America Transported To The Steamy Caribbean
Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Viejo (Old) San Juan, Puerto Rico. June 2, 2015
The Caribbean is not very conducive to spontaneous, whimsical independent travel. Maybe that’s why the region doesn’t attract too many of the spontaneous, whimsical independent type of traveller, travellers who, like me, embark on a spot of Caribbean island-hopping (all-inclusive cruise, anyone?). Earlier in the trip I managed to sweet-talk my way out of Cuba and onto my flight to Jamaica, despite not having a confirmed onward flight (out of Jamaica). At the time it was an issue, as was arriving in Puerto Rico, the smallest, eastermost & last of the Caribbean’s Greater Antilles I was to visit en route to the so-called Lesser Antilles. The US Immigration official in San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport didn’t like the fact that I had no idea how long I’d be spending on the island, or where I’d be flying to once all was said and done – with so many options “east” was about the best I could muster. He couldn’t care less for my island-hopping exploits. Ditto for my desire to be as impulsive as possible en route. But as hard-nosed as he was, he did create a Wi-Fi hotspot on his iPhone to allow me book onward passage. That saw me jumping immediately on a $50 JetBlue flight east to Sint Maarten/Saint Martin in 9 days’ time, securing ludicrously inexpensive passage in a region where ludicrously inexpensive passage is the exception rather than the rule. Only then was I free to be enchanted by the Caribbean’s self-titled Isla del Encanto, Island of Enchantment. And enchanted I was. I had many but, and somewhat unexpectedly, Puerto Rico was to prove to be the highlight of my time in the Caribbean. And now that I’ve left the region, I still can’t quite explain why, other than to say it’s, emm, well, enchanting. All I know is that if I had to revisit one Caribbean destination in the morning, it would be Puerto Rico.
HISTORY, DEBT & STATUS WITHIN THE US
The island of Puerto Rico was claimed for the Kingdom of Spain in 1493 by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World, a.k.a. the Americas, conveniently ignoring in the process the native Taino Indians who had called the island home for centuries. Known to the natives as Borinquen (Land of the Noble/Valent Lord), a name some Puerto Ricans still use to this day, Columbus christened the island San Juan Bautista in honor of the Catholic saint, John the Baptist (it was renamed to its present Puerto Rico, meaning Rich Port, in 1521 with the founding of the capital San Juan, the second oldest European-established capital city in the Americas after Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic). It wasn’t until 1508 that the Spanish, under Juan Ponce de Leon, actually got around to establishing a colony on the island. Right from the get-go they were looking over their shoulder. Revolt by the Taino was brutally crushed in 1511 & by the 1530s they were also fighting off threats to their colony from European privateers & pirates, all of whom were lured by the wealth flowing out of Spain’s New World colonies & many of whom were armed by Spain’s European colonial rivals, the French, the English, & the Dutch. The English themselves, under Sir Francis Drake, attacked in 1595 & again in 1598, while the Dutch gave it a go in 1625. All advances were repelled, although the British attack of 1598 did have some success which resulted in the British holding the island for a limited time. At the time of the English attacks San Juan’s Castillo San Filipe del Morro was the city’s lone defensive structure guarding the entrance to Bahia de San Juan (San Juan Bay) & protecting it from naval attack. Continuing threats meant defences had to grow to meet the challenges, although a lot of it was reactive – the impressive defensive system of walls and fortifications eventually built to defend the city from land attack were only initiated after the Dutch attack of 1625. Wars raged between European powers throughout the 1700s. Losses to British forces in the Caribbean during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) only served to heighten the strategic importance of Puerto Rico to the Spanish & they continued to rebuff all hostile advances thus protecting their vital New World communication & trading routes.
– Philip IV of Spain (reigned 1621-1665)
Spanish Colony To US Commonwealth
The 1800s was a period of decline for the Spanish. Weakened by international conflict & a Civil War at home, Spain lost its grip on much of its New World empire; in the 1810s & 1820s Mexico, Columbia, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru & Chile all gained independence & by 1870 only Cuba & Puerto Rico remained under Spanish control. But not for long. The outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 was the final knell of the Spanish in the Caribbean & by the end of the 108-day war they had lost control of not only Puerto Rico but also Cuba, Guam, & the Philippines. Ouch. The island became an official territory of the US, and its inhabitants US citizens, in 1917. Thirty-five years later, in 1952, the island’s first constitution was approved, its flag flew officially (& legally) for the first time and the island became the self-governing US commonwealth it remains today, neither a full-blown state nor an independent country but somewhere in between.
Present-Day Puerto Rico (& Statehood?)
Today Puerto Rico, with a population of 3.5 million, is the Caribbean’s US-sponsored economic powerhouse. Needless to say, over a century of American supervision & decades of American-style development means Puerto Rico is as you’d expect (you just don’t expect it in the steamy, laid-back Caribbean) – mega malls, factory outlets, fast-food joints & clogged multi-lane highways; Puerto Ricans, and just like their mainland cousins, have an unhealthy obsession/reliance on the car (although, and in their defense, public transport on the island, as I was to learn, is abysmal). Although boasting the highest GDP per capita in the region & tax-free earnings (Puerto Ricans pay no income tax), Puerto Rico is still poorer than the poorest US state (Mississippi) & broke as a joke – the island is a whopping & well-publicised US$72+ billion in debt. It works hard to keep its tourist numbers high – the island is a popular destination and thus tourism a big earner – thanks to its combination of rich history, tropical climate, diverse natural scenery & passport-less travel for mainlanders. But the island also seems to work hard at trying to figure out where exactly it fits in. Four times since the late 20th century Puerto Ricans have voted to resolve their political status, most recently in November 2012. That resulted in a majority (54%) voting in favor of a change in status, with full statehood the preferred option (as opposed to keeping the status quo or full-blown independence, the latter a pipe-dream for a small few). However, the result was highly controversial with nearly half a million votes left blank leading statehood opponents to suggest that the referendum actually revealed only 45% support for statehood. The Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico has since enacted a resolution requesting the President & Congress to end its current status as an unincorporated US territory and begin the process of admission to the union as a state. Puerto Rico. The 51st state? Maybe. Maybe not. Watch this space.
Discovering Puerto Rico
A ubiquitous Puerto Rican traffic jam saw me missing my flight off the island, a scheduled 8-night stay extended out to 9. Not for one minute of that time did I ever feel like I was in the Caribbean, the stifling heat, palm trees, gorgeous beaches & abundance of rum notwithstanding. But make no mistake, this is the Caribbean. It’s just the Caribbean Americanised. For me Puerto Rico was to be the last of the so-called Great Antilles islands I was to visit – following on from time warp Cuba, moneyed Grand Cayman, Rastafarian Jamaica, Third World Haiti, & historic Dominican Republic – but it was also to prove to be my favourite location of the lot. And here’s why.
Read all Puerto Rico location postings in chronological order or jump to specific postings using these links.
Capital Region – San Juan & Cataño (Casa Bacardi)
Western Puerto Rico – Isabela, Rincón, & the Arecibo Observatory
Central Puerto Rico – Ruta Panoramica
Eastern Puerto Rico – Playa Luquillo, El Yunque National Forest, Fajardo, & the traffic jam/missed flight
CARIBBEAN ISLAND HOPPING – Moving On || Puerto Rico to Sint Maarten/Saint-Martin
San Juan & Cataño
A sentry box on a section of the Viejo (Old) San Juan walls, Puerto Rico. June 2, 2015
San Juan & Cataño || The second-oldest European-established capital city in the Americas, chock-full of colourful cobblestone backstreets, gorgeous architecture, historic fortifications, & awesome street murals. Oh, and not forgetting the world’s largest rum distillery.
The majority of my time in Puerto Rico was spent in its capital, San Juan, the historic second-oldest European-established capital city in the Americas. This is where the Island of Enchantment first got its clutches into me, and it never let go. A spread-out city with a population of 400,000, I fell head over heals for its seductive combination of colourful backstreets, gorgeous architecture, historic fortifications (walls & forts) & awesome street murals, some of the best I’ve seen on all of my travels.
It rained a lot when I was in the capital. Mostly in the afternoon – the mornings & evenings were typically sunny & clear. Regardless of the time of day or the climatic conditions, it was hot. Hot & sticky in the hot & sticky Caribbean.
Viejo (Old) San Juan & Its Fortifications
Viejo (Old) San Juan is the compact & mostly walled northwestern portion of wider San Juan, itself an islet connected to mainland Puerto Rico via bridges. A seemingly endless labyrinth of crooked cobblestone streets, pastel-painted colonial buildings and historical fortifications, it is the oldest Puerto Rican settlement & one of the oldest & best preserved colonial cities in the Americas. It’s one hell of a visual & historical treat.
I spent a lot of time snooping around and exploring Veijo (Old) San Juan, popping in and out of shops, historic buildings & museums, ogling at gorgeous architecture, lazing in open-air cafes overlooking tree-shaded plazas, & walking atop historic fortifications.
While Viejo (Old) San Juan is characterised by its quaint streets, numerous public plazas, buildings & churches, including San José Church and the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, the latter of which contains the tomb of the Spanish explorer & original European island settler Juan Ponce de León, the highlight of the district for me was its UNESCO-listed system of fortifications; even to this day the oldest parts of the district remain mostly enclosed by massive walls dotted with iconic sentry boxes and anchored by two massive forts.
San Juan’s Importance & Fortification System
Puerto Rico was strategically vital to the Spanish. The position of the island at the eastern, European end of the Greater Antilles meant it was an eastern gateway to the Caribbean region & the very first major island in the region with water, shelter, and supplies that sailing ships came to en route to the Americas from Europe; trade winds, helped by strong ocean currents, propelled sailing ships here from Europe & vice versa. Effectively guarding access to the unimaginable riches of the Spanish New World beyond (in Mexico & Central and South America), in holding Puerto Rico the Spanish possessed the key to the whole New World, the Western Hemisphere. As such they built, over a 250 year period, a massive & complex system of impregnable fortifications centered on the northwestern tip of the islet at the mouth of the island’s primary harbour, present-day San Juan Bay, a deep, sheltered and readily defended bay. Their so-called “Defence in Depth” system fortified San Juan Islet against enemy entry with three lines of defence. The structures of the first and second defensive lines no longer exist, but the third and final line – the walls of present-day Viejo (Old) San Juan & its two major fortifications of Castillo San Felipe del Morro (a.k.a. El Morro) & Castillo San Cristobal – still stand to this day and remain as not only the oldest European-type masonry fortifications in the US but also as the UNESCO-listed remnants of the high point of 1600s and 1700s military engineering, a time when war and trade travelled on sailing ships.
– UNESCO commenting on La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico
Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a.k.a. El Morro
Viejo (Old) San Juan’s emblematic Castillo San Felipe del Morro is one of two forts, the other being Castillo San Cristóbal, that acted as the primary defenses of the settlement. Perched on the very western tip of the San Juan Islet and guarding the entrance to San Juan Bay, construction on El Morro started in 1539 when it was nothing more than a promontory with a single cannon. Beefed-up numerous times over the years, by its completion in 1790 it was the powerful six-level fortress it is today, one boasting 40-meter-high & 5-metre-thick walls. Part of a U.S. Army post, Fort Brooke, right up until 1961, the fort, today probably Puerto Rico’s most famous & most visited attraction, houses an informative military museum on the history of the occupation of the island and on the construction of the fort. But more than that, it survives as a UNESCO-listed masterpiece of military engineering from the 1500s to the present.
– Lonely Planet
A few other captures from my ambles around Viejo (Old) San Juan.
– Lonely Planet Puerto Rico
(New) San Juan
San Juan isn’t all about Viejo (Old) San Juan. Of course not. There’s a city beyond the walls and the cobblestone streets of the San Juan Islet’s northwestern tip. Here are a few pictures from my explorations away from the UNESCO-listed portion of the city, somewhere that is no less interesting an area to explore, although a lot more spread-out.
Cataño & Casa Bacardi
Rum is the national drink of Puerto Rico so it didn’t come as much of a surprise to me to learn that the island is home to the largest rum distillery in the world, Casa Bacardi, the so-called ‘Cathedral of Rum’. Located across Bahia de San Juan (San Juan Bay) in the Cataño region of the island, it’s a short ferry ride from the passenger ferry terminal in Viejo (Old) San Juan and a Puerto Rican must-see.
Casa Bacardi is a busy place. While the tour of the distillery is rather quick & well rehearsed (& no longer free, as it once was), I still enjoyed it. However, it was the freebies afterwards that were the highlight for me, all the more so when gifted a handful of bar tokens as compensation for the inconvenience of having to sit around in the breezy, open-air bar area waiting an extra 15 minutes for my tour to start. I was in no hurry so I harboured the ‘inconvenience’ well, if I do say so myself. Of course the glorious, cherry-infused, orange-heavy rum punch helped pass the time, as did the mojito. Both went down well. Very well.
Western Puerto Rico
Isabela, Rincón & the Arecibo Observatory
At the Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico. June 4, 2015
Western Puerto Rico
Isabela, Rincón & the Arecibo Observatory || Beaches, surfer dudes, as far west as you can go, a lighthouse, and the world’s largest radio telescope set among rolling karst countryside.
Island Road Trip
Puerto Rico isn’t big, the 9,000 km² rectangular main island only measuring some 180 kilometres east to west & 65 kilometres north to south. I’m assuming one can get around via public transport but I’d imagine it would be slow going. There was no way I wasn’t going to tour the island and there was no way, & having waited in San Juan for buses that never came, that I was going to do so via whatever public transport was available. So I hired a car for three days, the only realistic way to see the island, and headed west via the PR2, Puerto Rico Highway 2, the island’s longest highway, on the first leg of a scoot around the island; a road trip will always be a highlight of any visit to any destination, even brief ones on small Caribbean islands.
– Lonely Planet Puerto Rico on the island’s publicos
Isabela & Playa Jobos
A 2-hour, 130-kilometre drive from San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport on PR2 brought me to Isabela, a region of wild & rugged coastline dotted with surf-lashed beaches at the island’s northwestern corner. A small & welcomed detour off PR2 brought me onto Route 466, a narrow, winding, hugging coastal road providing access to a number of beaches. Having just spent the last 5 days in built-up San Juan, the sense of freedom and calm here was awesome; although it is actually only some 80 miles, being here one feels a million miles removed from the capital & its environs.
A short 40 kilometre drive from Playa Jobos brought me to my overnight destination for this day, Rincón, Puerto Rico’s surfing central shoehorned out in the island’s most psychedelic corner. Once you get here you can go no further west.
Rincón is Puerto Rico’s idyllic wave riding retreat, one that was immortalized in the 1962 Beach Boys anthem Surfin’ Safari and further brought to the attention of wave riders and alternative lifestyles after staging the 1968 World Surfing Championships. By all accounts, and although this is still Puerto Rico at it most unguarded, Rincón’s hedonistic peak has passed and things are a tad sedater these days. I’d well believe it. It was rather quiet when I was in town – both the waves & the scene – although there were a few devil-may-care ‘dudes’ havin’ a good ol’ time in the bar of the town’s Rincón Inn where I holed up for the night.
Heading inland from Rincón, it wasn’t long into the 2-hour, 80-kilometre drive to the Arecibo Observatory that I hit the hills – Puerto Rico’s narrow coastal plain quickly gives way to its largely mountainous interior.
The Arecibo Observatory
This, the amazing Arecibo Observatory, is the reason I hired a car in Puerto Rico, the vast and iconic research centre where the mysteries of the universe are explored.
– Bill Gordon, Father of the Arecibo Telescope
Central Puerto Rico
Ruta Panoramica || A narrow, winding road that cuts through the island’s mountainous centre. Up there as one of the world’s most scenic drives.
I was looking forward to the visual spectacle of Puerto Rico’s Ruta Panoramica (Panoramic route). How better to traverse the island from west to east than via its famed scenic route, a combination of winding, narrow mountain roads cutting straight through the island’s Cordillera Central (Central Mountain Range) and boasting numerous scenic lookouts, rest areas, and recreational facilities en route. Supposedly it’s up there with the best of the world’s scenic drives. Indeed, Lonely Planet, never known to wildly exaggerate, claims tacking the route is ‘the ultimate thrill’. Wowzers. I was worried, Could I handle it? Should I even try? I did but once I got to where I expected to be thrilled, all I saw was mist. Lots of mist.
I still drove the Ruta Panoramica, I just don’t have anything to show for it save for these few images of mist, cars, mist, signage, & more mist.
Eastern Puerto Rico
Playa Luquillo, El Yunque National Forest & Fajardo
Playa Luquillo, eastern Puerto Rico. June 5, 2015
Eastern Puerto Rico
Playa Luquillo, El Yunque National Forest & Fajardo || Probably Puerto Rico’s best beach, a tropical rainforest high, & the wonderful architecture of the east’s marina city.
The mist of the island’s Ruta Panoramica wasn’t long about dissipating when descending from the Cordillera Central & approaching Fajardo at the eastern tip of the island. From one side of the island to the other, via the Arecibo Observatory & the Ruta Panoramica, and all a few leisurely & pleasurable hours of driving. Yes, Puerto Rico is indeed small.
A popular beach, probably the island’s finest stretch of sand and definitely the best of the Puerto Rican beaches I expereinced. Supposedly ‘action-packed’ at weekends (this was a Friday) & famous island-wide for its many food kiosks, mile-long Playa Luquillo was a postcard-picture scene of tranquillity, idyllically and downright loungeability for the time I spent ankle deep among its delightfully powdery & warm sand.
El Yunque National Forest
Although it used to be a lot bigger prior to the efforts of axe-wielding Spanish colonisers, today 113 km² (28,000 acres) of public land, the largest swath of public land on the island, in the eastern Sierra de Luquillo is given over to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the US (yes, the US mainland has rainforests). Today the Commonwealth’s green lungs are easily Puerto Rico’s biggest outdoor draw boasting walking trails, interpretive centres, waterfalls, swimming holes, and odd – as in totally out of place – observation towers, including one atop its very highest point.
I was only ever going to use Fajardo as a base for El Yunque. By all accounts it’s a place one comes to to get elsewhere so I wasn’t expecting anything from Puert Rico’s so-called water sports capital, access point for off-shore islands and jumping-off point for popular trips to the psychedelic delights of Bioluminescent Bay, a Puerto Rican must-do that I didn’t. Yuppie types are forced to deal with the somewhat sprawling & scruffy outskirts of the town en route to Fajardo’s Puerto del Rey, the largest marina in the Caribbean (if it floats you’ll find it here), but I’m hoping in doing so that they stop to admire the architecture of the town’s awesomely photogenic central square, Plaza de Fajardo.
– Arleen Pabon, Architectural Historian
The Flight-Missing Traffic Jam
It’s not far from Fajardo to San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, only 50 kilometres or so via the two-lane Interstate 3/PR3 & Highway 66. It’s a brief drive, or at least it shouldn’t be.
A Greater Antilles Departure
Leaving Puerto Rico brought to an end the first half of my Caribbean adventure. The last of the so-called Greater Antilles islands that I visited, Puerto Rico was just the latest in a string of stark Caribbean contrasts following on from time warp Cuba, moneyed Grand Cayman, Rastafarian Jamaica, Third World Haiti, & historic Dominican Republic. But the contrasts didn’t stop there as I embarked on a 2-week post-Puerto Rico Lesser Antilles island-hop south that ultimately got me to the South American continent. First of the Lesser Antilles was Sint Maarten / Saint Martin, a small 90 km² island rather bizarrely divided roughly in half by the Netherlands (Sint Maarten) & France (Saint Martin). Contrasts indeed. You probably can’t point to the island on a map but I bet you’ve seen images from the approach to its just-off-the-beach airport.