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Perfect Puerto Rico – all the better beyond the beach

Puerto Rico is paradise on earth if you’re a woman – you are treated like a queen, you are given whatever you ask for, and you can get away with anything if you so much as smile once. Not so much of a paradise if you’re an even mildly jealous husband or boyfriend, though. Puertorican men are busting with admiration for women – and will express it in every way imaginable. They’ll wave, whistle, speak, shout, sing, motion to imitate their heart beating, turn their heads, even plain stop and stare without saying a word, and yet none of this would make a woman feel uncomfortable. It’s not like they stare in the usual sleaze-ball kind of way; it’s more of a you’re-so-beautiful-please-smile-at-me-and-brighten-my-day kind of way. Besides, I’ve yet to see a Puertorican man without manners. Puertorican men opened doors for me, gave me their seats on the bus, carried my suitcases, offered help if I so much as looked like something wasn’t right, stepped out of my way, etc. The best part is, they are all amazing dancers and dance for the sake of dancing.

El Caribe Hilton, Puerto Rico, beach

El Caribe Hilton: the hotel beach

Our first day in San Juan is spent entirely on the beach, mostly due to my failure to do my research and discover that San Juan is so much more than a beach destination. Not that I am complaining, but had I known about Viejo San Juan, no force would have kept me out of it for a whole day. The same lack of research has also left me (and consequently my travel party) unaware that beaches in Puerto Rico are not like beaches in Bulgaria. In Bulgaria, hotels are not allowed to restrict access to the beach to hotel guests only – in Puerto Rico, they are, but I only found out after we had already left. So, for four days we lived in blissful ignorance, each morning crossing the street from our hotel, walking through the lobby of El Caribe Hilton in bathing suits under the adoring looks of the male staff, not even once asked if we are actually hotel guests. For four days we made use of the wet bar, the two pools, the pool-ball, the golden sand beach and the blissful, emerald-colored lagoon full of sun sparkles and surrounded by coconut palms set to the backdrop of the historic fort San Jerónimo. Never have I seen such calm, transparent waters and such deep blue skies – the Caribbean beaches are all they are talked up to be, and then some more.

By dinner time, we still have not done our research on San Juan, so we start walking down the street with the intention to find some random place to have dinner first and then go clubbing. The area around the hotel looks rather dead – everything is closed, except for one restaurant, so we have no choice but to enter. Turns out the restaurant officially opened the day before and is eager for business – otherwise it would have been closed, too. The waiters explain – nightlife in San Juan goes from Friday to Sunday. Monday through Wednesday everything is closed, and only some bars and restaurants are open on Thursdays. Since it is a Thursday, I will have to give up on the idea of going dancing after dinner and settle for going to a bar in Viejo San Juan instead.

Carolina Beach, Puerto Rico

Carolina Beach, Puerto Rico

While we are waiting for our food, Carlos, the restaurant manager, comes over to say hi and bring us free drinks – the waiters have told him we are from Bulgaria and he owns much of his success in life to a Bulgarian guy who lent him some money in New York long time ago. In honor of this guy, all our drinks are on the house. Carlos is unsure of the guys’ name, because the guy had two passports, and his name was written differently in the two. Carlos is also genuinely surprised we have never heard of this guy – after all, the guy has a huge yacht and is very rich and Carlos always had the impression he was famous in Bulgaria. Now, I could explain to Carlos a thing or two about rich and famous Bulgarian guys with two passports and different names, but ah, well – how often do I get free drinks abroad because of something those guys did?

After dinner, we head to Viejo San Juan in search of a bar, which, despite the less than encouraging picture painted by the waiters, is not that hard to find. On the way – several casinos, a huge cruise ship docked at the harbor, several fat juicy cockroaches the length of my index finger (I am buying bug spray first thing in the morning), and a few unacceptable bars due to the amazingly bad live gringo music courtesy of young and upcoming bands. The bar we decide to enter looks a lot like American bars – a bar, high chairs, dim lights, weird undanceable music, rum bottles behind the bar (turns out local rum production is the pride and joy of Puerto Rico), bartenders in tight black T-shirts, and large flat-screen TVs on both walls – except they are not showing a football game – they are showing a soap opera. Unbelievable! The women around also look like taken straight out of a soap opera, but the guys are divided in their opinion as to whether this is good or bad.

The next morning, armed with bug spray and a solid dose of recommendations courtesy of the super friendly receptionist, we are all set to explore Viejo San Juan. Oh… my…God! It’s like someone looked in my head, took the way I always imagined a colonial town, made it 100 times better, mixed it with a little present-day fun, and then built Viejo San Juan. Colonial-style houses with balconies overlooking the streets where the señoritas used to sit in the evening so their suitors could pass by to pay their respects; sunny plazas surrounded by tiny cafés where backgammon tournaments are staged; a whole street lined with jewellery shops; lush green parks and wide promenades filled with romance where rich families would go in the evenings to see and be seen; the contagious rhythm of salsa, merengue, and reguetón coming from every corner shop, car, and food stand; and interwoven in all this, the inimitable sound of Spanish, this gorgeous, sensual, captivating, exhilarating, irresistible sound of the sexiest language in the world. Above it all presides El Morro, its imposing silhouette towering over a wide open green field where children fly their kites.

El Morro is short for Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 16th century fort named after King Phillip II of Spain and a present-day UNESCO World Heritage Site with amazing views of the glittering, almost painfully blue Caribbean sea. Its construction started in 1539, but it took about 250 years to complete its six levels that effectively defended the island from attacks by the English (led by the famed Sir Francis Drake) in 1595 and 1598, and by the Dutch in 1625. Outside the walls northwest wall of Viejo San Juan, down the slope from Calle Norzagaray, is La Perla, the Puertorican equivalent of the Brazilian favelas. As we learned later, the 600m of Calle Norzagaray bordering this neighborhood make it the most dangerous street in San Juan where tourists have been robbed at gunpoint, but at the time we were blissfully unaware of this fact. Not only did we walk up and down that street several times enjoying the colorful, albeit messy houses of La Perla, we also happily hung out in the sun, took pictures, talked on our cell phones, looked at our maps, spoke a foreign language, and generally made every effort to look like targets. It is only by luck that we didn’t actually enter the neighborhood itself – we did not see a way to cross the city wall. I now know this was because there are only three entrance points to La Perla – and the locals apparently get really annoyed when outsiders use them.

The sightseeing part of the day ends with a walk down the romantic Paseo de la Princessa which ends at the coast with a fountain with a sculpture of a Spaniard, an African, and a Native American meant to symbolize Puerto Rico’s diverse heritage. There are plenty of places we have not seen – but it is Friday night and the dance club is calling. Once again, we resort to the help of our friendly receptionist – we want to know what the best dance place in town is. He smiles and shakes his head, ‘Well, I can tell you the place where I go – but it is for locals, and you better not go there unless you can really dance. Otherwise everyone will remember you and laugh at you next time you show up”. Well, we don’t know if we can really dance – we don’t know what Puertorican dance standards are, but we figure, we are only going to go there once anyway. So off to this club it is – the receptionist gives the name directly to the taxi driver, and we don’t even get to hear it.

La Mina Waterfall, Puerto Rico

La Mina Waterfall, Puerto Rico

First impression of a dance club in Puerto Rico – the bouncers are bigger than the ones in the US, which I did not think was possible. Second impression – women can enter wearing no matter what, preferably close to nothing, while there is a strict dress code for men – no flip-flops, no sneakers, no shorts, no sleeveless shirts. Third impression – there is no seating space in the club – only a dance floor. If you don’t want to dance, you just have to either be at the bar doing shots, or stand by the dance floor looking stupid. Fourth impression – people of all ages party together and no one finds it weird. And then the salsa starts – oh my God, holy shit, whoa, and anything else you can think of. Man, the way these people move – you haven’t seen dancing until you see this! A-freakin-mazing. They are not professionals – they never took a formal lesson, but have been dancing all their lives. Dancing like this cannot be learned – they just have it in their blood, it’s like they merge with the music and the dance comes from the inside. It’s not just the sense of rhythm and the steps (which they have turned to an art) – it’s the way they act out the dance, it’s how happy they look when they dance. The smiles and the enthusiasm are so contagious and the rhythm so fiery that no one can stand still – and no one does. Before we know it, it is 5 am, the club is closing, and we have been dancing for 6 hours straight.

Discovering Puerto Rico has just begun.

The next morning my travel party somehow manages to get me out of bed, down the stairs and into the restaurant down the street – my guess is, not out of concern for me, but because I am the only Spanish speaker they have and Puerto Rico, despite being officially bi-lingual, is really predominantly Spanish-speaking only. It must have taken them quite some time, though, because by the time we get back to the hotel, our guide for the day has already arrive and sent the staff running around looking for us. “Hurry up, I got other people to pick up before we hit the road, when I say 11:00 am, I mean 11:00 am”… OK, this one is English-speaking AND has attitude. She is also the size of a woman to be reckoned with, so we do hurry up and get in the van. We are going on a tour of El Yunque, a tropical forest about 70 km east of San Juan, a choice that prevailed over the tour of the rum distilleries of Puerto Rico.

On the way we make a stop in Carolina to see another famous beach and try the ubiquitous national drink piña colada that is sold everywhere – from wooden beach stands to the poshest bars, served in anything from plastic cups to crystal cocktail glasses. There is even a version without rum, but then it just tastes like pineapple juice with ice. Later Wikipedia informs me that piña colada was first introduced in Caribe Hilton, the very same hotel whose beach we apparently illegally used during our stay. Carolina is also оur first encounter with coconuts on a palm tree.

El Yunque Peak, Puerto Rico

El Yunque Peak

Our first stop in El Yunque is La Coca, the smaller of two waterfalls in the park, which we are warned not to climb because of the danger of slipping and falling down the rocks. My travel party promptly climbs it. We are also warned not to touch a plant whose official name I can’t remember, but whose nickname is “itchy balls”, because it releases some substance that has this special effect on guys. My travel party limits itself to looking at the plant from a safe distance. Faced with such clearly defined set of priorities, I can think of at least one better way of preventing people from climbing that waterfall.

The drive continues to the Mt. Britton Lookout Tower, from which we can see the highest peak in the park shaped like an anvil (“el yunque” means “the anvil”). On a clear day, we are supposed to be able to see both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, but the day is anything but clear so we see close to nothing and buy some souvenirs in the shape of coquí, the smallest frog in the world and a symbol of Puerto Rico. Next, we are offered a choice between walking down a trail ourselves or being driven down the same way we came with the less able-bodied part of the group, with our guide strongly suggesting we choose the second option – she doesn’t have much faith in our survival skills after seeing most of us climb the waterfall. However, we are thrilled at the prospect of wondering around a tropical forest, so our guide agrees with a sigh – “OK – then only walk on the trails and if you are not down in an hour, we will come looking for you”. For my part, she does not have to repeat the no-walking-off-the-trail part – I have just seen one of those insects that look like twigs, and that is the first thing in Puerto Rico I most decidedly dislike.

So off we go down the trail, through ferns and palm trees and other noteworthy flora I’ve only seen on National Geographic pictures before, hopping from stone to stone to cross rivers, feeling the humidity stick to us, until we reach La Mina – the bigger of the two waterfalls in the park, and also the archetypal tropical paradise image – crystal clear water turning to white lace as it falls down the smooth shiny rocks, lush vegetation, chirping of exotic birds, and the soothing sound of a waterfall. Five minutes later, the sound of a bunch of people splashing around at the bottom of that same waterfall is added to the symphony of jungle sounds.

Our guide seems surprised to see us both alive and on time, so we happily continue to Yuquiýu Delights, where the local staples of carne, frijoles and plátanos (meat, beans, and plantains) are cooked on an open fire, and a guy with a huge machete slices coconuts in half, pours water in them, and serves them with a straw. Preparing coconut water is actually more interesting than the coconut water itself, which has a weird bleak taste.

Back in San Juan, it is time for another night out, this time in the posh modern neighborhood of Isla Verde, famous for its beaches and night clubs. The receptionist has recommended Babylon, inside the Wyndham El San Juan hotel, reportedly one of the upscale clubs in town that caters to US tourists, charges an insane for local standards cover and still enjoys a huge line, especially on weekends. Yes, the club is US-style glitzy, plays all the hottest main stream hits, and, unlike in the US, no one asks for an ID before they serve you a drink, but compared to what I have seen the night before, it is just plain boring, the guys are way too pale and no one can dance. The only exception is when the DJ plays reguetón, a relatively recent native phenomenon that blends hip hop with Latin American and Caribbean music styles to produce something that inevitably gets all locals on the dance floor.

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