Spanish and English are the official languages in Puerto Rico. Wikipedia says that Spanish still predominates. A slight understatement. Many folk don’t speak English at all. I can get by with my rusty Spanish in the supermarket ‘donde este…’ but trying to track down a covid test is much trickier. Everything on the internet is in Spanish. Thank God for Google Translate
Food in Puerto Rico has its own identity too. Mofongo, fried pickled plantain is the unofficial national dish, and the official one is arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas). Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of seafood. Snapper. Delicious prawns in coconut sauce or garlic sauce and a marinaded pork chop called a Kan Kan, which is a huge semi circular slice - a meat mohawk. Most of it is served in the open air, because of Covid and the weather. Which means I have to battle the flies and the beady eyed great tailed grackles (great name for these very common birds) looking for their share. And of course - empanadas - the Spanish version of the Cornish pasty.
Puerto Rico's (self imposed) nickname is Island of Enchantment, in deference to the gorgeous scenery. There's plenty to entertain and fabulous mountains, forests and 270 miles of beaches to enjoy. Puerto Rico has three bioluminescent bays - Mosquito is recognised as the brightest in the world. I went to:
Anguilla boasts that it has the best beaches on the Caribbean. And that’s a mighty boast. It has 33 of them. So my task is to check out this claim. I'm coming from Puerto Rico, which makes this territory number 234 and the last country in the Caribbean, that I haven't visited.
Anguilla was first called Malliouhana, meaning rainbow, which was what the Carib Indians called the isle before the Spaniards visited. It's thought that Anguilla was first colonised by English settlers from St Kitts in 1650, who grew tobacco. There were the usual skirmishes with the French, who took control a couple of times. Tobacco was supplanted by sugar and then by cotton and slaves were imported from Africa to work the crop.
During the early colonial period, Anguilla was administered by the British through Antigua;. But in 1825, it was placed under the administrative control of St Kitts and eventually, Anguilla was federated with St Kitts and Nevis in 1882. The Anguillans were very unhappy about this and remonstrated forcibly over succeeding decades. There were marches- apparently, with women and children at the front, to deter retaliation. At one point a republic was even declared. The rebellion was quelled by British troops in 1969, concerned that the other alternative was government by the USA. Anguilla was finally allowed to secede and became first a colony and then a British Overseas Territory.
I’m beginning to think that Anguilla doesn’t want me. Talk about going down to the wire. Visit Anguilla explains that you need a permission certificate to enter. You should email in plenty of time before your visit to obtain initial approval and then get a Covid test and upload it to their portal. After you have got initial approval. They will check this, confirm you have final approval and you pay 50 dollars for yet another test on arrival. You can take a PCR up to five days beforehand or a rapid antigen test 48 hours before the plane lands.
But you’re not allowed to get a PCR on Puerto Rico, where I am, without a doctor’s referral. Receptionists hint that this can be bought. But I'm not up for bribery. I get my antigen test 47 hours and 55 minutes before my scheduled arrival time. And upload it to the visit Anguilla portal. But I haven’t even had my initial approval yet. You certainly can’t wait to book flights until you’ve got that. My flight is on Sunday. Moreover, it’s closing time on Friday and the tourist office online says it doesn't operate on Saturday and Sunday. This is going to be interesting - and stressful.
My initial approval arrives at noon the next day, Saturday. Followed by a final approval at 3 pm that afternoon. I suppose it could have been worse.
The traditional route used to be to fly to Sint Maarten (which from the UK usually involves Antigua first) and then get the ferry over from outside the airport. I was going to make a day trip to Anguilla from Marigot Bay, when I was in St Martin. But the ferry was cancelled, due to bad weather. So here I am trying again. But now they’ve extended the runaway on the tiny airport (Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport - AXA) and jets, carrying up to 80 or so passengers, can fly in. But most of the traffic is smaller passenger flights from neighbouring islands. Or private planes. This is, for the most part, a clientele with money. My flight from Puerto Rico is with Tradewind Aviation. We have our own lounge, with food and drink, and our own departure channel. They’ve even given me a beach bag to use on board. It’s an eight passenger Pilatus 12- everyone gets a window seat. The other seven seats on my plane are taken up by a New York family. And we zip over the US Virgin Islands and then the British Ones. Very nice.
The territory's capital is The Valley. Right in the centre of the island, it’s home to about a thousand of Anguilla’s’ 15.000 people. There’s not much to see, because Anguilla was administered by St Kitts for much of the colonial period. There are the ruins of the Old Court House on Crocus Hill, the island's highest point (there’s very little left.) and The Wallblake House, a plantation home built around 1787, that is now owned by the Catholic Church (the parish priest lives there). However, next door’s St. Gerard's Catholic Church and chapel, with its unusual façade: pebbles, stones, cement, wood and tile is extremely photogenic.
My hotel has a great location, above Sandy Ground Bay. It’s a fairly flat island and this is one of the higher points. I can see south across the sea to St Martin and north to Road Bay, more hills separated from us by the sandspit that is Sandy Ground Beach, backed by a large salt pond.
The rooms are lovely and the staff ultra friendly. The restaurant meals are exceptionally tasty – grouper, snapper, shrimp with creamy mashed potato. But there is no menu, no pudding and only a few guests dining. All very strange. I think everyone is coming to terms with Covid. The island has only been re-opened for a month or so.
The first beach, Sandy Ground, is just below my hotel. It involves a scramble down a sand and gravel path, to a gorgeous stretch of sand, azure water and no-one else at all .....just two wrecked boats clinging to the bottom of the cliffs. The isolated part of the beach is divided from what seems to be a much busier section of bay by two piers.
Access beyond a new, large concrete jetty, is barred by barricades and signs telling me that this area is under development and I may not enter. So I sneak through a gap, on the bulldozed hard hat area, and wonder what’s going on. I do hope it’s not a cruise boat terminal. Onto the road the other side and saunter the long way to the rest of the beach. The bay here is covered in bobbing boats and there are several shacks and bars alongside the water. Some of them are even open.
Many of the locals’ houses are in the same condition as the roads. Most of them look unfinished, with cables protruding from the roof. Maybe that’s to avoid tax on completed buildings. They’re in contrast to the secluded modern plate glass apartments and carefully blended in resort style hotels. Anguilla is expensive, despite the fact it’s so low key. All the food has to be imported and it attracts a high end clientele. St Barths is where you go up you want to be seen and Anguilla is where you go if you want to hide away. Apparently.
The remaining 32 beaches necessitate a car. ‘Hurrah’, I think I’m back to driving on the left. Except they’ve given me a car with an American configuration. The roads are narrow, quiet and in bad condition. There are nevertheless traffic lights and roundabouts. I’m navigating with my phone on my lap, again. Google isn’t up to Anguilla at all. The lady who tells you what to do thinks I’m driving on the right hand side of the road and the roundabout instructions are consequently all back to front. But not always, just to be totally confusing. She can’t tell the difference between unmade roads, which disappear into scrub and tarmacked routes and she’s certainly not up to date with the one way streets. And there are no signposts at all. Catastrophe.
Crocus Bay Beach, below Crocus Hill, is the nearest beach to the Valley. It’s picturesque, with more of the gorgeous soft white sand and ultra clear water, but this time the cliffs form more of an arc. There’s an upscale hotel restaurant, Da Vida, that lets you use the beach beds free if you eat there. The staff are attentive too. But I’m not going to recommend it, as I got very nasty food poisoning, after partaking of ribs and a pina colada. It wiped out the rest of my time in Anguilla. And cost me 825 US Dollars.
Shoal Beach, on the north east coast, pushes the accolades even further. It’s billed as one of the best beaches in the world. Perhaps it deserves a place on my top 20. It is stunning. The softest of white sand and swirling turquoise and sapphire seas . But the ocean hasn’t quite the same magical quality as the Bahamas. Not too crowded, a few beach bars. Some high end hotels. A five dollar car park. If I knew the roads better I would have found the little free park the locals use.
What better way to spend a day? I’ve found a shady nook and thrown my towel and sarong onto the grass to stop them getting too sandy. Sadly, this is no ordinary grass. It’s armed with wicked little burrs that attach themselves to my garments and are utterly tenacious. They impale my feet if I step on them and cling to my hands as I attempt to remove them. It takes an hour. And now my fingers are sore and full of splinters.
Next up on the East End is Island Harbour. This is a fishing village and the bay is dotted with colourful small boats. Palm trees line the shores and provide atmospheric shade. It’s compact and neat and in the background the Scilly Cay – a small resort island.
Captain’s Bay Beach is also recommended as a perfect curve of sand. This is where Google really lets me down. I follow the north east coast road until it becomes a dirt track and then a very rocky potholed dirt track. Google exhorts me to turn right, but there is nothing to the right, except a rocky bush covered hill. I’m not risking that, and I’ve come to a dead end. I can see Captain’s Bay in the distance and beyond that the whole of the eastern tip of the island. That will have to do. It’s extremely perilous, trying to turn the car on the sloping track.
A trundle three miles west from Sandy Ground to, appropriately enough, the West End and Meads Bay. It’s an even wider version of Shoal Bay, with no shacks (except for posh restaurants with Shack in their name) a line of expensive villas, restaurants and resorts set well back from the water, so that they don’t intrude. More prominent, right on the headland, is the Four Seasons Resort. The west end is definitely the poshest part of town.
I’m ensconced on a sunbed right by the water that belongs to the Straw Hat restaurant in the Frangipani Resort. They’re free if you eat there. I’ve been given a flag to signal with if I desire anything. Paradise. My servant is, appropriately, named Angel.
The Four Seasons monopolises Barnes Bay, on the other side of its headland. This has slightly more golden squishy sand, but with rocky islet interest. Further west it’s quiet, though there are several more fancy resorts and villas.
South now. The crescent of white sand that constitutes Maunday’s Bay is exquisite. Possibly a contender for best beach in Anguilla. Except that it’s completely overtaken by the very swish Cap Juluca Resort. All beaches in Anguilla are free and they’ve let my car in on the resort road when I say I’m going to the beach. But I don’t suppose the sunbeds are free and it all looks very manicured and exclusive. I feel I’m intruding. It’s not for me.
The other side of the Cap Juluca Resort is Cove Bay. This is a total contrast. Sheltered, but wild and uninhabited. No buildings, just a broken concrete pier.
Beyond Cove Bay is Rendezvous Bay. This one is the longest Anguillan beach. It faces the island of St. Martin, nine miles away, and Grand Case, where I stayed when I was there. White sandy shores surrounded by palm trees, coconut trees and wild sea grape trees. Lovely, but lined with tastefully whitewashed villas and resorts and with slightly less character. There’s a fun bar, Dune, a labyrinth of decks, live music and a boat called Ganja.
The men in Anguilla are sadly still living in a different century. I’m hit on from the moment I get into the taxi from the airport. ‘Hi lovely.’ wafts down the street after me and the chef in the hotel restaurant won’t leave me alone. He pulls up a chair and rattles on while I’m eating, telling me how wonderful he is and what a shame I have an (invented) husband. It’s definitely a shame, as the food is delicious. But I’m going to have to find somewhere else to have my dinner.
I’ve read that the snorkelling in Anguilla is not great, but there are trips on boats on offer and some bays are said to be worth exploring. However, there’s a relatively strong easterly throughout my trip and boats don’t seem to be running. So I’ve give snorkelling a miss.
I’ve managed to cover all the main beaches on the island. Best beach in the world or even the Caribbean? I’m not so sure. But best beaches, as a collection, in the Caribbean, undoubtedly. They’re all utterly gorgeous.
I’m very sad to leave this beautiful and friendly island. Especially, as my beach time has been cut short by my illness. This time it’s an 80 passenger E170 back to Miami and home.
From San Juan, to the opposite - south west - corner of Puerto Rico. I'm searching for the scenery that gives Puerto Rico the nickname of The Enchanted Isle. I'm particularly excited about hunting down some gorgeous beaches.
I’ve booked a hire car through an agent in the UK and I order an Uber to take me to the pick up office, opposite the air port. It’s a seedy dilapidated area. And I’m deposited, after some difficulty in finding the address, outside a shuttered building. The Uber departs and it quickly becomes obvious that thus branch of SIXT is no longer functioning. There’s even a post lady with a little van complaining that she has no forwarding address. Several phone calls later, another Uber is summoned and I’m off to the other side of the airport and the new office. They’ve been there four months they say. You would think they would have told people, including the post office, by now.
The toilets for clients aren’t working and they haven’t picked up the flashing tyre pressure indicator on my Nissan Versa either. There’s no GPS and no GPS connection with my phone. So I’m having to navigate with my mobile balanced on my knee. I’m not in the best of moods.
I’m taking the toll highway. I’ve been warned that Puerto Rican roads through the mountains are narrow and precipitous, with no guard rails. I don’t think they sound like a good idea, as I’m GPS lap driving. Fortunately, Google’s directions are easy to follow. The road surface is mainly good, but even the toll road is subject to the odd pothole.
And the measuring systems here are even more confused than those in the UK. Speed signs and speedometers give miles per hour. The distance makers alongside the roads are all in kilometres.
The mountain scenery down to Ponce (guess who that’s named after) is stunning. Though there is no stopping place en route as far as I can see, so no chance to enjoy it or take photos. And all the signposting is in Spanish. Maybe there are directions to filling stations and rest areas. As far as I can see you just have to go exploring down a slip road if you need something.
My hotel is on the outskirts of La Parguera, a port to the south of Lajas. There’s much more of a colourful Caribbean vibe down here. The town is dotted with brightly painted timber bars and booths. But it’s quiet. Much is still closed. The supermarket has little of interest. No fresh fruit or vegetables. Or fresh deli for that matter. So it’s ice cream for dinner. And breakfast. The hotel restaurant is closed two days a week as well. But the bar is open, so I can still get cocktails to go with the ice cream.
There are a line of boats on the pier at La Parguera, waiting to sail visitors through the mangroves to the reefs and little cays dotted off shore. Snorkelling off one of the cays is on offer, as are trips to the nearby Bioluminescent Bay. So a combination of the two seems like a good idea. The snorkelling isn’t magnificent, but there is some fan coral and a smattering of fish. The other 19 folk on the boat are all Americans with no idea of snorkelling etiquette. I’m battered and bruised.
The Bioluminescent Bay is warm, but still moonlit – and pitch dark is required to see the glow properly. Boats are moored alongside each other to try and create some cover. We swim though, in our masks. Funnelling around 40 folk, with no sense of decorum is fraught. but there are green firework like specks to be seen radiating through the water and filmy swirls around hands and feet.
There’s no beach though - even though the hotel blurb says it’s near one. I’ve read that Playita Rosada is a six minute drive away. But no, this man made pool and decked area is closed off. The nearest decent seashore is a 30 minute drive away.
So, I’m off searching for the elusive sand. I’ve looked up the best beaches in Puerto Rico and headed for Boquerón, on the west coast. As usual, I’ve forgotten that I’m driving on the right this morning, until I spot a car coming towards me on the same side of the road. But, in my defence, the Puerto Ricans don’t seem to drive on any particular side of the road for the most part. In their defence, the country highways are narrow and drivers have to be constantly vigilant for the potholes, taking last minute action to avoid them.
The drive is worth it. Playa Buye, just to the north of Boquerón, is deservedly on the list. White sand, dappled turquoise water, patchwork casuarina trees and iguanas. Utterly gorgeous. And it deserves more than one visit. Except the restaurant here is closed on Tuesday too. What is it with Tuesdays and eating?
It seems that beaches here tend to be accessed via paths through beach resorts. A captive clientele. Except that most of the visitors in this part of the island are locals. They’ve brought picnics in cool boxes. There’s even a guy with a trolley who helps roll the picnics and deckchairs down to the beach from the car park.
It’s 26 degrees Celsius. Perfect for me, though the locals think it’s cold. Blissful sunbathing, except for the mosquitoes. All my hotel rooms here are plagued with the tiny no-see- ums. I’m covered in bites by Day 2 and stuffing antihistamines. The day on my beach begins in relatively tranquil fashion. But others obviously rate the beach highly too. There’s a steady procession of sun worshippers and the sand fills up. The locals kindly share their soundboxes. And behind me there’s the relentless squeaking of a metal detector.
Next on the list, Boquerón town beach. This too is accessed through a resort . Though the gates are barred to cars and guarded. It’s a long strip of golden sand, but it’s browner, a little more concretey, backed by a few buildings. Nowhere near as pretty as Buye.
Further south still, El Combate. Another small town and another long stretch of pretty sand, softened by low bushes. I’ll rate this one number 2.
Down to the tip of Cabo Rojo (Red Cape) area, crossing a wild life refuge. On the way, Las Salinas de Cabo Rojo. Heaps of salt, alongside flat rectangular evaporation lakes. The salt pans beautifully reflect the clouds in rosy hued seawater. The route follows a narrow spit down to the lighthouse, El Faro Los Morrillos. Here the land widens into a small horseshoe at the bottom of the peninsula. This is called, slightly confusingly, Rojo Cabo. It’s a rough ride. Increasingly huge potholes more like craters, along the spit eventually give way to a horribly bumpy stretch, with no surface at all. It’s like being in an earthquake.
The lighthouse is closed, of course, but the scramble, up to the top of the cliffs forming the horseshoe, delivers a great view down the 200 foot cliffs to the jagged stacks and pillars beneath. To the east, an impressive headland and the long curve of white sand that is Playa Sucia. The sea inlets behind have turned it into a tombolo, almost surrounded by water. It’s a good place to go if you want seclusion. Initially, I bump El Combate down to three and make this number two. It’s lovely, but it’s a ten minute hike from the car park. No men with trolleys here. And definitely no restaurants.
But after spending all day on Buye, perhaps it should be promoted to number one.
Trying to track down a covid test is tricky. And I need one to get into Anguilla. It seems that you can’t get a PCR for travelling at all on Puerto Rico. They are only done on a doctors referral. Antigen tests have to be done no more than 48 hours before arrival. It’s all very disconcerting.
Last time I came to Puerto Rico it was a forced stop at the airport at San Juan, as my Avianca plane had developed an engine fault en route to Bogota and then Ecuador. It was the middle of the night and we weren't allowed to leave the airport (which was closed anyway). so, I'm finally back for a proper look. And I'm surprised. Puerto Rico is a fascinating mish mash of Spanish Colonial heritage, American culture, jungle, mountain scenery and glorious beaches.
About 80% of the population of Puerto Rico lives and works in the metropolitan area of San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. San Juan was founded by the Spanish colonists in 1521, That makes it the third oldest European-established capital city in the Americas, after Santo Domingo and Panama City, in Panama. It is also the oldest European-established city under United States sovereignty. The Spaniards originally called it Ciudad de Puerto Rico (City of Puerto Rico).
The old city was built on the western half of a small island called the Isleta de San Juan, today connected to the mainland by two bridges and a causeway. My Air BNB guest house is slap bang in the middle of this area. I’m really glad I’ve waited to hire a car. The streets are jampacked and on Sunday afternoon nose to tail with day trippers’ vehicles. I can walk everywhere from here.
Massive fortifications. – walls and forts - surround a large part of the island city. This is the Malta of the Caribbean. The biggest forts are run by the American National Parks Service. They’re in charge of the trail that leads round the headland below the walls. There are great views across to the mainland and balmy breezes turning into bracing wake you up winds as I head north to the Atlantic coast. The path clearing volunteers have also taken on the care of the city’s stray cats. There are hundreds of them emerging from the bushes, mewing hopefully.
The key fortifications are the sprawling sixteenth-century Fort San Felipe del Morro, with its lighthouse and green spaces on the headland - kite (chiringo) flying is popular here in the ocean breezes - and the seventeenth-century Fort San Cristóbal, defending the hinterland. They are both part of the national Parks San Juan National Historic Site. Countless picturesque turrets demand to be photographed, not to mention gates, the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, with its red domed church located just outside the city walls and La Princesa, the former jail.
There’s also the 16th-century El Palacio de Santa Catalina, known as La Fortaleza, but that now serves as the governor's mansion and the police won’t let you close enough to get a good look. That maybe because there were riots here not so long ago. The street used to have canopy of umbrellas but they were all burnt during the demonstrations
The very narrow streets in the enclosed city are a tasteful grey - blue rectangular cobblestone (Farrow and Ball would be proud) . They are edged with pastel houses, shops and bars. It’s very atmospheric. The balconies are festooned with Father Christmases and Wise Men, all mixed indiscriminately together. There’s clearly no edict here about taking your decorations down by January 6th.
There are statues of Christopher Columbus, it goes without saying. There’s also the elaborate façade of the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (construction began in the 1520s, it was destroyed in a hurricane and rebuilt in 1540). It contains the tomb of the Spanish explorer and settlement founder Juan Ponce de León. He was a volunteer on Columbus’ second expedition, led the first exploration of Florida and searched fruitlessly, for the Fountain of Youth. Nevertheless, he wound up, very rich, as governor of Puerto Rico. I saw Ponce de Leon's statue, standing in a square close by, but since I got home, it's been toppled.
Other buildings of interest predating the 20th century are the Ayuntamiento or Alcaldía (San Juan City Hall), the Diputación Provincial and the Real Intendencia buildings, which house the Puerto Rico Department of State (the Casa Rosa), the pretty San José Church (1523- the second oldest church structure in existence in the Americas, and the oldest church in the Americas, still in use) and the adjacent Hotel El Convento ( the former house of the Ponce de León family, known as Casa Blanca), the Teatro Tapia, and the former Spanish barracks (now the Museum of Ballajá). Below the city walls, to the north, is La Perla, low cost housing for the original city workers. Latin music blasts out, as it does from most of the bars.
The other half of the Isleta hosts most of Puerto Rico's central government buildings, including the casino and the very grand Commonwealth Capitol Building. Puerto Rico is represented federally by just one non-voting member of the House, known as a Resident Commissioner. Puerto Rico has had its own governor since 1952 and its political status is a matter of ongoing debate.
Literally camped outside here are some flag waving anti vaccination protestors. Opposite, is the Walkway of Presidents. A line up of bronzes of all the presidents who have held sway over Puerto Rico. It stops at Obama. I’m wondering if they haven’t got round to Trump yet, or if they’re just not going to.
It’s a fascinating and surprising walk, San Juan might be the nicest city in the Caribbean. I had no idea.
Down the hill, to the south, gigantic cruise liners. line the bay between the island and the mainland. There have been a series of economic projects aimed at developing Puerto Rico into an industrial high-income economy. Tourism and hospitality, of course feature strongly. Whilst these have been successful 40 % of the population still live below the poverty line. (It’s 13% in mainland USA). The damage caused in 2017 by Hurricane Maria was extensive and an additional set back. Covid is clearly not helping.
Each side of the Isleta de San Juan are beach resort areas. Slightly grander ones to the west. I’m heading for Condado Beach to the east. It’s only a mile or so from the airport and has a long wide strip of deep golden brown sand . It’s exceptionally soft and deep. Hotels, apartment towers, bars and chain restaurants back the beach. I’m staying in a BnB in a Spanish style low slung house, in a small residential street. It's encircled by said high rise blocks. The beach is just up the road.
The burger joint I venture into has well over a 100 brands of beer. There are three columns on each side of the menu and a build your burger card, that takes about 10 minute to fill in. I’ve also tried an Argentinian steak house. Grilled short rib and Manchego ice cream. Both are excellent.
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