting on that site (besides ALL of the posts) is a series of posts on the African American heritage in Puerto Rico. This is especially interesting to me because I spent the entire last week in a clinic in Loíza, a town of slave descendants and the epicenter of African American cultural heritage in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, it also one of the most impoverished areas of the island, so I saw a lot of sad stuff. More on that later, but for some background, read these great posts!

Speaking Boricua's Posts on Puerto Rico's African heritage:
Part 1 (general history)
Part 2 (Museum in San Juan on African heritage)
Part 3 (Loíza)
Part 4a (Bomba dance of the slaves in Puerto Rico)
Part 4 (words from African languages that have become part of Puerto Rican Spanish)
Part 5 (features a poem I was obsessed with in college Spanish class)

More to come soon, I promise!
(Thanks, Allison)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Taínos

I saw this giant face carved into the mountainside while cruising along Route 2 in western Puerto Rico today, and decided to hop out of the car and take a picture. There was no sign associated with this carving, so I decided that it is a depiction of a Taíno, the indigenous people that inhabited Puerto Rico before Columbus came with his smallpox.

Prior to the Spanish arrival, the Taíno people were located in what is now called Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic/Haiti, Bahamas, Cuba, and Jamaica. They came to these islands after the fierce Carib tribes drove them out of South America.

The word taíno means "good" or "noble," and the Taínos used this word to distinguish themselves from the Caribs. The Taínos of Puerto Rico referred to their island as Borike'n (great land of the noble valient lord) and the people were known as Boricua (people of Borike'n).

Taínos lived in a matrilineal agrarian village society. Although they did not have a written language, English and Spanish have incorporated many words derived from their Maipurean language, including barbecue (barbacoa), hammock (hamaca), canoe (canoa), tobacco (tobaco), hurricane (huracan) and tattoo (tatuaje). The two main taíno gods were Yúcahu, god of the ocean and the cassava crop, and Atabey, goddess of fresh water and fertility. Other lesser gods were also worshiped.

In 1492, the Taíno people in San Salvador first met Christopher Columbus, and a few actually went back to Spain with him. And by "went back," I'm sure we can safely assume to mean "were forced to go back against their will." The Spaniards then instituted their favorite colonial game of "give me gold or I kill your people" for a few years until much of the Taíno people were killed, either in battle or by disease.

The Taíno heritage is today most strongly celebrated in Puerto Rico. Studies suggest that more than 60% of Puerto Ricans carry Taíno mitochondrial DNA. Some organizations and tourist attractions seek to celebrate Puerto Rico's Taíno heritage.

Here are a few websites with more information:
http://www.elboricua.com/history.html
http://www.taino-tribe.org/tainos.htm
http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1998/3/98.03.04.x.html (class syllabus, but what a cool class! Ideas for books/readings)
English-Taino dictionary
Taino Blog

While visiting Puerto Rico, be sure to check out:
Taíno petroglyphs in El Yunque
La Piedra Escrita in Jayuya
Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center in Ponce

Streets of Old San Juan








Man, I have a lot of blogging to catch up on. Too bad I'm going horseback riding in Isabela today. Oh well, in the meantime enjoy these pics of the streets of Old San Juan and I promise to update soon!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Puerto Rico's Bioluminescent Bays

I would say that of all the cool things I've done in Puerto Rico so far, my favorite was probably kayaking in the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo. A number of tour companies will take you kayaking or boating through Puerto Rico's bio-bays, where microscopic organisms known as dinoflagellates actually glow as you move through the water. These tiny creatures are found in all of Puerto Rico's waters, but are most highly concentrated in a few secluded bays that are best accessed by kayak. This adventure is very high on my Puerto Rico "to-do" list, so keep reading for more info!


Why does the water glow?
The waters surrounding Puerto Rico are filled with tiny microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates, which are essentially plankton, that emit tiny bursts of bioluminescence when disturbed. The specific name for these dinoflagellates is Pyrodinium bahamense, and as you can guess by the name, Puerto Rico is not the only place in the world where you can see such a phenomenon. To make a bio-bay, you need not only these specific plankton, but also a lagoon surrounded by red mangroves, whose roots release tannins and vitamin B12, a key nutrient for these critters. The bay should be warmer than the surrounding ocean, and I can tell you that the one in Fajardo was like bath water. There also needs to be relatively low levels of pollution in order to protect both the plankton and the endangered mangroves, which makes the less-polluted Vieques bio-bay one of the brightest in the world. The dinoflagellates produce light when disturbed by converting chemical energy (from luciferin, the same thing fireflies use) to light energy. Our guides told us this chemical was called luciferin because people who "discovered" the bio-bay thought the mysterious light was created by the devil. Stupid Spanish, af-waid of a wittle dino-plankton! Just kidding, I think Spanish people are perfectly smart. I don't really buy that whole "lucifer" story anyway. Can you imagine C. Columbus being like, "Sweet Jesus, this water is evil! I shall name the chemical responsible for this reaction 'luciferin,' and its corresponding enzyme 'luciferinase' based on our age old colonial tradition of naming enzymes after their substrate with the suffix -ase! Now stick a Spanish flag in this beast and let's go mingle with those hot Taíno mamis!" ?
Quite unlikely, I'm sure it was named way after Columbus and his cronies kicked the bucket.

Where are Puerto Rico's bio-bays?
There is a bio-bay called Laguna Grande in Fajardo, which is about 30 miles (a 50 minute drive) from San Juan. I highly recommend this company, Akuadventures, which provided a powerpoint presentation before the tour, all of the equipment, a brief kayaking lesson, support from cheerful guides, and lots of food (hot dogs, ice cream, cookies, chips, water, etc.) after the tour ended. Plus, the kayaks are glass-bottomed (cool!) and Akuadventures offers framed photos of your kayak for $10 (see above). The staff was friendly, helpful, and very enthusiastic about their jobs. All in all, it was an amazing experience, and I recommended it to several people at my hotel, who also thought it was a favorite highlight of their Puerto Rico vacations.

Getting to Fajardo from San Juan is a tricky business. I promise to one day write a blog (rant) about the horrendous public transportation in Puerto Rico. You can take a cab for at least $60-80 one way, which is okay if you are traveling with a group of people. You can try and take a "public car" from the "public car station" in Rio Piedras, but good luck with that. It may not be worth it. Or, you can do what I did and go with a tour package. I did a day trip with Ecoquest tours, and we hiked through El Yunque to see all the waterfalls, took a break at Luquillo Beach (and ate a lot at the kiosks), ate dinner, and then headed to Fajardo for kayaking. Plus we got picked up and dropped off at our hotel, all for $145 per person. I thought it was worth it, although it was definitely an exhausting day. Ecoquest also has all sorts of more "hardcore" adventures, like zip lining, rappelling, and spelunking, but the trip I took was much more appropriate for the less athletically inclined (me).

There is another bay called Mosquito Bay in Vieques, an island off the east coast of the main island. Most people agree that the bay in the Vieques is the best for bioluminescence. To get to Vieques, you will need to take the ferry from Fajardo (which is very difficult, people camp out at 3 a.m. to catch the 6 a.m. shuttle) or you can take a short charter flight from the Fajardo airport, which is actually cheaper than you would think. I paid $35 to fly to Culebra, another island. Some airlines will actually fly out of San Juan. This company offers bio-bay tours in Vieques, has some cool photos on their website, and seems to have better "tripadvisor" reviews than others.

The final bio-bay is called La Parguera in Lajas. Lajas is in the southwest corner of Puerto Rico, and I am really not sure how to get there without renting a car. This town has built their tourism industry around the bio-bay, so you will be certain to find lots of options once you arrive.

Recommendations
1. Check the moon schedule on this website to find the best time to visit the bays. The bays are best when there is minimal moonlight, and some companies won't even take tours out if there is too much light, so be sure to call ahead.
2. Wear a bathing suit and bring some insect repellent. If you use the repellent though, stay inside your kayak and don't go swimming. The chemicals in the repellent are harmful to the plankton.
3. If you are kayaking, be sure that you are healthy enough for at least an hour of kayaking. Traveling against the current can be tough, and your arms and shoulders may be sore the next day!
4. If you are planning to go to Vieques for the bay, make all arrangements (including travel) ahead of time. You may also want to do this for the other bays, especially if you are going during a busy weekend or holiday.
5. Start taking care of your planet. Studies show that the bay in La Paguera now glows at only 1/10 its original strength due to destruction of plankton by pollution. And the other bays aren't doing too well either. For info on how you can help support conservation at the Vieques bio-bay, click here.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Nothing To Do With Puerto Rico, Sorry.

So I wanted to do a little post about the sheer number/concentration of fast food restaurants in Puerto Rico, especially as they relate to the nutrition problems on the island. I've literally never seen so many Burger Kings in one spot. But while in the middle of my researching, I found this horror and thought I MUST share it with you:

The McDonald's Trip Planner

What's this fun little feature? Well, you can actually plan your family vacation/road trip based around McDonald's restaurants! Just type in your start and end destination, and McDonald's will conveniently map out your trip so you can stop and visit all of their locations along the way!

Good lord, people. If you plan your family trip around McDonald's locations, you should really be tarred and feathered. STOP EATING THIS CRAP! And not just because it's terrible for you. Which by the way, it is. But also, there are so many other delicious foods in the world, why on EARTH would you put this garbage in your mouth?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Mi Casita Restaurant in Isla Verde


If you ask locals in Isla Verde where to go for authentic Puerto Rican food, they will most likely mention Mi Casita in the Isla Verde plazoleta. Mi Casita’s location, menu, and bilingual waitstaff certainly make it accessible to tourists, and their selection of Puerto Rican food is pretty authentic. Overall, it is a good and relatively inexpensive introduction to Puerto Rican cuisine, but it definitely has some MAJOR flaws, namely regarding service and billing. Specifically, I have been to Mi Casita 3 times and each time have left incredibly full but also incredibly frustrated. And my bill has never been correct.


My friend Beezers recommends the asopao de camarones and sangria

ATMOSPHERE

The atmosphere of Mi Casita is almost without exception extremely hectic. As soon as you enter the small restaurant, you will notice waitstaff rushing around, patrons shouting over their tables to be heard, and the kitchen pouring plates of mofongo and asopao out of its doors. The thermostat is set to arctic chill, which helps Mi Casita turn over customers faster than you can say papas fritas. The décor is simple and homey (if your home usually also includes 100 other people), with paintings from local artists hung on the walls. But no one goes to Mi Casita for the atmosphere, they go for the food.

SERVICE
Mi Casita wins my award for “Most Consistently Horrendous Service Ever.” I mean, it’s really, really bad. It’s funny; lots of locals will recommend this place, but try asking them how often they go! I will give a rundown of a typical dinner experience. So first of all, you might get bread when you are seated, but you probably won’t. Try asking for it though! Then your waiter will disappear for a very long time and no one will welcome you, explain the menu, or ask if you have questions. Your best bet during this time would be to try and find a menu and decide everything you are going to order (drinks, appetizers, entrees, desserts) because trying to get a waiter to order your meal in sections will not be fun or feasible. When someone finally notices you (after you’ve asked 3 times for someone to take your order), you give your complete order. Within the next few minutes you will probably receive an appetizer that you didn’t order or a flat sprite disguised as water, but be sure to send it back or you will pay for it. Your food will actually come out pretty fast, but be sure to ask for your check ¾ of the way through your meal, or you will wait forever in the freezing cold for it. I asked for dessert once (because it was on the menu) but they looked at me like I was crazy and said they didn’t have any. Now the fun part. My check was wrong ALL THREE times that I visited Mi Casita. The first time I was presented with the entirely wrong check. The second time I was charged for mozzarella sticks that I didn’t order. The third time I was charged for FOUR items that I never ordered. If you pay with credit card, expect to wait even longer for them to run it through their tiny machine, and then check your statement, because the time I used my card, they charged me twice for the dinner. Apparently that happens “all the time.” Some people say this aggravation is all part of the charm, and perhaps it is, but if you are in town for a relaxing vacation or if you are easily frustrated, Mi Casita should not be on your Puerto Rico “to-do” list.


My dinky camarones enchilados

FOOD

I will give this to Mi Casita, their food is both authentic and reasonably priced. And it tastes good. The bread, which I only received once (see above) was toasted, buttered, and “garlicked” (yum). Drinks are standard, with a few frozen options and red sangria by the pitcher or half pitcher. For appetizers, I would go with one of their many “cocktail” appetizers, which include shrimp, conch, and other seafood. Skip the Italian section (trust me, it’s gross). For entrees, you can choose between meats, birds, fish/seafood, and mofongo menu options. I would say that all of the dishes in these sections are very authentic, especially if your order them with a side of rice and beans or tostones. But I believe Mi Casita shines most with their mofongo. I ordered the shrimp mofongo and it was fabulous, and other varieties looked just as good. The mofongos also come with a much prettier presentation than some of the other options, for all you show-offs out there. The meat section includes options like churrasco , carne encebollada, and pork chops, served with a choice of several sides, including rice and beans, salad, tostones, and French fries. The bird section includes several variations on chicken, but also a Cornish hen dish, which I haven’t seen on too many other Puerto Rican menus. The fish section has Puerto Rican takes on a few fish dishes, although I don’t recommend the camarones enchilados, it only came with 5 shrimp on a huge plate! I was hungry! If you are going to go the fish route, I definitely recommend asking if they have whole fried red snapper. It wasn’t on the menu, but we asked for it and it was fantastic.

SHOULD YOU GO?

Well, I won’t be going back, but then again, I did go three times. Mainly because people visiting me heard that Mi Casita was “authentic” and really wanted to go. I would say that if you are going to believe the hype, at least follow these recommendations:

  1. Bring a sweater. Mi Casita is always uncomfortably cold, even in the balmy Isla Verde humidity.
  2. Don’t order the Camarones Enchilados (unless you want to starve) or the Spaghetti and Meatballs (unless you want to gag). Stick with the mofongo, fried red snapper, or other Puerto Rican dish.
  3. Arm yourself with patience. The waiters are perfectly friendly, but will most likely ignore you for at least 20 minutes and will avoid your eye or raised finger like the plague. You may need to get on your knees and beg for the check.
  4. Go during an “off” time of the day, like between 2-4 p.m. I got the best service (although still pretty bad) at this time.
  5. CHECK YOUR BILL! Make sure that you receive an itemized check and verify that you ordered each and every item. And unfortunately, if you use your credit card, you may need to also check your statement online. My card was charged twice after one visit, and when I called Mi Casita, they told me that people called about this issue “all the time.” So I guess it might be better to just bring cash.
Mi Casita Restaurant
Plazoleta Isla Verde (main strip)
(787) 791-1777
7 a.m.-10:30 p.m.

Puerto Rican Sunsets

Sunset from El Morro

For the best sunset in Old San Juan, get yourself to El Morro around 6:30 (or check times for sunset). El Morro is the large fort that is one of the prime tourist attractions in Old San Juan. Although the fort itself is closed at this time, you can head to the western most point of the fort, which is the most western point of Old San Juan. If you don't have time/energy to head to El Morro, you can see a pretty decent sunset from La Puerta de Old San Juan (Old San Juan Gate).

Sunset from El Morro

Sun setting behind El Morro

Sunset from street in Isla Verde

Isla Verde is a tough sunset to see because of the big buildings and the shape of the coastline. Your best bet is probably the beach, but make sure you plant yourself a little further east (Cafe La Plage is a nice spot, see post) because if you are too far west, the buildings will block your view.

Sunset from pedestrian bridge, Isla Verde

Sunset from Cafe La Plage, Beach in Isla Verde

Sunset from mountaintop, Culebra

I will write more about Culebra in another post but for now, I will tell you how to get the best sunset view. Now Culebra has no street names, so instead ask someone how to get to El Eden restaurant. There is a little dirt road that leads to the restaurant. At the entrance to the dirt road, and across from a little garden shop, you will see a somewhat wide dirt trail heading up the mountain. Walk up, bearing left when you come to a fork in the trail, until you reach a giant concrete structure. Climb up to the top (you will see railings and there are stairs around back) and that will be your best view, plus a pretty good view of the bays and Dewey, the only town in Culebra. The walk should only take you 10 minutes and is not intensive at all, just be careful walking downhill if you're in flip flops.

So there you have it, my recommendations for some of the best places in Puerto Rico to see the sunset. If you have any others, let me know and I will try to visit and post some pictures!

I've been out of town for the past few days, but I've got lots and lots to write about, including quite a bit on the island of Culebra, so stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Mosquitoes and Dengue Fever

There are a lot of great things about vacationing in Puerto Rico, including beautiful beaches, fine dining, and rich historical sites. And even if you don’t buy any souvenirs, I guarantee you’ll leave with a few mementos from your trip. By which I mean about 20 mosquito bites. Probably in the most annoying places too, like your ankles.

It’s true, I am a little bitter right now because I cannot stop scratching and I am convinced that no anti-itch cream actually works for mosquito bites. So I thought I would distract myself by researching a little about these little buggers, especially as they relate to public health in Puerto Rico.

What is Dengue Fever?

Dengue is an acute febrile disease that is transmitted by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which also carry Yellow Fever and Chikungunya. These putrid creatures bite primarily in the daytime and favor densely populated tropical areas, though they also inhabit rural environments. Symptoms of Dengue are flu-like, including severe joint pain, fever, rashes, and nausea, often leaving victims bed-ridden for a week. Patients may die from dehydration if not given proper treatment. Five percent of cases will develop into Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever (DHF), which can be fatal. DHF patients display fever, minor or major bleeding, thrombocytopenia (decreased platelet count), increased vascular permeability (markedly increased hematocrit), and pleural or abdominal effusions. Dengue Shock Syndrome (DSS) may also occurs, and is essentially DHF with signs of circulatory failure (narrow pulse pressure, hypotension, and shock). Elderly populations are particularly at risk for the progression of Dengue fever into DHF or DSS.

Dengue is often diagnosed clinically, but can be definitively diagnosed by obtaining serum samples during acute phase of the disease (to screen for virus) or 1-2 weeks after contraction (to screen for anti-Dengue antibody). Treatment for Dengue is symptomatic, and should include plenty of fluids, bed rest and monitoring. Antipyretics may be used to counteract fever. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like aspirin) are contraindicated in these patients because of their anti-coagulant properties, which can exacerbate any bleeding problems caused by Dengue. Patients who have previously been exposed to one of the four strains will develop immunity to that strain, but will be more likely to develop DHF if exposed to another strain, so careful history taking is crucial in a patient with suspected Dengue fever. Doctors should make themselves familiar with the symptoms of Dengue, and should maintain an index of suspicion in patients who have recently traveled to places where Dengue is endemic.

Dengue in Puerto Rico

Dengue was thought to be essentially eliminated in Latin America until the early 1980s, when it returned with a vengeance. It has become a major public health issue in Puerto Rico, with many cases reported every year. 11,000 cases were reported (and many more unreported) here in 2007, with 8 reported deaths. This, along with 2004, was considered an “epidemic year” for the island. Possible reasons for high levels during these years include changing weather patterns (especially increased rain), increased migration or travel, and increased migration into urban areas. You shouldn’t be surprised to know that global warming, which leads to unstable weather patterns, also has a lot to do with the Dengue surges we’ve seen recently. In addition, the CDC points to the increased use of nonbiodegradable products, which hold fresh water where mosquitoes breed, as another reason for the recent surge in Dengue. As if you needed another reason to take care of your planet!

Because there is no vaccine, public health officials in Puerto Rico have had to resort to other methods, including fumigation and public education on eliminating standing water and recognizing the signs and symptoms of the illness. Larval control, especially the elimination of standing water, seems to be the most effective means of transmission control. Cut to public health spending cuts and a desperate need for tourism revenues have led some countries, like Mexico, to focus their Dengue programs primarily in tourist areas, leaving poorer areas defenseless (how sad is that?).

What can you do to protect yourself?

There is no vaccine currently available for Dengue. According to the CDC (and me), to protect yourself from Dengue, you can:

*Hide in your hotel room all day

*Wear long sleeves, pants, closed shoes (yeah right!)

*Apply insect repellent containing 25%-50% DEET or 20% picaridin (awesome name!). Do not use these products in children under two years of age.

*Sleep with a mosquito bed net.

*Peak Dengue transmission time is September to November, so take extra precautions if traveling during this time.

*Make sure there is no standing water nearby, or places where standing water might accumulate (like buckets). That’s where these flying devils lay their eggs.

*May seem obvious, but if you are traveling in Puerto Rico (or anywhere) and begin to develop the symptoms of Dengue, get yourself to a hospital immediately.

*Realize that you are in the Caribbean, and that despite all your best efforts, you probably WILL get a few mosquito bites and you will most likely NOT die from Dengue, so try not to worry about it enjoy Puerto Rico!

For more information on Dengue:

Download the entire WHO Dengue publication here.
Dengue Fact Sheet
Dengue Patient Education Sheet (English)
Dengue Patient Education Sheet (Spanish)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Scott's Puerto Rico

Scott wanted me to post this picture because he says, "It's cool," but I am pretty sure he just wants to steal it for his facebook page. Apparently the picture of us kissing on the beach is "not cool or manly enough" to be a profile picture.

Koco at the El San Juan Hotel & Casino, Isla Verde







Koco at El San Juan Hotel and Casino
1660 Isla Verde Ave
Carolina, Puerto Rico
http://www.elsanjuanhotel.com/koco/
http://www.oofrestaurants.com/

My New Neighbors

These little boo-boos were rescued from the mean world of dog-fighting and have taken up temporary residence at the hotel. Adorable, right?

Just an observation, and backed by absolutely no evidence whatsoever...Is it just me or is Puerto Rico totally pit bull crazy? I would guess that at least 90% of the dogs I have seen in San Juan (except for the strays) have been pit bulls. Seems to be the pet of choice, at least around these parts. I wonder why.
<-- Maybe because they are so freakin' cute?!