San Andrés Island

This may be the last island I visit for more than three days. Not because it’s a terrible place to stay (although it’s nothing special), but because of the climate. At one time I luxuriated in hot and humid tropical climates: Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, Caribbean islands. Now, I barely tolerate them. Here’s a photo of my shirt after walking outside one morning for 20 minutes.

About the island

San Andrés belongs to Colombia, but lies much closer to Nicaragua. It’s a 1 1/2 hour flight from Cartagena, the closest mainland city. And, you have to pay a visitors’ tax of ~$40usd, which is $35 too much.

The main downtown has 90% of the action. If you stay on another part of the island, like I did, services, restaurants, etc. are scarce. You really need to rent a vehicle to get around (moto, jeep, golf cart) and they will cost you a bit of money. The jeep-like vehicle was quoted at $60/day! The golf cart was $40 but could be driven only until 6pm.

Food

I ate one of my four memorable meals here. Four memorable meals in 23 days. Enough said about that. But, a penne pasta with pears and blue cheese sat at the top of the list. It’s available at Aqua Beach Club.

There was a fast food stand near my Airbnb that opened at 6:30 each evening. The name was The Queen of the Fast Food. The owner, a young woman, sold only five items. I ordered the Chorry Perro (chorizo hotdog). Grilled, topped with bacon and onions, ooh, it was tasty.

I wanted to try a chuzo, but she was out of them. All she told me was that it’s made with chicken.

As an aside, I asked her what it was like living on San Andrés. Sometimes it felt like a prison, she said. She’s been to four cities on the mainland and hopes to travel more one day.

Things to do

Like most islands, snorkeling and diving constitute the main activities, along with hanging out at the beach. I’m sure boats can be rented or tours taken for some deep sea fishing. Beyond water-related activities, there’s not much to see or do. It’s a small island.

One day I decided to walk downtown. It took 75 minutes and I kept to the shade every chance I had. I passed by the oldest church on the island (Baptist, not Catholic as you might expect); built in 1844.

I was totally intrigued by a vacant house I encountered, including a car and a boat in the yard. Someone rich lived occupied it at one time. My Airbnb host told me it’s likely a narco trafficker resided there and had to make a hasty exit.

Summary

Anyone traveling to Colombia who wants to visit an island, I would suggest switching San Andrés for the Rosario Islands, just a short boat ride from Cartagena. Closer and much more beautiful.

If you still want to see San Andrés, bring money. Most everything is expensive. If you want to stay away from the downtown area, I’d recommend House of the Sun Hostal. It’s where I stayed and it made my time on the island tolerable.

One more post coming after this summarizing the entire trip.

Cartagena

Before I Arrived

I believe it has been scientifically proven that if you want to change your answer on a test, you shouldn’t. It’s correct more than 50% of the time. I suppose the same can be said about lodging reservations. Well, I decided percentages be damned and canceled my Airbnb two days before arriving in Cartagena, switching to a hotel. It cost 3X as much but since the Airbnb was only $10/night, the move didn’t bust my budget. I can’t say with certainty that the right choice was made, but I’m pretty sure it was.

I canceled because of two reviews posted after my reservation had been approved. It’s the rainy season in Colombia and a review mentioned rain leaking into his room. Another guest wrote about excessive noise keeping him awake due to paper-thin walls. When I contacted the host about the leakage she talked about a broken door instead. That was all I needed. I’m writing about this mainly because it’s not in my nature to cancel. I trust my judgment and it works 99%, as it did this time. Thankfully, I changed my answer.

Street art across the lane from the hotel.

Pleasantly Surprised

I discovered something at my hotel (Hotel de Leyendas del Mar) that were absent at the first two. A glass. Of course, my immediate thought was, ‘I can drink the water.’ But, I didn’t until Maite, a walking tour employee) told me Cartagena has the best drinking water in Colombia. It’s great! As good as NYC’s which has been ranked as tasting better than some famous bottled waters.

I had heard about the African and Caribbean presence in Cartagena, but didn’t realize how large it was. I passed by several Caribbean restaurants near my hotel and ate at one. Given where I’ve lived and my friendships and relationships over the decades, my comfort level skyrocketed during my stay in Cartagena.

Activities

Another city, another walking tour. Edgar, a 50 year old Cartagena native, led this one. Being interesting, funny and a little full of himself (not in an annoying way) made for a delightful 2 1/2 hour walk inside the city walls.

Cartagena, being a port city, had a wall built around it dating back to the 1600’s; it was ordered by the Spanish who controlled Colombia at the time. Since none of the residents wanted to do the work, Africans were brought over as slaves, hence the African population. Other blacks from the Caribbean islands also found their way to the city over the years.

I’ve included some photos of the city center.

With nothing to do on a Sunday I selected a tour at the Vivarium (a park or preserve for small animals). It was cheap and sounded sufficiently boring that it would draw a small group. It did. Me. For the 3rd time on my trip it was just me and the guide. I love when that happens.

Brian, a 22 year old studying tourism, and I discussed his studies, goals and the importance of knowing English as he wants to work with foreigners. His English is barely past beginner level. As usual, our discussion transformed itself into a language class of sorts. Even though I help these young people with English, I also learn as they talk to me about their lives and country. When the van dropped me off Brian shook my hand and thanked me for my advice and support. Such a good feeling.

I took a day trip to La Isla del Encanto which is part of Tayrona National Park (made up of several islands). I used the day to enjoy relaxing at the beach and working on a new play. The most exciting part of the day was riding in the speed boat for 45 minutes each way, wave hopping and getting doused with water occasionally.

Food

I ate some more delicious food in Cartagena, but it wasn’t Colombian. The first photo is sea bass, comparable in taste and quality (at a lower price) to the best I’ve eaten in other countries.

These photos are from a Caribbean restaurant. BBQ chicken and fish soup. I talked with the cook. She’s from Trinidad.

Summary

One thing would keep me from living in Cartagena: the weather. Hot and humid, just like Puerto Escondido which I could only tolerate for a year.

I met several fun, young people working in tourism here. Most spoke English very well. I’ve mentioned Maite and Brian; the photo below is Wendy, me and Carolina. The work scheduling tours for a hostel.

On to San Andrés for a week of writing and hopefully, I will finally learn to scuba dive.

A Night in Mexico City

I usually spend the night before my flight at an Airbnb near the airport. I go out for dinner and hit the sack early so I don’t oversleep and miss the plane. Last April before my Puerto Rico trip I found a restaurant called Kitchen 424, an oasis in an area with no decent places. Kitchen 424 is a mid-priced, high quality restaurant specializing in meat dishes, among other offerings.

Boarding my flight the next morning I encountered something I hadn’t experienced since right after 9/11. Every passenger’s carry-ons were thoroughly inspected. My agent opened every compartment of my backpack. After asking me how much money I was bringing with me, she proceeded to look in my wallet and document pouch. She also wanted to know how long I’d been in Mexico and why. Does this only happen on flights to Colombia?

San Juan Food – Part 2

The food scene improved the second week as I found a few places frequented mostly by locals.

The first was Cafetería Quisqueya, a Dominican restaurant where I ate succulent BBQ pork ribs. I also drank a couple of Cuba libres. I had to stop at 2 because as you can see from the photos, the 2nd one had much more rum than the first. I think the waitress liked me a little.

In Old San Juan across the street from Plaza Colón is the San Juan Food Court. It’s really only a bar in front and a cafeteria style restaurant in the rear called Grandma’s Kitchen. I had baked chicken, the tender, fall off the bone kind with a sweet macaroni salad, which seemed to be very popular in Puerto Rico. Tasty and inexpensive.

Then I went on a taco binge. Of course, the tacos in Mexico are better, but the Puerto Rican style wasn’t bad. Just different. And not as delicious. 😉 The first stop was 4Puntos Café. Two fish tacos and sangria.

One afternoon I walked to Plaza Santurce, an area of restaurants and bars that gets quite lively in the evenings, if you know what I mean. 😁 Too lively for me, anyway. I headed for El Coco de Luis. They pour a signature drink of whisky and coco water. Mine was 90% whisky so I didn’t get the proper taste. The highlight of the visit, and perhaps the food highlight of my trip, was their ceviche. Made from grouper fish, this was the best ceviche I’ve ever eaten. Simple and delicious.

The next place disappointed me because it calls itself a Mexican restaurant but doesn’t serve Mexican style tacos. La B de Burro is where I ate a carnitas taco. The meat’s flavor came close to what I’m used to and the cranberry cinnamon margarita (2×1 all day) tasted good, but I question how much alcohol it contained. Not much is my guess.

My final taco destination was a small bar that serves food, Pa’l West. I have no idea what the name means. Here I ordered one spicy crab and two fish tacos, and a gin-based house drink. None were no better than average in my opinion. However, let me say that all three places where I ate tacos are highly rated by the masses on Google Maps. I doubt many of the reviewers live in Mexico.

To find the best local food I’m a firm believer in walking a few blocks beyond where 99% of the tourists draw their “safe line.” That’s how I found the tastiest pernil al horno ever at George’s BBQ. While I was waiting for my food, Alfredo tried to sell me a beach house. He was a really nice guy whose family runs a real estate business.

I’ll finish this post with pastelillos, small empanadas. I ordered codfish, spinach and mozzarella and corned beef. They are great snacks and can be found at Cafe D’Luna.

I will publish one more post, a summary of sorts, about San Juan, travel thoughts and a cool video of a street mural.

San Juan: The Food

My opinion: the more places I visit, the more I realize there are just a few countries where food is a major attraction. Puerto Rico is not one of them. I’ve eaten a few “local” foods so far and only two were better than average.

The maintenance guy where I’m staying has been a wealth of knowledge. He told me about the cafe at the rear of the grocery store. My fish filet makes the top two list. Nothing fancy here, just tasted good. And it was $5.99. 👍

After leaving my intended restaurant for lack of a seat, I found Jauja Street Food & Spirits. It’s actually two food vendors under the same roof. I ate at Arepas Rellenas. According to my waiter, the arepa is a Venezuelan food. The Puerto Rican version uses wheat instead of corn to make the bread. An arepa is snack size so you need 2 or 3 to make a meal. I ordered the shrimp. Nicely seasoned, I’ll return for some other options.

The sign on the far right says Perurrican. That’s the other vendor, more of a full plate place. Many people start with an arepa then have the big plate.

Next up is Areyto Puerto Rican Fusion. I believe fusion is a word that translates to “our scam to charge higher prices.” I ordered fried pork with an Asian sauce. The meat was so dry I had to ask for additional sauce. Didn’t help much. The sauce was a few fried onions in soy sauce. The pleasant surprise of the meal was the malanga, a root vegetable. I tasted garlic as one of the seasonings. Whatever else they added made for a tasty side dish.

I don’t usually drink smoothies, but I have changed my mind about them after trying one yesterday from Crush Juice Bar. Mine had strawberries, banana, peanut butter, almonds and some other stuff. So delicious!

Most of my meals pass without any drama save for the occasional “sorry, we don’t have that today.” Not so yesterday. I’ve copied and pasted my Google maps review of Café del Ángel below.

“I’d give a zero star rating if I could. After sitting for 30 minutes waiting for my food, I asked where it was only to be told that the waiter never put in the order. Not only that, but he left the restaurant for half of the waiting time. We discussed for a couple of minutes what kind of mofongo I wanted so it wasn’t like he didn’t know. And the $10 drink the bartender concocted was worth half the price. Other people ordered and ate with no apparent complaints. Just my bad luck.”

From there I walked down the street to Ruben’s Café. I ordered mofongo con pollo but the waitress thought I said arroz con pollo, so that’s what I got. I was so happy to see food on a plate in front of me that I decided not to say anything. Towards the end of the meal a different woman asked me about the food. I jokingly told her that it was good but not what I ordered. She must have been the manager or owner because she gave me mofongo free of charge. That was my dinner last night. The good and bad in life usually evens out.

Shiner Bock is the featured image. I stopped in a bar in OSJ and asked for a dark beer. Thought I’d get a Puerto Rican artesanal, but was given a Texas brew.

That’s all for the food update. I’m going back to OSJ tomorrow or Thursday so there will be more photos.

Old San Juan (OSJ)

My new “must do” when arriving in a capital city: take the free walking tour. The guides’ extensive knowledge of the history of the city and country  always make for a most enjoyable history lesson. Be sure to tip well as this is how the guides make a living. Many are students or artists.

For the San Juan tour we met in Plaza Colón (Plaza Christopher Columbus).

One of the oldest buildings in OSJ sits across from the plaza, the national theater. It’s named after Puerto Rico’s most famous playwright.

While I’m on the subject of theater, I spotted this cafe while meandering through OSJ after the tour.

OSJ doesn’t have any “oh wow” architecture, in my opinion. Still, I saw a couple of interesting buildings.

This next photo looked like a typical OSJ residential street.

After the tour it was time for lunch. I headed for El Jiberito, a combination restaurant/cafeteria. You order off a menu, but the food is already prepared. Quick, tasty and relatively affordable. I chose sawfish with onions and peppers and a side of amarillos fritos (fried yellow plantains).

These tours offer highlights of the city which give me an idea of where I want to explore further. I’ll go back to OSJ in a few days, take more photos and post.

Since this visa run centers on writing a new play, there won’t be a lot of sightseeing pictures. Just letting you know. 😁

San Juan First Impressions

Where to begin. I’m staying in a tourist area called Ocean Park. My studio apartment is 1/2 block from a park and 2 blocks from the ocean. You see a lot of houses with signs like this around here advertising rooms/studio apartments for rent.

Long or short-term and a phone number

Last night I ate at an Italian restaurant near my place. I ordered a personal pepperoni that reminded me of a NY slice. It also cost $11. San Juan is expensive. When I told my host my opinion, he laughed and said it didn’t take me long to figure that out.

Medalla is a local beer. I didn’t know it was a light beer when I ordered it. I drank it but it’ll be the only one in this lifetime.

Went to the beach this morning and had to walk through a gated community to get there. The beach is nice and kite surfing is very popular, especially on a day like today when the wind was blowing 20-30mph.

If you look closely at the 3rd photo you can see 4 kite surfers.

For lunch I visited a barbacoa restaurant. The area around it is a little sketchy. Two businesses near it have security guards that buzz you in. The BBQ place is really nice though. I opted for the lunch special, garlic roasted chicken with rice and beans. It almost tasted like the delicious chicken I used to eat at a Puerto Rican restaurant in Brooklyn. Almost.

Ocean Park seems to be divided into two sections. The area near the ocean and the area beyond those 4 blocks. Calle Loiza is a mix of hip, upscale bars and restaurants (restobars, I’ve learned), and empty businesses. Maybe it’s going through a renaissance or the small businesses lost everything in the hurricanes. I discovered some street art, which I’ve read is plentiful in San Juan.

Tomorrow I’m taking a walking tour through Viejo San Juan. More photos to come.

Zagreb – Food & Drink

My first night I walked about 5 minutes to Baranjska Citadela. It serves food from the Baranja region of Croatia in the far eastern part of the country. I ordered ćobanac, a beef and dumpling soup with a spicy paprika broth. I envisioned my Polish grandmother standing at her wood burning stove tending to the soups she made. I drank a beer brewed in the same region, Osječko.

In a park not far from the main square (Zagreb has many green spaces.), 20 or more hamburger restaurants were grilling all kinds of fancy fare. Burgers with black truffles, with white truffles, with a Jameson whiskey sauce and who knows what else tempted hungry tourists and locals alike at a Burger Festival. My burger, along with a locally brewed stout, made for a delicious lunch.

Based on a recommendation from Kristina, our walking tour guide, I visited a small local eatery near the square called Heritage; small as in 2 tables, 5 stools and no toilet. A winner of Best Chef of Croatia and a couple of his friends opened a tapas-like place that uses only ingredients made and grown in Croatia. The food was so good that I went there twice. The server explains the origin of each ingredient in each tapa you order. I drank a tasty artisanal beer and a glass of blackberry dessert wine there, as well. Click on the tapas’ photos to learn the ingredients.

Cheese and olives tapas
Cheese, olives and capers with a blackberry dessert wine

Another wonderful restaurant in my heighborhood (menu only in Croatian) introduced me to čufta–which is meatball in Croatian–a large minced pork patty topped with melted cheese and bacon. Good thing my diet doesn’t begin until I get back to Mexico. This meal was also accompanied with a dark beer, Korlovačko crno. Crno means black.

 

I ate my favorite meal today. It rained all morning and it was quite chilly, but I knew I had to go out to find something to eat. As I was leaving, my host Izidor told me he had made some soup and would I like some. He didn’t have to ask twice. It was a savory bean and barley soup with homemade bacon. He offered seconds and I readily accepted. What a great way to end a week at my Airbnb!

I encountered an interesting practice at a few restaurants, all of them in my neighborhood, not the tourist area. Here’s an example: I ordered spaghetti bolognese at an Italian restaurant near my house. On the receipt pictured below you can see that I was charged for both the spaghetti and the sauce. It was not a surprise; it’s listed that way on the menu. If I had ordered penne, I would have been charged 12kuna instead of 14. And carbonara was a different price than bolognese.

Restaurant receipt.jpg

Tomorrow morning I take a 2.5 hour bus ride to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. I’m excited about the week I’ll spend there. Not sure what’s up after that.

 

 

Planning My Itinerary

Normally when planning my itinerary I look at the map of the country I’m visiting and decide whether to go north or south first, write down the names of some cities and go from there. I’m trying to do the same thing with Croatia, but it’s a little more difficult because of the country’s irregular shape. It’s not always easy to get from here to there.

area-map-of-Croatia

Most tourists fly into Zagreb, spend a few days and make haste for the coast. Croatia is a country of 1200+ islands, lots of beaches and a couple of “must see” cities, Split and Dubrovnik. I plan on taking a different route.

I want to stay mostly inland for two reasons. One, two-thirds of my trip is in October which is past the sunbathing season and two, so many of my previous trips have centered around beaches that I’m not as enthusiastic about them as before. I’ve also read that Croatia has mostly pebble beaches. I’m sure they’re nice, but I’m a white sand kind of beach guy.

After a week in Zagreb, I’ll visit towns/villages around it, such as Varazdin (north of Zagreb), Samobar (20 km west) and Plitvice Lakes (a day tour). From Varazdin I can take a bus into Slovenia for a few days if I want.

Making my way back to Zagreb, I will then bus my way to the far eastern border city of Ilok, across from Serbia. Places to see on the way include Vukovar, Marija Bistrica and Osijek, among others. There are regional foods and wines to be tasted and I believe the culture will be a little different than the capital and the coast; fewer English speakers, too, is my guess.

From there I have two choices. I can fly from Osijek to Dubrovnik and make my way up the coast, or I can take a bus into Bosnia-Herzegovina to visit Sarajevo and Mostar before returning to Croatia.

These plans are very flexible and I’m still doing some research. I have six weeks to plan for and I’m thinking I won’t stay in Croatia the entire time. You can see from the map how close I am to Italy, so a week there is also an option.

That’s my update. I’m getting more excited by the day. If you become a follower you’ll be notified every time I publish a post.