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A little something on Puerto Rico

Travel & news discussion about Puerto Rico

A little something on Puerto Rico

Postby KarenS » Mon Apr 10, 2006 7:24 am

By Carol Perehudoff as reported in the Toronto Star: "EL YUNQUE, PUERTO RICO‚ÄĒ 'Are we almost there?' a sweating American couple asks me as I hike back along the winding trail from La Mina Waterfall in El Yunque, an 11,300-hectare rain forest on Puerto Rico's east side.
They're the third group to ask me that in the last ten minutes. But El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. Forest System, can be deceptive.
Compared to the Amazon or Daintree in Australia, this popular day-tripping spot looks like a gentrified version of what a rain forest should be. Trails are paved and neatly bordered with stones. Helpful signs in English point out flora and fauna.

Misty waterfalls, emerald ferns and endangered parrots make it so picturesque it's hard to imagine the hikes could be hard. But with more than 30 kilometres of trails through the peaks of the Sierra de Luquillo, El Yunque is only superficially tame.

Much the same could be said about the whole island, a self-governing U.S. commonwealth 160 kilometres long and 56 kilometres wide. Even with the requisite American comforts of McDonald's and Wal-Mart, there's no repressing Puerto Rico's pulsating Latin heart. With reggaeton music blaring out of bars, flashy beach-perfect bodies and a Spanish colonial past, it's a clash of cultures that works. Add to that natural attractions and there is something for everyone. You just need to decide what you want.

If you don't fancy the heavy rainfall of El Yunque, for example, just hike through Gu√°nica, a rare, dry forest on the island's southwest side. With 12 different trails through scrub, mesquite and uncommon plants, its sun-baked landscape will make you long for a cool dip in the hotel pool.
If you prefer the ocean, there are a variety of beaches. The quiet west coast around the town of Rincón, known as the Porta del Sol, is a 2 1/2-hour drive from the capital of San Juan.

For many, the lengthy drive is worth it. Laidback and casual, the area is dotted with guest houses, dive and surf shops. Devoid of mega resorts or strobe-lit clubs, there's not much nightlife other than the odd beach bar or sunset stroll.
The real action takes place in the water. Ever since 1968, when the World Surfing Championships were held here, surfers have flocked to beaches like Marias, Domes and Tres Palmas, which offer some of the best surf in the Caribbean.

In contrast to the less-developed west side, Puerto Rico's vibrant northeast draws the bulk of the tourists. Luquillo is a popular sun destination and the silky white beaches of Isla Verde stretch out from San Juan and are conveniently close to the airport. Lined with high-rise hotels, Isla Verde can be hectic but the beach scene is growing. Upscale shops and boutique hotels like the Water Club have created a see-and-be-seen Miami South Beach vibe. But it's Old San Juan that is the anchor of the island, a tangible reminder of its Spanish colonial past.

Founded in 1521, its blue cobblestones, cathedral and massive fortress, El Morro, remain, conjuring thoughts of Christopher Columbus, who landed in Puerto Rico on his second trip to the New World, in 1493.
Back then the island was populated by the Taíno Indians, who called it Borinquén.

Columbus might have slept here, but he stayed only a few days.
It was his lieutenant, that fountain-of-youth seeker, Juan Ponce de León, who returned in 1508 to become governor.

For all its history, Old San Juan is no lifeless museum.
Wrought iron balconies and pastel facades give it an Old-World flair, but at night it lights up with crammed clubs and chic restaurants.
During the day, its narrow streets are a shopping haven for cruise passengers seeking deals at Coach or Ralph Lauren and soaking up the atmosphere in the Plaza de Armas.

When the cruise crowds get too much, it's time to head inland and underground, to the massive cave system of Río Camuy Park.
Trolleys take visitors down a foliage-coated sinkhole to Cueva Clara, a cathedral-sized cave carved out by the world's third largest underground river. Inside, a black slit of a passageway is home to thousands of bats while a shallow pond holds Alloweklia Gurnee, a tiny crustacean unique to the cave.
Equally striking is Tres Pueblos Sinkhole, a 121-metre deep hole in the ground caused by erosion and named for the three small villages perched on its edge.
It was another sinkhole in the northwest mountains that came in handy when scientists were searching for the right place to put Arecibo, the world's largest radio telescope.

Considering more than a dozen football fields could fit into the satellite dish, they needed a seriously big dip in the ground to place it in.
Instead of digging one, someone came up with the bright idea of using a sinkhole, in which Arecibo sits like a giant bowl.
The result is a futuristic telescope so sensitive it can receive signals from planets in distant star systems.
If there is life in outer space, and they're sending radio waves, Arecibo is the answering machine that will take the message. A visitors centre has interactive displays discussing the mysteries of space, and the curious can get a close look at the massive dish, etched in our collective consciousness by the James Bond movie, GoldenEye and Contact, starring Jodie Foster.
For all its mad science, weird sinkholes and massive caves, the real wild side of Puerto Rico is best seen on the coast, in the dark.

Away from the groomed beaches and resorts, mangrove swamps hug the shore, lizards cling to trees and frogs set up a cacophony of song.
Most spectacular is the phosphorescent glow of one of Puerto Rico's three bioluminescent bays.

These remarkable salt water ecosystems are full of dynoflagellates, tiny micro-organisms that light up when disturbed, like water-logged fireflies.
A night kayaking tour through one of the sparkling bays is an unforgettable experience and the most eco-friendly way to see these protected areas.
But whether your idea of good nightlife is a nocturnal swim in a luminous bay or too much Bacardi in a jam-packed club, the best of Puerto Rico is untamed."
Karen for Caribbean-On-Line.com
KarenS
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