I’m back from Puerto Rico and apologize for being lazy before I started blogging again. When I go on vacation it takes a while to decompress. But after spending several days in a row bumming around Old San Juan and sitting barefoot on the beach it takes yet another few days to ease back into my work routine.
I don’t have a travel essay for you, mostly because I don’t have a travel narrative to wrap one around. That was on purpose. I didn’t want this trip to be an adventure. I wanted to do very little of anything. So I that’s all I did.
I do, however, have some photos and nuggets of commentary.
When I first went to Quebec City a few years ago I was envious at what Canada had. Ooh, I thought. Why can’t we have a 400-year old European-looking American city? But we do. We have Old San Juan. Since Puerto Rico isn’t a state – even though it’s part of America – I often forget all about it. You’re looking at it, though. There it is: a 400-year old European-style American city. It’s not French, though, it’s Spanish, which is even better.
A cab driver told me about an executive from Intel he had just picked up from the airport. “This guy told me he had no trouble with immigration after he landed.”
“He flew here from the states?” I said.
“He flew here from the states,” he said and laughed. “It gets worse, though. I told him Puerto Rico is part of the United States so of course there was no immigration. I don’t think he understood. Next he asked me what kind of currency we use on the island.”
I’ll say this in a meager defense of the ignorant man from Intel. Puerto Rico doesn’t look or feel like the U.S. at all. It really is culturally Latin American. Except for the American-style shopping malls in the suburbs and the Miami-style hotels on the beach, it reminded more of Costa Rica than anywhere else.
Costa Rica does not, however, have much in the way of Spanish colonial architecture. The buildings and houses are mostly modern and block-like, just as they are in San Juan. But the walled city of Old San Juan is a jewel of narrow cobble-stoned streets, plazas, outdoor cafes, and wrought-iron balconies. If I ever decide to move to Puerto Rico, this is definitely where I will live.
Every single meal I had on the island was excellent. Not only are Puerto Ricans masters of their own Caribean-style cuisine, they invent ingenious experimental concoctions that don’t exist anywhere else. One restaurant in Old San Juan billed itself as Indo-Latino. But it was much more even than that. Dishes weren’t merely a fusion of Carribean and Indian food. They threw Middle Eastern and East Asian ingredients into the mix, too.
Shelly and I stayed at the Hotel Milano in Old San Juan. I don’t recommend it. Their Web site makes it look like it’s an okay place, but it’s as charmless as a hospital or a cruise ship. We should have stayed at El Convento. Now that’s a fine Spanish hotel. As you can guess, it was a convent back in the day. Unlike the Hotel Milano, the inside is as charming and warm as the outside.
Several outdoor cafes ring the plaza around the statue of Christopher Columbus.
But look closer. Not everyone is a fan of Columbus these days.
La Perla is said to be the most colorful slum in the world. That may be. But it looks to me like “slum” is a bit of an overstatement. I’ve seen some horrific Latin American slums in my day. The worst are in Guatemala and Mexico. Just looking at pictures of Brazilian favelas is enough to depress me. But La Perla is nothing like that. I wouldn’t say it’s a nice place. It’s basically a pile of houses wedged between the north wall of the old city, an old Spanish cemetary, and the Atlantic. It doesn’t appear on a single tourism map. But still. You’re looking at it right now. It doesn’t look any worse up close in real life. If this is still considered a slum, life is definitely better than it once was in Puerto Rico. There are many many worse places in the world than this.
Not only do I frequently forget that we have a 400-year old European-style city inside our borders, I also forget we have a tropical rain forest, too. This is El Yunque, known in English as the Carribean National Forest. It’s the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. (We do have a temperate rain forest, however – the only one in the world – on Washington state’s Olympic Penninsula.)
I’ve tromped around the rain forests and jungles of three Central American countries. Each is its own place. They’re dramaticaly different even though they’re all so close together. But they do have one thing in common: I swore that I would never camp overnight in a tent in any of them. I’m used to the temperate forests of the Pacific Northwest. Tropical forests are different; they are manifestly hostile. Razor-toothed crocodiles, malarial mosquitoes, flesh-ripping jaguars, poisonous snakes, and the vicious little biting insect bastards can have the place to themselves when I’m not on a day trip. El Yunque, though, isn’t like that at all. There are no crocodiles, no jaguars, no poisonous snakes, and no insects that I was aware of. There was enough shade from the sun that it was not even hot in midafternoon. I’d love to camp in that tropical paradise. I wished when I was there that I had a tent. It’s truly benign, and if Earth has an Eden it must be El Yunque.
The forest begins at sea level and rises to the top of a mountain. If you drive or walk all the way up you’ll pass through four distinct ecosystems as you rise in elevation. The top is so windy, so high, and so cool that the jungle aspect entirely vanishes and the trees are reduced to dwarfs.
Northwestern Puerto Rico is karst country. Karst is a rare land formation found only in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and the former Yugoslavia. The would-be flat landscape is violently scoured with gigantic sinkholes created by centuries of rain water dissolving the limestone.
Arecibo, the world’s largest radio telescope, was built at the bottom of one of those pits. It looks smallish in pictures, but it’s way too big to fit in a photograph. I’ve seen pictures of it before and had absolutely no idea how big it really is. I took one look at it and said “holy shit!” — a common reaction, I’m sure. The receiver alone is almost the size of a cruise ship.
The island of Culebra off the east coast of Puerto Rico is, in geologic terms, a part of the Virgin Islands. It is not what I would have expected in the Carribean. It doesn’t look or feel like the tropics. It looks and feels Mediterranean. El Yunque is only twenty miles away across the water. Somehow, apparently, it steals most of the rain that would otherwise fall on Culebra.
There’s only one town on Culebra. Officially its name is Dewey, named after Admiral George Dewey in the Spanish-American war. The locals defiantly call the town Puebla. But don’t take that the wrong way. They’re sweet and hospitable people. If they harbor a grudge against gringos and yanks they sure do know how to hide it.
The “mainland” island is unbelievably crowded. If you want to get away from it all, go to Vieques. And if Vieques is too much for you, to go Culebra. The island is small. You can walk across it the long way in an afternoon. You can walk across it the short way in only an hour. The one town of Dewey/Puebla is miniscule. There are no large hotels and no corporate chain restaurants or stores of any kind. It’s more laid back and lethargic than even Belize.
The most popular bar is Mamacita’s. Everyone who works there is an “expat.” (I’m putting “expat” in quotes because Culebra is a part of the United States. But it’s culture is so distinctly Latin American it feels as foreign as anywhere in South or Central America.)
The Travel Channel recently named Flamenco Beach the second most beautiful in the world. (The single most beautiful supposedly is in Hawaii.) Well, they ought to know. They’ve been to plenty more beaches than I have. Flamenco Beach is certainly the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. The waves are gentle, the water is turquoise, the shape is a perfect horseshoe. The sand is soft and white. Best of all, it’s a Carribean beach with almost no people on it at all. It almost didn’t even seem real. How could such a beautiful place be so empty of people? I felt like a lucky bastard to be there, and I doubt its seclusion will last. (I realize I am not helping by posting about it.)
If Flamenco Beach ever does get too crowded you can always go to Isla Culebrita’s Playa Tortuga. That’s where you go when you’re sick of “the crush” on Culebra and really want to get away from it all. It’s an island off the coast of an island off the coast of an island. It is totally uninhabited and will likely remain so for a very long time. The Carribean may be crowded, but it isn’t yet full.
Thanks to Mary and Jeremy for filling in for me while I lazily bumming around far from my laptop.
(All images copyright Michael J. Totten)