Caribbean destination: Puerto Rico
May 3, 2014
PUERTO RICO — A famous line from Albert Camus's "The Stranger" reads, "In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, and invincible summer." This winter felt longer than most. In February, a chill began to chisel its way into my bones. My vitamin D deficiency threatened rickets, yet avoiding the Vail Pass death trap seemed more prudent than ever before. Thus, I felt stuck, cornered until the eventual thawing of winter that is suggestive of Vail's imminent mass exodus of offseason.
Luckily for me, my mom's 50th birthday could not have fallen at a more opportune time. And even luckier for me, she chose to return to her birthplace with her family in tow for this most celebratory occasion. Puerto Rico would become the antidote for my impending snow poisoning.
Into the blue
As an island in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is most renowned for its stunning beaches and turquoise waters. Playa Flamenco on the island of Culebra is arguably the most famed of them all. Ranked by CNN Travel and Trip Advisor as the third prettiest beach in the world, it would be worth a trip to Puerto Rico just for this sand sanctuary. Isla Culebra (Snake Island) is located roughly 17 miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland, and can be accessed either by plane or ferry, so plan on a day trip or an overnight stay.
If you daydream about shredding surf just as much as you daydream about powder days, then head to Rincon, which has internationally acclaimed surfing. This vibrant surf town is teeming with expats chasing the idyllic wave, so expect to feel like you're in Rincon, California rather than Rincon, Puerto Rico. After a day of riding the swells, refuel at El Coche, which offers traditional Puerto Rican fare with breathtaking views. Enjoy lobster or red snapper with yucca, fried plantains and rice as you watch the sun dip behind the sea.
If surfing doesn't provide a proper fix for the adrenaline junkie in you, then a stop at Toro Verde Adventure Park will feed your inner addict. The park, which is located an hour outside of San Juan, boasts one of the highest zip lines in the world: La Bestia (The Beast). La Bestia will send you soaring 60 mph for a bird's eye view of the jungle floor 853 feet below. For $65, the zip line packs the perfect amount of adrenaline into the punch.
You won't find any craggy 14,000-foot peaks in Puerto Rico, but you will find the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, El Yunque. El Yunque is home to 400 different plant species and has over a dozen maintained trails for hiking. The tallest point in the rainforest is El Toro, which stands 3,524 feet tall, and can be summited with a moderate 2.2-mile hike (one way).
Taste of culture
Should you find yourself in the far southwestern corner of the island, discover Boqueron's best-kept secret: Cafe Guasaby restaurant. A true locals' favorite, this weekend-only operation ensures the red snapper, mahi mahi, lobster, grouper and shrimp are purchased same-day from local fisheries. Be sure to try mofongo con camarones, and polish it off with a slice of flan de queso.
Wherever the road takes you, be it Boqueron or the treetops of El Yunque, somewhere along the way you will pass a roadside stand advertising "Coco Frio." Whatever you do, stop. It'll be the best dollar and fifty cents you've ever spent. For mere pocket change, they'll stick a straw in a coconut and your tastebuds will be blown out of the water.
Time traveling awaits you in Old San Juan, where you will be instantly transported to the 16th-century Spanish colonial period as you stroll cobblestone streets lined with pastel-colored buildings. Here you will find an abundance of shops, cafes, museums, dancing and nightlife.
If you Google images of Puerto Rico, several hundred photos of Castillo San Felipe del Morro will likely invade your monitor. Nicknamed el Morro, this historic fort was constructed to shield the entrance to the San Juan Bay, and protect the Spanish colonial port city of San Juan from sea attackers. Drawing several million visitors per year, it's one of Puerto Rico's most popular tourist attractions. For a small entrance fee, you can explore the labyrinth of tunnels, dungeons, towers and barracks.
Amidst the eb and flow
Standing on the precipice of el Morro's old fort walls, watching the Atlantic Ocean eagerly spray its blue canvas at the base of the fort, I found that it hadn't changed since the previous time I stood in that spot, nearly seven years earlier. In fact, it has remained largely unchanged for the past several hundred years, save for the scars worn into its stones from battles throughout years passed. Yet something was different. Something hung in the air like an anesthesia slowly lifting from a body after its insides have been picked apart and dissected and discarded into containers like trash, and replaced with something less human, but functional. It was something like the electricity of the truth. All you had to do was ask a local, and their word dam would break as if they had been waiting their entire lives to tell someone their truth.
For the past eight years, Puerto Rico has been plummeting into an economic crisis so severe that the 100-mile-wide island is drowning in $70 billion of debt, and the unemployment rate has soared to 15.4 percent, making it 1.6 times greater than the state with the highest unemployment rate. The per capita income of Puerto Rico is $15,200, half that of the poorest state. Yet the cost of living is skyrocketing. As a result of this dire recession, crime has surged to a disgusting new level; the drug industry is booming; businesses that were once prosperous now bear the badge of defeat: "For Sale" signs occupying their storefronts; schools are deteriorating from the inside out; Puerto Rico's population is dropping at a staggering rate as locals flee for the mainland.
This wasn't the Puerto Rico I remembered. Since the previous time I visited, it had transformed into the Caribbean version of Detroit. But despite the crime and the poverty and the degeneration of its infrastructure, the things I cherished most about Puerto Rico were still intact — drinking coco frio from a roadside stand, playing dominoes with my family over plates of rice and beans and fried plantains, soaking up rays of sun in a bed of white sand, rising to the top of a rainforest bursting with biodiversity and watching my mom and uncle dance salsa as if they'd never be able to dance again. That part of Puerto Rico was still very much alive.
My final night in Puerto Rico was spent in a circle of family, chattering excitedly over mounds of freshly prepared food, our bursts of laughter getting carried away by the warm twilight breeze as we let the rest of the world fade away into the cadence of the salsa music. That night, I saw the twinkle of resilience in my family's eyes. It was palpable like the rhythm of the island. I had found my invincible summer.
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