The Epic Puerto Rico Vacation Post II

Posted on 03/10/2019 in misc

As I start this post I'm on JetBlue flying home from our second vacation to Puerto Rico. An island that I think is the Dominican Republic is visible out my window. Nothing about this week changed how I feel about Puerto Rico. A couple more years to build up savings and maybe I'll seriously think about moving. I'm not convinced that Michelle could get the health care she needs there - but I'm not convinced she couldn't either. The healthcare issue needs more research.

The trip got off to an auspicious start. When I checked in via the JetBlue app Michelle and I were not sitting in adjacent seats. We were not sitting in nearby seats. When I called JetBlue they agent told me that seems to happen sometimes with reservations that come in via the American Express website. For some reason AMX doesn't always book the seats you chose. Our return flight had the same issue and at that point my only option for adjacent seats was to upgrade to an exit row for an extra $40 per seat. I only used AMX because AMX reward points paid for most of the flight cost. The JetBlue agent said it was a good idea anytime you book with a third party to call the airline a couple of hours later and confirm that you got the seats you expected. Lesson learned.

We had an 8 AM flight out of Reagan National, so we booked a room at a nearby hotel so we didn't need to drive up from Richmond at 4 AM. I also used one of those parking apps to get $6 a night parking while we were gone at the same hotel we stayed at. I kind of feel bad for the suckers paying $25 a night to park in the same lot. As we were in the lobby waiting for the 6 AM shuttle to the airport, I noticed that I had a message from JetBlue that the flight was an hour late. We missed an opportunity to catch an extra hour of sleep. About the time we got to the gate the flight was pushed out 4 hours. Our flight crew was in Orlando and their flight to DC was delayed. I realize that airlines schedule for cost efficiency not customer satisfaction. But it seems like they could do a better job of not allowing weather delays in one part of the country to cascade throughout the rest of the country.

On the way to the gate we had “fun” with the TSA. The TSA agents in DC are apparently entirely unfamiliar with the concept of an insulin pump. They were cranky and surly about Michelle’s request to hand check pump supplies that will not survive the x-ray machine, and they punished her for that request by forcing her into the full body grope security check when she refused to remove a medical device that is attached to her body. Next time I pay extra and fly out of Richmond. Fuck you Washington DC.

Anyway we finally made it to San Juan about 4 hours late, got our rental car and made the 2.5 hour drive west across the island to Rincon. Then problems didn’t stop there though.

Downtown Rincon
Rincon PR

Rincon PR

I've rented on AirBnB about a dozen times and never had a problem. So I guess I was due. I thought it would be neat to rent a small apartment right on the town square. The "apartment" was directly across a very narrow street from a dive bar that stayed open to 2 AM, and people like to rev their engines and blast latin hip hop at 110 dB as they drive through the town square. Also, the "apartment" wasn't really an apartment. It was a small retail space that somebody turned into an apartment. The shower was literally in the kitchen, and it was a suicide shower that appeared to have been installed by a drunk monkey. Suicide showers are common in many less developed areas. There is nothing inherently wrong with them, if they are installed properly. Some sort of heating element in the shower head assembly heats the water as it flows through. The water doesn’t get particularly hot, but they work. However, wrapping an extension cord around the shower head to get power to the thing is not exactly safe. It's the opposite of safe. Michelle was flat out afraid to shower in the thing. So combine the noise with the "apartment" and after one sleepless night we decided to write off the next three nights and find a better place to stay. I found a hotel room on AirBnB 5 minutes from downtown, near the surfer hangout part of Rincon, and after a morning session of lounging on the beach we packed up and moved. It rained that afternoon so we didn't even lose out on any beach time with the unplanned relocation. Our host was cool and even refunded me one night.The hotel had a nice pool and a stunning view from the top of a large hill overlooking Sandy Beach. The hotel is solar powered with battery back up. That fact becomes relevant in the next paragraph.

Our backup lodging - the Rincon Surf Club
Rincon Surf Club

On our second night (Sunday) we met friends from the states that moved to nearby Mayaguez for dinner and drinks. As they regaled us with stories of life in Puerto Rico the power went out at the restaurant, which was about 1/2 mile from the hotel. The Restaurant is Red Flamboyan and you should absolutely eat there if you are ever in Rincon. It's a fabulous traditional Puerto Rican restaurant and the coconut sauce on my grouper was so good we tried to go back a couple of nights later, but they were closed on Tuesdays. Even though Rincon is pretty much supported by tourists, the local places don't cater by being open 24X7 like you would expect in the US. A lot of retail shops will close Sun/Mon and it's not unusual to see restaurants closed Mon/Tues. That lack of dedication to making every last buck possible is actually refreshing, even if it can be a little inconvenient at times. When we got back to our hotel the power was still out, but we had lights from the battery backup and a solid 4G signal so we gathered around my Chomebook to Netflix and chill. The power came back a couple of hours later.

Rincon Beach
Rincon Beach

Monday was dedicated to chilling on the beach. We were supposed to go on a sunset booze sail but it rained on Monday afternoon too, so we waited out the rain in an open air beachfront bar, which still beats just about every other possible thing you could be doing on a Monday afternoon. The bar is Tamboo and it's often on various lists of best beach bars in the world. We also visited Tamboo on our first trip to Rincon in 2015. Dinner that night was at Shipwreck, where we had the same waiter we had there for a dinner in 2015.The Internet was out when we got up Monday and didn't come back until late Tuesday afternoon. We didn't really notice. 4G is good enough to stream Netflix on my Chromebook for nighttime Netflix. Rincon is clearly still rebuilding infrastructure after Hurricane Maria.

Waiting out the rain at Tamboo

Domes Beach
Domes Beach

On Tuesday morning I had a guided snorkeling tour of the reef booked, so Michelle decided to chill by the pool. And that is when she met Juan. Juan was a local from a couple of houses over, or so he claimed. After asking Michelle a bunch of creepy questions like, "Are you traveling alone" he told Michelle that Rincon was dangerous, and to prove his point he lifted his shirt to show her the concealed handgun that he had holstered across his chest. First of all, Rincon is not dangerous, and second, that is the worst pickup line ever. He eventually told Michelle he could get her a rental car for $125 for 3 days, and she was able to eventually get him to take the hint and leave. We still don't know if the guy had bad intentions, if that was a really bad attempt at hitting on Michelle, or the whole thing was a build up to the rental car pitch. We reported the incident to the rental agent, who was really hot about about and if she can figure out who Juan is, I suspect he'll be terrified to come near the hotel again. My snorkeling session was really fun and I saw a lot of cool stuff that I will have (probably) blurry and out of focus pictures of once I get the waterproof disposable camera processed. By early afternoon is was raining again. However, the sailboat company called and said there was a break and that they were going out from 4 to about 6 if we wanted to do it. So we did, and that turned out to be a great decision. Not only did we have a blast on the boat with about a dozen other people, the two crew members were lot of fun and they made sure our drinks never ran low. We got lucky and saw about 6 humpback whales breach the surface, and we finally saw a sunset that was worthy of Rincon's location facing due west over the Atlantic Ocean. After dinner at Tamboo we decided to check out a bar we drove by several times that always appeared to be hopping. It was hopping because it apparently is the college student spring break hangout, and were easily old enough to be parents to just about everybody there. So we had one drink and headed home, but not before witnessing a lot of stuff that should make me cringe as a parent, except that I'm 100% guilty of all of it at their age, so I got nothing to say except I hope they weren't driving.

Sailing, takes me away
Sailing picture

To where I've always heard it
Sailing picture

Wednesday morning we bugged out of Rincon around 9 AM and detoured by Aricebo Observatory on our way to San Juan. The roads up the mountain to Aricebo are in pretty bad shape. They are narrow and twisty at their best, and dodging potholes large enough to swallow a small car just added to the fun. I was doing this in a Hyundai Elantra, so fun is a relative term here. From its completion in 1963 until July 2016 it was the world’s largest radio telescope, so I got to check “see the world’s (second) largest radio telescope in person” off the bucket list. (China recently built something bigger.) The SETI @home program where you could donate unused CPU cycles on your home PC to analyze “space noise” for signs of intelligent life was run out of Aricebo.

Sailing picture

Unfortunately, they haven't proved that it's aliens. Yet.
Sailing picture

After Aricebo we stopped into a Wendy's for a quick lunch, where we got two burgers that were not at all the burgers we ordered. In two weeks in Puerto Rico I've had a serious failure to communicate twice. Both times were at Wendy's.

Our AirBnB in San Juan was a small one room apartment set up more like a red roof inn quality hotel. However it was 2 blocks from the beach, in a gated community, and walking distance from more bars, restaurants, and shops than I could count in the Ocean Park neighborhood - about 2 blocks from where we stayed with the kids 3 years ago. (Note to self - it’s ok to spend a little more on lodging). After dropping our stuff we went straight to the beach and stayed there until dinnertime. Dinner that night was at a local place recommended by our host, and it was fabulous.

Ocean Park Beach.
Ocean Park Beach

It was windy and the kite surfers were having a good time
Kite surfing at Ocean Park beach

Thursday was more of the same, beach --> lunch --> beach --> guided walking tour of old San Juan with stops at 3 bars to sample rum based drinks. The first stop was Carli's fine dining. Carli is Carli Muñoz, the organ player for the Beach Boys from 70-81. He also played with Wilson Picket and Jan and Dean, among others. The bartender Fausto Molina has a nice collection of awards related to bartending, including best mojito on the island. The drink he served us as part of the tour was one he invented, the Maverick, named after one of Carli's recent jazz albums. It was based on a mojito, except it used a spiced Bacardi and mango juice. It was fabulous. Then we hit two other bars with a guided history tour along the way. Neither of the other two drinks were super notable. The last one was good, but I don't remember the name. It was made with hibiscus and ginger teas, mixed with a spiced rum. After the tour we had dinner at El Jibarto, which serves traditional Puerto Rican food, then we returned to Carli's. You can't stare at an award for "2016 best mojito" and not have one. I have no doubt that mojito is the best around, and the bartender was real open about the secret to a good mojito (high quality rum, really put some effort into the muddling, and raw cane sugar.) If you are in town next week come on over as I'll be working on my mojito skills. Between lunch beers, beach beers, the rum tour and that last mojito I was feeling pretty good Thursday night.

Those walls have protected the city since the 1500s.
San Juan PR

Sunset in San Juan.
San Juan PR

This was after the rum tour....
Ocean Park Beach

Friday was go home day, and sadly Michelle didn't develop a crushing fear of flying over water, so if you are reading this the plane made it across the Atlantic and back to DC. Our flight was at 7 PM, so we spent the day in Old San Juan. We started off following a walking tour I found online, but we eventually just wandered aimlessly. Along the way on Friday I learned a couple of things.

  • Swatch watches still exist, and they have a shop in Old San Juan. Michelle is now the very happy owner of a new Swatch. I remember them being cheap, almost disposable watches back in the 80s. That is not the case today.

  • While touring the home of Felisa Rincón de Gautier, the first woman to be elected mayor of a capital city in The Americas, we learned that the Head Start preschool program was inspired by the Puerto Rico preschool system for single mothers. JFK was inspired by the idea, with Lyndon B Johnson ultimately enacting it. Not surprisingly, The Wikipedia page for Head Start makes no mention of its origins in Puerto Rico. The docent mentioned that the US took a really innovative program and gave it back to them as a worse program called Head Start. I pointed out that she pretty much just described the history of America, appropriate other cultures best ideas and ruin those ideas in the process. That led to a really interesting conversation about US and Puerto Rican politics. The grass is greener thing applies here. Puerto Ricans like to complain about home and talk about how much better it is in the States, while Michelle and I are dreaming of checking out and living in Puerto Rico. Everybody would like to live somewhere else is a truism that seems to extend across all cultures.

The gate of San Juan. Been there since the 1500s
San Juan Gate

The Cathedral of San Juan. Oldest Catholic Church on US soil, and 2nd oldest in Western Hemisphere
The Cathedral of San Juan

We used Uber, because I'm not driving on roads that were laid out for horses in the 1500s
Old San Juan roads

Old San Juan is really pretty
Old San Juan

Can we stay?

Our trip home was uneventful. TSA in Puerto Rico was way more pleasant than TSA in DC. They were more concerned about damaging Michelle’s pump than anything else, asking her a couple of times if she was sure it was ok to walk through the metal detector. The guy that hand checked the sensitive stuff was pleasant and friendly and had a vibe of being happy to help, versus the DC vibe of fuck you for expecting me to do my job. Then again, pleasant and happy pretty much describes every interaction I’ve had with somebody in Puerto Rico.

My car had snow on it when we got to it at around 11 PM. Screw this - I’m ready to go back to Puerto Rico tomorrow.

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