16th-century cities, luxurious resorts await island visitors EXPLORING PUERTO RICO

January 29, 1995|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff Writer

It's not Bermuda or Jamaica or the Virgin Islands. There's not a whole lot of Club Med about it. For many, when the time comes to plan an exotic island getaway, Puerto Rico gets short shrift.

Maybe it's taken for granted by Americans; after all, it is a U.S. commonwealth, and to travelers, that means visiting the island is pretty much as easy as visiting Fort Lauderdale. And, no doubt, it suffers from comparison with its smaller cousins, the tiny points of land that are more in keeping with most Americans' idea of a Caribbean vacation.

But don't let familiarity breed neglect. Puerto Rico offers lavish resorts and quiet, out-of-the-way beaches, old cities that date to the 16th century and new shopping centers. There are tropical rain forests and roadside stands where vendors sell elaborate wood carvings, with prices that are nothing if not negotiable.

In short, there's enough there to keep even the most ambitious traveler busy -- whether one's idea of busy is taking in the sites or relaxing on a quiet stretch of beach.

And while Spanish seems the language of preference among the island's natives, most speak enough English to help visitors. Almost all tourist attractions and hotels have staff fluent in English.

The place to start is San Juan, the island's capital and largest city. First settled in the early 16th century, San Juan is one of the oldest capital cities in the Western Hemisphere and shows its age in narrow, cramped streets, massive stone forts and centuries-old churches.

Many interesting sites are across the harbor in Old San Juan, a 7-square-block area dating to 1521 that still is partially enclosed by walls built by Spanish settlers. Because streets on the islet are so narrow, cars are best left elsewhere. Try taking a taxi into town, or hop on the Catano Ferry.

Two huge stone forts, Castillo El Morro and Fort San Cristobal, dominate the islet's western and eastern edges, respectively. Both are part of San Juan National Historic Site and can be toured for free.

El Morro, begun in 1540, encompasses more than 200 acres, much of it open space where squealing schoolchildren and darting lizards vie for attention. Rising more than 140 feet in the air, its six batteries offer graphic testimony to the fort's military importance: Over the centuries, numerous conquering armies tried to wrest El Morro from the Spanish, including the English under Sir Francis Drake in 1595 and the Americans in 1898. (The United States did gain control of Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War in 1898. But not because it overran the defenders of El Morro, who stood their ground even while Spain was faring poorly elsewhere.)

About one mile east of El Morro sits the equally imposing San Cristobal, begun in 1634. Although smaller than its older sibling, San Cristobal is actually a more inviting tourist destination: It won't take all day to tour, it's usually less crowded and its views out into the Atlantic are just as spectacular.

If possible, take advantage of the guided tours offered by park rangers. You'll hear tales of the long hours guards were forced to spend in the cliff-side sentry boxes, be taken through the tunnels used by soldiers traveling from one part of the fort to another and maybe even be shown the Formosa plants growing on the parade grounds. Also known as sensitive plants, the small green stalks fold in on themselves and fall gently to the ground when touched.

Take a few hours and wander through the streets of Old San Juan. Walking tours are outlined in pamphlets available at the airport and all major hotels. A few sites not to be missed: La Fortaleza, the governor's mansion and seat of Puerto Rico's government for four centuries; Casa Blanca, the restored home of the family of 16th-century explorer Ponce de Leon (first governor of Puerto Rico and seeker of the fabled Fountain of Youth), now a museum of life in the 16th and 17th centuries; and the Iglesia de San Jose (San Jose Church), dating from 1532.

Also be sure to visit some of the old city's numerous craft shops, galleries, restaurants and bars. Some of the best roads for browsing and dining are Calle Cristo, Calle San Francisco and Calle San Jose.

If you're visiting Puerto Rico, chances are you're staying in San Juan, home to the majority of the island's hotels (although two of the choicest resorts, the Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach and the Hyatt Dorado Beach, are actually about 35 miles west of San Juan, near Dorado). Several of the city's hotels offer private beaches, but to really experience surf and sand Puerto Rico-style, rent a car and leave San Juan.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.