Thursday, May 6, 2021

Flying to and from San Juan, Puerto Rico

Flying to and from a destination is almost always my least favorite part of trip. There are crowds, long waits, seats with little legroom, the person in front reclining their chair back into your knees, jostling for position at the gate, flight delays, flight cancellations, airlines regularly changing flight departure and arrival times, fellow passengers refusing to wear masks and misbehaving in other ways, arguments and fighting, and other unpleasantries associated with most commercial flying. It's difficult for me to believe that anyone would ever choose to subject themselves to this other than as a "necessary evil" to get to a desired location. As is usual for most trips to exciting places, my least favorite part of our trip to Puerto Rico was getting there and returning home.

 

Denver to San Juan: The Debacle in Orlando

We flew Frontier Airlines from Denver to San Juan with a long (6-hour) layover in the Orlando International Airport (MCO). I dreaded the thought of a 6-hour layover, but it would turn out to be far worse as the flight from Orlando to San Juan was delayed 5 fours (11 hour total layover).

Had we known the overall layover was going to be 11 hours, we would have left the airport and done something in Orlando during some of that time. We even considered that for the scheduled 6 hour layover, but the period of time that layover covered (6 am to noon) meant that a lot of things were not open yet in Orlando.

As the above image shows, many Frontier flights out of Orlando were delayed that day. Most of the delays appeared to be attributed to a storm in the area that prevented flights from arriving in Orlando, so the airplanes used to fly out of Orlando were not present. We have flown Frontier Airlines to Orlando as our ultimate destination and that direct flight has worked well enough for us. As with many destinations, it seems best if one can fly directly to San Juan rather than connecting.

The terminal at Orlando International Airport with the Frontier gates (Terminal A) got really crowded at times. As the area heated up and became more humid if the afternoon, people stopped trying as hard to keep their masks on and more and more masks starting falling below noses and even mouths. I was happy that we had been vaccinated for COVID-19 before this trip because this definitely felt like a potential superspreader event. There are multiple gates in a small area in that terminal and with most flights being significantly delayed, there was no avoiding the mass of humanity sequeezed into a small space. Fortunately, the majority of people did continue wearing masks despite the increasing discomfort.

When we finally boarded the airplane to fly to San Juan, we were delayed again because two families on the airplane had small children older than two years old who refused to wear masks. I felt for everyone involved (the flight attendants, the families with children that refused to wear masks, and the rest of us who just wanted to take off after such a long wait). In the end, both families had to leave the airplane and we headed to San Juan. We made good time and got to San Juan about the same time as expected before the wait for the families to get off the airplane.

Unfortunately, we arrived in San Juan very late due to the 5 hour delay and that dashed our plans to eat dinner that first night at La Estación in Fajardo (we had made reservations in anticipation of this). That was disappointing enough, but even worse the Puerto Rico curfew due to COVID-19 meant that the airport eating establishments and restaurants in San Juan were all closed to new customers as well. We ended up purchasing food at gas stations in Fajardo and were happy to have even that.

 

San Juan to Denver: Some Improvement

Our flight back from San Juan to Denver had another layover in Orlando International Airport. We ate dinner at On the Border in that same terminal to kill some of the layover time. The flight out of Orlando was again delayed, but this time only for an hour and that seemed small compared to our troubles getting out of that airport to go to San Juan.

For the flight home, it was the San Juan Airport (Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, SJU) that was most stressful. We left Old San Juan with more than 2 1/2 hours until our flight was scheduled to depart and that worked out well because there was worse traffic than expected and we got to the airport with about 2 hours and ten minutes still until our scheduled departure time. We needed the vast majority of that time to wait in three lines (the agriculture check line, the Frontier check-in line, and the TSA security line). The third line (TSA security) was by far the longest wait. The next photograph shows a small portion of this line that went back-and-forth.

When we first got into the TSA security line, I thought there was no way we'd make our flight in time, but it did move faster than I expected. Behind us, I heard some young women pleading with the TSA agent to let them through the line in front of others "because our flight is scheduled to depart in ten minutes," but the TSA agent pointed out to them that this was the situation for many people in that same line. I think that many of us have become accustomed to not really needing to be to the airport 2 hours in advance for domestic flights, but that 2 hours was needed on this day in a very busy San Juan Airport. We would have made our airplane's scheduled departure time and would have beaten the scheduled time for closing the gate, but our flight ended up getting delayed for about 30 minutes, allowing us time to purchase lunch at the nearby Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen.

The agriculture inspection line was very fast, but you needed to know to get into it or could wait for the airlines check-in line before being told you needed to take your luggage through the agriculture inspection line before checking it. Fortunately, a sign near the beginning of the line for Frontier Airlines checkin stated this.

I took my laptop bag through the agriculture inspection line, but the woman working that line and applying the green adhesive strips to the checked luggage told me laptop bags did not need the check or the marking and that turned out to be the case. Bags must go through this agriculture inspection line for passengers traveling from Puerto Rico to other parts of the United States. The San Juan Airport's information page explains:

All the baggage of passengers traveling from Puerto Rico to the United States must go through the inspection process. This inspection will be performed by officials of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), located at the entrance of all the terminals thru the airport.

That same page also lists permitted and non-permitted items.

 

Lessons Learned and Other Observations Regarding Flying to San Juan

  • If possible, book a direct flight to San Juan, especially during COVID-19 when curfew limits the hours restaurants can be open in San Juan. This doesn't guarantee anything, but one fewer connecting flight means one less opportunity for something to go wrong.
  • If it appears that a connecting (or even direct) flight to San Juan is going to get you there anywhere close to the curfew, purchase some food items in the departure airport to carry with you because you may have very limited dining options in San Juan as curfew approaches.
  • Avoid planning things to do in Puerto Rico on arrival day unless you have back-up plans for those activities.
  • If traveling from Puerto Rico to other parts of the United States, do these things in this order:
    1. Run bags through agriculture inspection line near front doors to terminal.
    2. Check-in at airline's counter (if checking bags or checking in there instead of at the gate).
    3. Go through the TSA security line.

Many of these lessons learned and observations really apply when flying anywhere, especially during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

 

Flying Contrasts

My posts on traveling to the Puerto Rico "Spanish Virgin Islands" of Culebra and Vieques will cover our flights there in a more detailed fashion, but suffice it to say that those short flights with tiny and nearly empty airports were far more pleasurable than flying to and from San Juan. Instead of being a "necessary evil" to get to those fantastic islands, those flights were part of the adventure!

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Vehicle Rental, Fueling, and Driving in Puerto Rico

We were in Puerto Rico for six nights and rented three Jeeps during those six nights!

The Jeep Rentals

We used Costo Travel to rent a white Jeep from Alamo at San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU). The Alamo vehicle class for this was "Fullsize Specialty" and its description was "JEEP WRANGLER UNLIMITED or similar".

The car rental facility at San Juan Airport is in a parking garage directly across from the main terminals and is a quick and easy walk after picking up luggage.

We went to the Puerto Rico "Spanish Virgin Islands" of Culebra and Vieques and needed transportation on both of those islands. The car rental companies on the main Puerto Rico island generally do not allow their vehicles to be taken to either of these islands and it is difficult to do so even when allowed.

We rented a yellow Jeep from Jerry's Jeep Rental on Culebra. We were able to reserve the Jeep online and in advance and it was easy to pick up because Jerry's Jeep Rental is located directly across from the small Culebra airport's (Benjamín Rivera Noriega Airport) parking lot and street.

Carlos Jeep Rental appears to be the other significant source of rental Jeeps on Culebra. They have a desk at the Culebra airport and their main facility is down the street.

There are numerous organizations that rent vehicles on Vieques, but we had a difficult time finding a Jeep available for rent. Golf carts and scooters were available, but we weren't sure about renting them overnight and a Jeep was preferable for our party of five anyway. Fortunately, the owner of the VRBO apartments we rented on Vieques (Manuel Carrillo) provided a Jeep Liberty that was available for rent to those who rented one of the VRBO units (we rented both). We were able to pick up that Jeep across the street from the apartments we rented.

We left the white Jeep rented from Alamo in the parking lot of the Ceiba airport (José Aponte de la Torre Airport) while on Culebra and Vieques.

Fueling Vehicles in Puerto Rico

Gas stations are relatively plentiful in much of Puerto Rico, but are far more scarce on the islands of Culebra and Vieques, so extra time should be allotted to refilling vehicles on those smaller islands.

Every gas station we visited in Puerto Rico required us to go into the gas station first to provide a credit card for payment in advance. In most cases, we could opt to either do a "fill up" (in which case the gas station employee would hold onto the credit card until the tank was filled and then charged the card for the proper amount) or opt to have the card charged a predetermined amount and the pump would stop pumping when we reached that amount.

Miles, Kilometers, and Liters

Most of the speed limit signs we saw in Puerto Rico were expressed in miles and the vehicles showed miles as well. However, signs that indicated distances tended to show the distances in kilometers. Gas prices tended to be advertised and charged on a per liter basis.

Road Conditions and Driving

The roads in Puerto Rico that we drove on were generally in good condition, though we were happy to have the Jeeps when taking some bumpy dirt roads to Playa La Chiva on Vieques and to the Cabo Rojo Lighthouse. In the larger cities (San Juan and Ponce), traffic congestion was an issue and paying careful attention to one-way roads was also necessary. We also encounted a vehicle going the wrong-way down a one-way street in the small main town on Culebra. Parking in that small downtown in Culebra was also relatively scarce.

We encountered a few especially aggressive drivers and a few particularly slow drivers in Puerto Rico, but in general the drivers we encountered were far more apt to adhere to stop signs and stop lights than drivers we saw in Santo Domingo in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Perhaps the biggest issue related to driving that we ran into frequently was people parking their cars in the middle of a lane or on a sidewalk with just enough hanging over into the lane to make cars driving in that lane need to move a bit into the next lane. We saw this quite a bit in the cities and in the rural towns.

Perhaps the most tense moments while driving in Puerto Rico occurred when navigating narrow and curvy roads amidst lush jungle foilage. There was always the possibility of a vehicle coming the other direction and cutting a sharp corner too close and you could not see oncoming traffic due to the thick (but very beautiful) foilage. Fortunately, drivers seemed to do well at keeping to their side and being wary when going around these blind curves. Some drivers even honked to let oncoming traffic know they were there. The narrow and curving roads through the jungle foilage is most pronounced in the middle of the main island in the mountainous regions. It was particularly memorable on a stretch of the road between Ponce and Cueva Ventana.

One particular tense moment of driving was when driving the Jeep through the short narrow tunnels to enter and leave the Old San Juan Cemetery (Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery) area.

It helps for drivers from the United States (and most nations) that driving in Puerto Rico is done on the right side of the road, which is what most of us are used to.

Tolls

There are several tollways in Puerto Rico and in many cases using them saves considerable time. Because we rented the main white Jeep from Alamo, we used their Toll Pass Program (at the time of this writing, it is: "$3.95 per usage day, not to exceed $19.75 per rental period. There is no TollPass Convenience Charge on rental days that you don't use a toll road."). It was nice to not have to stop and make payments and in a few cases it saved us from waiting in a line of several cars.

Car Rental Recommended for Puerto Rico

Most articles and blog posts I read about traveling to Puerto Rico recommended renting a vehicle if leaving San Juan. We are glad we did as renting vehicles on mainland Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques allowed us to more efficiently see the parts of those respective islands we most wanted to see.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Puerto Rico Travel During COVID-19

We noticed during our trip to Puerto Rico in the last week of April that most people in Puerto Rico are diligently following the rules and guidelines that are in place for dealing with COVID-19. This post contains some of our observations related to dealing with this coronavirus while traveling to Puerto Rico.

Getting to Puerto Rico: COVID-related Entry Requirements

Puerto Rico requires visitors to follow steps outlined in Travel Guidelines:

  • Fill out the Travel Declaration Form
  • Take a "PCR molecular COVID-19 test (nasal or throat swab)" "no more than 72 hours"
    • Cannot be "rapid" test
  • Upload negative results from PCR molecular COVID-19 test to the Puerto Rico Travel Safe site
  • A QR code is sent to the individual who filled out the Travel Declaration Form and uploaded results of a negative PCR molecular test and this QR code is shown to a member of the Puerto Rico National Guard at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport after picking up one's luggage.

Even those who are considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are required to have the PCR molecular test performed and to upload the negative results to the website. Puerto Rico has also instituted a $300 fine for anyone arriving on the island without the negative PCR molecular test results.

Restrictions While in Puerto Rico

At the time of our travel to Puerto Rico, there were several restrictions in place related to COVID-19, but they were not overly limiting of what we wanted to do there for the most part. The rules and restrictions we noticed most were curfew related and capacity related.

We had a long and painful day getting to Puerto Rico that included an 11-hour layover (originally 6 hours plus 5 hours of delay) and arrived in San Juan with just about every food establishment in the airport being closed and all of the restaurants closing up due to curfew rules. Fortunately gas stations in Farjado were still open and I've never been so grateful for gas station food, though it was still a disappointment from the local restaurant dinner we had hoped to enjoy that first night in Puerto Rico.

We noticed that employees at restaurants and gas stations were very diligent about enforcing only a specific number of customers being indoor in their establishments at the same time. All of the proprietors and all of the tour operators we worked with required masks when indoors or in close quarters outdoors.

Just about every establishment we visited had an electronic touchless thermometer for us to put our palm in front of (or in some cases an employee scanned us) and had antibacterial dispenser to sanitize hands.

Closures

Although a large number of the activities we wanted to participate were available during COVID-19 (because so many were oriented to small groups and were outdoor activities), there were some things we missed out on in Puerto Rico due to COVID-19-related closures. In particular, we had hoped to participate in the Kayak Trip to Cayo Santiago ("Monkey Island"), but this was not operating due to COVID-19. We also noticed that some attractions were not open or closed early, especially in areas further from San Juan such as Ponce and Cabo Rojo. Some beaches on Vieques were also closed.

On Culebra, we headed to Dinghy Dock for lunch, but found a sign indicating that it's closed due to COVID-19.

Tour Precautions

The tour operators we encountered all seemed to take COVID-19 seriously and offered preventative measures in addition to the normal 6 feet separation and required wearing of face masks by employees and customers. They also offered temperature screenings and antibacterial mist or fluid for participants. Here are some particular additional precautions that select tour operators took while we were there:

Daily Sara Alert Texts and Responses

We received a "Sara Alert" text each morning from telephone number 844-957-2721 asking if we were experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and we were requested to respond "si" or "no." The daily text message was in Spanish:

Este es el informe diario de Sara Alert para: DM-50. ¿Está usted sintiendo uno o más de los siguientes síntomas hoy?: Tos, Problemas para respirar, Pérdida reciente el olfato, Pérdida reciente del gusto, Falta de aire, Fiebre, Escalofrío, Tiembla repetidamente y tiene escalofríos, Dolor muscular, Dolor de cabeza, Dolor de garganta, Náuseas o vómitos, Diarrea, Fatiga, Congestión nasal o un exceso de moco en la nariz. Responda con "Sí" o "No"

Even though we've been home from Puerto Rico for several days, we're still receiving these daily Sara Alert texts and it reminds me of how much I miss Puerto Rico!

Conclusion

The people of Puerto Rico seem to be working hard to ensure that travel there is as safe as possible and to improve their changes of keeping things open and running.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Advantages of Traveling to Puerto Rico for Residents of U.S.A.

Puerto Rico offers all the beauty of the Caribbean and adds historical and cultural appeal as well. Puerto Rico offers special advantages to fellow residents of the United States who want to experience the natural beauty, history, and culture of the Caribbean islands that constitute Puerto Rico. This post lists benefits for residents of the United States who visit Puerto Rico as a Caribbean destination.

Puerto Rico offers residents of other parts of the United States with the opportunity to experience much of the benefits of international travel without actually leaving the United States.

Six Nights in Puerto Rico

We visited Puerto Rico for the first time in late April and it was fantastic. Puerto Rico combines the nature beauty and other advantages of the Caribbean with interesting cultural and historical attractions. Puerto Rico offers an experiene for residents of the United States that in many ways "feels international" while benefitting from some of the advantages of not leaving the United States.

In an associated series of posts, I will provide greater details regarding highlights (and a small number of lowlights mostly related to flying to and from San Juan) of our recent trip to Puerto Rico.

The following bullets will eventually each include a link pointing to individual blog post highlighting specific observations and lessons learned while in Puerto Rico.

Six nights did not provide nearly enough time to do all the things we really wanted to do in Puerto Rico, but we attempted to stuff as much as we could into the allotted time. We spent three nights in Fajardo, one night on Vieques, one night in Ponce, and one night in San Juan. We chose to only stay in San Juan for one of the six nights because we think we'll have the easiest opportunity to stay there again in the future in conjunction with a Caribbean cruise or with an extended layover on the way to or from other Caribbean destinations.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

April Snow at Garden of the Gods

We have visited Garden of the Gods numerous times, but it has been many years since we last went there.

We decided to take a day trip to Garden of the Gods on this mid-April Saturday and it was another very rewarding visit.

Although it was a cold day with a little snow still on the ground and non-accumulating light snow flakes blowing around a little bit, the park was well-attended.

Many of the small parking lots along the loop were full when we arrived (though there would be available spots in the late afternoon), but we did find multiple available parking spots in the Siamese Twins Trailhead parking lot on the west side of the park.

The Siamese Twins trail is short (one-half mile) and visually satisfying.

It is generally an easy hike, but there are some wide steps in some spots.

There are great views on the way up.

There are great views at the top.

The most popular portion seemed to be the unique rock formations (including the "Siamese Twins") at the top.

"Windows" formed by natural structures that naturally "frame" tremendous views seem to particularly draw attention and this one was no exception.

After returning to the Siamese Twins Trailhead parking lot, we decided to head into Manitou Springs, one of Colorado's charming mountain towns. These photographs were taken from a table and benches in front of the Manitou Springs Pool and Fitness Center.

We also visited the Wild West Ghost Town Museum for our first time. This museum is very interesting visually. There are placards with text names and text descriptions, but what impressed me most was the visual aspect. We enjoyed feeling like we were on a road in main street of a town in the Wild West. We were particularly surprised to realize how high off the ground the carriages are, which became obvious once we stood next to them. The Ghost Town Museum is an indoor activity that will take most people less than an hour to see. There is a short film that can be watched and there is a petrified sequioa tree stump between the main building and the smaller adjacent building housing the "Old Home".

When we returned to Garden of the Gods, it was getting close to the time when the visitor centers close and we noticed that there were beginning to be some parking spots opening up in the various small parking "lots" around the loop. There were several parking spots available now even in the highly popular Main Parking Lot.

The Main Parking Lot is popular for many reasons, including its easy access to the wide paved Central Garden Trail that provides easy access into the "heart" of some of the most popular natural structures in the Garden of the Gods.

Shortly after the visitor centers had closed (but the park remains open for several more hours), even the small parallel parking road-side parking area marked as P3 on the park map had no cars present. This is my favorite view of the park that can be seen from the road. I end this post with a photograph from that vantage point.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Snowmobiling Near Turquoise Lake

We thought about going snowmobiling over the week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day, but that is something that needs to be planned and scheduled well in advance due to its popularity at that time of year. We scheduled a snowmobile tour for Monday, January 4, and this post provides some of our observations from that snowmobiling day trip near Turquoise Lake (near Leadville, Colorado).

The drive from the Denver area to the Leadville area is approximately two hours, assuming no stopped traffic. There is construction on I-70 near Idaho Springs and trafffic slowed there, but it still took a bit less than two hours to get there and a bit more than two hours to get back to Denver on the day we went.

Our "Prospector Tour" with White Mountain Tours was booked via a third-party reservation system, but we now know that reservations can be made directly with White Mountain Tours.

The parking area for the tour was just past Grand West Village Resort. The large group of participants for our two were split into a couple large group to listen to and watch an overview on how to use the snowmobiles and what we'd be doing for the day.

We drove the snowmobiles for several laps on the oval track to become familiar with the snowmobiles. This was also an opportunity for individuals more familiar with snowmobiles to go faster on the straight portions than would be done on the trail.

Our favorite part of the snowmobile tour was riding in the trails after running the warm-up laps on the track.

The trails included snow-covered roads in and around the Turquoise Lake campgrounds. We peak of the tour was a spot overlooking frozen-over Turquoise Lake with Mt. Massive and Mt. Elbert also in view.

When the tour was over, professional photographs were available to purchase if desired.

Heading to Leadville and returning to Denver from Leadville were part of the adventure and that route includes a portion of the Top of the Rockies Scenic Byway. It was especially beautiful on this clear winter day and we were happy that the road and weather conditions were good that day.

Perhaps the highlight of the trip between Denver and Leadville was the gorgeous setting at Clinton Gulch Dam Reservoir.