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February 13, 2004
Practically every tourist that comes to Puerto Rico has a common wish. To find that one place that no other tourist knows about, where they can get a real glimpse of Puerto Rican culture at work. It is a pretty difficult wish to grant. Puerto Rico is a small island with 7 percent of its gross national product tied to the tourism industry; so if there is a half interesting place out there, there are plenty of people interested in making sure that every tourist knows about it.
Despite the obvious obstacles, there is plenty of Puerto Rican culture to be absorbed. A good chunk of it is in the southern town of Coamo, where for more than 500 years, men and women have journeyed to relax, and rejuvenate themselves in the town's hot springs.
Coamo's hot springs where originally discovered by the Taino Indians that inhabited the island before Columbus stumbled into the New World. Once colonization got under way, word of the healing spring waters spread among the Spaniards and by the middle of the 16th century the newcomers were making regular journeys from San Juan, through the mountains of the Cordillera Central, and into the plains of Coamo to the much-talked about springs, which they dubbed Baths of Saratoga.
The water in the hot springs is a constant 44 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Farenheit), and very rich in minerals. The effect of soaking for a while in these waters is certainly therapeutic. Without hyperbolizing the healing powers of the waters, it is no mystery why the Spaniards, like the natives before them, became fans of the hot springs. Even today, with the advantages of air-conditioned cars and open highways, the drive from San Juan to Coamo is about 90-110 minutes long. In the 16th century, the journey was much longer and took place in horseback or carriage. No wonder they felt so rejuvenated after taking a dip in the springs!
Colonizers were ancient entrepeneurs, and it did not take very long for the Spaniards to see the marketing potential of the springs. Throughout the 17th century to the mid 1950s, Coamo's hot springs became the main attraction of a resort that attracted well-to-do travelers from Europe, and the Americas.
By the beginning of the 20th century the resort had become so popular that Franklin D. Roosevelt visited it in 1933.
That resort is long gone, but the springs are still flowing at their usual 44 degrees, and there is a fun affordable place to spend a night or two.
The Baños de Coamo resort has 46 rooms distributed among large wooden buildings that look like oversized cabins. The compound is built around a central courtyard riddled with lush vegetation. Large trees loom above the central area while vines crawl up the walls, or hang lazily from the intertwined branches overhead. Walking around the courtyard one gets the impression that the vegetation is steadily eating up this resort, and that very soon the buildings themselves will disappear underneath the green tentacles of the plants.
The resort has a restaurant that serves breakfast lunch and dinner, a swimming pool and tennis courts. Rates start at $85 a night.
Ironically, Banos de Coamo's main weakness is its thermal baths. In the 1970's, when the resort opened, the developers decided to build a pool in the compound that would connect directly to the natural springs. The idea might have been good 30 years ago, but fails to meet expectations now.
Its not that there is anything wrong with them. But it is difficult to imagine that the ancient and mythical healing powers of the thermal baths are packaged in a small swimming pool encircled by a cyclone fence that could be taken out of any truck-stop motel in middle America.
Not to worry, though. If you are visiting Banos de Coamo, the real treat is on the other side of the fence -- in the public thermal baths. Here, men and women soak in a small pool made of stone and filled with water that flows unfiltered from the springs, through the pool and back out into a creek.
What is great about these baths is that, although small, the design is very much aligned to the all-natural vibe of the hot springs. The small stone pool is partly beneath the shade of an elm, and the general feeling is that of a pool smack in the middle of the wilderness.
It is said the during the height of the Roman Republic the foundations of democracy were not to be found in the halls of the Senate as much as in the city's public baths because they were the only place in the city where the senator and the mason existed outside their social stations.
You can get the same effect at the public baths. Here families from nearby areas come with relatives to soak in the water and talk in a relaxing atmosphere while the children, armed with squirt guns, run around in wet delirium.
Getting a glimpse of culture is a tricky thing. In Puerto Rico, you can eat the platains, dance the salsa, and even drink the water. But soaking in Coamo's themal baths is the only ritual that has survived intact from the time of the Tainos. And in that sense, you could say that bona fide Puerto Rican culture can be found in Coamo, warmly soaking under the shade of an elm.
Hotel Baños de Coamo
(787) 825-2186 or (787) 825-2239
J.A. del Rosario, a business reporter for The San Juan Star, is a remedial guitar player and an incorrigible nightcrawler. He can be contacted at: : firstname.lastname@example.org