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Legendary San Juan.

Legendary San Juan

Puerto Rico is being called "the success story of the Caribbean." And behind every successful island there are a few good legends.

San Juan is much more than casinos and high-rises, just as Puerto Rico as a whole is more than poverty and hopelessness (see opposite page). Old San Juan in particular is a treasure house of history and lore, a meeting place of cultures, a living museum a century older than Jamestown and Plymouth Rock.

San Juan is a visual treat. Anyone who has never seen the sun bid farewell to San Juan has missed one of God's gifts to the 20th century, or any century, for that matter. Reddish gold rays reflecting off a crystal blue sea create a kaleidoscope heaven-sent for both artist and photographer.

About this time of day the visitor notices a strange chirping from the trees of the island. The tiny coqui frog--the national symbol of Puerto Rico--has begun its nightly symphony. The coqui, which measures anywhere from one-quarter inch to one inch, is said to have descended from a beautiful bird stripped of its wings by a cruel fate. The bird learned to climb trees for protection, and to this day, it is said, its offspring call out a song of joy at living in this Eden.

Residents also testify that anyone lucky enough to catch sight of the coqui in mid-song will be rewarded with great fortune. History or myth? Like Puerto Rico's cross-identity of American commonwealth and Hispanic paradise, the truth is usually somewhere in between.

Yanqui Come Here

A recent Puerto Rican government survey of American conceptions of Puerto Rico was enlightening to government officials--and disheartening. Stateside impressions, if any, were of a West Side Story-land of drugs and violence. Many respondents weren't even sure where the place is--Central America, or maybe South. "A few even had us in the Pacific," one official says.

So the Puerto Rico Tourism Company responded with tax incentives for new hotels and businesses and a $3.3 million increase in the tourism budget. In addition, the bureau sponsored ad campaigns to give Americans a different view of their island cousin and to sell it as a potential travel spot.

The results? Hotel and cruise-ship numbers have broken records the past three years. American Airlines has increased flights to the island from 8 a day to more than 60, and Eastern has reinstated Puerto Rico as the hub of its Caribbean operations. Led by the massive El San Juan, dozens of hotels and tourist complexes have been renovated or constructed. Travel professionals are dubbing Puerto Rico "the success story of the Caribbean." Even a devastating hotel arson fire on New Year's Eve 1986 didn't hamstring the progress. On a 14-city tour, PRTC Executive Director Miguel Domenech and company reassured potential visitors that the tragedy was "an isolated incident." In 1987 the island enjoyed its biggest tourist season yet.

The campaign's next step will be promoting what locals call going "out on the island" beyond the walls of San Juan to such offbeat natural attractions as the vast cavern system at 300-acre Rio Camuy Cave Park and two phosphorescent bays, off the southwest and east coasts; a $6 million renovation of the 150-room Hilton at Mayaguez on the western coast; and a new 475-room Ritz-Carlton at the Palmas del Mar resort in Humacao, on the east coast. The city of Ponce, on the southern coast, is renovating and expanding its airport, and the city has a new Hilton and a 122-room Days Inn. Ponce will welcome the first cruise ship to its dock on Christmas Eve, and more will follow in the new year. The four-century-old city is sprucing up its art and music museums and preparing 30 horse-drawn coaches to take visitors around town.

The only criticism many have of tourism development is that there hasn't been enough of it. "Hawaii has over 55,000 hotel rooms," says San Juan Mayor Baltazar Corrada del Rio, drawing an often-heard comparison with Puerto Rico's fewer than 10,000.

But development has its critics. Some complain that big hotels and tourist complexes monopolize Puerto Rico's public beaches and limit their accessibility to natives. Worse, construction of tourist playgrounds has meant deforestation that could drive away wildlife and cause flooding in coastal areas, says Neftali Garcia, a local biochemist and environmentalist. Garcia estimates that the island's mangrove forests have been reduced by 50 percent in the past half-century.

Pedro Santana Ronda belongs to an environmentalist group that for two years has fought construction of a multimillion-dollar, 300-room Club Med resort complex near the southwestern city of Guanica. Santana, a construction worker, says the jobs the complex would bring are of little consequence to residents: Club Med prefers trilingual employees, a qualification that local fishermen and laborers generally don't meet. Another group successfully battled the construction of a hotel and housing complex on the beach at Vacia Talega, near San Juan, and instead persuaded the government to declare the area a Puerto Rican national park.

Many Puerto Ricans prefer promotion of 16 small locally owned, government-approved hotels--paradores puertorriquenos--which employ local workers and give visitors a taste of the real Puerto Rico. Julio Perichi runs one with his wife and two children and 28 other employees in the southwestern village of Cabo Rojo. Parador Perichi is doubling its guest capacity from its current 15 rooms. The owner says although the big chains help attract business, he does hope the government will get behind promoting places like his. "Some people want a place to relax, to get away from the hustle and bustle," he says. "That's what we are." Mayor Corrada likes the paradores' attractiveness to middle-class tourists who can't afford large luxury hotels. Paradores' rates range from $35 to $76 per night for double occupancy.

But the government's promotion of paradores isn't as simple as helping proprietors advertise the places. It also means maintaining good roads that allow easy navigation of "out" areas and helping to educate locals who can staff the growing facilities.

Even as Puerto Ricans ponder the dilemmas development can bring, one thing seems clear: their desire to share their island with their Western neighbors and to evolve into a sort of Caribbean Hawaii--a tropical paradise for Westerners that's not so far, and in many ways not so different from home.

PHOTO : "Out on the island" hides the tiny coqui [inset], Puerto Rico's unofficial national

PHOTO : symbol. It's said to bring good luck to those who catch a rare glimpse of it, and its

PHOTO : legend was only recently updated. The latest tale is of a flight attendant who took one

PHOTO : back to the States. The coqui fell silent as soon as the plane left the island and

PHOTO : remained so. Concerned, the stewardess sent it back with a friend. As they landed in San

PHOTO : Juan, she reports, the coqui started to sing.

PHOTO : Puerto Rican legend has it that true faith can work miracles: take the story of a boy

PHOTO : whose horse stampeded during a race down San Juan's hilly Cristo Street, headed for the

PHOTO : cliff and a sheer drop to the rocks below. Onlookers cried, "Cristo de la salud, salvado!"

PHOTO : ("Christ of health, save him!") Horse and rider both went over, but miraculously, the

PHOTO : young man lived. Residents were so moved they erected the Chapel of Christ the Savior at

PHOTO : the cliff's edge to commemorate the miracle.

PHOTO : Legend has it that sheer faith once saved the whole city from foreign aggression. It

PHOTO : happened one night in 1797 as British invaders advanced on the island. The town's bishop

PHOTO : led the people through the streets to appeal to the patron saint of the 11 virgins for

PHOTO : protection. The British general saw the light from the thousands of candles they carried,

PHOTO : mistook them for military troops, and fled. La Rogativa ("praying figure") a statue of the

PHOTO : bishop and townsfolk, celebrates the story. It stands at the governor's mansion at La

PHOTO : Fortaleza, the oldest executive mansion still in use in the Western Hemisphere.

PHOTO : "Garita del Diablo," or "sentry of the devil," where lack of devotion supposedly brought

PHOTO : an ill fate. It was the meeting place of a guard and his young lover who disappeard

PHOTO : suddenly--whisked away by the devil centuries ago, the story goes, because they paid more

PHOTO : attention to each other than to watching for potential invaders.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Puerto Rico
Author:McCollister, John; Hunter, A.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1988
Previous Article:Race at Morning.
Next Article:Yankees go home.

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