Inside la Isla



Small hostelries make your vacation feel at home

By Peter Martin 7027 0

Staying in a hotel and lounging on a beach was the typical vacation for visitors to Puerto Rico. Not anymore.

More travelers nowadays seek a fuller experience of the island. The beach is still important but travelers also want to immerse in Puerto Rico’s local color, to learn about its vivid culture fusing Spanish, African and American influences, to get transported into that mellow tropical rhythm that is so much a part of being an island in the Caribbean. Staying in a guest house or a bed and breakfast (B&B), is part of the adventure, a way for an outsider to get closer to the destination and its people.

The allure of a small hostelry is easy to see: small is cozy, inviting, and personal. Guest houses and B&Bs, not to be confused with Airbnbs, are usually located in a residential neighborhood so staying in one spells a more intimate experience of a destination. Their owners, who are Puerto Ricans or locals with many years of residency, engage with visitors on a closer level, sharing their knowledge of the island and directing visitors to places of interest often overlooked by travel guides.

B&B facilities in Puerto Rico have no more than six rooms, include breakfast as part of the hotel rate, and operate out of the home of the owner, or a building within the owner’s property. There are currently 10 B&Bs on the island.

Sprinkled throughout the island, each B&B is a window onto a different corner of Puerto Rico, giving visitors an engaging portrait of a richly multifaceted island.Some are in the city, others in the country. Each enchants in its own special way.

Casa Sol and Casa Isabel are a fine introduction to San Juan, their locations bridge the metropolis’ colonial past with its cosmopolitan present.

Casa Sol, located on the eponymous street, is no different from the centuries-old colonial homes that grace the old city, San Juan’s mythical center. It is a two-story house painted a cheerful canary yellow with a large, imposing iron gate at its entrance. Its owners, Eddie Ramirez Castellano and wife Tisha Pastor have lovingly turned the ground floor of their home into a welcoming retreat for world travelers.

“The biggest difference between a commercial hotel and a B&B is the relation we have with guests; it’s very personal. We spend a lot of time with guests,” says Ramirez, a trim young man with the cool of a Zen master and the amiable charm of a host.

Casa Sol opened in December of 2013 and for the past five years it has been singled out for excellence by Trip Advisor. In 2019 it entered the travel website’s Hall of Fame. It is one of four B&Bs on the island that are green. It eschews plastic and gets its energy from solar panels on its roof. Guests are given small glass bottles to carry water around and are invited to take the 5-minute shower challenge. It turns out that staying within that limit gives you an extra hour and a half of free time per year not to mention that it saves more than 12,000 gallons of water yearly. Ramirez also buys in bulk to reduce waste. Casa Sol proudly displays its Green Key certification, which identifies it as a sustainable business.

Guests at Casa Sol are drawn from all over, including faraway places in French Polynesia, New Zealand, Japan and Russia. What they find is a home away from home. Its hub is the glorious, plant filled patio, typical of colonial homes, where morning breakfast is served and around which the five bedrooms are laid out. The ground floor also accommodates a comfortable kitchen and a small sitting area with rocking chairs and a writing desk, also for the use of guests. Ramirez and his family live upstairs.

Each of the guest rooms has its own name and is unlike the other. The rooms are comfortable and decorated with Puerto Rican artworks. On the beds, a doll created by crafter Gloribel Delgado waits to be tucked in at night. Little chocolate squares made with Puerto Rico-grown cacao are a welcome treat for guests. Another treat handed out on arrival: a delicious popsicle created by a local company named Señor Paleta.

The work of love that is Casa Sol is not only reflected in the beautiful way that Ramirez has decorated the place but in the fact that so much of what is in the building was salvaged from destruction or recycled. He purchased the building as a ruin. Over the course of two years, the building was restored using the bricks and ancient beams of the original structure. A tub in one of the rooms was rescued from a Bayamon home where it was found covered in earth, with a tree growing out of the drain. Other rescued items include the writing desk, a statue of St. Francis (now standing in the patio), and the banister spindles on the house stairs. The patio floor was made using smashed up damaged bricks.

If Casa Sol reflects Puerto Rico’s past, then Casa Isabel reflects its cosmopolitan present. This B&B is located in one of San Juan’s most colorful neighborhoods, the Loiza Street area that has become a veritable gastronomic epicenter in recent years. Casa Isabel is right in the heart of this sector, ready to give visitors a taste of a modern city’s culinary predilections. The area teems with regular bars and wine bars, eateries, and restaurants like Silk (oriental fusion), Bebo’s (Puerto Rican food), Fleria (Greek), Sabrina (international), Round Eye Ramen (Japanese), Pinky’s (the place for breakfast, or lunch). And there’s more.

In business since December 2014, Casa Isabel is based in a lovely 1930s Spanish colonial house with a pastel green exterior set off on one side by a rampant fuchsia bougainvillea. It has five rooms, each with a private bathroom and a small refrigerator, and several communal rooms, including a beautiful porch with an oblong sofa, the perfect place to enjoy a late afternoon drink. In front of the house, the small garden is shaded by trees and a couple of stone benches invite to a moment of quiet relaxation, or perhaps conversation with a fellow guest. The ocean is just down the street so you get the both of two worlds: city and beach.

Margarita Buenaga, its owner, said she inherited the house from her great aunt. At one point selling it seemed the best course but a nephew encouraged her to turn it into a B&B. Despite her lack of experience in tourism (she worked in the insurance industry), Buenaga is pleased with how things have worked out. She said she gets a lot of guests from Canada, Europe and the Orient. Many are people who come to the island on business trips. Guests are well looked after and she attends to all their requests, even handling their laundry if necessary. “This is their home,” she said.

Beyond San Juan is the beautiful, luscious Puerto Rican countryside. Casa Flamboyant in Naguabo and Dos Aguas B&B in Rio Grande immerse you in the island’s exuberant natural world. Both are magical and secluded.

A stay at Casa Flamboyant is “like stepping into a different world, one that is more tranquil, calm, and full of nature,” said Ricardo Miranda who runs the property with his partner Florin Lepadatu. They purchased the property five years ago from an American woman who ran it as a B&B. While ownership changed, the name of the B&B stayed the same.

This is a very intimate hostelry with only three beautifully appointed bedrooms for adults, as no children are allowed. Each is equipped with its private entrance, bathroom, and a fridge. Miranda said guests are served a two-course breakfast consisting of fresh fruit (from fruit trees in the property) and an entree that varies each day. Visitors can always drive to nearby Naguabo or Fajardo for lunch or dinner but many guests like to stay put and cook a meal using the grill or microwave available on the premises.

There is plenty to keep them occupied. On the spectacular rooftop there is an inviting pool filled with spring water and sweeping views of the ocean and the surrounding hills of El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. Everywhere the eye can see there is green foliage, a soothing sight that puts the soul at ease. Nature offers many diversions. Visitors in a hiking mood can walk two miles to the Naguabo-side entrance of El Yunque where trails beckon or they can have a fun time frolicking in two natural pools formed by falling water from two waterfalls in the property.

Says Miranda: “Our motto is disconnect so that you can re-connect with nature and with each other.”

Visitors to Dos Aguas are likewise seduced by its location. “From the moment the gate opens, you feel like you have stepped in a whole new world. You feel a sudden peace. You start connecting with nature in a completely different level,” wrote a visitor on the B&Bs Facebook page.

Located about 30 minutes away from San Juan, Dos Aguas occupies a large commodious house with lots of windows and shady open porches. All around is the exuberant, green vegetation, as if nature were wrapping its soothing arms around you.The house sits on a 3.8 acre property that takes its poetic name from two rivers, Rio Grande and Espiritu Santo. They meet in front of the house, hence Dos Aguas, which means two waters.

The hostelry’s four rooms are simple but with a luxurious feel: large, comfy mattresses, elegant accessories, earthy colors. It opened its doors in December 2016, closed briefly in late 2017, and was back in business by January 2018.

Carla Arraiza, who runs Dos Aguas with her mother Ivonne Gonzalez, said the property had been home to her grandparents and turning it into a hostelry was a way to preserve it. Her interest in travel and the tourism industry also factored in. She wants to show visitors that Puerto Rico can produce quality. “I love to give them personalized attention,” she said, referring to her guests who hail from Canada, the U.S., Mexico and Europe.

At Dos Aguas, they find an ideal place in which to luxuriate in the natural environment but with plenty of other alternatives for diversion like kayaking, paddle boarding or riding a boat down the river. El Yunque is a short distance away and night tours of the phosphorescent bay in Fajardo can be easily arranged. Or guests can visit the beaches in Luquillo and Fajardo, which are close by.

“It’s a space that is near everything but gives you the sensation of being far away,” said Arraiza.

Puerto Rico’s guesthouses share the same goal of B&Bs: to make visitors feel at home and give them a special experience of the island. There are about 29 of them and they are somewhat larger operations as they can have a maximum of 27 rooms. Most are located on the Puerto Rico mainland although a couple can be found in Culebra and Vieques. These two, idyllic little islands — a favorite week-end destination of many Puerto Ricans — are the perfect place to get away from it all and enjoy all the activities one associates with the surrounding sea like swimming, snorkeling, windsurfing, sailing, diving, kayaking, or just plain sunbathing on the sand.

Located some 17 miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland, Culebra is only 7 miles long by 5 miles wide and has a population of fewer than 1,400 people. Its beautiful beaches, some of which can only be accessed by car or boat, attract visitors from all over the world. The most famous by far is Flamenco, a wide expanse of white, coral sand stretching for about a mile around a sheltered, horse-shoe shaped bay with shallow, turquoise waters. It was voted the number one beach destination by The Travel Channel.

Club Seabourne is the only boutique hotel in Culebra. It is nestled within the hillsides with breathtaking coastal view of Fulladoza Bay. Each of its rooms and villas are exquisitely furnished and feature a bespoke interior and exterior design. Guests can opt to take at the Caribbean chic property a refreshing dip in its pool, pure relaxation in a hammock within its lush landscaped gardens or visit one of the region´s breathtaking beaches. Enjoy world-class amenities and services, casual dining, and a host of fun activities. At Club Seabourne get away from it all and immerse yourself in a unique experience that can only be described as Caribbean chic.

Mamacita’s Guest House is right in Culebra town, two colorful buildings painted in joyful pastel colors, standing right next to a canal. It has 16 rooms, including guest suites with balconies overlooking the nearby ocean. One room in particular, N. 301, gets a high rating for its “spectacular view.” Mamacita’s is more than a guest house as it also runs a popular bar and restaurant with a menu centered on seafood like lobster, fish and shellfish though it also caters to meat eaters with such selections as T-bone steaks and churrasco. The bar is well known for one drink in particular: the “legendary Bushwacker,” a synthesis of coconut cream, coffee liqueur, rum and cinnamon.

Vieques, 8 miles east of Puerto Rico, is 20 miles long and 4.5 miles wide, making it somewhat larger. It has one main town, Isabel Segunda on the northern coast, and Esperanza, a fishing village on the southern end. This mostly hilly island also is famous for its gorgeous, pristine beaches. Villa Coral Guesthouse, a 7-minute walk from Esperanza, is a Mediterranean-style house with beautifully manicured grounds and lovely views from its sun deck. It makes a convenient home base for daily excursions to surrounding beaches, some of which are completely deserted if you go early in the morning.

The guesthouse has seven rooms, all with their own private bathroom and mini fridge. They are comfortable, simple but nicely decorated with local artwork and flowers. Additional rooms can be found in a cottage, named Coralina that sleeps two people and is a two-minute walk from the guesthouse; a separate two-bedroom apartment with one bath is also available. Both are operated by the same owners.