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Puerto Rico--On and Off the Beaten Path

A week in Puerto Rico over Christmas, even venturing well off the beaten track, was enough to see a great deal of this particular island.

The trip started with a series of minor disasters: a five-hour delay leaving the airport in New York, causing us to lose our rent-a-car reservation (the office closed two hours before we actually landed). By the time we located a substitute car and arrived at our hotel, it was 11:30 p.m.--and then the next day (my 40th birthday) dealing with endless frustration trying to hook up with the government-run park where we had a three-night campground reservation. They had told us to come to the office in town to pay for and pick up our permit, and to be there before they closed at 4:30. they neglected to tell us two very important things: 1) the town was actually a huge city, and finding the park office was not going to be easy without directions, and 2) they closed way early on Christmas Eve. We hit the town at 3, couldn't find the park office or anyone who knew where it was, and they didn't answer their phone.

Also, the signage is terrible in many parts of the island. We drove down a road that was labeled as the road the campground itself (not the office) was on, figuring we'd try to scope out someone and at least see if it felt OK to camp. But the road we were on was a different road, that according to the map should have had a different number--and we never found the campground entrance. So then we stopped at a highway patrol barracks to see if they had any ideas. None of the cops spoke English, so we had to use our fairly rusty Spanish to determine that:
* they didn't know where the park or the park office was
* they would call the main park office in San Juan (where I had a long and frustrating conversation with someone who refused to acknowledge my reservation and said that without the permit, we couldn't camp--again, in Spanish)
* they would send a patrol car down to a hotel they knew, which for some reason they couldn't reach on the phone

Like almost everyone we met or dealt with, other than the Parks Department turkey in San Juan, they were genuinely helpful--they actually did send a cruiser down to make a reservation for us, and we did stay at the hotel they knew--which was in a neighboring town on the beach. and the innkeeper was extremely friendly and gracious. Still, hanging out in a highway patrol barracks for two hours was not what I had planned for my birthday.

But after that, the rest of the trip was great. We threw our bags down in our room and changed into bathing suits, then walked the few blocks to the ocean just before it got dark. The surf was intense and rough, and my feet got scraped up along the coral reef from being thrown back by the waves (long after they'd broken--I wasn't foolish enough to go right where they were cascading. To me, the salt water was a baptism, cleansing away all the difficulties of the last 36 hours. And from then on, we had a real and wonderful vacation. But we never did get to camp, and we dragged a lot of equipment around as a result.

The first day, before the Arecibo campground fiasco, we explored Old San Juan on foot. Just about the only attractive neighborhood in an ugly and crowded megalopolis, San Juan Viejo is isolated from the rest of the city by a bridge. It's densely settled and features numerous elegant buildings--one of which is the main library, a magnificent marble edifice bearing some resemblance to the Jefferson Memorial in D.C. We also walked through El Morro, a fort dating from the 1500s with a view to kill for. The grounds were being torn up to get ready for the governor's inauguration in January, but it was still open to the public. it's a massive thing, spread over several floors, each with its own battlements and security devices. It's also a great place to play hide-and-seek, with lots of nooks and crannies, both inside and out. And our final stop in Old San Juan was a small museum commemorating Pablo Casals.

Then came our drive to Arecibo. San Juan drivers get my vote for Worst in North America--they tailgate, they merge into your lane as you try to pass, they weave, and they don't like to use turn signals--all this on a 60 mph highway. But once you're 30 miles out, the driving improves tremendously. there are still plenty of tailgaters, but most of the other abuses are sharply reduced. The north coast west of San Juan is not attractive--decrepit shopping strips and tumbledown houses, litter and graffiti everywhere.

The town we ended up staying in that second night was called Hatillo, and the beach is its major feature of interest. It's not a good swimming beach because of the strong surf, but what's interesting is the way water cascades over a coral reef, forming short-lived waterfalls after every wave. We also had a nice birthday meal there, and the hotel was immaculately kept.

We'd hoped to explore the famous Rio Camuy caves the next day, but they were closed for Christmas. Instead we tried to go to a Taino Indian archeological site.

Once you turn off the coast, inland driving is a slow and twisty affair. Most of the island is rugged and mountainous, and the roads are narrow, curvy, slow, and challenging. In many places, you can only average 15-20 miles an hour. So it takes an hour or two to get absolutely anywhere. The scenery, however, was breathtaking.

Our map showed the archeological site at the junction of a major north-south road. But, as it was so many other times, our map was inaccurate. It was actually 12 miles worth of hairpin turns from that junction (a good 45 minutes drive)--and when we got there, of course, it was closed for Christmas after all (they had no phone). Oh well, so it goes. we had to drive back down to the junction, and then about an hour farther, in order to get to our next hotel, the Parador Hacienda Gripinas (there's a tilde over the "n", so it's pronounced, "grih-peenyas").

Now this was a gorgeous place, deep in the mountains: a converted coffee plantation house, surrounded by enormous and vivid tropical foliage: huge mango trees, whole groves of bamboo, ten-pointed Yagrubo (weathervane--not sure of the spelling), vivid orchids in many varieties, several kinds of palms, giant ferns, bananas, papayas... and dozens more I couldn't identify or learn. the house itself was elegant, and the rooms very pleasant. But we didn't like the attitude: signs saying that eating in your room was an offense that justified being kicked out, and the monopoly restaurant featuring mediocre food and glacial service (even by Island standards--30 minutes to bring bread, 40 minutes to bring wine, an hour and a half to bring the main dishes). We also felt it would have been nice if they'd had more activities: there was one functional pool table, a swimming pool, and a bar--we wanted to hike!

The next day, we retraced our steps to the Indian ruins--which took about 20 minutes to see, as it turned out, and were woefully lacking in explanatory materials--and then continued on to the Rio Camuy caves.

If you ever go there, some advice: arrive before noon, bring a picnic lunch and some reading matter, and be prepared to wait. Also, when they line you up for the video, go directly to the end of the building and line up instead for the caves. The video is nothing you need to see. We got there about 11, and our group actually descended to the caves at around 3. The wait was not oppressive, though, as we were prepared and the grounds were beautiful. (In fact, during our week in PR, I managed to indulge in five novels--what a treat!). On thing we did while waiting is take a short side trip to a smaller cave on the grounds.

Finally, it was our turn. Alternate tours are given in Spanish and English; we chose English. The cave is enormously high, with 16 entrances. The 45-minute tour goes through a small piece of the system. There are stalactites and stalagmites, some in rather ornate formations, though mostly it's empty space. Quite dramatic, really, though the way it's lit doesn't highlight it quite as much as some of the lush caves I've been through in the Northeast.

That night, we stayed in a rather featureless hotel in a mountain town called Adjuntos--no reason to go there, except it was on our way to Ponce, and substantially cheaper than staying there would have been. It was an hour from the caves to Adjuntos, and another hour to Ponce the next morning--probably all of 25 miles from the cave.

Ponce is beautiful (the downtown, anyway). Many fine colonial buildings, a grand central plaza with a massive fountain and such oddities as a red and green Victorian gingerbread building that was once a firehouse. It's also supposed to have a couple of good fine art museums, though our schedule didn't allow us to check. We did have time to tour the fascinating museum of Puerto Rican music--made more fascinating by the manager's eagerness to show us around, demonstrate various instruments, let us try some of them, and play CDs for us. He probably would have kept us entertained for another hour, but we knew we had a long drive ahead.

The museum had some visual pieces too, including a couple of the stunning papier mache masks Ponce's known for. Unfortunately, we never found a store that sells them--either in Ponce or anywhere else we went. (We'd seen them in Old San Juan on the first day, but the first day is not when we usually do our souvenir shopping.)

From Ponce, we drove about three hours along the south and east coasts, the long and scenic way around. Unlike the north coast, the houses were prosperous looking in most parts, and there were great scenic vistas of the Caribbean. We did stop at one point to dip our toes in the water, and then later we stopped for a stroll along a beach-side sidewalk promenade. Our destination was the Grateful Bed and Breakfast in Luqillo.

I've stayed in a wide range of establishments, but never anything quite like this. It's run by a Deadhead expatriate New Yorker who's also involved in save-the-rainforest activities (he won't let you rent a Mitsubishi if you're staying there, because there's a rainforest boycott). The decor is Hippie Grunge (and unlike the spotless Puerto Rican-run hotels we encountered everywhere else, this gringo-run place was scuzzy and in poor condition). The main house, where the dining room is, features a Grateful Dead-themed mural with dancing skeletons, a library of a few hundred audio cassettes--fully half of which are assorted live bootleg recordings of the Dead--smaller collections of books, videos, and board games, along with some tourist information.

What Marty works really hard at is giving people the visit they want to have, and encouraging interaction among his guests. People hang out in the main house for hours, playing word games, obsessing over a 1000-piece Grateful dead jigsaw puzzle, and having long intense discussions. It felt a bit like my days at Antioch College in the early 70s.

Our first night there, he invited all his guests to share his leftover Christmas dinner, including an excellent mixed root vegetable stew and various other dishes. Then we stayed up late playing Dictionary. The following morning, we left with precise instructions on which parts of El Yunque rainforest (ten minutes drive!) were still accessible--most of it had been closed due to hurricane and mudslide damage, and the park police made it sound like virtually all of it was closed. After gawking at the tourists gawking at the waterfall (just before the main road was closed), we hiked to a river where we swam--in the rain. The rain forest itself is surprisingly empty of animal life, and the vegetation was pretty similar to what we'd seen in other mountainous parts of the island. Then we took another, more vertical hike, and I started to notice a lot of weather damage--bamboo trees snapped in two, giant ferns with entire branches dead and drooping. and as the sky was darkening for another rainstorm (we encountered several during our few hours there).

That evening, all the guests had dinner together at a lovely Italian restaurant in Luqillo, then off to neighboring Fajardo for an incredible experience: all ten of us took a ride in a small boat, through the channels of a mangrove swamp--iguanas literally hanging from the trees, roots rising high out of the water, branches sweeping against us as we softly motored past, stars clear and crisp overhead--into one of Puerto Rico's noted phosphorescent bays. There are two listed in all the guidebooks, and we'd been disappointed to miss them. Fajardo's is not known to tourists. Some kind of algae in the water causes it to glow in the dark. Running a hand alongside the water from the boat caused a white streak behind our fingers; scooping a few drops and tossing them looked like fireworks, fish chasing bugs left little comet trails. But the neatest part was when Marty asked if anyone would like to swim. I was the only volunteer, and immediately stripped to my underwear and jumped in. The water was warm, salty, and luscious. I could see some streaks of white behind me, but the folks in the boat got a better view. It was a fabulous experience, and the only problem was getting back into the boat--not easy! But eventually I succeeded. As we returned, the moon rose over the mangroves (part of an environmental research center that we couldn't visit because no one answered the phone on weekends and reservations were required).

The next day we had set aside for Luqillo beach--rated by Frommer as the best in Puerto Rico. The stay started out sunny and beautiful. Unfortunately, it turned into a cloudburst while we were still eating breakfast in the main house (and our raincoats were in our house, a few hundred yards down a flooded dirt lane). So we worked more on the puzzle, listened to tapes, watched an old Cary Grant movie, ate the ugly but extremely tasty oranges Marty kept around, and played the assortment of guitars and percussion instruments that lined the walls. Finally, at around 3 p.m., the skies cleared and we rushed to the beaches. First we went to the wave beach--I love getting banged around on the surf--and then to the huge, sprawling--and nearly deserted--tourist beach. We had time for a quick dip in each, and then the skies darkened again. We got back into our car and closed the doors just before the next cloudburst, which lasted well into the night. Dinner was again a group affair, this time in a local-cuisine restaurant featuring strong rum drinks served in containers of real bamboo.

Our last day took us via the scenic backroads along the northeast coast to the town of Loiza, center for Afro-riqueno culture (and known for its vivid masks and costumes). Almost all the people on the streets were black, but most showed clear traces of Indian or Spanish ancestry as well. (In general, I found the Puerto Ricans very pretty to look at, and some of these folks in the black area were the most striking of all the many different types of people we'd seen.) Loiza is not a tourist town, but we asked around in City Hall and were given some info on a local festival. We were also directed to a cultural center, but it was closed. We noticed the architecture was different here, too: many two-story frame buildings in addition to the usual single-story concrete. Once again, we tried to buy the local masks (made of coconut shells, this time)--but the one store that was open had a very poor selection, and the only one that appealed to us was not for sale.

Passing the last beautiful beaches of our trip, we pulled into the San Juan neighborhood of Isla Verde--big ugly hotels along the beachfront, tourists everywhere, and a real gringo feeling. That's where we returned our rental car, got shuttled to the airport, and started home.

A few general observations:
* music is everywhere, but far more recorded than live
* people appreciate tourists using Spanish, but often answer in English to practice. English is far more common here than in our experience of either Mexico or Spain
* many Puertoriquenos have spent time on the mainland
* the vast majority of people we encountered were friendly and helpful, but the bureaucracy in both the public and private sectors is a quagmire
* swimming is great! warm water, strong surf, beautiful beaches--but there's a lot more than swimming here (we felt sorry for the tourists who never left San Juan except perhaps for a minivan tour to El Yunque for an hour)
* vegetarian food is available, but very limited--mostly rice and beans. But the fruit is superb and widely available in roadside stands
* and lastly, if you go, leave your camping gear at home and bring plenty to read while waiting on various lines.

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review, is author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook and Marketing Without Megabucks: How to Sell Anything on a Shoestring.

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