Easygoing Puerto Rico.
More practically, we think of a place where we need take only a few changes of light clothing and a bathing suit, where there's no need to worry about safe drinking water and where we can dine on delicious and exotic foods that won't leave us with a case of "tourista"--a place that's foreign and exotic in atmosphere, yet in comforts much like home. For us that place is Puerto Rico.
Divided down the middle by a chain of high mountains, this 35-by-100-mile-long island offers broad coastal plains of rich farmland, terraced hillsides and forests of mahogany, pine and teak, Good roads, many of them freeways, lead to breathtaking mountain vistas, through thick tropical jungles, by lagoons and mangrove swamps and into scrub, cactus desert and, of course, beautiful beaches.
The hub of Puerto Rico is San Juan, where approximately one-third of the island's 3 million inhabitants reside. If you go to Puerto Rico for a three- to five-day break, San Juan alone provides enough for a rich and satisfying vacation. The beaches are all open to the public, so you don't need to stay at an expensive oceanfront hotel. (You definitely need hotel reservation if you go from late November through March, at least for the first night.)
From your hotel you can catch a bus or take a cab to Old San Juan, a seven-square-block village restored and kept in its original style, but very much alive with activity. As you walk the narrow, cobbled streets, you trace the steps of Columbus when he landed in 1493. You will pass by the Casa Blanca, the "White House" of Ponce de Leon--first Spanish governor of the island--and see great walls and fortifications built centuries ago to keep out the forces of Sir Francis Drake and others.
You may want to arrange for a half or full day of deep-sea fishing or rent a car and drive to El Yungue, the jungle preserve that is part of the U.S. National Forest System. El Yunque is on the windward side of the high mountains. There the island's steady northwest winds are uplifted, and they drop their moisture, as much as 100 billion gallons a year. More than 240 types of trees have been identified in El Yunque, and 200 species of tropical birds. It is a haven for wild orchids and sweet-scented tuberoses. Brilliant masses of impatiens paint the road banks with vivid colors.
Many mainland Americans live in luxurious condominiums that line the beaches in the lovely suburbs of San Juan. The plush ones have their own pools, tennis courts and gate guards. Many of these condos are second homes and are rented out for months at a time. They range in style from penthouse mansions to studio apartments. Listings may be found in The New York Times. Or you can send for copies of the English-language newspaper, The San Juan Star (P.O. Box 4187, San Juan, PR 00936), which will give you a whole section of classifieds as well as what is going on in Puerto Rico.
As you walk the old streets of San Juan, you glimpse handsome, Spanish-style homes with 18-foot ceilings, thick concrete walls, elegant tiled floors and interior, open-to-the-sky patios.
You will also see some vacant properties. Entrepreneurs from the States have realized considerable profit by purchasing and restoring these properties. The Puerto Rican government has helped by eliminating property taxes on restored buildings and income tax from those turned into commercial properties. Restored houses in Old San Juan sell for about $25,000. There is a great deal of pride in having an Old San Juan address.
One of the best ways to learn the character and history of Puerto Rico is to plan a tour of the island and to stay at the Paradores Puertorriquenos. The Paradores are government-approved country inns. Eight of these well-restored mansions, each with its own charm, dot the island. They range from mountain retreat to sea resort, from coffee plantation to hot-springs spa. The Paradores are moderately priced (busy-season rates as low as $30; doubles up to $50), and the people who manage them are chosen for their hospitality and knowledge of the area.
Using buses (there are no trains) to tour the island is possible, but it is so easy to drive the well-marked highways and roads that a rental car is much more enjoyable. The least expensive way to travel from one city or village to the next is by Carros Publicos. Large cars, their routes assigned and their rates fixed by the government, are lined up in any city's main plaza. The destination is posted plainly on the car's windshield, and the driver will leave as soon as he has enough passengers. If you want to practice your Spanish, the Carros Publicos will give you ample experience!
You may also enjoy taking a ferry to the Puerto Rican islet of Vieques. There you will find real solitude--no television, no modern life, only safe and serene tropical-island living. There are small hotels and guest houses if you decide to spend the night. But be prepared for a quiet stay. The village closes up tight before ten o'clock.
The casual visitor to Puerto Rico may not have time to appreciate its exquisite culture, a fascinating mixture of Spanish aristocracy, African exuberance and Taino Indian gentleness--all interwoven with American politics, products, people and ideals.
The island was ceded by Spain to the United States in 1898, following the Spanish-American War. The people of Puerto Rico became American citizens in 1917. In 1952, the island was given the right to establish an autonomous commonwealth government. Puerto Ricans elect their own governor, legislature and local officials. A nonvoting representative from Puerto Rico sits in the U.S. House of Representatives. Washington maintains the postal service, customs, immigration, defense and foreign relations for the island. Puerto Rico has its own court system, which handles all problems but those involving federal laws.
Many tax incentives have lured American businesses, especially pharmaceutical and high-technology companies, to Puerto Rico. Once Americans have taken up residence in Puerto Rico, they are no longer subject to federal taxes on income earned while a Puerto Rican resident.
Puerto Rico imports almost all industrial products, and the excise tax is high, a feature especially true of luxury items and automobiles. Cigarettes have a 61-cent tax per pack, perhaps the highest tax on cigarettes in the world. The largest export is rum, Puerto Rico's main moneymaker. Bacardi rum usually tops the list of brand-name spirits sold in the United States, and all sales taxes levied on Puerto Rican rum are returned by the federal government to Puerto Rico. These import-export taxes, which bring in millions of dollars, are the basic financial support of the government.
Almost any food sold in the States is available in Puerto Rico, plus many more fresh fruits and vegetables. Some fruits such as mangoes are so common that groceries do not stock them. The pineapples of Puerto Rico are huge, and the native coffee is so delicious none is ever left to export. Coffee is without doubt the favorit drink of the island.
The basic diet of most Puerto Ricans is rice and red beans cooked with green peppers, onions and tomato sauce and wonderfully seasoned with garlic, oregano and other spices.
Health conditions in Puerto Rico have changed completely in recent decades. Water pollution and tropical diseases have been eliminated. The island is in the tropics, however. Bacteria grow rapidly and precautions must be taken to keep certain foods, especially dairy products, refrigerated. Extra care is needed for small cuts and scratches because they become infected more rapidly.
Along the coast, few people bother with screens: The breeze keeps the infrequent flies and mosquitoes away. But inland, screens are needed--why you find many Puerto Rican homes built on concrete stilts to catch the refreshing wind as well as to afford privacy and provide parking and work space underneath. Hurricane side winds hit the island on occasion, but long-time residents remember few instances of damage. Building correctly seems to overcome the problem.
As for year-round activities, try: golf on gorgeous but expensive courses; tennis; and swimming in the warm ocean waters and in the abundant swimming pools. The sea teems with fish. The surfing is excellent, and old Spanish galleons still lie beneath the waters where they wrecked on coral reefs.
A Beautiful new cultural center has just been built in San Juan for theater, symphonies, opera and ballet, and the University of Puerto Rico hosts a continual series of well-known performers. Art is very important to the islanders, and public exhibitions as well as numerous galleries in Old San Juan are well attended. English-speaking television, now limited to one station, will soon be expanded, and one radio station broadcasts in English.
Puerto Ricans attend many churches and denominations. The Roman Catholic church is the most prominent on the island, but most of the worshipping people, regardless of denomination, have been affected by the charismatic-pentecostal movement that has swept the island. Services are usually joyful and enthusiastic.
"A happy people" is a common description that repeat visitors to the island give to native Puerto Ricans. It's that image combined with the allure of the warm, Caribbean climate that brings first-time visitors back for more and even persuades some to stay and take up residence in Puerto Rico--USA.