Tuesday, June 08, 2021

San Juan Puerto Rico Tips and Recap - May 2021

This was my 3rd vacation to San Juan, Puerto Rico, but my first travel blog about it. My first trip was in 1995 as a girls trip, staying at the La Concha hotel in Condado, while my husband and I stayed on our trip 2004 at an Isla Verde hotel. This time we went friends and family and stayed at a friend's house in Dorado.

Over the years, we've been to resorts in Mexico, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, but Puerto Rico is the one place where there's so much to see and do. Actually, because of my experience with PR as a sight-seeing destination, we were actually confused in other places - wait, we can't leave the resort? There are no historic sites or monuments? There are no rain forests to hike through? What about the art museums and bookstores?

The Age of COVID 19

These are tips and updates as of May 2021, as we're stepping out carefully. My family is vaccinated so we felt safe enough to venture forth. However, we followed the Travel Guidelines on the Puerto Rico tourism site. 

  • We needed to get tested 72 hours prior to arrival and post our tests to the online portal. 
  • We all received texts and emails with our special QR codes. 
  • After we retrieved our bags, we presented our codes to the health officers. They scanned it and took our temperatures before we proceeded. 

Subsequently, we received a daily email alerts (for 2 weeks) asking us if we were experiencing any symptoms listed. We would need to confirm Yes or No. If you do not reply - all of us thought this was a spam at first  - you will receive a phone call from a health official.  

Restaurants and shops offered hand sanitizers and frequently insisted we comply. Also, mask wearing signs were all over, including at the open air historic sites. Even if someone was working outside, they wore their masks. I know it's a challenge to get vaccines outside of the mainland US, but you respect everyone. 

Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan)

On our previous trips, we stayed fairly close to Old San Juan so we could go via bus or taxi. This time we stayed in Dorado so it was a bit of a crazy drive. (The drive is straight forward highways, however, people drive pretty nuts so it gets stressful). 

If you want to see everything at relaxed paced and enjoy the route - sit in the bars or the plazas, fly a kite by El Morro or visit the shops and galleries -- I would recommend this as 1 full day tour or 2 half-days tours. The city is built on hills and it could be quite hot, so be ready to go up and down hills. Someone advised us to download the app Visit A City, which gave us a perfect walking tour of San Juan. We wished we had found this earlier!

Day 1 - we toured the Castillo San Felipe Del Morro, which has beautiful views of the water and the city.  There are former prison cells, sentry boxes and lots of levels.  There's a lot of walking here in open sun, and it's great to see people flying kites on the grounds since the winds are so strong by the water. There is a $10 entry fee, which includes both forts and is good for 24 hours. So, don't feel like you need to walk and finish both in one day. Afterwards, we walked down Calle de Sebastian, which seems to be lined bars and pubs. We wandered up and down the streets and ended by the pier, which was buzzing with activity. Lots of opportunities to pose in front of the iconic colorful buildings with the beautiful balconies and flowers that reminded me of Madrid and Barcelona.

Challenges: Since it was a beautiful Sunday, the town was packed with people. So, it was a challenge to find parking at Ballaja lot, but we landed on a small valet lot next to the Cathedral de San Juan Bautista. We were looking for a nice open place for drinks, but were disappointed to see some of the notable restaurants were closed (some permanently), while others were quite full. 
Day 2
We went early on Monday morning to Castillo San Cristóbal and enjoyed the quiet town with handfuls of tourist. We found parking easily, and made note of the restaurants around Plaza Colon. We walked on Calle de San Francisco and Calle de la Fortaleza. We stumbled upon 7ven Seas Art Gallery, which had beautiful work by local artists. We continued to the end of the street with the flag displays, and then to the Cathedral. There's a little park across from the church with a grand tree that reminded me of Spain again.
We also found Poets Passage, where the owner is living my best life. Beautiful and charming bookstore/art gallery with a cafe and small stage in the back for open mic performances. 

Rain Forest & Waterfalls

Puerto Rico's El Yunque rain forest is a must see. I remember on my previous trips how we took the precarious drive up the mountain and hiking towards the waterfalls, and the lush views of the forests are so beautiful.

However, the new process is to make reservations online as they are limiting the number of visitors. Someone advised us to get our reservations as soon as possible. Unfortunately, acquiring reservations is difficult to procure - we logged in at 11:56 to get the 12:00 release of tickets, but at 12:02, they were all gone. Therefore, we decided to let it go. 

Instead, we found this list of waterfalls to visit in Puerto Rico. After consulting maps and checking reviews, we decided to go ahead with La Canoa Falls or the El Hippie Waterfalls. This is on the other side of the main Rio Grande entrance to the rain forest, and we drove through small towns. We loved this part because majority of the island is going to be rural. You see green mangoes and lemons on trees in someone's yard... fields with cows and horses grazing. The square houses with the iron screens reminded us of Indian houses - tropical environments need to have those types of structures to help keep cool. We enjoyed the drive though the small towns, but on the way back, we got on the main highway fairly quickly.

The experience of going to the waterfalls was so unexpected. At first, we were concerned that the rocks were so slippery. This was a spot where families came together - young and old. They had picnics set up on the side of the rocks. Everyone was swimming and diving into the clear pool of water from the waterfalls. People were climbing up the rocks to the different levels, or you could just sit on a rock and soak your feet in cool spring water. The beauty of these rock formations is stunning. Do recommend water shoes if you want to walk around the rocks - though we felt better without our shoes.

 Post-Vacation Site Suggestion 

I just read that these falls were near a town of Naguabo; it would've been nice to check this out since we were right there. We did drive through Luquillo Beach and we marveled at the unique terrain with grass and pine trees mixed in with the palm trees and sand.

Post-Vacation Restaurant Suggestions

Here's a good list of top restaurants, but we were unable to go to these. El Asador looked amazing, but they were not open and the timing did not work out for us. Barrachina is supposed to be the home of the first piña coladas. However, it seemed to be touristy with a line out the door. Just made me nervous that if we stand in line, and the piña coladas tastes just like any other. And, honestly, the best piña coladas I have had are served in a plastic cup on the beach. 

If you are in Dorado, we had the best veggie nachos and tacos at this Mexican place called Vagon. I'm not a fan of nachos, but I'm a team player and always go along with the orders. But this one was such a surprise with sauteed onions and peppers on the nachos. We had this on Taco Tuesday, and then I had to order it again for Nacho Saturday!

Puerto Rico has so many nice restaurants with Carribbean staples, as well as American mainstays like Subway and Applebee's. For travelers, it's easy to find food within your budget anywhere, as well as Walmart and Costco if you need to stock up at a rental.

Casa Bacardi

On my first trip to the Barcardi Rum Factory, I fell in love. It was just a quiet tour and we got simple rum samples under a wide patio surrounded by palm trees. I wanted to work there - why not? The second time we went, I was disappointed because it was way too touristy with specialty cocktails sold under the patio. Much like Disney World as we spent time watching movies and taking rides.

So, this time we did not go, though I was interested in old time's sake. However, you apparently need to make reservations two weeks in advance and tickets are $15 now. I'm surprised they're charging because one would think they made enough by dropping all the tourists off at the gift shop where you buy bottles to take home.

Other Blogs To Check

Colorful Walking Tour of Old San Juan

 5 Days in San Juan, Puerto Rico: The Perfect Caribbean Getaway


Dorado Beach

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Anne of Green Gables and The Railway Children

I'm finally reading Anne of Green Gables thanks to the series "Anne with an E." Somehow, even though this book is exactly in my preferred genre of books when I was young, but I never read it. How did I miss it?

It's not that "Anne of Green Gables" wasn't available. I saw it on every spinning book rack at the library. I did read "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," "Pollyanna" and "Heidi" - as they fit the criteria above. So I assumed Anne was in the same vein, so I'm good and have it covered. I also figured it would be the same but just more polished - maybe like "The Secret Garden." That is another book I never read, but saw different movie versions. I had friends gush about it, and I was fine without it. 

So, I recently requested a copy from the library and I'm rather enjoying it. I do wish I had read this through 11-year-old eyes rather than as an adult. Comparing the book to the Netflix series - it's really stayed true to all of the characters' spirits and storytelling. It's also intriguing since they're giving it modern sensibilities.

What kind of books did I like to read at the end of elementary school?

  • Does it have an orphan as the hero (e.g., Noel Streatfield's "Ballet Shoes" series)
  • Does it have a heroine that doesn't have conventionally good looks, such as as mousy brown hair (e.g., Katie John books by Mary Calhoun, Pippi Longstocking books)
  • Is there poverty or struggle involved (e.g., "Little House on the Prairie" series)
  • Does it take place in another era? ("All of a Kind Family", "Little Women" books)
  • Am I going to cry and can I read it over and over? (everything else!)

The book that I loved seems to have escaped commercial popularity. My favorite book was "The Railway Children" first published in 1906 by Edith Nesbit. My father had brought this book home one day for me. We actually did not own a lot of books because we were big patrons of the library. We trekked back and forth every week with armloads of books. (We lived in Queens, NY in 1970's so we were free to walk to the library.) After all these years, I recently downloaded a library copy it on my Kindle to reread, and I loved it. I found the 2000 movie version on Amazon last year; actually seeing it helped clarify some of the confusing parts of the book and my comprehension. There was a "hound in a red jersey" and I was confused if it was a dog or a boy.

The story is about 3 British siblings and their mother who have to live in the country for some time because the father was involved in some "business matters." They had to shift to their country home and "play poor" for a bit. (They had a 'Schitt's Creek" situation). They have their adventures near the railway station, the locals and even the passengers on the train.

As the oldest of three, I easily identified with Roberta (Bobbie), but there were times I did not understand her. Though I did feel for her trying to manage her younger siblings since I had a brother and sister as well. The way they entered the old house reminded me of the way we had moved into our big empty house in Queens and spent time exploring the house and the environs.

One of my favorite parts was when they made a birthday cake for someone and whipped up frosting out of sugar. Wow - a recipe for frosting? I used the book as a cookbook and tried to follow it. Didn't really work out if I remember. 

The interesting part when I reread this now was that the mother wrote short stories and sold them to make money. This is absolutely fascinating because in 1900's England, this was the only option for an educated woman of a certain class. The mother is always stressed out - I remember the girls put eau de cologne on her forehead to help her. My gosh - that poor woman! Her husband is tangled up in some messy business, their names are in the papers, she's gotta take her 3 kids to the country and figure out how to manage alone! Fortunately, it does have a happy ending - else I wouldn't have read it so much!

Side note - British actor Jenny Agutter plays Roberta (Bobbie) in the 1970 version of the movie, and then she plays the mother in 2000 version. But.. wait.. I know her.. Sister Julienne from "Call the Midwife"!

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Movie Review - Bombay Rose


I have been seeing trailers about Gitanjali Rao’s “BombayRose” on social media since it was released in 2019, so I was so eager to see it finally on Netflix.

It is an hour and half of beautiful hand animation, a love story to Mumbai. Each frame is so beautifully crafted, and the music is hypnotic and transformative. 

The movie begins with the faceless crowds of Mumbai going about their daily hustle. It focuses on the main character – Kamala. By the way, keep your eyes open for all the subtle and not so subtle references to flowers. Kamala is a lotus flower and even later I noticed a shop with the name Gulabi, which is a rose.

I don’t want to say much about the story because it is so different, and one should enjoy the visual experience. The story line is a your basic Hindu girl selling flowers and a Muslim boy catching her eye on the street, each dreaming of the life they wish they could have. Their intricate backstories are revealed slowly, and characters' interactions cross over eventually - all woven together. 

As a true love letter to Mumbai – or Bombay as it is always known in people’s hearts – Rao addresses the microcosm of cultures in the city and the languages. We have Salim from Kashmir, the Maharashtrian sellers in the market, the Goan Christian teacher who was a former film starlet. The movie doesn’t shy away from tough real life topics – child labor, sexual exploitation/prostitution, gangsters, poverty. However, these are not faceless characters anymore – we know them and their struggles.

What stands out in this film is the story of Shirley D’Souza, an elderly woman who reminiscences about the old days. As she steps out onto the pavement, the city turns black and white and back to 1950s. She loves her cigarette and whiskey and reliving memories of her youth. These are the shops and the buses my parents talked about riding; the streets are quieter and not as populated. Above all, we loved the Konkani music! We had to look up one of the songs – “Red Rose” by Lorna Cordeiro. The video has the English translation of lyrics and it’s so great! (And, another rose was delivered)

 In a way, Shirley’s story seemed separate from Kamala’s, almost as if it could be its own movie, complete with a love story and tragic heroine. However, the narrative is strong enough to bring it all together in the end.

 It moves slowly and thoughtfully, but it's so engaging. It would be a good introduction to Mumbai for some, but lots of nostalgia for others.