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Travel - Wish You Were Rear
Jane Ridley finds Puerto Rican bottoms like J-Lo's are all in the jeans
By JANE RIDLEY
September 27, 2003
NOW I'm not in the habit of staring at women's bottoms, but on the Spanish Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, I just can't help myself.
Spray-on jeans are fast becoming the national costume, denims stretched to their limit over generous, gravity-defying curves.
It hit me first at the airport, chock-full of grannies in leopard-print leggings - think Kenny Everett's impression of Rod Stewart and his inflatable buttocks - and middle-aged women in skimpy hot-pants to rival Kylie's.
Easier on the eye are the mini-skirted twentysomethings who frequent the downtown bars, sticking out shelf-like behinds you could rest your rum cocktail on.
Pop diva and actress Jennifer Lopez credits Puerto Rico, a US commonwealth, for her greatest asset. Her parents were born here, passing on the unique ethnic blend of European and African which resulted in her white face, but unmistakably black derriere.
"I come from a culture which celebrates the female form," insists J-Lo, justifying her voluptuousness. She's not kidding.
In common with the island's most famous export, the women of Puerto Rico use their natural charms to their best advantage.
At the achingly-hip Nuyorican Cafe, a live jazz venue in picturesque Old San Juan - I find myself in the midst of a karaoke contest with a difference.
Nobody sings but wannabes are given a three or four-minute 'set' where they take centre stage and strut their stuff. There's no formal announcement with a compere shouting: "And here's Michelle from Milton Keynes". That would be so uncool.
Instead the 'contestants' seem to have a second sense, knowing exactly when to bow out and let someone new take up the rhythm.
FIRST off, all eyes are on a Salma Hayek-lookalike in a slinky red dress who shakes her booty at a rate of 30 revs per second. She shimmies off, making way for a larger-than-life Carmen Miranda-type who works the crowd, gyrating provocatively.
At least a dozen other revellers take up the challenge as we stand around in a circle, clapping and cheering. The music doesn't stop for an hour-and-a-half and the saxophonists' shirts are soaked in sweat. Thankfully none of us Brits is foolish - or drunk - enough to give it a go. When it comes to dancing Puerto Rican-style, we know our Anglo-Saxon genes aren't up to it.
The good thing about bars such as the Nuyorican Cafe is that they are popular with locals and largely free of the out-sized Americans who waddle around day-time Old San Juan before returning to their cruise ships for nightly cabaret.
On a walking tour of the historic walled city, I spend most of my time standing aside as long crocodiles of day-trippers traipse the cobblestone streets.
Amazingly, many of them seem more interested in the tax-free, discount shopping outlets than the Spanish colonial churches, and pastel-coloured town houses with their trademark intricate wrought-iron balconies covered in bougainvillaea. In fact, I'm staying in one of San Juan's most historic buildings. The Hotel El Covento was formerly a Carmelite convent, erected in 1651. But there is nothing cell-like about the luxurious rooms. Now an opulent, antiques-filled establishment, the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Rita Hayworth and, more recently, the perma-tanned George Hamilton have stayed.
I soon realise the best time to explore San Juan, a World Heritage Site, is early evening, when the crowds have gone and the temperature has dropped. Grab a map and take a slow stroll around the immaculately-kept shady plazas before moving on to the sun-scorched 17th century forts, cathedral and ornate city halls.
Intimate cafes and dark, candelit restaurants are found at every corner. The local cuisine, cocina criolla, is heavily spiced so it's wise to have a glass of water handy. Practically everything, whether it's beef, pork, goat, chicken or fish, is seasoned with adobo (garlic, oregano, paprika, peppercorns, salt, olive, lime juice and vinegar crushed into a thick paste) or other piquant sauces.
THERE'S no escaping the island's national fruit, plantain. It comes, mashed or fried, as a side dish whether you've ordered it or not.
Try the absurdly-named cuchi-cuchi mofongo (balls of plantain mixed with pork rind and spices which are then deep-fried) or, as dessert, tostones (twice-fried plantains, coated with honey).
You can't visit Puerto Rico without a trip to both the rainforest and the stunning coastline. If there were a top 10 of the world's best beaches, Playa Luquillo would surely be on the list. It is an hour's drive east of the capital and well worth the hell-raising journey. Puerto Rican motorists are danger freaks. Our minivan driver is no exception and I'm amazed we arrive in one piece. Luquillo is about as perfect as you can get, a mile-long crescent of sweeping white sand backed by tall coconut palms.
It is ideal for families as the bay faces north-east and the sea is mill-pond flat. And the modest beachside kiosk, La Parilla, claims to serve the most creamy - and potent - pina colada on the island. It certainly calmed me for the trip home.
Just a few miles inland is El Yunque, otherwise known as the Caribbean National Forest. Covering 43 sq miles, it includes the impressive Sierra de Luquillo mountain range. Some trees are 1,000 years old and, since the rainfall is more than 200 inches a year, there is an abundance of rare plants, including 50 varieties of orchids.
But, for me, though, the spectacular waterfalls steal the show. On one relatively easy hour-long trail, we stumble across La Mina Falls where you can stop off for an impromptu dip. Standing under the cascades of water is to experience the ultimate power shower.
Disappointingly, the elusive El Higuaca parrot, remains, er, elusive. But we do spot a 3ft long giant iguana and three tiny tree frogs, known as coqui, which sing in perfect harmony and are idolised by Puerto Ricans as their national mascot.
Back in San Juan, in the modern, upmarket neighbourhood of Condado, we gawp at the ocean-front dwellings of the island's elite. Michael Jackson, Sylvester Stallone, Ricky Martin and, you've guessed it, J-Lo all have homes here.
Their luxurious condos cost millions - with home insurance bills to match. The risk of damage from hurricanes is so high only the very rich and famous can afford policies against the vicious tropical storms which batter Puerto Rico between July and September.
"We have an important warning during hurricane season," reveals our guide. "Never open a window. For the contents of your house will fly out the other." He pauses for a second, before adding: "But, in the case of Michael Jackson, it's more likely to be his face."
Jane Ridley travelled to Puerto Rico courtesy of Bacardi. For more information visit www.gotopuertorico.com. Contact the Casa Bacardi Visitor Centre on www.bacardi.com. Hotel El Convento's website is www.elconvento.com.