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The Daily Telegraph
Travel - Puerto Rico
By Richard Newton
June 29, 2002
History is a many-layered thing. For the restorers of Old San Juan's Spanish-colonial buildings, which have stood through more than four centuries, the first dilemma is which layer to preserve.
Take the Hotel El Convento, rehabilitated in 1995. In previous lives it had been an austere Carmelite convent, a bordello, a depot for garbage trucks and an unsuccessful hotel owned by the Woolworth family. Each incarnation affected the fabric of the building and altered its spirit.
From the airy, tiled verandas overlooking the central courtyard, it is almost possible to hear the barefoot shuffle of the nuns, while traces of laughter from the ground-floor bar evoke more boisterous times. With a little imagination, you can choose your own era.
Old San Juan sits on a peninsula, with the Atlantic pounding the cliffs to the north and the splendid natural harbour of San Juan Bay spread gently to the south. King Philip II of Spain regarded the bay as the "key to the Indies", and it was wrangled over for centuries by the Spanish, French, British, Dutch and Americans. Defence became a way of life. Massive stone walls enfolded the settlement. The formidable El Morro Fort guarded the narrow approach into the bay, while San Cristobal Fort provided protection against assault from land.
San Juan's strategic significance has not gone unnoticed by modern cruise ship operators, for whom the port is second only to Miami as a hub for Caribbean voyages. A million passengers set foot here - briefly - each year. I have learnt to structure my days around their comings and goings.
In the cool of early morning, I explore the central labyrinth of cobbled streets and pastel-painted townhouses that extends for seven blocks in each direction. (Writing in 1596, the Earl of Cumberland declared San Juan to be "very much bigger than Portsmouth within the fortifications, and in sight much fairer".) The terrain descends steeply from north to south; a geographic circumstance that is soon felt in your calves. To relieve tourists of the full strain of the gradient, free trolleybuses trundle around the place in the heat of the day.
Farther along the coast, to the east, loom the high-rises of downtown San Juan and the brash resorts of Condado, Puerto Rico's answer to Miami Beach. All of that is a short taxi ride away, but it is another world.
I am content to remain here in the old city, drifting aimlessly along streets that are reminiscent of Havana, albeit a meticulously titivated version. People are hosing down the cobbles and sweeping the pavements, while waiters set out their alfresco tables. There is an air of anticipation at this time of day; a daily sense of impending arrival. By mid-morning, everything will change.
In San Juan Cathedral, adjacent to the El Convento, a handful of worshippers makes the most of the early calm. An elderly woman whispers a prayer at the marble tomb of Ponce de Leon, who established the first Spanish settlement here in 1511. That encampment was originally called Puerto Rico - Rich Port - but because of cartographic confusion the name was mistakenly applied to the entire island, and stuck.
By 9.30am, the first cruise ships turn purposefully landward. Within an hour, the place is bustling with holidaymakers in shorts and white trainers. In Calle Fortaleza, a street brimming
with souvenir shops and designer outlets, onboard public address announcements can be heard from the liners docked - four at a time - at the nearby terminal. English is suddenly the dominant language.
At dusk, the crowds thin markedly and the ships foghorn their valediction. After the anglophone interlude, Spanish returns and the inhabitants have their city back. "For 500 years we fight invaders," says Emilio, tending the till at a drugstore. "Now we let them in, take their money and send them back to sea by sunset. If you ask me, it is a damn good deal."
On my first evening, I watched the ships leave and felt like a castaway. Although Puerto Rico is a Commonwealth of the United States, in style and attitude it is firmly Latin American and I am an obvious gringo. That night I walked alone, passing crowded bars that seemed like parties I wasn't invited to.
In subsequent days, I ventured beyond San Juan and got to know the Puerto Rican hinterland. Most of the island (100 miles long and 35 miles wide) remains untouched by the cruise trade and I encountered few tourists. When I returned to the city each evening, I felt more rooted in the place.
By Saturday night - always a significant event for Puerto Ricans - I was at ease enough to join in. The crowds in the bars spilled out on to the streets, and salsa jangled in the balmy air. The revelry continued till dawn.
So here I am on my last evening, walking the battlements of El Morro. The castle is out on a limb, separated from Old San Juan by grassy parkland and signs declaring it to be United States territory (it is administered by the US National Parks Service).
From here I have an excellent panorama of the tight cluster of the old city, of the urban sprawl of modern San Juan (home to 1.6 million people; a third of the island's population), and of the six-storey metal distillation tower of the Bacardi rum distillery across the bay. I watch the sun set behind the distillery's chimney and take it as an auspicious omen for the night ahead.
Richard Newton flew to San Juan (via New York) courtesy of American Airlines (0845 778 9789, www.aa.com). His arrangements were co-ordinated by the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (www.caribbean.co.uk). He was a guest of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (www.gotopuerto rico.com).
In San Juan he stayed at Hotel El Convento (001 787 723 9020, www.elconvento.com); double rooms from £105 a night April-December. On the Caribbean coast he stayed at Parador Posada Porlamar (001 787 899 4015/4343, email posada @caribe.net); rooms from £60 a night - and at Bahia Salinas Beach Hotel (001 787 254 1212, www.pina colada.com/abahiahome.html); doubles from £60.
The forts of El Morro and San Cristobal (001 787 729 6960, www.nps. gov/saju) are open daily. Admission £2 for adults, free for children under 12. One ticket is valid for both forts.
The Caribbean National Forest (001 787 888 1810/1880, www.r8web.com/caribbean) is open 7.30am-5pm weekdays and 7.30am-6pm weekends. Admission free.
Guanica Biosphere Reserve (contact details sketchy) is open daily 9am-5pm. Admission free. A useful guide to the forest trails is available for a dollar from the park HQ.
Arecibo Observatory (001 787 878 2612, www.naic.edu) is open Wednesday-Friday, noon-4pm, and Saturday/Sunday, 9am-4pm. Admission £3 for adults and £1.50 for children and seniors. The SETI@home Programme (www.setiathome.
ssl.berkeley.edu) enables PC users to download a screensaver to help process data gathered by the Arecibo telescope.
Miguel Perez's carnival masks are for sale in souvenir shops in Ponce and San Juan.
`We're searching for a universe of possibilities'
There is something out there. Columbus was convinced of it and his faith was vindicated by the discovery of new lands, including Puerto Rico. At Arecibo, two hours west of San Juan, the journey into the unknown continues, focusing on the stars.
Jose Alfonso, the education officer at Arecibo Observatory, says: "We're looking for extraterrestrial life, though that's only a small part of what we do. We're also searching for pulsars, quasars, new planets and black holes - a universe of possibilities."
Since the opening scenes of the Jodie Foster film Contact were shot here, visitor numbers have boomed. "That movie really put us on the map," says Jose, though it was already there - cartographers can hardly ignore a reflector dish that covers an area equivalent to 26 football pitches. It is the world's largest radio telescope.
"It's a big ear, basically," Jose explains as we look down on the immense dish, nestled snugly in a natural limestone sinkhole surrounded by forested hills. Suspended on steel cables high above it is a futuristic structure resembling a golf ball - albeit one that is six storeys high.
"That's the Gregorian dome. It enables us to focus the telescope at specific parts of the sky." The observatory staff oversee the mechanics of the telescope while its daily tasks are dictated by international astronomers who rent work-time here.
All of the information collected by the telescope funnels into the control room computers. "SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence] staff sift through all the data, looking for signs of life. It's a project anyone can get involved in. From SETI's website you can download a screensaver that lets your personal computer help process data."
In human terms, Arecibo's radio telescope is immense. Yet at night, when you gaze at the profusion of stars, your perspective alters. The dish appears very small indeed.
`San Juaneros view the southerners as bumpkins'
This is the Puerto Rican Carnival stripped to its basics: newspaper and paste. In his workshop in Ponce, master mask-maker Miguel Perez is teaching local children to make masks.
Over the past four weekends they have applied wet layers of paper to wooden templates, let their creations dry, sanded them and attached horns. Now they've reached the painting stage. "Many towns have their own painting style," Miguel tells me. "In Ponce, we paint the masks with spots."
"For symbolic meaning?" I ask.
"No. Because it looks nicer." He bursts out laughing and pats my back. This easy camaraderie is the essence of southern Puerto Rico.
The inhabitants of San Juan tend to view the southerners as country bumpkins. "What do the San Juaneros know?" Miguel chuckles. "For them, life is rush-rush, make money. Here we have time for each other."
The two distinct halves of the island are separated by the Central Mountains. The drive from the urbanised north took me a couple of hours on the freeway, braving a 70mph traffic jam. Once I had descended to the Caribbean coast, the traffic dissipated and the change of pace was palpable.
Ponce was my first stop. Officially it is Puerto Rico's second city, though several northern towns are now bigger. The historic city centre is a vision of balconied charm. The narrow, shady streets converge on Plaza Las Delicias (Plaza of Delights), where one of the main attractions is an Arabian-style fire station gaudily painted red and black. Its wooden construction seems to be tempting fate. "Has it ever burned down?" I asked a local.
"No," he replied, then dropped his voice in case any firemen were within earshot, "but most of the other buildings around here have."
Travelling west along the coast, the terrain became drier; the result of the rain shadow cast by the mountains to my right. At the south-west tip of the island, I reached a peninsula of salt flats and cacti. I checked in at Bahia Salinas Beach Hotel at Cabo Rojo, which boasts a mineral plunge pool that, according to the owner, Miguel Rozado, is as buoyant as the Red Sea.
I took a cool dip, bobbing on my back in the salt-rich, oily water. It all went wrong when I tried to float on my stomach; my head involuntarily dipped beneath the surface and I emerged spluttering. "Make yourself at home," said Senor Rosado, picking this inopportune moment to walk past. He ambled away, puffing his cigar and chuckling warmly.
`This downpour is nothing.
Most mornings it rains frogs'
By their nature, Caribbean islands support a diverse patchwork of habitats, but this is ridiculous. In just a few steps we move from the clutter of the coastal dry forest, which harbours more than 300 tree species, to the simple chaos of the mangroves, where there are four. Not 400. Four.
The reason for this disparity is beneath our feet. "Close to the lagoon the soil is salty," says Jorge Coll, superintendent of Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve. "To survive, trees must get rid of the salt. Only a few can do it." Brushing the leaves of one, he accumulates saline dust on his fingertips. "Mangrove trees are experts."
The lagoon is busy with life. Its brackish water provides a nursery for 40 species of fish, including barracuda and tarpon, and at night the surface glows with bioluminescence from billions of dinoflagellates - microscopic aquatic organisms. As we walk along a system of boardwalks, we spot green iguanas basking in the trees, herons strutting in the shallows and red-tailed hawks wheeling overhead.
This remarkable reserve on the north-east tip of Puerto Rico was established in 1975 by an independent conservation trust. Its 316 acres boast all but one of the island's habitats. "We have dry forest, mangrove, lagoon, rocky beaches, sandy beaches, coral reefs and turtle grass beds," Jorge explains. "All we miss is rainforest. But you can see it from here."
From the reserve's historic lighthouse, he points inland. Beyond the coastal strip, the mountains of the interior are blanketed in unbroken jungle.
"Originally, Puerto Rico was almost completely covered," Jorge says. "When the Europeans arrived, they cut down the forest to plant sugarcane. By 1903, only 0.4 per cent coverage remained. With the collapse of that industry, the forest regenerated and now covers about a third of the island."
I drive up a twisting road from the sunny coast to the mist-draped Caribbean National Forest, known locally as El Yunque. This 43-square-mile fragment of virgin rainforest has survived the human onslaught. Some of the trees are 1,000 years old.
I hike to La Milla Falls along a path paved with stones. When I accidentally step off it, I almost lose a shoe in the clasping mud. An inevitable shower patters through the leaves and I don my waterproofs. This downpour is nothing. Most mornings it rains frogs.
The 13 endemic species of tree frog - known as coqui - have a unique habit. Each evening they climb the tree trunks to feed in the insect-rich canopy, and return to earth at dawn by the most direct route, using their webbed feet as makeshift parachutes.
Another endemic species is less robust. From a stone observation tower, I scan the canopy for Puerto Rican parrots, but the odds are against a sighting. The population has fallen to just 35. Their natural habitat, lowland forest, is no longer viable, so they eke out a living in the rainforest, which is too wet for them to raise their chicks successfully.
Within a two-hour drive of El Yunque, Guanica Biosphere Reserve, on the south coast, offers a stark change of environment. The reserve protects the world's best example of a tropical dry forest. Here the ground doesn't squelch underfoot; it crunches. I have no need for waterproofs, though insect repellent is essential to ward off clouds of mosquitoes.
We walk among cacti and gnarled trees, occasionally catching the azure glimmer of the Caribbean beyond. The warden, Jorge Silva, inspects a complex of burrows in an exposed bank. "These are nests of the Puerto Rican tody, one of nine endemic bird species found at Guanica. Nobody home now."
On the shoreline, as the high tide crashes on jagged rocks, we scout for the crested toad, one of the reserve's specialities. Our half-hour search for the amphibian is in vain; it's beginning to feel like one of those days.
Walking back to the park HQ, we cut through forest, treading over a dense mat of leaf litter. The warden stops me in my tracks. "There," he says, pointing at a spot just a few inches ahead of my feet. I see nothing but dead leaves. "Look carefully." Stooping, I decipher a roosting Puerto Rican nightjar, the island's most endangered bird. I had almost stepped on it.
It was a close call, but strangely appropriate, for Puerto Rico's natural riches are all too easily overlooked.