My thoughts on Puerto Rico before visiting in February: Small island somewhere in the Caribbean. Spanish-speaking. Poor. Not especially pretty. An American territory, whatever that means. The end.
If this description rings true to you, too, then I suggest you keep reading. I guarantee you will be as surprised as I was. Puerto Rico means "rich port," an apropos descriptor: I found the small island to be bursting at the borders with a diversity of treasures.
But first let me give you some enticing and purely practical reasons for choosing Puerto Rico as your vacation destination.
A street of colorful facades in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is shown above right, while a Pina Colada awaits consumption at the Hilton Ponce bar in Ponce.
1. Flights are cheap. My round-trip flight from Pittsburgh to San Juan by way of Atlanta was less than $300.
2. Unlike most other tropical locales, you don't need a U.S. passport to get in- a particularly helpful bit of information for would-be travelers who don't already have passports.
3. Again unlike most other Caribbean destinations, Puerto Rico operates on U.S. currency, so you are spared the hassle of exchanging money.
4. It's 82 degrees in February.
My first pleasant surprise came at the airport in San Juan, where I closed down one restaurant and then another during a four-hour stretch waiting for my husband's delayed flight. (My mini-vacation was tacked onto his work trip, so we were on separate flights. That's not the pleasant part, obviously.) At the last bar, I struck up a conversation with a couple of young male servers as they finished their shifts and tallied their tips. They were bilingual - like the majority of people I met - and became quite animated when they learned it was my first trip to "their" island.
As I asked questions, they grabbed a tourist map and began marking it up with don't-miss destinations. One was adamant that I visit a tiny off-the-beaten-path eatery near San Juan called La Casita Blanca for authentic Dominican and Puerto Rican fare. He then extolled the virtues of hiking in the nearby rainforest, pulling up on his smartphone a stunning photo of lush greenery surrounding a bright cerulean pool from an excursion he had taken the week before.
Their helpfulness, I discovered, was not an anomaly. Everywhere we went, the locals wanted us to know how special their home is - and they didn't even know I was going to write about it. To tell the truth, I hadn't planned to, but after my first day there I knew I couldn't keep this little gem to myself.
A little history
First, a little history, because I'm a bit of a buff. I can't really attach myself to a place until I dig into its roots. In 1483, Christopher Columbus claimed for Spain this rectangle island the size of Connecticut, sandwiched between the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands; he called it San Juan Bautista. Explorer Juan Ponce de Leon established the city of Puerto Rico in the north in 1509. Later the names were switched: the city is now known as San Juan, and the island is Puerto Rico.
The indigenous people there, the Taino, were nearly wiped out by the Spaniards. The two intermarried, and eventually the Africans, who were brought to the island as slaves, joined the mix. Later, Europeans emigrated to Puerto Rico, wooed by the riches to be had in raising tobacco, sugar cane and coffee. Today's inhabitants hail from these various backgrounds.
The Spanish built huge fortresses to protect against invading fleets from Europe as well as pirates; the largest is the Castillo de San Cristobal in what is now known as Old San Juan. The country came under U.S. control during the Spanish-American War in 1898, just a year after it broke from Spain. In the 1940s, another push for independence led eventually to a the 1952 adoption of a constitution and the vote to become a commonwealth of the U.S. The U.S. government refers to it as a "self-governing unincorporated territory."
Three times since then, Puerto Ricans have voted to remain a commonwealth rather than become independent or a U.S. state; the last time was in 1998.
I found out the hard way that politics in Puerto Rico is still a touchy subject when I "nearly started a riot," as my husband likes to say (with great exaggeration). I questioned the curator about statehood during an impromptu group tour of the city of Ponce's historical museum. Some Puerto Rican visitors were adamant that becoming a U.S. state is the way to go, while others seemed happy with the status quo while admitting the system has its flaws.
The curator maintained benefits of being a commonwealth include preservation of cultural aspects, including keeping both Spanish and English as the official languages of the government.
Puerto Rico is known for its rum - Bacardi is based here, as is the lesser known but I think superior Don Q. Salsa dancing and festivals abound, most notably the Ponce Carnival, complete with parade-goers donning colorful, horned, papier-mache masks. The scary masks are popular souvenir items, made by local artisans in a variety of sizes and fantastical visages.
Less well-known is Puerto Rican coffee. The gorgeous Hilton Ponce resort, where we stayed on the southwestern coast, provided ground Yaucono coffee in our room. It was the best "hotel room" coffee we'd ever had. If it was that good in the room, we assumed - correctly - it would be delicious at home. We bought a variety of brands at the airport on our way home and still agree Yaucono is our favorite with its rich, smooth blend. Visitors can get a glimpse of the history of coffee growing and processing on the island at the Hacienda Buena Vista Coffee Plantation just north of Ponce.
Tours of the Bacardi distillery as well as Don Q also are available for those interested - but Don Q (named for Cervantes' Don Quixote character) is more ensconced locally. Don Q's distillery, Disteleria Serralles, is located adjacent to the Museo Castillo Serralles overlooking Ponce. The Serralles family owned sugar cane plantations throughout the region and has been producing rum since 1865. The family has since purchased Seagrams and until recently made Captain Morgan.
The Serralles family also owns the Hilton Ponce Resort and Casino, and recently built vacation homes and a golf course there, along with a $10 million bridge to get to it. The family's concerns pump about $120 million annually into the Puerto Rican economy, according to a Ponce newspaper article.
What about the food? Puerto Rican cuisine is a delicious amalgamation of seafood and local produce enhanced with Spanish flavors and island influences. We were treated to two memorable meals during our visit, one homecooked lunch at a University of Puerto Rico professor's home in Old San Juan and a working lunch at a Greek-meets-Caribbean waterfront restaurant near Ponce called Santorini. We were most impressed with the our learned host's fried mashed breadfruit, our first experience with the indigenous starchy yet nutrient-packed substance.
At Santorini, we stuck with the seafood and Puerto Rican dishes mostly, although one of our new local friends ordered a Mediterranean favorite, pita and hummus. We sampled Puerto Rican tostones - another comforting fried starch fare, this time made from the island's ubiquitous plantains. Santorini's tostones were fashioned into little bowls and filled with a spicy chicken and chorizo combination. The seafood platter was packed with Caribbean lobster, a smaller, sweeter lobster; scallops; fish; shrimp and an unexpected favorite, octopus. We mainlanders dutifully practiced our "when in Rome" philosophy, but we all closed our eyes while trying it. Muy delicioso! The empandillas (small versions of Puerto Rico's staple empanada) with beef and lamb paled in comparison to the more exotic dishes, although I'm told Old San Juan has a few eateries that make memorable empanadas.
Speaking of Old San Juan, it's a must-visit destination and is one of the most popular because of the major cruiseliner port there. My first glimpse of it was from the window of the plane as we descended to the aeropuerto. Nearly an island itself, attached only by a narrow band of land, it is encircled almost entirely by ancient walls, punctuated with turrets than can be seen on paintings and souvenirs throughout Puerto Rico as a symbol of the island. I purchased a small handmade clay ring bowl with a turret carved in the center from a local street vendor in Old San Juan.
The neighborhood is known for its narrow streets, colorful stucco walk-ups and rowhouses - and shopping, shopping and more shopping. Tommy Hilfiger, Coach and other upscale retailers have boutiques in unsuspecting storefronts in keeping with the historical architecture. We purchased locally made jewelry at a small shop on a side street. The owner and maker was crafting bracelets at the counter when we popped in. Street vendors sell everything from locally grown produce, to Puerto Rican cigars that are hand-rolled in front of you, to paintings. A popular subject is Don Quixote and his windmill foes. The connection between Cervantes' Quixote and Puerto Rico is a bit sketchy, but the character shows up in every imaginable configuration. The only links I could discern are that he's Spanish and that in his book, Cervantes mentions the tradition of those scary masks at festivals.
Old San Juan also is home to the island's only micro-brewery, Old Harbor. We debated whether to take the time to stop there during our brief afternoon in Old San Juan, but in the end, we couldn't resist checking it off our "been-there, done-that" list. The appetizers we sampled were nothing to write home about, but it was cool and dark in there - a nice break from the bright, hot sun - and the beer was refreshing.
Puerto Rico has an astonishing topography that lends itself to unique adventures. I'm not saying every square foot is beautiful - there is the typical industrial infrastructure and other uninteresting or downright ugly architecture. I wandered around a pretty run-down section of Ponce looking for Walgreens one day. But the amount of beauty and diversity packed into such a small place simply can't go unnoticed.
For example, on the west coast, the city of Rincon is known for its cowabunga waves that attract world-class surfers. In the north, you'll find the Camuy River Caves, a system of limestone caverns carved by the third largest underwater river in the world. Guided tours are offered, and online reviewers have noted the enormous caverns are unlike any others.
In the northeast is the El Yuncke National Forest, the only subtropical rainforest in North America, replete with 240 tree species and 150 fern species alone, according to the U.S. Forest Service, plus miles of trails and picturesque waterfalls. Not far off the northeast coast lies the island of Vieques, with its baby-powder sand beaches and spectacular bioluminescent bay.
In the opposite corner of the island is the Guanica Dry Forest, one of the few in the world, which has an extensive trail system with nice oceanview lookout points. It gets only 30 inches of rain per year compared to El Yuncke's 200-plus. Another, smaller bioluminescent bay reportedly lies near Guanica.
While we didn't have time for any well-planned, mapped-out adventures during my three-day trip - Dave had to work and I had to spend at least one day relaxing on the beach- we did attempt a couple of ill-fated excursions, one of which was to the aforementioned Guanica bay. When we couldn't find it, we kept driving until we came upon a remote seaside village. The coastal street was dotted with a few taverns and some food carts. It looked like a fun fiesta was going on. I wanted to stop for a cervesa and ask the locals where to find the bay, but my husband put the kibosh on it, citing safety reasons.
The next day, perhaps slightly chagrined by his party-pooper behavior the night before, he hopped on the Internet and quickly mapped out a road trip from Ponce in the south to San Juan in the north via the El Yuncke rainforest. Puerto Ricans reading this right now might be scratching their heads. That's because you can't get through the El Yuncke from the south. The map I had shows the road ending in the middle of the forest. The map he had didn't. We didn't compare notes, and boy, did we get lost. But all was not lost. We discovered a part of Puerto Rico not listed in tourism brochures. It was much like West Virginia backcountry: mountainous with narrow roads and the occasional trailer or shack with chickens in the yard and a hound lazing on the porch.
Trip to remember
Despite that last similarity, Puerto Rico was like nothing I had ever experienced. Although I didn't get to all the places I mentioned here, it still was a trip to remember. I had never been to a place that was mostly Spanish speaking, for one thing. Lover of languages that I am, I was thrilled to try out my limited Espanol with the locals (90 percent of whom seemed to speak English). Some of the shopkeepers in Ponce on whom I practiced looked at me like I was loco, though.
Again, most people were surprisingly welcoming. One beautiful teen girl stood in the hotel lobby bathroom and engaged me in conversation for 20 minutes!
Other than knowing it was an island in the Caribbean, I was pretty much dead wrong in my impressions of Puerto Rico. I hope sharing my experiences will enlighten others about this precious yet accessible gem.