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May 6, 2005
Up in the cool mountains of our Island of Enchantment, lies tucked amid high peaks a picturesque town that gave us the fathers of modern Puerto Rico: the venerable Luis Muñozes. The father gave us a sense of Puerto Rico as a nation, and the son gave us progress, wealth and our dubious status as a Commonwealth.
Barranquitas is known as the "Cuna de Próceres," and the "Altar de la Patria" (Cradle of the National Heroes, and the "Altar of the Motherland," respectively) because of the many patriotic thinkers and poets it generated. Famous Barranquiteños are mighty indeed. Luis Muñoz Rivera was a journalist, poet and patriot that founded the Liberal Party, and served as Resident Commissioner in Washington from 1911-1916. He fueled much of the pro-independence movement in Puerto Rico. Luis Muñoz Marín, his son, was the first governor elected by Puerto Ricans themselves. Founder of the Popular Democratic Party and creator of the Commonwealth, Muñoz Marín was also a writer, poet, journalist and politician extraordinairie who foresaw a Puerto Rico steeped in success and progress. Although many say he turned his back on the pro-independence movement, he did what he thought he needed to do to raise the standard of living of the average Puerto Rican. Whether you agree with his actions or not, there is no doubt that the man shaped much of what Puerto Rico is today. Another celebrated denizen is Mercedes Negrón Muñoz , a.k.a Clara Lair, a poet of much renown, liberal thinker and a controversial champion of feminist ideals. (There is a street right in front of the Puerta de San Juan in the Old City called after her.) Additional poets included in the famous roster of natives include José Arnaldo Meléndez, a.k.a Naldo de la Loma, Quintín Negrón Sanjurjo, and Pablo Colón Berdecía. Yet another Barranquita great was Petroamérica Pagán, an icon of social work on the island and the one who established the governments policy for the disabled.
It is called Barranquitas because of the muddy, slippery "barrancos", or "barro arrancado," ie. chunks of mud that come off as if torn off and leave a deep gore in the ground, exposing tree roots in mid air. The whole area is covered in a red, powdery soil that goes 30 feet down at its thickest spots. When it rains big, watch out because you just might get caved in.
In 1508 the first rustic route that united the island from north to south through the Central Mountain Range was established, uniting these towns: Coamo, Barranquitas, Comerío and Bayamón. The route was long and tiresome, and you needed a place to set camp midway, and that is how the town came to be. Founded in 1803 and destroyed completely by Hurricane Santa Ana in 1825, Barranquitas also suffered from a massive fire in 1895 that wiped out a good lot of the town, 34 houses. But the days were so sunny, the gardens so thrived with sheer greenness, and the nights were so breezy, that the town kept rebuilding itself. From the 19th century on, Barranquitas did nothing but thrive. Lately the unemployment rate has risen and the economy, locals say, is stagnant. But none of this yet detracts from the beauty of the town that awarded us with the fathers of Puerto Rican national pride.
The towns artisan fair is one of the oldest in Puerto Rico and one of the biggest at this point. They began in 1961, set around the 17th of July to commemorate the birthday of Luis Muñoz Rivera. Also, the first public school cafeteria was set up here in 1919. Barranquitas is also a major grower of apio, many times translated as celery, but not the green one youre thinking. This one is more of a starchy tuber, cousin to the carrot, with edible roots shaped like an elephants foot. Originally from Ecuador and much used by Brazilians, it is locally used to make croquettes, fritters, and even flan. It is especially yummy in chicken stews.
But the biggest draw these days is the Cañón de San Cristóbal, the deepest gorge in Puerto Rico with a river running at its base. A beautiful nature place indeed, although its descent is not for the faint of heart.
Following is a list of places to go to discover the wonders of Barranquitas.
Where to go in Barranquitas:
Casa Museo Luis Muñoz Rivera:
Open Fri-Sun 8:00am-noon 1:00pm-4:30pm
A wooden, turn-of-the-century house typical of these high parts, set as it was at the time of Luis Muñoz Rivera. On display is a rare and restored 1912 Pierce Arrow used in the funeral procesion of the man. A must-see to capture the vibe of the times.
Casa Museo Joaquin de Rojas
Mon-Fri 8 a.m.-4:30pm. Sat-Sun by reservation.
Call the local Tourism Office at 787-857-3810.
Vaulted ceilings and an ample porch denote the grandiosity of these houses in the early 20th century
Now open as a museum.
Museo de Arte y Antropología
Reservations required. Open during the Annual Artisan Fair.
Call the local Tourism Office at 787-857-3810.
Small museum that displays Indian artifacts, pottery and whatnot.
San Antonio de Padua Church
Wiped out by two hurricanes, Santa Ana in 1825 and the San Felipe II in 1928, the current one was built in 1933. A good example of the typical church built in the early 20th century Puerto Rico.
Takes you around town to the shopping area. A great way to get a sweeping good look at the entire town. Take it at the main plaza.
Highest peak in town with panoramic views of San Juan, Corozal and Naranjito. There is a hiking trail that takes you to the peak, should the fancy to make it to the top take you. Volcanic in its origin, it is classified as lower mountain forest and is also a protected habitat of the endangered "palo de nigua" of the flowering verbena family.
San Cristobal Canyon
A hike for the adventurous, and not for those in suspicious physical shape, but certainly worth the toil. Once used as a municipal landfill from 1954-74, it is now under the protection of the federal government. The river does not have as much water as before, so pollution threatens its ecosystem. If you go, take what you bring in please. It is best to go with a guide. See below for more info and San Cristobal tour guides.
Las Bocas Canyon
Lesser-known ravine in the area brimming with wildlife. Has an organized group that is currenty trying to make it a forest reserve.
La Ceiba Park & Recreational Area
Open daily from 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
PR- 771 Km. 9.3
Modest acquatic park in the middle of the mountains with the only sand voleyball court in the heart of these dewy mountains. Near Cerro Farrallón, one of the highest peaks in Puerto Rico. A nice place to spend the afternoon with the family. The park has a playground, basketball court, pool with a winding slide (not Wet n Wild, but worth the little thrill), adult pool and a separate kids pool, as well as picnic tables, BBQ grills and a river and waterfall to soothe your world-weary cares. Hollys Pizza is the mainstay food place. There are also several "criollo" food stands offering the obligatory fritters.
Getting to the San Cristobal Canyon:
From San Juan: Take highway 52 south and get off at Cayey; continue on road number 1 south towards Salinas; make a right on the Panoramic Route (7722) which goes to Aibonito; drive up to La Sierra (722) and at the first intersection make a left towards "La Piedra Degetau"; on the first stop sign make a right towards the town; you will pass by a retreat house called "Casa Manresa" and get to the town plaza. Once in Aibonito, head towards Barranquitas either through "Barrio Llanos" (725) or via "Asomante" (Rd #14) making a right on 162. The picture above was made from an entrance through a small trail in Barrio Llanos (725) about a 1/4 mile from road 162. If lost, just keep asking. The last I saw, a very rustic sign led the way.
San Cristobal Tour Guides:
San Cristobal Hiking Tour
These are the only guys specializing in the Canyon and know most about the area. They can also guide to Las Bocas, a lesser known gorge in the area, or all over the town. Samuel A. Oliveras Ortiz, the director, is a geographer and historian.
Acampa Puerto Rico
These guys can also get you climbing all over the island to discover its hidden natural beauties. With more than 10 years in the market, the company is certainly thriving in the booming ecoutourism segment on the island.
Brenda A. Mari is an editor/reporter for The San Juan Star, an accomplished web copywriter and a fan of everything unusual. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org