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By Olivia Stewart
November 29, 2003
It's the world's biggest producer of rum, and the birthplace of the pina colada
MENTION Puerto Rico and for many Australians the most overtly familiar associations are West Side Story and Ricky Martin.
I admit that when I boarded the plane for the Caribbean island some 26 hours of travelling time away, I didn't know much beyond that, its history as a Spanish fortification, and status as a US territory following the 1898 Spanish-American War.
While for Americans that connection makes it a popular tourist destination with Spanish and English official languages, it's largely undiscovered by Antipodeans, whose links are with the British Commonwealth's Caribbean islands.
I was going to compete in the World Masters Athletics Championships, and anything else special would be a bonus.
Yet I would quickly realise -- starting on the flight to San Juan courtesy of my Puerto Rican seat mates -- just how much this little island with a small population has to offer, and what an impact it has made.
With about four million people on its geographically diverse 160km by 56km landmass, Puerto Rico, with another two million living in the US, has generated an astonishing array of showbusiness luminaries.
It's also the world's biggest producer of rum, and the birthplace of the pina colada.
The second-oldest city in the Americas, founded in 1521, Old San Juan is the happening place. Its cobblestone streets and rainbow pastel-washed Spanish architecture throb with people, salsa clubs and bars and local hoons doing "lappies" through its narrow thoroughfares on motor scooters.
This melding of heritage and hipness immediately captivated me. The benefits of modernity, history and culture are paralleled with a sultry tropical rambunctiousness that manages to be both languorous and vibrant. This was indeed The Enchanted Island.
Rather than paying upwards of $US100 a night in a generic tourist-strip hotel for a fortnight, three NSW athletes and I rented a modest two-bedroom self-contained penthouse in the heart of Old San Juan for $US800 a week. May-November is the low season.
This central base enabled us to explore Old San Juan's compact centre on foot and absorb its authentic charms.
Although the country's GNP is one of the Caribbean's highest per capita, it's below that of the poorest state on the mainland, with no sales tax. For us this meant relative bargains could be found: meals, groceries, clothes, ferries and fixed-fare tourist taxis.
The best meal we had was also the cheapest, tapas in the stunning 17th-century ambience of El Convento, a National Trust hotel whose walls could tell some fascinating stories from convent to brothel.
Historical sightseeing in San Juan ranges from legitimate to libation landmarks.
The granddaddy of the Spanish forts is El Morro, San Felipe Castle, an imposing six-level fortress with 4.5m thick walls guarding the entrance to San Juan Bay. Rising 45m, it commands a powerfully exhilarating vantage. San Cristobal offers sweeping views across modern and Old San Juan to the port and bay.
Overlooking La Fortaleza, the female governor's mansion, Australian Lindsay Daen's striking modern sculpture La Rogativa commemorates the torch-lit religious procession reputedly of 11,000 virgins who repelled British invaders.
Being stalked by an impeccably tailored secret service agent inscrutable behind dark glasses was the most entertaining aspect of touring La Fortaleza's grounds.
We celebrated the 40th anniversary of the pina colada at its home, La Barrachina. Reflecting the cocktail's status as a standard, like elsewhere on the island it came pre-mixed from a machine -- not much romance, but delicious.
At the world's largest rum distillery you'll learn Bacardi and Coke is officially made with Bacardi Gold, not white rum, and that Bacardi 151 is banned on aeroplanes. More importantly, you'll get two free drinks.
In addition to tips, my flight had also yielded the unexpected bonus of an invaluable local guide. A young US-based architect visiting home, Victor, and his brother Hiram, were gracious and generous hosts, eager to show off the best of their country.
Despite obvious benefits from being a US Commonwealth for both locals and tourists, Puerto Rico retains a strong sense of its own culture and identity, evident in a fierce patriotism and degree of ambivalence towards the US. Even those born in the US commonly still refer to themselves as Puerto Rican. Voters are split between parties either wanting enhanced Commonwealth status or favouring US statehood, with a small percentage supporting independence.
Occasionally we felt a "gringo" resentment but overwhelmingly the Puerto Rican demeanour was engagingly warm, friendly and gentle.
They also love to party. With Puerto Ricans instrumental in developing salsa and San Juan recently hosting the World Salsa Congress, Victor introduced us to two of the hottest clubs: Rumba and Nuyorican.
For $2 at the latter we got an irresistible 10-piece band -- and, with Victor turning out to be Senor Salsa, I was desperately wishing I'd learnt before leaving home.
A contrasting gem is the unspoilt idyll of Culebra Island. Ferries leave every 45 minutes from San Juan in Fajardo, but there's no regular bus service; fortunately my new friends chauffeured me.
Some enchanted island
From Travel 1
Hiring a car for a day was an experience in itself, with road rules and speed limits appearing optional
Despite stormy weather, the ferry was full, but the torturous topsy-turvy hour-long journey had everyone applauding in relief at the sign of land.
A short taxi ride away, Flamenco Beach is rated one of the Caribbean's best by the Travel Channel. It was lovely -- a crescent rimmed with white powdery sand lapped by the Atlantic -- although I also was thinking: "We have plenty of beaches like this."
But Victor knew the best was a 20-minute hike from the tourists, on the Caribbean Sea -- Luis Pena Channel, a protected nature reserve and snorkelling path which, even with the rain, contained the most crystal clear seawater I'd ever seen, in vivid aquamarine hues. Culebra definitely begs more than a day trip.
We Aussies' solo excursions were far less successful.
Hiring a car for a day was an experience in itself, with road rules and speed limits appearing optional.
El Yunque, 45 minutes from San Juan, is the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest system.
For Australians used to the tropical north, the appeal of the scenery is less striking, and on the short trails we took, the canopy was not as lush as we expected.
With visions of scenic restaurants on the harbour promised by our guide- books, we drove on to Fajardo but again, as outsiders, could find nothing matching the descriptions.
However, the locals assured us the rewards were indeed there if you knew exactly where to look.
The same went for Luquillo, one of the island's most popular beaches. We realised we'd missed the maintained public beach when the rubbish bags outnumbered the palm trees on the foreshore.
So, unless you have plenty of time to explore by car, it's worth considering employing local guides such as the knowledgeable National Park Service rangers.
It transpired as typically Puerto Rican that the journeys were often as memorable as the destination: the ferry, trips to the athletic venue in yellow school buses escorted by traffic-stopping police motorcycles, an ex-New York City cabbie's hair-raising manoeuvres, and a close encounter with a drunk driver.
My departing trip to the airport was no different. The taxi driver had seen me at Rumba, and disarmingly coaxed me into cha cha-ing with him on the footpath when we arrived. Puerto Rico farewelled me as I'd been welcomed, warmly embraced.
Top 10 local sights
(Courtesy Victor J. Irizarry)
1 You have to go to Culebra: one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
2 El Yunque: The rainforest is paradise lost, but try to avoid the crowds to enjoy it. Find a local to show you some of the secret spots. La Mina Falls is my favourite trail but there are many that will leave your mouth open. If you like cliff-jumping try El Charco Frio and El Hippy on the west side.
3 Colonial Ponce, la ciudad seorial (the noble city): is "the pearl of the south". The Ponce Museum of Art holds one of the finest collections in Latin America.
4 Some of the nice beaches are on the east side: including Luquillo Beach, Seven Seas, Naguabo and Ceiba.
5 Cay Ballena and Gilligan's Island: (named so because of its resemblance to that TV isle) are nice estuaries for swimming in Guanica.
6 Rincon, on the west coast: is famous for surfing and sunsets. El Faro lighthouse has an amazing view to the ocean -- don't miss the sunset here.
7 The Arecibo Observatory: the biggest radar/radio telescope in the world. Home to NASA's Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program.
8 The town of Lares: declared its independence from Spain for one day (in an unsuccessful revolt) in 1868. The Heladeria (ice cream parlour) has weird flavours, like rice and beans, avocado and tomato.
9 The caverns in the Rio Camuy Cave Park: are awesome. This is the third largest underground cave system in the world, a million years old.
10 If you like salsa and beer: you have to visit La Plazita happy hour on Friday evenings from 5 in Santurce (Stop 22, Plaza del Mercado, Dos Hermanos Street). About 11pm, go to Old San Juan and visit Rumba or the Nuyorican Cafe for folk, Puerto Rican and Cuban music. On the web: www.gotopuertorico.com
The best of Old San Juan
Accommodation: If you can afford it, El Convento ( www.elconvento.com) is one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World (from $185 a night). Otherwise www.thecaleta.com offers fully furnished holiday rental apartments from $350 a week and the staff are a mine of time- and money-saving tips.
Groceries: With a local address you can obtain the prized Pueblo Supermarket discount card (Cruz St).
Clothes: Marshalls (Plaza de Armas) department store features daily liquidations of designer and quality sportswear, and great discounts generally. Also check out the Guess, Ralph Lauren and Speedo outlet stores (Cristo St).
Coffee: It's hard to beat watching the world go by at Plaza de Armas over a $1 latte under the umbrellas of Cafe 4 Estaciones.
Dining: El Convento's El Picoteo tapas bar (100 Cristo St) serves well-priced (average $5-$10) food in stunning surroundings. Make sure you try the battered calamari with homemade anchovy aioli ($8). Since 1902 the diner-style La Bombonera (259 San Francisco) has been offering Puerto Rican cuisine -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- and great value: the traditional rice, beans and chicken is $7.25, while rice chokkas with lobster chunks is $15.45.
Drinks: Sip a pina colada at its birthplace, Barrachina (104 Fortaleza), or kick-start your night out with a Medalla beer at the laidback Cafe San Sebastian.
Salsa clubs: Rumba (152 San Sebastian) has a relaxed and friendly vibe. Hidden behind an unmarked door in Callejon de la Capilla, Nuyorican Cafe serves up sizzling live Latin rhythms.
Sightseeing: Apart from the obvious attractions like the spectacular forts, exploring the streets reveals an abundance of colourful, quaint and fascinating treats: cat-shaped chairs and elderly locals playing street chess.