“Who wants to go along as copilot on an aerial Caribbean adventure to see the REAL Puerto Rico?”
That question, posed on an online pilot forum by Bostonian and friend Dan Figueroa, caught me in a weak moment. My hand shot up well before better sense took over. It was an easy trip to justify: I love the tropics, pretty water, exotic travel, and here was a chance to have a semi-native guide to America’s closest territory.
So, with the thought uppermost of, “When will I ever have a chance like this again?” I said, “Count me in!”
Dan had already signed on with an informal group composed, in part, of his fellow flying Puerto Ricans. We would be a gaggle of seven planes, meeting in Hollywood, Florida, from as far away as Colorado and Texas.
Dan has long dreamed of flying his Cherokee 140 to the island of his heritage, but when I volunteered to come along for the ride, he agreed that taking my airplane, an IFR-capable Mooney with considerably longer legs, would work well for him. Then my mother-in-law, Phyllis, an active and adventurous 94-year-old, with the most dog-eared passport of anybody I know, added her name to the manifest.
My husband didn’t feel the joy of that particular prospective journey, even with expert bilingual help avoiding international embarrassment. He would have, he assured me, a much better vacation going to work every day. To each his own…
It might not be a budget trip, but what airplane trip ever is? Let’s see: There’s the Customs sticker to get the Mooney back in the country, just for starters. A splurge on a few replacements for long-gone and entirely-unnecessary documents. Then pile on several hundred bucks for survival equipment. Wonderful generous Mooney-flying friends carved $1,000 or so off the tab when they offered the loan of their compact little life raft. The DeLorme company lent us its ingenious little InReach Explorer tracking gadget that allowed satellite messages home, as well as a way for our families and friends to keep an eye on our progress. We each already had manually inflatable life vests, and the red floating ditch bag held a handheld VHF marine radio, a sheathed knife, bottled water, sunscreen, signaling mirror, and other handy survival items. So that was that. Add a good pre-launch mechanical going-over and oil change for the airplane. Done and done.
Avgas? It would be $6 to $8 per gallon almost everywhere, a bit more expensive than home, but no deal-breaker. And landing fees, mostly negligible. And departure fees. And lodging. And car rental, bus fare, and cab fare. And restaurants. Really, not all that expensive, all things considered, and sharing expenses with two friends made it even more affordable.
Neither charmed with marginal in-town hotels nor ritzy resorts, I found a house for rent on airbnb that looked too good to be true: The photos showed a simple, spacious cottage, about two miles from the Mayaguez Airport where we’d be based. It boasted an expansive lawn, mango and breadfruit trees, palms, nicely equipped kitchen, and best of all, its own Atlantic oceanfront beach and private over-water sunset, for less than the cost of the cheapest hotel rooms.
Pre-trip jitters notwithstanding, I resolved not to even hear tales of automatic-rough engine noise, nor worry about all the red tape. This trip would be amazing. I was in good hands, with solid advice from veterans who had done this a number of times. After all, they were still alive to tell the tale, I reasoned. And I had Dan in the right seat to be alert and steady copilot, navigator, brilliant paper-pusher, and translator. To my surprise, I wasn’t the least bit concerned during the long overwater legs.
What followed were 10 days of reality, Caribbean style: That is to say, “Don’ worry, be happy, Mon.”
The scenery was gorgeous all the way. We could not have asked for calmer, clearer water. Islands and marshy cays dotted the azure Atlantic, and from time to time we saw fishing boats, cruise ships, and sailboats. It almost seemed that if we ran into trouble, we could dogpaddle to safety.
The skies were mostly clear or scattered clouds, but on a couple of legs, we opted to file IFR to cut the cloud-dodging time. None of it required a real approach, and had we been happy a thousand feet off the water, no instrument flying would have been necessary. Our new pilot friends arranged to monitor an air-to-air frequency to keep tabs on each other. I wished, more than once, that I’d paid more attention in Spanish class all those years ago.
Our first international stop was in Exuma, in the Bahamas. Dan, that paragon of organizational skill, had taken charge of making sure the “i”s were dotted, and the “t”s were crossed. Concerned about losing an hour along the way to Atlantic Standard Time, I’d asked the Bahamian FBO by email for a quick turn. I barely had time to get to the ladies’ room before all the customs arrangements were completed, official papers were prepared for the next leg, tanks were filled, and the credit card slip ready to sign. Such genial efficiency was repeated at Puerta Plata, in the Dominican Republic. As the sun set over our airport of entry in Puerto Rico, our US Customs guys and a fuel truck were already waiting for us on the Aguadilla ramp. Amazing!
With our flying excursions to other islands, we got to know the pleasant officials there rather well. We must have had honest faces, because bag and passport checks were surprisingly cursory. The American customs paperwork seemed cumbersome, compared to everybody else’s, but the expert guidance we had made it go well.
Another 15 minutes of flying time, and the low-intensity runway lights of little Mayaguez shimmered in the day’s last glow. Our rental car was waiting for us, and so was the caretaker of the house we had rented. Once there, before he turned over the keys, Modesto asked if we were thirsty. He just happened to have three ice-cold coconuts from the palms out front, complete with straws. It had been a long, but beautiful day, and tomorrow’s flight to San Juan would begin early.
Our two volunteer leaders, veteran pilot-travelers Anthony Perea and Galin Hernandez, had arranged for expedited customs and ramp handling where available, bus tours of the islands, good places for lunch. They had emailed much good advice along the way, but as Galin explained, we were to be travelers, not tourists, so hotel arrangements, car hire, restaurant meals, what to see, and when, were all for us to arrange as we pleased. All this easy-going freedom was initially a little worrisome, but as it turned out, it seemed the perfect blend of my usual footloose style and reassuring pre-arranged options.
On non-flying days, we would spend our time as we saw fit. When Dan took off to go visit his dad on the other side of the island, Phyllis and I explored our little corner of paradise, even rowing our house’s inflatable raft through the adjoining bird sanctuary’s lagoon amid the mangroves and coconut palms. The tropical soundtrack mostly included the sounds of roosters, pigeons, and gulls. The Puerto Rican tree frogs, Coqui, trilled their tiny hearts out every evening, singing us to sleep, along with the gentle sound of Atlantic surf.
Anthony and Galin had suggestions for our days off, of course, with some spending a day at one of Puerto Rico’s most famous beaches. Dan, Phyllis, and I decided to head in the other direction, and hired a dive boat to go snorkeling on some coral reefs. Another day, we drove up to nearby Rincon, and watched some amazing surfing, and eavesdropped on a wedding party that had chosen a magnificent setting high on a cliff overlooking the surf.
One afternoon, the whole gang, including some of our host pilots from Mayaguez, showed up at our cottage’s outdoor kitchen for a cookout. The local people brought with them spectacular food, wonderful flying stories, and the best company anybody could ask for.
Our first island hop was a short one over forested Puerto Rican mountains to downtown San Juan, where a couple of taxis whisked us to the famous fort, and scenic Old San Juan’s tourist district. On the way, and on the way back, I peered in vain for a glimpse of the famous Arecibo Radio Telescope installation, and finally saw it — in one of the photos after I got home. It was right where they said it was, oddly enough.
Another day we invested an hour of Mooney flight across the length of Puerto Rico to the pretty island of Tortola, and another day we explored St. Croix. My fellow travelers toured a rum distillery, and our bus driver offered to spend that time with me in a personal tour of a nearby botanical garden planted in an old sugar cane mill.
Our fourth excursion led us over to St. Martin/Sint Maarten, a two hour ride even farther east. We landed on the French side. The landing fees at the other airport, Princess Juliana, on the Dutch side of the island, where people line up along the beach to be blown over by short-landing 747s, are apparently a bit rich for most GA blood.
The pro tip for flying into St. Croix was, when cleared to land, to do an angled base leg toward a very short final to the eastbound runway… seems there’s a mountain in the way of a normal approach.
Along the way, each day, we saw more island-sprinkled water in a dozen iridescent shades of green and blue, sailing yachts, shimmering beaches, strands of coral reef, and several other tantalizing airport destinations for another trip someday. With the hectic pace, it became obvious that 10 days was just too short to do this part of the world justice. It was just enough to whet our appetites for a return.
Another bonus: We found out what a truly hospitable, jovial, party-hearty people these Puerto Ricans are! Our visit provided an excuse for a Christmas party for every pilot and pilot-wannabe on the island. On our final afternoon there, the PR Pilots Association convened for a massive holiday barbecue at the Mayaguez airport, with roast pig in all its glory, and many traditional holiday dishes entirely new to me.
In addition to the usual collection of production singles and trainers, there must have been a couple dozen ultralights and light-sport aircraft buzzing around the field, and many pilots and student pilots who wanted to know more about pursuing further flight training on the mainland. GA there, as in most of the rest of the world, is discouragingly expensive, but obviously, the Caribbean, its wonderful weather, its chains of close-together islands and nice airports, is just made-to-order for private piloting.
Our trip back to the mainland U.S. involved a frontal passage and a fair amount of very, um, “marginal-VFR” and rain, but smooth for all that. By now, Dan and I were old hands at this customs and immigrations stuff, and the agents who greeted us at Fort Lauderdale were as pleasant as their Puerto Rican colleagues. After more than 40 Mooney hours, six different countries, cultures and territories, our 10-day adventure had truly bolstered our cross-country confidence.
It was a remarkable taste that whetted my appetite, Dan’s, too, for a return trip someday, maybe one with more time to explore the riches of Puerto Rico itself, or time to venture farther into the lovely landscape of the Dominican Republic. And now we have the tantalizing prospect of Cuba as a potential destination, maybe in plenty of time for next December’s aerial Caribbean expedition.
All of you who are uneasy venturing further than the nearest pancake breakfast need to give this overseas-flying idea some consideration. It was intense, yes. But that much island-hopping in less than two weeks truly isn’t practical any other way, and the scenery is indescribably beautiful. I found it to be one of my best flying experiences ever.