What a Trip: In Puerto Rico, a warm sun and easy travel


Castillo San Felipe del Morro is one of Puerto Rico’s historic castles that once defended San Juan and now provide breathtaking views. (Mary Brereton)
June 12

Our readers share tales of their rambles around the world.

Who: Mary (the author) and Peter Brereton of Alexandria, Va.

Where, when, why: San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 17-21, inspired by Peter’s “graduation” from five months of chemotherapy.

Highlights and high points: The highlight for Peter was feeling the warmth of the sun in Old San Juan after a very long winter of trips to Georgetown Hospital for chemo infusions, as well as the ease of traveling to and within the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Charming Old San Juan offers lots of sightseeing, shopping and dining opportunities and is flanked at each end by two large historic castles, Castillo San Felipe del Morro (dating from 1539 and nicknamed “El Morro”) and the 18th-century Castillo de San Cristobal. Both castles (commonly referred to as forts) were built when Puerto Rico was under Spanish rule and helped defend San Juan from sea and land assaults. The views from El Morro in particular were breathtaking. Peter caught his breath afterward in Hotel El Convento’s open-air courtyard/restaurant while I toured the city, checking out the shops and the architecture. Then we walked along the water outside the city wall before catching a taxi back to our hotel, La Concha, in Condado. My highlight — other than seeing Peter stronger than he’s been in months — was stand-up paddleboarding in Laguna del Condado and spotting an Antillean manatee doing a somersault about 20 feet from my board! It was a much more exciting experience than fighting boat wakes while SUPing on the Potomac.

Cultural connection or disconnect: As Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth (technically, an “unincorporated territory”), no passports are required, it uses the same currency, and the majority of Puerto Ricans speak fluent English, making it an easy place to get to and enjoy. Our tour guide to the El Yunque rain forest was quite passionate about the distinction between a commonwealth and a territory, however, stating that Puerto Rico is more a territory (a division of the United States not accorded the full rights of a state) than a commonwealth (a self-governing country voluntarily grouped with the United States), and that it was taken by the United States under the pretext of the Spanish-American War. A knowledgeable guide of the rain forest, he inserted statements indicating his mild political discontent throughout the day.

Biggest laugh or cry: The greatest misfire of our trip was my call to US Airways asking for an electric cart to take Peter from one gate to another for our plane connection in Philadelphia. Instead, they listed him as “handicapped” and knocked us out of our exit row seats, for which I’d paid extra. They then designated him, but not me, as “pre-checked,” so that we had to split up through security.

How unexpected: I was surprised that I hadn’t been to Puerto Rico before! It’s so easy to get to and so easy to visit. Peter was most surprised to learn that Puerto Rico has a rain forest, El Yunque National Forest (until 2007 the Caribbean National Forest), the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System.

Fondest memento or memory: Peter’s “must-have” was a genuine Panama hat from a shop called Olé at 105 Fortaleza St., to cover his newly bald head. The owner was out, but his wife and Peter bonded over chemo-baldness; she was treated two years ago for breast cancer. She added a piece of fabric inside the brim to make the hat fit, assuring Peter that when his hair grows back, he can remove the fabric and the hat will fit snugly. My gift was seeing Peter moving around and knowing that his “winter hibernation” (too ill to do much other than sleep) was finally over.

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