Photos and report by Samuel Gaytan
San Antonio Express-News
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Discover Puerto Rico now, before the rest of the world finds out its magic and descends in hordes.
It will happen. There are too many wonders on the island to keep its secrets for much longer.
Where else can you savor the tastes and experiences unique to the island’s blend of African, Indian and Latin cultures without having to learn another language or worrying about currency conversions? Dollars are the currency and almost everyone knows English.
A stay in Old San Juan is perhaps the best way to discover the glories of Puerto Rico. A good center of operations would be the Hotel El Convento. Originally the first Carmelite convent in the New World, it is now the only luxury hotel in the heart of Old San Juan.
The building offers a festively decorated casino, a restaurant, luxurious rooms (albeit smaller than some might expect – remember, this was a convent) featuring hand-carved furniture, a mountain of pillows, candy by the bed and a phone both in the bed and bathrooms.
To begin studying the island’s rich religious past, walk across the street to visit San Juan Cathedral, built in 1521 then rebuilt starting in 1540 after a hurricane.
The oldest cathedral in the western hemisphere, it houses not only incredible works of art on its ceilings and alcoves, but the remains of two figures of note: Ponce de Leon, who gave the island it’s name, and St. Pius’ skull, which is in a reliquary beneath a stained-glass window.
Across from the cathedral and the hotel is the Plaza of the Nuns. Following the street downhill will take you to the Old Gate. A quick walk through the gate will unveil a seaside panorama of ocean and mammoth colonial architecture of the moss-covered wall that protected San Juan from attack by sea. Explore the Paseo de La Princesa (the Avenue of the Princess) as it curves along the shoreline.
Music lovers might want to stop by the Pablo Casals Museum, where nearly 200 hours of video and recorded music can be played by request. The cellist made Puerto Rico, where his both his mother and wife were born, his home from 1956 until his death in 1973. The Casals Festival, which he started in 1957 to help the island, now serves as an annual homage to the man whose heart was even greater than his music.
For contrast, walk to the Cuartel (Barracks) de Ballaja, built in the mid-19th century as Spanish army headquarters.
The fort offers an idea of the area’s past military importance, looking down across San Juan and the Atlantic.
If you’re lucky enough to be staying in Old San Juan on the first Tuesday of the month, join the revelry of Noche de Gallerias, where the galleries in Old San Juan stay open from 6-10 p.m. and thousands of youthful art connoisseurs gather to visit and hope from gallery to gallery and bar to bar. One of my favorite things about the area is that the bars don’t close until the last customer leaves.
On the other hand, if you want all of your entertainment options in a concentrated package, El San Juan Hotel & Casino is the one-stop answer.
With everything from a casino featured in a James Bond movie to seven restaurants, nine lounges, a spa, a cigar bar, nightclubs, an Olympic-sized pool, 24-hour tennis courts, non-motorized water sports, and a bar that opens onto the white sand beach, it’s hotel heaven for the vacationer out to enjoy life intensely.
And it houses Aquarela restaurant, owned by chef Douglas Rodriguez, which is a dining experience every visitor to San Juan should experience.
The standouts among stars were the sticky tamarind glazed tuna, pollo criollo, and pastel de choclo.
But there is much to be discovered outside San Juan as well.
A stop in Ponce is a must for any lover of art.
The Ponce Museum of Art features the best collection of art on the island, with works by Puerto Rican, U.S., European and Latin American artists. Featuring works by such artists as Rubens, Le Brun, van der Helst and Batoni, its jewel is Lord Frederic Leighton’s (1830-1896) “Flaming June.”
The work is a masterpiece in the use of red and its various hues.
Resort areas outside San Juan hold their own treasures.
The Copamarina Beach Resort near Guanca is a good destination for scuba-diving enthusiasts. The resort offers excellent views of the Caribbean, as well as diving lessons and rentals of equipment for diving, wind surfing and other water sports. Divers should bring their certificates.
The resort has a dock where boats can be charted for quick trips to nearby Gilligan’s Island. The popular area (named after the television series) offers a primitive swimming and diving experience only 15 minutes offshore. Be warned: It doesn’t have baths.
The only drawback to the resort was the shower. It had push dispensers for shampoo and the like, as well as an uneven floor made of small square tiles.But if what you’re looking for is escape, the Horned Dorset Primavera hotel in Rincon is the choice.
Featuring rooms that overlook the Caribbean, hand-carved mahogany beds and marble baths with tubs big enough to swim in (only a slight exaggeration), a stay at the Primavera is like a stay at a mansion whose staff’s only aim is to help you relax and enjoy a laid- back life.
Each of the 32 rooms offers quiet privacy, and none has a phone or television. But don’t worry: Wake- up knocks can be arranged.
A few of the rooms even offer their own private pools, so you can take a dip in the sea during the day or take one outside of your doorway at night.
The Primavera features one of my best dining experiences in Puerto Rico, with an attentive yet subtle staff. The appetizer of grilled lobster with arugula and mango was only a precursor to the even more satisfying Limosin beef rib-eye with potato gratin, roasted garlic and red wine.
The only drawback to my Primavera experience was a water pressure problem with the shower and bath water. Also, the hot water was an on again-off again experience. However, both problems are being addressed.
But staying in Puerto Rico’s urban areas will only show you half of the island’s magic.
Nature has made sure other avenues for exploration abound.
Less than an hour’s drive from San Juan is the 28,000-acre Caribbean National Forest, better known as El Yunque.
El Yunque’s visitor’s center offers interactive displays for young and old alike. A short film narrated by actor Jimmy Smits, whose father is Puerto Rican, introduces visitors to the area’s wonders, which include waterfalls, Taino petroglyphs and wild orchids.
Begun by King Alfonso XII of Spain in 1876, today it is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system.
But don’t overestimate your abilities when visiting this gem.
For instance, a trek to La Mina falls was pleasant enough going down, with a wet respite offered in the pool below the cascading water, but the trek back was all uphill. Older people, those with heart conditions or people whose good intentions outweigh their abilities might want to consider a drive through the forest.
Around two hours outside San Juan is another of nature’s gifts. The Camuy Cave System was carved out by the world’s third- largest underground river.
While stalagmite and stalactite formations can be found elsewhere, the 300-acre park’s juxtaposition of them with the foliage that caresses the entryways into Clara Cave make for a unique vision, transfixing visitors with a glimpse at underworld marvels and nature’s greenery at the same time.
Visitors reach the mouth of Clara Cave via a tram, then take a footpath through the 170-foot-high cave to a second sinkhole, with light shimmering down through the foliage in a hazy mist. A natural reflecting pool greets visitors near the rear of the cave.
A trip to the island will leave visitors with an appreciation for the creative spirit of man and the creative force of nature – as well as wondering when they can return.