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Details places to stay and eat, the ecology and environment, sights to see, and the history of the island and its inhabitants
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Introduction to Puerto Rico
Every Friday and Saturday night, music teases crowds into the streets of Old San Juan. Young people in Polo shirts and sheer dresses parade along the cobblestones. Perfecting their night moves, they sashay up the hill past the centuries-old Casa Blanca, ancestral home of the family of Juan Ponce de Leon - seeker of the legendary Fountain of Youth.
Throngs gather on Calle San Sebastian, the street that rises above the sea and the restorations of the fortified city that has been the commercial hub of the Caribbean for more than 450 years. Here, wandering groups of musicians and dozens of bars, restaurants and clubs pump the sounds of salsa into the tropical night. Everyone moves to the syncopated rhythm of bongos, congas, maracas, cowbells, trumpets and song. And an island celebrates the fusion of elements that gave birth to a place, a culture, a race and a spirit that the world calls 'Puerto Rico', but islanders still know as Borinquen - the name the Taino Indians gave their island home before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493.
Like the island's famous salsa - a spicy blend of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and big-band jazz - almost everything about Puerto Rico stands out as a dramatic and original yoking of opposites. Here, travelers will find strong and recognizable vestiges of Amerindian ancestors, Spanish conquistadores and West African slaves, as well as the political and economic influence of the USA - the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico's legal step-parent. The fusion of these strains is so distinctive that neither the place nor the culture can be mistaken for any other, and Puerto Rico claims a vitality and reputation that far exceeds the island's diminutive size.
Just 35 miles wide and 100 miles long, Puerto Rico is the smallest of the Greater Antilles and stands as the keystone between the larger islands to the west and the long arch of the Lesser Antilles to the east. In many ways this location makes Puerto Rico the 'gatekeeper' of the Caribbean Sea, and the island's strategic position as a crossroads has fired her character. Not only can you see the fusion of native America, Africa and Europe in the faces of her people, but you can also hear the synthesis of Spanish and English (spiced with Taino and African words) in islanders' speech in this officially bilingual commonwealth. Diners taste the merger of the fields of Europe, the spices of Africa and the fish of the Caribbean in traditional cuisine such as asopao, a hearty stew. Drinkers here in the rum capital of the world find magic in the spirits distilled from sugarcane and mixed with pineapple and cream of coconut in the popular pina colada or blended with tart lime juice! in a daiquiri.
In Puerto Rico, poets become politicians and spiritual wayfarers embrace elements of Catholicism and African Santeria. Songs with rhythms to make stones rise up and dance carry lyrics about heartbreak. Slums and mansions stand side by side, and simply guesthouses languish in the shade of resort hotels. Ford Mustangs adorned with blazing paint jobs and tinted glass travel the backroads with herds of wild horses. Street vendors selling tostones (fried plantains) share the block with Burger King, while the warships of the US Navy keep company with local sailboats.
No doubt, travelers will find other dramatic signs of fusion in the Puerto Rican landscape itself. Contemporary Borinquen is a place where the green peaks of the Central Mountains (Cordillera Central) press the high-rises of modern San Juan to the edge of the sea. The ancient fortresses and walled Spanish city of Old San Juan stand nearly adjacent to the casinos, condominiums and resorts of the newer Condado district. Cane fields surround golf courses, soulless housing developments mask the way to pristine ocean coves, and the world's most luminescent phosphorescent bay lies next to a proving ground for military maneuvers. Broad beaches lie almost in the shadow of verdant mountain slopes of El Yunque, the national rain forest.
And in spite of - or perhaps because of - these dramatic contrasts, the music never stops on this island whose anthem, "La Borinquena" praises Puerto Rico as a "flowering garden of exquisite magic...the daughter of the sea and the sun."Review:
Times Union, March 12, 2006
'...Lonely Planet's Puerto Rico guide includes detailed trail descriptions and history.'
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