Puerto Rico Diary 3: Seeing the Sights

El Castillo Serralles, Ponce, Puerto Rico The State Department frequently issues travel advisories for various corners of the globe. Since Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, though, you won’t generally see much by way of advisories. This is a bit of a shame, since it would’ve been nice if we’d known before we went that practically the whole island was on strike the day we arrived. The streets of Old San Juan, if not for their distinctive architecture, could easily have been mistaken for a quiet suburb somewhere in Jersey. Both nights we were there, the largest number of people we saw out late at night were a handful of people playing dominoes in the Plaza de Armas. This isn’t to say there wasn’t plenty to do in Puerto Rico. Sure, the museums were mostly shuttered, but once you’ve run the gauntlet of the scores of McDonalds and other chains, there’s plenty to see. A few highlights:

El Morro: This fort is one of a string of fortifications–along with San Cristobal–that defended Old San Juan. If you’re coming to Puerto Rico from the mainland, this can be quite an experience, given that there’s not much on the mainland that’s any older than about three hundred years old, and many of our landmarks are more recent than that. While Puerto Rico has undergone its fair share of development, luckily it hasn’t all been at the expense of a sense of history.

The fort, one of a string of fortifications built starting in the 1530’s, can be quite a hike if you’re getting there on foot (you can get a trolley here from one of several points in Old San Juan), and in 90-degree-plus temperatures, you stand to sweat a quart or so by the time you’ve worked your way through the several levels. Since it’s run by the National Park Service, El Morro was open when many of the other cultural attractions had been closed by the strike.

Museo Pablo Casals: The legendary cellist spent many of the later years of his life in Puerto Rico. The museum–a smallish house located on the Plaza San Jose that dates to the 18th century — has several items on display from his long and illustrious career. His cello, for instance, is on display, as are numerous programs and posters from the annual Casals Festival. It’s not the kind of place where you’d go to kill an afternoon, but since the price of admission is only a dollar, you likely won’t mind.

Bosque Seco:  It is, as the name suggests (or would, if you spoke Spanish) a dry forest. This is, according to our more-or-less trusty travel guide, to distinguish an area that gets an average of fifteen inches of rain per year from areas in Puerto Rico that get upwards of fifteen feet. Puerto Rico is, we’re told, the only place on earth with a dry forest in such close proximity to a rainforest. Of course, our luck being what it is, rain clouds were gathering overhead and thunder booming in the distance by the time we reached the park.

Not wanting to spend too long in the forest (we had a dinner engagement later in the evening to which we’d wanted to be more or less on time), we took one of the shorter trails. The rugged paths were bordered with a variety of ferns, cacti, trees, and shrubberies,¹ some of which would have left an experienced botanist scratching her head in wonderment.

El Castillo Serralles: The Serralles family are distillers of rum, and have been since the 1860’s. This mansion, located in Ponce (and affectionately dubbed El Castillo by the locals) was sold to the city of Ponce for a fraction of its estimated 13 to 18 million dollar worth — with most of its furnishings — and turned into a museum. The exterior is lovely, from the formal gardens, to the Pedro Adolfo de Castro y Besosa-designed Spanish Colonial Revival mansion itself. However, this barely begins to hint at the museum’s interior, which is nothing short of breathtaking. Your tour guide will tell you that this building boasts one of the first elevators to be installed in Puerto Rico², but this pales next to the attention to detail paid first by the architect, builders, and craftsmen when the mansion was built, and then by the museum staff, who have taken great pains to find scores of period artifacts with which to dress the dozens of rooms (very tastefully, might I add; at no point does the museum have the look of an Applebees or a TGI Friday’s, thank God). I realize that I haven’t quite done justice to this site, but if you see it for yourself — and please, do — you’ll understand why I’ve fallen short.

The site also has two more attractions close by. There’s the Jardín Japonés (Japanese Garden), the proximity of which to the Castillo makes it somewhat less incongruous in Ponce than it might otherwise have been. It’s a well-designed, lovingly maintained, very Japanese-seeming oasis of tranquility in a city that… well, isn’t. There’s also the Cruceta del Vigía, a largish late-modern monument to a site in the city that served as a lookout point for Ponce as well as a refuge during earthquakes and other disasters (visible from much of the city).

Parque Ceremonial Indígena de Caguana:First, a word of caution. Your travel guide, or your GPS, may advise you to take the 128 to Utuado in order to get to this site. Ignore it. Find a map, or a local, and take some other route. The 128 is a two-way highway that’s only about 1 1/4 lanes wide. On straight roads, this would pose a handful of challenges, but the 128 is anything but straight. Verily, it looks like a Slinky with blacktop. It’s one of those mountain roads that looks like the ones you read about in the papers from time to time that carries busloads of Peruvian nuns and American tourists to their deaths.³

But enough about the road. What’s interesting is what’s at the end of it. The Ceremonial Park is a site dating back roughly 1,200 years that was excavated starting in 1915. It’s thought that the grounds were a meeting place for the Taino who were located throughout the area. The dominant features of the park are a series of ball courts bordered by petroglyphs (stone carvings), ranging from smallish rocks bearing representations of Taino deities, to much larger ones whose function may have been to represent the area’s sacred mountains. There’s also a visitor’s center here, which contains a smallish bookshop, a research area, and classrooms.

The visitor’s center at the Parque Ceremonial, actually, is as good a place as any to come back to the beginning of the story: the strike, and the reason behind it. Puerto Rico has been hit hard by the economic downturn. Looking around the island, it’s obvious that it wasn’t an economic powerhouse to begin with, and the state of the economy has only served to make things that much worse. Unemployment hovers around 20%, and some urban areas — like Ponce, for instance — have a murder rate of something like two a day. Against this backdrop, the Governor of Puerto Rico laid off somewhere upward of 18,000 government workers, prompting the strike. The net result of this is that many of the island’s cultural attractions (aside from those like El Morro, which are run by the National Park Service) have been shuttered, and the rest, once they reopened, were understaffed. In order to conserve on payroll, experienced guides and docents like the gentleman we spoke to at the Parque Ceremonial who was slated to lose his job in the beginning of November are being laid off in favor of younger, less-experienced people who don’t have to be paid as much.

The net effect of this is threefold. First, there’s a not inconsiderable addition to the island’s already swollen unemployment rolls. Second, there’s a perceptible brain drain as experienced people are cast off in favor of newer, cheaper blood (the aforementioned park worker at the Parque Ceremonial said he’d worked there twelve years and had only begun to scratch the surface of all there was to be learned about the site). Third, this cannot help but hobble the tourism industry in Puerto Rico. I may have joked in an earlier entry about the profusion of Americana on this island, but there are people who will come here for more than sun, rum, and cheap souvenirs, and who will be disappointed to find that much of what they’ve come for isn’t accessible, or doesn’t provide the same experience that it would’ve with a more knowledgeable guide.

This may not seem like much on the surface, but tourism is a vital part of the local economy, and anything that hurts that industry isn’t likely to help the economy of the island on the whole. What it may also mean to you, as a traveler, is that the attractions listed here, along with a host of others, may remain perfectly accessible, but that you may be your own best guide while the new employees learn the ropes.

¹ I have always wanted to use this word outside a discussion of Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail. The Bosque Seco looked like it might’ve been a suitable summer home for the Knights of Ni, though I doubt if they would’ve looked quite as imposing in summer garb.

² Despite its age, it probably still moves faster than the shitbox of an elevator at the Howard Johnson’s on the Plaza de Armas, which would appear to have been operated by an arthritic 79-year-old man using a hand crank.

³ Because it’s written in some law, earthly, cosmic, or otherwise, that no fatal bus accident is complete without at least one nun aboard.