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The Plain Dealer

Island Paradise Offers A Variety Of Lovely Sights

By James M. Lewis; Plain Dealer Reporter

November 7, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

The historic waterfront fortress called El Morro protected San Juan, Puerto Rico, for 300-plus years. These basement rooms were used for cannon repair, holding cells and a variety of other purposes.

These rooms are in the lowest level of the six-tiered stone fortress known as El Morro, on the waterfront in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They were used for cannon repair, holding cells, storage and a variety of other purposes during the 300-plus years the fortress protected the old city. It is one of the Caribbean's most visited sites.

This volunteer fire station in Ponce, on Puerto Rico's southern coast, is America's oldest.

San Juan, Puerto Rico Deep within Puerto Rico's rain forest, El Yunque, I found myself listening to a choir.

Not the heavenly kind, although in that setting it almost seemed so.

We had come to a waterfall, after more than two hours of making our way down a twisting, sometimes slippery, jungle trail to the sound of rushing water.

Now, human voices rose above the water: an old English air I couldn't name but which seemed vaguely familiar.

It was a group of young people preparing for a dip under the falls.

"Would you mind watching our gear?" a young woman asked. Sure, no problem. "And would you mind snapping a picture of us when we get under the falls?" Glad to.

Soon, she and about a half-dozen companions had thrust cameras into our hands and given us quick directions on how to use them.

They made their way over the rocks to the pool. I wanted to join them but decided the rocks were a little too sharp and treacherous.

So we stood and stared.

Mina Falls isn't the largest waterfall I've ever seen, but it is one of the loveliest. It was enough to take my mind off, at least briefly, the uphill trail my wife and I soon would have to climb to get back to the main road where we'd left the rental car.

At the same time, it reminded me again of the surprising array of sights and experiences on this island that is only about 100 miles long and 35 miles wide.

In a fast-paced seven days, we had seen mountains, desert, seashore, underground caves, offshore islands, urban San Juan, historic towns and, now, a tropical rain forest.

We listened to the choral group sing in the shower a while longer, before the young people returned for their backpacks.

"Where are you from?" my wife asked our young friend.

"We're an a cappella group from Harvard," she said. "Just keeping in practice." They sounded perfect to us.

El Yunque, named after the mountain peak in the center of the forest, is officially the Caribbean National Forest, the only rain forest managed by the U.S. National Park Service. It's not large by world standards -- only about 3,000 acres -- so we found it easy to see its best features in a day.

Hiking trails are well marked and, except for the most difficult one leading to the top of El Yunque, range from easy to challenging. We tried one marked "challenging" and found that we needed to rest only a couple of times.

Occasionally, we heard a high-pitched sound that seemed to come from the trees but couldn't discover the source. Park rangers told us later that it comes from inch-long tree frogs called coquies, found only in El Yunque. A local icon, the frog is featured on T- shirts and gift-shop items all over the island.

Like many other visitors, we considered El Yunque one of our two favorite spots in Puerto Rico.

The other was Old San Juan, the seven-block colonial enclave adjoining modern San Juan.

It was the first place we headed after checking into the Wyndham Condado Plaza Hotel/Casino, on the beach just a couple of miles east of downtown.

Old San Juan is a warren of narrow, brick-paved streets, lined with interesting shops, charming old Spanish architecture, art galleries, restaurants, small hotels and guesthouses.

Walking is the best way to get around. We left our car at the hotel and hopped on a city bus that cost 25 cents per person each way for the 20-minute ride.

Several streets lead onto a grassy knoll surrounding the magnificent El Morro fortress on the island's northern coast, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. The fortress was begun in 1539 and protected the city from invaders for nearly three centuries. We spent an afternoon climbing its ramparts, enjoying the view of the ocean and bay and exploring the network of fortifications and rooms on three levels.

Renting a car gave us the flexibility and freedom to get around Puerto Rico. Here are some of the highlights:

Ponce: The island's second-largest city, on the southern coast, has a slower pace. We enjoyed the easy, two-hour drive through a mountain pass down from San Juan, had lunch in a cafe just off the sleepy plaza in the town square and spent the afternoon viewing whatever we could see on foot.

A key attraction is Parque de Bombas, the oldest volunteer firehouse in America, now a museum. A standout in large black and red stripes, it is one of the island's most photographed sites.

Walking through an old neighborhood, we stopped to chat with some middle school students who seemed to enjoy practicing their English. We moved on to the attractive Ponce Museum of Art, where the collection of master works makes a couple hours' visit worthwhile.

Rio Camuy: Just over an hour southwest of San Juan, Rio Camuy is the world's third-largest underground river.

Even on a weekday, we were surprised at the size of the crowd, but it proved to be worth a wait in line to see the system of caves. We rode a tram down into the river gorge to the mouth of one of the largest caves, where the two-hour walking tour began. The cave's interior was as striking as any I've ever seen.

Arecibo: This town west of San Juan has the world's largest radio telescope, featured a few years ago in the movie "Contact." You don't have to be a UFO buff to enjoy it, but it probably helps. It's close enough to the Rio Camuy cave system that, with planning, you can visit both the same day. A sign pointing the way from the parking lot says there are 500 steps up to the observatory. I didn't keep count, but my aching legs told me it probably was correct.

Culebra: It's the smaller of two quiet islands off Puerto Rico's eastern shore. The larger, perhaps better known, is Vieques. We decided to visit Culebra after someone at our hotel mentioned that a major travel magazine had just named Flamenco Beach on Culebra one of the world's finest beaches.

The ferry in the town of Fajardo, which costs $2.25 per person each way, makes the trip twice a day. We noticed that some visitors came prepared to stay overnight in one of the few guesthouses in the little town of Dewey, but we chose to take the 11 a.m. ferry and return at 3 p.m. From Dewey, we took a cab seven miles to the horseshoe-shaped beach and soon realized those few hours weren't going to be enough. The white-sand beach and turquoise water were picture-perfect, rivaling beaches we'd seen in the South Pacific.

Luquillo: This small eastern town offers the best public beach on the main island, not far from the entrance road to El Yunque. It was not as attractive as the beach on Culebra but was clean and provided lockers, changing rooms, refreshments and other amenities. It seemed to be the beach of choice for local residents.

Casa Bacardi: Yes, it's full of tourists, but if you have the time it's worth the 50-cent ferry ride across the bay from downtown San Juan to get to the world's largest rum distillery. We visited on our final day, before returning to the airport.

Free one-hour tours start every 30 minutes, six days a week. You get an interesting explanation of rum-making, some recipes, a history of the Bacardi family, a chance to e-mail a short video of yourself home to friends and a couple of free Bacardi drinks.

We left with a pleasant taste of Puerto Rico, which went down quite smoothly with the memories.

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