Wrapping Up An Amazing Trip & Southwest Observations

After our brief visit to El Yunque, cut short due to car mishap, it was time to return the car and get to the airport for our Southwest flight to Orlando.  I am really glad that Puerto Rico is part of the USA and has the full CDW with no excess, otherwise I don’t know what would have happened with the ding on the hubcap.


San Juan’s airport is modern and easy to navigate.  The rental car return area is well-signed and thanks to the full CDW package there were no dramas on returning the car.DSCN4598

San Juan to Orlando is a domestic USA flight so there was only security to get through (no dramas or delays) and then we were free to explore the gift shops.DSCN4601

My husband watching my backpack while I shop.DSCN4599 DSCN4600

We are new to Southwest so a few observations that are probably nothing new to those who fly them often.

  1.  Do online check-in at exactly T-24.  Since these were award tickets booked with transferred Ultimate Rewards points, we each had our own record locator.  I had my ticket open in Firefox and hubby’s ticket in Chrome and was refreshing from 3 minutes beforehand until it allowed us to check in and get boarding positions.  We got A46 & A48, not bad for beginners!
  2.  Despite all this manoeuvering, there were at least 20+ wheelchairs queued up for preboarding.  A few regular pax tried to sneak ahead of us in the A line claiming not to understand (in Spanish) but I had enough Spanish skills to point them to where they were supposed to be and make it clear I wasn’t going to allow line cutters.
  3.  When we got on board, the first section of the plane was completely filled with the preboarded wheelchair pax, their companions and then the people ahead of us in line.  Despite all this, we could have had exit row except the FA wasn’t happy with my husband’s command of the English language (his first language is Maori) and chased us off.  We got aisles across from each other a few rows behind.  The flight was full.
  4.  I don’t know what they put in the water on Southwest but miraculously, there were only about 5 or 6 wheelchairs waiting for the disembarking pax to clear so they could disembark their assigned pax.

Here’s the gate area at SJU for Southwest.  We were there fairly early.


Anyway, we live in Australia and not likely to fly Southwest again so I am not going to dwell on it, but I wouldn’t have chosen this airline in the first place if there had been award seats available on AA or UA (there weren’t) so we did the best we could.

Well that wraps up the epic adventure to Ecuador, Colombia & the Caribbean.  In the end, we saw some truly amazing birds.  Many at a distance, but still they were there flying freely in all their glory!

Misadventures In El Yunque Rainforest

The El Yunque National Forest is one of Puerto Rico’s biggest drawcards for both birders and normal tourists alike.  At one time, it was the only place to find the Puerto Rican Amazon but they have now been expanded to Rio Abajo Forest as well.  It’s an easy 45 minute drive from the Intercontinental Hotel where we stayed the night and also to the airport.  This would be our last excursion before flying to Orlando.


A few scenes on the way


Beautiful Puerto Rican Parrot statue!DSCN4568

Wait, what’s that?DSCN4572

A beautiful parrot mural!  That sign is very ill-placed though.DSCN4573

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So now we have entered the park and trying to decide where to go first.  Another tourist we passed said there was a nice lookout just up the road so decided to take their advice.DSCN4575 DSCN4576 DSCN4577 DSCN4578 DSCN4580

Still heading towards the lookout, there were some shops I thought we would check out on the way back.DSCN4582 DSCN4583 DSCN4584

Now we are parked at the lookout and almost immediately I was hearing birdsong.DSCN4587

And found this cute little Puerto Rican Tody!DSCN4588

After the tody flew off, we wandered around looking for more birds.DSCN4589

Another tourist called my attention to the banged up hubcap and ding above it.DSCN4591 DSCN4592

This was NOT good!  I started freaking out, even though we had paid for the full CDW insurance.  I have no idea when and where that happened.DSCN4593 DSCN4594

I was worried there might be dramas so we decided to leave El Yunque early and head back to return the car.  I showed it to the returns officer and also showed my rental agreement with the CDW included.  Thankfully, he said it was OK and covered by he insurance!  So lesson learned – always make sure your rental car is insured!

Sadly this meant our trip to El Yunque was cut short…………..maybe a reason to go back someday?

Hotel Review: Intercontinental San Juan

This would be our last night in the Caribbean after the most amazing birding adventure ever, the next day we would be off to mainland USA to see family.  I wanted something special, preferably free on hotel points – and I got exactly what I wanted.  Intercontinental San Juan was a spectacular finale to our epic trip and even came with some surprise birding but you’ll have to read the whole review first.

It was raining as we finally arrived at the hotel after a long and busy day so I wasn’t thrilled with the self-parking being across the street.

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The lobby is beautiful and elegant and the check in staff were very friendly and helpful.DSCN4516 DSCN4517

The room was large and very clean with nice amenities in the bathroom.  The wifi worked brilliantly as well.DSCN4518 DSCN4519

Maybe the carpet is old-fashioned but the beds were very comfortable.DSCN4520

And the view was awesome of the pool and the sea just beyond.DSCN4521 DSCN4522 DSCN4523 DSCN4524

Speaking of the pool, I knew where we were heading to relax and rejuvenate!  The small pool in front is a jacuzzi and some of the jets were very good back massagers!DSCN4525 DSCN4526

There are several restaurants, this one overlooks the beach.DSCN4528 DSCN4529 DSCN4530 DSCN4531 DSCN4532 DSCN4538

After sunset, we could see the city lights down the road.DSCN4539 DSCN4540

As I was walking back to the hotel, I could hear the distinctive and iconic Coqui frogs.  I searched in vain, never got to see one, even enlisted a few hotel staff but they couldn’t find one either.  This is what they look and sound like.

The next morning, I went back to the beach area and heard a familiar sounding squawk.  I looked up in the palm trees and lo and behold – a family of Quaker Parrots in a huge nest!DSCN4550 DSCN4551 DSCN4553 DSCN4552 DSCN4561

The perfect way to say goodbye to our Caribbean adventure!

These rooms usually go for $160-200 or 50,000 IHG Rewards but I used my annual Chase certificate so for a $49 annual fee, I got an amazing deal and we loved the hotel and would go back anytime we were in Puerto Rico.

Old San Juan For Tired & Lazy Birders

I’m going to preface this with the fact that we had the right to be tired and lazy since we got maybe 2 hours of sleep the night before due to late Liat and an early morning start to see Puerto Rican Amazon parrots.

IMG_8386So by the time we left Rio Abajo we were starving and stopped at the first shopping centre we found for the food court and also to try to find a prepaid SIM card that would work in the mainland USA as well.  This mall did the trick and we ended up hanging around until T-24 to do online check-in for Southwest and got A46 and A48 boarding positions.


We were fading fast and decided just to drive around the old town and see as much of the fort and local area as possible from the car.  So fasten your seatbelts and enjoy the ride with us!  Don’t mind that I got lost until spotting a sign for old San Juan!DSCN4428 DSCN4430 DSCN4431

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The old town has some lovely old Spanish style buildings.DSCN4439 DSCN4441 DSCN4443 DSCN4444 DSCN4445 DSCN4446

The traffic was pretty bad and everyone was jockeying for parking so we had to circle around Castillo San Felipe del Morro a few times with angry motorists honking behind us.  I was trying to shoot photos out the window as much as possible.DSCN4448 DSCN4449 DSCN4450 DSCN4451 DSCN4452 DSCN4453 DSCN4455 DSCN4457 DSCN4458 DSCN4460 DSCN4462

I got closer on the second try.DSCN4470

Where did these people park?DSCN4464 DSCN4465 DSCN4466 DSCN4467

One last try.DSCN4468 DSCN4469

Cute trolley.DSCN4471 DSCN4472 DSCN4473 DSCN4474 DSCN4475


OK I give up, let’s just drive around the shopping area.  It was pretty crowded, might have been a cruise ship in town.  Maybe that’s how those people got there, shuttles from the ships.DSCN4479 DSCN4481 DSCN4482

The shopping area was pretty cool – cobblestone streets, interesting artwork and colourful buildings.DSCN4483 DSCN4487 DSCN4488 DSCN4489 DSCN4490 DSCN4491 DSCN4492 DSCN4493 DSCN4494 DSCN4498 DSCN4499

I do love a pina colada!DSCN4500 DSCN4503 DSCN4504 DSCN4505Wait, parrots have their own club?  We would have stopped in if we could find parking. DSCN4506 DSCN4507 DSCN4508 DSCN4509 DSCN4510 DSCN4511 DSCN4512

So that’s it, by this time we realized we were not going to find parking and were exhausted so time to go to the Intercontinental and relax!


Puerto Rican Amazon (Amazona vittata)

The Puerto Rican Amazon (Amazona vittata), also known as the Puerto Rican Parrot or Iguaca, is the only bird endemic to the archipelago of Puerto Rico belonging to the Neotropical genus Amazona.

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Although they once could be found throughout Puerto Rico, they are now confined to two main areas – Rio Abajo Forest and El Yunque (green highlights).  I saw these parrots just outside the gate of Rio Abajo Aviary (I was there because I had an appointment).  With less than 100 in the wild (not including breeding population), I was especially honoured to see them!




World Parrot Trust


Parrots International

Parrots Daily News


These are very informative about the breeding projects to save this critically endangered bird and repopulate the species.


Rio Abajo Forest, Puerto Rico

Rio Abajo Forest is one of the Caribbean’s top birding hotspots due to the Puerto Rican Parrots.  It’s a huge forest with many hiking trails and if you had the time and energy you could spend a day or two here.  But I was not only limited by time, I was exhausted and running on empty due to lack of sleep, so all I wanted to so was find the parrots.  I had been in contact with Ricardo Valentin prior to our visit and he was going to show us around the aviary and breeding project but when we arrived at the gate, we couldn’t find anyone around.

Road leading to Rio Abajo.

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First gate, we just went through as we had an appointment.  There was no one around anyway.DSCN4417

This is the 2nd gate which is outside the breeding project.  We parked here and waited for someone to approach us.  We were early so thought maybe they didn’t show up until 9am which was when our appointment was.DSCN4409 DSCN4412

I tried the call box but no one answered.


Signage about the aviary.DSCN4410 DSCN4411

A jogger did eventually show up and said his brother worked there.  He called out to his brother but no one answered so he left.  We waited while the trees cam alive around us.DSCN4413

They blend in quite well but this time (as opposed to other islands we had visited) we were close enough to see the parrots frolicking in the trees.IMG_8352 IMG_8355 IMG_8356 IMG_8362 IMG_8369 IMG_8377 IMG_8380 IMG_8382 IMG_8386 IMG_8392 IMG_8394 IMG_8402 IMG_8405 IMG_8406 IMG_8413 IMG_8415 IMG_8420 IMG_8457 IMG_8468

We actually had a good quality visit with the parrots as they hung around the area for awhile foraging in the branches.  They took off around 10am.  No humans ever showed up so at that point, we were starving and left to go forage for ourselves.  I later found out via email that Mr Valentin had taken ill and didn’t work that day.

Hotel Review: San Miguel Plaza, Puerto Rico

This may hold the record for the shortest (legit) hotel stay ever!  Due to Liat’s late arrival, then the formalities of entering the USA at SJU, getting the rental car, then trying to navigate to the prepaid hotel.  Of course I got lost a few times and had to stop for directions a few times so it was around 2am when we finally checked in to the San Miguel Plaza Hotel in Bayamon, Puerto Rico.  Why did I choose this out of the way place?  Mostly because we needed to get to Rio Abajo early to see the Puerto Rican Parrots and I wanted to avoid driving in traffic.

There’s secure parking under the building.  I always like a red rental car as they are easier to spot in parking lots.


The room was fine, typical budget room, fine for a night but not for a whole holiday.DSCN4402

View from the room.DSCN4405

Breakfast is included.DSCN4406

Here is the location, which is why I chose this place (out of all the hotels that I could use my Expedia goodwill voucher on).  The yellow blob on the right is San Juan – old city and beach area.  The hotel is indicated in the middle.  The pink circle on the left is where we needed to go to see the parrots at Rio Abajo.  This put us well out of incoming city traffic the next morning.

San Miguel Plaza

We were up very early, I think I got 2 hours of sleep that night but I wasn’t expecting Liat to be THAT late!  Thank God it was the last time we had to fly them!  The hotel was fine for the location but on a future visit, I think we would choose to be near the beach just to the north of Rio Abajo.

Liat Late To Dominica, Surprise Airport Charges On Exit

Leaving St Vincent, I was annoyed (but not surprised when both Liat flights (connecting in Barbados) were late.  Especially because it meant that we would miss the last bus and have to get a very expensive taxi to the other side of the island.

It’s possible to get a good deal on this flight and the taxes are supposedly included.  This direct flight wasn’t available when we booked.  Dominica had been hit badly by a hurricane and some flights were curtailed for awhile.  It may look like taxes are included but there is an extra departure tax to be paid at the airport.  They want cash which I didn’t have since I had made a point of spending all our ECD save a few bucks for snacks and I knew there would be ATMs at SJU to get USD easily.  They finally took me upstairs to some kind of office and processed the fee on my credit card.

Liat DOM

Waiting in the departure gate area.  St Vincent Airport does have a small gift shop before security, nothing in the departure area.


We had a longer layover than expected in Barbados but at least they had a good variety of fast food places that take credit cards.dscn4275 dscn4276 dscn4277 dscn4278 dscn4279 dscn4280

Some of the gates are in a different building down this long-ish hall.  The shops and restaurants are in the main terminal.dscn4281 dscn4282

Is this flight EVER going to leave?dscn4283

Boarding at rear only.dscn4284 dscn4285

You better put that backpack on the plane!dscn4286

By this time I had caught on and we were sitting in the rear.dscn4287

Goodbye Barbados!dscn4288

Hello Dominica!dscn4290

Another small airline.dscn4291

Yay, the backpack is on the truck!dscn4292

Outside the terminal, we met a man who had come to pick up his son and was headed our way so we paid him about half the taxi would have cost to take us to our hotel (which was on his way).dscn4392

After birding in Dominica (post to follow) Dr Birdy dropped us at the bus stop outside Portsmouth.  We waited about 15 minutes until a minibus arrived.  They dropped us on the road outside and we walked into the airport.dscn4394

Last minute birding outside the airport.dscn4395 dscn4398

Goodbye Dominica!dscn4400

Even after the airport tax hassle our troubles weren’t over.  The flight to Antigua was only about an hour late.  Much to my surprise, the flight from Antigua to San Juan left on time.  It was a puddle jumper that stopped at St Kitts and Tortola enroute.  It was in one of these islands that the schedule went all to hell.  We were stuck on the tarmac for 2 hours waiting for another late Liat plane which had passengers connecting to our plane. At first they left us sweltering with no AC or water until everyone on the plane was in near mutiny, then they turned the AC on and brought us water.  We finally arrived in San Juan just after midnight.  Already exhausted, I had to navigate a rental car to our hotel, finally arriving around 2am.


Planning A Birding Trip To The Caribbean

The Caribbean is one of the most challenging regions to go birding in, especially if you are on a budget.  You can get to most of the best islands for birding with miles but if you want to hop around between islands you are stuck with very expensive short flights.  Sooner or later, you will probably have to fly on Liat which is popularly known as “Leave Island Any Time or Luggage In Another Termnal”.

The other option is birding from a cruise ship.  This will get you to several islands and if you choose your itinerary wisely you could position yourself for some excellent birding.  I was successful in birding Jamaica & Grand Cayman from a cruise ship several years ago.

The islands highlighted in yellow are some of the most popular ones for birding and for parrot lovers, they all have endemic parrot species.



This was the easiest part.  The islands are fairly small and it’s easy to find out where the birds are.  I used eBird to get an idea but knew I would be hiring a guide at least on St Lucia and Dominica since time was short.  I was after several amazing Amazon Parrot species which are endemic to particular islands.  Puerto Rico has the Puerto Rican Amazon.  Dominica has the Imperial Amazon (Sisserou) & Red-necked Amazon (Jaco).  St Lucia has the St Lucia Parrot.  St Vincent has the St Vincent Parrot.  Trinidad has a couple of Parrotlets I was chasing – Green-rumped Parrotlets & Lilac-tailed Parrotlet.  There are also several Macaws and Amazon species plus lots of hummingbirds & manakins around the island so it was a great all-rounder.



We used United miles on Copa to get from Bogota to Trinidad via Panama.  Then we used miles from Port-of-Spain to St Lucia, only 4500 Avios for the short flight.  After that, we had to use Liat to St Vincent, Dominica & San Juan.

On Trinidad & Puerto Rico, we rented a car and drove around on our own.  On St Lucia, St Vincent & Dominica, we used a combination of guided birding tours (St Lucia), buses & taxis to national parks (St Vincent) and a private birding day trip on Dominica.


The Caribbean can be very expensive and even small lodges can be at least $150 a night.  Luckily I had some Hotels.com free nights, 2 Expedia credits for a promo they messed up on and some Orbucks from a photo competition they ran in 2014 which got our small hotels on St Lucia, St Vincent & Dominica plus one night at a small hotel south of San Juan for free.

We had 2 nights free in Trinidad at the Radisson thanks to the 2 for 1 redemption opportunity that came with the Club Carlson Visa booked just one month before that particular benefit went away.

We had one free night at the San Juan Intercontinental courtesy of the Chase free night with the IHG Rewards Visa.

Yes, you read that right, getting lucky with some hotel promos got us the entire week in the Caribbean for FREE!

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting in detail about our birding in the Caribbean so stay tuned!

Reminder: Only One Month Until The Parrot Lover’s Cruise

If you have been thinking about joining this fantastic cruise, don’t delay as it’s only a month away!  It’s pretty easy to get to Puerto Rico using airline miles and spend a few extra days pre or post cruise as well!

If you are a dedicated conservationist, eco-tourist or birder who has been looking for an excuse to ease your spouse/partner into the adventure; this is soft ecotourism at its best!  What could be easier than boarding a luxurious cruise ship in San Juan and relaxing at sea while you cruise to a different Caribbean island just about every day.  Many of these islands have native parrot populations and there will be other bird species too.  And best of all, your participation benefits the World Parrot Trust’s conservation efforts!

Parrot Lovers Cruise

In order to participate in the seminars and dedicated birding excursions, you must book with the official travel agency, Carol’s Travel Time.