Many international airports have tourist and visitor information desk on its premises. I honestly never thought about stopping there until my recent trip to Puerto Rico showed me how helpful they can be. All for free.
1. Tourist Information desks know local news.
Uncharacteristically, I had not booked our bioluminescent bay tickets before we arrived in Puerto Rico. Bioluminescent bays are bodies of inland, brackish water where the native plankton, in a chemical reaction similar to that of fireflies, emit light when agitated. There are a handful of bioluminescent bays in the world. It was the one must-do activity that the three of us traveling together wanted to do.
At the San Juan Airport, we stopped at their tourist desk right off of the baggage claim area. That’s where we met Maria. Sadly, we learned that the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo, on the western shore of Puerto Rico, had gone dark. Scientists had not figured out why it happened or how to fix it.
Thanks to Maria, we booked a visit to the perfectly unspoilt bioluminescent bay in Vieques, a small island southwest of the main island via an hour’s ferry ride.
2. Tourist information desks know local holidays.
As we talked with Maria about our bio bay tour, she realized that we should probably book the tour right then because tomorrow was Discovery Day, and many schools were out of session and some businesses were closed.
Discovery Day commemorates the island’s ‘discovery’ by Christopher Columbus. (Disambiguation: ‘Discovery’ implies some idea or land was newly found, and since there were native people of the island now known as Puerto Rico, I feel it appropriate to add the quotes.) Let’s continue.
This knowledge put a very interesting initial frame on our time in Puerto Rico, as we both are Filipino. The Philippines and Puerto Rico share some similarities — islands located in the tropics with a common history of colonizers, both Spain and the United States. As we walked through Old San Juan, both of us imagined what Manila’s Intramuros might have been, had the Japanese not bombed it in World War II. (See the photo collages below.) We wondered what different fate may have been for the Philippines and Filipinos had it stayed a Commonwealth. What if, what if, what if…
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Intramuros (The Walled City), Manila, Philippines.
3. Tourist information desks know neighborhoods.
After Maria from the San Juan Airport Tourist Office had booked our bio bay tour in Vieques, she asked where we were staying in San Juan. We told her the name of the hostel (which I will withhold here). She furrowed her brow and told us she wasn’t familiar because she only works with the larger hotels. I showed her the printed email with the address of the hostel and driving directions by landmark. We should have known that it was a bad idea when she said we should probably not go out at night and never alone in that neighborhood.
We decided to go check it out anyway in the light of full day, since we’d already made reservations. I called the hostel several times, with no answer. Our taxi driver had a hard time getting us there, even with the landmarked directions which were in English only unfortunately. We should have listened to Maria.
No one who worked at the hostel was there to meet us. The common room was dark and dingy. Feral cats with bald patches on their bodies from fighting skulked the property and hissed at us. A woman came over to beg for spare change. But most disturbing were the barred metal doors. They were padlocked on the outside. Feasibly someone could padlock us in the room. Thoughts of Taken and any prison movie I’ve seen flashed before me.
Quickly Natalia and I exchanged let’s-get-out-of-here-right-now-honey looks, found a new hotel in Old San Juan (thanks to her iPad — still US cellular carriers!), and took the fifty cent municipal bus out of there.
At the bus stop we saw this cool piece of street art. Took it as a good omen we were finally headed in the right direction.