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The Star-Ledger

Puerto Rico With More Brio Abandons Pool For A Waterfall


7 November 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- We can, if we choose, simply laze on the private beach and sip over-priced margaritas for the entire four-day trip. Certainly, none of us will return to our lives and work complaining.

We can bask in the brilliance of the inexplicably low-priced package from the Internet that allowed us to escape to the Ritz Carlton in Isla Verde away from a frigid Northeast January. We can divide our time between lolling on hammocks overlooking glittering blue water and perching at the edge of the pool, our legs immersed and cool. This would be perfectly wonderful.

But "we" are four twentysomething girls. We need more than this.

We make a pact. Each day will consist of one part lounging, one part adventure. It is not clear what "adventure" will entail, but we determine to seize it when it appears.

Our first afternoon, we head to the beach to catch what's left of the warm, not quite hot, day. We have a decidedly un-Puerto Rican lunch of nachos and pizza, and are too excited about the weather and beach to care about the exorbitant prices and mediocre food.

Our first evening, we mistakenly believe the concierge may lead us to adventure. She advises us not to venture to Old San Juan for dinner as it is the first night of the San Sebastian Street Festival and the usually 15-minute drive may take up to two hours. We decide to explore the area around our hotel, but soon discover there is nothing to explore.

On the sidewalk before an average-looking Mexican restaurant we debate whether we should go in. "I shouldn't say this," the hostess of the restaurant says, "but you girls really shouldn't eat here. Go to the festival." Just then, a taxi pulls up at the curb and we ask the driver whether it will indeed take two hours to get to Old San Juan. He laughs, "Oh, no, it will not take so long." He adds, "And you are young. You should be going there."

We're tired and hungry. But then, one of the girls reminds, there's the matter of our pact.

The driver explains that the festival takes place every year in the third week of January. The giant block party is named after the city street where most of the action takes place. "It's wild," he says.

It takes half an hour to reach the outskirts of the old city and I'm glad we're crawling in slowly; it gives us a chance to take in the charming buildings, colorful and crumbling. A throng of people is walking into town and we soon join them, though we're unsure of what we're heading into.

This walk through narrow, cobblestone streets, through wide and statued squares, makes us feel, finally, away from our worlds. We fall into vacation as we're drawn to the drumbeats and the distant sound of merengue.

We are close, now, to the heart of the revelry, but we must eat before diving in. There are a number of trendy, and crowded, options on the Calle Fortaleza, but we opt for the nearby Café Berlin. Though the atmosphere is less chic, the vegetarian options are well worth the sacrifice. Seated under a black sky we enjoy a view of the bright square and buildings that glow yellow from street lamps. People stream past our table and toward the party.

When we resume our place in the migration, the crowd grows dense. Hundreds of people, young and old, form a sea of bodies, gyrating to blaring music. Clinging to each other, we weave our way through the crowd. It's becoming hard to breathe as we shove through people and at one point I'm scared of being trampled. "This is a big sweat fest!" one of the girls declares.

We find ourselves pushing and pulling against others vying for free Budweiser paraphernalia. It's like they're giving away gold we just have to get some. And after much wrangling, we do.

We're at the top of the street now and see an open area ahead. Once in the plaza, we are able to breathe and feel proud of having made it through such madness. Nearby is a stage with a live band playing infectious music. Kids dance in the street, couples stroll among food stalls. Scores of people stumble in and out of packed bars.

Taking a second to absorb the scene, we find ourselves swept into a huddle of people with various instruments singing, shouting, jumping in place. We don't know what everyone is shouting, so we make it up. No one seems to mind, as we bounce up and down together, to the rhythm of the spontaneous eruption.

The party continues to throb as we make our way back to the main road. Leaving the clamor behind, we wander through subdued side streets. Our feet ache but we have energy still to admire an airy home, its doors flung open to the street. A family relaxes inside, sips tall drinks under the pulse of a ceiling fan, watches the festival move past. We smile and they smile back. Though the street party has not been an ideal venue to meet locals, we feel we've seen a small part of the spirit of the people.

The next morning we're tempted to spend the day at the hotel, sand at our feet and pool within reach, but we gear up for something more. We've booked a van to the rain forest, El Yunque, 25 miles from San Juan in the Sierra de Luquillo Mountains.

Frank, our driver, is eager to impart his knowledge. Periodically, we pass billboards with rudimentary portraits of overzealous politicians. These, Frank explains, are candidates from the three major parties running in the national election. One party advocates full independence from the U.S., another full statehood, while the last is for retaining enhanced commonwealth status.

Homes and businesses grow simpler as we travel farther. We are soon driving through a small, practically abandoned town. A few children playing on the sidewalk and some silver-haired men on blue plastic chairs stare as we go by. "Come here in a few years and you won't recognize this village," Frank says. "Things are moving quickly these days."

As we move uphill, the surroundings are increasingly green. At the top of a hill, Frank shows us the beginning of a trail and then sets us free into the wild. The path is straightforward, though slippery.

We don't know, at the time, that we're enjoying the shade of the vagrumbo humbra, a canopy tree that can lie for months on the forest floor before shooting up to plug a glimmer of blue sky. We don't know the name of the colorful bird that we're convinced is following us, nor do we know that this national park receives over a billion gallons of rainfall per year. But we enjoy the plants and birds, the occasional rainfall on our faces, all the same.

We reach, at last, the waterfall. There is an open, rocky area and other visitors are resting, enjoying the view of the falls and the few brave souls in the water. "We have to go in," one of the girls says. The day isn't warm and when we remove our sneakers to dip our feet, we find the water ice-cold.

But when will we ever return to this rain forest? Won't we always ask, "Why didn't we go in?" We remove our upper layers and stand, shivering, in our bathing suits on the edge of a rock, an audience watching and urging us in. Our debate continues as the people in the water begin splashing us. As we tremble, scream, laugh on the rocks, we look behind us and realize we have inadvertently become the day's entertainment.

Finally, we dive in and our audience cheers. It is, indeed, icy, but we look at the waterfall rushing above us and are contented.

Back in paved, concrete reality, we are exhausted and spend the rest of the day at the pool.

In the next two days, we embark on a self-guided tour of Old San Juan, where we explore forts, mingle with locals, and drink too many free Bacardi drinks at the tourist office.

We watch a procession of oversized masks, cabezudos, vibrantly colored in red, yellow and blue and carved into grotesque and comical shapes. We get caught in the rain and huddle beneath an awning, watching the buildings turn a darker shade of yellow, feeling the breeze float up to meet us from the bay.

We party at the Babylon nightclub in the hotel El San Juan, where we accept a dare to dance on stage something we'd never do back home. We take a break from the beach to try a salsa dance class and we have dinner at the Parrot Club where we're seated in a courtyard, leaves descending upon our table amidst delicious food and specialty drinks.

On our final morning, we have two hours to spare. At the pool, we find four chairs and stretch out in the sun. "We could've done this the entire time," one of us remarks.

Yes, but we've found something better: that a vacation in Puerto Rico can be more than merely lounging at the pool. It's just a matter of what you seize.

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