Monday, October 17, 2016

Puerto Rico vacation interview

@Slirt recently visited Puerto Rico and I thought it would be fun to ask him about his experience. Thanks, Slirt!

Why Puerto Rico?

On my To Go list as I've seen much of Latin America (capitals & colonial cities/towns) but felt remiss to have not seen the "Gateway to the Caribbean" and the de facto capital of New Spain. I'd never been been to a Caribbean island, it wasn't even on my radar until maybe 10 years ago when I discovered & learned about Vieques (island, former Navy practice area; I really wanted to go to the W Hotel there, but ala$ it wa$n't meant to be), and lately I've been watching a lot of Beachfront Bargain Hunt, House Hunters International, Island Hunters, and Caribbean Life on HGTV. But as it's also a US territory, I always choose abroad over domestic (ie, went to Colombia instead, 2013). 

Five years ago I realized it's MUCH cheaper to fly to PR than Hawaii (almost half: $350-400 vs. $600-700 from L.A.) and I wanted this to be a water-based vacation (pool, beach, scuba); October is also LOW season (lotsa rain, VERY humid), meaning cheapest flights & deals to be had at hotels, etc. Risk is it's also hurricane season... and we lucked out in that regard, arriving on the heels of Matthew. But as a Florida-born Angelino, I was looking forward to seeing (feeling, smelling) some warm, tropical rain!

What was your itinerary?

LAX-ORD, where Mike (from YVR) & I met for our ORD-SJU flight on United. [As much as I love international travel and the associated adrenaline rush, I must admit it was nice to avoid Immigration & Customs, making coming & going much faster.] 

Rented a 2017 Toyota Yaris iA from Europcar and immediately drove east to Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort, my 1st resort experience. Four nights (Mon-Thurs*) there, then back to San Juan, ditched the car, and spent Friday-Saturday nights in Old San Juan (OSJ) at La Terraza hotel. Same SJU-ORD-LAX flights home.

*Mon - downpour upon arrival at resort; dinner at Kioskos de Luqillo: mofongo & mojito (pictured).
*Tues - torrential rain, so rainforest: El Yunque National Forest; mostly drove, short hike; lots of infrastructure there built by Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s!
*Weds - best day forecasted, cloudy no rain, so catamaran (my 1st) sail & snorkel from Fajardo to Icocos Island, $66
*Thurs - SUNNY! drove 2hrs east to Arecibo Observatory.

Without fail we started and/or ended our days in the pool(s) & hot tub(s); the resort's beach was OK & we walked it twice, but the weather conditions made it less inviting than it woulda been otherwise.

In Old San Juan we were also treated to a Columbus Day airshow by the Thunderbirds, who roared overhead as we drank in the rooftop plunge pool.

Given that the Puerto Rican economy almost went bankrupt, how much did things (gas, food, etc.) cost compared with the mainland?

The economic situation was basically invisible to these tourists' eyes, and I kept having to remember it. That said, I was surprised that PR was more expensive than I expected it to be. It wasn't particularly expensive (like Hawaii), but rather it was about the same as mainland US: $3/gallon gasoline, $5 beers, $10 lunch, $20 dinner; certainly not a Thailand-priced bargain destination in that regard. But I used a Travelzoo voucher for the resort (buy 2 nights, 2 nights free, making it only $100/night, half-price), and used Expedia to book Old San Juan room, also cheaper than list at $100/nt.

Did everybody speak English with proficiency?

No. At the airport, resort, and in Old San Juan, yes pretty much, so no communication issues on the tourist trail. The countryside, when we stopped for gas, food or directions, we encountered Spanish-only speakers (and even one policeman in Old San Juan).

What did you enjoy the most? What was disappointing?

Enjoyed low season the most, that we were some of the only tourists there; nearly everywhere almost deserted. The resort only ~15% occupied, 15 of us on sailboat that usually takes 48, few other tourists at Arecibo Observatory, Old San Juan fairly empty & devoid of docked cruise ships. And maybe not-so-oddly, there was an underlying sense of security that came from knowing we were still "in the US" if anything were to happen; I just didn't feel as overall vulnerable as if truly abroad. 

Also, it was my Canadian friend's first real tropical experience (he'd only ever done Hawaii & Puerto Vallarta), and also his first Spanish colonial destination, so I enjoyed his discovery & reaction to things. He kept calling PR "America's Mexico" and i don't think he's wrong. (Funny aside, after he agreed to the trip when I called to discuss & said "San Juan" he asked "where in Mexico is that?" and I said "Puerto Rico, not Mexico" - he'd agreed to a completely different trip! But he didn't mind, and he kept conflating Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, and Puerto Vallarta, so in the end I decided next time we're going to Costa Vallarta!)

Most disappointing was that we only saw 1 iguana (but he was an awesome 4-5 footer). And the iA's sucky transmission. Also, we didn't really do modern San Juan, or as Mike dubbed it, "Miamolulu" cuz it looked & felt like Miami meets Honolulu.

Did you visit any cool historical sites?

The Cold War space-race era Arecibo Observatory was very interesting, and continues its research mission(s) despite no longer being the "world's largest" radio telescope (see China's brand new, mindboggling FAST) The topography of the region it's in is also very pretty, jungle-covered Karst terrain, with large limestone sinkholes which provided a natural geometry for the construction of the 305 meter reflector.

Old San Juan is the old Spanish colonial walled city that defended the port with the Castillo San Felipe del Morro at the entrance to the bay, and the Castillo de San Cristobal at the entrance to the city. We toured El Morro and were "forted out," so didn't bother with the other one. Instead, we wandered the streets (nearly identical to the equally-beautiful Cartagena, except Old San Juan has some hilliness) and the old cemetery taking lots of pictures, and finding the Deco architecture among the Spanish Colonial. I particularly love the never-before-seen blue-brick streets (the Goog sez "The streets of Old San Juan have a blue brick called Adoquin, blue stones cast from furnace slag which were brought over on Spanish ships as ballasts. The characteristic blue color comes from age and moisture.")

Any great meals/bars?

My favorite meal was our completely random stop at a typical little spot on the road up to Arecibo; limited menu from a steam table, we just had plato tipico, shredded pork with rice & beans and tostones (fried plantain/hockey puck) and a weird Malta India (local) soda (pictured; $7.50).

Anything different about the cars there versus here?

Unfortunately, no. The cars are about the same, with Hyundai/KIA making a major dent in the market from my anecdotal eyes. A few high-end marques, and usually newer than not, but overall many more beaters than I'm used to seeing, and around the towns, many cars on jack stands, engines pulled, in various states of disrepair. All over the place. Yards. Roadside. Fields. 

And as drivers, Puerto Ricans are not so good. Merging into traffic at speed of flow is not a concept they employ. Slow drivers camp in the left lane, intentionally we were told, even on the US-like highways; so frustrating. Lane wandering like neither of us had ever seen, too! Lots of suspected drunk driving... In fact, the 21 year-old rental car agent suggested it ("lotsa great little bars to stop for a drink while in the twisty mountains," she said. seriously. we did not.)!!!

Why do you love to travel?

It broadens my horizons and perspectives. It gives me insight into other people, cultures, languages. Food & drink. History. Different climates/environments. Architecture. It makes me feel alive. It makes me appreciate where I live.

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