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Monday, Apr 15, 2002

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A rich port, literally!

Inder Raj Ahluwalia

It's the right mix of the Caribbean and Spain with richness of history, nature and cosmopolitan entertainment. Inder Raj Ahluwalia visits the vivacious Puerto Rico that offers a dream vacation.

The beaches of Puerto Rico are a major draw.

The beaches are as pale and the climate as inviting as anywhere in the Caribbean. And all this comes with a richness of history, nature, culture and cosmopolitan entertainment.

It's a bit like Spain in a tropical setting. Music, dancing, and rum-swigging parlours, create the `spirit of the South'. That's Puerto Rico for you, and it offers vacations the way they were always meant to be. One can explore old-world towns, Gothic cathedrals, and 400-year-old forts, or lose oneself amid modern floor-shows, designer stores, art galleries and symphonies — all on the same day.

The Taino Indians who greeted Columbus in 1493 made a big mistake when they showed him gold nuggets in the river and told him to take all he wanted. This to a man who wrote: "Gold constitutes treasure and he who possess it has all the needs in this world. He has the means of restoring souls to the enjoyment of paradise''.

Originally, the newcomers called the island `San Juan' and the town Puerto Rico, and it was later that the two names were switched. The city of Puerto Rico (rich port) quickly became Spain's most important military outpost in the Caribbean. Concerned about potential threats from European enemies, Spain began constructing massive defences around San Juan, founded in 1521.

Fascinating art galleries, shops and arcades grace the historic district of Old San Juan, while casinos, concert halls and acclaimed restaurants beckon night owls to metropolitan areas. But Puerto Rico also features romance and adventure, found as easily as rounding a bend on one of the tree-lined country roads.

There are breathtaking mountain vistas and out-of-the-way lighthouses atop spectacular coastlines. Hiking in the Caribbean's finest rain forest trails in the US National Forest at El Yunque, and scuba diving along sheer walls studded with marine life. One can cross phosphorescent bays on dark nights, view seabirds at a National Wildlife Refuge, play at Robert Trent Jones Sr. golf courses, explore vast caves in the world — famous Karst country, then cross the mountains to relive history at a restored coffee estate. Or visit the Caribbean's largest art museum in Ponce, or merely watch the sun set from an open-air seafood restaurant along a beautiful west-coast beach.

Originally conceived as a military stronghold, the 475-year-old neighbourhood of Old San Juan today welcomes thousands of daily cruise tourists to shop, dine, drink, and laze around before boarding ship. Its seven-square block area has evolved into a charming residential and commercial district, with six monuments designated as historical by the United Nations.

With the streets paved with cobbles of adoquine, and the buildings a happy jumble of old colonial styles nudging modern ones, a leisurely foot-tour is the best way of seeing the town. Or take a ferry harbour cruise, passing local landmarks such as El Morro Fortress, Casa Blanca, the City Hall, San Juan Gate, La Forteleza, and the Advana Federal. The inexpensive Catano ferry leaves daily and from the dock in Catanio, one can walk to the famous Bacardi Rum Plant.

Old San Juan's landmark forts include the six-level El Morro with 18-ft thick walls rising 140 ft above the sea. The San Cristobal Fort rising 150 ft, featuring five independent units, was El Morro's partner in the city's defence, and is a World Heritage and National Historic Site. The massive City Wall surrounding Old San Juan is actually two 42-ft high parallel walls, built of solid sandstone block. La Fortaleza, a defence against Carib Indians, features a beautiful chapel with delicate mosaic tiles, that actually did double duty as a storeroom for gold bullion. Recently designated a World Heritage Site, La Fortaleza offers guided tours. And there is El Arsenal, that became the last bit of `tierra espanola' in Puerto Rico.

The Cathedral de San Juan is an authentic and rare new-world example of medieval architecture. Iglesia San Jose is the Western Hemisphere's second oldest church, featuring historical artefacts and a remarkable series of vaulted ceilings. Casa del Ayuntamiento (City Hall) has a double arcade flanked by two towers. The Capitolio de Puerto Rico's magnificent rotunda contains many symbolic elements. And the Antiguo Casino is sheer opulence with a French mansion type exterior, a copper cupola, a large ballroom with elaborate plaster-work, and a 12-ft chandelier.

Showcasing Puerto Rican art, music and festivals is the Museo de Arte e Historia, while the small and intimate Museo Pablo Casals is the Spanish master's legacy to the people of Puerto Rico, with a collection of manuscrips, photographs, and videotapes of Festival Casals concerts, played on request. The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture exhibits paintings and sculptures in the Museo de Bellas Artes, and the Casa del Callejon is home to the Museum of Colonial Architecture and the Museum of the Puerto Rican Family. The last of the great edifices constructed by the Spanish, the Biblioteca General y Archivos was designed as a hospital, but used as a prison, cigar factory, and rum plant, and now houses books and documents of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture.

Tourits stroll through the cobbled streets of the city which exude an old-world charm.

In the historic district where one can admire massive 16th century forts, towers, Gothic cathedrals, lively casinos, concert halls, and acclaimed restaurants. There are modern floor shows, designer boutiques, and art galleries, and the `must see' restaurants of the Mesonas Gastronomicos programme, a Puerto Rico tourism venture that recognises high quality in restaurants. The San Juan project features a LeLoLai cultural festival nightly at various hotels, with an evening's folklore ensemble and a buffet of local delicacies.

No sales tax and no duty on return to the US is tonic for shoppers. Serious shoppers should try Calle del Cristo for disco jewellery, gold, and traditional crafts like carved santos (small wooden figures of saints or religious scenes), and also Plaza Ias Americas, a US-style mall whose 200-plus stores constitute the Caribbean's largest shopping centre. Intricate handmade bobbin lace called Mundillo, is fashioned into doilies, bands, collars, and tablecloths. Masks are also popular, especially the coconut vejigantes used in Loiza saint festivities, or papier mache masks popular at the Ponce Carnival. When Columbus first arrived in Borinquen he saw hammocks, which he spread throughout the world. Fine hammocks are still made here.

Fancy hotels, casinos, nightclubs, and chic boutiques highlight the San Juan Beach and Resort Area just outside Old San Juan that includes Condado, Miramar, Ocean Park and Isla Verde. Boats leave from the Club Nautico Marina for deep-sea fishing. There is windsurfing, jet skiing, scuba diving, and volleyball right on the beach.

West on the road to Vega Alta, one first passes through Catano and the Barrilito Rum Plant, site of a 200-year-old family house and 150-year-old windmill, both listed as Historical places. Along the bay is the Bacardi Rum Plant, and a little farther west is Bayamon, Puerto Rico's fastest growing city.

Southwards lies Rio Piedras, home to a lovely botanical garden located at the University of Puerto Rico. The city centre clusters around the plaza, and a block away, vendors offer fruits, vegetables, and medicinal herbs at the island's largest marketplace.

For an evening of traditional island fold dances, see the Areyto Ballet Company, particularly the `Ole Latino' show and the `LeLoLai' programme of musical shows and tours. Friday nights in San Juan are an event in themselves, with people dressed in their finery strolling the streets and enjoying the nightlife. Out on the island every town celebrates Fiestas Patronales, a six to 10-day party honouring their patron saints with dancing in the streets, music and fiestas. One can also gamble at some hotels in `En La Isla'. En La Isla (Out on the island) is an opportunity to explore the rain forest, mountains and beaches `out on the island'.

And, yes, there is the rum — the national drink — usually cheaper than the cocktail mixer. Famous local brands such as Bacardi, Don Q, and Barrilito, and Pina Colada, a local invention, edge several tasty local beers and juices made from island fruits.

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