Puerto Rico in December Trip Report

Old Dec 19th, 2022, 09:31 AM
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Puerto Rico in December Trip Report

December 4-11, 2022 trip began with a 10:00 takeoff from the Atlanta airport; was in San Juan by 2:20 with a 1 hour change in time zones. This was my first trip to the Caribbean; when I booked it, I had no idea that Puerto Rico was the eastern most of the large islands, the old Spanish gateway to the Americas.

I am a solo traveler but not an independent one; I travelled with a wonderful Road Scholar tour director and group, tour emphasized Puerto Rican culture (especially history and art) and nature.

Our hotel was a very short taxi ride from the airport, the Hampton Inn (address 6530 Isla Verde), which proved very comfortable. I could walk to the beach (2 blocks), to a large grocery store (3 blocks), and there were plenty of restaurants nearby. Rooms were comfortable and quiet; hot breakfast buffet plentiful with generous hours and always tea & coffee available in the lobby. Our rooms came with “resort privileges” so we could use the large pool, the Jacuzzi, and could enjoy happy hour from 5-7 with generous free snacks and drinks. Lots of comfortable seating made that area a great gathering and conversation spot for our group.

Tour began at 5:00, with an hour’s general orientation & background on Puerto Rico by the tour guide. Very good dinner at restaurant next door to hotel; I had grouper in a sauce with peppers, baked sweet plantains, yucca and flan for dessert, all good. We heard the cocqi in the hotel’s lush front landscaping as we walked back in about 8:30 p.m.

Next morning (Monday) we left at 8:15, driving into Old San Juan. Beautiful, sunny morning with a temperature in the mid-70s but I was prepared with rain gear and hat for whatever weather came. I loved the views of the Atlantic crashing onto the shores and we went by a canal with walking path, guide said often had manatee in it.

We met our excellent city guide at Plaza Colon, got driving tour of San Juan, and then walked up to San Cristobel Fort. Ocean views were great. We could see an old cemetery right on the shore; heard the stories of the early invaders, the English and the Dutch. El Morro protected San Juan from attack from sea; San Cristobel from attack by land (I think). It was the largest fortification system in the Western Hemisphere.

Some rain clouds had moved in and we had a brief shower, followed by a low rainbow over the ocean, before we even entered San Cristobel. Our tour lasted perhaps an hour (including the free time at the end); I could have stayed longer, just looking at the views from the walls and fort plaza, reading more of the exhibit information. Very clear sky by this time.

We then did a walking tour of the old city; blue cobblestone streets in the oldest areas, houses of varied colors (none more than 3 stories, very few showing past hurricane damages). Charming Christmas decorations up everywhere. I love the bright colors of Puerto Rico which were reflected in all their Christmas decorations. Lots of yellow, even the occasional purple, and the reds and greens were not the deep reds and greens of usual Christmas ornaments. Our guide said Christmas is a very long holiday in Puerto Rico; lasting until St. Sebastian’s Day in Mid-January.

We walked through the beautiful old city hall, with its interior courtyard and its small art gallery. We also visited the city’s cathedral, which is the second oldest one in the Western Hemisphere, and considered a minor basilica. It contains the tomb of Ponce de Leon (his bones were moved there centuries after their burial elsewhere in the city). Has been rebuilt many times over the centuries; it seemed to fit the island and city well; we saw other smaller cathedrals of similar architecture in other places later in the week.

Then, after lunch, we had some free time. I had spotted the lovely, large pink “Carnegie Biblioteca” from the bus during the city tour; it was only a few blocks away from our pickup spot, the Plaza Colon again. So, I went exploring. Biblioteca was charming, totally unlike any Carnegie library I’ve ever seen, with big palm trees right outside its columned entrance. Built in 1915, unfortunately, it has often been closed because of hurricane damages and after the last earthquake, it was restored as offices and classrooms and is no longer a working library but instead used by the city’s Department of Education. There is one room that is still “Biblioteca”, with books on the shelves.

Next was a street art tour of Santurce, mostly walking on Calle Cerra. It was afternoon now and the sun was hot on the pavement but still, this was one of my favorite moments in the city. Looking now at blogs and other information, it seems there were lots more huge murals that we did not see, although our guide said they were ever changing, that one of his favorites had just been painted over.

My favorite murals were the ones of old wooden yellow houses and homesteads with plantain trees and roosters (wood uncommon nowadays as cement houses stand up much better to hurricanes) . . . our guide told us a bit about the artist but now I can’t remember name. Also learned about three common trees in a small park; West Indian almond, fiscus, and mango.

Guide pointed out the restaurant that the tour normally goes to for lunch but said it was closed for 3 months; owners were having trouble getting enough staff to open. He encouraged us to come back to the district during some of our free time but none of us did . . . maybe next time. Would definitely go on another tour of the murals if I ever I am lucky enough to return.

We were back at the hotel in time for a quick walk on the beach, a brief happy hour; then dinner.

Tuesday, Dec. 6th

Early start . . . checked out of hotel and on the road to Ponce by 8:00 a.m. It was a lovely, very interesting drive over the mountains, arriving at Finca Don Manuel, for our eco-tourism visit, a bit before 10:00. Beautiful spot; farm is in the flatlands but there are views of the mountains in one direction and if one looks closely, the Caribbean in the other. Originally the land grew sugar cane but after being abandoned for years, the farm was restarted in 2013, growing pineapples and plantains for local markets(with wind turbines to make extra money and with setup for tours, meals, and even overnight stays for the eco-tourist market).

Our farm guide took us out in the fields, we saw the new pineapple plants in the ground, heard about the loss of recent plantain crop to the hurricane (but plantains are a large plant, not really a tree so they were back in foliage and soon would be back in production). We were grateful for quick clouds moving in to shade us but then got a very short rain shower while we were out in the fields. Back to sun though immediately.

Surprising that they rotate plantains with pumpkins to restore the soil. Lots of information about the difficulties of having a farm that can make a profit in Puerto Rico these days; competition from nearby Dominican Republic, where wages are much lower makes it almost impossible.

We had a lovely outdoor lunch; starting with fresh local pineapple and then a traditional “Christmas dinner” (pasteles, plantains, pork, chicken, rice & beans, etc.), followed by some time to walk around the pond (with egrets), take in the views, etc.

We had been offered the opportunity to bring donations of medical and school supplies to Ponce; we stopped at a church to drop off supplies and at an elementary school. Our guide’s high school classmate is a kindergarten teacher there; we were able to be outside on the school grounds, see the playgrounds, all the murals on the building, and even meet the children very briefly outside – that was great fun.

On to downtown Ponce for another city tour, with another local guide. I had read a couple of historical novels set in Ponce area before the trip (Conquistadora by Esmeralda Santiago and The House on the Lagoon by Rosalyn Ferre) that had given me a sense of the history of the city but after a big meal and with the heat, it was hard to properly appreciate the drive around. We did get out in the main plaza, by the fire station, and I walked around some while others were getting ice cream – went in the famous fire station, walked a few blocks, went in the city hall for its bathroom, did not get inside the cathedral (not even sure it was open) but wound up mostly resting in the shade. I was disappointed that we did not get the tour’s normal visits to the Ponce Art or History Museums, both are closed due to earthquake and hurricane damages.

Architecture lovely in Ponce but crumbling, big houses often had the look of being empty. Our guide told us that many of the wealthy families no longer wanted to live in Ponce; when old members died, the younger generations were already living abroad. The Ponce airport was once a sugar plantation, site of huge sugar refineries, all owned by the DonQ rum producing family.

Then, the drive out to the Hilton Ponce Golf and Casino Resort, with its beachfront location. We had 2 nights at this hotel, I really enjoyed it. A fourth floor room with balcony, with view of palm trees, multiple pools and the Caribbean; go out the room door and see the mountains in the other direction. Hotel has suffered from the hurricanes; the beach access is closed off because its pavilions are damaged (but there was a convenient spot where the fence was down that one could get to the shore with a bit of effort). I had a good walk on the shore; my first time to ever be on the Caribbean (which was so much calmer and a bit warmer than the Atlantic at San Juan). I found some sea glass, also a first, and saw a small flock of “green parrots”, actually monk parakeets. Also pelicans dipping into the ocean & a lovely sunset before going out again.

Our dinner meal was a “cooking class”; learning about mofongo and how to prepare it at a Ponce restaurant. We were a group of 24; it was more a demonstration than hands on but we were given apron, gloves, spices, olive oil, crumbled pork bits, and cooked peeled plantains that we pressed into bowls. Restaurant provided excellent shrimp, beef or pork fillings – I liked the mofongo itself but not everyone did.

(To be continued)

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Old Dec 19th, 2022, 09:38 AM
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Thank you for your report, please continue!
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Old Dec 19th, 2022, 10:15 AM
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I will -- there's not much out on the forum about Puerto Rico. I would love to return, get to more of the island.
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Old Dec 20th, 2022, 06:33 AM
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We love Puerto Rico, but it's been a long time since we've been there.
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Old Dec 21st, 2022, 06:46 AM
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Continuing on with trip report . . .

Next morning (Wednesday) I was out early but the call of a full breakfast buffet, served outside, was too much – I didn’t walk far. Breakfast was a pleasure – eggs cooked to order, several varieties of tropical juices I’d never had (tamirand, soursop) , good coffee. Temperature just perfect.

At 8:00 a.m., we headed up in the mountains for about 45 minutes to Hacienda Buena Vista, a historic plantation started in 1833, that has been restored as a living museum. Reservations are required; we were divided into 2 small groups for a guided tour. We were told that a farm building was originally slave quarters; with men sleeping upstairs, women & children downstairs. We walked in the mountains, in a beautiful tropical forest, up to the waterfalls that provided clear, clean water for the farm and energy to run the machinery in its working days. Our guide pointed out different kinds of trees (coffee shrubs, chocolate, breadfruit, etc.) and the remains of the old water canal system on the walk up.

We also viewed the restored mills, which had first ground corn to sell to sugar plantations and then, when the farm had grown coffee, had been converted to grind the coffee beans. We saw the room sized trays that were used to dry the coffee beans and heard that in the late 1800s, Puerto Rican coffee was considered the finest in the world, and most was exported to Europe and was the exclusive coffee used at the Vatican. We also toured the owners’ home, built in 1845, which included a courtyard. Furnishings still in place; backyard garden still blooming with flowers but house has not been used since the 1940s, farm itself ceased operations in the 1930s.

Very pretty place; interesting stories. If ever I get back to Puerto Rico, I’d like to visit another coffee farm. (A novel I read before trip, A Taste of Sugar by Marisel Vega, talks about life on small coffee farms in the mountains and how they were destroyed by the 1899 San Ciriaco Hurricane.)

We had lunch back in Ponce, in an open courtyard spot with live music, various shops (and our restaurant). I had pastelon, similar to lasagna, with layers of thinly-sliced plantains, ground beef and cheese. (Puerto Rico would be good for someone who is gluten-intolerant; rice, plantains, and yucca are their common starches, not wheat bread.)

I was glad to get back to our resort like hotel by about 2:00; I went out on the beach again, then walked down to a bridge crossing the river, looking for birds. By 4:00, I was happily soaking in one of the heated pools. It was mostly cloudy and I found the regular pools (there were several) to be chilly. There were friendly folks to chat with in the pool; lots of birds flittering around and even 3 iguanas, hanging out near the covered eating areas. I was sad to leave for dinner; even though our group went to a very nice restaurant in Ponce. It wasn’t a Puerto Rican meal, but I did have excellent salmon.

Hotel had included a free drink coupon so fun to sit outside again, in the pools area, with fellow tour folks; temperature perfect again.



Thursday

Got myself out the hotel room door by 6:30 & saw beautiful full moon just sinking down to the mountains in a the sky that was a gentle blue & pink with reflected sunrise. I brought my binoculars but not a successful bird walk although I made it to the river bridge again. Perhaps I was trying to move too fast, cover too much territory, knowing that tour group was checking out early.

We left Ponce, and just on its outskirts, drove up a steep mountain to Castillo Serralles, known as “the castle”, the home of the wealthiest family in Ponce, who still own DonQ rum. Such a lovely home; with an open central courtyard in the Spanish Mediterranean style. House was furnished in style of the 1940s, I think, although it was built c 1928 and last occupied in the 1980s. I compared it to the Biltmore, it is much smaller and not full of art, but it was so pleasant, so charming, that I preferred it. There were some displays about the history of the DonQ rum (and the family collected a few Don Quixote antiquaries that were interesting, too); we ended tour with a rum sample and enjoying the view of the garden and Ponce itself from the house’s outdoor terraces.

We crossed the mountains again & had lunch and some time to explore at Caguas City, a valley town. A very different central plaza here; with a merry go around, an aviary, a fountain in the corner, etc. but still the large trees and colorful Christmas decorations and the white cathedral facing the plaza. We visited the Caguas Museum of History in the old city hall, especially enjoyed an exhibit of the work of Edwin Baez, a folk artist who carves very intricate dioramas, often showing the Puerto Rican life of the past. Also visited very small Caguas Museum of Art, which spotlighted contemporary Puerto Rican artists (including Baez). Both museums probably worth more time than we spent on them; there were also a couple of other small, free museums around the plaza.

We checked back into the San Juan Hampton Inn by 3:30; with our guide giving us plenty of suggestions for dining or exploring. But, I don’t think any of us went further than a few blocks – we relaxed, I walked to beach again, we met for a long happy hour and I ate from the hotel’s pool side restaurant (very good veggie wrap).

Friday, Dec. 9th

Early start again for visit to El Yunque National Forest. I packed my rain gear but the sky stayed clear for this visit to the tropical rain forest. We switched to a smaller bus with different driver, who was also our guide to the forest. First spent maybe 20 minutes at the outdoor Visitor’s Center (needed longer to look at exhibits – I think there was a film we missed and I never went in the gift shop). Visitor’s Center reopened after Maria at the end of 2021; one of the most interesting exhibits showed photos of the rain forest immediately before and after Maria, then at other time intervals as it is moving towards recovery. Certainly everything was very lush, very tropical and green in the forest now.

Enjoyed seeing the large green parrots of El Yunque but sorry they were caged. We walked slowly through the forest, on a good trail, for perhaps 45 minutes (not nearly long enough). Also drove up more into the mountains; climbed the Yokahu Tower for views, stopped at a waterfall for a photo. I wish I could remember more about the forest. We were told tree and plant names but they didn’t stick.

By 12:15, we were in a small town for lunch at a pleasant sandwich type restaurant and for some shopping. Then, we travelled on a bit to a cultural center in Pinones where we had a fun demonstration of bonca music & dancing; also visited a large, shallow limestone cave adjacent to it that was home not to bats but to bees.

The glimpses of ocean as we left the area were interesting; waves were high and fast, not the calm Atlantic of the GA and FL coast that I am accustomed to.

We were back at the hotel by 3:30; I walked to the nearby very large grocery store to check out the produce (yes, there were root vegetables that I had never seen before, also surprised at the size or cost of some of the ones that I buy myself regularly) and other items that might be different. I did buy some food souvenirs (coffee that said “Puerto Rico made”), a light supper from their deli, and once again had relaxing, healthy meal sitting outside.


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Old Dec 27th, 2022, 08:15 AM
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Finishing up report today:

Saturday

Got in an early beach walk since our bus departure for old San Juan was at 9:00. We got out at Plaza Colon, then walked up to the El Morro area, spending a good bit of time in Saint Maria Magdalena de Pazzis, the old cemetery facing the ocean. It has probably been in use for centuries but the elaborate marble tombstones and statuary we saw was from the last 80 years. Loved the views of the waves and the blue horizon. We walked along the old fortifications, reaching Paseio de La Princesa and the Puerta de San Juan (the old San Juan gate). I would have been happy to explore here but my companions wanted to shop so we made it through to an area that had lots of vendors (I wandered through quickly and then got to a spot where I could watch people & ocean). We ate an early light lunch at a place our tour director had recommended; they were efficient with their counter service & I was more grateful for a bathroom and place to sit and drink water than I was for the food itself.

Back at Plaza Colon for our 12:30 rendezvous with the Road Scholar bus which took us to the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico in Santurce, where we had a guided tour scheduled for 1:00. I don’t always like guided art tours but this was good since I was totally unfamiliar with the artists and the Puerto Rican experience that was portrayed in most of the works. We had 30 minutes of free time after the tour concluded; not enough time to both see more in the gallery and to spend outside in the sculpture garden. (I chose walking outside.)

We were back at our hotel by 3:30; had our farewell dinner at a very nice restaurant where I had canoas de plantanos (meat & sauce inside a canoe made of sweet plantains), with delicious tres leches for dessert.

My flight home the next day was at 3:45 pm so I was able to get in 2 beach walks with a leisurely breakfast in between them and a shower before my 12:30 checkout (kindly extended 30 minutes by the hotel). Then shared an inexpensive taxi back to the airport with fellow tour folks and had an easy direct return flight home.

A good trip but I could have/should have done more in Old San Juan (2 art museums that I walked by) during our free time and would like to have explored more in Santurce and Ponce as well. Would love to return to Puerto Rico for another week during the winter to explore more, get back to the tropical rain forest for a real hike, visit another farm, see more ocean but not sure how practical that would be since I can’t see myself renting a car although just staying in Old San Juan itself would give a different experience. Maybe Costa Rica for next year’s winter trip.

Books I read to “get ready” for the trip: Conquistadora by Esmeralda Santiago (set in San Juan and on a sugar plantation near Ponce, 1830-1870), A Taste of Sugar by Marisel Vera (set in Ponce, San Juan and a mountain coffee farm, 1830-1900), and The House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferre (set in Ponce 1915-1960). I never found a good nf book about Puerto Rico but historical fiction has always appealed to me more than non fiction anyway.

My Puerto Rican coffee purchases were a hit as Christmas gifts.
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Old Dec 28th, 2022, 07:14 AM
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Thanks for your report.
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Old Dec 31st, 2022, 09:36 AM
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Hope you will get back to Puerto Rico in 2023; it is lovely and lots to do . . . best wishes.
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