When I first decided to study abroad in college I thought that I would go somewhere like the UK or Australia. Somewhere that everyone knew about and would be impressed by. And then I saw the price tag. In fact, I’m ashamed to say it, but the thing that first drew Poland to my attention was the much lower price of studying abroad there. It was so low that it was cheaper than staying a semester at home in the U.S. There were a few other places that were also pretty low cost as well but after some research, I decided that there was no where I wanted to go and live for a few months more than Poland.
I was drawn to the stories and history. I was fascinated by how the architecture was a mix of eastern and western designs. But the more I found out, the more I was drawn too an element that I hadn’t initially thought of – their people. I became intrigued by how a people that had suffered so much had remained so resilient. Through the wars and the communist era, their people had come through it. I wanted to meet these people.
So off to Poland I went. And I was not disappointed. The people were all I could have imagined and more. In Poland I met the nicest, kindest, bravest people I had ever met. They were friendly people who would greet you warmly even when they barely knew you. Being a young woman who had been raised in a rural community in the Southern United States, I felt right at home with the tidings of “Cześć” and the warm smiles. Everywhere I went I could find someone who wanted to talk to me. One night we stayed much too late at a restaurant in Poznan so that the public transportation had shut down. We were at the table trying to figure out how to get home when the waitress offered to walk us across town to our dorms to make sure we got home safe! Talk about generosity! This was the common theme among the people I met in Poland. They really are the nicest people.
This is one of the reasons that I have become sort of distraught with the public opinion I have heard about Poland in the past year. I have started to see a lot of media portraying Poland and the Polish people in a negative light. This criticism has mostly been around the strong sense of national Polish pride and Poland’s unwillingness to accept some of the mandates from the EU around accepting refugees. I have heard people describe the Polish people as racist, bigoted, and fascist. I’m not even Polish and I find these statements offensive! These reports are so different than the kindhearted, resilient people that I met and lived amongst.
I wanted to share my own opinion of these reports because I don’t believe they are warranted. Polish people have a sense of pride for their country. I could see this very easily after I arrived. They are a united people who want to preserve their culture. I admire their spirit in this. They have a rich history going back 1000 years that is often overlooked by the more “mainstream” western countries. You rarely hear about the Polish soldiers that helped the Americans win their independence from Britain in the 1700s. You also don’t hear about how bravely the Polish fought during the crusades with their winged hussar units. They are swept under the rug. They have gone through so much in the past 100 years. In the past 100 years, they suffered as one of the main battle fronts for 2 world wars, and then went through 40 years of communist rule. Since regaining their freedom, the Polish people are eager to show their national pride. They are proud that they have regained what they had previously lost. And I commend them for it. I understand their conservative nature to change, their fear of outside forces. Given their history, it makes complete sense.
So with that in mind, please don’t take the reports of Poland you may hear in the news without a grain of salt. Poland and its people represent a type of diversity that is unusual on a global scale. A country with unity, that refuses to apologize for its existence. That holds onto its history and tradition instead of casting it away like trash. They should be allowed to exist in peace, without unfounded labels that exaggerate and serve to paint them as villains. They should be allowed to be proud of who they are without fear of persecution. I can truly say that when I chose to visit Poland I unwittingly chose a real gem. One that I become more and more proud of every day.
Puerto Rico is a beautiful island in the Caribbean. One of the best things about Puerto Rico is that since it is a U.S. territory, American citizens can travel there without having to get a passport. This was one of the reasons that we decided to visit last year. We spent 7 days on the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. I decided to focus the trip on San Juan mostly. When I travel I like to have a more authentic experience and get a good idea of where I am visiting but we also wanted a little bit of a romantic getaway so we wanted to spoil ourselves just a little while still saving money. Here is our itinerary that allowed us see the best of Puerto Rico in just 7 days.
Arrive in San Juan Puerto Rico. To save money we took the bus from the airport to the old town San Juan. It was only 75¢ each!!!
The bus dropped us off near the port where the cruise ships dock and we had to walk the rest of the way to get to our hotel in the old town.
Warning: It is hot and old San Juan is sorta hilly, and the streets are narrow and cobblestone. Be conscious of this if you go. We stayed at this little boutique hotel in old San Juan for the first half of our trip called the Villa Herencia. Villa Herencia is located right near the old gate to the city and is also right near the cathedral. It was a good and mostly quiet part of the city.
After getting settled in we went and had a dinner of strawberry daiquiris made from fresh fruit and my first taste mofongo! Mofongo is a type of plantain dish that is served in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are all about some plantains. Then it was a walk around the city where we felt the sea breeze and we took a walk along the Paseo de la Princesa. The Paseo de la Princesa is a beautiful walk outside of the old city walls.
We woke up bright and early ready to see more of old San Juan. We were feeling so bright eyed and bushy tailed that we decided to take the scenic route to the Castle. We walked along the water on a walkway to the Castillo San Felipe del Morro. This is a long walk when its hot. Bring some water. The walk is a beautiful view of the ocean and it is nice to watch the ships come in.
Path to the Castle
We got to the Castillo San Felipe on the top of the hill where we bought tickets for the castle. The castle is pretty awesome and dates back several hundred years. If you’re a sucker for old stuff and history like me then you’ll love it. I recommend you go early in the day. It is very hot in the middle of the day and there is no air conditioning. I think everyone except me likes to sleep in on vacation because there was hardly anybody there until 10am. But at 10am the sun got hotter and the tourists started pouring in and it got crowded. We left soon thereafter to go take a break out of the sun and grab lunch at a local spot where we had some more plantains but this time it was plantain chips.
After lunch we headed to the Castillo San Cristóbal which you get into for no additional cost if you go on the same day as the Castillo San Felipe del Morro. We just presented our entry ticket and they let us right on in. This castle is a little more modern and you can see where the U.S. government used this as a lookout in WWII. There is also a small museum that has air conditioning. One of the cool things that were on the grounds were the iguanas. There were just iguanas chilling on the grass when we went.
On Day 3 we woke up to rain clouds. Between rain storms we went to the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery. It is a cool graveyard right by the sea beside the Castillo San Felipe. If you have time its interesting to check out. During the day we checked out several museums in Old San Juan and visited the cathedral while eating even more plantains.
San Juan cathedral
By day 4 I had had enough of Old San Juan and it was time to move on. After looking at the prices for tours around the island we decided to get a rental car. Tours to El Yunque Rainforest or Farjado were several hundred dollars per person whereas we could get a rental car for much less adn go wherever we liked. We got Progressive to pick us up! I had always seen on thee commercials that they would pick you up, and they will. We picked up our rental car and drove about an hour out of San Juan to the El Yunque Rainforest This is the only rainforest that is part of the U.S. park system. Definitely check it out. After checking out the park visitor’s center we hiked a trail to a waterfall and chilled on the rocks at the waterfall for awhile.
El Yunque has cool slugs
After that we got back in the car and drove along Highway 3 to Luquillo and stopped on the side of the road at the Luquillo Kiosks for some dinner. These are just some stands and kiosks that are in a little strip along the road beside the beach. We just walked up and down and bought little bits of food from different vendors because we wanted to try everything. You can get cheap authentic Puerto Rico food here.
El Yunque Rainforest
We then got back in the car to drive to Fajardo Bay to visit the BioBay. Puerto Rico is home to 3 of the world’s bioluminescent bays with the Fajardo Bio luminescent Bay being the most easily accessible to people vacationing on the northern part of the island. These bays are home to tiny microorganisms known as dinoflagellates that glow when they are disturbed in the water. As a result when a paddle go in the water and moves around the water will appear to glow where it is disturbed.
The Fajardo bay is protected and you cannot swim in the bay and you must go with a tour group. I’m usually all about saving money but I had to grit and fork over the money to go on this tour for about $100 per person. I didn’t want to miss out of glowing bioluminescent bays. Most of the tour groups take 2 groups each night, one earlier as the sun is setting and then one later on. I had chosen to go on the earlier one and had picked the night that the moon was supposed to be darkest.
To get to the bay you have to kayak through the mangroves. Prior to this I had thought I was bad at kayaking. However after meeting the others in my group and seeing their complete failure to go forward in one direction in a kayak I have concluded I’m not that bad at kayaking. Fortunately the sun was till setting while we were going through the mangroves so we could see where we were going.
Once we got to the bay we had to wait for the sun to completely set and for it to get dark. I had tried not to get too excited about the glow since I had heard the Fajardo bay wasn’t as bright as the one at Vieques. But as it got darker I started to see the flickering glow in the water. You can put your hand in for a second and splash around and the you’ll see the glow for a second like tiny fireflies. I found myself enchanted by these strange creatures in this bay. I found myself wondering what the people who first saw this thought. Did they think it was magic? I was reluctant to leave even though I was exhausted from hiking all day when it was time to paddle back out of the bay. Just as a warning, paddling through the mangroves in the dark is sort of terrifying. Its very hard to see where you are going (because its night time) and the people in front of us kept stopping, causing boats to crash into them and a bunch of boats would pile up together.
On day 5 we woke up early again to drive 2 hours west from San Juan to Camuy Caves. I had heard that you have to get there early or it could be so crowded that you wouldn’t be given admission. I’m not sure what that was based on because we got there around 11 and it wasn’t crowded at all. We bought our tickets and waited for the next tour group to start. It was about a 20 minute wait. Then we got our headsets and got on this little caravan trailer to be pulled to the caves. The headset tells you about everything that is going on.
As we got closer to the caves I felt like I was journeying to another planet. It started to feel like I was in the movie Avatar. I felt this even more when we actually got in the caves. They were absolutely astonishing. Completely worth the 2 hour drive to get there. The tour itself was about an hour long and you are escorted through by your tour guide and you also have your headset to tell you about different sites as you got to them. These caves were so gorgeous I really felt I was someplace magical. While we were in there we found the fountain of youth! (At least the tour guide said it was) I’m not convinced it was the actual fountain of youth but I was thirsty and daring so I drank from it. (I’ll let you know in 10 years if it really was the fountain of youth!)
After the caves we decided to head to the Arecibo telescope. The Arecibo telescope is really a humongous dish that is in the valley of these mountains in Puerto Rico. You’ve probably seen it in a couple of movies such as the 1995 James Bond movie or the movie Contact (1997). Until fairly recently it was the largest single dish radio telescope in the world. The coolest part is that scientists have been using it to talk to aliens! Well, send messages to aliens, no alien has talked back yet (that we know of). Still very cool. It was pretty crowded when we went so we had to park outside the of the entrance and hike up the mountain to get to the museum so be prepared to hike. Also we had to turn off our phones while we there. Which was just as well because our phones were roaming pretty badly and killing our batteries.
Note: This awesome telescope collapsed in 2020 and is no longer open.
There’s nothing like driving around the small winding mountain roads that makes me so grateful for the wide spacious roads that I normally get to drive on. We got a bit lost on the way back from the Arecibo telescope , partially due to the fact that our phones were dead and partially due to the fact that all the signs were in Español. As we found the main roads again we found ourselves next to a grocery store! I love going to grocery stores in foreign countries (ok, Puerto Rico is technically a U.S. Territory). You always get to see cool products and stock up on authentic local snacks for a fraction of the price that you pay at all the tourist destinations. We stocked up on snacks for the rest of the trip and headed back to San Juan to check into our resort.
Days 6 & 7:
We spent the last 2 1/2 days of our vacation at the Caribe Hilton resort. After days and days of going nonstop we needed a few days of rest and restoration. This place was pretty awesome with a private beach area and a garden with iguanas and birds. At the end of the dock they even had a coral reef you could look down at! It was pretty amazing. We spent days lounging around being “normal” tourists (except for the cheap snacks we had in our room we got from the grocery store, banana juice anyone?) I’m normally not a hug fan of resorts because I get bored so easily but it was the perfect way to end our vacation in Puerto Rico!
Time to go home!
At the end of week it was time to go home and back to our normal lives. But our journey through Puerto Rico was amazing. As an update, this trip was taken shortly before the hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico. I am supremely grateful that I had the opportunity to see such a beautiful place before the disaster hit. I hope they are able to restore it to all of its glory and it looks like they are slowly but surely on track to do just that.