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Postcards: Isle of Enchantment

Pilot your own vacation around Puerto Rico

Tropical flying paradises exist. The problem is that most are 1,000 miles, a couple of hundred dollars, and a few too many days of vacation away for most middle-class pilots.

Add to that the low-time pilot's fear of venturing out of U.S. airspace or over miles of ocean and those Caribbean photo spreads in aviation magazines can seem cruelly out of reach.

Fortunately, there is Puerto Rico.

Here's a foreign paradise that is never really foreign. It's a place where you can drink in colonial Spanish culture and never leave U.S. airspace. Where you can glide over green mountains, majestic forts, turquoise reefs, and a cactus-filled dry forest, all in the same hour. Where you can hop to a quiet island, take in an exotic meal of chillo and mofongo, and have the good old FAA air traffic controllers guiding you home at sunset.

"It's got the greatest flying weather, it's safe, and there's so much to see," said Jacob Van Praag, a former American Eagle pilot who now runs an FBO at Isla Grande Airport. "It really is a great place for flying."

Best of all, it's affordable. Catch a $150 commercial flight from New York City, rent an airplane for a couple of hours, and stay in inexpensive, beachfront "guest houses" for as little as $45 a night. Airports are in excellent condition, landing fees are reasonable, and the weather is easy on even the most tenderfoot of pilots.

Rich in history

Puerto Rico has a rich history, beginning with the first Taino Indians and Christopher Columbus, who discovered the island in 1493. Juan Ponce de Leon fought disease and plain bad luck to establish the first Spanish settlement, and over the next 300 years a later outpost grew into San Juan, the mightiest walled city in the New World.

During the Spanish-American War, invading U.S. forces succeeded where Dutch and English invaders had failed, and the island became an unlikely colony of the United States in 1898.

One hundred years later, this 100-by-35-mile island about 1,000 miles southeast of Miami is a relatively affluent place, and the bustling air traffic between it and the United States means that bargain-hunters can usually pick up a cheap ticket at any time of year.

American Airlines has frequent deals to San Juan from most of its hubs. Last year I got a $370 round-trip flight from Detroit at New Year's. For real bargain-hunters, Tower Air (800/348-6937) typically offers one-way flights for $130 from New York's JFK International. KIWI International Airlines (800/JET-KIWI) flies from Newark to San Juan or Aguadilla for $156 one way, and American Trans Air offers flights from Chicago via Orlando as low as $200 one way.

(And remember, you're going to U.S. soil—no passports or visas needed. No special flying permits, international flight plans, or international driver's licenses, either).

Renting a ride

Airplane rentals are more expensive than on the mainland, but hey, you're on vacation and the views are worth it. Most fliers rent their rides at Fernando Ribas Dominicci Airport, the smaller of San Juan's two airfields.

Avitech (787/723-3385) rents Cessna 152s for $75 an hour and 172s for $95 an hour. Isla Grande Flying School (787/722-1160) offers 152s for $90/hour and 172s for $110/hour. (All prices include fuel.)

In the southern town of Ponce, Ponce Aero Training (787/259-0629) will outfit you with a Cessna 152 for $75 and a Cessna 150 for $70. Fuel prices vary widely among airports. Currently, prices are $2.37 a gallon in Isla Grande and $1.90 elsewhere.

Usually, all you need is a one-hour checkout with an instructor to rent. Call before your trip to schedule a checkout, and bring your logbook.

San Juan and the North Coast

Departing Isla Grande's 4,800-foot Runway 9 (trade winds mean that the breeze is out of the east 95 percent of the time here), a turn downwind takes you hundreds of years back in history.

There's Puerto Rico's dazzling marble capitol, then the sprawling bulwarks and cannons of Fort San Cristobal, endowed by Irish military engineers with a baffling network of moats, bulwarks, false passages, and dead ends. Any army commander stupid enough to take on San Cristobal would pay in blood for the mistake.

You'll turn base at Fort San Felipe del Morro, a 140-foot-high stone giant bristling with cannons. It had a cameo role in the movie Amistad. Behind it are the hulking Spanish military barracks and a "field of fire" big enough to land a Beech King Air. Colonial churches, mansions, fountains, and plazas are beyond. San Juan's blue cobblestones are actually bricks of iron clinker once used as ballast in sailing ships.

Turning final over San Juan Bay, you'll see the cream-and-gold Bacardi Rum distillery. Stop by later for a free tour and piña colada (virgin piña coladas available for kids and pilots; 787/788-8400). Short final brings you past the piers, where giant cruiseliners gather every weekend.

Farther south, you'll see a hill that seems to shoot out of the ground topped by a huge cross. Below, old NASA rockets and retired jets populate the Luis A. Ferre Science Park (787/740-6868).

Puerto Rico has 11 public airports, and all of them are listed in the airport/facility directory for the southeastern United States and AOPA's Airport Directory. The chart that covers Puerto Rico is a monster-size 1:250,000 terminal area chart, meaning that you get twice the landmark detail; getting lost is downright difficult.

Head west and you'll pass over the remains of the airport that was once owned by aviation pioneer Clara Livingston. Amelia Earhart turned down an invitation by the governor and spent a night at Livingston's mansion on her tragic around-the-world attempt.

A few miles later, you'll enter karst country. The bizarre egg-carton look of the hills betrays the sinkholes, old coral reefs, and breathtaking caves underneath. Be sure to take a day trip to the Rio Camuy Cave Park (787/763-0568) or sign on for a guided spelunking trip (Aventuras Tierra Adentro, 787/766-0470).

Nestled in a single gigantic sinkhole is the massive Arecibo Radio Observatory, a 20-acre, 600-ton dish with a receiver the size of a house hanging 50 stories above it. It appeared in the movies Contact, Species, and the James Bond thriller GoldenEye, among others. The brand-new visitors' center and museum is topnotch (787/878-2612).

At the northwest corner of Puerto Rico, try some luxurious stop-and-goes on the 11,700-foot runway of the former Ramey Air Force Base. This bastion of the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War is now Rafael Hernandez Airport, a sleepy nontowered field. Keep an ear on San Juan Center for the occasional cargo jet. Nearby Jobos Beach draws both surfers and sweethearts to its rugged rock perches.

By the way, don't be flustered if you hear Spanish on the CTAF fequency in Puerto Rico. Announce yourself in English; if the response is in Spanish, politely ask for English. Remember, pilots here are required to know English, but its use is not required at nontowered airports.

Ponce and the South

Within miles of the coast, the land shoots up into lush 3,000-foot mountains that are usually surrounded by clouds. This is coffee country where some of the richest java in the world is grown. You can tour a restored, 19th-century working coffee plantation at Hacienda Buena Vista (787/772-5882 or 284-7020, reservations required).

If the weather is clear enough and your nerves are steely, the Villas de Sotomayor Inn in Adjuntas will open its private airport for guests. But be warned — at 1,500 feet long, surrounded by peaks, and at 2,600 feet above sea level, it is not a landing for the inexperienced. A double room at Villas de Sotomayor (787/829-1717) runs $80 a night.

By the way, you won't find cheap motels anywhere in the Caribbean, but there are alternatives to the $150-a-night luxury hotels. Inns called paradores or "guest houses" offer two-person lodging from $40 to $90. For a guide to these inns, call the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (800/223-6530 or 787/721-2400) and ask for a free copy of the Puerto Rico Travel and Sports Masterguide.

Cut across the mountains and you'll find yourself in what looks startlingly like Texas. Puerto Rico's south side is drier, hotter, and marked by gentle, grassy hills. Here you'll find the Guanica dry forest, a United Nations biosphere reserve full of cactus, birds, and silver-gray shrubs.

Pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies long ago replaced King Sugar on Puerto Rico, but from the air (and on the charts) you can still see traces of the railways that once linked southern sugar plantations with the sea. They are the scars of a painful, poverty-plagued era in Puerto Rican history.

Look for another giant cross on a hill, and you'll soon find Mercedita Airport in Ponce, Puerto Rico's second-largest city. It's named after the aforementioned Juan Ponce de Leon, who never did find that fountain of youth in Florida. He's buried in the cathedral in San Juan.

Ponce boasts a good art museum; a bustling Spanish-style plaza; and the Castillo Serralles, an opulent mansion owned by another rum-making dynasty. The mansion is open to the public.

A few miles north of tiny Patillas Airport, where ultralights frolic around a 2,000-foot runway, on weekends the mountain town of Guavate draws people by the thousands to its lechoneras, or outdoor restaurants. The specialty is roast pork and chicken daubed with an irresistible seasoning called adobo. Served with yucca, toasted plantains, rice, and live music, a meal in Guavate is unforgettable. Twenty-five dollars will stuff a family of four.

Reefs and rain forests

Farther east, you'll fly past El Yunque, the only rain forest in the U.S. national forest system. The jungle rises 3,500 feet into the clouds and is a must-see. Hang gliders soar over its southern flanks. (Team Spirit Hang Gliding at 787/285-0996 will teach you how to join in.)

Pilots are requested to fly at 2,000 feet agl or higher here and over the forts, which are national historical monuments.

For an unforgettable look at the nearby San Juan Headlands Nature Reserve, Mark Donaldson of Caribe Kayak will take you on an all-day kayaking trip through mangrove-shaded channels, onto isolated beaches and a phosphorescent lagoon (microscopic creatures make the water glow when disturbed). Snorkeling through reefs teeming with tropical fish is included, as is lunch ($45 a person, 787/889-7734).

The Fajardo Inn, only minutes from the Fajardo airport and from El Yunque, offers lodging and breakfast with a pretty view for $75 a night. Or for something more rustic, try the Grateful Bed and Breakfast at the foot of the rain forest (787/889-4919). Owner Marty Soucie doesn't charge for the lodging—he charges a $75-a-night fee for helping you plan hikes, horseback rides, snorkeling cruises, rock climbing, and other adventures.

Wanna try something wild? Head out over the largest U.S. Navy base outside the United States, Roosevelt Roads, to Culebra ("Snake") Island.

To land there, you'll have have to squeeze through a pass and hang an abrupt left turn on short final. Some airplane rental companies forbid you to land in Culebra without special instruction.

Culebra is bone dry, meaning that the water is cellophane-clear and reefs thrive. Taxis will take you to secluded reefs packed with multicolored fish, or you can rent a jeep for $50 a day at the airport and explore to your heart's content.

Nearby Vieques also has great snorkeling, a small fort, and an impressive local history museum that features information on the island's most famous visitor, South American liberator Simon Bolivar. Its airport is a breeze for landing, and the terminal is brand-new.

The U.S. Navy has taken over 75 percent of Vieques for weapons storage and bombing practice (it's a touchy subject with residents). Avoid the restricted airspace and check with San Juan flight service to make sure it's not "hot" with F-14s.

The U.S. Virgin Islands are only 20 miles away, but remember that because of a quirk in tax laws, you'll have to go through U.S. Customs upon returning to Puerto Rico. You can clear in Vieques or Fajardo during the day or at San Juan after 5 p.m.

Whether you take an easy five-hour circuit around the island or stop at each airport to explore, you'll see a natural diversity and historical depth that would seem impossible to squeeze out of one little island.

From caverns to mountaintops, Puerto Rico is a land that has always attracted explorers—and as its name suggests, it rewards them richly.

Chris Hawley, AOPA 1286179, is a news reporter in San Juan.

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