Road Scholar 15635

Finding “something” / “some place” different is getting almost impossible. But Road Scholar offers 6500 different tours to the US and 150 different countries. I haven’t been to Puerto Rico – and Globus doesn’t offer a trip but RS does.

After trip note: This turned out to be a very nice trip; nice people and scenery. I'M SO VERY GLAD THAT I GOT TO SEE PUERTO RICO BEFORE THE HURRICANES ALMOST TOTALLY DEMOLISHED IT 8 MONTHS LATER. This turned out to be the best trip of the year!

Experience Puerto Rico’s colorful culture and history from pre-Columbian times to present U.S. stewardship. Led by local experts, explore a fascinating blend of historic cities and museums, beaches, seaside villages and natural wonders. Ponce, known as "the Pearl of the South," is a charming town with magnificent Spanish colonial architecture. Walk through its elegant historic district and top-notch museums, and enjoy galleries and historic sites in San Juan where the Puerto Rican culture is uniquely portrayed. Program listed as “active.”

* Venture to El Yunque for a short hike through the only tropical rainforest that is part of the U.S. National Forest System.

* Enjoy a walking exploration of the San Felipe de Morro Fort and La Muralla (city wall) in Old San Juan, as well as one of Puerto Rico’s best preserved coffee plantations.

* Discover the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center, one of the most important archaeological sites in the Caribbean

Day 1, Sun, Jan 8 - In Transit to Program, Check In, Orientation, Welcome Dinner
(D) ) It is an early flight and because it is international (not actually - Puerto Rico is a US territory), I have to get there extremely early - about 2:30 for a StuporShuttle pickup at 4AM and while I wait for the shuttle, the temperature is forecast to be only 30o - SHIVER! Make that 27 with a feels-like of 20. But I have to be up and gone early for the international 7:15 flight. Fly to San Juan Luis Munoz Marin International Airport where the temperature is forecast to be 86o. That makes it a 59o change. The best flights are both one-way but awful flight times. This morning is an early flight but there is almost no choice.

UA 366Houston – San Juan7:15AM – 1:32P4:17

Arrive on time and take a local taxi to the hotel. A room is ready – ground floor looking out to see a high hedge. As you register with the program staff, you will receive your welcome packet containing your name-tag, up-to-date schedule and other important information. We will review the up-to-date program schedule and any changes. Meals at local restaurants will be plated and include choices from select menus with standard beverages of coffee, tea and water, but not the promised "soda."

Our lead live-stock herder is Andrea Torres, and she is lucky that she has only 14 stray cats to herd this week. I think our driver's name is something like Lolito.

Dinner is at a restaurant within walking distance of the hotel. It is supposed to be one of the best in town but that was one of the toughest chopped steaks I’ve ever had, and there were three local families there, each with a screaming kid. We were supposed to have a drink included (coffee, tea, or soda) but nothing was ever offered. Not a good dinner. Continental breakfast at 6AM tomorrow. HOTEL: Hampton Inn by Hilton (2 nights – and the last 3 nights)

Day 2, Monday, Jan 9 - Old San Juan, Capitol Hill
(BLD) Activity note: Walking up to 1.5 miles with some periods standing; paved terrain.

At the hotel, we have the usual CONTINENTAL (not a full breakfast as originally indicated) breakfast micro-buffet. We board our motorcoach and transfer to Old San Juan where a local expert will provide an overview of Puerto Rico’s history from the Spanish colonial period to the present. Columbus didn’t discover Puerto Rico, he was just another international tourist on a luxury ocean cruise, and made landfall here on his second voyage in 1493, claiming it for Spain — which might have come as a surprise to the inhabitants, indigenous Taíno Indians.

The first Spanish settlers arrived on the island in 1508. We learn about the history and head out in the light rain explore Fort San Cristóbal, also known as Castillo San Cristóbal, the largest colonial Spanish fortress in the Western Hemisphere. Construction began in 1634 and it was not completed until 1790. European powers fought for hundreds of years to control the island due to its strategic location. San Cristóbal guarded the land entrance to Old San Juan. It is a magnificent and impressive structure covering 27 acres, now part of the San Juan National Historic Site. After an excellent video presentation, we head out to explore part of the fortress. There are lots of ramps and steps all of which are wet and slippery and it’s still raining. This limits what we can see and do as we visit the fortress.

Back in town and at one of the town squares, we have time to explore for a while (see notes below about the Capital visit) then our lunch is at a local restaurant; we have sandwiches and/or salads from a select menu and standard beverages. Decent but not great. We had to “order” what we wanted before we left the hotel and the food has been sitting out (wrapped) for quite a while and is now almost totally dried out.

The new incoming Governor has scheduled several activities and this totally fouls up our schedule making a major delay in our next tour. Then it starts raining fairly heavily as we go to next field trip is to El Capitolio de Puerto Rico — Capitol Hill — with our local expert. That rain – there are about 50 steps to go up to get into the building and NO HANDRAILS. All the steps and the rain make 5 of us decide to skip the shortened visit – which gets shortened even more now “at the last minute.” (that governor again!)

It would have been nice to see the impressive building which is home to the Legislative Assembly composed of the House of Representatives and Senate, a symbol of self-government to Puerto Ricans. The Neoclassical Revival design was by architect Rafael Carmoega. The interior features artwork illustrating highlights in Puerto Rico’s history by prominent artists. While here, a docent will NOT provide a special presentation, just a few short comments, NOT illuminating the inner workings of Puerto Rico’s governmental structures with some emphasis on the relationships these systems have with the United States. Basically, it is a totally “nothing” visit wiping out almost the whole afternoon.

After spending a couple of hours back at the hotel, dinner is at a local restaurant, we’ll have a plated meal (we have to make our choices when we get back from the day's tour) (NOT) with standard beverages. I think we were lucky to even get water. The entree is quite good but the rest is only good.

We did luck out with our tour director – Andrea is great. Our "motor coach operator" is good, but I haven't learned to pronounce, much less spell, his name. Side comment: I’m renaming our San Juan hotel to the “Airport Runway” hotel. The end of the runway is only about ¼ to 1/3 miles over the hotel back fence. Jet takeoff roar is quite "noticeable" but definitely tolerable.

Day 3, Tuesday, Jan 10 - Ponce, Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center, History Museum
(BLD) Activity note: Walking up to 2 (make that 3) miles throughout the day; some periods of standing. The drive is about 77 miles, approximately 2 hours.

Hotel CONTINENTAL breakfast – definitely better this morning than yesterday.

We have to have a different coach today – one that has luggage room since it is moving day. But there is a high price. The seats are very close together and so it is very uncomfortable – NO leg room at all. I have to sit sideways all the time on the coach and it is NOT comfortable. Board that miserable motor-coach (the "Mobile Torture Chamber") and begin our transfer via the Luis A. Ferre Highway over La Cordillera Central — the island's main mountain range — into the southern part of Puerto Rico. It is a nice drive and the scenery is very good and interesting as we go from one climatic area to another.

We'll venture first to the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center, one of the most important archaeological sites in the Caribbean, for an expert-led field trip focusing on the area’s history before Christopher Columbus’ “Grand International Luxury Cruise” arrival. Its discovery resulted from a hurricane in 1975 when torrential rains and flooding revealed remnants of indigenous cultures that had been long buried. Archaeologists began excavations in 1976 and eventually uncovered the oldest and largest Indian ceremonial complex in Puerto Rico, consisting of nine ball courts and three plazas. There was also a cemetery with nearly 200 human skeletons. The oldest artifacts and structures from pre-Taíno Indians date back more than 1,000 years. We have a superb facility guide and the tour is very interesting. And YEA! We also have him as our afternoon local guide.

Riding on, we get into the city of Ponce (Pon-ce). Lunch is at a local restaurant plated meal. The selections are very standard (chicken, potatoes, vegetables) but they are the best food of the tour so far. I’m looking forward to a repeat visit tomorrow. Grade 5-stars.

The next statement is wrong: Riding on, we reach the city of Ponce and embark on a field trip via trolley and walking through Ponce. Instead we have a nice walking tour (that same local guide as this morning) to admire its stunning architecture including the beautiful and unique historic Ponce Firehouse, Ponce Cathedral, and Delicias Square.

We then go on to the Museo de la Historia de Ponce — Museum of the History of Ponce. Inaugurated in 1992, it is now one of the city’s most active cultural centers, preserving and presenting important aspects of Puerto Rican and Ponceño history and culture. The majority of its artifacts have been donated by local citizens. Permanent exhibits include Ecology, Human Panorama, Politics, Economic Activity, Architecture and Urban Development, Health and Medicine. The museum is housed in the beautiful Casa Salazar that combines Moorish, neoclassical, and Ponceño architectural elements.

The last activity is a short bus tour of the city (replacement for that trolley ride?) then travel on and arrive at the hotel for a mid-late-afternoon check-in. Summary so far – an excellent day (and no rain even.)

We have to take our “mobile torture chamber” as we head out to dinner which is at a local restaurant where we “enjoy an interactive dinner, learning about the foods we’re eating from one of the chefs and specialties such as Mofongo (pickled plantains) and other local fare” or so it says in the propaganda. It was an interesting presentation and my private chef did a great job preparing my dinner. Again, interesting and I’m glad I had a chance to try something different but it wasn’t something I would go out to a restaurant to buy. Heavy rain (we have to have our daily rain) just before we leave and still raining lightly as we head for the bus. HOTEL: Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort. First impression: I like the San Juan hotel much better. (2 nights)

Day 4, Wednesday, Jan 12 - Hacienda Buena Vista, Art Museum, Music of Puerto Rico
(BL) Activity note: Walking up to 2 miles on some uneven terrain. The drive is about 15 miles, approximately ½ an hour.

That darn bed – my back HURTS! It will definitely limit what I can do today. The hotel buffet breakfast at 7 (actually 6:30) has a nice selection but the “hot” food is just barely lukewarm. I’ll try a different selection tomorrow. I didn’t go until the RS listed 7 but maybe if I get there earlier the hot food will actually be hot.

Off at 8. We have that “mobile torture chamber" again, so I’ll sit in the back row for leg room even if I can’t see much from there both today and tomorrow. We head for our first field trip today which is to the Hacienda Buena Vista, a 19th century coffee plantation turned museum. Restored to its former glory by a team of Smithsonian specialists and island artisans, its location is indeed a Buena Vista (beautiful view), with just under 500 acres in the Rio Canas Valley. We may be able to see hummingbirds as the Hacienda's trails take us past cascading waterfalls. With our local expert, we explore some of the plantation’s grounds and visit the on-site museum while learning about the development of the coffee industry in the area.

It should have been a great stop, but it was raining and the trails are steep, rocky, wet, and slippery so I had to skip some of the walk. What I did do was interesting. If the weather had just cooperated ….

Lunch is at the same great location as yesterday's restaurant and it is again excellent (chicken wraps). Highly recommended. Then at a nearby location (almost next door) we learn how the music of Puerto Rico has evolved as a heterogeneous and dynamic product of diverse cultural resources through a performance by a local musician. We even have a nice “play along with ...” activity. Although the usual Caribbean music is not my favorite, the presentation was very good and the length of the presentation and music was a “just right” for my interest. Very Good!!

Our next stop is the renovated Museo de Arte de Ponce. Closed while undergoing extensive renovations, the museum was reopened in November 2010 in time for the celebration of its 50th anniversary. The Museo de Arte houses the most important collection of European art in Latin America. Among its collection are works from the 14th to the 20th century, including Italian Baroque, British Pre-Raphaelite, Spanish Golden Age and contemporary Latin-American pieces. Led by a museum docent, we see much of the vast collection and learn about the relationships linking Latin American and European art.

I went along with the start of the presentation with an excellent docent, but dropped out after only about 15-20 minutes. Art museums are at about the bottom of the list of interesting things I want to visit. The only one I can remember enjoying was in Russia – the Hermitage. Sitting outside in the shade with a nice breeze was much more enjoyable.

Dinner is on our own – and there is no convenient "American Embassy" (just the expensive rip-offs on the hotel grounds) so I’m stuck with an Emperor$ Ran$om “barfburger.” Not recommended. “Mickey D’s” would have been a better choice. Even "TacoDingDong". Back to that not desirable bed tonight.

Day 5, Thursday, Jan 13 - Transfer to San Juan, Town of Caguas, Puerto Rico Art Museu
(BLD) Activity note: Walking up to 2 miles with some periods of standing; paved terrain. The drive is about 80 miles, approximately 2.5 hours.

Hotel buffet breakfast – by getting there as the service opened, the food was a bit more than lukewarm. We check out of the hotel by 8:30 and board our “mobile torture chamber” to depart for San Juan. Our primary visit today is the small town of Caguas. There our historical journey through the heart of Caguas provides a unique view into the cultural influence of this important city in the valley as we visit small history, culture, and tobacco museums with our Group Leader. All three were good to very good except that we had a very poor docent at the history museum to not-actually take us around and explain things. So, 2 of 3 were enjoyable. The history museum was very nice but needed more guidance. I definitely enjoyed Caguas as a very nice, attractive, town. It has much more “personality” than San Juan or even Ponce.

Lunch is in Caguas at a local restaurant with a choice of selections for the meal – good but not great. We continue towards San Juan where we have another ADAM “bottom of the list” visit to the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR), the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico. The museum has developed quite a large permanent collection of Puerto Rican art ranging from the 16th century to the present.

Since art museums are at the bottom of my list, I walked around inside for a (very) few minutes then went back to the bus until we finally escape and go on to the hotel for check-in. My new room is good but not as good as the room I had the first two nights. So, except for the “wasted” afternoon, another good day - and no rain! Dinner is at a local restaurant NOT within walking distance of the hotel as it said in the notes. We have to take the “mobile torture chamber” back into Old San Juan. When we get there, we have to climb 97 steps to get up to the 5th floor where the restaurant is located. When we get there the place is incredibly noisy (BAD!!!) and the food (I had pre-selected fried ham chunks) turns out to be way over fried. It’s even hard to saw off the outsides of the chunks in order to get to the decent insides of the chunks. At least the salad is good, but between the over-done cooking and the horrible noise, it was, IMO, the worst evening meal of the trip - so far – but there is still one to go on Saturday night. The notes again said it said: “with standard beverages" – or so it said – but again, as with the dinners before – they lied. All we get without extra $$$ is some water. HOTEL: “Airport Runway Hotel” by Hilton (3 nights)

Unusual occurrence on the drive back to San Juan. While on a major highway we could see far ahead of us a police car with flashing lights and very loud siren. As we got closer, we could tell that not only were the lights still flashing, but the siren was also blasting away. Then when we got closer, we could see the police car moving slowly backwards and forwards – using the lights and siren in an attempt to keep some loose cattle from trying to get out and cross the highway.

Day 6, Friday, Jan 14 - El Yunque Rain Forest, La Cabezas de San Juan Fajardo
(BL) Activity note: Walking up to 1.5 miles on some uneven terrain with minor elevation change.

Breakfast at the hotel – another cross between Continental and the usual micro-Buffet. After boarding our motor coach - we are back to the nice one with nice leg room (at least for today)but with very noisy loose windows (including mine) which rattle VERY loudly such that I can't hear/understand Andrea even on the speakers.

Our first field trip will be to Las Cabezas de San Juan in the town of Fajardo at the northeastern tip of the island. This natural preserve is made up of over 300 acres spanning 3 rocky promontories that jut out into the Atlantic and Las Cabezas literally means “the headlands” referring to these landforms. A wide variety of close-knit ecosystems make up this preserve, including dry forests, lagoons, mangroves, beaches and coral reefs. These habitats are home to numerous endangered species and the bioluminescent bay attracts visitors from all over the world. Among all that nature stands El Faro de las Cabezas de San Juan, an impressively restored lighthouse from 1882, overlooking the water with a beautiful view of El Yunque.

There are 3 stops on this morning. After a stop at the entrance and transfer to an open trolley for our visit, the first is at the old Fajardo Light House – the oldest surviving lighthouse in the Caribbean. The building looks very modern, but the steps up to the light are definitely old, narrow, and twisting. It is a nice visit and we also get a demonstration of the bio-luminescence presence in the water – how it is formed, a demonstration, and discussion. We then head down to Rocky Point for a close-up view of the very high surf – too dangerous for surfing due to the rocks ashore. Our last stop is a walk along a long boardwalk to view a Mangrove swamp, see 3 kinds of mangroves, learn the importance of the mangrove forests, which flora and fauna are integral to this nature preserve.

Lunch is at a pleasant diner near the El Yunque Rainforest where we have our choice of sandwiches from an extensive menu. Excellent. There is even a Baskin Robbins in the same building to get desert.

We then travel on to El Yunque National Reserve. This is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system. Located on the eastern end of the Island, El Yunque features a variety of unique plant and animal species with many well-marked trails, making it easy to explore. When we arrive, we first view a nice video, then take a 35-minute walk with a local expert (one of the best we have had) and our Group Leader, on one of the National Forest trails to learn about/see much of the forest’s diversity. The last few minutes provide an excellent example of why this is a RAINforest - fairly heavy rain. A subsequent stop at a lookout tower is also rain-soaked. Bummer. But our local guide is great and she will be with us tomorrow.

Dinner is on our own. No “American Embassies” close enough considering the threat of more rain. So, like 2 days ago, I go for a burger, fries, and coke on-site and at least this time the cost isn’t almost enough to pay the 200-million-dollar ransom for His Most Exalted Excellency, the Grand High Emperor of Upper-Lower-Inner-Outer Sand-dune-istan (wherever that is).

Day 7, Saturday, Jan 15 - North Old San Juan, Free Time, Farewell Dinner
(BD) Activity note: Walking up to 1.5 miles; hilly terrain, wear comfortable walking shoes.

Heavy rain late last night – just before midnight. This morning the usual hotel Continental/micro-buffet breakfast. We head out for our bus and find, to our misery, that the “mobile Torture Chamber” is back – but it is a short ride into the city today.

Our great local guide from yesterday is back. We then explore North Old San Juan on foot and visit such famed sites as Paseo de la Princesa, a walk between the bay and the old city wall; La Puerta de San Juan, the only remaining “gate” into/out of the old walled city; La Rogativa, a renowned bronze statue recalling a key incident in the city’s history; and the Catedral de San Juan Bautista, Old San Juan Cathedral. Our local expert will provide commentary as we go, pointing out unique architecture and sharing with us some stories about the Old City’s history. Seeing the various architectural styles was interesting and hearing to stories behind some of the buildings made it more interesting. However I didn’t get any good pictures. Grumble.

We are then chased off to survive on our own. Lunch on our own to enjoy what you like (MickeyD’s or KFC or even Taco Bell) but I settled for “Buns Burgers”. The burger was ok and the onion rings were very good. Then this afternoon we have Free Time. The Group Leader offered suggestions (but if you follow her tips, try to stay out of jail). The cobblestone streets are rich in architectural delights and the tree-shaded squares more reminiscent of Europe than America. Basically, we are stuck here from about 11:45 until 3:30 with nothing to do except a light lunch and shopping – but since I’m not buying any souvenirs, it is almost 4 hours of sitting around just waiting. I did do some window looking but no shopping. We gathered at 3:30 to escape from all the souvenir shops (and the inevitable, mandatory, fairly heavy rain which started about 3:10) to return to the hotel.

Dinner is at a local restaurant (just across the street) where we have our farewell visit to the feeding trough. Compared to my previous trip experiences where the farewell dinners were often very poor. This was an exception – very good and in fact, the best steak meal of the trip. Then we had to say goodbye to our fantastic tour director, Andrea Torres.

Day 8, Sunday, Jan 15 – Departures
(B) We have the usual hotel Continental micro-buffet breakfast and it is the poorest of the days here. Hotel check-out is by 12:00 Noon. I'll schedule another ride on a local taxi to get back to the airport (~$18-20). It is a very late flight so I’ll just sit around in the hotel (chairs are more comfortable here) since there is lots of time to get to the airport. About 12:15 or so I’ll look for a taxi outside or call one. There’s no rush. Plenty of time for another burger (or something - chicken tenders) for lunch at the airport and we get food on the flight home. At least it IS a non-stop flight.

United 668San Juan – Houston5:27P – 8:27P5:00

I made it safely despite a mostly bump-bounce-bumpy ride. We arrived in Houston on time (8:20) then ... it seems that the plane had been loaded (luggage) tail heavy so we had to wait 10 minutes while the ground crew unloaded some of the luggage or the plane might well have tipped back on its tail as the passengers left the front. Time now 8:30. It takes 30 minutes to get my luggage (now 9:00) then 25 minutes waiting for the shuttle (now 9:25) and 25 more circling round and round the airport picking up passengers (now 9:50). After all that it still takes 1 hour to get home on the shuttle (10:50). Definitely later than I had expected. Then it is a long 82 days at home until the Columbia River cruise.

I had expected a good trip - and to see somewhere new- but this turnedout to be very good - that mostly due to our excellent tour leader, Andrea.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge