Recently a visit to a seaside cultural center in Loiza, a city in Puerto Rico where I met the largest black community on the island, I heard Afro-Puerto Rican folk music from a car radio. A young man danced, carved another ceremonial mask from a coconut, and another filled my glass with homemade sugar cane liqueur flavored with Guava fruit.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
If you’ve visited Puerto Rico, share your favorite tips with other readers. Join the conversation below.
Cultural revival is taking place in Loiza, a former slave enclave near San Juan. One manifestation is the Bomb, a drum, song, and dance tradition rooted in West Africa that has become an expression of Puerto Rican identity. “You have to come back on Sunday,” Wilfredo “Apex” Aponte, the community leader, said. – You will see a lot of people dancing, singing, drumming. We want visitors to see this. “
At night, in San Juan’s old town, young revelers poured out of bars full of salsa music into the cobbled streets as they used to.
I moved to San Juan in 1990 and stayed for five years. I first worked in filmmaking and then as a journalist for the now defunct San Juan Star. Now, 26 years after I left, I have returned with a close friend of mine back then, Larry Luxner. We looked for old friends and ghosts, some of which were gone; others, such as El Batey, a graffiti-filled 1960s dive bar in San Juan’s historic Old Town, are waiting for a pandemic. We slammed self-portraits next to the former Star Building, which is now a ruined, weed-filled place.
This sad sight reflects the island’s slow economic decline caused by the loss of special industrial tax status, the closure of the U.S. Navy base, and hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters, including the debt crisis. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rican islands have moved to the U.S. mainland. “These challenges are hard for hard-working, middle-class Puerto Rican people to overcome,” said attorney Maritza González as we sat in Old San Juan’s. Century Church next to San Jose Plaza. “I’m optimistic by nature, which explains why I still live on my beautiful island.”
“Isla Borinqueña”, as we discovered, still retains its abundant charm, mainly Spanish-colonial architecture, Caribbean food, infectious music, scenic mountain interiors, and of course warm weather and clear blue water sandy beaches.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are asking people not to visit because of the “very high levels” of Covid-19 on the island. If you visit in any case, the agency recommends that you get a full vaccination before you travel. Despite the warnings, the U.S. has become a popular Covid-19 destination for mainland Americans who have been lured with discount airfare and have been exempted from the requirement to get a Covid test before returning home. The wave of tourism has sparked tensions, with many Puerto Rican complaining that some visitors are violating mask protocols and a nightly epidemic curfew (currently between 10pm and 5pm). One evening, we witnessed an open-top Jeep, a exposed young woman, howling obscene words at police in the Condado tourist zone after being allegedly dragged away for marijuana smoking.
The wave of tourism has sparked tensions, with many Puerto Rican complaining that some visitors are violating mask protocols and a nightly epidemic curfew (currently between 10pm and 5pm). One evening we witnessed an open-top Jeep screaming obscene words at police in an open-top Jeep in the Condado tourist zone after allegedly smoking marijuana.
Puerto Rican strictly take the Covid-19 threat. Most wear a mask, even on the beach, and many are said to rarely go to public places at all. Covid etiquette ads and thermographic cameras are everywhere. Authorities send medical surveys to visitors on a daily basis after they follow text messages and phone calls. Visitors must certify that a negative PCR coronavirus test has been performed within 72 hours prior to arrival. When I arrived in San Juan, diligently equipped with my negative test result, my Covid-19 vaccination card, and my hotel and contact information, my airport interviewer said, “I wish every tourist would be like you.”
Later that day, I returned to the island by walking along the 2-mile, elevated waterfront path to Old San Juan that I used to jog decades ago, passing the magnificent Capitol Building. The road is now lined with green bike paths. Along the way, I stopped at El Hamburguer, a good local venue adorned with posters, photos, and news clippings celebrating Puerto Rico, recalling memories of my former island life.
After dark, young revelers in Old San Juan poured out of bars full of salsa music into the cobbled streets as they used to. This time, we swapped the scene for a sophisticated oasis at the Cannon Club, where a virtuoso jazz duo played straight bass guitar and Steinway piano between sculptures by artist Jan D’Esopo. Ms. D’Esopo, who has lived for six decades, owns the club and the adjoining boutique hotel, which has been restored from Spanish-colonial ruins. “Great music should keep them away,” he said that night, jokingly suggesting that noisy partyers outside look for rawer pleasures.
One day we took a scenic 75-minute drive from San Juan to El Yunque National Forest after booking two seats online. The 44 square kilometer protected area restricts entries in accordance with Covid-19 security protocols. The only tropical rainforest in the United States is still recovering after two 2017 hurricanes. But we experienced lush, green flora as we hiked to the 3,500-meter peak – according to one application – on the 62 “floors” of mountaineering – breathing fresh, cool air along rivers and waterfalls. The iconic species of Puerto Rico, the tiny coqui frog, led the way.
We drove to the famous nearby Luquillo beach and had a fresh dinner measuring (perch) with white rice, red beans, sweet plantain and parcha (passion fruit) juice. Dozens of outdoor kiosks have been offering Puerto Rican baked specialties in Luquillo for decades. Some were a little more upscale, including our choice, La Parilla, but the $ 36 lunch bill was worth two extra tips.
The other day we went west to visit an old friend who married a local resident and moved to Aguadilla, where the former base of the U.S. Air Force is now a commercial airport. We stopped along the north coast to get away from one of our favorite 90s destinations – Playa Mar Chiquita – in a bay protected from the rough Atlantic waves by oily volcanic rocks. On my last day, I swam on Cerro Gordo Beach near San Juan and then settled into a waterfront bar watching the setting sun. As I drank a cold Medalla beer and listened to local rumors with a Juan Luis Guerra merengue song in the background, two men on horseback meandered. At this happy moment, I was struck by the fact that Puerto Rico hasn’t really changed much.
Repairs and reinforcements
The pandemic curfew in Puerto Rico is 22-5 p.m. An earlier version of the article incorrectly said that the curfew lasts from 12 to 5 p.m.
Copyright © 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8