Landing in San Juan, Puerto Rico – A Great View!

I moved to the Isla del Encanto, Puerto Rico, when I was two years old and lived there until I finished high school.  During my many trips back to the island, I have always enjoyed the landing as I get a great view no matter on which side of the airplane I sit on (though the ocean side is more colorful as you can see!).  I thought it may be cool to share the view from my window seat as the plan crosses over land near Cataño, just west of Old San Juan.  Enjoy the pictures of this, one of the prettiest landings ever!

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Approaching Cataño (Old San Juan on the background)

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Flying over Cataño, heading to the San Juan Bay (top right)

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Flyover near the Bacardi Distillery, getting a lil closer to the San Juan Bay! Isla de Cabras towards the top left.

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Looking down on El Morro and its beautiful grounds, where I used to fly a kite as a kid!

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Old San Juan, on the left, with the Isla Grande airport to the right (built by the U.S. Navy prior to WW II)

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

The port of San Juan and the Puerto Rican Capitol almost on the center

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

The old and charming neighborhood of Miaramar in the front, with the Condado hotels on the background

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat,Condado, Miramar, Santurce,  San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Crossing from Miramar on the left to Santurce

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, Condado, Miramar, Santurce, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Condado hotels in the background and my school by the blue little spot in the middle!

Puerto Rico, airplane, Santurce, Barrio Obrero, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Moving from Santurce on the left to Barrio Obrero on the right

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Final final approach, parallel to the Baldorioty de Castro highway

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Cemetery

Puerto Rico, airplane, window seat, Isla Verde, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

Laguna San José and some of the awesome Isla Verde high rises by the beach

Puerto Rico, airplane, Isla Verde, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

The cemetery where my grandparents and great grandmother are buried…

Puerto Rico, airplane, Isla Verde, window seat, San Juan, landing, ocean, blue sea ,El Morro, Old San Juan, travel, photo, Samsung Galaxy

And the final photo with the entrance of the airport and Isla Verde high rises and hotels in the background

The Warm Capitals: Panama City, Manila, San Juan, and Port of Spain

For many, the ideal vacation is to go where it is sunny and warm, be it the tropics or somewhere with good “Mediterranean” climate.  Be it the Caribbean, the South Pacific, or the Greek Isles, sun and fun seem to go together.  I am not as much a chaser of these climates but they definitely present great color and usually interesting and, pardon the word, warm peoples.  For the “Capital Cities” series,  I have chosen four warm capitals:  Panama City, Manila, San Juan, and Port of Spain.

Panama City, Panama

I have shared before about incredible and ever-changing Panama City, a place I have visited over four different decades and which I always enjoy.

Panama City, Panama, tropics, modern vs. old, photo, travel

Modern Panama City as seen from the Casco Viejo

As I have family there, I get to do both the things a visitor would do but also live a little like the locals when I am there.  Panama City is both old and modern and whether by visiting the old ruins of the original establishment, or exploring the old (but not as old) city or “Casco Viejo,” or entering the Canal Zone, or simply enjoying the modern life, Panama City offers great experiences.  And when those are not enough, then fly to the Pearl Islands or head to other beautiful parts of the country like the area near Chagres or Chiriqui, for example.

Manila, The Philippines

I have only visited Manila once and for a rather brief visit.  I shared in another post how the old district has much more history than I understood from centuries of Spanish rule, then American control, then Japanese occupation, and –finally- from the times after it gained its independence.

Intramuros, Manila, city walls, Manila Town Hall, Philippines, golf course, clouds, sky, Olympus

Looking from the Bayleaf’s Sky Deck towards the Manila Town Hall (notice the golf course)

While it can be quite hot and humid (as Panama City), the warmth of the people is well worth the warmth of the climate.  You’d expect that people in any large city would be short-tempered, always in a rush – a la Manhattan.  Not in Manila, where it seems the human connection is most important.  I did not get to venture outside of the city to enjoy what I hear are incredible beaches and other natural settings worth exploring.  But the city alone was well worth the visit!

San Juan, Puerto Rico

You may know from prior posts that I grew up in Puerto Rico.  We moved there when I was two and I left at 17.  15 years to make San Juan a piece of my heart, as the lovely song says:  “En mi Viejo San Juan, cuantos cuantos sueños forjé en mis noches de infancia…”  The old part of San Juan is referred to as “el Viejo San Juan” to distinguish it from the more modern city around it.

El Morro, fortress, San Juan, Puerto Rico, fields, kites, Caribbean, view, vista, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebel

Great fields facing the ocean (note the kites and the city walls) in El Morro

The small island where old San Juan sits is connected by bridges to the rest of the city and, if you don’t pay attention, you may not catch that.

Old San Juan is truly a living museum.  Centuries old, it has not been destroyed nor significantly burned so what you see is what it was and has always been.  But it is not a lifeless museum or collection of old buildings:  people work, shop, play and live in those old buildings!  The heat of the tropics is kind in Puerto Rico due to the strong breezes coming in from the Atlantic, at least on the northern and eastern side of the island so Old San Juan is a great place to spend time as it sits higher than sea level for the most part and the breezes, combined with the shadows the buildings offer part of the day, make it comfortable even for the most cold-loving snowbird.  When you go, make sure you explore the old forts and walls erected by the Spanish centuries ago.  For more of what to see in this incredible place and the rest of Puerto Rico, check out my recommendations on experiences to have in Puerto Rico!

Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago

The capital of Trinidad and Tobago sits in the island of Trinidad.  Facing the water but with hills around it, it is a melting pot of races and cultures which results in a fun place to discover, even when it is not Carnival (which I hear is phenomenal!).  I visited for a few days and enjoyed GREAT food (whether Italian, Indian, tropical, or other!).  I loved driving around the neighborhoods and seeing some neat island architecture.

Trinindad, food, fish, rice, tropical, travel

A delicious lunch at Veni Mangé in Port of Spain was well-deserving of thanks!

While Port of Spain definitely has an industrial side to it, it has many other awesome areas to spend time in – and don’t forget Maracas Bay not too far away (passing through a beautiful tropical forest and great ocean views from the road!).

Port of Spain, Trinidad, Tobago, architecture, dark sky, travel, photo

Great architecture in Port of Spain!

Port of Spain, Trinidad, Tobago, architecture, dark sky, travel, photo

Modern architecture? Check!

The world has many capitals in the warmer climates.  In fact, quite a bit!  Here is to getting to explore many more of them!  Have any recommendations??

Roadside Treats on the Way to Maracas Bay, Trinidad

I think I must be hungry because chadon beni has been on my mind today…  It is making me remember my trip to to Maracas Bay in Trinidad.  On the way there, we made a stop for “Trini-Treats”, a roadside kiosk with a neat array of munchies, some familiar to me having grown up in another Caribbean island, but most quite unique to Trinidad & Tobago and, therefore, new to me.  At first, I was not sure these treats were for me.  Definitely not anything with coconut; coconut is just not for me.  Mango slices immersed in some pickled liquid, Patsy’s channa, and other stuff I did not recognize made me wonder if anything here would be for me.

Trinidad, chadon beni, roadside stand, Maracas Bay, food, foodie, photo

My host and I beginning to explore all the offerings – a little overwhelming at first

Trinidad, chadon beni, roadside stand, Maracas Bay, food, foodie, photo

The young writer seriously concentrating on the options at hand

Thankfully, our local host ignored our initial hesitation and got some samples of the different items.  I was very pleasantly surprised.  My favorite was the pears immersed in chow which is some sort of pickled liquid infused with chadon beni (culantro in other parts of the Caribbean, a strong flavored herb; with some garlic and black pepper, depends on the particular jar) – a great flavor combination!

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

Pineapple slices

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

Pears

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

chadon beni, pickled fruits, Trinidad, Maracas Bay, roadside food, food, tasty, treats,, Trini

Mango slices

After that, we decided to get a few more of these delicious treats before continuing to Maracas Bay where bake ‘n shark awaited…  Famous “Richard’s” was closed for renovations so we just headed next door.  I loved the self-serve on the toppings and had a most delicious lunch.

Maracas Bay, bake and shark at Trinidad and Tobago

Bake and shark goodness!

This “beach” food sampler is just one example of many of the great food to be experienced in the lovely islands of Trinidad & Tobago.  Can’t wait to return!

11 Experiences to Have in Puerto Rico

Because I lived in Puerto Rico for 15 years, I often get asked about what to do and where to stay in this beautiful island.  Of course, these things depend on the type of vacation one is looking for, one’s general preferences, etc. but I can usually provide a varied list of recommendations so others can then pick and choose what sounds good for them.  I will share here the recommendations I have for someone wanting to experience Puerto Rico.  Feel free to ask questions!

Take part in the fiestas patronales (patron saint feasts)

Each town in Puerto Rico has its patron saint.  Around the feast day of the saint, the town has a “fiesta patronal” with a lively parade (heck, everything is lively in Puerto Rico!), music, games, artisans, and food and a very lively atmosphere!  Find a piragüero to make you a piragua (shaved ice with your favorite flavor syrup on it!).

fiestas patronales, patron saint, puerto rico, festivals, music, entertainment, trave,

(Source: www.latinamericatoday.net)

Enjoy Luquillo’s beaches

The beaches of Luquillo, along with Rincón‘s on the west coast, are some of the best on the island.  Luquillo is due east of San Juan and along the way one can stop at the food kiosks off the main road.  These kiosks used to be “huts” but, along the way, the government decided to build them better structures.  I don’t know how many there are but probably over 50 of these eateries.  Stop and taste some of the different foods and maybe a cold beer!

If you feel like it, drive further east to the town of Fajardo.  You can visit its old lighthouse “Faro de las Cabezas“.  You can also drive to the former El Conquistador Hotel (it seems to change name every few years so I stick to the original which everyone knows there) which offers great views cays and the sea below.  It was a very famous hotel in its heyday before it went into decay in the 1970s.  It has been resurrected a few times and it is currently a hotel open for business.

Visit the world’s largest single dish telescope

Made even more famous by the Jodie Foster movie, Contact, and the James Bond movie, Golden Eye, this observatory, built in 1963, is famous for being the largest single dish telescope in the world.  Its diameter is 1,000 ft and it is impressive to see it firsthand, nestled in a small valley.  When I went many years ago (when it was being run by Cornell University), there was a recording playing at the observation deck describing the observatory.  It is from this radio observatory that a message was sent in 1974 by SETI to anyone out there listening that Earth existed and was populated by us.  “Look at me!  Look at me!”  (Like I want angry or scary aliens being alerted to our existence…)

radio, telescope, largest radio telescope, arecibo, puerto rico, wonder, science, SETI

(Source: www.naic.edu)

Go off the mainland to Vieques and Culebra

If Puerto Rico is small, Vieques and Culebra are even smaller but they both offer a nice getaway to a more remote part of the island group.  Vieques was the former location of a U.S. military base so part of it is not as developed as you would expect since the closure of the base is relatively recent.  But I hear that it has been developed smartly.  I have not been to Culebra and, from what I gather, it is less developed.  Either would be great for R&R!

Go under in the Cuevas de Camuy

The caves (or is it more accurate to say “caverns“? some day I will study the difference…) of the Río Camuy, just west of Arecibo, are definitely worth a visit (60 mies or so west of San Juan but miles in PR do not equate easily to time – lots of traffic!).  Due to the proximity to Arecibo, it may be worth combining this visit with the radio telescope since the latter is a fairly quick stop.   The Río Camuy, it may surprise many to know given the smallness of the island, is the world’s third largest underground river.  The river has carved these caves (about 10 miles of them, very little of it accessible to the public) from limestone and you can visit them and ride in them – no worries, the assumed half a million resident bats are likely asleep during the daytime.  But if you go, go early as they stop letting people in after a daily quota has been met (1,500 visitors last I checked).

Visit the pearl of the south:  Ponce

Cross the island from San Juan to Ponce (an hour plus drive) via a scenic drive, and visit the “pearl of the South.”  Ponce is named after the first governor of Puerto Rico:  Juan Ponce de León and later explorer of what became Florida.  Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second largest city.  It has a totally different feel than San Juan’s metropolitan area:  a slower pace, and even the climate is different being a little drier.  Its art museum is well done and its old fire station (Parque de Bombas) is very picturesque.  Both were the target of a special field trip from my high school for the freshman class every year (only an hour plus from San Juan but THAT is considered a LONG trip in this small island!).

Ponce, Puerto Rico, fire station, parque de bombas, red, travel, photo

Ponce’s Parque de Bombas

Explore Old San Juan 

Founded on 1521, there are not enough words to describe how unique Old San Juan is.  Only Havana is competition for OSJ, I hear.  It is the oldest city in the United States, pre-dating St. Augustine by a few decades.  Its cobblestone streets, its beautiful multi-century old buildings (built before anything was built by Europeans in the continental U.S.), and its plazas make this a true jewel of a town.  I appreciate it a lot more now that I no longer live there and have seen more of the world – beats a lot of old towns I have seen.  (Check out my post about OSJ here.)

As a kid, my Dad used to drive us up the hill to enter the old quarter, then along the north coast (with the shantytown La Perla down below the city wall), into the heart of old San Juan to then drive through the old San Juan Gate (a sea-facing gate in the city walls).  Right after going downhill through the gate, the road turned immediately to the left but my Dad used to pretend we were going straight into the water, a thrill ride that I fell for every single time!

Puerta de San Juan, San Juan, Puerto Rico, city walls, fortifications

This is where the gate met the water (Source: www.topuertorico.org which offers great tips)

This gate is the last remaining gate along the city’s walls.  This gate is now pedestrian only and the left turn now takes you down a pleasant walk down the Paseo La Princesa (site of a former jail!).  The city walls are incredible and are preserved along the waterfront but not the inland part.  You can explore these by walking into a garita (guard posts) where Spanish soldiers used to keep watch for foreign invaders and pirates.

The crowning pieces of Old San Juan are the fortresses of San Cristóbal and San Felipe del Morro (El Morro).  The latter is more imposing but the former is also worth a visit.  Do take a tour when you visit so you can grasp how incredible these structures are due to their age, their construction and their history.  The field in front of El Morro is great for a picnic or fly to kites as you look out on the Atlantic Ocean.  I loved going there as a kid.

El Morro, fortress, San Juan, Puerto Rico, fields, kites, Caribbean, view, vista, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebel

Great fields facing the ocean (note the kites and the city walls) in El Morro

There is a cemetery at the foot of the city walls of that field but, be careful if you decide to go to the cemetery…  visitors are easy prey in this important cemetery in San Juan.  I will not keep expanding on all there is to do in OSJ (there is a LOT to see!) but there are small museums, art galleries, bars, etc.  Just walk around and explore!

See La Parguera’s bioluminescent bay in the southwest

This bay in the southwest town of Lajas is a unique place.  The thing to do is to get in a small boat and go into the bay at night.  When the still waters are disturbed, the microorganisms that live in the bay glow.  I have actually never gone but it is famous.  When I return to Puerto Rico some day, this is on my list of things to check off!

Experience Loíza aldea

Loíza is a coastal town east of San Juan that seems to have preserved more of the African heritage of the island than the rest of the island.  Stop and try any of the local restaurants / stands and try “salmorejo” (crab dish) or any of the fried foods!  This is definitely off-the-beaten path for visitors.

Drive the mountain towns and see their main plazas

This is my favorite thing.  Puerto Rico is made up of 70-odd towns, each with a center following the traditional Spanish colonial pattern of a main plaza with the town hall on one side and the main church on the opposite side (the other two sides were houses of better-off families back in the day).  Though they sound very similar, each is quite unique and it is fun to visit and see the differences.  Some of the towns are on the coast but the center of the island is mountainous so visiting the inland towns also has the side benefit of driving around the mountains and tropical forests of the island.  Of course, the main plaza in the capital city, San Juan, is very nice but others compete favorably!  Though I have never visited it, I hear Guayama‘s is one of the prettiest.

Porta Coeli, San German, Puerto Rico, church, pueblo, travel

Vintage photo of the Porta Coeli church in San Germán

Go tropical in El Yunque

The mountain of El Yunque east of San Juan, past the airport is actually not Puerto Rico’s tallest point but it is its most notable one as it is quite standalone in comparison to Cerro de Punta (the tallest point in the island at around 4,400 ft).  It is neat to visit as it allows you to see tropical flora at its best.  My favorite are the gargantuan ferns.  You can also get off at the waterfalls and climb around or get in the water.  It is a neat visit, especially if you are headed to the Luqillo beaches or the food kiosks!

There are other neat places to see and visit (e.g., the Bacardi distillery!) but I did not want to write my favorite 111 things to see and do, so I chopped off a digit (not a finger!) and kept it to 11.  Please feel free to ask any questions if you are planning or thinking of a visit to Puerto Rico!

Photo of the Week: The Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia

The title of this post seems like a mouthful:  Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia (Basilica of our Lady of Altagracia).

Basilica Altagracia Higüey Dominican Republic church

This massive structure in Higüey, Dominican Republic is to honor the Virgin of Altagracia, national patron saint of the country.  It was inaugurated in the 1970s and is within reach of many tourist centers in the DR, like Punta Cana.  Its design is very original and it is worth checking out whenever you are ready to take a break from the beach!  While you are at it, maybe meander around town – who knows what hole-in-the-wall delicious food you may find!  A few more photos to wrap this post!

Basilica Altagracia Higüey Dominican Republic church

Basilica Altagracia Higüey Dominican Republic church

Detail of the front door

Basilica Altagracia Higüey Dominican Republic church

 

How I Enjoy a Good Photo – and a Post-Christmas Giveaway!

UPDATE (16 Jan 2013):  Congratulations to “Kelley” for winning the 8″ by 10″ canvas print courtesy of Printcopia and ilivetotravel!!  And thank you all for your interest – wish I had had a couple more to give away.

As you may know from my blog, I love photography.  Admittedly, I am not the most technical photographer.  However, I love finding unique shots to remember the places I have been to and share the sights I’ve seen with others who like to see the world in person or via blogs like mine.  Check out some of my photo essays, like the one of the tiles of Dubrovnik or, the one about the street art of Barrio Bellavista in Santiago, or of the one of the  churches and monasteries of Moldova to see what I mean about my photos.   Though the space to hang photos in my house is limited, I do have my favorite ones enlarged and on display (hmm… maybe I should show in another photo essay the ones I have on display at home!).

Of all the photos displayed in my house, only one has been printed on canvas so far.  I really enjoy the texture the canvas print adds to the picture.  So it is rather fortunate that Printcopia.com offered me a complimentary canvas to test their offering.  It is a great opportunity to review all the photos from the last year and pick another to add to my “display gallery” while checking out their service for future reference.  I picked the following photo from my trip to Curacao where the architecture was so charming.

Otrobanda neighborhood of Willemstad, Curacao

A giveaway is born

In addition, Printcopia offered me a choice of one of their products to give to one of my readers as a thank-you for following ilivetotravel and enjoying my stories and photos.  I decided to pick a free 8″ by 10″ canvas print since I can vouch for the product from my own experience.

Getting my photo canvas

I was very pleased with the incredibly easy-to-use website.  Easy not only to place the order but also to fine tune the design of the canvas (good details like how the sides of the canvas should appear).

The website was very easy to use (I have used various websites in the past for different photography-related products) and the canvas print was really nicely done.  I hope whoever wins this giveaway finds their experience with Printcopia as good as my own!

Here is how the canvas came packaged:

A canvas print comes shipped in a box

The actual canvas!   Looks great!

Canvas print of a photo from Willemstad, Curacao

The detail of the wrap-around print – awesome touch!!

Canvas print detail - wrap-around print

Now to how to enter to win!

What do you have to do to win?  VERY simple.  Both items below must be completed by midnight Eastern time (end of day of) Tuesday, January 15th, 2013.

  1. Like my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ilivetotravel
  2. Leave a comment on THIS post and share what photo you would make into the canvas should you win the giveaway.  (Make sure I can match your comment here and your Facebook account!)

I will pick a winner at random from those I can match.  Only one entry per person and, unfortunately, this offer is only possible for addresses in the 48 continental states of the U.S.

I will email the winner shortly thereafter and the winner will have forty-eight (48) hours to respond or else the winner forfeits and I will pick another person at random.  Once the winner responds, I will connect the winner with Printcopia and from there, the winner will work with Printcopia to order and get their free canvas!

That’s it and good luck!

 

Final fine print…  By entering, you agree with these!

  • All decisions by ilivetotravel on the giveaway, picking the winner, etc. are final and at the sole discretion of ilivetotravel.
  • Any and all matters related to the prize and its delivery are between the winner and Printcopia.

Curacao Photo Essay: Art, Architecture and Some Very Dark Skies

I enjoyed food, music and sun in Curacao but I also enjoyed admiring the art and architecture in this amazing island!  High kudos to the Hotel Kura Holanda for preserving the beautiful architecture and allowing visitors to walk through it!

No better way than sharing pictures to help you see what caught my eye. 

Click on the picture to see a full version of the photo, not just a cropped thumbnail version!  Then leave me a comment telling me which is your favorite (you can refer to the number in the caption).

Having a Good Time in Willemstad, Curacao: Beach, Food and Music

Last year, I visited Curacao, formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, with a couple of friends after spending a few days in Trinidad and Tobago.  Curacao is an interesting place – the Netherlands in the Caribbean, for sure, but also an incredible melting pot – many folks speak Spanish due to its proximity to and semi-shared history with nearby South America.  Yet it also shares a lot with the other Dutch islands in the hood as well with Surinam, another former Dutch colony.

Curacao, license plate

Even the license plate shows off the beautiful architecture

There is much to write about this island.  I struggled with how to not write about it all in one long post.  So this post will focus on the food, fun and beach as I experienced in a very short visit.  I did not get to scratch the surface of what Curacao has to offer so I will, upfront, tell you that and then challenge you to discover Curacao yourself and perhaps share back with me what you discovered!

An upcoming post will focus more on the incredible charming architecture of this island.  Enjoy!

My hotel

First, Curacao’s capital, Willemstad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), has two sides along the canal that splits it:  Punda and Otrobanda.  Punda is the better known side with the pretty pictures folks normally see whenever Curacao is mentioned (more on this in the next post!).  Otrobanda is or was the poorer side though it contains some neat/charming architecture too.

I chose the Renaissance in Curacao (part of the Marriott family) as my hotel, located in Otrobanda right by the canal entrance.  While the hotel was not an all-around knock-out (e.g., the confusion at breakfast on what was included in my rate and what was not), there were a couple of things that hit it out of the ballpark.  One was the upgrade they welcomed me with.  A corner suite was definitely a great way to greet a Platinum guest.  Thank you for that!!  I wish I had had others sharing the room with me but that was not the case so the space was not taken advantage of.  But what I did greatly enjoy was the humongous bathroom!  Larger than my master bedroom at home!

A cruise ship passes my hotel room at the Renaissance in Willemstad, Curacao

The view from my room includes passing cruise ships!

But what really blew me away was the infinity pool.  Now you may say “seen one, seen them all” but, my friends, this was no ordinary infinity pool:  it was a beach on an infinity pool!  You walked into it as you would on a beach from the sand and the beach chairs.  It was huge and at the far end, the wall dropped down to the rocks by the sea.  When I first exited the hotel and looked at the pool, it seemed the sea was part of the water in the pool – I did not realize it was a pool at all!!   Bravo, Renaissance!

Infinity beach pool at the Renaissance hotel in Willemstad, Curacao

Heavenly!

Beach

Curacao has lots of beaches to choose from, 38 or so.  Some of the best are on the west end of the island.  Beaches in Curacao are not the typical long stretches of sand and surf that we typically envision.  Instead they are smaller, less obscenely huge places to enjoy the sun and surf!   We picked Mambo Beach just for being convenient to us as we were staying in Willemstad and had not rented a car.  I imagine it is far from the best beach but it was definitely enjoyable.

Map showing Mambo Beach, Curacao

Food and Entertainment

We ate at a couple of places that also doubled as entertainment with live music.  I could have kept returning to these places except I ran out of nights!

On our first night, we decided to watch sunset at a high vantage point on the fortress walls in Otrobanda at the entrance to the canal leading to the bay/port.  It was very near to the hotel and these places offered the right angle at sunset to look -or stare- at beautiful Punda!

View of Punda at sunset from Otrobanda in Willemstad, Curacao

Beautiful Punda at sunset

Wine as we enjoy the view of Punda from Otrobanda in Willemstad, Curacao

Wine sets the right mood…

Along the fortress wall in Otrobando in Willemstad, Curacao

Along the city wall we were lounging at

Later that night, we went to Avila Blues Bar for both dinner and entertainment.  The hotel is well known for hosting the Dutch royal family (allegedly, the heir to the throne comes to play here, wink, wink).  The blues bar is on a pier by itself so you are sitting above the sea.  The band plays on a loft-like second story above the bar.  The food was great and so was the music.  More importantly:  great atmosphere!

Avila Hotel Blues Bar by the sea near Willemstad, Curacao

For lunch one day, we sat at one of the average cafés right by the canal that is the entrance to large bay (St. Anna Bay).  While the food was not spectacular, watching people, ships and the movable-floating bridge (aka, Queen Emma Bridge) was fascinating or, at least, entertaining (notice the mist in the picture below coming out under some umbrellas).

Waterfront cafes and restaurants in Willemstad in Curacao by the entrance to the bay

Curacao floating bridge in Willemstand

The floating bridge passes us by as we ate lunch

The Queen Emma "floating" bridge in Willemstand, Curacao is for pedestrians

When not pulled away to let boats pass, the Queen Emma “floating” bridge is for pedestrians

Another night, we went to a Cuban place near the old fortress walls in Willemstad called Mr. Congas.  Its owner is a friendly but serious Cuban guy – the music is authentic (take it from this son of Cubans!) and the food is decent (but I have had and can cook it better!).  The place has an indoor space built into the former fortress walls and an outdoor area where the live music plays.  It was a great evening to sit outside, listen to music (dance for those so inclined), eat, and have a few drinks!

Live Cuban music at Mr. Congas in Willemstad, Curacao

Cuban food at Mr. Congas in Willemstad, Curacao

Cuban food at Mr. Congas in Willemstad, Curacao

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Curacao has a lot to offer – much beyond beaches.  Beautiful architecture, sun, surf, food and a lively entertainment scene.  It is a definite must-see in the Caribbean!

Couple enjoying the view of Punda across from Otrobando in Willemstad, Curacao

Experiencing Good Food and Views in Trinidad and Tobago

It all started with a friend telling me: “I am going to visit my cousin in Trinidad & Tobago over Thanksgiving, do you want come?” Well, the answer to that question is always “yes” (it is like a genetic thing with me) though then I have to check: can I, really. My parents would be in the midst of a move. Work was not in a hectic period. I could use points for more than half of the hotel stay. But my hometown airline didn’t travel to/from the destinations. My friend told me the relative was a foreign diplomat in T&T and that Curacao was also being thrown into the plans for a couple of days. After checking out flight cost, with this other new info, I thought this would be a good opportunity to go to places not in my top 20 but worth checking out nevertheless.

So, following my gut, like I did with the Greece opportunity, I went for it with less than a month’s notice. Phenomenal!

Trinidad

The flight Port of Spain was about 3.5 hrs from Miami.  It was later in the evening so it was a mellow flight.  We landed and the airport was pretty straightforward and on we went.  I was dropped off at my hotel (my friend was staying with the relative) and deep sleep based on the late hour (around 1AM, if memory serves me right).  The plans were for me to be picked up around 2PM since said-relative had to work part of the day.  I did what came naturally to me: sleep in.  After that, I unpacked, grabbed coffee, and relaxed outdoors in the pool area.  I was picked up a little earlier (around 1PM) and we went for lunch.

Port of Spain in Trinidad & Tobago from the Marriott Courtyard

View inland from my room at the Marriott Courtyard

Before talking about lunch, let me say I loved the variety of architecture around town.  From old houses to modern office buildings, you can find a little bit of everything in Port of Spain!

Now to lunch… the place our local hostess picked offered local cuisine.  I guess I need to be more specific since some may say there are two types of local cuisines in T&T…  Stepping back, T&T had slaves brought over as most islands in the Caribbean.  But, after slavery was abolished, the Brits (so civilized…) brought Indians as INDENTURED workers (read, slaves with pay).  I will reserve further opinions on the topic… Anyhow, there is a more traditional Caribbean cuisine with fruit sauces, etc.  but there is also Indian cuisine that is fully Trini.  So, this first lunch place was more of the Caribbean cuisine but different than the Greater Antilles’ cuisine with which I am more familiar (rice and beans and some meat).  The place was called Veni Mangé (come eat in some sort of French) (http://www.venimange.com/)  My friend’s cousin (I will call her “the cousin” going forward!) has been there many times and rents a place from a sister of the owner.  The place is located in a former house so the architecture appealed to me.  The decor seems to be Haitian art (for sale).  And the food, oh, the food!  We ordered 3 dishes to share so we could try them all.  Oxtail with dumplings, fried flying fish, and creole beef with eggplant.  Plus side dishes and some tropical red juice from a fruit I didn’t recognize (even if I did grow up in the northern Caribbean…)

Lunch at Veni Mangé in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago

Lunch at Veni Mangé

The rest of the day we drove around various parts of town.  Had some drinks by a yacht club a little north of town (I think by Diego Martin or past it, at least), hanging out at the Hilton outside terrace, and even a stop at a shopping mall (I could have been anywhere in ther U.S.)!

Maracas Bay

The beach to go to in Trinidad seems to be Maracas Bay.  It is a short drive from Port of Spain that includes driving through a beautiful forest and the views of the sea from up high.  However, due to some recent rains, the area of Maraval on the outskirts of Port of Spain had sustained high waters from the river and traffic moved slowly through part – however, we counted our blessings because the road had been closed earlier that day.

Flood damage in Maraval on the way to Maracas Bay in Trinidad and Tobago

The flood damage in Maraval

At some point we stopped on a roadside stand where among the things they sold as various fruits soaked in chadon beni, a delicious mix of cilantro and garlic (sometimes with black pepper too).  I tried the mango and it was outstanding (though at first it wasn’t appealing to me).

Me strongly studying my chadon beni options

Mango in chadon beni in Trinidad and Tobago

The mango in chadon beni

Maracas was very empty on this weekday and we thought it was due to people avoiding Maraval, not being sure if the road would be passable.  But after a little bit, people started appearing and the beach was a little more animated.  It was a beautiful setting, not as cove-like as the beaches we would see in Tobago.  Locals flock to this beach on the weekends and I can imagine it is a good place to be.

Maracas Bay in Trinidad and Tobago

Maracas Bay beach

Finally, the thing to do in Maracas is eat bake and shark, a sort of sandwich of shark topped with any number of toppings you self-serve on it.  Richard’s is the most famous and I hear they can have long lines.  Much to our chagrin, it was closed as they were tiling the floor of the table area (upgrade!  they must be doing well).  We ate at another one in the area and the bake and shark lived to its fame!

Maracas Bay, bake and shark at Trinidad and Tobago

Bake and shark goodness!

Tobago

Our hostess suggested we spend a day in Tobago, known for its beaches and more geared to tourism than Trinidad (they have not invested heavily in tourism since they have lots of oil – though you could be forgiven for thinking it is a poor country; where do oil profits go?!). A ferry would take a few hours so we decided to just fly over there in 20 mins.  Our flight over was at 8AM and the return was at 9PM.  We decided against staying overnight the night before or the night of because we had such limited time in Trinidad & Tobago.  Oh, and the day after, we had a 7AM flight to Curaçao!  We planned to rent a car and drive around and also our hostess got a hotel room so we could shower before heading back to Trinidad.

The Caribbean Airlines flight was efficient and quick.  Picking up the rental car at the Tobago airport was pretty straightforward.  Our hotel was pretty close to the airport so we stopped to check it out and have breakfast which was pretty nice.

Boarding our plane to Tobago!

Unfortunately, neither the car rental agency person nor the hotel clerk were terribly knowledgeable about which beaches were better to explore and our hostess only knew the one by the main resort.  The only nugget we got was that maybe Charlotteville and Englishman’s Bay were probably the ones to check out.  Charlotteville was on the other end of the island and, given the island is so small, I suggested we go and that we go there first to do the longer drive first and then make our way back to the hotel making stops anywhere we wanted based on the time left.

It took us about 1.5 hrs to make it to Charlotteville driving on a coastal road (the highway) which, though small, was in good condition (this was to be true almost everywhere!).  Right before getting to Charlotteville we passed a nice beach which the map had marked with many a SCUBA flag which must mean it has good snorkeling/diving going on.  However, it was the morning of a rainy weekday so we didn’t see anyone at the beach.

Charlotteville seemed like a quaint town or village facing the beach.  I was to learn many of the beaches here were in cove-like settings which were beautiful but which are very different from the expansive beaches in places like PR, Florida, etc.  Again, the weather was not favorable so it was empty.  I wish I had seen it with a little more life…

Beach in Charlottesville in Tobago

Charlottesville beach

From Charlotteville we started off to Englishman’s Bay halfway back to where we started from.  However, a piece of the road was sort of broken up due to rains, I suppose.  So, off the car I got to find rocks to cover up the mud.  With a deep step on the pedal and an almost empty car, the car passed and on we went.  We stopped at Bloody Bay where a school bus full of kids was playing at the beach.

After a quick stop, we kept on going back but somewhere missed a turn.  After driving through a beautiful forest-like area (it was a national park, we found out), we surfaced on the other side of the small island so we decided to just keep on going as we were starving.  We stopped at a place right before Scarborough called Café Havana.  It wasn’t really Cuban but was nice and open and just what we needed.  It was next to a beautiful hotel overlooking a small cove.  It would certainly be a place to stay at should there be a repeat visit.

Sea and sunset view in Tobago near Scarborough

Hotel view

So…

Trinidad and Tobago was not in my top 20 of places to go.  But this was a good opportunity that offered me seeing some of it through the eyes of a resident which is always better than just being a visitor.  And I liked what I saw!   I hope to return.  Who would have told me at the start of 2011 that I was to see Trinidad & Tobago and Greece in the year?  Living with spontaneity brings these happy surprises and new discoveries.  Do you have any similar travel destination surprises?

Photo of the Week – The Aged Streets of Old San Juan

Old world charm in the new world.  Streets that have seen a lot of history and major empires fighting for them.  Old San Juan’s charm lies in its setting by the water, in its history, and in its well-preserved architectural jewels (including the “adoquines“, the cobblestone used to pave the streets a few centuries ago).  The wavey adoquines resemble the sea around Old San Juan, reminding us of its place in the Spanish Empire as a key port.

Old San Juan, San Juan, Puerto Rico, cobblestone, traffic, travel, tourism

Cobblestoned streets with their modern load

Making the Most of My Short Visit to Puerto Rico

I went to Puerto Rico, where I lived for 15 yrs growing up, for a long weekend after a 5-year absence.  It is always an interesting trip when I go with the mix of family, friends, and lots of memories.  Most of my family has moved away from there and many friends are no longer there either but I still never have time to see the ones who remain.  Also, I never have enough time to see things I want to re-visit or things that I just plain and simple have never seen before (like La Parguera or the Bacardi distillery, must-sees).  It is funny how that goes!  While this trip was due to a family member’s illness, I did get a little time to go around some.

I had never spent too much time (other than driving through) some of the towns due west of Bayamón.  In particular, I saw more of Vega Baja, Vega Alta, and Toa Baja in a day or two of going from place to place this weekend that the sum of the time I ever spent there before.  It is interesting to see how densely populated some of these towns can be (and how bad traffic can be!).  Yet, along the coast (where the “Baja” towns are) I saw some of the “‘hidden away” beaches I had never been to before, far away from tourist areas and the local crowds (like Los Tubos and Puerto Nuevo, which I hear surfers love).

In terms of food, my Dad took me to a real treat of a place, La Casita Blanca, a small restaurant of typical Puerto Rican food near Barrio Obrero, a neighborhood that had glory days a long time ago but that even in my childhood was already known for higher levels of crime and, therefore, a “must stay away from” area.  The restaurant is quaint and picturesque and is located in a semi-residential, semi-commercial street (Ave. Tapia).

Casita Blanca in Barrio Obrero in Puerto Rico

When you sit down to eat, they serve you not only the typical basket of garlic bread but also fried cod (“bacalaito“), and a small serving of an awesome chicken soup.  When you are done, they serve you a small dose of anise to cleanse the palate.  I had to go for the carne frita (friend pork chunks) and mofongo (friend mashed plantains) – one of my favorite Puerto Rican dishes!  The place was a really neat hole-in-the-wall that had a lot of character, great food, and friendly staff.

Barrio Obrero in Puerto Rico

A house in the old part of Barrio Obrero

Finally, I had to have my “quesitos“, a Spanish-influenced pastry filled with cream cheese that I can’t find at home (though I have it whenever I go to Miami or Tampa).  My favorite place to eat these in PR is La Ceiba on Ave. Roosevelt.  That, a “croqueta de jamón” and a cortadito (coffee and milk) make for a most bodacious breakfast!  A sister bakery to La Ceiba is La España, on Ave. Baldorioty near the airport (next to a cemetery and across from another one!).  So, not only do I enjoy going to La Ceiba but on the way out of the island, I make a stop at La España to eat some goodies, and take some home with me 🙂

The Enchanting Capital of the Isla del Encanto – Old San Juan

Writing about Puerto Rico will not be easy for me as writing about other places.  I lived in Puerto Rico since I was 2 years old until I finished high school so my experience of Puerto Rico is not just a trip or an extended visit.  However, I will try to highlight, through a few of these entries, what one who visits Puerto Rico can expect to see and experience.

There are many places in Puerto Rico worth seeing.  However, for me, Old San Juan is tops.  Consider that Old San Juan is a decade or so short of having been in existence 500 years.  Santo Domingo is older but, for the Americas, 500 is impressive enough.

The best way to appreciate the uniqueness of Old San Juan, which refers to the area formerly surrounded by a wall and the immediate vicinity, is by coming into the bay in a cruise ship (or maybe some other boat).  The tip of the island where Old San Juan is houses the El Morro fort, a very impressive fortification built centuries ago to protect San Juan de Puerto Rico from pirates from other European countries (even the mighty Francis Drake tried -and failed- to take San Juan).

El Morro fort in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

The fort of El Morro and its beautiful and rolling grounds

From the fort, a huge wall surrounded Old San Juan with several gates (only one survives) controlling access.  A good bit of the wall remains, especially from the fort of San Cristobal towards El Morro, then to La Fortaleza (the governor’s mansion) to the Capilla del Cristo.  Seeing the old city surrounded by this wall, especially at sunset or nighttime is a sight to behold.

La Fortaleza (the governor's house) in San Juan, Puerto Rico

La Fortaleza (the governor’s house)

The fort of El Morro is a must see for anyone visiting PR.  Get a guide so you can understand how the fort operated, how it was used to defend the city, etc.  Step into a “garita” and feel what a Spanish soldier must have felt centuries ago serving as a sentry keeping an eye out for ships.  The fort is huge (take a water bottle if it is hot!).

Garita or guard house in Old San Juan's city walls in Puerto Rico

The quintessential image of Old San Juan: a garita along the city’s old walls and the lively ocean behind it

As kids we loved going to the fort.  The fort of San Cristobal is smaller but still an impressive site.   There is a cemetery below the ground of the fort of El Morro.  Local luminaries are buried there; however, be warned, getting to it is risky so I would actually recommend not going but, instead, cross the El Morro grounds and look down on the cemetery from the gaps in the wall.

The area around Plaza de Armas is the center of the town, where city hall is.  It is your typical Spanish plaza.  Nearby, you also have the Plaza Colon.  Anyone around will happily direct you to these places.  The Capilla del Cristo and the next door Parque de las Palomas are local favorites.  The Capilla (chapel) was built on the edge of a cliff in honor of a jockey not dying (a very long time ago) when he and his horse went off the cliff on a downhill race down the Calle del Cristo.  People leave items as thanksgiving for prayers answered.  It is a charming site.

Beautiful simple balcony in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Beautiful simple balcony in Old San Juan

Old San Juan is a great place to explore on foot as it is very compact.  Walk to the Cathedral, enter the hotel across the street (“El Convento“, a former convent), walk down by the waterfront, explore the backstreets and examine the architecture.  If you get lucky, take a peek inside any of the houses (people do live there!); worst case, at least go into shops or eateries that retain the inner courtyard so you can appreciate how people lived and still live in these magnificent buildings.  The cobblestone streets and the architecture really take you to a different time (if you can ignore the cars!).

Old San Juan street in Puerto Rico

A side street near the Cathedral

As you approach the cruise ship area, the number of souvenir shops increase exponentially but in the rest of Old San Juan, you will find shops where the locals also shop and souvenir shops that are more reasonable.  I remember as a child my mother going to Old San Juan on a Saturday to go shopping.  There are many places to eat and many of those being oriented to tourists but, for a local style lunch, el Siglo XX is a classic (Calle O ‘Donnell).  Other well known eatiers are La Bombonera and La Mallorca (some of these may be closed by now…).   If the day is hot, stop at a piragüero, and get the piragua (shaved ice with a syrup with the flavor of your choosing).

Nightlife in Old San Juan is abundant.  The bars in the Calle del Cristo were famous in my time in PR and are likely still popular with the local crowd.  I believe that Calle San Sebastian has also developed as an area to go out at night.  The area by the cruise ships also has places to eat and drink but, to me, having known another side of Old San Juan, that would feel too touristy and I would avoid it.  (Anyone with more current info and perspective, please comment if all this is outdated info!!  I don’t claim to be current on where to go for nightlife, but I know there is!)

If you have kids, the forts and adjoining grounds will clearly be fun for them – but get a kite and be ready to fly it!

Kites in the blue sky in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Kites in the blue sky on the ground of El Morro – taking me back to my childhood

Check out this link for more info on what to do with kids:  http://www.puertoricodaytrips.com/kids-in-old-san-juan/

It is hard to do Old San Juan justice in any write-up.  It is a charming, deeply historical, and beautiful location to see and explore!

 

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