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The Sunday Mail
San Juan Is A Charmer
By David May
2 January 2005
SAN Juan, capital of Puerto Rico, is the hub of the Caribbean, beautiful, historic and with an intriguing melange of the old and new.
The Spanish dominated this little island (160km by 56km) for more than four centuries and left a lasting legacy in the language, judicial system and architecture.
Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States in 1898 after the Spanish-American War and is now a self-governing Caribbean commonwealth but still very much a part of the USA.
Laid-back Puerto Ricans enjoy American citizenship and spend US dollars yet cling to their Hispanic roots.
For all information, brochures and guided tours visit the tourist office, Centro de Informacion Turistica, at Plaza Darsenas in Old San Juan.
Take a walk around the Old Town with its colourful casitas (small houses) and rich colonial architecture.
See the massive City Walls, the San Juan Gate, the great Spanish fortress El Morro, La Fortaleza, the old governors' mansion, the main square, Plaza de Armas and the San Juan Cathedral.
The Museo de Arte houses most of the country's important works of art and includes two hectares of gardens, a 400-seat theatre, museum shop and Pikayo, a fine-dining restaurant.
Ajili Mojili Restaurant (1052 Ashford Avenue, Condado) is a local favourite, serving pure Puerto Rican dishes such as sopa de calabaza (pumpkin soup), empanadillas (turnovers stuffed with shredded chicken, potatoes and raisins), mofongo (casserole of plantain with meat or seafood) and the local staple, arroz y habichuelas (rice and beans).
Cafe Puerto Rico on the Plaza de Colon has balconies overlooking one of the Old Town squares and hearty regional fare, mostly for less than A$25 -- seafood, paella, lobster and eye fillet stuffed with ham in a Creole sauce.
Pamela's, in the quaint Numero Uno Guest House at Ocean Park, serves lunch on the beach. Try the unusual grilled Jamaican jerk prawns with coconut corn cakes. Lunch for two: A$80.
Bacardi Rum Distillery just outside San Juan is the world's largest with a 45-minute tour and a rum-tasting session.
In the east the Caribbean National Forest (El Yunque) is a hikers' paradise with dozens of walking trails, waterfalls, wild orchids, giant ferns, huge tabonuco trees and 380 billion litres of rainfall annually.
Follow that up with a swim and some Caribbean sun at the tranquil Luquillo Beach lined with coconut palms -- Puerto Rico's finest beach.
Rent a car and explore the island or take a guided bus tour (check with the tourist office). At Rio Camuy plunge deep into the subterranean beauty of a spectacular cave system carved by one of the world's largest underground rivers.
Arecibo Radio Telescope in the northwest is the largest of its kind on Earth.
It's where planets outside our solar system were discovered and is home base for NASA's SETI, (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).
Part of the Jodie Foster movie Contact was filmed here.
Scuba-dive off Cabo Rojo on the southwest coast or visit tiny Isla Ratones (Mouse Island), a cute coral cay nearby.
At Puerto Rico's second city, Ponce, see the opulent Serralles Castle, a magnificent 1930s mansion and the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Centre with a botanic garden, a reconstructed Taino Indian village, a museum and an archeological site where excavations of ancient graves and a pre-Columbian Stonehenge-type monument are still in progress.
Babylon, in the Wyndham El San Juan Hotel and Casino Isla Verde, is a circular nightclub with a central dance floor and a wraparound balcony with one of the best sound systems in the Caribbean. If it gets too raucous, flee to the casino.
Rumba nightclub (Calle San Sebastian 152), used for many scenes in Dirty Dancing, pulls the beautiful people and has an air of avant-garde Hispanic hip. Shannon's Irish Pub (Calle Bori 496, Rio Piedras) is Guinness with a Latin accent and live music five nights a week, from rock to jazz to Latin.
* Information: www.gotopuertorico.com