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March 5, 2004
Not so long ago, Mayaguez was the center of Puerto Rico's western region.
The not-quite-ready-to-be-a-city (pop. between 95,000 and 110,000 people in 2002) was a manufacturing hub. Tuna canneries dominated the city port and textile plants controlled the industrial parks. And although the city was not particularly attractive, it was the center of economic activity west of San Juan.
Those days are gone. Nowadays the textile companies are a far-away memory and the tuna canneries have all but vanished. What does remain is the University of Puerto Rico's Mayaguez campus, a science and technology-based university that during the past 20 years has been a scouting ground for every company (from NASA to Boeing) looking for world-class engineers and mathematicians.
"You should come to a job fair out here, it is something else," says graduate student Armando Colon.
This is the part where you should know that Colon makes his comments while having a beer and singing along to some karaoke music at the local bar El Garabato (which translates into The Doodle).
"You have a lot of brilliant mathematicians out here, you never know who is drinking next to you," Colon says.
This is the Mayaguez that exists under the radar of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, a math and science college town where conversations over drinks are more likely about developing alternative energy sources than about Uma Thurman's Oscar dress.
The UPR's Mayaguez campus is home to more than 12,000 students who stretch their brains solving difficult equations during the day, and drinking it up at El Garabato at night..
El Garabato is snuggly located between the town center and the UPR entrance.
The bar is one of the more popular spots in a small strip of college pubs, in Post Street, that cater to the student crowd. When it comes to nightlife in Mayaguez, it all happens in this strip.
On the surface, El Garabato seems like any other town bar. But upon closer inspection, you will realize that unlike most bars in San Juan, the place does not have a pool table. That is because the game of choice out here is domino. While the crowd in the bar, on a Tuesday night, starts out thin around 8 P.M., and overflows by midnight, domino tables at El Garabato are always full.
University is a sure stress producer, and catering to an academic community guarantees that on any given night there will be plenty of people with plenty of stress to relieve. This is why every night out here is as good a night as any to hang out at the Post Street strip.
On Tuesday night, El Garabato featured some karaoke music, and a well-meaning out-of-tune singer was quickly supported by the rest of the bar as he wrestled his way thorugh a few Shakira songs.
For those with more of a feel for hip-hop influenced music, there is the Black and Blue Bar just a few doors down from El Garabato. Although the Black and Blue is approximately the same size, it feels considerably smaller. This is because the people here come to listen to local rap music, and half of the crowd is busy dancing perreo, a dance that involves grinding away with a dance partner or a friendly stranger.
If you are new to perreo, the Black and Blue is a perfect place to get aquainted with this popular trend. You will get a crash course just trying to make your way from the front door to the bathroom at the back of the bar. This crowd enjoys being snuggled up in a small place, and some perreo along the way is unavoidable.
While the students are still keeping the party scene alive in this town, they have an early wrap-up. Approximately one year ago, the municipal government established a public order code that requires all bars to stop serving alcoholic beverages at 1:30 A.M. For the younger crowd in this town, the code has been a cold rain on a Fourth of July parade.
"Most of the live music disappeared," says Vivian Justiniano, a local waitress who hangs out in the local bars. "It is hard to convince people to invest in entertainment when they have such a harsh closing limit."
Thankfully, youth is impossible to contain, and the local students have taken to going out earlier to get their good times in before the government-imposed curfew.
If you come down to check out the local crowds and pubs, the early closing will guarantee that you will be feeling good enough the following day to have lunch in the West Grill House in downtown Mayaguez. The West Grill is a nondescript place on Calle De Diego, right in the heart of the city, and it is easily one of the best food deals on the whole western region. While low prices are common in restaurants outside the metropolitan area, the quality of the food is often, and unfortunately, at par with the prices. West Grill scores high on both, price and quality. The restaurant features a series of $5.99 lunch specials that consist of meat on the grill and one accompaniment. The servings are good, the flavor is good and the prices are great: One skirt steak, some plantains, one soda and two coffees with a shot of Frangelico each for only $8.
That's a deal good enough to cure the worst hangover.
El Garabato and The Black and Blue Bar
Post Street (by Mayaguez's Parque de los Proceres)
West Grill House
Calle De Diego
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