San Jaun, PR: Where so many speak Spanish, you think you’re in California.
Planning a vacation in a foreign land can really be a pain, what with finding lost passports, figuring out currency exchange rates, and overcoming language problems (ours). Frankly, it sometimes makes sense to not even bother. That’s how we ended up spending a week in the not-so-exotic — but still technically foreign — Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
We thought going to a US commonwealth would make for an easy, relaxing getaway, but apparently United Airlines didn’t get the memo. After our red-eye to Washington/Dulles touched down, we were cheerfully informed that “the local time was 7:30 am.”
Tired and bleary-eyed from trying to sleep in legroom-free Economy Class seating, we changed the time zone on our watches in accordance and listened for our departing gate which they said was D2. While relaxing at Gate D2, it slowly dawned on us that something was wrong. As it turned out, two things were wrong — the time and our gate number. The flight to Puerto Rico had left an hour earlier from a different gate.
At the United Airlines customer service desk, a very pleasant agent assured us, quite happily, that she could book us both through Atlanta on an American flight later that day. A fine plan, it seemed, until she added, “for $500 a piece.”
I went whiter than I already was (if that’s even imaginable). What followed could best be described as anguished wailing and the gnashing of teeth. It wasn’t pretty, but it got the attention of the customer service manager, a man who appeared to us from out of a blindingly luminous white light, amongst the fluttering release of white doves and a chorus of singing angels.
Upon hearing our desperate plight, Saint Vincent spake saying: “Verily, thee shall bed in Puerto Rico anon! Let’s get thee kind folks to yon destination o’er night!” or words to that effect. A few hours later, we arrived at our hotel having spent a full 24 hours en route. From this point, we felt, things could only improve.
Needless to say, our first day in Puerto Rico — Spanish for “Rich Port” — started out a bit late. After a noon Starbucks run, we drove our tiny Hyundai Brio rental car to Old San Juan and followed a walking tour of the town from a guidebook we’d brought along.
Starting from the pier/cruise-ship port on the North East side of the island, we followed the guide’s directions past a tourist-friendly collection of t-shirt and tchotchke shops interspersed between a variety of American chain restaurants.
Walking clockwise around the island, we immediately approached Fort Morro, an imposing protective military structure along the exposed Eastern coast of the island. Originally built in the 1500s by Spain, the fort’s walls are 15-feet thick in parts and extend nearly around the entire island country. The ancient stone complex has stood mostly intact despite 500 years of near-constant invasions from the Spanish, British and Dutch, and ultimately the Americans. Much of the wall still stands tall, silently mocking Puerto Rico’s less timeless structures such as the crumbling hotel/resort in which we stayed.
Strategically, Puerto Rico is poised at the Eastern entrance of the Caribbean trade routes, and was a primary battlefront for warring nations. Spain wanted Puerto Rico for its access to Mexico and South America’s rare spices and minerals. America, conversely, wanted access to its valuable unsigned professional baseball players and good-looking pop-music entertainers.
Continuing around the island, we came upon a cemetery located on some primo beach-front property just outside the fort walls. Certainly, the plots had a view anyone would die for. Ba-da-bing! Thank you, don’t forget to tip the wait staff…
Past the cemetery, there were a number of weather-beaten houses with the same stunning views of the azure water and sunny skies. Houses that would no doubt be in better repair and prohibitively pricey were they not outside the Great Wall and nakedly exposed to invading forces, hurricanes, and probably pirates, too.
By the time we reached a smaller fort closer to the center of Old San Jaun, the sun was baking us like sweet, gooey plantains. So we ducked into the Berlin Cafe for a raspberry frappe, a tunafish sandwich and their apparently nuclear powered central air-conditioning. Once we had hypothermia at bay, we walked around OSJ some more to take in its old-world charm.
The colorfully painted narrow houses and even narrower streets reminded us of European cities. Even the streets themselves were charming — many made from beautiful blue stones originally used as ballast on visiting ships. And around every corner we found interesting shopping, decent restaurants and quaint cafes tucked away. If you dropped a Frenchman here, he might understandably believe he was in France. (Of course, if you dropped him from high enough, he might believe he was Napoleon, too. Just food for thought.)
Though our hotel was right on the beach at Isle Verde, we found that the pool bar served beer, so we spent more time there. Unfortunately, so did a lot of fat, sweaty Americans — primarily from the Tri-State area — and their loutish kids. Still, the 80+ climate made it hard to be bothered by anything or anyone. Unlike the harsh, stabbing sun of the South Western and Pacific Coast states, the Caribbean sun is soft and welcoming, like the embrace of a beautiful Puerto Rican woman. Except one that doesn’t yell quite as much.
We wanted to get a true sense of the Puerto Rican culture, we drove to Plaza Las Americas, a mall so enormous we were surprised by how hard it was to find. Despite being a US commonwealth, the country’s Spanish-language signage made the roads a little tough to navigate at times. Plus, the local driving style didn’t help either. Unlike American highways, the flow of traffic in PR rarely exceeded 60mph. Yet people still somehow managed to drive aggressively at the same time.
They took insane risks, such as crossing into your lane without signaling. Driving on the highway shoulder. And worse, letting tourists drive Hyundai Brio’s on highways. Whenever I drive in a different country, I am constantly impressed with man’s endless capacity to needlessly endanger his own life and the lives of others. If you need evidence that man wasn’t Intelligently Designed, just drive in a different country than your own.
We made it back to the hotel, barely, and made reservations at Pamela’s for dinner that night. Hidden away behind gates in the posh residential Ocean Park area, Pamela’s was by far the best restaurant we visited in Puerto Rico. After a delicious meal, we tried to walk off our lamb sirloin and chocolate creme brulee but, frankly, the beach wasn’t that long. So we went home to sleep instead.
It was days later and we still couldn’t seem to wake up before noon, but did manage to drive out Route 3 to El Yonque, the island’s rainforest. Forty minutes into the trip, we passed the turn-off and had to double back to find the barely marked Route 191. The road meandered up into the mountains to an architecturally impressive Visitor’s Center with soaring white buttresses overgrown with lush foliage. Inside the modern, open-air structure, we viewed a movie about the rainforest narrated by Jimmy Smits, a local boy made good. Let’s just say the movie’s plot was thin and predictable and the character development, non-existent. (It was, to be blunt, not his best work.)
Venturing further up the mountain, we stopped at a tall, stone tower for a panoramic view of El Yonque. We fully intended to hike up to a second, even higher tower beyond where the road finally ended, but an exhausted couple coming back down informed us that the hike took an hour each way. With rain clouds looming, we decided instead to drive back down to the Mina falls. We parked and stumbled down the long, rocky steps into the deep forest. Twenty minutes later, we were staring up at an 80-ft high waterfall. It was hardly Niagara, mind you, but it made the nearby La Coco falls look like a kid peeing.
Back on Route 3, we turned Estes (or East) towards Loquillo Beach, supposedly one of the prettiest beaches in the area. The town itself was a small beach community cluttered with brightly colored, but shanty-esque houses. The streets angled and twisted in ways too difficult for me to fathom, but we eventually found the beach…accidentally. It didn’t seem all that much nicer than the one at Isla Verde or Condado, but it was more deserted; not surprising, since the water at Loquillo was nigh impossible to find without a divining rod.
We hung out awhile, but hunger soon got the better of us, so we went looking for a local dive. For some reason, nothing was open at 3pm. So we headed back out to Route 3 and ate the only place open: the descriptively named Taco Maker fast food chain. Loquillo seemed much like the surfer communities in the US, where the quality of the cuisine comes in a distant second to that of the surf.
The remains of the day were spent poolside making plans to make up for not having lunch plans. So we got reservations for an “authentic” Puerto Rican dinner at the oft-recommended and highly rated restaurant, Ajili-Mójili. And it sucked. Spectacularly so.
For starters, the menu had advertisements in it. Yes, I said advertisements. Yes, on the menu. In a “fine dining” establishment. That is correct. But what’s worse, the waiters’ shirts had Coca-Cola logos on them. Call me crazy, but I believe a restaurant should live or die on the quality of its food and not the effectiveness of its ad sales manager. And this “restaurant” doesn’t deserve to live.
Yet, after reading a few ads, we decided on a sampling of supposedly local dishes, and judging from the resulting fare, the locals must eat a lot of TV dinners. The “food” arrived instantaneously and simultaneously, literally swamping our small table with greasy fare. The salad was acceptable, but in no way interesting, unique or probably even authentic. The cod was quite nasty. And the fritters were deep-fried disasters. At least I think they were salad, cod and fritters. But I couldn’t be sure, as the impatient waiter never bothered to explain which of the unidentifiable dishes was which. So it may have been the fritters that were nasty and the cod that was a deep-fried disaster. Either way, it wasn’t good.
Wisely, the waiter rushed us through the meal — probably so we wouldn’t have time to realize how bad the food tasted — but more likely, because it was 9:30pm and the restaurant closed at ten (permanently, I hoped). Do yourself a favor and go to Pamela’s instead. Twice.
Since we bore easily, we packed up our little Hyundai Brio the next day and drove I-22 Oestre (West) into the middle of Puerto Rico to the Camuy Caves. In addition to this natural wonder, we hoped to have time to see a man-made wonder as well; namely, the world’s largest radio telescope.
The journey to the caves took a little under two hours, but then we had to wait another hour for the tram to take us down into the center of the earth and to what was surely the dank denizen of the Morlocks. Actually, a 5-story deep, 100-meter diameter sinkhole which is the entrance to the Camuy Caves.
Inside the enormous, all-encompassing darkness of the Underworld, it was refreshingly cool and damp. The only illumination came from electric lighting installed when it became a tourist attraction in the 90s. In the 1960s, an American couple had visited the site and lobbied unsuccessfully to get the government to turn it into a national preserve. Instead of giving up, they bought the land themselves and, 30 years later, sold it to the government who by then had wised up to the cave’s potential for drawing the bat-loving and/or light-sensitive tourist crowd.
From Camuy, we piloted the wheezing Brio up yet another, seemingly endless, mountain road to the Arecibo Observatory, operated for by Cornell University. (You may remember this famous radio telescope from such films as “Contact” starring Jodie Foster, and “Goldeneye,” starring Pierce Brosnan.) Thanks to huge, natural gaping holes in their mountainside, local scientists were able to stretch metal reflecting panels across a 300-meter cavity and let the whole assemblage sag into a parabolic dish shape, perfect for concentrating and magnifying any radio signals from outer space. Epic in scale and scope, this monstrous dish represents Man’s best hope of receiving messages and television sitcoms from other galaxies. Sadly, it’s being decommissioned.
By the time we got back to Isla Verde, we’d had our fill of pseudo-authentic Puerto Rican food and just wanted something normal. We finally found some Italian food at Cafe Tuscany, a restaurant inside the Condado Marriot. It wasn’t great by any means, but the menu offered several non-meat based entrees, and for that, our colons were grateful.
The rest of the trip consisted of varying combinations of sun, sand, food and, of course, drink. And during these sunnier, essentially motionless hours, I had time to think about this commonwealth.
Certainly, the island has a lot going for it — great weather, a rich history and Medallion Beer. But it has a lot going against it, too — U.S. fast-food chains, shopping malls and Ricky Martin. So in the end, it’s a wash. And we didn’t learn enough about the political climate there to know if statehood would be good or bad for Puerto Ricans. But we did learn that if you’re a lazy American looking for a tropical getaway, you could do a lot worse than Puerto Rico. Fort Lauderdale, for one.