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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Puerto Rico Christmas 2017

Street in Old San Juan
A few friends have asked about our trip to Puerto Rico in December, about 100 days after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the island, so I thought I'd share some pics and thoughts and experiences.

First, before the trip but after the hurricanes, we really struggled with whether we should go or not. We had a cruise planned that left from San Juan and we wanted to also spend time in Puerto Rico. We wanted to go if it was safe, and we didn't want to take resources for our vacation from those that needed things for their daily lives. We didn't want to take hotel space from relief workers, although I assumed lots of relief workers would be going home for Christmas, when we would be there. On the other hand, the island needed its tourist economy, and we would be glad to help that part restart. After watching conditions as best we could from our computers and televisions, we (me, Lisa, my mom and dad) decided to stick to the plan. It's funny, my parents do lots of disaster relief work, but they were traveling to a disaster area as tourists for a change. Lisa was having some major ankle issues from a car accident, so our walking would be limited to what she could do in her boot.

Alley outside Da House
We (Lisa and I) flew into San Juan on December 16. As the plane descended, one thing that surprised me was how much it affected me to see so many blue tarps on houses as we got low over San Juan.

We took a taxi to Old San Juan, where we stayed at Da House. Our cab driver said he had had power for a week or so. He said it was nice to have hot water for showers. He didn't speak favorably about the governor of Puerto Rico or about the mayor of San Juan. These sentiments seemed common with most people we talked to.

We've stayed at Da House before. I love the place. It's nothing fancy by any means, but it's not dirty or anything like that either. I'd call it quirky. It has lots of stairs and no elevator, however, something to consider if you're carrying luggage up to the fourth floor. Lisa and I hung out on the balcony while we waited for my parents. We could see cruise ships and Castillo de San Cristobal. My parents were flying in from Houston and they met us a couple hours later. I was hungry and needed mofongo, so we went around the block to a place called Punto del Visto. We've never eaten there but it was my favorite mofongo of the trip, and I ate a lot of them. It was a lovely little rooftop place, although we ate inside, which was good because it rained and everyone eventually piled inside from the deck. The dessert, an "ice cream sandwich" was amazing too. I can't even.

Mofongo delight

Steak mofongo with garlic sauce.
That night at the hotel, I heard the lady in the room across the hall wretching loudly. She sounded really sick. We had a shared balcony that you can access from our room, their room, and the hallway between us. Throughout the night, I woke to hear a loud banging sound like gunshot. At one point before sunrise, I walked around the hallway to see what the noise was. Other guests were poking heads out of their doors. I went to the balcony, saw it was the neighbor's big wooden balcony door slamming and opening from the wind. I wondered how they could sleep through that noise. I wanted to shut their door and latch it but figured that would be rude as I would need to go in their room to do that. I went back to bed. Lisa said they must have gone to the hospital in the night. I hope the lady was okay.

Next morning I got up early, excited to be on vacation. Lisa was asleep so, as I often do at these times, I snuck out and explored Old San Juan. I saw lots of trees uprooted. I saw lots of cats, something you always see in OSJ. Some businesses had "Cash Only" signs as internet for credit cards was spotty (our hotel didn't have wifi running yet, but offered to let us use the wifi from a hotel down the street if we needed it).

Old San Juan

Old San Juan statue

Ma and Pa by the historic city gate

OSJ cat

Curious cat

I came back to Da House with coffee for everyone except me, because I can't stand the stuff, but I know what to order Lisa from Starbuck's, only a couple blocks from the hotel. Starbucks didn't have wifi either. After giving them time to drink coffee from the rooftop, we explored Old San Juan together, then headed to our cruise ship. The cruise is another story, but I'll mention this. One reason we like cruising out of San Juan is because so many of our fellow cruisers are Puerto Ricans. We love their culture and we enjoy cruising with them. At first, we thought there must not be many Puerto Ricans on this ship. But someone from Trujillo Alto mentioned that we didn't see Puerto Ricans as much because they were spending more time in their rooms on the ship. "We're tired," he said. Other people mentioned fatigue too. A man from Isabela, who didn't have power yet, said he and his wife decided to come on the cruise to get away from the effects of the storm, the daily trip to get generator gas and bottled water, the creative ways they had to figure out how to cook and keep food cold, all the little things they had to do. He really liked the hot showers on the ship. Something that surprised me when I asked people about conditions on the island is that so many mentioned that they were dealing with depression.

We disembarked from the ship on Christmas Eve. The cruise was a wonderful time (Royal Caribbean Jewel of the Seas with stops in Saint Thomas, Saint Kitts, Antigua, Saint Lucia, and Barbados, and we plucked from the water two adrift and boatless swimmers/divers one night a few miles from Saint Lucia), but that's not what this blog is about. Before our trip, we had read about hotels cancelling reservations. In fact, our hotel had cancelled our reservation too. This concern, as well as our worry about taking resources from relief workers, led us to a VRBO place in the Condado neighborhood of San Juan. It came at a much cheaper rate than multiple hotel rooms, with a bonus of a kitchen. It was right on the beach too. We've stayed in this neighborhood before and always enjoy it. It's a central location with lots of great places to eat. The lady who checked us into the condo said we shouldn't drink the tap water, so we went to the CVS at the end of the block and loaded up on bottled water. The busy intersection in front of the CVS didn't have power, so there was no traffic signal. People seemed to handle this and similar situations very patiently and cooperatively.

Old San Juan cemetery

Old San Juan church

La Perla

We went back to Old San Juan of course (pics above).

We had Christmas Eve dinner at Oceano Condado, about a block from our condo. The meal and service were lovely. We started out on the ocean-facing deck but moved inside when the rain sent us there.

I've always enjoyed the Condado beach but I wasn't crazy about it this time. It seemed very wavy, hard to go in past my knees. I hardly saw any swimmers. But the views were lovely.

Condado Beach from our balcony (no swimmers)
So we went to some different beaches. One that I enjoyed, right in Old San Juan, is Playa El Escambron. The parking lot for this beach was closed due to storm damage, so we parked on the street. The beach is protected by reef. However, it was windy and the snorkeling was difficult because the water was cloudy. This beach is lovely though.

Playa El Escambron
Lifeguard stand got knocked over, makes a good bench


These tide pools were fun to try some macro photography in...

like this...

and this.

The nice thing about this beach is that it's right in town, just a couple miles from where we stayed, so it can make a nice half-day activity. We could see Castillo del Morro from it. On a calmer day, the snorkeling would be great here too. But we had rented a car and wanted to explore the island. Next day we went to Playa Luquillo, about a half hour east of San Juan. It's near Fajardo, at the bottom of El Yunque rainforest. We saw a lot of storm damage on the drive, many more blue tarps on roofs, damaged homes and buildings, and lots of electricity trucks working on the highways.

The beach is lovely; it's publicly owned with playgrounds and changing stations and bathrooms and lifeguards and so on. But all that was closed, including the parking lot. So we drove around to a long strip of food kiosks and parked behind them, right at the beach. When it rained, we ran to the shelter of the car, and then the food kiosks. I couldn't decide what to eat, so I ordered a lot, three kinds of tacos (shrimp, fish, lobster) and the tacos were enclosed and deep friend and oh so yummy. It was only twelve dollars for both of us to eat, a nice break from the more touristy places we had been eating at. On our way back to San Juan, we went through some long traffic jams created by electric trucks working on the highways. People handled it cooperatively and constructively. They created an extra lane on the shoulder to help move traffic.



Playa Luquillo with El Yunque in background

The next day, our last on the island, we made a big tour, south through the mountains to Ponce, along the south coast to the Cabo Rojo area in the southwest, and up the west and north coasts back to San Juan. The ride through the mountains was fun, but because of storm damage, and our ignorance of what might have been passable and not passable, we stayed on the main highway. Everything we've read and heard says that the worst damage is in the mountains. Near Ponce, we explored the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center. It's one of the biggest archaeological sites in the Caribbean. It was discovered in 1975 when a hurricane caused flash flooding that unearthed some ancient ball courts, ceremonial plazas, and a cemetery. I think we may have been the first guests to the museum since the hurricanes. The place had only been open for a couple days, and the "Closed" sign on the front gate was removed while we were there. While I was in the museum, I heard Lisa's dog voice, and I came around a corner to find she had made two new friends who followed us around the place. They were strays that had been left at the museum, a mother and her pup. When we watched a short informational video, one of the dogs freaked out and started barking at the tv. As people have left the island after the storms, strays have become a bigger issue.

Lisa really wanted to bring them home.
After we toured the museum, a man who works there walked us down to the archaeological site. There were two bigger dogs there who had gotten rid of (eaten) the site's problem iguanas that had been digging the place up. There is normally an extensive botanical garden that had been ripped up by the storms. The man said that the previous week we wouldn't have been able to walk down there, but local prisoners had been used to clean the grounds from storm debris. When I asked people here about their power and damage, they didn't seem to have as many issues as those elsewhere.

Ball courts

Ball courts

We didn't spend too much time here because we had a beach to visit. One of our favorites of Puerto Rico, called both Playa Sucia (Filthy Beach) and La Playuela. It's at a dangling tip on the southwest side of the island. When we left the highway we drove lots of narrow winding roads through fields and villages. At one village, traffic was backed up and people were lined up getting bottled drinking water from a truck. Once the pavement ended we drove a bouncy and rutted road past salt ponds. My mom was getting nervous about the road. But that's how you get to Playa Sucia--you drive beyond what you think is the end of the road and then you are at a lovely beach that's worth the drive. There's also a lighthouse and some high dramatic cliffs. The beach was windy and wavy and wonderful for body surfing. A sign said the bay we were swimming in has many manatees.

Playa Sucia

Playa Sucia

Climbing to the lighthouse

View across the bay

Eventually we had to leave this beach. Instead of heading back to San Juan the way we had come, we decided to go up the west coast. We drove through Joyuda, a fishing village with a couple miles of highway known for its wonderful seafood restaurants. Lisa and I have eaten along here before. Many of the restaurants were boarded and damaged. Power lines dangled loose over the highway. Trees were blown over and the upturned roots had broken up pavement. This area had taken a beating. We decided to keep driving--there was a limited amount of daylight and we wanted to see as much as we could, plus, none of us were super hungry as we had lunched at a McDonald's between Ponce and Playa Sucia. It was a lovely drive back to San Juan, although it turned dark around the time we turned east and we found a few traffic jams, again from electric trucks working power lines on the highway. We also went through a lot of intersections that didn't have power, thus no working traffic lights.

The next day, we headed home to a Minnesota that was stuck in single digit temps. We never explored the southeast side of the island, partly because it's where some of the worst damage was, the same reason we didn't go deep into the mountains or the rainforest area (plus El Yunque was closed and probably will be for awhile). I was surprised by how quickly things had greened, how despite trees losing their foliage (and getting knocked over), nature was healing itself. From my limited view as a brief tourist, it's obvious it will be a long time before things get back to normal, if they do, especially for those living in the hardest hit areas. There's been a mass exodus from the island. I'm actually ashamed at our government's response to the storms. At the same time I admire the relief workers and what they are doing. Knowing I'm generalizing, I admire the resiliency and creativity and cooperativeness of the Puerto Rican people. I'm also grateful to be able to travel with the people I love. I'm grateful for drinking water from the tap, hot showers, a roof over my head, lots of little things.

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