Puerto Rico: Beyond San Juan

December 5, 2006

Night had already fallen over the lush green peaks of the Cordillera Central when I wandered onto the balcony of the Hacienda Gripinas – and straight, it seemed, into the 19th century. I had intended to pull up a wicker rocking chair and listen to an evening chorus of coquies, the island’s tiny green frogs, whose two sharp notes echoed hypnotically from the surrounding foliage. But this was Saturday night, and the Puerto Ricans staying at this restored plantation house-cum-hotel were out to complement the natural music.

Sitting in one corner of the porch were four generations from a single family, all impeccably groomed for an evening on the town, gathered around a young guitarist who was playing a slow, sentimental ballad. The grandfather, with a gray mustache as thick as a coat brush and wearing a guayabera, the white shirt of the local gentry, was singing in a rich bass voice about unrequited love. The rest of the family nodded along, smiling wistfully to the old Spanish tune.

We all applauded softly, but the song was much too mellow for a Saturday night, and the guitarist slipped quickly into a lively merengue. The whole family got into the act, singing and banging on anything they could find. Even the great-grandmother, who looked about 95, played happily away at a tambourine, tapping her foot and rocking from side to side.


And just to round off the whole scene, some couples at the other end of the porch suddenly let out some whoops and started dancing the flowing, deceptively simple merengue, twirling one another effortlessly in tiny, rocking circles.

There I was between the two groups, feeling, I must admit, a little intimidated. My God, I thought, I hope these people don’t ask me to sing a little ditty from home. (Why, I couldn’t even whistle a passable Madonna tune). Later, one of the dancers, a 30-something executive, sat down beside me. “We were born to party in Puerto Rico,” he said. “We have 12 months of summer every year, so we can can party all year-round.”

He was, by that stage of my visit to Puerto Rico, only stating the obvious. Puerto Ricans are so famous for partying that it has almost been elevated to the national pastime, the essence of puertorriquenidad – Puerto Ricanness.


Everywhere I went I seemed to run into parties: There were graduations and inaugurations, reunions and saints-day festivals. Even meals in small restaurants turned into parties when the waiters started singing karaoke-style to back-up sound.

But here on the hacienda porch, the music took on its most symbolic resonance. The courtly, genteel atmosphere – just a few friends and relatives sitting around before dinner, without a drink to fortify them – matched the gracefulness of the old coffee hacienda. The whole scene seemed a throwback to the more innocent, gentle days of a past agricultural society.

Although Puerto Rico has plunged headlong into the modern world – its cities sprouting the American landscape of superhighways, fast-food stores, and shopping malls – the more traditional, Hispanic culture asserts itself again and again, particularly “out on the island,” as Puerto Ricans refer to anywhere beyond the ever-expanding capital of San Juan. It’s a side of Puerto Rico that few travelers seem inclined to seek out – if they’re even aware it exists.


North America’s unusually muddled image of Puerto Ricans stops somewhere on Broadway, with a girl named Maria and a gang called the Sharks snapping their fingers in West Side Story. Most Americans aren’t sure whether the island is a foreign country or a part of this one. In fact, annexed by the United States in the last days of the 1898 Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico exists today as a “free associated commonwealth” – a polite term for a colony.

One convenient side effect of this historical anomaly is that Puerto Rico is eminently accessible for mainland Americans, a corner of the Caribbean that can be visited without having to go through customs and immigration or changing money. It is affordable; you can drink the tapwater; and almost everyone speaks some English, even the grizzled old characters who look as if they’ve never left their mountain village. (Teaching English has been part of U.S. influence from day one, and the Puerto Rican National Archives are full of school essays about such oddities as winter snow and Thanksgiving, which President Teddy Roosevelt defined for Puerto Ricans as thanking God for liberation from the Spaniards.)

And this century-long blending of North American and Latino cultures is coming to a head this year: A Puerto Rican plebiscite is planned on whether the island should remain a commonwealth or finally become the 51st state of the Union (a decision that would require congressional approval – which many think unlikely).


Flying to Puerto Rico in January had a pleasing symmetry: It was 28 degrees when I left New York City and 82 when I arrived in San Juan. The Old City’s pastel colors were glowing in the preternaturally clear light of the Caribbean, the stone walls of its looming Spanish fortress turning gold in the sunset.

Charming as it was, the colonial town felt like a mere appendage to the Miami-style beach resorts and glitzy casinos that ring modern San Juan. Which helped explain my loose plan to pick up a rental car and go as far from the capital, physically and metaphorically, as possible.

It turned out to be surprisingly easy to do, by driving over the mountains on Highway 52 to San Juan’s slower paced, more traditional alter ego, the city of Ponce on Puerto Rico’s southern, Caribbean coast.

I arrived in Ponce on the afternoon before Three Kings Day – more important than Christmas in the pecking order of Puerto Rico’s religious festivals. Ponce’s streets were in gridlock. It took 45 minutes just to negotiate the alluringly named Plaza de las Delicias (Plaza of Delights), where last-minute shoppers crushed around stalls selling cheap Taiwanese toys.

Still, there was something relaxed and almost pleasurable about the traffic jam: Drivers courteously stopped to let others enter the flow or allow pedestrians weighed down with presents to pass. And the delay gave me time to appreciate the wealth of architectural detail in what is considered the most Puerto Rican of cities.

While the hallmarks of Old San Juan were Spanish colonial fortresses and narrow streets, Ponce, the great port for the island’s 19th-century coffee and sugar plantations, was open to influences from every corner of Europe. Like a miniature New Orleans, it boasts single-story mansions with wide, cool verandas and French iron lace – an eclectic mix of neo-classical, Art Nouveau, and even 1930s Spanish-revival styles. All have been given a new lease of life in one of the most ambitious restoration plans in the Americas.

Pablo Ojeda O’Neill, an English-trained Puerto Rican architect, helped coordinate the restoration effort. With funds from the Spanish government, he and others organized a school to train young people in architectural restoration.

Ojeda told me that Ponce’s current state of preservation was made possible, paradoxically, by generations of neglect.

“Five years ago, Ponce was like a ghost town,” Ojeda explained as we explored the historical center on foot. “But that meant Ponce was left standing, while other, wealthier Puerto Rican cities lost their oldest buildings to development.”

Like many other Puerto Rican nationalists, Ojeda looks back fondly on the days earlier in this century when Ponce, rather than San Juan, was the island’s economic and cultural center, the source of its strongest independence movements, and home to the country’s leading artists, playwrights, and musicians. Scattered through the city are reminders of that pre-industrial era, from the Serrall¿s “castle,” the Xanadu-style home of a local rum dynasty, to the modern Ponce Art Museum, the finest of its kind in the Caribbean.

One afternoon I joined the enthusiastic Puerto Rican couples pushing prams through the museum galleries, looking at Puerto Rican masters and Pre-Raphaelites (acquired in the ’60s, when they were out of fashion in the art world), while the sounds of Rachmaninoff, being played on a grand piano, echoed through the corridors.

That night, less cosmopolitan urges ruled Ponce. Shopping for Three Kings Day reached its crescendo, and the plaza, its trees festooned with brightly colored lights, felt more frenzied than Macy’s on Christmas Eve. Families paid their respects to life-size models of the kings visiting the manger (in Puerto Rico, they travel by horse, not camel), while inside the cathedral a priest held a plastic baby doll, with a cardboard halo attached, for the faithful to kiss.

The local restaurants were closed, so I retreated to a restaurant out on Route 2, where fresh red snapper was served on a balcony overlooking the Caribbean, and the music drifting on the evening breeze was undiluted Frank Sinatra.

If ponce still hovered between cultures and generations, there was no question that the Cordillera Central is firmly embroiled in the past. As I drove the long, tortuous, spectacular highway upward into these mountains, I reflected that this region has always seemed to embody the traditional soul of Puerto Rico, while its reserved, soft-spoken inhabitants – the j¿baros, or rural workers – are the backbone of Puerto Rico’s self-image. Rather like the Wild West or the Australian outback, the Cordillera has become a semimythological place that urban-dwelling Puerto Ricans like to dream about, maybe even visit, but never actually move to.

Fifty years ago it was all but impenetrable except on horseback. Now dozens of narrow highways cross the island’s jagged, banana tree-covered heart, all of them winding so impossibly that any distance turns out to be three times as long as it looks on a map. Signposting is so poor that I got lost at least once on every route, often in mountain villages where major roads seemed to run through chicken-filled backyards. But the aging proprieters of roadside stalls were always more than happy to give directions, and local drivers were fairly merciful toward my snail-pace driving. (Except, that is, for one blue VW packed with five nuns, who aggressively tailgated me, continually honking their horn.)

Safely ensconced in the various coffee haciendas that the Puerto Rican government operates as part of the parador, or small inn, system, I picked a destination for each day in the mountains – the vast Camuy Caves one day, the museum of religious art in San Germ¿n the next. But it didn’t take long to realize that the real pleasures of the Cordillera are its accidental discoveries: rows of pink houses squeezing onto the edge of forest-covered chasms; frontier towns where hymns wafted from whitewashed churches; innumerable roadside stalls serving skewers of barbecued pork and chicken.

I stopped at one place where a faded sign read, for sale: musical instruments and fighting cocks. The old, wild-eyed owner dragged me into his backyard, past yelping dogs and scrabbling chickens, into a cage full of his prize roosters. He picked one up. “I’ve made over $1,000 in the last month with this one,” he boasted, offering to part with this frenetic-looking champion for $75.

Coffee is still grown in the Cordillera on a small scale, and to buy fresh beans I went to the town of Maricao. The inauguration of a new mayor was in process when I arrived, with a 12-piece salsa band playing in the main plaza. Important men in ties and suits worked the crowd, pumping hands and wiping their profusely sweating brows, while party officials – who looked like the local Goodfellas – occasionally interrupted the music to make loud speeches.

The town’s coffee vendor turned out to be Se¿or Pico, a genial old man with cracked eyeglasses. He led me into his corrugated-iron store, which was piled high with green plantains, and lovingly weighed out two bags of the local beans.

I put them in the backseat of the car, and for the rest of my journey, the rich, caramel smell of Se¿or Pico’s coffee caressed my nose every time I opened the door.

Driving down from the cool,

reserved Cordillera to the island’s southwest coast was like entering a different country. A relaxed, hedonistic world soaking in rum and lulled by the waveless sea, this corner of Puerto Rico is perhaps the most pristine part of the island. Classic, palm-fringed beaches border stretches of the world’s last “tropical dry forest” – actually a stark, prehistoric landscape of cacti and brittle grass that recalls the Gal¿pagos Islands.

Hotel developers have their eyes on the southwest, making this the front line for Puerto Rico’s environmental movement.

“The unplanned construction of megaresorts destroyed the northeast coast,” said Miguel Canals, a forest supervisor who became something of a folk hero for blocking one resort project in an ecologically sensitive corner of Gu¿nica State Forest. “We’re not going to let the same thing happen here.”

Canals and others want to restrict development along this coast to small, parador-style hotels, located outside the breeding grounds of Puerto Rico’s unique birds and amphibians.

The few hotels that now exist here were built as holiday spots for the Puerto Rican middle class, and a certain taste for kitsch helps in enjoying them, as I found out when I checked in one night at the parador in Parguera.

The atmosphere was Key West circa 1965, with music piped into the restaurant and cheap souvenir shops all around town selling “I Love Puerto Rico” key rings, along with small statues of saints glued on open clams. (“Virgins on the half-shell,” one traveler impiously described them.)

But the setting was pure Caribbean. One morning I hired a motorboat and headed out among the mangrove cays that dot the coastline. In water so clear I could have counted the hairs on my toes, I threw the anchor overboard and went swimming.

The next day I drove down to Cabo Rojo, the most far-flung corner of the island, where a pale blue lighthouse looms over yellow cliffs like a tropical version of Cape Cod. Edward Hopper would have felt at home. At the edge of the water, just across from the wharf, a handful of conch fishermen had converted their house into a makeshift restaurant, with a wooden bench in the shade.

Lunch was, as writer Spalding Gray might say, my perfect moment: The afternoon sun was glinting from the sea; the elderly proprietress served up empanadillas stuffed with shellfish and doused in fresh lime juice, and I carried on an idle, meandering conversation with the fishermen that ranged from Caribbean tides to the best time of day for catching lobster.

From cabo rojo i drove into boquer¿n, which for its relentless eccentricity could be the “Northern Exposure” town of Puerto Rico. It looks like a Barbary Coast pirate outpost, and everyone in the Bistro del Sol, the town’s social hub, had a story – from the owner, an American psychotherapist named Barbara, who kept dashing off upstairs to work on her book about women and depression, to the ocher-skinned characters in leather vests and white sailing caps who all apparently washed up here in the ’60s.

Fishermen trundled through with buckets full of red snapper. A young, deaf, flamboyantly gay Puerto Rican held a sign-language conversation with the cook. Two tanned women who cruised the Caribbean year-round loudly explained what was wrong with the rest of the world (crime, taxes, and winter being the major culprits). And a hulking fellow with a silver ponytail paid for his drinks with small change from a clay pot and threw in occasional, elliptical comments from the rear.

“You can’t get into any trouble here in Boquer¿n,” announced one of the sailing women. To which the ponytailed fellow said, “Oh yes you can!” with such conviction that nobody dared argue.

And in the Bistro del Sol, I met Vivian, a nuyorican – as Puerto Ricans brought up in New York City are called. She first visited Puerto Rico when she was 30 and couldn’t believe that this slow-paced island was where her parents had come from. After moving (with her four children) to Boquer¿n, to escape the drugs and racism of the New York ghetto, she found that Puerto Rico took a little getting used to.

“The women are all so polite here, they dress so perfectly and have better manners,” she said in her broad Brooklyn accent. “I thought I should try and act more feminine, more elegant, you know? But it just didn’t work.” She leaned across the bar theatrically. “After a while I decided: I’m not Puerto Rican. I’m…American!”

For the historical key to Vivian’s reverse migration, I went back to the dreamy, heat-baked town of Gu¿nica, where in 1898 some 3,000 U.S. troops landed to seize Puerto Rico from the Spaniards. The invasion was a rush job: Spain was desperately trying to sue for peace after its defeat in Cuba, but the U.S. government was eyeing an instant empire. (It snapped up the Philippines in the same imperial moment.) Yachtloads of reporters were sent over by New York newspapers to cover the invasion, and everyone involved was roundly disappointed to find almost no military resistance.

The details of this “splendid little war,” as one U.S. official called it, are rarely displayed in Puerto Rico today. The only memorial on the malec¿n, the walkway along shimmering Gu¿nica Bay, is a rock engraved with the graffiti of U.S. marines and bearing a plaque laid by the Puerto Rican chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

In a nearby house I called on Romualdo Olabarrieta, a soft-spoken fellow in his 60s whose long-dead uncle was comisario of the town when the Americans landed and had raised the first U.S. flag on Puerto Rican soil. Olabarrieta recalled how the Gu¿nica townsfolk fled the morning American battleships were first sighted, only to return in the afternoon and greet the soldiers as liberators from the Spanish.

“We received the Americans well,” he said proudly. “It was just like a fiesta.”

The cheers and music continued in nearby Ponce and all along the march to San Juan – until Puerto Ricans realized that the Americans were here to stay, and they had simply traded one set of colonial masters for another.

The island fared poorly under U.S. rule until the 1950s, when a new government started the development push that has transformed Puerto Rico from the poorest island in the Caribbean to the wealthiest. Where one stands on this process defines a Puerto Rican’s political position today: Independistas say the bargain was a Faustian one, selling the island’s culture and soul for material gain.

Their argument is advanced with a certain wistfulness these days. There is a pragmatism in the air, an acknowledgment that the last century cannot be wiped out even if most Puerto Ricans would like it to be. Still, there is concern that in achieving statehood, what remains of Puerto Rico’s fragile cultural independence could be slowly engulfed.

“We are Latin Americans,” one woman told me passionately. “Our language and culture are different. The majority of Puerto Ricans might not think about it every day, but we feel it, we respond to it.”

For one last taste of this unself-conscious culture, I stopped in at the fiesta patronal, or saint’s day festival, in San Sebasti¿n – one of the week-long extravaganzas that every Puerto Rican town big enough to boast a plaza holds every year. A crowd of thousands had converged on the streets to watch a procession led by la novilla, the best-looking newborn calf in town, garlanded with ribbons in an age-old Spanish custom.

Next came a salsa band on a truck, followed by dozens of floats showing The Discovery of the Island (children dressed up as conquistadors) and The Country Feast (three drunkards carving up a roast pig). Last but not least came the town’s beauty queens in huge white convertibles: First, Miss Cinnamon Skin, in a white cocktail dress and elbow-length gloves, followed by a not-so-young Miss Eternal Beauty.

The live music continued late into the night, and as I walked past stalls offering barbecued beef, pi¿a coladas, and mechanical horse-racing games, it occurred to me that while it was a rather rundown, even shabby event, it was not without its charm. Families strolled, chatted, drank, and nibbled their way around the plaza under the warm January night sky. And nobody paid much attention to me. In the whole raucous throng, I was the only foreigner.


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