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The Sunday Telegraph

Multi-Coloured Caribbean From Its Sugar-Almond Houses To The Lush Green Countryside, Historic Puerto Rico...


November 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Sunday Telegraph, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2002. All rights reserved. 

Multi-coloured Caribbean From its sugar-almond houses to the lush green countryside, historic Puerto Rico is a rich mixture, says Helen Pickles.

It's not easy to set off the smoke alarm in a Caribbean hotel when the temperature outside is 80 degrees and the air conditioning is going full tilt. Here's how you do it. Take a hike in the rainforest, get caught in a tropical downpour, shiver in soaking clothes back to the hotel, switch the air con from cool to heat. The hotel engineers, sent to my rescue, marvelled at my ingenuity - and the resulting steam.

But Puerto Rico is not your standard-issue tropical island of palm-fringed beaches and pina coladas. The locals are not standard-issue tropical islanders either, being a beguiling mix of New York savvy and Latino charm - a product of the island's varied ownership. The island is now a commonwealth of the United States and the duality makes for surreal moments: the ice-cream van in sleepy La Parguera - a one-street fishing village on the south coast - that kept lapsing from children's chimes into the Pink Panther; the goat butchered yards from the island's finest French restaurant at Rincon; the female street cleaner who put down her brushes to reapply her makeup.

The cleaner was resting in the shadow of the massive walls surrounding Old San Juan, the 16th-century heart of the capital. The walls, 20ft thick and the prize of the Caribbean, were built to protect the natural harbour. The ramparts of two remaining forts, El Morro and San Cristobal, are equally impressive, rising 140ft above the Atlantic and giving unrivalled views over the city and inland, across the belching chimneys of the Bacardi rum plant, to the blue-green horizon of the rainforests, wrapped in clouds.

Today's invaders are the cruise ships. It pays to get up early to avoid the throngs of white-plimsolled, Gap-uniformed hordes. The old city, a seven-block square latticed with steep cobbled streets, is a joy to wander. The buildings are gorgeous examples of Spanish colonial style, tricked out with verandas, gas lamps and decorative tiles and painted in bright, sugar-almond colours. Modern America has seeped in - cheap souvenirs, over-priced jewellers - but it is low-key and even Burger King is a charming shade of duck-egg blue.

At night, the city regains its Spanish soul as the cruise-ship crowds are replaced by young Puerto Ricans bar-hopping along calle Sebastian and calle Fortaleza. By 11.30pm, it swarms like the exodus of a football match. Some bars close at 2.30 as others are opening. Baires is cool, La Cubanita sells the cheapest beer (alongside mops and groceries) while Rumba sizzles to salsa.

By comparison, the fabled casino night scene is sad and dreary. Pick any of the mammoth hotels along the fashionable beachfronts at Condado and Isla Verde (some of the most expensive land on the island and home to designer boutiques) and their tacky, glitzy casinos are more Blackpool than Vegas.

Some guests never leave the sanitised grounds of their resort hotels. Yet, within an hour's drive, they could be wandering through the towering candlewood trees, bamboo and tangled lianas of El Yunque, 43 square miles of virgin rainforest, trying to spot one of the 50 species of orchid or the rare Puerto Rican parrot. Admittedly, I saw neither. I struggled to see even the path as what felt like the annual 200 inches of rain bucketed down in one morning. The bonus of the rain, however, was a deafening chorus of tree frogs: tiny, shy creatures that only emerge at dusk or after rain, signalling their presence with a piping whistle like a repeated, querulous "Who he?"

The forest lies at the eastern end of the Cordillera Central, the mountainous backbone of the island. Drive an hour west of San Juan and the scenery changes again, just as dramatically. The road carves its way through a lunar landscape of giant, tree-covered molehills, known locally as Mogotes or hollow mountains, the result of rivers soaking their way through the underlying limestone. Here, in a vast sinkhole, lies Arecibo Observatory, a massive radio telescope and, bizarrely, home to international astronomers searching for extraterrestrial life.

The Camuy Caves, formed by the world's third largest underground river, are an obvious attraction, but I preferred the less touristy Guajataca Forest - as much for the name, pronounced "wahataka". Unlike the rainforest, the intense green, canopied thickets were eerily silent.

If this karst forest was strange, Guanica was weirder - cactuses with red top-knots like woolly hats, 100-year-old mangrove trees snaking along the ground, turkey vultures wheeling overhead. This tropical dry forest, where stunted trees eke out an existence in baking heat and salty winds on the southern, Caribbean coast, gets a mere 30 inches of rain a year.

As I stumbled over rocks, eager to spot the endemic, crested toad, distracted by brilliant yellow butterflies and a pelican bobbing on the shoreline, Miguel, my guide, casually pointed out a reddish, spiny shrub. "Be careful. If you fall on that, we will have to get you to hospital."

Scratched and mosquito bitten, I decided it was time for a spot of beach-hopping. Unlike the smooth, tractor-rolled sands around San Juan - where ankle weights and pretty dogs are de rigueur accessories of the early-morning joggers - the west coast is raw and laidback. At Rincon, a sleepy town at the north-western tip where the litter bins are shaped like dolphins and the main road splits to accommodate a grove of mango trees (there was uproar among the locals when the highways department threatened to bulldoze them), the northern shore, washed with Atlantic breakers, is a surfers' paradise, while the deserted western beaches sleep under drunken palms.

Towards the south-west, the beaches grow increasingly wild and unfashionable. Roadside stalls sell crabs, pineapples and plastic bottles of mavi, a local fermented drink. A truck-driving farmer hawked his bananas through a crackly megaphone, like a campaigning politician. At El Combate, a rugged strip of sand, I had the beach to myself, while at Cabo Rojo lighthouse, the south-westerly tip of the island, I wandered among white pyramids of drying sea salt.

The palm-fringed beaches at Buye and Boqueron were hazy with locals barbecuing chickens to be eaten with the inevitable rice and beans. Others had gone for Sunday lunch at La Parguera, a charmingly unsophisticated resort where hens stalk its one street and the gift shop sells school supplies. At La Casita, a 1960s style restaurant of plastic cloths and plastic weeping fig trees, three-generation families crowded the tables devouring massive plates of seafood, the women in glittery tops, the men in their best Hawaiian shirts.

The chief attractions of La Parguera are the offshore diving, kayaking among the mangrove cays and the shallow-water protozoa that light up when disturbed. A spectacular storm crackled out at sea, the Milky Way glowed overhead and my feet dangled over the side of the boat and streaked the water with two slipstreams of light. Those casino junkies didn't know what they were missing.

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