Loud frogs and brass bands - the surprises of Puerto Rico
By Bernd Kubisch Mar 23, 2010, 16:03 GMT
San Juan - Palm trees, Pina Coladas, sunshine, sand and warm sea waves are part of any trip to Puerto Rico. But it has more to offer beyond the high-rise hotels, casinos and the crowded beaches of the capital San Juan. Rainforests, coffee plantations, street traders selling delicious tacos, loud miniature frogs and wild horses are waiting to be discovered.
The road gradually becomes narrower, steeper and more serpentine. Clouds drift over the rainforest's canopy while bamboo and giant ferns arch over the road. The mountains 40 kilometres north of the coastal town of Ponce are a lonely place. The gate to Hacienda Patricia stands open and sacks of coffee beans are stacked in the storeroom. Guests pour cups of steaming coffee from a large pot.
Another nearby hacienda, the Pomarrosa, sells high quality coffee beans directly to passing visitors. About four tonnes of beans are produced in the plantation's fields hidden in the hills. 'Tourism is slowly developing into our second most important source of income,' says Sebastian Legner Santiago. The young German-Puerto Rican and his family are building bungalows between the coffee trees, coconut palms and heliconias.
The loud sound 'coqui' can be heard across the landscape. Sebastian has to suppress a smile every time he sees the surprised faces of his guests when they hear the cry of the Coqui frog for the first time. 'The frogs are tiny. You can hardly see them,' says the young man, indicating their size with his thumb. Despite their diminutive size the Coqui frog can be heard up to a kilometre away.
Even in remote villages there is no shortage of the fattening burgers, tacos and quesadillas that are so popular with Puerto Ricans. Many of the island's snack bars provide a wireless internet connection to their customers so that means you can enjoy the unique experience of checking out the latest headlines on your laptop while sipping on a cup of coffee and gazing from a height of 1,000 metres over flowering African tulip trees at the ocean.
The mountains have another surprise awaiting visitors: Casa Bavaria has brass band music, senoritas decked out in traditional German costume, bratwurst sausages, pigs' trotters, sauerkraut and delicious beer from the keg. 'The islanders like it,' says Mike Lopez from southern Germany. During the October Fest Lopez has about 3,000 guests every day.
Christopher Columbus landed on Puerto Rico in 1493 but in 1898 it passed into US possession after the Spanish-American War. Today the island is a self-governing unincorporated territory of the United States. Many of the visitors to the island today go to the fishing village of Boqueron in the west where they can buy fresh limes and oysters for about 12 dollars a kilo.
The island is also dotted with distilleries making sure Puerto Rico never runs out of rum. Many of the drinks popular on the island such as the Mojito have their roots in Cuba. 'But the Pina Colada is from Puerto Rico,' stresses Charles Rodriguez, who guides tourists around distilleries.
Both the hotel Hilton Caribe and the restaurant Barrachina claim to have invented the Pina Colada which is made of rum, coconut cream and pineapple juice. The hotel's owners say it was created for the first time in 1954 while the Barrachina says it was 1963. However, an article in the New York Times says the drink was already known in Cuba in 1950. 'That's not true,' says Rodriguez when a Spanish visitor tells him this.
'It doesn't matter. The main thing is that it tastes good,' says bus driver Jose Morales a little later when he hears about the discussion. Instead of joining in the debate Morales offers his passengers a few tips on how to save some cash: he recommends taking a bus from the airport outside San Juan to the city's historic centre for just 75 cents. The bus terminates on the pier between Fort San Cristobal and the sea.
Puerto Rico is one of the poorest territories of the US. 'But among Caribbean countries we are one of the wealthiest,' says Jose Morales. 'We are also rich in terms of our people. Most of us have large families, lots of friends and we have plenty of festivals.'
Puerto Rico is already a popular holiday destination for Americans travelling from the mainland but islanders would like to see more visitors from other parts of the world. Most visitors never see the wonderful beaches on the island's north coast, preferring to stay near the hotels. At the fine sandy beach at Luquillo just a few kilometres east of San Juan you are likely to only meet locals. The beach's strand bars serve beer, rum cocktails, tacos, empanadas and grilled chicken drumsticks to customers.
If you are seeking empty beaches and genuine Caribbean village life then a visit to Culebra and Vieques should be part of your itinerary. The small islands are just a few kilometres off Puerto Rico's east coast and are easy to reach either by propeller plane or by ferry.
There are over 300 Paso Fino wild horses on Vieques to see. The plane's pilot, Keith Gumbs, has another recommendation for visitors: 'If you need a horse and you can ride, then take one and let it go when you get home or return to the bar.'