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June 17, 2005
Come Thursday, June 23rd, throngs of midnight revelers will flock to the islands more than 250 beaches that grace the 272 miles of the islands coastline. The purpose? Apart from having a perfect excuse to party mid-week, they plan on getting lucky by plunging themselves backwards 7 times (or 12, some die-hards say) into the warm summer night sea.
It doesnt matter where we do it -- whether its in a crowded beach in Isla Verde, a busy kiddie pool in Guaynabo or a lonely creek in Yauco -- everyone gets all excited by an extraordinary wet turn of events. Multitudes baptize themselves over and over, and pay tribute to the most loving of the elements: water. Yemayá, the Ocean Mother, gets her due respect in an ancient ritual made "decent" by the birth of a Catholic saint.
A quirky Puerto Rican fiesta, La Noche de San Juan is certainly my favorite. There is just something so magical about night gatherings. Growing up by the beach, I often played witness to its lonely, numinous vibe at night. But every year, on this particularly wild, mystical night, things got all shook up. Bonfires mirrored the midnight sky, sounds of sheer primal glee prevailed and rhythmic splashing abounded. This night, the no-see-ums and mosquitoes took a break, the sea grapes gave no shade, and even abuela joined in the midnight dipping frenzy. I didnt understand then what all the fuss was about, but I wasnt about to start questioning it.
I see now the bewitching case for doing this and why such an ancient tradition deserves to be annually upheld, even in its watered-down shape. People should congregate and splash away in the night more often. In the meantime we get to pay homage to our beautiful shores, become one with nature, and wish to our hearts content. In an increasingly hectic world, traditions keep us grounded, reminding us of whats truly important. We give thanks to the almighty on Thanksgiving, we give gifts to others during Christmas and we give luck to ourselves through La Noche de San Juan.
The Noche de San Juan coincides with the ancient Summer Solstice (June 21st) festivities. This Christian update of the pagan rite concurs with St. John the Baptists birthday, June 24th. This marks the six months preceding Jesus birthday, the middle of the year and the full summer bounty. Just as John played forerunner to Jesus, the summer solstice foretells of the eventual arrival of the winter solstice, around December 24th.
If you remember St. John from Catholic school, he was Jesus staunchest follower -- in fact, his predecessor and the original baptizer. He was born from a seemingly unfertile mother, Elizabeth, and an incredulous father, Zachary, who lit bonfires out of glee all over the place upon Johns arrival.
The Archangel Gabriel appeared to John and told him of the one that would come next, the true Messiah. Gabriel directed him to the River Jordan and told him to spread the word and pave the way for the Son of God. It was by the river, while preaching the gospel of penitence, that Jesus appeared to John, launching one of the most notorious word of mouth campaigns in history.
St. John the Baptist was also the one whose head Salome had delivered on a plate, but thats another story. Although the church normally celebrates the day of the saints death, in this case it celebrates the birth of St. John because he was also born without original sin.
When Christianity took over Europe, the feast of St. John the Baptist befittingly replaced the most prevalent of pagan rites: the Summer Solstice. It is one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest, introduced into both the Greek and Latin liturgies to honor a saint.
Summer solstice celebrations are as old as human culture itself, honoring fertility throughout the ages. On the longest day and the shortest night, everyone from the Celts to the Romans to the Chinese to the Native Americans celebrated midsummer feasts with bonfires and plenty of dancing. All reveled in the joy of the bounty and performed rites of purification plunging into water and leaping over fire. So, why shouldnt we do the same?
What it is now
In the case of Puerto Rico, La Noche de San Juan fits in perfectly with the islands former name (now its capitals name), San Juan Bautista. The municipality hosts events throughout the entire weekend to honor its patron saint. Public beaches stay open, although bonfires there have been curtailed for safety reasons.
Our modern cleansing ritual has more to do with having fun and getting rowdy on a school night. It is the rum capital after all. Music piles up in the salty air. We hold hands and gladly plummet backwards into the watery unknown. We remember how to play, even if it means schlepping our tired bones out of bed the next morning.
Where the crowds go:
Following are great beaches to go to celebrate La Noche De San Juan, Puerto Rican style.
El Escambrón, Condado, Ocean Park, Isla Verde, Piñones...
All along the coast of the metro area is where the big guns take to the center stage. The city brings big names to celebrate. El Escambrón, the one closest to Old San Juan, is usually the most crowded. On the Laguna Condado, next to the Wyndham Condado Plaza, people from all walks of life get together on that little beach next to the Dos Hermanos Bridge. In Ocean Park and Isla Verde, all the major booze brands throw their a all-out parties. Look out for Red Bull, Medalla, Bud Light and Coors Light paraphernalia.
Dorado, Vega Baja, Manatí
The hotel beaches probably wont sport as much action as the public Sardinera beach in Dorado. Los Tubos in Manatí, a big party beach, and the popular Puerto Nuevo public beach in Vega Baja will certainly be hopping. Cerro Gordo in Vega Alta draws a more diverse crowd and plenty of locals.
Jobos, Isabela; Rincón; El Combate, Boquerón Beach, in Cabo Rojo and La Parguera, Guánica...
Jobos in Isabela attracts plenty of locals and granola types whove moved back to live from the land. There are also plenty of food kiosks brimming with greasy fritters, booming salsa and reggaetón music. Not much air conditioning, but lots of soul. Córcega in Rincón is a great beach with a family appeal and so is Rincón Bay. El Combate and Buyé in Boquerón get pumping while the booze flows freely. La Parguera is also a hot spot, although much of the action takes outside the village, yonder in the mangrove islands near Mata La Gata. Rent one of the local boats with guides to take you.
Luquillo, Fajardo, Palomino, Vieques, Culebra
The Luquillo public beach has plenty of surveilance, plus you get to finish off the midnight swim with a steamy crab alcapurria in your hand at the Kioskos de Luquillo. Las Croabas and Seven Seas in Fajardo are perfectly shallow with good lighting to plunge backwards at night. El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo usually holds a party at Palomino, its day trip island nearby. Sun Bay in Vieques is beautiful at night, so is Navio and Media Luna, both accessed through the main entrance. For a chilling night under the stars, these just about hit the spot, although most of the action will probably take place around El Malecón in Esperanza. Flamenco Beach in Culebra can get rowdy with all the teenage campers bent on some raucus action.
Everywhere around the island, kiddie pools are inflated, real pools finally put to good use and bathtubs filled with salt. Some plunge backward at will; others dip slowly backward many times so as to not overflow the receptacle theyre in.
La Noche de San Juan upholds age-old traditions. As long as the adventurous and creative are around, this mystic night will serve us all. Enjoy the numinous plunge!
Brenda A. Mari is a travel, music and entertainment writer and editor extraordinaire. She is also a consummate web copywriter with a penchant for the unique. You can reach her at email@example.com