The title of being the busiest cruise port for the Caribbean goes to Miami. In seven days though the cruises from Miami can only reach Puerto Rico and the Virgin islands and return – it is too far to go to the rest of the Antilles. San Juan is the second most popular cruise ship port, and its georgraphical location allows to reach within seven days any point in the Caribbean. As a rule, the cruising companies plan the route in such a way that on five days of the cruise the ship is in port in various points of the Antilles and the sixth day is fully at sea. In our case the day at sea was the last day as we sailed all the way from Grenada (the last island in the Antilles chain) to Puerto Rico. We sailed with Royal Caribbean, and its cruises are such that the same ship never plies the same route – every week the route is somewhat different in terms of the islands visited, but always returning to Puerto Rico. There is one port however that is on almost every itinerary – that’s Charlotte-Amalie on the island of Saint Thomas, one of the American Virgin islands.
Actually we didn’t even notice how the ship left Puerto Rico. It was dark and we were dining and suddenly we realised that through we no longer see through the windows the evening lights of San Juan. Rather it was the darkness of the open ocean as we were sailing past it at a good speed. Waking up the next morning and looking out the window, it was an “It ain’t Kansas, Toto!” moment. It was clearly not Puerto Rico, this tropical island down below.
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The United States owns a few strange territories whose status has never been clearly defined. Some call them colonies, and this is indeed what they were initially. Nowadays the formal designation is “unincorporated territory”. As the US formed, there were lots of these – indeed virtually all the states except the original thirteen passed through the various “unincorporated” stages. However eventually most of them reached statehood – although for some it took a long and determined fight, such as for Hawaii, which only became a state in 1959. No new states have been created since then, and so Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and a few others remained “in the air”.
Puerto Rico is officially referred to as a “commonwealth”. The population of the commonwealth by now exceeds that of many states. To be fair, Puerto Ricans themselves are not decided about what they want to be. The three options being eternally debated are independence, statehood and status quo. Puerto Ricans enjoy most of the rights of US citizens, with the exception of being able to vote for President and to elect Senators. As a candidate, Obama supported the idea of conducting a referendum to set the final status. However in order to approve such a referendum, the agreement of U.S. Congress is necessary – and that’s missing.
Much like Hawaii, Puerto Rico receives large subsidies from the mainland. Its special status also allows it to create a special business and tax regime, and as a result most pharmaceuticals made in USA are produced right here on the island. Obviously lots of American tourists come here as well and support the local economy with their dollars.
Everybody speaks Spanish in San Juan, and so you get a strange feeling of walking around Spanish-speaking United States. I guess in 20 years California and Texas will feel similar (parts of Miami and New York already do). The currency is the dollar and the prices are very American too – feels very different compared to Colombia, where I’d been just prior. On per capita basis, Puerto Rico is poorer than the poorest U.S. state (Mississippi), however it’s richer than any Latin American country.
San Juan from the air. Old San Juan is the peninsula in the centre of the image.
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To reach Hawaii, I took a plane from Los Angeles to Honolulu. The frequency of flights between LA and Honolulu is surprisingly high: several companies fly the route and each has several flights a day. Therefore although the distance to Hawaii is great, you don’t feel there as if you were isolated from the mainland United States. Hawaii is an archipelago consisting of four main islands – from West to East Kauai, Oahu, Maui and the Big Island (Hawaii itself) – and many small islands. The capital is on Oahu, and that’s where most population lives, although Oahu is not the largest island – that’s the Big Hawaii, which is several times larger. The distances between the islands are rather significant and so normally you have to fly between them. I spent a week in Hawaii and all this time I was on Oahu – there’s enough to see and do and I didn’t want to jump from one island to another in crazy tempo.
The touristic centre of the island is no doubt the famous Waikiki beach, located just outside of the Honolulu downtown. This one of the most celebrated of the world’s beaches is a symbol of Hawaii. In the Waikiki beach area there is a whole panoply of hotels, restaurants, a zoo, an aquarium, tennis and golf courts, huge shopping centres. Everything for the tourist. The beach is indeed very pleasant. Despite my general boredom with beaches I went to this one quite a number of times and swam, usually at dusk. Classical view of Waikiki with the Diamond Head mountain in the background:
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San Francisco has always been for me one of those fairytale cities which are located somewhere really far away, seducing you with a magical green light. That’s why when I realised that it could be included in my trip, should I decide to head over the Pacific via the States (so-called option 2, see here), the temptation was difficult to resist. The TACA airline offered the route Santiago – Lima – San Salvador – San Francisco for a relatively reasonable amount, but my hand somehow resisted buying it, as it involved two changes of planes, departed at 7am and arrived in SF after midnight. At the time there was a BART strike in San Francisco, which meant that I would have to magically summon a taxi out of thin air to get from the airport to the centre. So I prolonged my stay in wonderful Santiago and finally the right option came up. I’ve never before benefited from airline miles, but nonetheless gathered earnestly the miles from various flights – I have an account in each major airline alliance. And suddenly it occurred to me to check mile possibilities. The very convenient flight Santiago – Dallas – San Francisco with American Airlines had a price tag of $4000, but via British Airways website it was possible to get your hands on it for $300 + some miles. At first I couldn’t believe my eyes, so good a deal it seemed; but it was all correct, you can fly half the Earth for the price of a local European flight. Afterwards I also flew San Francisco – LA for $2 (and 12000 Lufthansa miles). The miles are difficult to use in Europe due to very high airport taxes; but in America they turned out to be highly useful. We’ll see if they’re any use in Asia.
On a wonderful sunny day I arrived in San Francisco.
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