May 21, 2019

Day Trip to Culebra

Playa Flamenco in the island of Culebra is consistently rated as one of the top beaches in the world. So of course I had to make a special day trip there from San Juan during my recent Puerto Rican vacation.  This post details my flight to and from Culebra, practical tips once you get there, and what it’s like.  

There are two ways to get to the island of Culebra from San Juan: by boat and by air.  

If by boat, you can: 
·     Rent a private boat, which is lots of $$$
·     Join a group tour, which runs from $75-$100 and will include about an hour at Playa Flamenco
·     Take the ferry from Ceiba or Fajardo for $4.

At first glance, taking the ferry seems like a no-brainer. But after having read the difficulties of trying to actually catch the passenger ferry itself, which includes at least an hour of standing in line just to purchase a ticket (each way) and not being guaranteed passage because there might not be room, I decided to explore other options. Note that there is currently no system in place to buy tickets online.  If you do a search, what comes up are third party vendors who purchase a ticket for you for a markup, but having a ticket does not guarantee you passage.  

If by air, there are several airlines that fly out to Culebra from San Juan and they all run around a $100 each way, for a total of $200 round trip.  When I added the cost of renting a car to drive to Ceiba (where the ferry terminal is) or taking an Uber both ways, including the ferry tickets, the round trip airplane fare doesn’t seem prohibitive, especially since it guarantees peace of mind.  One option to consider is taking the ferry one way and a plane flight the other way to cut costs. 

My flight through Cape Air departed at 6:30 a.m. and lasted approximately 25 minutes.  Even though it is a very short domestic flight, you still have to be through security at least 45 minutes before your flight. I got to the San Juan airport too late and had to sprint through the airport to get to my gate, which felt like a mile from security.  Please note that you have to check in in person. Personnel weigh all your bags, even if they’re carry-on only and ask you how much you weigh – all because it is a very small plane that you will be flying.  Every pound counts.  

I was escorted onto the tarmac by an air traffic controller and all my bags were stowed away in the back, where they were inaccessible.  I was lucky enough to be the only passenger during my flight to Culebra so I felt like a VIP. The plane itself was a BN-2B Islander and had 8 seats, plus two for the pilot and co-pilot.  Like larger airplanes, there was an in-flight magazine, safety card and a vomit bag.  Since I had never flown in such a small plane before, I was very concerned about the flight itself.  I had no need to worry. The skies were clear and the ride was very smooth. It was so thrilling to be high up among the clouds with unparalleled views of the wide blue sea.  

One thing to note is that it is very noisy inside the cabin so bring earplugs for a more enjoyable trip.

When it comes time to land, you will hear the engine quiet down and then the pilot will turn towards the space between two mountain peaks then make a left turn where all of a sudden a runway appears, like a miracle.

The Culebra airport is very small; it doesn’t even have a security checkpoint. There is a café inside and restrooms.

By the door is a list of publicos or taxis to call if you want a ride to the beach. This part was the only frustrating thing of my day trip. I called most of the numbers on that list and most people didn’t answer, one person flat out said no, and another said he was out of town.  If you find yourself in the same predicament, note that you can walk from the airport to Playa Flamenco – it will take about 20 minutes.  As you’re exiting the airport, turn right and go down that main road, which ends at the beach.

But the morning I was there, I didn’t know that. You can rent Jeeps or golf carts across from the airport.  A golf cart costs $58 for the day, a Jeep $54.  

But I ended up not having to walk or rent a vehicle because a kind couple took pity on me upon hearing my troubles and let me ride with them on their rented golf cart, which took about 5 minutes.  

Once you get to the beach, it costs $6 to park your vehicle and $2 per person.

There are restrooms, changing stalls, and outdoor showers.

There are also food and drink kiosks but I would recommend that you bring your own food.  The food from the kiosks are merely okay and rather expensive. If buying food to bring to the beach, there is a cluster of eateries and a small general store near the airport.  As you exit the airport, turn right, then turn right again at the main intersection.  

Playa Flamenco is spectacular.  White sands, clear turquoise waters, coconut trees swaying gently in the breeze – it’s all out of a postcard.  

And then there’s the famous World War II tank beached on the western end, left there by the U.S. Navy and now painted like an urban work of art incongruously sunning itself on a Puerto Rican beach.  There’s actually another tank closer to the main entryway which has also been decorated and left on top of a little hill more inland.

Another thing to note is that there is a warning at the airport to be on the lookout for leftover munitions at the beach and in the water. So beware.

The flight back to San Juan was as smooth as the morning flight.  It was well worth the money spent to fly to Culebra.  I only wish I had more time there to explore other beaches on the island.

May 14, 2019

My Walking Tour of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

I recently had the pleasure of visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico, a charming city full of vibrant colors and flavors. This video is just a little taste of my wonderful stay, including a walking tour that will lead you to some of my favorite spots.  

You will probably fly into Luis Munoz Airport and from there take a taxi to your hotel.  Uber, the only ridesharing option in San Juan, is not allowed to pick up from the airport so a taxi or a rental are your top choices. There are flat rates posted on the wall so there are no surprises. The 10-12 minute ride to Old San Juan costs $24, plus a dollar for every piece of luggage and a dollar for every extra person. The Uber ride to the airport from Old San Juan costs about $10.  

I decided to stay in Old San Juan for a few nights then transfer to a hotel in the Isla Verde neighborhood for a different experience.  Old San Juan is a quaint neighborhood with cobblestoned streets and colonial era buildings painted in rainbow sherbet colors.  Staying here is a must.  And since it is a compact area, everything is within walking distance. You don’t need a car at all.  Uber or a taxi is sufficient for going to and from the airport or to and from other neighborhoods such as Isla Verde, Santurce or Condado.

To start my walking tour, make your way to Plaza Darsenas, which is near the piers where cruise ships dock.  This is a lively area in the weekends with food trucks, live music, and vendors selling souvenirs.  There’s also a social-media ready photo spot, hashtag Puerto Rico.  

To the right is the Paseo de La Princesa – a tree-shaded promenade by the sea, made for slow strolls.  Lots of trees and benches for resting.

The Paseo runs into the beautiful La Princesa Fountain.  

Past the fountain, follow the promenade, which leads you to Puerta de San Juan or San Juan Gate. For centuries, San Juan gate was the formal entrance to San Juan.  Nowadays, street musicians usually perform within its passageway.  There is a large shady tree nearby where you can sit underneath and enjoy the music.  

If you go through the gate and up the stairs to your left, you will be rewarded by this view of the sea and the promenade below.

From the gate, turn right and keep going until you hit Calle de San Francisco.  Go up a block then turn right and walk to Fortelaza Street, where you will find one of San Juan’s newest attractions – Paseo de Las Sombrillas.

From Fortelaza Street turn left on Calle del Cristo and walk up.  At the corner of Calle del Cristo and Caleta de las Monjas is a little shady square where you can rest and gaze at the beautiful Hotel El Convento, which used to be a convent turned into a hotel.  

Continuing your walk up Calle del Cristo, continue a few more minutes then turn right at Calle San Sebastian, which dead-ends to my favorite place for cool, quiet solitude, Museo de Casa Blanca, the former home of Ponce de Leon, turned museum.  The museum itself is not the draw for me but its beautiful garden, which seems to be free. Both times I went there, I wandered the grounds to my heart’s content without paying an entrance fee.  

The courtyard’s shady trees, water fountains and benches beckon as if to say, stay awhile, rest your feet, traveler, refresh your spirits.  

On the other side of the museum are more grounds for wandering, with views of the sea beyond.

At this point, you could choose not go inside the museum, but if you didn’t, then you would miss a spectacular view from the second floor, well worth the $3-to-$5 entrance fee.

Once you’ve had your fill of Casa Blanca’s rejuvenating gardens, exit the gate and turn left, which will take you through Plaza de Benficencia and past the plaza towards the expansive lawn fronting El Morro, one of San Juan’s two forts.  Both times I visited here, it was pretty windy, refreshingly so during a hot day.  In the weekends, you can find picnics and people flying their kites here.  

Continuing on your walk, stay on the boulevard that runs parallel with the old fort walls, Norzagaray Street.  Turn right at Calle Imperial, which dead ends to this giant, painted Puerto Rican flag

Turn right again for an entrance to the courtyard of the Museum of Art and History.  On Saturdays, from 8-1 pm, there are artisans selling crafts, food stands and live music.  This is also a perfect place to sit on a shaded bench and rest.

At this point, you can end the walk or explore San Juan’s colorful streets without any particular destination in mind.  

If you have some time in the morning free, perhaps after a hearty breakfast, I suggest taking another walk.  This one starts at San Juan Gate and ends in El Morro.  It is less than a mile and because most of it is exposed to the west, better experienced in the cooler morning hours.  Not many tourists here, but lots of lovely views of the sea.

If you were wondering whether San Juan has fully recovered from Hurricane Maria, I can only say that everything seemed to be in normal working order from my perspective. As a tourist, I had only a most pleasant experience.  

May 13, 2019

Book Review: One Day in December by Josie Silver

Laurie is pretty sure love at first sight doesn’t exist anywhere but the movies. But then, through a misted-up bus window one snowy December day, she sees a man who she knows instantly is the one. Their eyes meet, there’s a moment of pure magic…and then her bus drives away.

Certain they’re fated to find each other again, Laurie spends a year scanning every bus stop and cafe in London for him. But she doesn’t find him, not when it matters anyway. Instead they “reunite” at a Christmas party, when her best friend Sarah giddily introduces her new boyfriend to Laurie. It’s Jack, the man from the bus. It would be.

What follows for Laurie, Sarah and Jack is ten years of friendship, heartbreak, missed opportunities, roads not taken, and destinies reconsidered. One Day in December is a joyous, heartwarming and immensely moving love story to escape into and a reminder that fate takes inexplicable turns along the route to happiness.

I picked up One Day in December during the last moments of my tropical vacation. Not because I didn’t have anything to read but because I couldn’t resist spending my last Thai bhat on a book. I read it on the long plane ride home; it didn’t last the whole way, but it was a diverting few hours nevertheless.  There’s something about vacation books – every time I look at it or see its cover somewhere, fond, warm feelings bubble up as I am temporarily transported to a wonderful memory.

Although its significant moments take place in snowy winter, One Day in December is a summer beach book through and through. It’s the kind of book I can easily see as a winning rom-com. Is there such a thing as love at first sight? This novel nudges the reader in that direction, certainly. But it still makes Sarah and Jack earn each other’s love – through years of getting to know each other, setbacks and obstacles to that ultimate Love Actually rising crescendo of a happily every after.  When they finally do get together, it doesn’t feel rushed or out of nowhere, it feels like we’ve known these characters and seen their tribulations so of course we want them to be happy and end up together.

What was a pleasant surprise for me was how much I loved Sarah and Laurie’s close friendship. No one is the enemy here. I loved how the author depicted their strong bond and enjoyed their funny moments together.