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Hola! Puerto Rico

Calle Sol, from an original watercolor by Barbara Z. Pecce
Puerto Rico is indeed rico. It is an island endowed with lush landscacpe, warm climate, friendly people and flavorful cuisine. Visitors can't wait to finish unpacking so they can bask in the sun at one of many fine beaches. Or swim and snorkel in Atlantic waters or in the calm Caribbean Sea.

For those who prefer hiking, the tropical rainforest of El Yunque has numerous trails to explore. One challenging path leads to Pico El Toro. At 3,523 ft., this is the highest peak in the forest.

An easy walking trail allows visitors to experience the gifts of the rainforest. About 240 species of tropical trees grow here including the yagruma. Unlike other trees, the yagruma can be male or female. What distinguishes one from the other is the silver coloring of the female leaf on its underside. The male genus maintains a singular color.

The forest receives some billions of gallons of rainfall a year collected into streams, natural pools and waterfalls. Only the sound of croaking coquis (tiny tree frogs) in chorus breaks through the serenity of the forest.

Old San Juan is small and intimate yet packed with many attractions. Cars inch their way down Calle Cristo and make a left onto Calle Fortaleza, the center of the shopping district. Turning right on Fortaleza leads to the Governor's mansion. Narrow, cobblestone streets are flanked by colorful colonial buildings with overhanging balconies from which cascade red and pink bougainvillea. At the Parque de Palomas, children excitedly chase pigeons.

A walk along the old town's fortifications leads to El Morro which is perched on a rocky promontory. Together with Fort San Cristobal, these fortresses which on average measure 20 ft. thick at the base and 12 ft. thick at the top, were built to keep invaders at bay. Garitas (sentry boxes) protrude from angles along the walls. These have now become one of the enduring symbols of the island.

The Spanish-American war saw the disintegration of the Spanish empire. The war was short. Spain capitulated and ceded Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the United States and renounced any claim to Cuba in the Treaty of Paris in 1898. Puerto Rico maintains Commonwealth status and Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States.

Ponce is a 90-minute drive from San Juan across the Cordillera Central mountain range. It is the proud home of the Museo de Arte de Ponce (MAP) with its remarkable collection of European and American art from the 14th to the 20th century including works by Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer and El Greco, to name a few.

Puerto Rican artists like Jose Campeche and Francisco Oller are well represented in the Puerto Rican gallery. But the star of the collection without a doubt, is Lord Frederic Leighton's Flaming June. This is a portrait of a sleeping young woman in a sheer orange gown. Behind her is a hint of a shimmering sea. Leighton succeeds in conveying his idea through the application of vibrant colors. This museum is a must-see!  

A visit to Puerto Rico would not be complete without savoring its rich culinary heritage. Taino, African, and Spanish influences blend to create a distinctive fare. An asopao is a mélange of rice, green peas, pimientos, tomatoes, chicken or seafood. Although listed under soup on the menu, an asopao makes for a hearty meal and is traditionally served in a cast iron bowl.

Tostones often accompany every meal. These are plantains (green bananas), peeled and sliced into thick rounds (the size of cookies) and fried to a golden yellow color. For dessert, try a coconut flan (custard).

Puerto Rico is home to the Bacardi and Don Q rum distilleries. Both companies offer free tours of their operations and visitors are treated to a complimentary drink. Rum mixes well with fruit juices like pineapple and coconut cream, staples of the piña colada, a truly Puerto Rican concoction.

The Parrot Club on Calle Fortaleza serves its own house special, Passion Parrot. This drink combines passion fruit, orange, triple sec, rum and ice. Order this with crab cakes caribeño and soak in the tropical ambience of the Club's hot decor. Salud!

Getting there:

Delta Airlines has direct flights from San Francisco to Luis Munoz Marin Intl. Airport. Taxi vans are stationed outside baggage claim. Standard rates are enforced from the airport to certain points in the city. Make sure you are issued a receipt by one of the taxi agents before boarding the taxi.

*****

*This article was published in the February 6-13, 2003 issue of the Manila Bulletin USA.

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