Date of Trip: January 2008
One of my favorite airline e mailers is Spirit Airlines, which has a hub in Ft. Lauderdale, FL – convenient enough for someone living in Miami Beach. One never knows what they’re going to come up with. I was visiting my daughter in Atlanta in May of last year, and checked my e mail. What follows is a pretty accurate transcription of the phone call I placed to my wife at her office.
Me: Listen, we can go to Puerto Rico next January for 24 hours for $42 each, roundtrip, including tax. I need an answer quick! Her: How much did you say it was? Me: $42 each, including tax. Her: Roundtrip? Me: Yes. Her: Get it!
I got it, and put the details in a file so I wouldn’t forget about it in the intervening months. In December, I finally started setting it up. This was an overnight, so we’d need a room. A NY Times writer had recommended a small walkup hotel in the Old City called “Da House.” I booked it. I had decided that there was only one sensible way to carry out a 24 hour visit to the island, and that was to stay in San Juan’s Old City, and focus on that.
We left in the early afternoon of Jan. 23. We hadn’t been there since 1969, and that had been with a baby in tow. Spirit keeps their fares down by charging extra for every amenity, including water and checked baggage. I never check baggage anyway, and this was just an overnight. I carry an empty bottle and fill it from the water fountain after clearing security.
The flight afforded beautiful scenery. We passed by and over countless islands, some big, some very small, some inhabited, some not. There were beautiful colors in the water because of the reefs. About 30 minutes into the flight I looked down and cried out in surprise that there was a CITY down there. Then I recognized it from the street pattern – we were flying right over Nassau, Bahamas, where we’d both been many times.
Our arrival was a comedy of errors. Puerto Rico is US territory, so you simply walk off the plane and out of the terminal. I had read that there was a public bus directly to Old San Juan, but it turned out to go only into the central city, where we’d have to transfer. A young man on the bus offered to lead us to the best transfer point. We ended up in front of the old El San Juan hotel, where we’d stayed in 1969, and the bus we wanted didn’t come, so we ended up in a taxi. The driver spoke good English and entertained us with tales of his family and the recent history of the city.
After walking up several flights of stairs to our room, we set out to explore. Old San Juan is fairly small, connected to the “mainland” by a narrow neck of land, and laid out pretty much on a grid system. The colonial architecture is impressive, and the parks beautiful, but the best sights of all are the views from the heights anywhere alongside the ocean. You can walk everywhere, but be prepared for steep streets, kind of like a miniature San Francisco. There are trackless “trolleys” that follow certain routes covering most of the old city, and they are free, but you have to catch them at the appropriate stops.
We had dinner at a modest restaurant featuring local dishes, and then did a lot more walking. We had an especially interesting early evening walk along the heights at the end of the city, looking down on a poorer neighborhood built alongside the sea, and the onrushing waves.
We rose early, checked out, and arranged to leave our bags at the desk, for which “courtesy” we were charged an extra $5. After breakfast and a lot of walking, we took one of the trolleys up to El Morro, the castle/fort, one of many similar castle forts built centuries ago by the Spanish. It’s part of our national parks system, so there are rangers offering free tours. Between that and the exhibits, we had quite a lesson in the political, social and military history of Puerto Rico over almost 500 years. After leaving there, we simply walked for hours, taking it all in. I wanted to have some asopao for lunch – a sort of stew-like local soup with rice, that I’d had in 1969. It was good, but, as is so often the case, not as great as I remembered it.
After picking up our bags, we came upon a small museum close by. The ground floor was a restored century-old pharmacy, complete with original artifacts. the upper floor was a century-old home, with all the rooms original and/or restored and with original furniture. It was interesting, and there was no admission charge.
We walked to the central bus station, intending to catch a bus back to where we could transfer to the airport. There were several of those buses, all shut down, all with their engines running, and all unattended. There was also a growing crowd of people waiting to board one of them. We waited and waited, as these buses continued wasting precious fuel and the crowd got larger and angrier. Finally, fearing a mini-riot, we left and hailed a taxi.
San Juan’s airport now has a small full-service casino, a good place for us to stop and drop $20 or so in the blackjack machines. It seems that casinos everywhere have stopped the use of coins and now rely on electronics, paper tickets and sound effects. Not nearly as much fun.
There was a duty free liquor store, but, as “domestic” passengers, we were only allowed to buy rum and only from certain shelves. We picked up a few bottles and flew home.
We’ll all soon be reading more about Puerto Rico, as its voters decide on a presidential candidate for whom they will be unable to vote either for or against in November.