Puerto Rico: A port of call that dances to a different beat under the glorious Caribbean sunshine

New non-stop flights to Puerto Rico make it easier to reach an island that has mastered the art of blending cultures – and cocktails
Leslie Woit

Bright and breezy: Old San Juan

Bright and breezy: Old San Juan

Where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic, the boat rolls over whitecaps under a muddled sky. Beside me, a muscled youth sporting a buzz cut and a singlet grips his rum punch tightly, the words of his tattoo rippling across his deltoids: “Thunder will clap, mast will shake, sailor on sailor, keep the faith”. And into a paper bag, he neatly throws up.

They’d warned us about the day’s unusual turbulence on the 45-minute cruise to the rustic, low-key island of Culebra, but we were game for the ride – those of us not suffering from mal de mer, anyway.

Tropical sunshine and cerulean sky appear on cue as we don masks and fins to slip into warm turquoise sea, ticking off two Puerto Rican highlights in one: the chance to snorkel, swim and languish on unpopulated Flamenco Beach, touted among the world’s most beautiful, and a photo opp with graffiti-speckled tanks in the sand. The tanks, originally used in US military exercises here, were abandoned after protests in the Seventies.

More than 500 years after Columbus claimed the island for King Ferdinand, naming it San Juan Bautista – soon renamed Puerto Rico, “rich port”, after gold was discovered – this Spanish colony turned US territory will become easier to access from the UK from next week, with the launch of non-stop flights from Gatwick.

After an afternoon lolling on the white sand of Flamenco Beach, it’s an hour’s drive east from the port of Fajardo to the capital, San Juan. Feeling like Dorothy, I step through a red-painted gate to the city, passing through the thick outer wall, which dates back to the 1630s, to emerge on to a blue-cobbled road that is spilling over with red bougainvillea.

Flamenco Beach

Flamenco Beach

The Unesco-listed old town is a manageable seven square blocks, though the African slaves who built its 3.4-mile perimeter wall would have felt otherwise. Brick by brick, the slender, winding streets were laid with cobbles that arrived as ballast on Spanish galleons.

In the 1521 Cathedral of San Juan, the congregation fills nearly every pew for high mass, delivered in Latin and Spanish, despite this being a weekday afternoon. Along with a clutch of other curious passers-by, I stand and listen inside the entrance for a few minutes. In addition to a rare Gothic chapel, this Neoclassical gem houses the remains of Juan Ponce de León. Sent by the Spanish on a quest for gold, the conquistador founded Puerto Rico’s oldest settlement, Caparra, close to what is now San Juan.

When the afternoon light softens, pastel- coloured 16th- and 17th-century Spanish-style buildings provide a trove of window-shopping delights. Cigars, Panama hats, coffee and hot sauce are the sought-after goods on cobbled Christo Street. And rum, of course. My guide tells me that 80 per cent of the rum enjoyed in the US is made here in Puerto Rico, and Bacardi, the world’s largest producer of the stuff, offers tasting tours in its Art Deco distillery across the bay.

As I take a seat in one of the many fan-cooled pavement bars, the sweet scent of coconut wafts past. The miracle fruit is both slathered and swilled by the pitcher-full: the pina colada was invented here in the Sixties after a process was developed to extract coconut cream. To that you add rum and pineapple juice, then blend.

Blending is the Puerto Rican way. Take the island’s soundtrack, for example: the word salsa means “mix”. From mamba master Tite Alonso to Ricky “She Bangs, She Bangs” Martin, music is emblematic of the island’s unique melange of Spanish, indigenous Taino and Carib Indian, African and American cultures.

The most popular place to listen and dance to salsa is off a small alley in Old San Juan. Nuyorican Café is bohemian, loud and doesn’t get going till 11pm. Even if your moves aren’t up to the (rather high) local standards, enjoying the band is guaranteed. Incidentally, you’ll hear the term “Nuyorican” a lot. It’s a portmanteau of “New York” and “Puerto Rican”; the Big Apple is home to more Puerto Ricans than their home island.

The following morning, I enjoy breakfast at Bakery Casalta, a beloved neighbourhood diner that earned fame when President Barack Obama stopped here in 2011. Locals like to kick-start their day with a quesito or two, a wickedly gooey sweet cream-cheese-filled pastry. This segues nicely into a day of fried empanadas, rice and beans and mofongo, the island’s staple of fried plantain mixed with bits of seafood or chicken.

Initial fears that I’d be gorging all holiday on gorgeous but heavy street food are allayed by a succession of fabulously stellar meals. First, I join local enthusiasts at long plastic-covered tables for a boisterous lunch of patitas de cerdo (pigs’ feet), spicy chicken, and pastelón de carne (lasagna with mashed plantain) from the chalkboard menu at Casita Blanca. Afterwards, Chef Fernando takes me on a tour of his rooftop herb garden.

Come evening, the scenery changes dramatically as I’m treated to a super-stylish meal behind drawn blinds at José Santaella’s eponymous restaurant. Formerly of elBulli, the now-closed Catalan establishment that several times was named the world’s best restaurant, Santaellas has perfected tiny ahi tuna skewers and tacos and blue crab fritters, delectable Antarctic sea bass and whole red snapper with pineapple chimichurri and coriander. He relies on local ingredients and veneration for mama’s cooking – and it shows. As the local saying goes, love enters from the kitchen.

Yet, Puerto Rico isn’t all about indulgence – there is a wealth of natural beauty too, and even within a short distance of San Juan are some lovely city beaches. A 10-minute taxi ride away is Condado Beach, flanked by the posh Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, and the St Regis and La Concha resorts. Slightly further down the coast is Isla Verde, a wide, crescent-shaped beach ideal for swimming, thanks to the offshore reef that calms big ocean waves. Surfers, meanwhile, head for the town of Rincón, over on the west coast.

From the edge of San Juan, I walk, bent at the waist into the perma-gale that lashes the wide park speckled with children and adults flying kites. Here is El Morro, the cliff-edge fortification perched high above the water and historically the most successful defensive military position in the New World.

In former times, Puerto Rico was considered the strategic key to the West Indies, and it was once thought that whoever defeated the Spanish Armada here would win the Caribbean and all of the Americas. El Morro was never defeated by sea, and only once by land; British troops captured it from the Spanish in 1598, though after six weeks an epidemic of dysentery killed so many men that they withdrew.

Ducking into a garita, one of the small sentry enclosures where Spaniards stood guard over hostile seas, I earn a moment’s relief from nothing more threatening than the gale and the glorious Caribbean sunshine.

Puerto Rico

By Erick Dowdle


Description: Puerto Rico

With it’s first settlement founded in 1508 by Ponce de Leon, Puerto Rico has a long history of colonization. Literally translated as “rich port”, the island was historically know for it’s transports of gold and silver from the new world to Europe. The city’s capitol, San Juan, is depicted in Eric’s painting of this caribbean island. Many walls and fortifications built by the Spanish government are still intact and surround the city. The vibrant culture is not only reflected in their art, food and music, but also the colorful architecture that abounds throughout the city.

Inside Story: Puerto Rico

*Castillo San Felipe del Morro (el Morro)
*Faro de Morro lighthouse
*Roberto Clemente – many great baseball player have roots in Puerto Rico.
*Pope John Paul II – first Pontiff to visit the Island – and Cardinal Luis Aponte Martinez
*Water Sports in the Caribbean are awesome.
*The Taino and Caribe cultures lived here for thousands of years.
*Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain on his 2nd Voyage.
*Juan Ponce de Leon – 1st Governor of Puerto Rico, never found fountain of youth.
*Jose Juan Barea – 1st Puerto Rican on Championship NBA team.
*Chi Chi Rodriguez – Pro Golfer, Touche’
*Cementario Santa Maria Magelena de Pazzis
*Castillo San Cristobal
*The Puerto Rico Capitol Building
*State Department Reception Center
*Iglesia San Jose
*Statue of Christopher Columbus- Plaza de Colon
*Iglesia San Agustin – Puerto de Tiera School
*San Juan Central Post Office
*Cathedral de San Juan Bautista
*Palacio de Santa Catalina
*Paseo de la Muralla – what a gorgeous walk.
*School of Fine Arts
*Casa Blanca – home of Juan Ponce de Leon
*Ballaja Barracks – Museum of the Americas
*Quincentennial Fountain
*Totem Telurico
*Plaza de Armas
*Flying chiringas (kites) in the ocean breeze at el morro, 5-star fun.
*Eric was amazed by the San Juan cats everywhere.
*Coquis’ – they sing the song of Puerto Rico.
)La Muralla

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico, officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, is an unincorporated territory of the United States of America. With its name which translates to Spanish as “Rich Port”, Puerto Rico has a population of 3,674,209 (2013 est).

According to archaeologists, the island’s first inhabitants were the Ortoiroid people, dating to around 2000 BC. They were followed by the Igneri people from South America around 120 AD.

The pre-Columbian Taino culture began to develop on the island in the late 7th century. It is thought that the seafaring Taínos are relatives of the Arawak people of South America.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1493, there were an estimated 50,000 Taino on the island. Columbus named the island San Juan Bautista, in honor of Saint John the Baptist.

The first Spanish settlement, Caparra, was founded on August 8, 1508. Within a few years the Spanish colonized the island in large numbers and maritime travelers soon came to refer to it as “Puerto Rico,” because of the growing and (rich port) of San Juan.

Over the years the indigenous population (Tainos) were exploited and forced into slavery. By the mid-16th century, they were reduced to near extinction by the harsh conditions of work and by the infectious diseases brought here by Europeans.

The importation of African slaves was introduced to provide the new (much needed) manual work force for the Spanish colonists and the growing number of merchants.

The Spanish, realizing the importance of Puerto Rico for the expansion of their colonial empire, built forts to protect their commercial interests, as well as the expanding port of San Juan from any invasion.

In fact, during the mid-17th century the Spanish successfully fought off numerous attempts by the Dutch, English and French to take control of their (now prized) colony.

But the desire for more land and riches was a powerful draw, and the Spanish began to take a renewed interest in their Central, South and North American colonies in the late 17th century.

So, with the exception of their scattered coastal outposts, and the busy port city of San Juan, the Spanish left the interiors of Puerto Rico undeveloped and un colonized for decades.

Across all of the Americas in the mid-18th century, freedom was the buzz word, and accepting the inevitable independence of their larger colonies, the Spanish refocused its attention once again on Cuba and Puerto Rico as two of the last remaining Spanish maritime colonies.

As an incentive to increase the population of Puerto Rico, free land was offered to Europeans who would colonized the island, swear loyalty to the Spanish Crown and allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church; the scheme worked worked well, very well.

In 1868, a brief independence movement surfaced in Puerto Rico. Then, in 1897, amidst growing discontent with Spain, a short-lived government was organized as an ‘overseas province’ of Spain with a governor appointed by Spain.

Near the very end of the 19th century, desiring strategic naval positions across the Caribbean and Central America, the United States offered Spain 160 million dollars for Puerto Rico and Cuba. Spain’s answer was a resounding “No!”

In 1898, the United States declared war on Spain, primarily motivated by the decades of unrest in Cuba and the unexplained sinking of an American battleship in Havana Harbor.

On July 25, 1898, during the ten-week Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was invaded by the United States. As an outcome of the war, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, along with the Philippines and Guam to the U.S. under the Treaty of Paris.

Consequently, the island of Puerto Rico began the 20th century under the military rule of the United States; the new governor was appointed by the President of the United States.

Some local governmental powers were granted the island, including an elected House of Representatives and court system, however, the U.S. maintained the ultimate veto control.

In 1917, Puerto Ricans were collectively made U.S. citizens. Because of that action a few thousand Puerto Ricans were drafted into the United States army during World War I.

Many Puerto Ricans remained unhappy with the U.S. takeover of their island, and the Great Depression made things worse. in 1937, a protest march was organized in Ponce; a march that ended with 19 deaths and hundreds wounded.

The U.S. response to that peaceful protest march was called a massacre by some, and on April 2, 1943, U.S. Senator Millard Tydings introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress calling for independence for Puerto Rico. That bill was defeated and Puerto Ricans were not pleased.

In 1947, the U.S. granted Puerto Ricans the right to elect their own governor, and so they did. On October 30, 1950, nationalists organized a 3-day revolt against the U.S. in various cities and towns. To squelch the unrest, the U.S. used military force.

In the 1950s, the Puerto Rican financial situation took a strong turn, as its new manufacturing-based economy began to replace the island’s long-dependency on agricultural products. That positive growth continued on into the 1960s.

financial building Today the island of Puerto Rico is one of the major tourist destinations in the Caribbean, and a significant factor in the regional petrochemical, pharmaceutical and technology industries.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens but they can’t vote in U.S. presidential elections. And because the United States Congress still legislates many aspects of Puerto Rican life, the details of the Puerto Rico/U.S. relationship are simply baffling, and widely debated to this day.

Like all people, Puerto Ricans also want freedom, and after a long (mostly positive association) with the U.S. many feel that if a referendum on (total) independence from the United States was put to a direct vote (today) it would easily pass. Well, that happened in 1998, and more than 50% of the population said “They weren’t sure!”

Regardless, we’ve traveled to this casual, yet exciting island many times, and from Old San Juan to Ponce, we loved it. So will you



Culebra Isla Chiquita

Culebra, forma parte del archipiélago de Puerto Rico, la Isla Chiquita, su mar de colores es el preferido de visitantes y turistas, es dueña de una las mejores payas del mundo.

¿Qué se puede decir de Culebra? Se puede decir que es uno de los lugares mas bellos del mundo, que sus costas y playas son únicas, que su paisaje es idílico? Nunca había ido a Culebra y siempre deseaba ir a ver el mar turquesa de que tanto me hablaban. Así que nos levantamos temprano para tomar la primera lancha. Es sumamente difícil lograr boletos para Culebra porque tal parece que todo el mundo quiere ir allá en los meses de junio y julio.

Todo es compacto en Culebra, su pueblo Dewey, es el único en todos los municipios de Puerto Rico que su nombre es en inglés. En años atrás, Culebra, igual que Vieques, era una base naval y aquí se llevaban a cabo rutinariamente prácticas de bombardeos. Los culebrenses lucharon muchos años para liberarse de esa angustia

Fuimos en día de semana en agosto y así evitamos las grandes multitudes que viajan a Culebra. Como el grupo nuestro contaba de seis personas, optamos por alquilar un carro y así pudimos también viajar por las dos carreteras principales, la 251 y la 250. La 251 nos llevo a la playa Flamenco, playa nombrada como una de las diez mas bellas del mundo. Estaba soleado y el cielo completamente despejado. Colgamos nuestra hamaca y desde ahí tome esta foto. La arena es blanca y no se siente caliente al pisar. Se nos fue el tiempo rápidamente en Flamenco nadando y tomando sol. El balneario cuenta con modernas facilidades y kioskos (comederos) que preparan de todo, jugos de fruta fresca y hasta arroz con gallina.

Otras playas en Culebra a visitar son Resaca, Brava, Tamarindo, Melones, Soldado y Zoni. En nuestro próximo viaje a Culebra, procuraremos visitar otra playa, aunque con lo bella que es Flamenco lo tenemos que pensar bastante. Tengo entendido que también se puede bucear y que los arrecifes son espectaculares.

En el muelle de Culebra, muy moderno y cómodo, esperamos la lancha para regresar a Fajardo. Siempre hay mucho movimiento turístico a Culebra y gente de todas partes del mundo vienen a ver y disfrutar la playa de Flamenco.

Tenemos planificado otro paseo a Culebra, para conocer el pueblo y probar las delicias de la isla. Para ser un pueblo tan pequeño ya investigue que tienen dos panaderías.   Hay que probar el pan!



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