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New York Daily News

Where To Find Serenity In Puerto Rican Paradise


January 9, 2005
Copyright © 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Beyond an endless white beach, long-billed pelicans dive one after another into the smooth-as-glass water of Boqueron Bay on Puerto Rico's southwest coast.

A handful of sailboats bob lazily in the harbor, and fish splash as a blazing orange sun sinks heavily toward the horizon.

The graceful pelicans never get tired of plunging into the bay. And even after 30 years, our family never tires of coming to this serene corner of Puerto Rico. Far from the sprawling resorts and white-glove hotels in and around San Juan, the region moves at a slower, more authentic pace.

Wrinkled old-timers sell $3 bowls of conch, fried fish and beer from creaky roadside casitas. A lighthouse built in 1871 guards a stunning vista from a jagged cliff down to the crashing waves below. On a lush hillside, a salsa singer hits an impossibly high note as couples swirl across a dancefloor and rain pounds on the corrugated iron roof.

Don't expect crowds. The region, dubbed Porta del Sol, or Doorway to the Sun, is half-empty in the winter months because vacationers from the American mainland dread the two-hour drive from San Juan's airport.High-level viewing On the far southwest corner of the island, follow the signs to the el faro, or lighthouse, for an unforgettable view of the shimmering Caribbean on one side and miles of salty marsh flats on the other.

The horribly rutted road keeps plenty of visitors away. But the fried green plantains and cold conch salad made fresh at a ramshackle stand make the ride worthwhile.

A few stray tourists picnic on a wonderfully sheltered beach as huge waves crash on the rocks just beyond the cliffs.

The Parador Bahia Salinas, which sits in the shadow of the lighthouse, has a wondrous, desert island feel with parrots squawking in cages, hammocks and its own empty beach.

Serenaded by a scratchy mambo on a transistor radio, we lay on a pier and gazed up at a velvet sky twinkling with constellations and shooting stars.

It's a special spot. But don't expect much attention from the staff, who prune the glorious bougainvillea daily but ignore guests and cannot find time to open the bar or restaurant between breakfast and dinner.

The pearl of the entire island is the sun-splashed beach village of Boqueron. Its main street runs a few feet from the water, and hawkers sell heaps of oysters picked fresh off the mangrove roots, spiced with fiery pepper sauce.

An amateur artist paints bright seascapes on the brick-paved plaza, and locals hug over plates of fish in Roberto's, the town's favorite restaurant.

The prime attraction here is the classic, palm-lined curving beach, which many Puerto Ricans revere as one of the best on the island.

A cluster of cabanas sits right on the sand, so close that you can turn a whole red snapper on the barbecue while the kids splash in the shallow water. These government-run cabins are spartan, and visitors have to bring all their own supplies, but the enchanting scenery provides atmosphere enough.

On the opposite corner of the island, about a 45-minute drive from San Juan, steamy mist clings hard to the slopes of the El Yunque rainforest.

Rainwater from the showers that pound the mountainside still drip from lush green banana fronds and giant 1,000-year-old ferns, beneath which the forest's unique ecosystem of rare birds, frogs and crisscrossing mountain streams is coming to life for another day.

El Yunque is on the must-see list for almost every visitor to Puerto Rico, and thousands a year visit parts of the 28,000-acre reserve and its famed La Coca Falls.

But almost none of those get the chance to wake up inside the mist. We did - and we'll never forget it.

Our family stayed at a bare-bones guesthouse run by Phillips Mountain Cabins on the rainforest's isolated south slope, which can only be reached on a twisty road from the sleepy town of Naguabo.

Lured by the morning calm, we set out with our son on a six-mile hike, hoping to reach a rarely seen waterfall.

Tramping along a long-abandoned rail line that once carried construction gangs up the mountain, we felt like intruders in a secret world.

Tiny parrots chirped in the branches, and thousands of frogs serenaded us with their famed two-syllable "co-qui." Every few minutes we emerged from the cool, damp canopy to clearings where the blazing sun tore through the giant leaves.

By lunchtime, we reached our reward: a pounding falls that roared from 100 feet above us.

That evening, we sipped beers inside the Bamboo bar as the sky opened up outside and the rain rat-a-tatted on the iron roof; we later slept under a carpet of mist. Being there, like in southwestern Puerto Rico, makes you think twice about getting on a flight back home.

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