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The Independent - London
So, Ricky Martin, Where's The Action, Then?
San Juan is more crazy golf than crazy life. To find la vida loca on Puerto Rico, you have to look a little harder
By Simon Heptinstall
December 30, 2001
Never has a giant plastic water slide appeared more depressing. It weaved round the gaudy flowerbeds, dominating the view from my hotel bedroom. The sea? That was lurking in the distance behind a high- security fence. Peeping out from behind my pink curtains high up in a modern concrete tower block, first impressions of Puerto Rico were not good. I'd arrived full of expectation, having seen Latin popster Ricky Martin advertising his Caribbean home country on TV in America. I'd been excited, telling friends where I was going with a ludicrous emphasis on the trill of "Rrrrreeco".
My unspoken fantasy was of stepping into an island-wide Ricky Martin video. Beautiful Puerto Rican girls in ra-ra skirts would take my hand and teach me to salsa while sharply dressed Kid Creoles would dispense coffee, cigars and rum in equal measure.
Those dangerous daydreams were quickly dispelled as I arrived in the capital, San Juan. The coastal tourist strips either side of the airport, Isla Verde and Condado, look like Las-Vegas-by-the-Sea. There are wide, busy roads, tracts of dusty scrubland awaiting development and rows of huge air-conditioned American "resort hotels" with glitzy corporate decor. The beaches are patrolled by policemen on Harleys and the hotel beach gates are locked at 6pm. It seemed I could forget Ricky Martin's "crazy life". I'd have to settle for Nevada Bob's Crazy Golf instead.
As most Caribbean cruise passengers discover, San Juan does have a cutesy old town. They are bussed in in their thousands from the dockside to discover the island's Spanish heritage among the cobbled old streets of colourfully painted houses, cool courtyards, splashing fountains and flower-decked verandas. The vast El Morro fortress sticking out into the Atlantic is a World Heritage site with bastions, ramparts and gun emplacements. Despite this, I was smugly pleased to discover, it was once captured by Francis Drake who bypassed the defences thanks to the simple expedient of attacking on foot from the land side.
Once you get away from the sprawl of San Juan, Puerto Rico gets better and better. One of the prime attractions is the El Yunque rainforest park. I strolled through tabonuco and banana trees, coconut palms and colourful orchids as I made my way to a spectacular waterfall. Huge lizards scampered through the undergrowth, strange birds squawked overhead, but in true American style, the path was as well-maintained as the pavement outside my home.
The best way to see these distant bits of Puerto Rico is by car. The island is only 100 miles wide, roads are mostly good and traffic is light and well-behaved. Rental is cheap, from $180 (pounds 130) a week. The island is almost part of the US, with "commonwealth status ". This means there are lots of American tourists and English is widely spoken. Currency is the US dollar. It also means that Puerto Ricans enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. Most beaches have nets 25 yards offshore to keep swimmers safe from jet-skis and speedboats. There are plenty of clean toilets everywhere and there's no need for tropical jabs: Puerto Rico is as healthy as America.
Yet Americans I spoke to were worried about Puerto Rico's reputation for muggings. Many preferred to stay behind the barbed wire of their resort complexes. But I didn't have any problems wandering around alone, although the shanty district of La Perla is best avoided. A taxi driver told me: "I only go there if I've got my Magnum with me."
The reason for Puerto Rico's popularity with Americans is the fact that it's almost the same as being at home, but the island does have some of the Caribbean's best beaches and one of the most constant climates too - an average of 28C. The peak tourist season is between December and April, but this has more to do with the US mainland climate. The best time to avoid crowds is between May and November.
I left behind the Howard Johnsons, Ritz Carltons and Intercontinentals of the main resorts and headed for the simple paradors that dot the island, and provide inexpensive, characterful rooms from $50 a night. At the Hacienda Juanita, for example, a former coffee plantation high in the forest, my simple room without TV or phone cost $85 a night. There were solid wooden shutters on glass-less windows and a huge ceiling fan. I spent my evening in a cane rocking- chair under the veranda, dunking fried plantains in garlic butter and sipping Puerto Rican coffee topped up with rum. The owner said goodnight at midnight and left me with the keys to lock the bar.
One tiny glitch in the American dream of a Caribbean idyll is Puerto Rico's national sport : cock fighting. Every town has a fighting ring or gallera, varying from rough farm buildings to smart clubs serving food and drink. On a Sunday in the unfortunately named town of Ponce, I paid $5 to get into an all-day tournament where hundreds of men, women and children yelled bets as trained birds cut each other to ribbons with razors attached to their legs.
The highlight of the trip was the night I spent at La Parguera on the south coast. I hired a boat piloted by a moustachioed bar-owner called Roberto, whose grin displayed a row of shiny metal teeth. Once it was dark he ferried me between mangrove islands to a phosphorescent bay. Here the sea is full of harmless microscopic creatures called dinoflagellates. When disturbed, they emit a light, like millions of miniature electric eels. I floated in the dark warm sea, as if coated in neon. It was a surreal natural experience.
Roberto took me back to his corrugated iron waterfront bar where the night chorus of crickets, frogs and birds was drowned out by the Latin music from the juke-box. It could have been scary but somehow it was all innocent fun. There was a group of tourists and locals and something seemed to click in the atmosphere and we mucked about like schoolkids well into the early hours. At one point I felt my Ricky Martin fantasy was almost coming true as a beautiful Puerto Rican girl did indeed try to show me how to salsa. There was lots of laughing from locals but I think I got close in the end. The secret seemed to be to wiggle your hips, keep your shoulders steady ... and don't stop drinking.
Bridge the World (0870 444 7474, www.bridgetheworld.com) offers return flights to San Juann via Newark, New Jersey, for pounds 444.
Caribbean Islands Club (020 8568 8330 offers eight days for pounds 1,238 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, accommodation, car hire and transfers.