Puerto Rico exploded my senses and drew me in like a mesmerizing dream. Feeling like a young lover again, I held my husband’s hand as I wandered through cobble-stoned streets past fruit-colored houses with Moorish windows in old San Juan and heard voices from the past carried by the wind across Del Morro, a 15th century Spanish fort set atop a hill overlooking a frothy and moody sea. Here we brought a blue kite painted with red butterflies and let it soar till it was popping up in front of airplanes to say hello. I kicked off my shoes and ran my feet over lush, humid grass and sunned myself while savoring purple ice made from fresh tropical fruit. It was hard to imagine that it was winter back home in Connecticut.
From the moonlit waters of Laguna Grande to the mountaintop of El Yunque, an emerald rainforest alive with the music of the coqui frog and the iguaca parrot, the immense biodiversity in this tiny Caribbean island invoked a profound reverence for the land. Home to the Taino Indians before Columbus “discovered” their country, Puerto Rico became known to the Spanish conquistadors—or conquerors—as la isla del encanto, or the enchanted island.
I, too, felt enchanted when we kayaked under a full-moon sky off the Atlantic coast in a placid lagoon in Fajardo, about an hour and a half by road from Conrad Hilton in Condado, where we stayed. We decided to rent a car as tour packages offered by the hotel—which included transportation—cost at least $50 more per person. A round-trip cab ride would have equaled our hotel rate for the day. The car rentals usually provide you with a map and, if you have a good sense of direction, which my husband does, navigating around the island shouldn’t be difficult. The locals are very friendly and convenience stores at gas stations will guide you to your destination in English.
The ocean at Fajardo is ferocious, but the kayak trips are in a tranquil bioluminescent lagoon called Las Croabas about a 100 feet away from the turbulent waves. Marine biologists estimate that a gallon of water here contains up to 700,000 glowing dinoflagellates, plankton that glow like stardust when you paddle. As I was wearing deodorant and perfume, I refrained from touching the water as this organism is very fragile and will die when exposed to chemicals. Moreover, I was just one among hundreds of kayakers who visit each night.
We had to cross a channel to get to the lagoon and the current, though not swift, did toy around with our two-person kayak a bit. But we felt safe with our patrolling guides at Enchanted Island Tours, one of around 10 certified operators who shepherd a series of kayaks through breathtakingly beautiful mangrove overhangs echoing with the songs of the coqui. We paddled around a little island of sleeping yellow herons with the backdrop of el Faro del Fajardo, a lighthouse built by Spanish colonists in the 1880s. For $65 per person (taxes included), the kayaking tour includes information on the lagoon’s eco-system and a brief history of Puerto Rico. Nighttime walking tours along a boardwalk by the lagoon and swimming trips at another bioluminescent bay off Vieques island are also ways to explore the ecology.
Dan, one of our guides, explained how the Spaniards took not just gold and silver from the island, but also a hardy wood from the rainforest to build ships with cannon-proof hulls.
Dan’s son, also a guide, said he was descended from the Taino aborigines on his mother’s side, but the tribe is now extinct—an inevitable tragedy of European colonization, which exported small pox and scarlet fever to the Americas.
The intentions of the conquistadors are inscribed in Latin, loud and clear, above Puerta de San Juan—one of six massive gates built to guard the city and its wealth from British, Dutch and French invaders. “Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini”—Blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord. The Spaniards founded San Juan in 1521, bringing with them Catholic priests to convert the heathen Tainos to Christianity.
They would later establish sugar plantations and export slave laborers from Africa. Puerto Rican cuisine is a mix of Taino, Spanish, African, Mexican and Caribbean flavors. Tropical fruit including mango, plantain, papaya and coconut, and spices such as coriander and bittersweet cacao are commonly used. Being vegetarian, we eschewed much of the meat-heavy cuisine—mostly seafood, pork and chicken. Barbequed pork and fried pig ears are local favorites.
We did however stumble upon Triana Tapas at Recinto sur, the first bank in San Juan, now converted to a restaurant whose diners hit the dance floor between courses. There we fell in love with a pepper sauce-based vegetable Spanish arroz (rice) and papas bravas (spicy roasted potatoes with a house sauce). Unfortunately our visit to Tantra, an Indian restaurant nearby, offered an experience at the other end of the spectrum; the food almost made me cry.
We picked up artwork by local artists as well as a painting from Haiti and hit a salsa dance club called Latin Roots down the road from Triana, which offers free lessons each night before 8:00 p.m. to newbies. We went with another Indian couple we’d met the day before at a café in El Yunque, who had also, like us, escaped the winter storm in the Northeastern United States.
The 28,000-acre El Yunque at Rio Grande is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest system. A lush and wild canopy, the forest winds up the Luquillo Mountain 3,553 feet above sea level. We hired a jeep and drove through nearly 250 species of plants and trees, stopping to climb Yokahu Tower to take in breathtaking 360-degree views of the rugged landscape and pulling over to hike near La Mina falls, whose base is popular with swimmers.
We also visited Arecibo to take a look at the world’s largest radio telescope. There, thanks to my astrophysicist brother-in-law, we met with a scientist who gave us a tour of the control room and told us about her most exciting discovery from space—a simple amino acid signature.
One of my most unforgettable encounters was with poet Lady Lee Andrews, owner of The Poet’s Passage at Calle Cruz in San Juan, where local poets meet every Tuesday night to jam. In addition to poetry, the store sells artwork by Andrews’ husband, a French painter.
Much moved by one of her verses painted on a wall, I was shedding silent tears that in turn moved Andrews, who gifted me her book titled Naturally, from where I quote a verse:
I become / So soft / I become / So Tender
I move slower / So I can see / My life take place.
*Alegria means “happiness” in Spanish
Sujata Srinivasan is a Connecticut-based writer, reporter, editor and educator.