Puerto Rico: part-tamed but still wild (Martin Symington)
Article Words : Martin Symington | 18 January

Puerto Rico: Beyond imagination

The off-beat Caribbean: Yankee yet proudly Latino, part-tamed but still wild, and sprinkled with a bit of Mother Nature’s magic

Early evening on Mosquito Bay and the surface of this circular inlet among the mangroves was already black as oil. The moon had yet to rise on the Caribbean island of Vieques, so my guide Abe Velasquez and I were paddling our two-man kayak into a deepening darkness abuzz with insects. Abe looked piratical with his knotted bandana and spiky salt-and-pepper beard. He promised: “In a moment you will see something beyond imagination…”

The first sign of magic was a milky glow in the water following each stroke of our paddles. As we neared the middle, these brightened and separated into fiery clusters and pinpricks of radiance. The mood of unreality was intensified by the outline of a fish slicing the depths like a golden blade. Then we stopped to flick flashes of light into the air with our paddles. I cupped my hands to spill a profusion of tiny stars between my fingers. Trickles of luminous paint ran down my arms, then dissipated.

What in God’s name was going on? This was no theme park trick; instead, planet earth seemed to be pulling off a stunt she usually keeps to herself.

If you want a (rough) explanation, it goes like this: seawater contains dinoflagellates, microscopic organisms that absorb sunlight during the day by photosynthesis. At night they protect themselves by emitting light whenever they sense movement; this attracts fish that feed on their predators. A normal quantity of these micro-organisms might be about 30 to the gallon – imperceptible to human notice. In various bays and lagoons around the tropical world, however, a complex combination of mangroves, climate and chemical composition of the water can vastly increase the prevalence of dinoflagellates. Mosquito Bay has up to 700,000 per gallon, making it probably the world’s brightest.

Abe explained all this to me as we bobbed about in our kayak. But hang the science, I remained mesmerised by the marvel in a similar way to when I first witnessed the northern lights.

Outside the box

With or without its otherworldly waters, Vieques is a strange island. Part of the archipelago of Puerto Rico, it is about 34km long by 7km wide, fringed with powdery beaches and reached via ferry or a ten-minute light aircraft hop from Fajardo on the main island’s eastern tip.

However, from the Second World War until 2003 the island was mothballed as a US Navy base and so virtually off-limits to tourism. Now that the forces have left, Vieques is one of the most compelling reasons for coming to Puerto Rico. In contrast with the mainland, there are no casinos, malls, fast food or golf. There is just one smart resort, the boho-chic W Retreat where I was lucky enough to stay, plus a handful of B&Bs.

If Vieques is not quite planet earth as we know it, Puerto Rico as a whole is strikingly different from anywhere else in the Caribbean. The ‘Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’, as it is officially known, simply does not fit into any box. American since 1898, it is an ‘incorporated territory’ whose four million inhabitants use dollars, hold US passports and are entitled to almost all benefits of citizenship. But it has so far declined to become the 51st state. Instead it remains pointedly Latino, with Spanish remaining the medium of education, business and government.

Politics is a perennial discussion, and I don’t think I met two people with the same take on Puerto Rico’s identity all the time I was there. But I heard plenty of comments along the lines of: “Hawaii lost its culture by becoming a state, but we will always be Latino before Yankee.”

Nevertheless, my arrival in Puerto Rico was an all-American experience. A poker-faced immigration officer at San Juan’s international airport ticked the form guaranteeing my guiltlessness of moral turpitude. Then I rode into town on a six-lane freeway passing baseball diamonds and mega-malls, yellow school busses, an improbable number of pharmaceutical factories and high-rise holiday condos.

On the other hand Old San Juan, named by Columbus in 1493 and heart of the capital, felt Latin American to its core. Starting at Paseo de la Princesa, the promenade that traces the city walls on the outside, I strolled round to El Morro, a colossal fortress with huge cannons pointing out to sea.

Five centuries of turbulent history have been played out beneath these battlements, though these days there is a jaunty air among the narrow streets, which are cobbled with stone brought from Andalucía as ballast on the galleons. Blocks of perfectly preserved colonial buildings are painted in pastel shades while strains of salsa beat from bars and cafés.

I stopped on Calle Fortaleza for a bowl of spicy shrimps at Barrachina, the restaurant that proudly claims to have invented the Piña Colada in 1963. The food was delicious, though it demanded a cold Medalla beer rather than a creamy cocktail. The area was teeming with street jugglers, musicians and boys selling masks and kites to cruise-ship passengers and other tourists – overwhelmingly Americans.

Heading for the hills

Puerto Rico’s beach resorts are the main allure, but my plan was to hire a car, point its exhaust pipe at the coast and head for the mountains. What enigmas would unravel in a few days self-drive through the hinterland?

On a baking-hot morning I corkscrewed 600m up to the welcome cool of the interior to follow the ‘Ruta Panoramica’, which threads through the Cordillera Central, the spine of the island. The landscape and terrain seemed to change at the bat of an eyelid. One minute I was snaking along a muddy track of reddish clay under a dense, darkened canopy of bamboo and African tulip trees; the next I was in wild, open, uncultivated country of bulbous humps saturated with rampant vegetation and splashes of vivid orange and purple flowers.

Mountain villages such as Aibonito and Utuado reminded me of road trips I have taken in Costa Rica and also, oddly, in that other US bounty of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines. Old Chevrolet pick-ups were parked outside wooden homes; posters advertised prize fights and beauty pageants; suckling pigs, skewered snout-to-tail, roasted on open fires by the roadside.

I stopped for an industrial-sized hunk of the resulting lechón, stuffed between huge slabs of white bread. “Te gusta comida fuerte!” (“You like strong food!”) cried café-owner Alvaro approvingly, pumping his fist. I told him that yes, I preferred a boxer’s rather than a beauty queen’s lunch and we laughed together.

Continuing westwards I slowed to a cautious dawdle along the edge of a yawning canyon before reaching the rolling green hills of coffee country. Coffee in Puerto Rico had its glory days in the latter half of the 19th century. The island still grows smaller quantities at high-end estates such as Buena Vista, which I found runs a slick operation with tours and tastings. Following the process from bean to brew was a bit like visiting a Bordeaux château – except that the final product was served with hot, frothy milk.

Finding a coffee hacienda to stay in, however, was a little less straightforward. “We don’t recommend this… haciendas are for the local market,” my tour operator warned. Certainly, the 1858 Hacienda Gripiñas plantation house was a bit rough around the edges, with a tin roof and rickety old furniture. Production at the estate ceased long ago, as evidenced by the disused iron water wheel next to a retro swimming pool, fed by a waterfall tumbling down from the Cerro de Punta.

But with a bit of concentration I could picture colonial times, with the Spanish coffee baron lording it over his African workers. The scene suggested something out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel.

Pre-Raphaelites and pelicans

Sugar and rum also have their roots in slavery, and on the road down to Ponce, on the south coast, I passed the remains of abandoned mills with crumbling brick chimneys. I am glad I did not miss Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second city. First impressions were of arriving in a provincial town somewhere in southern Spain: grand houses with Moorish-style arches and balconies; cafés spilling on to pavements; the huge twin bell towers of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe cathedral shading an expansive main square full of picnicking families and kids bathing in the fountain.

The eye-bursting, red-and-black candy-striped Arabesque fire station was more of a surprise, as was the concentration of first-rate museums. My favourite was the astonishing Museo de Arte de Ponce – an extravagant amalgam of European, North and South American and Caribbean paintings and sculptures, including stuff by Delacroix, Gainsborough and Rodin, plus an improbably large collection of Pre-Raphaelites.

Ponce is not a port so, in contrast with San Juan, there was an absence of cruise-ship passengers, which made for a refreshingly un-touristy flavour. I did find a boardwalk and waterfront scene at the fishing harbour of La Guancha, a few miles from the city centre, but there was a somnolent air about Pito’s Ocean Grill where I relaxed with a pre-dinner beer, watching the silhouettes of freighters gliding across the dimming horizon. In front of me, the occasional pelican took flight like a departing 747. Was the huachinango (red snapper) fresh, I had the temerity to ask my waitress.

“Only the pelicans eat fresher, sir!” she laughed reassuringly.

Into the wild

Heading back into the Luquillo Mountains in the east of the island, I climbed through a layer of cloud to emerge at the mist-tattered edge of 114 sq km El Yunque National Forest, the only rainforest on US territory.

At El Portal Visitor Centre I met guide Yugo Morales who had plotted a 14km, all-day trek for me, starting at the Baño de Oro trailhead and linking together some of the more arcane tracks through the dense tangles.

I puffed and sweated trying to keep up with ultra-fit Yugo (“as a kid I had a Yugoslavia soccer team shirt and the nickname stuck”) who had served Uncle Sam as a marine in Iraq. We climbed muddy tracks and plunged into ravines, in one place using loops of long-stemmed, woody vines to ease ourselves down the side of a waterfall where writhing coils of spray thundered into a rocky pool. Every now and again we would emerge at a glade with sweeping views down to the coastline and milky-blue bands of the Caribbean beyond.

Yugo pointed out insect-eating plants and termite cities as he revealed, by degrees, some unexpected passions. For example, he proved to be an expert in rare birds and the trees in which they nest: he located a glossy-leafed tree, home to the endangered Puerto Rican parrot (though sadly the birds weren’t around). Then, in the folds of a red-flowered bush, we found a hummingbird’s nest occupied by a pair of cream-coloured eggs the size of coffee beans.

I also learned how natural medicines found in El Yunque’s barks and leaves have long been of interest to drug companies. In consequence Puerto Rico now produces more than half of all the medicines consumed in the USA, which explained those pharmaceutical factories outside San Juan.

That evening I stayed at a little forest lodge, stupendously positioned on a mountainside just beyond the National Forest border. Recently opened by reformed New York stockbroker José Rafael, the seven-room El Hotelito boosts its eco-credentials by using rainwater and solar power, and by serving only simple, locally sourced food. It struck me as a rare example of far-sighted investment.

After dinner I lay swinging in a hammock on the terrace with a glass of rum on ice, listening to the chirping music of the coquí frogs. From here I had an uninterrupted view out across the Vieques Sound to the island itself, twinkling in the darkness and promising its own special magic.

The author travelled with Western & Oriental. A seven-day trip including BA flights from Gatwick, B&B stays in four-five star hotels, and car hire costs from £1,439pp based on two sharing.