What I Spent: Five Nights in San Juan, Puerto Rico

  • 01 of 07

    Upfront Costs

    Narrow House, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
    ••• Dennis K. Johnson/Getty Images

    The upfront costs of vacations are predictable. It’s the little things—airport snacks, cocktails before dinner, tipping a tour guide—that can throw even the most well-planned vacation budget off track. In this new series, we’ll look at the spending patterns of real travelers in popular destinations, so you can estimate what you’ll actually spend.  (Thanks for the inspiration, Refinery29!)

    In this installment, a couple travels to San Juan, Puerto Rico for six days of sun.

    Flight: $685, round-trip from DEN to SJU (bought two months in advance)

    Accommodations: Free—we stayed with my brother’s colleague and his wife in their beachside condo. We had an overnight layover on the way home, though: $99 for a room at the Wingate by Wyndham Charlotte Airport South/I-77 Tyvola, which offers a free shuttle service to and from the airport.

    Baggage fees: My boyfriend and I shared a large duffel to save some money (plus I’m a serial overpacker). Cost: $50 ($25 each way)

    Size of Group: 4

    Continue to 2 of 7 below.
  • 02 of 07

    Wednesday to Thursday

    Old San Juan, Calle (street) La Fortaleza, houses
    ••• Maremagnum/Getty Images

    4:15 p.m. Our Uber arrives. We all have TSA Pre-Check, but we’re heading to the airport early to squeeze in dinner before our 7 p.m. flight. My brother picks up the ride. Cost: $100 for Global Entry, which includes TSA Pre-Check (valid for five years)

    4:40 p.m. The drive is quick, but the line to drop off checked bags is snaking through the concourse. We head outside to check it curbside, which saves us a lot of time. Cost: $2 tip

    5:15 p.m. What’s a vacation without a little indulgence? We grab a table at Elway’s, a Colorado steak house, and cheers to forgetting about work for a week (a vodka-Sprite for me). I order the steak tacos, which are in the appetizer section but entrée-sized. Cost: $33

    7:07 p.m. We’re finally on our way—to Houston, where we have a layover.

    12:25 a.m. (next day) Our one-hour layover has turned into two, and almost nothing is open in the airport so my boyfriend and I wander bleary-eyed around the terminal until we’re finally able to board.  

    7 a.m. We grab our duffel...MORE from baggage claim and head outside to meet my brother’s colleague. He arranged for a van to pick us up and take us to his home. Cost: $0

    8:01 a.m. We unpack our bags and then beeline to the patio to take in the views of Condado Beach. We’re anxious to feel the sand under our feet, but our hosts have graciously cooked breakfast for us so we fuel up with scrambled eggs and ham, fresh fruit (some of the juiciest mango, papaya, and pineapple I’ve ever tasted), and apple-filled pastries from a nearby bakery.

    10:30 a.m. You always forget something when you go on a trip, and this vacation was no exception. We walk two blocks to CVS for a couple bottles of sunscreen. I pay. Cost: $19.26

    11:18 a.m. We nab four lounge chairs on the sand in front of the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino. (Our hosts are members of the hotel’s Ocean Club Wellness Center Spa, which gives us access to the venue’s amenities as well.) A server from the resort’s La Isla Beach Bar and Grill walks over and takes our order for Miami Vices. My brother’s girlfriend picks up the tab. Cost: $0

    2:09 p.m. In need of a break from the sun, we wander to Ashford Avenue, the main drag in the Condado area. After peeking into a number of fairly empty restaurants, we end up at Pannes. Here we get our first taste of local (read: the Coors of Puerto Rico) lagers—Magna and Medalla Light—and cuisine. Mofongo is a dense ball of mashed green plantains, typically stuffed with a protein. I order mine with chicken in tomato sauce; it’s dense and comforting—and definitely not the first choice when you’re wearing a bikini. Cost: $17

    3 p.m. We walk the few blocks back to our condo to take a nap, shower, and get ready for dinner.

    6:20 p.m. The four of us hop in an already-paid-for shuttle with our hosts. Our destination: Old San Juan, one of the oldest cities in the United States. Cost: $0

    6:48 p.m. The cabbie drops us near the entrance to El Morro, which the Spanish built in the 16th century to protect the San Juan Bay from attacks (including by pirates). We take in the sight and then wander down the area’s sloping, blue-cobblestone streets, passing colorful buildings and fellow tourists seeking cocktails and dinner.

    7:07 p.m. Carli’s Fine Bistro & Piano is packed when we enter, but thankfully we already have reservations. The restaurant is owned by pianist Carli Muñoz, who spent 11 years touring with the Beach Boys. He treats us to a short stint at the piano as we sip our drinks (a Mojito for me).  I order the night’s special: churrasco (skirt steak) with roasted potatoes and sautéed vegetables. Cost: $40

    9:45 p.m. The shuttle picks us back up and takes us home. After sleeping fitfully on the plane and today’s short nap, I’m excited to get to bed early. Cost: $0

    Continue to 3 of 7 below.
  • 03 of 07

    Friday

    Palm Trees on Condado Beach in San Juan
    ••• Atlantide Phototravel/Getty Images

    9:45 a.m. We awake to the smell of pancakes. Eager to get in the water, we eat quickly. My brother and his girlfriend, up before my boyfriend and I, decide to take a walk down Ashford Avenue. They meet us at the beach an hour later with a six-pack of Medalla beer—and a tip. The liquor store is way overpriced; in the future, we should buy our alcohol at CVS. We manage to hold off popping open a can until about 11:30 a.m. Cost: $0

    1 p.m. The current at Condado Beach is strong, the breaking waves pretty relentless. Between the sun and the workout we get from diving beneath them, we’re starving. Our hosts want to give us a taste of traditional Puerto Rican cuisine, so they treat us to a homemade lunch of fried plantains, roasted chicken, rice, and red beans. Cost: $0

    4:30 p.m. After a couple more hours of beach lounging, we pack up for our evening excursion. We know we won’t really have a chance to eat dinner, so we head across the street to the small natural grocer to pick up some...MORE snacks—protein bars and plantain chips—for the bus ride. We spot the largest avocados any of us has ever seen; they’re the size of cantaloupes! Cost: $12.50

    5:15 p.m. Our meeting point is the tour desk at the Marriott. From here, we load onto a small bus for the hourlong drive east to Fajardo (with a short stop to pick up more passengers), where we’ll set off on the Glowing Bay Adventure to Laguna Grande with Island Kayaking Adventures. Cost: $100 per person, including transportation

    7 p.m. We arrive in Fajardo with 30 minutes to use the public bathroom (which costs 50 cents), apply bug spray, and grab a small bite to eat from one of the nearby food stalls. We opt for hot-out-of-the-fryer carne empanadas from Delicias Criollas Dorcas. Cost: $4.50

    7:30 p.m. After a brief safety presentation, my boyfriend and I load into our shared kayak and our group sets off into the lagoon. The new moon is barely visible, which makes our journey through the mangrove channel all the more thrilling. Twenty-or-so minutes later, the landscape opens up and we are officially in the bay. We sweep our hands through the water and watch the dinoflagellates sparkle in response. Too soon, we direct our kayaks back toward the mangroves and our ride home.

    11:15 p.m. The bus drops us at the Marriott. I’m too tired to eat, but my boyfriend and brother grab burgers to-go from Buns Burger Shop. Cost: $0

    Continue to 4 of 7 below.
  • 04 of 07

    Saturday

    Puerto Rico, Central Mountains, El Yunque National Forest, La Mina Waterfall
    ••• Michele Falzone/Getty Images

    7:40 a.m. After a late night, this early wake-up call is rough. My boyfriend and I head to the small café inside the Marriott for a grab-and-go breakfast. I pay. Cost: $12.52

    8 a.m. We load onto the bus that will take us to El Yunque National Forest, the only rainforest in the U.S. national forest system. Cost: $69 per person, plus a $20 tip for our guide (we split the tip by couple)

    9:20 a.m. Short pit stop to watch the park’s welcome video (narrated by native Puerto Rican Benicio del Toro) and hit the bathrooms.

    11 a.m. A one-mile “hike” along a stone path through the forest leads us to La Mina Falls. We strip off our sneakers and step delicately into the frigid water, clambering over rocks to reach the rushing water. I stay under the falls just long enough for a photo-op (thank you, waterproof camera).

    11:56 a.m. On the walk back to the bus, we stop to pose for pictures in front of a towering, moss-covered tree.

    12:11 p.m. The final stop on our rainforest tour is the Yokahú Tower, which...MORE was built in 1962 as an observation tower. We climb the 98 steps and breathe in the fresh air and views of the cloud forest and northeast coastline.

    12:45 p.m. Our guide pulls over on the side of the road at a small fritter stand run by two locals who speak zero English. Puerto Ricans call almost anything fried “fritters,” mostly to make it easy for us non-Spanish speakers. In this case, “fritters” translates to empanadas, taquitos, and papas rellenas—and nothing cost more than $2.50. Everyone chips in a few dollars. Cost: $3

    5:55 p.m. After some down time at our condo, we head down Ashford Avenue to grab a drink and watch the sun set. At the Piña Loka food truck, I go full tourist and treat myself to a carved-out pineapple filled with piña colada that I then have to lug to the beach. We enjoy the view for all of 10 minutes before it starts pouring rain and we run for cover. Cost: $12

    7:45 p.m. The rain forced us inside just in time to get ready for dinner. It’s New Year’s Eve and our hosts have booked us a table at one of their favorite fine dining spots: Pikayo Restaurant, inside the Condado Plaza Hilton. They pay for the short cab ride. The three-course prix fixe menu is modern but rooted in local favorites. A tequila cocktails starts the evening off, followed by salad, Alaskan king salmon in a spicy mango sauce, and a Nutella-rich dessert. Cost: $95

    11:35 p.m. Shortly before midnight, the staff hands out noisemakers and NYE hats. The salsa band gets started, and much of the restaurant—including our group—gets up to dance.

    1 a.m. Our hosts once again pay for our ride home. We have one more drink on the patio before calling it a night. Cost: $0

    Continue to 5 of 7 below.
  • 05 of 07

    Sunday

    ••• Pamela's Caribbean Cuisine

    11:32 a.m. With an early lunch planned, we enjoy a lazy morning before hopping in the car to Ocean Park Beach. We have a date with the beachfront Pamela’s Caribbean Cuisine. I slip my flip-flops off and dig my toes into the sand while perusing the menu of Caribbean-fusion eats. The group shares some superfresh grouper ceviche and calamari, and I get the churrasco wrap with chipotle-pineapple salsa for my meal. My brother treats. Cost: $0

    1:05 p.m. Pamela’s guests have access to the restaurant’s beach chairs and umbrellas. Our server sets four up for us closer to the water after our hosts head home, and we let our lunch settle as we soak in the sun.

    2:34 p.m. A man selling beers from a cooler wanders by. My boyfriend orders a Corona. Cost: $0 ($3 for him)

    3:18 p.m. My boyfriend and I wander down to the end of the beach—past dozens of kitesurfers getting their gear ready—and meet my brother and his girlfriend at the outdoor bar connected to Hostería del Mar. It’s happy hour from 1 to 5...MORE p.m., so my house-made sangria tastes especially sweet. Cost: $7

    4:37 p.m. We’d planned to walk along the beach the entire way back to our condo, but an unpassable section forces us onto Ashford for the final few blocks.

    6:40 p.m. We grab a cab at the Marriott to take us to Old San Juan for dinner. Unfortunately, many of the roads are closed due to preparation for some government events taking place the next day. And with so many people in town for the holidays, many restaurants are already booked. We detour to a nearby Ruth’s Chris Steak House (a favorite of our hosts’) instead. I order a Caesar salad and lamb chops. They pay. Cost: $0

    Continue to 6 of 7 below.
  • 06 of 07

    Monday

    Boats anchored off Icacos island, Puerto Rico
    ••• Carla Sá Fernandes/Getty Images

    7:50 a.m. Another early wake-up for our final excursion of the trip. But first, a quick breakfast to-go. Cost: $0 (cheers to Starbucks gift cards)

     

    8:05 a.m. We hop on the bus to meet our catamaran, the Spread Eagle II (yes, really) for a day of snorkeling off the coast of Fajardo. Cost: $116 per person, plus a $20 tip for the crew (which I cover)

    10 a.m. All aboard! We set sail for Icacos Island. Due to the time of year and choppy water, there’s not much to see while snorkeling (snorkels are provided by the tour company), so we hop back on the boat and enjoy our included buffet lunch before grabbing some beers (my brother’s treat), heading to shore, and wading in the shallows before taking off for our second stop. Cost: $0

    2 p.m. The crew anchors off the shore of Palominos Island, the private island of El Conquistador, A Waldorf Astoria Resort. We jump into the water and swim around for 45 minutes, spotting some small, colorful fish and plenty of coral. The sail back takes about a half...MORE hour, and I nap on the bus on the ride home.

    7:35 p.m. Pre-dinner drinks are a vacation necessity—especially when it’s our last night in San Juan. We pop across the street to Bar Gitano for a quick tipple before dinner. Cost: $10

    8:04 p.m. Dinner is just down the block. We have reservations for Big Band Mondays at Yerba Buena Restaurant. As we sip not-too-sweet Mojitos and dig into shrimps in coconut sauce and fried whole red snapper, a dozen musicians play Puerto Rican classics. It’s the best food—and music—we’ve enjoyed the entire trip. A perfect way to wrap up our first visit to this lively city. Cost: $0 (our hosts paid)

    Continue to 7 of 7 below.
  • 07 of 07

    Tuesday to Wednesday

    Street scene in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico with the San Juan Cathedral in background.
    ••• David Madison/Getty Images

    8:38 a.m. We catch a cab at the Marriott to squeeze in a few hours exploring Old San Juan before our flight home. I pay. Cost: $18

     

    8:59 a.m. The neighborhood is quiet and many shops are closed. We start to worry we won’t find anywhere for breakfast. Then we stumble upon La Bombonera, a historic bakery that lures us in with a drool-inducing pastry window. We decide to keep it on the healthier side with cafe con leche and omelettes. We split the bill by couple, and my boyfriend covers our half. Cost: $0

    9:51 a.m. We wander the narrow streets, popping into shops and stopping to look at the fort walls, ocean views, and government buildings. At the Haitian Gallery, my boyfriend and I are drawn to paintings by a local artist. We buy three small ones depicting city and nature scenes from the surrounding area. Cost: $145

    12:37 p.m. We grab a cab back to the condo, which my brother pays for. Lunch is waiting for us: a tomato-y chickpea stew that our host’s wife says is her favorite local dish. We...MORE pack our suitcases and head to the beach for the final time. Cost: $0

    4:30 p.m. The prepaid van taking us to the airport arrives. Cost: $20 (tip)

    5:43 p.m. After having to lighten our duffel to avoid extra fees (my boyfriend and I wind up carrying all of our shoes in plastic bags), we grab an early, not-so-great dinner before our flight. Cost: $15

    6:40 p.m. The airline staff give my brother and his girlfriend grief about the size of their carry-ons, so they’re forced to check them through to Denver. And then we’re finally airborne to Charlotte.

    9:40 p.m. We get a ride to our accommodations from the hotel’s free shuttle.

    6:29 a.m. (next day) The airport is pretty vacant. We sit down for breakfast at 1897 Market—hot tea and Greek yogurt with granola for me. My boyfriend covers our half of the tab. Cost: $0

    9:21 a.m. We land in Denver. After picking up our bags, we hail an Uber. My boyfriend pays. Cost: $0

     

    Totals

    Food & Drinks: $261.02

    Activities & Entertainment: $285

    Transportation: $38

    Accommodation: $99

    Miscellaneous: $346.76