7 Spectacular Things to Do in Baja California, Mexico
Contrary to its name, Baja California is not actually located in California—it's Mexico’s twelfth-largest state. Filled with a heady mix of mountain ranges, beaches, countryside, deserts, and cities, this laid-back peninsula extends from the southernmost point of California into the Pacific Ocean and is just 17 miles from downtown San Diego.
Though it's known primarily for Cabo, the A-list and spring-break destination brimming with lavish hotels and hard-partying tequila bars, Baja offers something for everyone. Bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Sea of Cortez on the east, water lovers will find a full range of activities, from sport fishing to scuba diving to whale watching. The Mediterranean climate and rich soil also support a thriving wine and culinary scene, and there are plenty of hiking trails and camping spots for those looking to spend time in the outdoors. We rounded up a few things to do in this magical and diverse locale.
1. Swim With the Fishes
The Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, separates Baja from the Mexican mainland. One of the most diverse seas in the world, it's home to over 800 marine species. Though swimming is chillier in the winter months, it’s the perfect time to book a whale-watching trip to see the gray, blue, and even humpback whales making their way to the Arctic—and don’t forget the sea lions and dolphins. Anglers should look into a sailing charter for a chance to nab billfish, snapper, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, and grouper—and think about making a stop at one of the many small beaches to fly-fish for roosterfish. For those who want to look at fish instead of catch them, there are many types of boat tours to choose from, allowing snorkelers and divers to commune with the stunning underwater display of colorful marine life and fauna. And you can add kayaking and beach-hopping to round out the adventure.
2. Make It a Family Affair
Want to enjoy all the fun and adventure Baja has to offer and still relax with your family? The Hyatt Ziva (hyatt.com), an affordable, all-inclusive hotel perched on the Pacific side of the peninsula, is the perfect home base. A heated pool with a kid-friendly swim-up bar as well as daily activities, like soccer, basketball, and ping pong, keep the kids engaged. Meanwhile, water-based adult exercise classes offset last night's flowing margaritas. There's also an adults-only pool in case you want to sneak in some quiet time, and because everything is contained within the resort—including five restaurants, snack bars, a Teens Club with games and hangout space and the Kidz Club with a small waterpark and counselors—you can stay worry-free as the kids explore, eat, and drink. The beach is clean and expansive, with plenty of sofas and lounge chairs to relax on, but the undercurrent is strong, so swimming isn’t allowed. However, if you’re visiting during whale season, you might catch a glimpse of these stunning creatures from the sand. The staff is helpful and friendly and the food is excellent, especially the overly abundant breakfast buffet, which includes Mexica entrees and pastries, and made-to-order quesadillas. Ready to venture out? The excursion desk will help you choose your journeys.
3. Hit the Wine Trail
When it comes to West Coast wine, Napa and Sonoma usually get the accolades. But the Valle de Guadalupe, just a 90-minute drive south of the California border, offers a premium, yet low-key and affordable, wine-tasting experience. More than 150 wineries now dot the region, which is green and lush and probably best visited on a weekday—away from the day-tripping crowds. Though wine-tasting is the focus, with a climate similar to a drier Rioja and a blend made from a mixture of French, Spanish, and Italian grapes grown in granite-rich soils, you won’t be disappointed with the seasonal dining and boutique hotels and inns. Stop by Adobe Guadalupe (adobeguadalupe.com) for its cabernet sauvignon and merlot house blends, not to mention pomegranates and olives straight from the property’s trees, then stay in one of six guest rooms named for archangels. You can also take a dip in the pool, go horseback riding, and taste the house olive oil. Though you won’t find many white varietals in this region, the winery Finca la Carrodilla (fincalacarrodilla.mx) offers a crisp, organic chenin blanc, which you can sip in its rooftop garden. The region's dining options are diverse: You can splurge on a five-course meal at Corazón de Tierra (corazondetierra.com), grab a taco from the Troika food truck (facebook.com/TroikaValle), or enjoy a picnic-style meal overlooking the El Mogor winery at Deckman’s (deckmans.com), the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Baja.
4. Chill, Surf, Shop, Eat, Repeat in Todos Santos
This tiny town north of Cabo San Lucas is Baja’s answer to Tulum. A sleepy, eco-chic hideaway in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains, the town has been dubbed a Pueblo Mágico by the Mexican government—honored for its natural beauty, cultural richness, and hospitality. Most people, however, know it as the home of Hotel California. Surfers come from far and wide to ride the point breaks in San Pedrito Point and La Pastora, though newbies might consider a local surf camp like Mario Surf School (mariosurfschool.com) and stay close to Los Cerritos beach. Families can enjoy the calmer Playa Las Palmas for swimming and collecting shells. Plus there’s plenty on offer in the lively town, where art galleries, local crafts, and shops abound. Hungry? Baja-style fish tacos should not be missed at the La Copa Cocina at the Todos Santos Inn (todossantosinn.com), and can be enjoyed on the garden patio or inside the more stylish Iguana Lounge.
5. Don’t Miss “The Snorter”
Head 20 miles south of Ensenada on a twisty, panoramic road to witness the spectacular marine geyser, La Bufadora. (Bufar is Spanish for “snort.”) The second-largest blowhole in America, created by sucking ocean waves and air into an underwater cave, the geyser is located on the tip of the Punta Banda peninsula and gushes every minute or so—sometimes even multiple times a minute. Watch and listen to the thunderous waterspout from an 80-foot observation ledge, though do keep in mind that it sometimes shoots more than 100 feet above sea level. Guided tours are available and usually include a dramatic telling of the local legend of a baby whale who, stuck in the cave, is doomed to spew water out its blowhole for all eternity. Not the most uplifting story, but this natural treasure is not to be missed.
6. Take a Hike
Need a break from the sun, sand, and surf? Head to the Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Mártir mountain region for clean, clear air and Pichaco del Diablo, the highest peak in Baja at 10,154 feet. With more than 140 species of plants, a fir-tree forest, and plenty of fauna to ogle, like muledeer and bighorn sheep, you can hike several marked trails, including the six-mile round-trip to El Altar. In 2002, five endangered California condors were reintroduced to the park, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see one of the 28—out of 410 worldwide—that live there now. Come for the hiking, stay for the stars, which can be seen clearly at the park’s Observatorio Astronómico Nacional. Here you can look through three high-powered deep-space telescopes and get a tour inside this working observatory. Campsites are available to rent at the park entrance, but if glamping is more your speed, check out the four cabins near the ranger station. Another option: Reserve a small adobe cottage in the park with Baja Dark Skies (bajadarkaskies.wordpress.com) or book a room at the Rancho Meling (ranchomeling.com), a 10,000-acre working cattle ranch at the base of the mountain.
7. Rub Shoulders with the Stars(Sorin Colac/Dreamstime)
Yes, it’s overrun with spring-breakers and other vacationers much of the time, but no trip to Baja is complete without a visit to the southernmost point of Cabo. For celebrity sightings, hit the Corridor, the remote, 20-mile stretch between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. Take a drive to view the stunning, cavernous coastline—brimming with small khaki mountains, oceans, golf courses, and private villas, then stop at the Cape, a Thompson Hotel (thompsonhotels.com), for peaceful vistas and a sunset cocktail at the rooftop bar. Dinner should be reserved (weeks ahead, if possible) at Flora’s Field Kitchen at Flora Farms (flora-farms.com), a farm-to-table oasis of organic vegetation and a 150-acre ranch, hidden up a dirt lane past San Jose del Cabo marina. In addition to potential star-spotting and beer crafted at Flora’s Brewery, you’ll feast on seasonal dishes and 15 different types of pizza. Then, if you can muster the energy, hit the town in Cabo San Lucas, which is known for its rows of bars and clubs, including the Van Halen-helmed tequila-centric Cabo Wabo Cantina (cabowabocantina.com), where you can catch live acoustic music every night.
10 Most Relaxing Spas in America
Need a little R&R? Say no more! We’ve scoured the country to find the 10 most relaxing spas in the U.S. If you’re ready to unwind, pack a bag and head to one of these sanctuaries. 1. Acqualina Resort & Spa in Sunny Isles Beach, FL (Courtesy @acqualinaresort/Instagram)Take in breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean from one of the 98 impeccable guest rooms at this five-star resort and spa located on 4.5 beachfront acres in Sunny Isles Beach, Miami (one of our favorite cities for foodie adventures and more). Enjoy a soak in one of the resort’s three oceanfront swimming pools before retreating indoors to the property’s world-class, 20,000-square-foot spa. Its signature spa treatments include a full-body massage using hot volcanic stones, a hot salt stone massage, and a detoxifying body wrap and advanced body massage that targets cellulite, fluid retention, and skin tonicity. The spa also has a Finnish sauna, a crystal steam room, and a shower room with cool Arctic and warm Caribbean mists. 2. Lake Austin Spa Resort in Austin, TX Built on a secluded lakefront, this sprawling Texas getaway is the perfect place to go if you’re looking for a luxury resort with waterfront views. The resort offers more than 100 spa treatments and services, from seaweed body wraps and collagen-boosting facials to Thai massages and acupuncture. Guests can also enjoy any of the resort’s wide range of activities that are included in their stay such as a Mediterranean cooking class, outdoor yoga session, or canyon preserve hike. 3. Auberge du Soleil in Napa, CA Budget Travelers have always loved California wine country. Secluded inside a terraced, sun-kissed hillside amid 33-acres of heritage olive and oak trees, this Napa Valley resort has a spa surrounded by sweeping views of the wine country. Its “best of Auberge facial” uses advanced ingredients rich in marine collagen, powerful antioxidants, and exfoliating enzymes to provide immediate firming and facial contour results. Traveling with your significant other? Get a joint full-body exfoliation using crushed grape seeds, followed by a fragrant bath for two in a private garden where you’ll enjoy fresh fruit and wine before receiving side-by-side scalp and foot treatments, followed by full-body massages. 4. Encore spa at Wynn resort and casino in Las Vegas Sin City tops many traveler’s must-see list. This hotel spa may just be the definition of opulence. Featuring designer treatment rooms, the Wynn’s Encore spa sets a tranquil mood with glowing gold lanterns, life-size Buddhas, and blossoming orchids. For a relaxing full-body treatment order the Good Luck Ritual, which combines a custom massage, invigorating peppermint foot treatment, ultra-moisturizing hand therapy, and botanical scalp treatment. Have tired, achy feet? The Encore Foot Surrender will revitalize them by incorporating the use of steamed herbal poultices, reflex point therapy and a cooling peppermint foot treatment. 5. Shibui Spa at the Greenwich Hotel in New York City This Japanese-inspired wellness center is the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. Lanterns that softly illuminate the heated swimming pool set a soft ambience that will put your mind at ease. Consider getting the Bamboo Glow, a bamboo and lemongrass body scrub followed by a private shower with yuzu sea algae wash, a mint mineral bath, and a 60-minute, moisture-binding massage infused with bergamot, vetiver, and wild, Japanese lime. Spa guests also enjoy complimentary tea and dried fruits. 6. The Lodge at Woodloch in Hawley, PA A two-hour drive from New York City, this resort’s luxurious spa draws guests with its selection of creative body treatments, massages, facials, and salon services. Enjoy a soak in the facility’s activity pool with floor to ceiling windows, surrounded by nature, before retiring to one of the 27 treatment rooms for a European deep cleansing facial, Swedish magnesium massage, or Thai bodywork—a technique that uses stretching, point therapy, and breath work to create a sense of balance throughout the body. In addition, the spa specializes in pre-natal treatments that focus on rehydrating skin and promoting circulation. 7. Mii Amo in Sedona, AZ You’ll fall under Sedona’s spell at this ultra-private spa retreat nestled in a red-rock canyon that’s sacred to Native Americans. Guests can choose from a 3-, 4- or 7-night all-inclusive program that includes scheduled fitness classes, lectures, and two spa services per day. Opt for one of its indigenous-inspired therapies, such as the Soul Seeker treatment, where a master therapist uses guided imagery, energy soul journeying, emotional release, and breath work to help you achieve heightened awareness. 8. Sundara Inn & Spa in Wisconsin Dells, WI Tucked in a pine forest on the scenic outskirts of Wisconsin Dells, this resort’s spa is the perfect spot to disconnect and enjoy spa treatments that blend ancient wisdom with modern wellness techniques. Guests can choose from a wide range of spa treatments, including a coffee bean firming body wrap, exfoliating wrinkle reduction facial, or warm oil scalp massage. Also, the indoor bathhouse features an essential oil-infused hot pool with hydro jets, a cool plunge pool that improves circulation, a rainfall shower, and a steam room with aromas of rose and sandalwood. 9. Sunrise Springs Spa Resort in Santa Fe, NM (Courtesy @sunrisespringsnm/Instagram)With 70 tranquil acres of gardens, walking paths, and a scenic high desert landscape, this Santa Fe resort attracts guests from around the world to its wellness spa, which offers the best of Eastern and Western therapies. One of the spa’s cutting-edge treatments is a CBD full-body massage therapy that uses CBD oils and products grown and processed in Colorado to release tension in sore muscles and reduce inflammation in joints. The spa also offers—among many treatments—a facial that uses hot herbal towels and wild-crafted local herbs to gently soothe and tone skin. 10. The Spa at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY Founded in 1869, this Hudson Valley destination serves up skin and body treatments in a 30,000-square-foot eco-friendly spa, which includes 16 treatment rooms, relaxation verandas, solarium, 60-foot long indoor heated pool, and outdoor heated mineral pool. The spa offers more than 80 unique treatments, including a deep-heat massage with arnica oil helps calm the nerves and provides relief to over-used muscles. A nice bonus: both men’s and women’s changing rooms have a eucalyptus steam room and dry rock sauna.
8 U.S. Aviation Destinations That Belong on Your Bucket List
Whether you’re a hard-core aviation enthusiast (yes, #avgeeks is a thing) or just intrigued by the miracle of flight, there's a lot in store for in 2019. Step back in time to get inside the heads of the pioneers of aviation, like the Wright Brothers, then let your own dreams of flight take wing in a high-flying biplane ride. You can even spend the night at a new hotel that harkens back to the glamorous golden age of air travel. Here are eight bucket list experiences for today’s #avgeeks. 1. TWA Hotel: Jamaica, New York (Max Touhey) The stylish 512-room TWA Hotel (twahotel.com) at JFK’s Terminal 5, in New York City's most populous and diverse borough, Queens, is on track to preserve the romance and excitement of the Jet Age when it opens this spring. You’ll feel as though you’ve stepped into 1962, or at the very least, like an extra in the 2002 Steven Spielberg movie Catch Me If You Can. Guest rooms boast floor-to-ceiling windows, mid-century modern furnishings, and vintage rotary phones. Order an old-fashioned inside Connie, a 1958 Lockheed Constellation that’s been made over into a swanky cocktail lounge, or settle in at Paris Café, the latest restaurant by celebrated chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, featuring a menu inspired by TWA in-flight menus from the 1960s. 2. EAA AirVenture: Oshkosh, Wisconsin (EAA/Connor Madison) Known as the "World's Greatest Aviation Celebration," EAA AirVenture (eaa.org/en/airventure) soars over Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for seven days in July, attracting around 600,000 aviation enthusiasts. The annual fly-in convention features upwards of 3,000 showplanes, making Wittman Regional Airport the world’s busiest airport, if only for a few days. There are so many planes, in fact, that dozens of air traffic controllers are brought in to ensure smooth take-offs and landings. Daily air shows, a veterans' parade, and a 5K race on the runway, as well as dazzling aerobatics displays and parachute team demos, make EAA AirVenture a must for enthusiasts of the Golden Age of Aviation. 3. Wright Brothers National Memorial: Kitty Hawk, North Carolina (Outer Banks Visitors Bureau) Closed for renovations since winter 2016, the Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center (nps.gov/wrbr/index.htm) on North Carolina’s Outer Banks reopened this past September to share the story of flight with new hands-on exhibits and artifacts, some on display for the first time—among them, a large piece of cloth from the 1903 Wright Flyer that was donated in 1960 by the Wright Family. Also new: a two-minute video that tells the story and science behind the Wright Brothers’ advances in flight. Meanwhile, a kid-friendly interactive Aspiration Wall invites visitors to share how they’ve overcome personal obstacles and the dreams they hope to make possible one day. 4. Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum: Mesa, Arizona (Visit Mesa) A hangar filled with historic military combat planes is just one of the attractions at the Arizona Commemorative Air Force Museum at Falcon Field (azcaf.org) in Mesa, a town with a strong draw for foodies, just outside Phoenix. After you tour the hangar, an education in military history, you can climb into the cockpit of a warbird, like a N2S-3 Stearman biplane, and take to the skies with a professional pilot. Can’t make it to Mesa? During the summer, look for the Flying Legends of Victory Tour between June and October, when three of the seven combat planes travel to 50 cities across the country to educate on the history of air combat and the role of these warbirds. 5. The Boneyard at Pima Air and Space Museum: Tucson, Arizona (Visit Tucson) The Pima Air & Space Museum’s Boneyard (pimaair.org) is home to more than 4,000 military aircraft. However, because the Boneyard is actually located on the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, advance reservations and a security clearance are required at least 10 days in advance for a narrated bus tour around the property. On the museum’s central grounds, explore the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame, see planes in several hangars, and criss-cross the grounds to check out another 150 planes parked on the museum’s 80 acres. Sign up for a tram tour or one of two docent-guided walking tours. 6. Kansas Aviation Museum: Wichita, Kansas As the Air Capital of the World, Wichita, Kansas, should be a top priority on anyone’s list—whether you're an aviation geek or just someone interested in American history. It's the city where iconic aviation brands like Cessna and Stearman were born, and where Bombardier and Airbus Americas still design aircraft. Start at the Kansas Aviation Museum (kansasaviationmuseum.org), housed in the original Wichita Airport and showcasing Wichita’s aviation history, including the debut of B-47 and B-52 bombers. Next, brush up on the city’s aviation leaders at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum before stopping for a pint at Aero Plains Brewing, where the bar is made from the wing of a Beechcraft Model 18. 7. Wings & Waves Waterpark: McMinnville, Oregon (Visit McMinnville) Cool off and make a big splash at Wings & Waves Waterpark in McMinnville, Oregon (wingsandwaveswaterpark.com). At possibly the only educational waterpark in the U.S., you’ll find 10 waterslides, including four that exit from the fuselage of a real Boeing 747, as well as a hands-on science center on the role of water in everyday life. The waterpark is just one part of a larger museum campus, which also includes the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum where you’ll find World War II artifacts, booster rockets, and high-speed reconnaissance aircraft. Air Force Two, the aircraft used by first ladies and vice presidents, touches down at the museum for guided tours this spring. 8. Aviation Trail: Dayton, Ohio (TourismOhio) Take a walk or ride your bike along the Aviation Trail (aviationtrailinc.org) in Dayton, Ohio, the birthplace of aviation. Along the trail, you’ll find 17 flight-related museums and historical sites, including the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, home to a space shuttle and four of nine presidential aircrafts, including the Air Force One that returned President John F. Kennedy’s body from Dallas. The trail begins at the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center, where visitors learn about the early years of the Wright Brothers, and meanders its way across Dayton, making stops at the Aviation Trail Parachute Museum, the Wright Brothers Memorial, and the Tri-State Warbird Museum, which focuses on the history of aircraft used during war throughout history.
Travel News: 10 Most Welcoming Countries on Earth
Our friends at Booking.com (who power Budget Travel’s lodging-booking page) recently announced their annual Guest Review Awards, honoring more than 750,000 properties around the globe that deliver exceptional guest experiences. When a huge booking site crunches tons of user-provided data, some trends tend to emerge. Here, some of Booking.com’s findings, including some of the most welcoming places around the globe and in the U.S. TRAVELERS VALUE APARTMENTS AND OTHER UNIQUE LODGINGS In yet another sign of a significant paradigm shift in the way people travel, apartments were the top awarded accommodation category, comprising 36 percent of Booking.com’s award-winning properties worldwide in 2018. Hotels came in second. But perhaps most significantly, a full 73 percent of all award-winning properties were “unique properties,” including not only apartments but also private homes, bed and breakfasts, farmstays, riads, boats, and even igloos. 10 MOST WELCOMING COUNTRIES ON EARTH A significant number of travelers, more than 70 percent of those surveyed, reported that “friendly and interesting locals” are among the criteria they value most when choosing a destination. With that in mind, Booking.com for the first time compiled a list of the “most welcoming” countries in the world. We couldn’t help noticing that eight of the top 10 are affordable European destinations—let them inspire your next hop across the pond (or beyond): Austria Czech Republic Poland New Zealand Taiwan Romania Hungary Ireland Serbia Greece 10 MOST WELCOMING CITIES IN THE U.S. Further fuel for your wanderlust can be found in Booking.com’s most welcoming cities in the U.S., a good number of which Budget Travel has covered in recent years in our Locals Know Best and 51 Affordable Discoveries series: Newport, RISedona, AZOklahoma City, OKPittsburgh, PAFort Worth, TXBaltimore, MDLouisville, KYArlington, VAAnaheim, CAJacksonville, FL
7 Great Places to Eat in San Juan, Puerto Rico
With its beautiful white-sand beaches, a picturesque, colorful old town, and tropical Caribbean climes, Puerto Rico’s capital city has plenty to recommend it. But if you visit San Juan and don’t do some serious eating, you’re really missing out. From rich coffee (some of the best in the world) and stellar pastries (be sure to try the quesito, a tangy-cheese-filled treat with a crisp, sugary exterior) to snacks (the stuffed fritters known as alcapurrias are especially addictive) and fine dining, you really can’t go wrong. Here are seven delicious, budget-friendly bites from my last trip—each one $18 or less. 1. Jose Enrique (Maya Stanton) A chance to support a local civic-minded chef who also happens to be a James Beard award semi-finalist, and one of the island's most lauded culinary ambassadors to boot? Yes, please. Chef José Enrique offered up his restaurant as the initial base of operations for the disaster-relief work his friend José Andrés’s organization, World Central Kitchen, did in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and on top of that, his food is really something special. Though it’s a casual spot located in the neighborhood of Santurce, in a humble building sans signage, Jose Enrique is hardly nondescript. Between the bright-green exterior and the reasonably priced, ever-changing menu of traditional Puerto Rican favorites, it’s one for the highlight reels. For starters, try the poppers ($12), battered and fried chunks of fish in a creamy, spicy sauce, or the crab (above; $14), served cold with tomatoes, red onions, and herbs, doused with lime, and layered with a slice of avocado on a platter of crispy green plantains. Though they're equally good, the mains are pricier, so consider making a meal of the appetizers, and you'll walk away happy. (Pro tip: The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so arrive early and prepare to queue up. Lunch is a great option, especially mid-week—I went on a Wednesday, got there when it opened, and had my pick of the tables.)176 Calle Duffaut, San Juan; 787.725.3518; joseenriquepr.com. 2. Lote 23 (Maya Stanton) Launched in late 2016, Santurce’s Lote 23 is equal parts food park and community center: Its kiosks and Airstream trailers feed locals and tourists alike, and it’s a destination for yoga, music, and dancing too. If you’re coming to eat, you can fill up on hearty plates of pernil or fried chicken, go light with a poke bowl, snack on an order of croquettes, perk up with an iced Puerto Rican cold-brew coffee, and fill in the remaining cracks with a handmade popsicle from Señor Paleta. These are not the vaguely fruity concoctions you may remember from your childhood—we’re talking vibrant, full-bodied flavors here, from gelato-style varieties like peanut, pistachio, nutella, and dulce de leche to tropical sorbets like mango, guava, soursop, and passionfruit (above). They all ring in around $3 a pop (...pun intended), and you can’t go wrong with any of them.1552-1558 Avenida Juan Ponce de León, San Juan; lote23.com. 3. Santaella (Maya Stanton) With a chic, industrial-meets-contemporary dining room facing a lush, interior garden and a chef who’s worked with famous names like Ferran Adría and Eric Ripert, this fine-dining space in Santurce has the potential to be a real budget-buster. The smart bet is to swing by at lunch to sample chef José Santaella’s upscale, market-driven cocina criolla for less than $20, or belly up to the bar in the evening for a cocktail and a small plate or two. Drinks-wise, the spicy paloma ($15), with smoky mezcal, grapefruit juice, crushed red pepper, and a ginger-tahini salted rim, is an exceptional accompaniment to the empanadillas (above; $14), a plate of snack-sized empanadas with fillings that change from day to day. (Mine were stuffed with chorizo and cheese, a basic-sounding combination that tasted anything but.) Planning a splurge meal to kick off or wrap up your trip? This is the place to go big. 219 Calle Canals, San Juan; 787.725.1611; josesantaella.com. 4. Verde Mesa (Courtesy @VerdeMesa/Instagram) In the heart of Old San Juan (one of our 51 Affordable Discoveries for 2019!), this small restaurant features pressed-tin ceilings, eye-catching mason-jar light fixtures, a hodgepodge of vintage furniture, friendly service, and superb Mediterranean-Caribbean fusion cuisine. Vegetarian-friendly dishes are a rarity on the island, but here they’re more than just an afterthought—case in point, a refreshing ceviche-style chayote salad spiked with mango, lime, and cilantro; a hearty pumpkin and barley porridge with kale, pecorino, and roasted eggplant; and a vegetable-laced mound of rice, a signature dish. On the meatier side, the Moroccan-spiced lamb stew is a stand-out, bones and all, but the real winner is the octopus appetizer ($18), a pile of perfectly charred tentacles showered with pea shoots and served on a bed of smoky piquillo-pepper puree. They don't take reservations and there's usually a wait, but you won’t regret putting in the time.107 Calle Tetuan, San Juan; 787.390.4662; facebook.com/verdemesa. 5. La Bombonera (Maya Stanton) This circa-1902 Old San Juan bakery and café teases passersby with a tempting window display of assorted pastries, but don’t succumb—at least not ‘til later. You’re here for one singular sandwich: the Mallorca, a sweet roll layered with your choice of fillings, pressed until the edges are warm and crisp, and dusted with a heap of powdered sugar. You can have it with simple accompaniments like butter or chocolate, but I can never turn down a savory-sweet combination and chose the egg, ham, and Swiss ($7). The yolk was still soft, the cheese wasn’t quite melted, and the rich, salty filling just about stood up to the sugary roll. But it was the hot sauce that brought things into balance. I would’ve paid the fees to check a bag so I could bring home a bottle of the tangy, garlicky, house-made concoction, and I am an avid never-checker. Order a cortado ($3), a strong little cup of coffee with a touch of milk, to go with your sandwich, and pick up a few of those pastries on your way out, too. 259 Calle San Francisco, San Juan; 787.705.3370; facebook.com/labombonerasanjuan. 6. Kiosko El Boricua (Maya Stanton) For a taste of real-deal Puerto Rican snack food, jump in the car (or grab an Uber) and head out of town. Some 10 miles east of Old San Juan on the island’s north shore, the Piñones area boasts an array of roadside kiosks hawking local bites against a backdrop of postcard-perfect beaches. There’s always a line at Kiosko El Boricua, and for good reason: Everything's made to order, and it's all delicious. Try the pastelillos (turnovers with a shatteringly crisp exterior and a thin, soft layer of dough underneath) with crab (above; $5), the alcapurrias (fritters made from taro root and green plantains) with salt cod ($3.50), or the piononos (stuffed sweet plantains that are often rolled around the filling, but here it's more like a plantain sandwich) with beef ($4.50). The seafood tacos are also great, but this is where I should note that Puerto Rican tacos and Mexican tacos are not the same thing—the Puerto Rican version is yet another a deep-fried turnover-style snack, so don’t go in expecting a soft corn or flour tortilla. Come hungry, spring for a cheap beer to wash it down, and carry your haul across the street to tuck in on the sand.PR-187 km 8.0, Bo Torrecilla Baja, Loíza; 787.596.1684; facebook.com/kioskoelboricua. 7. Chocobar Cortés (Maya Stanton) A fourth-generation chocolate-making operation dating to 1929, Chocolate Cortés originated in the Dominican Republic before expanding production to the founder’s native Puerto Rico, and today, the bean-to-bar company’s locally and sustainably grown cacao varieties are starting to earn worldwide recognition. You can taste the goods at Chocobar Cortés, a cocoa-focused café in Old San Juan. Visit at brunch for sweet dishes like chocolate pancakes and French toast, or try the equally tasty, if a bit unconventional, savory preparations: roasted pumpkin soup with a white chocolate and wasabi crostini, perhaps, or a crispy chicken roulade with blood sausage and caramelized chocolate tomato sauce. My friend and I stopped by just after sunset and opted for pre-dinner drinks, a chocolate martini ($12) laced with Baileys for her, and a frozen mocha hot chocolate ($5) with whipped cream and chocolate nibs for me. Both were luscious and refreshing, and the quality of the chocolate was unmistakable. Ground chocolate is for sale, so yes, you can try this all at home. 210 Calle San Francisco, San Juan; 787.722.0499; chocobarcortes.com.