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Jim Stodola: For next vacation, go deep south to Puerto Rico

For Your Travels

Unless you are a snow skier or enjoy pushing your car out of a 3-foot snow bank, I suggest that you take your next near term vacation way south. Remember, even Atlanta was hit hard recently.

Having been to Mexico City last year (which I will highlight sometime later), we traveled to Puerto Rico this late January. Whereas in Mexico City you would have some problem with locals understanding your English, you will have minimal problems in Puerto Rico, and American dollars there are the recognized currency.

You will fly into San Juan, SJU. Rent a car at the airport and stay a few days. My wife does the research and managed to find us a condo much cheaper than a hotel and right on the beach. Make sure that you get a “full view” of the beach, as we have been to other cities where they said you had a view and my wife almost had to hang me over the balcony railing clinging to my ankles to see the beach. Now sip coffee in the morning, wine in the evening, sitting in front of your open balcony watching the waves. Leave the patio doors open at night from an upper floor and fall asleep listening to the waves.

Off you go. There are free trolleys when you can find them, parking in Old San Juan might be difficult, drivers might go through stops signs, but they don’t race as they do in Mexico City. See the capitol building with its marble staircases and columns. Go slightly west to the old forts of San Cristobal and San Felipe del Morro, where the Spanish fought off the British as early as 1598. And there, the United States built taller sentry points in World War II to watch for German warships.

Enjoy pina coladas, and the next day, travel way east to the El Yunque National Rain Forest, with wildlife, unbelievable foliage, waterfalls, tall observation towers and driving and hiking trails. The forest receives 200 inches of rain per year and has 1,000 species of plants and animals. While there, travel a bit farther to the northeast coast and Fajardo to enjoy pina coladas and fresh seafood. Pina coladas, you see, are made of rum. There are four different rum company distilleries on the island and you may want to tour one.

The next day, travel south through the high country, viewing more rugged peaks, but on a great highway. Look to the sides and see the “flaming trees” with their bright orange flowers. At the South shore you will turn west to Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico. Tour the Ponce Museum of Art with its extensive collection. There are cathedrals in Old San Juan, but none compare with the elegant, brilliantly white Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral. Don’t pass up the Old Fire Station Museum.

In country from Ponce is a working coffee plantation with tours by reservation, but you will need to stay overnight to take all that in.

Back up north, the next day we had to miss an already paid-for tour, by reservation only, of a non-working sugar plantation way west of San Juan, near Manati. The reason is we traveled even farther west to Arecibo. We had a GPS, but old smarty here, was too lazy to take it out. Even so, you will wind on sharp, narrow roads for many miles. Why is it worth it? Because there is the world’s largest radio observatory carved into an existing crater, lined with several thousand aluminum plates and 1,000 feet across. It is not a visual telescope but measures radio waves from deep in outer space. Now that may not mean much to you, but this will. NASA lost communication with one of its satellites and couldn’t tell how much fuel was left and if the satellite was worthless. They called Arecibo, asked them to look at it with radio waves. If it was spinning fast, the fuel was gone. If spinning slowly, it had fuel. Days later, Arecibo called back, “Hey NASA, you’ve got lots of fuel.”

We wound our way a bit north to the coast, looking for more lighthouses and more pina coladas at a good restaurant to watch the lapping waves again.

Oh shucks, we didn’t have time to go zip-lining and surf boarding. But no kidding, we are going back. And my friends, wherever you travel, the greatest advice I can give you is don’t cut your days short.

Happy trails.

JIM STODOLA, a contributing columnist who will be writing about his travels, can be reached at