Tuesday, April 30, 2013

I am Ironman!

For those of you that know me, it probably doesn't come as a surprise to you that my brother-in-law calls me "Captain Intensity". I am notorious for getting wild hairs to do something crazy, and then following through and actually doing them. That is kind of how it went when I put Barney Stinson's (from How I Met Your Mother) marathon training program to the test "You don't train for marathons, you just run them. Step 1: Start running. Step 2: There is no Step 2." - says NPH. I thought to myself, "That sounds reasonable." Boom, first marathon: 4:13, next to no training! Similarly, after my first sprint triathlon in 2011, I was hooked immediately and set my sights on Ironman 70.3 San Juan for 2013. This is now my victory post, proving that I can do whatever I set my mind to (and so can anyone else).

"Victory!" (in my Johnny Drama voice)
For those of you who are not familiar with Ironman 70.3, it is a triathlon (named for the number of miles that you swim, bike, and run) in which participants swim 1.2 miles (in open water), then bike 56 miles, and finally run 13.1 miles. I chose San Juan for my first IM70.3 because of its clear water and the bike/run routes along the coast. Plus, lets not pretend that I don't have an affinity for Hispanic cultures. The Ironman course was everything that I had it built it up to be in my mind, and more! When my legs or body would get tired, I would just look at the ocean and imagine that I was having a relaxing day on the beach. But that is enough about triathlons for now, here is a bit more of our Puerto Rican experience (and of course the food too).

'Cudas (top and center)
The race hotel for this event was the Caribe Hilton, it was an amazing hotel and resort. They have ocean and lagoon views, a great beach and pool, and one of the coolest things that a hotel could have. There is a pier at the hotel that jaunts out over a shallow water rock cave. During the day, you can go watch colourful tropical fish swim back and forth in the waves. At night, those beautiful tropical fish go into hiding as the barracudas that live in the cave come out to eat, you can see them in the water thanks to a spotlight that is attached to the pier. These barracudas were a lot fatter than the barracudas that we saw in Mexico, they must be eating really well! Don't let this scare you away from swimming at the hotel beach though, they are seldom seen during the day and you are not what they are looking for.

View from our room
Right to Left: Soursop, Mango, Acerola
There are conflicting stories out there as to the origin of the Pina Colada; one version of the story has the Pina Colada originating at the Hilton Caribe, another has it originating at Barrachina (in Old San Juan). Although we did not make it to Barrachina, we did try the Pina Colada at the Caribe Hilton. Two words: "Be careful!", these things are dangerously delicious! We had some other great drinks at the hotel too, however they were the healthy kind of drinks (juices). The Soursop and Acerola juices intrigued me, because I had never had them, but they had fresh pineapple, mango, and passion fruit juices as well. I was excited for the Acerola juice because it is basically an exotic cherry. It was delicious, but a tad tart for my taste. Conversely, I was a little worried that the Soursop would be sour (because of the name), but this funky looking little green fruit produces some of the best juice I have ever had in my life!

Medalla on the balcony
Other great Puerto Rican drinks that we enjoyed throughout the week were: coconut water, Medalla Light (Puerto Rican beer), and Yaucono (Puerto Rican coffee). Puerto Rican coffee is some of, if not the, best coffee in the world! It is so smooth! It is very sad, but millions of pounds of Puerto Rican coffee goes unpicked annually because the wages paid to coffee pickers are so low that its hard to find anyone to pick coffee for that wage, as workers can make much more money at jobs that are much less labor intensive. This has led to many Puerto Rican coffee producers importing beans from other countries to cut the Puerto Rican grown beans. Now before any coffee snobs interject; Yaucono is Puerto Rico's top selling coffee, but has probably also fallen victim to the above predicament. You can probably find much better and much more pure PR coffee, but Yaucono is still pretty awesome if you ask me.

Seafood mofongo (in garlic sauce)
Before my race I pretty much stuck to Subway (as to not test my IBS before such a big day), but afterward we adventured out and tried to get into as much local food as possible. We started off by getting into some mofongo! Mofongo is a PR staple that is made from mashed plantains and often served with a mild garlic sauce. The first mofongo that we had was a seafood mofongo and was a bit more fancy than the mofongo we had later in the week. The plantains weren't mashed as finely, the sauce was a bit more garlic-y, and it was served with just about every type of seafood that you could imagine.

Coconut Water
The day after the race we went hiking in El Yunque, a national rainforest. From the top of the mountains, you can see all the way to the ocean. We hiked. We spoke to Coqui (a tree frog and unofficial mascot of the island of PR). We saw waterfalls. We even did a little 'Squatchin' (which was my wife and I taking pictures of my larger, younger brother walking through the jungle). If you are ever in PR, this is a must-stop destination. We had planned to also visit the bio-luminescent bay that night, but rain made us cancel our trip.
Panoramic view from the top of Yokahu Tower, in El Yunque
After a long day of hiking, we had worked up quite the appetite. We stopped by a beach-front restaurant and bar in Luquillo that seemed to cater to American surfing tourists. Boardriders has a huge patio where you can enjoy a Medalla, watch the waves roll in, and even play a little bag toss. This place has great fish tacos and fish wraps, although those are not traditional PR cuisines, it does not make them any less awesome. Boardriders also makes an incredible pineapple and mango salsa. The salsa has medium heat and go perfectly with white fish.

On our way back to San Juan, we also stopped by the kiosks in Luquillo. These kiosks are known for serving Puerto Rican treats known as frituras (fritters). Frituras come in every different shape, size, and flavour. There are sweet, savory, and everything in between. Each kiosk has their own recipe. You will find frituras made of beef, chicken, pork, seafood, etc. wrapped in some form of carbohydrate and deep fried. These carbohydrates can be: a flour tortilla (with the contents rolled inside cigar style), corn meal, or plantains. The most interesting fritura that I tried was made with ground beef, sandwiched between two pieces of fry bread, and then the void between the two pieces of fry bread was wrapped with a sweet plantain. Pour a little bit of hot sauce on that and you have a mighty fine fritura.

Coco y Parcha
Other street food items that we enjoyed in PR were pinchos and sebert. Pinchos are the PR version of a kabob. They are barbecued meat or seafood on a stick, topped with a piece of bread. Honestly, the pinchos that I had at the Condado Lagoon, by the Conrad Condado hotel, has to be the best meat on a stick that I have ever had. Once you have had your fill of pinchos, you wont have to look too far for an older gentleman pushing a sherbet cart around. There is nothing better on a hot day in PR than a combo of coco (coconut) and parcha (passion fruit) sherbet, although my wife prefers coco y pina (pineapple).

We also indulged in another local favorite, Puerto Rican rum. We visited Casa Bacardi (the Bacardi distillary), Casa Don Q, and Fernando Fernandez at Ron de Barrilito.

Bacardi Windmills
When Facundo Bacardi moved to Cuba from Spain and opened up a specialty store, he refused to sell Caribbean rum (at the time called Kill Devil, or Pirate's Moonshine) because of it's harshness. Facundo decided that rum had a good base, in  sugar cane (or molasses), and that he could distill a rum that was smooth enough to drink. His little experiment became the best selling rum in the world. In true empire fashion, Casa Bacardi was gigantic, sophisticated, and corporate. Puerto Ricans appreciate what Bacardi brings to the island in revenue and jobs, but they prefer a rum that originated on the island. Don't get me wrong, they make a mighty fine product (it's not #1 in the world for nothing), the tour is just a tad corporate for my taste.

Don Q is the best selling rum in PR, and has local origins. Casa Don Q can be found in Old San Juan, directly across the street from where the ships port, and is not a distillery, but more of a shrine to Don Q (with a bar) than it is a museum or a history lesson. CDQ does have good information about the distilling process, and some awesome specialty drinks that cool you down on a hot day, but at the end of the day they are catering to the touristas that walk across the street from the ships (and I do understand that is what pays the bills, I just prefer not to be grouped in with tourists, I am an independent traveler, not a tourist).

Ron de Barrilito offices
(inside a decommissioned wind mill)
My taste in rum led me to Ron de Barrilito. Fernando Fernandez runs the company that his great-grandfather started after immigrating from Spain. Ron de Barrilito started, similarly to Bacardi, to elevate the level of Caribbean rum being produced. However, Ron de Barrilito was modeled after the Cognacs of France and intended to be the best rum that you have ever tasted, rather than to build an empire. Little has changed about Ron de Barrilito since 1827 (when it was founded), they even change the barrels as infrequently as possible, I would not be shocked if there were multiple barrels in the aging room over 100 years old (stupidly, I did not ask). One of the secrets to RdB is that it is aged at proof, rather than being aged at over-proof and then cut down to proof (like most other rums, *cough* Bacardi *cough*). Everything around here is done the old fashion way; the machines on the bottling line were only configured to attach one label, so when the government started requiring back labels on liquor, RdB began gluing them on by hand (rather than buy new machines). The only tough thing about RdB is that it is ridiculously hard to find! You will need to do a thorough internet search, stop and ask for directions, and you still may not find it unless you have someone who has been there before with you. Sure, I could tell you exactly how to get there, but then you would miss the adventure. The only thing that can make the 3-packs of "3-star" that you can buy for $45 (SMOKING DEAL!) is when it comes with a little adventure.

Red Snapper
Last but not least, we stopped by a little restaurant in Old San Juan that was recommended to me by a Puerto Rican co-worker, called El Jibarito. The inside of the restaurant is modeled just like the outsides of the buildings around Old San Juan. The food in this place was so amazing that we broke our rule about not dining the same place twice while traveling. Between all of the members of our party, and two meals, we tried just about everything on the menu. The first day, my favorite dish was the "Island Steak" that is a cheap cut of round steak that has been marinated and grilled the Puerto Rican way. It was especially delicious when I slopped a little bit of the house made garlic sauce on it. I felt pretty confident that this would be the best dish to order on our second visit, until my wife orders the whole red snapper. Oh man did she out order me! The red snapper was probably the best that I have ever had! Luckily for me, my wife couldn't finish all of the fish, so I got to pick the bones clean. I even got the salty, gooey eye balls (Bourdain would have been proud). No matter what you get, I recommend the mixed mofongo (plantain and yuca) as your side, its pretty incredible. If you find yourself anywhere near Old San Juan, you will be doing yourself a dis-service if you do not stop into El Jibarito, ask for Angel and tell him that the Ironman and the Strongman sent you (then show him the picture of my brother and I below).
The Ironman and the Strongman
Make sure you tour El Morro, fly your kites on the fort's lawn, and do your walking tour of Old San Juan before checking in on the amazing gastronomy of Old San Juan. I say this because if you love to eat as much as I do, you may not be able to afterwards.
El Morro
As the saying goes, "to whom much is given, much is required". I have dropped all of this PR knowledge on you, although admittedly only scratching the surface myself. But before you go planning your trip, there is a few things you need to know. PR is America! You CAN drink the water there! (I clarify because these are common questions that I have gotten about PR). Although it is America, and they have 99% of the same conveniences that we have in the lower 48, they still have two official languages (English and Spanish). Remember, as with anywhere that you travel, you are the guest in someone else's territory. Be respectful of their culture. If you do not know elementary Spanish, carry a Spanish phrase book with you. You will be hard pressed to find someone in Old San Juan that does not speak English, but you will go to areas of the island that you will be hard pressed to find someone that does (then you will have to know how to order your 6-pack of Medalla en Espanol).

We loved PR and will definitely be back, possibly even for next year's IM70.3.


  1. In your vernacular... awesome story! Sounds like a great trip and experience. No Ironman for me I will just keep up with my pizza workout.

  2. Muchas gracias David! I appreciate you doing the pizza workout for me and all of your other fans.