Thursday, February 27, 2014

Postcards from Puerto Rico

There are two distinct yet odd sounds that dominate the humid Puerto Rican air – the incessant croaking of these native tiny frogs called “coqui”, named such for the sound they make, and salsa music. One is an organic reminder of a time and place when frog noises were still audible (I soon realized I have not heard frog noises in a very long time), the other, a complex and brisk intermingling of timbales, horns, and percussion.

The Dutch and I were in Puerto Rico for the Thanksgiving holiday last November. I had won a fitness challenge at my work (*fist bump*) that rewarded me with an extra paid day off pre-Thanksgiving. As a default on week-long downtimes, we turn to the map and bilaterally pick a destination. In contention with Nassau, Aruba, and the Bermudas, Puerto Rico won by a landslide. We (meaning the Dutch) had some air miles to burn and Puerto Rico was the path of least resistance.

Puerto Rico is a US territory. What that means geopolitically, I still have yet to understand. They are still their own republic and Puerto Ricans could shuttle back and forth mainland because they are United States passport holders. I was hoping that I could practice my Spanish a little bit here but to my personal disappointment, everyone in San Juan spoke English – with New York accents even! I didn't realize that what this meant was that compared to Mexico (oh, they hate being compared to Mexico) or other Caribbean islands, the currency in PR is US dollars. I was hoping for an exotic island vacation where the value of my money would be greater (rare nowadays), and a little disheartened to find out that it did not actually work that way. But hey, good for Puerto Rico!

We were in Puerto Rico short of a week and our itinerary would start on the eastern coastal town of Fajardo.  We would hike in El Yunque National Forest (that big green spot on the map west of Fajardo), then take a day trip to Palomino Island, which is a private island exclusive to Waldorf Astoria guests. We would then spend the remainder of our time in San Juan, the capital. In between, we would day trip to Guvajate in Puerto Rico's midsection.

El Yunque is the only rainforest in all of the United States.  It is on the eastern part of the island and only within an hour drive from the capital, San Juan.  Nature is the main draw of this area and this is why it won our precedence.

A hike to the top (you drive halfway up), climb a tower, and the staggering view of forest, ocean, sky, and clouds arrest you.
Palomino Beach is a private island about twenty minutes by boat from El Conquistador Resort.  This placid and secluded piece of the Caribbean is amazing!

We end our trip in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico.  Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan) was our absolute favorite neighborhood in San Juan.  The colorful sunwashed historic buildings, narrow corridors, small sidewalk bars, cobblestone streets meandering up and down hills until you reach the ocean - it's all very special.  We loved getting lost here.

But most of all, the people of Puerto Rico are as warm and beautiful as the country itself.  I feel an affinity to them because like the Philippines, Puerto Rico was colonized by Spain for 400 hundred years (a little short of Spanish rule of 333 years in the Philippines).

Watching the island of Puerto Rico recede from the middle seat view on the plane to Florida, I ponder on the dichotomy of this country and try to remember not just how it looks but how it sounds. Puerto Rico is a very audible place, filled with the chorus of frogs meshing beautifully with salsa music escaping from every window.  In a way, Puerto Rico has an American metropolis vibe, possessing the vibrancy and pulse of salsa – and if you're a salsa dancer, you’d know this – how the pace and syncopation could rob you of your breath mid-dance. Yet, it maintains a certain untouched quality to it in its cloud forest peaks or deserted beaches. And to return to it, this place where these things still coexist, all one must do is to play Tito Puente in one’s head, and sure enough, all those colors come flooding back in.

If you go:

Jet Blue flies direct from Miami. It’s a quick 2 hour flight made pleasant by entertainment screens on every seat. Yes, in coach. You also get one free checked bag.  All that, for a very attractive price.

In Fajardo, we stayed at El Conquistador, a Waldorf Astoria resort.  Expedia oversold our original booking to a boutique B&B so we got an upgrade.  My first choice really was this charming bed and breakfast close to the rainforest called El Hotelito at the Rainforest Farm.

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