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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Puerto Rico...


February 18, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. All Rights Reserved.

The stone steps are deep and smooth in the middle, a testament to centuries of wear. Inside the coolness of stone tunnels, one can almost hear the stomp of ancient soldiers' boots, and the cries warning of enemy ships approaching. Sounds echo through the dank dungeons, while high above, through the keyhole-shaped sentry tower windows, the dazzling blue ocean sparkles like diamonds in the sun.

This is the Castle of San Felipe del Morro, or "El Morro." For centuries, the fortress helped protect Puerto Rico from marauding enemies; now, it welcomes thousands annually -- this time in the form of tourists.

For years, however, Puerto Rico has been somewhat of an afterthought among Caribbean-bound tourists, seduced by other tropical destinations that seemed trendier. But now -- thanks to rum, the new popularity of salsa dancing, a slew of new hotels, and Ricky Martin, "la vida loca "-- the crazy life -- is heating up again.

The island expects to increase its hotel room numbers by 40 percent in the next two years, adding more than 5,000 rooms, according to the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. These include everything from budget properties to luxe all-suite properties; Puerto Rico 's first all-inclusive resort, the extravagant Paradisus Sol Melia resort, will open in 2002.

Already, the tourist count has risen from 2.6 million in 1990 to 3.4 million in 1998. More than two-thirds of these pilgrims are from the United States, according to the Puerto Rico Tourism Bureau.

What's drawing them? Besides its pristine beaches, rich history, tantalizing night life and savory cuisine, Puerto Rico has a distinct advantage over many other equally appealing tropical spots: It's a U.S. commonwealth. So it's an especially easy destination for American tourists. No passport is necessary, the U.S. dollar is the official currency, and the Spanish-impaired need not worry; English is widely spoken.

Puerto Rico , Spanish for "rich port," sits squarely in the Caribbean Sea, north of Venezuela and west of St. Maarten, and it is a land steeped in history. When Christopher Columbus landed on its coast on Nov. 19, 1493, he found the Taino Indians thriving, with a fully developed fishing and agriculture industry. The island became a Spanish colony soon after Columbus' arrival and remained one until 1898, when it became a commonwealth of the United States during the Spanish-American War.

The small size of Puerto Rico -- 100 miles long and 35 miles wide - - and a good network of roads make it possible to see much of the island on a single visit. There is considerable diversity on this isle, and Old San Juan, on Puerto Rico 's northern coast, is a logical place to start.

Against the brilliant backdrop of the Caribbean Sea, old men sit and play guitars beneath waving palm trees. The old city is home to El Morro, and is located a short drive from the capital city of San Juan and Luis Munoz Marin International Airport. From the airport, an $8 cab ride will get you to most hotels in the area.

After a trip through El Morro, stroll the tight, cobbled streets of Old San Juan. The area still maintains its Colonial flavor, visible in the Spanish-style architecture.

Luscious scents waft from myriad open-air restaurants, where one can dine on native dishes like fried plantains, mofongo (crushed plantain stuffed with meat or seafood) or lechon asado (roasted pork).

Old San Juan is also home to the Barrachina Cafe, where the pina colada was allegedly invented. Inside, sit among tropical plants and sip the sweet drink. If rum isn't your thing, try Medalla, the island's principal beer. Either way, don't linger too long, because you'll need energy to get through an afternoon of shopping. Old San Juan offers up beautifully crafted native goods, like wooden figurines, sculptures, masks and baskets. And you'll find plenty of places with inexpensive trinkets to take back to friends.

Although the twin San Juans, with their famous locations and bustling resorts, are a primary destination for those visiting Puerto Rico , other parts of the island offer their own attractions.

On the eastern side of the island are the cities of Luquillo and Fajardo. Luquillo offers stunning beaches for sunning and surfing. Fajardo is a historic fishing village that now boasts a host of coral reefs, lagoons and forests. Most of the hotels are quaint, but tend to be smaller and less extravagant than the ones in San Juan.

Just inland from Fajardo, in the town of Rio Grande, is El Yunque Caribbean National Forest. It is the only rain forest within the U.S. National Forest System and receives more than 100 billion gallons of rainfall a year. Lush El Yunque, named for the Taino spirit Yukiy, is home to the endangered Puerto Rican parrot and the coqui, a tiny frog native to the island.

Also on Puerto Rico 's east coast are the two small islands of Culebra and Vieques . Both offer secluded beaches and historical sites.

To the south is Ponce, the island's second-largest city. The city is drenched in Colonial flavor and once flourished as the island's principal area for sugar cane and the rum trade. Nearby, the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center has the oldest known Taino cemeteries in the Antilles, an ancient observatory and ball courts, similar to those found in Mexico and Central America.

The principal city on the western coast is the port city of Mayaguez. Here, one can find a nature preserve and the Juan A. Rivero Zoo. In the winter, whales swim off the coast of the rural town of Rincon.

As the sun sets on the Caribbean, the night comes to life. In San Juan, many of the more upscale hotels have gambling and dance clubs on the first floor. The plush casinos are generally open until 4 a.m. and offer roulette, blackjack, craps, poker and slot machines -- beginning at nickel games for the faint of heart.

On any given night, you can see everyone from hotshots betting big bucks to novices trying out the nickel and quarter slots. But you invariably see the regulars -- old women who sit, armed with buckets of change, and work two or three machines at a time.

For tobaccophiles, the casinos usually have an area where cigars of different sizes are hand-rolled and sold. Although they don't seem to be of the same quality as Cubans, they're not bad -- and they're less expensive.

You must be at least 18 to enter casinos, and the dress ranges from casual to formal, depending on the casino. Many hotels also have nightclubs that shimmer well into the evening with salsa and merengue music. The lobbies tend to fill up quickly with beautiful people who gather to see and be seen.

Even outside the clubs, the music of Puerto Rico infuses the air as the young and old stroll along the beaches and the streets. Puerto Rico is home to musical legends like the late timbalero Tito Puente, and contemporary pop stars like Ricky Martin, whose "Livin' la Vida Loca" has shot off the charts in this country and around the world.

So bring your dancing shoes. Salsa and merengue are standard fare at local discos, and watching the action can be just as much fun as taking part.

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