Spring Vacation in Puerto Rico

Published: July 7th 2011
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13 April 2000 Thursday. For the kids Spring Break we decided to fly to Puerto Rico. We all had an early start…3:30 am for Linda, 4 am for me and 4:30 am for the kids…in time for the taxi which arrived at 5 am. It was dark and cold; Rosanna was the only one to refuse to wear a jacket knowing that she wouldn’t need it where we were going…she is the stubborn one. We departed Reagan National at 6:30 am for Puerto Rico, via St Louis. We were using TWA frequent flyer miles so had to go through their hub…maybe that’s why they got eaten up by American…who wants to fly down the East or West Coasts via the middle of the country? Linda was surprised at the meager airline food…no surprise to me as I had flown frequently on official business so saw the continued deterioration of airline meals and service. Will asked for a second bag of pretzels, and the stewardess gave him a large bag full of small bags, which were useful for snacking the rest of our trip.

We arrived in San Juan about 3:30 pm greeted by warm, but rainy weather. After picking up our baggage, we took the shuttle to the rental car lot. We refused the first car offered…it was dirty and scratched, with only two doors.

The traffic was heavy driving east all the way to Luquillo Beach. Rosanna and Will were very disappointed with the poor roads, the wrecked cars, the slums, and the generally unkempt suburbs and countryside. They wanted to turn around and go home despite our assurances that the countryside would improve. Linda and Tamara were both upbeat.

We found our hotel after much searching; the most expensive of the trip and the least interesting. We had adjacent rooms, each with a single and double. We decided boys in one and girls in the other with a shared bath in between. This wasn’t going to be a second honeymoon! The rooms were air conditioned but the windows were covered with translucent plastic so we couldn’t see out of them. We walked to a nearby restaurant and with a full stomach, Rosanna and Will’s attitudes improved. After watching TV for an hour we fell asleep.

14 April 2000 Friday. I awoke at 6 am and tried to fall back to sleep without success. As breakfast wasn’t served until 8:30 am I asked if anyone wanted to walk on the beach with me. No takers so I started out alone. After going in one direction, I returned to the room to see if anyone else was ready. They were, so we headed down the beach in the other direction. The weather was sunny, but windy. Rosanna didn’t like the color of the sand. I said it was gold. She said it was brown or orange, but not white which is what she required. Will threw some gold sand at her, and the war was on. We made it back for breakfast without too many wounds.

When I turned the key to open the doors of our rental car, this set the burglar alarm went off. It finally went off when I turned the ignition. Unfortunately, the ignition didn’t start the motor. Several guests offered various solutions to this anti-theft measure, to no avail. I called the rental car company, and they suggested that I lock all the doors, and then enter through the front passenger side, climb over the gear shift into the driver’s seat and then try the ignition. This worked so for the rest of the trip I had to enter through the passenger door. I was beginning to realize, as had the kids the day before, that we really were in a third world developing country, despite its commonwealth status within the United States.

We arrived at the nearby El Junque Rain Forest National Park about 9:15 am. We stopped at the visitor center to see a movie about rain forests and their flora and fauna, and then bought some souvenirs at the gift shop. We then hiked the marked trail to Mina Falls…about .7 miles up and .7 miles down. We all enjoyed the scenery and the walk; including using large leaves as umbrellas until we could find a picnic shelter to wait out a tropical storm that passed by. Rosanna said that this was how she imagined Puerto Rico, so things were looking up.

We ate fried Puerto Rican specialties for lunch as the elderly proprietor charmed the kids for the entire meal. We left the park about noon and then headed around the eastern end of the island. We drove a stretch of the Route Panoramica which averaged 20 miles/hour over twisty mountain roads. We then drove
Tamara videoing the fallsTamara videoing the fallsTamara videoing the falls

Watching the video made us sick...too much jerky motion.
on four lane highways along the entire south coast, mostly sugar plantations and dry scrub, to the west end of the island to Rincon; arriving about 4:30 pm.

We stayed for several days at the Parador Villa Antonio, which was a typical local resort right on the beach; but not a resort that catered to tourist from the mainland. The beach was still golden sand and fringed with palm trees. The kids were happy even if we didn’t have white sand. Our two room cottage was feet from the beach. The sky started to cloud over so we walked to a local restaurant where I had seafood, and the others had pizza and spaghetti. After the girls and I stopped at a grocery store since our cottage had a kitchenette. Linda took Will to the beach, soon to be joined by the girls. The evening ended with some TV and then bed.

15 April 2000 Saturday. We woke up at 7 am to beautiful sunny skies, a slight breeze, and the azure blue ocean. I hurried to the bakery for fresh bread and churros; but they had never heard of churros. After breakfast of cereal and French bread we spent the morning on the beach building sand castles, body surfing, catching little things that looked like jelly fish but didn’t sting, collecting seashells (Linda’s favorite activity), and watching the pelicans parade back and forth along the beach and occasionally diving into the water for fish. We also watched fishermen with nets, both on shore and in colorful boats. We were alone at first, but after an hour the other families joined us. There was only one other gringo family. The kids soon made many friends as they alternated between the ocean and the swimming pool.

We showered for lunch and then took an afternoon drive past the Rincon lighthouse to Aguadilla, where Christopher Columbus discovered Puerto Rico in 1493, although according to Gavin Menzies’ book “1421” the Portuguese already had a colony on the island at least fifty years earlier. We then drove to Mayaguez to a shopping plaza to buy sandals. We ate an early dinner at a steak house. We returned to our parador for some late afternoon beach time. Then we played some cards, watched some TV and then turned in early.

16 April 2000 Sunday. Another beautiful day. This time I try a different bakery in search of churros. I asked the girl politely for churros, and she replied “Cheerios?” I spelled out “C-H-U-R-R-O-S. She was puzzled until another customer said churros, but rolling the R’s. Everyone laughed; but no one had heard of churros….must be Mexican. I returned home and the girls said that K-Mart, where we were in Mayaguez, sold churros, so they must have them in Puerto Rico. I can’t win.

After breakfast it was beach time again. I talked to some other gringos who told me that many mainland retirees come here for three months every winter. The girls met two other girls their age. By lunch time we were getting some color…Linda calls it sunburn.

We took another drive down the cost and had an expensive lunch at a seafood restaurant looking out over the ocean on the way to San German, the second oldest town in Puerto Rico. It’s church is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere.

Our next stop was Boqueron Beach, but didn’t swim there. On the way back to our hotel it rained. We stopped for more groceries which I cooked for dinner; most of which the girls fed to a stray dog. Will didn’t eat anything because he said I couldn’t cook. After dinner Linda and Will play cards (War) while Rosanna watched; Tamara wrote post cards, and I planned tomorrow's activities.

17 April 2000 Monday. We woke up to an overcast day so we skipped the beach for an early start to our drive to the next destination, the Parador Casa Grande, a former coffee plantation in the mountains of west central Puerto Rico. Rather than driving directly east through the mountains, we took the four lane coastal road around the northwestern end to Arecibo and then south into the mountains to Utardo where we have a lunch of local fare. From there it is a narrow twisty mountain road to the parador.

We had a two room cottage with a wrap around porch and hammocks. There was also a swimming pool where the kids swam while I talked to the owner Steve until he had to return to his gardening. I read next to the pool and then in a hammock. The kids swam and then played with the cats and dogs.

We had dinner at the parador at 7 pm. Night had fallen so we ate by lamplight, listening to the jungle sounds and the coquis frogs. The kids had spaghetti, Linda had salmon, and I had giant shrimp, both seafood dishes prepared by the gourmet chef, Steve’s wife Marlene. After dinner we retire to our rooms to read until our eye lids got heavy. The ceiling fan kept us cool as we drifted off to sleep despite the racket of the coquis frogs and other insects. They woke me throughout the night, but everyone else slept soundly.

18 April 2000 Tuesday. The day started out cloudy, but soon turned sunny. We had a leisurely breakfast of French toast, omelets, pancakes, coffee and juice. We decided to spend the day in Ponce directly south of our parador on the coast.

Our map showed a nice four lane highway from Utardo to Ponce which should have taken a half hour to drive. However, maps of Puerto Rico often reflect roads that they intend to build someday, but are not there at present. Conversely, they don’t show roads that have been built. So planning a trip can sometimes result in going with Plan B. So our four lane highway ended about a mile south of Utardo, and became a very narrow twisting mountain road that took two hours to get to Ponce. Another peculiarity; distance signs are in kilometers, but speed signs are in miles/hour…and gas is sold by the liter.

We finally arrived in Ponce, but dreaded our return journey. We toured the historic center; plaza, church, and the red and black fire station. We shopped along the pedestrian street leading from the plaza. We ate lunch at McDonalds and then visited the Hilton resort. Immediately the kids asked why we didn’t stay there the entire week. The cost of $400/night led to partial understanding and vows that when they get rich, this is where they will spend their vacation.

We left Ponce about 3:30 pm, but rather than retracing our steps we decided that the slightly longer alternative route couldn’t possibly be as bad. The route we took was a close second. Driving through the mountains is not a pleasant experience.

We returned to our parador about 5:30 pm and reserved dinner for 6:30 pm. The kids took a quick dip in the pool and found the animals. Dinner was great, and everyone was famished. We read before turning in about 9 pm. This time the frog noises didn’t bother me.

19 April 2000 Wednesday. The sun was so bright we couldn’t have breakfast on the veranda. We relaxed the rest of the morning; swimming or reading.

About 11 am we drove towards the Arecibo Observatory, the largest radio telescope in the world, and where we are searching for extraterrestrial life. The drive should have taken an hour, but again the map was wrong or the roads mislabeled. We arrived there at 12:45 pm. We took a tour that included a film.

We finished about 3 pm and I decided to take a “shortcut” back to the parador…hope springs eternal within the human breast. My hopes were dashed by more misleading road signs. We eventually found Utardo where we ate an early supper at McDonalds. Back at the parador the kids swam and Linda and I read.

20 April 2000 Thursday. After a quick stop in Utardo to have pancakes and donuts at McDonalds, we continued to the north coast and then east towards San Juan, arriving at the old town about 9:30 am.

We toured the El Moro fort and then walked the narrow balcony lined streets of the historic center. The streets were lined with souvenir shops where we bought a hammock and the kids got ocarinas. We ate at a sandwich shop before heading for our hotel and rental car return. The girls watched TV while Will and I used the pool until 6 pm. Will and an older girl flirted with each other.

We ate at a restaurant next to the hotel. I had a Cuban combo dish and Linda had shrimp, and the kids made do. On the way out the girl from the pool was entering; she smiled at Will. He was embarrassed because we teased him. We watched our first TV in four nights, and then turned in.

21 April 2000 Friday. We had a long travel day with a two hour stopover in St. Louis, arriving at Reagan National about 8:30 pm.

Additional photos below
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Church in San GermanChurch in San German
Church in San German

The town is the second oldest in Puerto Rico. The church is the oldest in the Western Hemisphere...supposedly.

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