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New York Post

In The Swim: Getting To Know Puerto Rico's Southwest Coast


November 13, 2001
Copyright © 2001
N.Y.P. Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

THE muddy road behind Bahia Salinas - a tiny hotel on Puerto Rico's southwest coast - looks like it leads to nowhere.

But the rugged path weaves through marshes and brush to an abandoned century-old lighthouse perched high on sheer red cliffs that hug a hidden crescent of beach.

During my four days at the hotel, I rose before dawn and ran a mile out onto that road to see the sun rise above the cliffs.

Alone in a nature preserve, I was far from the casinos of San Juan and the mega resorts of the island's northern coast.

It takes three hours to drive from San Juan to this somewhat uncharted part of the island, through arid, wheat colored hills and tiny towns populated by Puerto Rico's own brand of cowboys.

For miles, there is nothing but an occasional sign for a rodeo, or a farm with a lone silo.

Finally, you reach the hotel at the end of road 301, on a narrow spit of land at Puerto Rico's southwestern tip.

Bahia Salinas isn't a fancy place. Stationed just across the street from the flamingo-pink - salinas - (salt mines), it is nestled in a grove of palm and bougainvillea. Roomy couches and wicker chairs offer plenty of space for lounging along a boardwalk shaded by a long palapa facing the waterfront.

Rooms, stationed around the amoeba-shaped pool, are utilitarian and a little stuffy, though all have air conditioning. (You can't open the windows, which is a shame, because breezes from the bay would have been lovely.)

The hotel is one of a growing number of paradores in Puerto Rico - family-run hotels that offer small-scale and reasonably priced accommodations in less-traveled parts of the island.

One of the hotel's biggest attractions is a hot tub filled with the gritty saltwater of the flats. Laced with magnesium, bromine, iodine, sulfur and potassium, the water burns the skin when you first get in.

But the owner assures guests that a soak in the mineral-rich waters is worth the sting; its curative properties are supposed to heal allergies and skin problems, regulate metabolism and alleviate stress.

Guanica, about 50 miles east of Cabo Rojo, is worth exploring. It's a lazy fishing town with a mangrove-rich waterfront and a dry forest that is one of the island's most nature-rich state parks.

Scuba fans come to dive on the nearby marine wall, said to resemble the Grand Canyon under water.

After lunching on ceviche and salad at the high-end Copamarina Beach Hotel, I took a boat ride out to a small mangrove-covered island, a perfect place a nap.

I also checked out Posada Porlamar, a parador located on the marina-lined waterfront of La Parguera, a sleepy town about 10 miles west of Guanica.

The parador provides clean and bright rooms for devoted divers, who come expressly to hone their scuba skills. From dusk to 10:30 p.m., the hotel arranges boat rides ($4) to nearby Bioluminescent Bay.

In the bay, microorganisms called dinoflagellates illuminate when disturbed by movement, so night swimming creates an eerie underwater light show.

After the moonlit boat ride, I enjoyed a delicious dinner at the Posada Porlamar, where the chef offered innovative twists on Puerto Rican cuisine, such as lobster timbale in garlic cream with yellow plantains, and mahi-mahi fillet in peach sauce.

On another day, I drove to Ponce, the island's second-largest city, about 25 miles east of Guanica, slightly inland from theisland's southwest coast.

The city dates back to the late 17th century, and its proud residents have done their best to preserve the stately Colonial homes, plazas and churches.

Plaza Las Delicias, the city's cultural center, is home to the Ponce Museum of Art, said to be the best art museum in the Caribbean - but I was in town for art of a more homespun sort.

Ponce's master mask maker Kenneth Melendez welcomes visitors to his home, where he demonstrates his papier-mache renditions of Vejigante, the monster that roams the streets during carnival, the week before Ash Wednesday.

Melendez uses five layers of newspaper soaked in a paste of flour, water and lemon juice to fashion the masks into monster-like bulls heads, then paints them in bold primary colors.

He also invites guests onto his porch, where they can sway to salsa music, enjoy a snack and visit with his family for a glimpse at a slice of Puerto Rican life that few tourists ever see.

*Mask maker visits, (787) 844-1451. Bahia Salinas, rooms $90-$125, two-night package for family of four, $396, (787) 254-1212; Posada Porlamar, rooms $75-$125, (787) 899-4343. Copamarina, from $220, (787) 821-0505. Puerto Rico Tourism,


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