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.
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 that 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.
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…’ buy trying to track down a covid test is much trickier. Everything on the internt is in Spanish. Thank God for Google Translate. 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 distracting.
So, Puerto Rico is surprising and very rewarding. Anguilla next. If the test results come through…
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.
Puerto Rico (Spanish for 'Rich Port') is not just one island, but a Caribbean archipelago, officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. And it's an unincorporated territory of the United States. The islands, strategically situated on the trade winds route, were colonised by Spain as early as 1493, on Columbus’ second voyage. They were used as a vital harbour facility to establish their New World Empire.
Spanish rule led to the displacement and assimilation of the native population, the forced migration of African slaves, and settlement, primarily from the Canary Islands and Andalusia. The result is a very distinct Puerto Rican identity, a fusion of indigenous, African, and European elements lurking underneath American infrastructure.
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 Mediterranean. The largest 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 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 wound up 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) 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. The Spanish were forced to hand the islands over to the USA in 1898, after losing the Spanish-American War.
Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917, and can move freely between the island and the mainland. However, they cannot vote for the president or vice president and generally do not pay federal income tax. 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.
Next up - South Western Puerto Rico.......
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