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The Guardian

Travel - Caribbean Special - Puerto Rico - Unknown Pleasures

By Mark Brown

October 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Guardian. All rights reserved. 

Travel - Caribbean Special - Puerto Rico - Unknown pleasures - Mark Brown escapes the crush of the cruiseline tourists in San Juan to discover the less explored side of the island.

The first thing you learn about Puerto Rico is not to expect to get anywhere fast. It's a small island, only 100 miles by 30, but it's full of highways and narrow streets, and these are full of cars driven by some of the scariest motorists you'll ever encounter - not necessarily fast, but scary nonetheless.

They're beginning to build a multi-billion-dollar light railway system on the island, but everyone you meet says it's doomed to failure. Puerto Ricans like their cars too much, and they evidently like driving them.

A friend had warned me about getting a taxi from the capital San Juan to Fajardo, just over 30 miles. "I tried it once, but the first driver was too drunk and the second one couldn't be bothered."

However, my driver was visibly excited, "$70" being the first thing he managed to say to me. After a hair-raising two hours, zig-zagging randomly between lanes of slow moving traffic, we made it. After another hour hopelessly lost in the small, car-clogged town of Fajardo, I realised my attempt to catch a connecting flight to the tiny island of Vieques was doomed. Back to San Juan. "$120," my cab man said with a grin on his face.

Many tourists don't see beyond the beaches and history of San Juan. Not because of the traffic, but because they've disembarked from one of the hundreds of cruise ships that pull in for short stays. About 850,000 cruise passengers - mostly rich Americans - provide the island's main source of tourism. The remainder of visitors, again rich Americans, stay in the mega-hotels with their private beaches, Vegas-copy shows, casinos and golf courses.

But get out of the capital and you'll see some of the best beaches in the Caribbean. The people are friendly and there's enough to do if you really must give up lounging in the sun.

The El Yunque rainforest - 45 minutes' drive from San Juan, if you're lucky - must be one of the most accessible of its kind, with miles of easy and well-thought-out hiking trails through tropical forest. You'll see lots of different ferns and orchids but not much wildlife; it's mostly lizards and tree frogs, nothing that could kill you, except perhaps the much talked about chupacabra, a rampaging goat-sucking animal with a reptilian body, oval head, bulging red eyes, fanged teeth and long, darting tongue. To be honest, you're about as likely to see it as meeting Elvis behind the counter in Burger King.

The second major natural attraction is the Rio Camuy cave park, 90 minutes or so west of the capital. After the obligatory 15-minute film welcoming you to the spectacular caves - don't you dare touch the stalagmites - they take you down in a Noddy-type train to walk through the network of caves and sinkholes itself. Wear some shoes with tread because while it's funny to watch ill-prepared tourists falling over on the slippery surfaces, it's not so funny when you find yourself hanging on to them to stay upright.

Nearby is the Arecibo observatory, the world's biggest and most sensitive radio telescope, which is used as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) programme. Think James Bond at the end of Goldeneye, the gun battle with Sean Bean on a huge satellite dish supposedly set in Cuba. This is where they filmed it, though it looks a bit tattier than in the movie.

From there, I drove up into the mountains to Maricao, the heart of coffee-making country. Puerto Rico likes to think it makes two things better than anyone, coffee and rum, and in Maricao it's worth visiting the main general store where a very old man with little English can grind you a pound of local beans for less than $4. And it really is exceptional coffee.

Two miles west is the Parador Hacienda Juanita, a traditional plantation building built in 1836, now a guesthouse. With high beds, rocking chairs and ceiling fans, the rooms are as rustic as they come. There's no TV and not a lot to do except lie by the basic pool and eat in the inexpensive restaurant at night - but then what more do you want?

Down the hill on the west coast near Rincon is Casa Islena, a small guesthouse in front of a narrow strip of deserted beach. It is where I fulfilled a previously unheld ambition to sleep under the Caribbean stars. After an enjoyable evening eating at The Lazy Parrot restaurant (jerk-seared marlin served by a waitress from Southport of all places) and then drinking rum with a Bahamian couple by the pool, I discovered that I'd been given the wrong key. I can't tell you what the beds are like but the open veranda is pleasant enough.

And so to San Juan. The old part of the city, one of the most historic areas of the whole West Indies with fine examples of colonial Spanish architecture, can probably be explored in an afternoon. The shopping is restricted to run-of-the mill gift and T-shirt shops as well as outlets of Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren.

A visit to Fort San Cristobel, with its imposing 18ft thick walls, is a useful guide to the history of the island - Spanish invade, ward off weedy British, French and Dutch rivals before the US gunboats take it over at the turn of the century. Puerto Rico now has US commonwealth status, though many would like to see it become the country's 51st state.

There are lots of good restaurants, though many are overpriced. The best I came across was the tapas bar Cafe Bohemio in El Convento, a 16th-century former convent, now a hotel. There is plenty to choose from on the menu but, for me, garlic prawns, serrano ham and manchego cheese is a winning combination washed down by a few Medalla beers.

In Isla Verde, the owners of The Water Club have spent an obscene amount of money to create what they hope is the city's trendiest hotel and bar. It is the sort of place where the chairs are more like beds and you either perch on the end and look vaguely ill and seedy, or lie back and struggle to drink your $8 martini. All around is water cascading down glass. Think twice about wearing black unless you want to be mistaken for one of the smiley, hip staff.

Puerto Rico doesn't get a huge amount of British tourists - mainly because there's no direct flight. That's a shame because the flip side of the awful traffic and terrible driving habits are the beautiful beaches, friendly welcome and, of course, the rum.

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