Oscar Lewis, the American anthropologist, described Puerto Ricans as the most highly sexed people in the world (La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty — San Juan and New York). Really? As both a trained anthropologist who is skeptical of generalizations about national character and a Cuban American who thinks that Cubans might dispute this claim of hypersexuality (Fidel Castro wasn’t known as the Stallion for nothing), I took Lewis’ idea in literary stride.
But not for long.
My wife and I had come to Puerto Rico to bicycle the perimeter of the island, some 400 miles of mostly narrow roads without shoulders. We like to ride, walk, or paddle across or, literally, around countries as our favorite form of travel. It’s cheap, it’s healthy, and it offers an in-depth introduction to the countries we visit and the people we meet. However, because of many governments’ travel closures this past year, we had to resort to some imaginative scrambling to come up with a compelling adventure. Hence Puerto Rico, or Borinquen — its aboriginal name — as the modern natives also refer to it. Not quite a separate country, but definitely not Kansas City.
We had come to Puerto Rico to bicycle the perimeter of the island, some 400 miles of mostly narrow roads without shoulders.
Forget commonwealth, as in Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The term is as meaningless as “dominion” in Dominion of Canada. Though not independent, Puerto Rico is a “Free Associated State” that belongs to the United States, has the possibility of becoming a state of the Union, and, yet, unlike other US land, can potentially become an independent country. Jorge Duany, author of Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know, has termed this place of unresolved status a “postcolonial colony.”
The island is a Spanish speaking country, though most islanders know at least some English, a schooling requirement from a young age. They enjoy all the protections and privileges of our Constitution except for voting representation in Congress and the ability to vote in presidential elections.
My roots run shallow in Borinquen. My Cuban cousin Armando Lastra and his mother Tita had settled in Puerto Rico in 1965. Armandito, as he was affectionately known, was hot-headed . . . and he hated Fidel Castro. Early in 1959, mere months after Castro’s victory and at the tender age of 14, he joined a gun smuggling operation outside of Havana, a situation that caused no end of anxiety for Tita, but over which she was helpless. So, to save the teen, she took him to the US.
But Armandito was headstrong. When he turned seventeen, he joined the men who volunteered to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. He was the youngest recruit. After their defeat, the men spent a year and a half in Castro’s prisons. While most of our extended family had already left Cuba, my aunt Tita stayed there during her son’s incarceration — for moral support, visits, and food packages.
Mere months after Castro’s victory and at the tender age of 14, Armandito joined a gun smuggling operation outside of Havana.
Upon his release in 1962, he joined the MRR (Movement to Recover the Revolution), one of the independent organizations that operated in parallel to Operation Mongoose, President Kennedy’s infiltration, destabilization, and sabotage program against the Castro regime. But by 1965, President Johnson had cancelled Operation Mongoose and was enforcing sanctions against the independents, who were also struggling for funds. Armandito had had enough. He and Tita settled in Puerto Rico.
Armandito married a Boricua, as Puerto Ricans nickname themselves, and opened a restaurant, El Antiguo Malecón, in San Juan. Tita settled in Ponce, on the south coast of the island, and taught Spanish to gringo Peace Corps volunteers. My mother, my sisters, and I visited them and a few other Cuban refugee friends who’d settled on the island while I was an undergraduate nearly 50 years ago. Both Armandito and Tita had, by 2021, died. El Antiguo Malecón, however, is still a thriving business.
* * *
But back to the sex . . .
We’d booked a trendy, mid-priced room outside Old San Juan. As in most hotels, its rules and evacuation routes were posted on the room door. As the conscientious lodger I’ve always been, I glanced at the screed looking for the checkout time. The rule just after “No smoking” surprised me: “No public nudity.” Was this really a problem? We soon found out. On our way out to breakfast a voluptuous mulata (more on that term later) traipsed down the corridor uninhibitedly bare-assed naked. But it was the next rule that really drove home the fact that we were no longer in Kansas: “No sex in public areas.” Fortunately, we didn’t encounter this.
A study of couples in coffee shops around the world by psychologist Sidney Jourard uncovered that, over the course of an hour, couples in Paris — that other hub of romance — and Puerto Rico touched each other 110 and 180 times, respectively (those in London avoided any contact at all). Perhaps that’s why the island trends toward over-population and has off-loaded emigrants throughout its history. According to livescience.com, “Puerto Rico is one of the most densely populated islands in the world” with an average of nearly 1,036 people per square mile, second only to New Jersey among US states. During our bike journey, Puerto Rico’s sexually charged atmosphere was ever-present, as I’ll recount intermittently.
The rule just after “No smoking” surprised me: “No public nudity.” Was this really a problem? We soon found out.
We breakfasted at Kasalta, an upscale café cum bakery only two blocks away from our lodging. Kasalta’s main wall was graced with a life-sized photo of Barack Obama. He’d eaten there back in April of 2011. But our café con leche, pan de agua, and huevos revueltos con jamón were interrupted by police sirens, a dozen patrol cars, and police motor bikes giving high-speed chase outside, not ten feet from our table — a disconcerting sight adjacent to the café’s all-glass walls. As we walked back to our lodging another six police vehicles swarming with cops in bulletproof vests gave us cold looks.
A drug related carjacking had just occurred one block from our hotel. Three policemen were killed — one by being run over — and one was injured. The incident made the New York Times. Flags flew at half-mast for three days. The outpouring of grief was palpable, and remarkable for a police force widely despised and, at times, fraught with corruption, a police force that the US Department of Justice had in 2011 characterized as “staggering.” In 2010 the FBI arrested 89 Puerto Rican law enforcement officers for aiding drug dealers. Another ten were nabbed in 2015.
Puerto Rico is a tight-knit community. Jimmy, a local informant, said that the cop killings would create a grief and solidarity that would switch Puerto Ricans’ sentiments from cop hatred to sympathy, instantly. But these attitudes could also revert to the mean just as fast if cops didn’t build on the goodwill. He added that Puerto Rican cops treat mainlanders better than natives, a sort of “gringo privilege card.”
As an example of Puerto Ricans’ monolithic sensibilities, he told us of the traffic death of a bike tourist a few years’ prior. The death galvanized the populace to be more considerate of bikers. Previously they’d been perceived as pests. It worked. In 400 miles of riding shoulder-free roads, we found traffic polite, considerate, and sometimes gracious — even when we were struggling up 700-foot hills at two miles per hour. No one passed us unless there was plenty of room. Most cars would stop to let us cross streets. Many drivers offered help navigating. This considerate attitude was extended to other drivers. Cars backed up because of drivers who’d stopped to unload, gawk, or simply chat always waited patiently, horns in abeyance. One curious traffic law we never stopped wondering at addressed red light running: legal so long as it was safe.
As we walked back to our lodging another six police vehicles swarming with cops in bulletproof vests gave us cold looks.
Five days after our arrival we finally rode east out of San Juan to Luquillo, 60.4 kms away. Puerto Rico uses a mishmash of metric and English units. Distances can appear in either kilometers or miles, although gasoline is sold by the liter. Our first day’s ride was a pleasure: sandy beaches on one side; thick tropical vegetation on the other; 80° temperatures and iguanas darting to and fro. In Luquillo we stayed at a hip seaside hostel where a few gringos were working remotely because of covid . . . better here than in New York.
Puerto Rico’s adherence to covid restrictions was mostly exemplary. Incoming travelers are required to be tested within 72 hours of arrival. The health authorities followed up every day of our stay monitoring our condition via cellphone texts. Every business we entered checked our temperature and required that we sanitize our hands and wear masks. Bars were closed, which caused a curious consequence. Upon our arrival at the hostel, we were dying for a cold beer. So I headed to the nearest liquor store. Outside a small crowd was gathered quaffing brews and shooting the breeze — all maskless and about three feet apart. I was immediately welcomed into the conviviality. So much for closing bars . . .
The following day we toured El Yunque National Park, the US’ only tropical rain forest park. Though the island’s upthrust out of the sea was caused by underlying volcanism, most of the overlay is limestone, a surface that becomes quite slippery when wet. During my short hike up to a waterfall, a tree root reached out and tripped me. With wet limestone underfoot, I hit the ground hard with my chest and broke a rib. I knew it was broken because coughing, laughing, sneezing, and heavy breathing were unbearable. Nonetheless, the injury didn’t much affect my biking.
One curious traffic law we never stopped wondering at addressed red light running: legal so long as it was safe.
On our third day we rounded PR’s northeast corner and stopped at Ceiba, launch site for the Culebra Island ferry. Culebra is a little corner of paradise with exquisite beaches, almost no cars, and PR’s best diving, an objective that, coming from Arizona, we were looking forward to. Unfortunately, covid reared its ugly head again: only Culebra residents were allowed on the island.
That evening we sought out a criollo restaurant that our host had recommended. “Just follow the shoreline . . . you can’t miss it.” Trouble was, the road didn’t seamlessly parallel the shoreline. We lost our bearings. So we headed for a group of people milling about a white van by the beach to ask directions. As we got closer this turned into an extraordinary sight. Six voluptuous, gorgeous women, all naked — at first glance — with disproportionate features (one looked as if she’d had two watermelons grafted onto her buttocks) turned to engage us. They were so heavily made up, I thought they were some sort of Puerto Rican kabuki contestants. By then I noticed they were clothed…if you could call it that. The “bikinis” — thongs and nipple coverings — added up to perhaps one N95 mask, which they didn’t bother with.
After a hoarse “Con permiso” I was tongue tied, open-jawed, and speechless. Tina had to take over. Luckily, they spoke English. Nuyorquinas, as New York Puerto Ricans are called. No, they didn’t know the whereabouts of the restaurant. They were on vacation.
At the restaurant I ordered two mojitos — right off the bat. I was shaken and stirred. It was almost too much for a 71-year-old man, married for 30 years. Not even the churrasco-stuffed mofongo could erase the memory of those watermelons . . .
* * *
But the next day’s ride nearly did. Puerto Rico’s central mountains edged toward the Atlantic along its eastern shore. We were facing multiple 6% grade, 700-foot ascents and descents on the 63 kilometers to Maunabo. It was Sunday and the traffic was heavy along the two-laned road. Even worse, we were introduced to a new, indigenous Puerto Rican music appreciation venue as we rode. Every half hour or so, an especially kitted-up car or truck outfitted with up to 25 ganged loudspeakers (about 25 square feet) pointing rearwards would drive by playing Puerto Rican rap or reggaeton at full blast. The volume was so intense that my head felt as if it would burst, and my eardrums reverberated in pain to such a degree that we’d pull over, stop, and cover our ears. A cop on a motorbike didn’t pause. I guessed that there is no noise ordinance.
A tree root reached out and tripped me. With wet limestone underfoot, I hit the ground hard with my chest and broke a rib.
On the other hand — and unrelated to the blasters — we’d often see pedestrians, people of all ages, dancing uninhibitedly to music in their heads or from radios as they headed down the sidewalk or did chores at home. The old men and women were particularly endearing.
To mitigate adverse riding conditions, Tina likes to engage in heated arguments, gossip, sing or, in this case, listen to me lecture about the meaning of parador, a type of lodging at which she’d booked us a room. She had no idea what that meant, but it was the only lodging option in Maunabo . . . and it was expensive.
Paradores are a kind of luxury hotel owned and run by the state. They are usually located in a converted historic building such as a monastery or castle, or in a modern building with a panoramic view of a historic and monumental city. The concept was initiated by King Alfonso XIII of Spain, where most are located, in order to promote high-end tourism. Discounting the fact that they are government owned, Tina’s spirits rose. We were in for a special treat.
Albeit beautifully located, this Puerto Rican parador had (other than the infinity pool) pedestrian architecture, nickel-and-dime policies, fixed menus, weak mojitos, unadjustable air conditioning, and prices commensurate with a converted castle. Nonetheless, exhausted as we were, we extended our stay an extra night.
At the restaurant I ordered two mojitos — right off the bat. I was shaken and stirred.
On Tuesday we rode to Playa Salinas, rounding PR’s southeast corner. My wife . . . what a woman! Back in San Juan she’d bought a Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner for a beggar. She had carried cans of Chef Boyardee spaghetti, tuna, and kitty kibbles to feed the many homeless cats and dogs on the island. To her sympathetic dismay, most strays steered clear of her when she approached, though many circled back to the free food once she’d left. As we rode, she counted the number of dead cats and dogs along the road, fewer by far than the squished iguanas. Once we saw a Jack Russell chasing an iguana, about its equal in size. The terrier caught the iguana by the tail, but the reptile cut loose. Giving chase, the terrier snatched the tail again and shook the lizard as terriers are wont to do. This time the iguana turned and threatened, succeeded in freeing itself again, and scampered up a tree escaping certain death.
Rivaling the iguana splotches on the roads are the number of potholes and leaning, abandoned power poles. Puerto Rico has had an extraordinary string of bad luck. It experienced the collapse of the entire electrical system in 2016 because of a fire. In 2017, two hurricanes, Maria and Irma, devastated the whole island, destroying 80% of its harvest. To add to the misery, 11 serious earthquakes rumbled through between 2019 and into 2021. Parts of the island went without electricity for the better part of a year. Puerto Rico, on average, experiences only about one bad hurricane every five years, and some were quick to blame climate change for the back-to-back hurricanes. However, the worst hurricane to hit the island was the Great Hurricane of 1780. According to historian Jan Rogozinski (A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak and Carib to the Present):
In October 1780…a hurricane — probably the greatest storm known to us — ravaged Barbados, Saint Lucia, Martinique, Dominica, Saint Eustatius, Saint Vincent, and Puerto Rico. During its savage passage, it killed well over 22,000 people and totally destroyed large British and French naval fleets . . . No instruments existing at the time could measure the force of its winds. But maximum gusts must have been well in excess of 200 miles per hour, since raindrops stripped the trees of their bark.
Many of the hotels we stayed at had installed industrial-sized diesel generators in their parking lots, obviously a response to the frequent, recent power outages. While much of the media on the mainland criticized the Trump administration’s disaster relief to the island, which, for Hurricane Maria alone stood at $20 billion, the locals we spoke to thought Trump had, given the circumstances, done an adequate job. One of the main media criticisms was that although much of the aid had been allocated in the House, the Republican-controlled Senate held it up — but not because they didn’t care or were playing politics. A February 24, 2020 Vox article indicates the motive:
“Puerto Rico has a long history of inadequate financial controls over regular government operations, which forced the Congress to appoint a financial control board in 2016,” a spokesperson for the White House Office of Management and Budget said in early February. “Multiple high-profile cases of corruption have marred distribution of aid already appropriated and have led to ongoing political instability on the island.”
Perhaps it was Trump’s disaster relief efforts that caused Puerto Rico’s Governor Wanda Vázques to endorse him for reelection? She and Pedro Pierluisi, the new governor as of January 2021, belong to the New Progressive Party, whose primary platform is US statehood. Pierluisi, previously Puerto Rico’s representative in the US Congress, caucused with the Democrats and endorsed Joe Biden. Most Puerto Ricans favor statehood, as referenda in 2012, 2017, and 2020 indicate. Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and George Bush all advocated Puerto Rican statehood.
This time the iguana turned and threatened, succeeded in freeing itself again, and scampered up a tree escaping certain death.
Borinqueños seem a bit jaded about elections, perhaps because there are so many levels of government and politicians. Riding along, we got to see many candidates’ signs from the recent elections. One poster with the chubby, squinty-eyed, self-satisfied, and insipid face of an aspiring barrio boss exuded vacuity, made worse by his fatuous slogan: “Juntos llegaremos!” (Together we’ll arrive!). Other signs inspired little confidence in, or hints about, policy proposals: “Claro que sí!” and “A quién esperabas!” (Yes of course! and The one you were waiting for!) One series of “campaign” signs was totally absent: Che Guevara stencils, T-shirts, or graffiti; hammer-and-sickle wall drawings; or wall exhortations demanding Socialism Now! That bit was refreshing.
Tuesday evening we dined on dorado at a seaside restaurant that had a new take on the old “no shirt, no shoes, no service” sign. The Full Moon’s sign read, “No shirt, no pants, no service.” I guess bare feet are allowed, but not full moons.
* * *
The next day we rode into Ponce, PR’s second city — and a very charming one. It’s named after the island’s first governor, Juan Ponce de León, he of fountain of youth fame. Ponce de León had accompanied Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, when they discovered Puerto Rico. He was authorized to colonize the island in 1508. We stayed at the Hotel Belgica, Ponce’s finest historic hotel, which cut its rates by nearly 60% because of covid’s effect on tourism. That evening its award-winning chef served us bacon-wrapped chicken breast stuffed with Spanish chorizo and plantains. Superb!
In 1975, a tropical storm hit Ponce, flooded the Portugués River, and uncovered the largest and most important archaeological site in the entire Caribbean: the Centro Ceremonial Indigena de Tibes. For me, a retired archaeologist, it was a must-see site, crying out for a layover day — especially now that we were halfway round the island.
One series of “campaign” signs was totally absent: Che Guevara stencils, T-shirts, or graffiti; hammer-and-sickle wall drawings; or wall exhortations demanding Socialism Now!
The earliest evidence for people in Puerto Rico goes back 5,000 years. Their DNA is closely related to that of the inhabitants of the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela. It’s surmised that they island hopped up the Lesser Antilles to the Greater Antilles. Prior to the discovery of Tibes, little to no evidence of occupation existed until about AD 1000, when the Tainos, an Arawak linguistic group, first showed up — a gap of 4,000 years.
Tibes not only fills that gap; it does so with snatches of intriguing detail, including 180 human burials. Until about 500 BC, when agriculture and pottery first appear, the inhabitants of the island lived a quite simple hunting and gathering existence. Was the change an evolutionary continuum or more Orinoco immigrants? Either way, by 300 BC — the date by which Tibes reveals its greatest trove — the island was dominated by the Igneris (as archaeologists, with their propensity for naming every new discovery with a custom moniker, labeled the pre-Tainos, who, no doubt, were probably a continuation of the same people).
The Igneris component of Tibes includes pipes for smoking hallucinogens, ballcourts, and ceremonial plazas. The ballcourts are particularly intriguing because they’re a cultural trait also found in Mesoamerica and the US Southwest. But the location of the ballcourts and ceremonial plazas is very revealing of the sociopolitical organization on the island.
By the beginning of the first century AD the Igneris had evolved into two separate societies, the Elenoid in the east and the Osteonoid in the west. Tibes is located at the boundary between the two, indicating some sort of common ground for the two groups, where games and ceremonies might have been jointly celebrated, especially since there is no evidence of warfare. While ballcourts are found in other parts of the island, the number of them at Tibes hints at some sort of Olympic-like, neutral center.
Puerto Ricans love the US. Both flags fly more extensively than the American flag does on the mainland.
By the year 1000, the Tainos had emerged as the dominant culture. They named the island Borinquen (Great Land of the Valiant and Noble Lord). Taino society was organized at the chiefdom level but was relatively democratic. People lived in bohios, the peasant huts still ubiquitous in Cuba but less so in Puerto Rico, and smoked cohibas — cigars — a name that survives today as a Cuban cigar brand. Their ballcourts hosted a soccer-like game played with a rubber ball and 10 to 30 participants. However, unlike Mesoamerican prehistoric ballgames, which in form were more akin to present-day basketball, this one didn’t end with the losers being put to death. Drums, maracas, and güiros — instruments that resound in traditional and popular music today — provided the games’ percussive accompaniment.
This idyllic life was interrupted by two gangs of invaders: first, the warlike Caribs (also from Venezuela), and second, the rapacious Spanish. Puerto Rico’s Tainos held the Caribs off, and reached a modus vivendi with the Spanish. One recent mitochondrial DNA genetic study of 800 Puerto Ricans found 61% with a female Amerindian ancestor, while only 12% inherited DNA from a female European ancestor. Twenty-seven percent had a female African ancestor. On the other hand, other, non-mitochondrial genetic studies indicate a mix of 64% European, 21% African, and 15% native Taino.
Either way, Tainos rocked. And modern Puerto Ricans revel in their borinqueñismo, not just in the use of the Taino name for the island but also in the use of the ubiquitous coqui frog symbol — originally a Taino petroglyph — to represent the island, much as the bald eagle represents the US.
But Boricuas are different. They are proud of their Amerindian heritage, but they revere their Spanish blood just as much, and, unlike many Yankees, perceive no conflict in embracing both. Columbus is a hero. Outside of Arecibo stands a statue, Birth of the New World, representing the man and his caravels; it is taller than the Statue of Liberty, and was the tallest statue in the western hemisphere at the time of its unveiling. Another large monument in Aguada commemorates Columbus’ landing there on November 19, 1493.
With the Royal Navy beginning to eclipse Spain’s, the Spanish monarchy turned to economic warfare.
Did Columbus “discover” America? Puerto Ricans seem to share historian Jan Rogozinski’s view that if the word discover were used in its narrowest sense, “then no one has ever discovered any place . . . The best that can be said is that every place was discovered by an unknown man or woman back in the dim recesses of time.” Instead, as historical dictionaries document, the verb “signifies not only finding something but also revealing, disclosing, and exposing to others whatever has been discovered. In this sense, Columbus did indeed discover . . . the Americas . . . He was the first to go there and make his findings widely known.”
The Puerto Ricans’ Panglossian, inclusive attitude extends to their patriotism, both for their island and, more widely, for being American. They love the US. Both flags fly more extensively than the American flag does on the mainland. Nearly one-third of Puerto Rico’s population has lived in the States at one time or another. Sentiment for independence has disappeared. In the 2017 referendum, 97.13% chose statehood, 1.35% chose the current territorial status, and only 1.52% chose independence.
Which brings us to that quarter of African genetic stock, a slice of ancestry not worn as a badge of pride as much as the Taino and Spanish component. No, it’s not any sort of racism, a concept virtually unknown in Puerto Rico, and perhaps even less known than in Cuba (see “Cuba, Race, Revolution and Revisionism”, Liberty, May 2018). Skin color is not a sensitive subject, as it is on the mainland. Mulata, blanca, café con leche, morena, trigüeña, negrita, cobre, and other more colorful skin tone descriptions are on the same par as skinny, svelte, buff, fat, obese, pudgy . . . you get the picture.
My sense is that Taino and Spanish ancestry are of quite specific provenance, while the African source is more diffuse (though one hotel manager told us she’d had a DNA test and found that she was primarily of Nigerian stock — and she was prouder of that than any other component . . . it seemed exotic to her). Puerto Rico was not a big plantation colony, so its slave population was small, one-tenth the size of Cuba’s between 1761 and 1870. Over those hundred-plus years, the slaves came from different areas in west Africa and various ethnic groups. The geographic origin and affiliation of the black population became even more diverse when Spain instituted a new, sanctuary policy for escaped slaves.
Only the daily cellphone text from Puerto Rico’s health department monitoring us for fever, coughs, and sneezes reminded us that things weren’t normal.
Despite the brutal conditions in the sugarcane fields, Spain had a more enlightened legal policy for its slaves than most other slaveholding societies. Slaves could own property, marry, buy their freedom, earn money through outside jobs, and exercise other rights. While this went a long way toward mitigating racial conflict, it was the presence of large numbers of free blacks in Puerto Rico that tempered prejudice. During the 17th and 18th centuries Spain was frequently at war with England. With the Royal Navy beginning to eclipse Spain’s, the Spanish monarchy turned to economic warfare. It instructed colonial officials to receive escaped slaves as free men — if they accepted baptism as Catholics and swore loyalty to the king. Thousands of slaves fled the Lesser Antilles, Saint Domingue, and the Dutch and Danish colonies.
By 1802 the numbers of whites and free nonwhites in Puerto Rico were about equal: 78,281 and 71,578, respectively, while the slave population had diminished to only 13,333. The constant influx of freedom-seeking slaves from English, Dutch, and French colonies, and their status as equals to whites, accustomed both races to each other’s presence and led to intermarriage. But, more importantly to my point about the pride of place that Taino and Spanish roots enjoy in PR, the only characteristic that both bonded and escaped slaves had in common was their skin color, not their language, point of origin, time of immigration, or ethnic affiliation, and skin color alone isn’t a compelling source of pride in a society devoid of racism.
* * *
But back to the sex . . .
Riding out of Ponce we biked past the central plaza with its fountains, modest cathedral, giant ceibas with spiny, buttressing roots and multi-trunked banyans, piragua (snow cone) carts, lottery vendors, and lonely old men who awake at dawn and pass the time on park benches.
On Saturday we reached La Parguera, where we hoped to snorkel along its barrier reefs. The town was bustling with island tourists crowding the streets without masks or any attempt at “social distancing.” At night, before the curfew shut down all activity, La Parguera came alive. Laughter, families promenading, live music, and dancing filled the open spaces. Only the daily cellphone text from Puerto Rico’s health department monitoring us for fever, coughs, and sneezes reminded us that things weren’t normal.
Suddenly, two giant sea turtles swam next to us, unconcerned with our presence.
Sunday we snorkeled. Our dive guide, Chuco, immediately made us comfortable. Open and transparent, familiar as if he’d known us for a long time, he had a floppy belly that hung down like an oversized, half-full water balloon that swung rhythmically as he pointed one way and then another. We were the only clients on the boat. When we reached the reef, Chuco dropped anchor and floated a diver-down buoy. There was a slight chop, so he told us to follow him closely. The Caribbean was just shy of body temperature and very inviting.
Colorful fish darted over and around the reef, while sea urchins, brain, and purple fan corals added punctuation to the otherwise fossilized limestone understory. Chuco led us to three lobster grottos and an octopus den. While the lobsters stuck their heads out, antennae waving about, the octopus retreated. Then, suddenly, two giant sea turtles, one after the other, swam next to us, unconcerned with our presence.
We lasted two hours. My gums, unused to the snorkel bit, were the first to fail, followed by Tina’s back. The nerves next to the two steel rods in her lumbar from an old rock-climbing accident couldn’t endure the dolphining motion for too long.
What is it about Puerto Rico? About the salt sea? Back on the boat, conversation gravitated toward and then settled on sex — its health benefits, couples’ politics, its many psychological angles. Nothing particularly prurient, mind you, but not what one would normally expect in a client-guide, professional, short-term relationship. That night my chest burst aflame; swimming had not helped my broken rib.
The rancher prevaricated and temporized. So Chuco kidnapped one of his horses and held it for ransom. Additionally, he threatened to notify a judge.
From La Parguera we headed to Boquerón on the southwest corner of the island — savannah cattle country. Chuco had told us about a curious — to us — Puerto Rican liability custom. On the mainland, when livestock and vehicles collide, it’s the driver that bears the liability. On the island, it’s the livestock that’s at fault. The reasoning is that the animal’s owner is responsible for its whereabouts, which ought to be in a well-enclosed area. Chuco had once run into a wandering cow with his car. The damage to the vehicle was substantial, but only cosmetic. He didn’t mention how the cow fared, but he expected its owner to pay for the repairs. Trouble was, he didn’t know who the owner was. After some involved and time-consuming sleuthing, he found the culprit and demanded compensation. The rancher prevaricated and temporized. So Chuco kidnapped one of his horses and held it for ransom. Additionally, he threatened to notify a judge. The cow’s owner paid up, and Chuco returned the horse. We kept a lookout for stray cows, but only encountered chickens crossing the road.
Our next destination was Rincón, the westernmost point of the island and the site of the 1968 and 1969 World Surfing Championships . . . and the only town on the entire ride with a craft beer brewery. Along the entire west coast, the route hugged beautiful beaches that alternated between heavy surf and protected strands. From there we rounded the northwest corner of the island, having to cut the corner (so to speak) to avoid the Borinquén military airbase, and headed for lodgings in Isabela. Going inland created an extremely hilly ride. That, and turning our last corner with San Juan only 160 kilometers away, generated a celebratory atmosphere. After two mojitos each, we dined on mofongo stuffed with lobster, and mahi mahi and shrimp slathered with a wine and garlic sauce.
* * *
As to the mofongo . . .
Mofongo is to Puerto Rican cuisine as rice is to China and pasta is to Italy. It is served with nearly every meal. It is so different and distinct from anything most Americans are used to that a recipe suffices for a description:
1 green plantain
1 ripe plantain
4 oz yuca root
Peel the yuca. Cut the ends off the plantains and slice them into 2-inch rounds. Score the plantain skins, but don’t peel. Boil the lot for 40 minutes in chicken stock. Remove the peels.
4-5 cloves of garlic
Slice the onion into chunks. Sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil to just before browning. Puree this lot in a blender with a bit of sherry wine to produce a sofrito. Combine the plantains, yuca, and sofrito and mash the lot together, approximating mashed potatoes.
3-4 slices of bacon
1/2 lb. of ground pork
Fry the bacon and pork separately. Mince the bacon. Add these to the mash and mix well. Between wax paper, form the mofongo into thickish pancakes, rounds, cups, or any shape you fancy. Fry in olive oil or bake. Serve with an appropriately seasoned meat.
* * *
We found Puerto Ricans to be very informal and generous. One’s eyes wander to just about everything while in the saddle, and I began to notice an inordinate number of Make-A-Wish Foundation license plates. A car owner pays a premium for the special plate, and a portion of the plate’s cost goes to the foundation. On the mainland, I only occasionally see those plates. So, to pass the time, I began a mental tally to come up with an informal percentage of Puerto Ricans’ support for the charity. I was amazed. According to my informal count, about 40% of plates displayed the foundation’s logo.
On through Arecibo and Manati to Cataño, the place where the Bacardi headquarters hied after that difference of opinion with the Castros. Cataño is just over two kilometers from Old San Juan as the seagull flies, but eighteen kilometers as the wheels turn. We didn’t want to miss the Bacardi distillery tour, a two-hour extravaganza that began at 2 PM; yet it was already noon. It didn’t seem a good idea to ride into San Juan in the late afternoon traffic after testing Bacardi’s best. But we were determined, and so let opportunity override caution.
The Bacardi family was up to their necks — sometimes literally — in Cuba’s three revolutions. First, in the wars for independence during the late 1800s. Then again, as Castro supporters attacked the Batista regime. And finally, in the continuing struggle against the Castros. The latest volley has taken a litigious turn over the rights to the Havana Club rum label (advantage, so far, to Cuba), but more esoterically, in recent lawsuits based on the Helms-Burton Act that attempt to prevent the communist regime from trafficking in stolen property — specifically, the confiscated Bacardi properties in Cuba.
It didn’t seem a good idea to ride into San Juan in the late afternoon traffic after testing Bacardi’s best. But we were determined.
Bacardi invented rum in 1862. Before that, sugarcane distilled spirits were little more than harsh hooch, or aguardiente. By using only sugar, water and yeast, Bacardi set out to produce a liquor that was, shall we say, drinkable. Though a big change from firewater, it was nowhere near a “sipping” aperitif. But Bacardi also invented and, through an aggressive marketing campaign, pushed rum cocktails: the mojito, Cuba Libre, and Piña Colada. It won many awards. But then, when the Lesser Antilles — and Jamaica — began producing sipping rums, Bacardi had to compete.
Today, Bacardi produces two rums for the Single Malt Scotch-sipping aficionados: Bacardi Gran Reserva Limitada and Bacardi Reserva Ocho Rare Gold Rum. Both are superb! And won’t hollow out your wallet. Today, they still use only water, sugar, and yeast. But since Puerto Rico no longer grows sugar cane, Bacardi now imports it. The Bacardi story, intertwined as it is with Cuba’s story, is well and eloquently told in Tom Gjelten’s Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause (Viking Press, 2008), an engrossing introduction to Cuban history.
Getting in on the tour wasn’t easy, though arriving on bikes improved the odds . . . as did being a Cuban refugee with a knowledge of Bacardi and its history. Before covid, the distillery hosted 2,000 to 4,000 tourists a day — or so the gate guard informed us. Now they hold three tours, limited to 15 people each — by reservation only — and at $70 a pop. I begged, cajoled, flirted. The gate guard made a few calls. In 20 minutes we were in!
After a total of four drinks, everyone was dancing.
The tour attendees were either Americans or Nuyorquinas of a certain provenance and disposition: mostly female, of modest means; coiffed, garishly bejeweled, and draped to kill; from New Jersey and Queens, and out to have a good time. One sported a trendy (to some) purse shaped like a vehicle license plate (albeit smaller) that said “MISS-2-MRS” and hung from an oversized silver chain. She was accompanied by a giggling gaggle of groupies that would spontaneously break into rhythmic gyrations at any and all times.
Unlike whisky tours in the Scottish Highlands, the Bacardi tour did not include the nitty-gritty fermentation process, the distillery innards, the aging casks, or a drive around the immense grounds. After a complimentary cocktail followed by a shot of sipping rum, and a short, cursory lecture on Bacardi’s history, we were led into a large, low ceilinged, darkened room with 50 minibars, each stocked with the ingredients for mojitos and piña coladas. Over the muted salsa music (which the girls all started swaying to) our guide demonstrated mojito and piña colada mixology. After a total of four drinks, everyone was dancing. It was the perfect moment to lead us all into the distillery’s sale shop. Tina and I got off easy. We left with two bottles of specialty rums and a muddler, never mind that we were now four sheets to the wind and faced an 18-kilometer ride in heavy traffic with overloaded bikes. However, only one block away, the trans-San Juan Bay ferry, for only 25¢, carried us and our bikes right into Old San Juan. In two minutes we reached our hotel and the end of our trip, three days ahead of schedule and with time to explore the old city.
* * *
Puerto Rico has a garbage problem. Most of the island’s 29 landfills are over capacity and noncompliant under Resource Conservation and Recovery Act regulations. Unlined and uncovered, many of them overflow with waste that contaminates the water supply and is a nuisance to the surrounding areas. Many roadsides are littered with discarded rubbish. Back in 2010, a waste-to-energy incinerator outside Arecibo was proposed by Energy Answers. Over the years, the project has been cancelled, revived, put on hold, and revived again. Residents fear increased air pollution and ash particulates.
Instead of exhortations, cries to rally and resist, or motivational speeches about the evils of pollution, they just blared salsa music.
While taking a walking tour of Old San Juan, we encountered several cordoned-off streets packed with police behind the lines. A crowd was gathering. I asked what the hubbub was about. A young man replied that an anti-incinerator demonstration was scheduled. I stuck around so as to provide Liberty with some real news. Soon the demonstrators arrived. They were mostly middle-aged women with handwritten signs saying asma, ceniza, cancer, and such. Then a pickup truck with giant loudspeakers arrived, consulted with the cops, and turned 180 degrees. The crowd grew bigger, with no regard for “social distancing.” The loudspeakers came alive. But instead of exhortations, cries to rally and resist, or motivational speeches about the evils of pollution, they just blared salsa music.
Instead of chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, this incinerator has got to go!”, the crowd began to dance to the salsa beat, sing, and wave its placards. All the faces were smiling. One curmudgeonly old woman complained that the entire San Juan police force was there: “Were there any cops left to police real crime in the rest of the city?” Try to imagine such a demonstration at the May 30 Antifa and Black Lives Matter in DC when the White House was threatened and the president had to be squirreled away into the bunker by the secret service, or its counterdemonstration on January 6 when Trump supporters invaded the capitol. Unimaginable. We could learn something from the Borinqueños.
That afternoon it rained, but it didn’t stop a carnival parade on another street, complete with giant masks and stilts. The female participants reveled in their braless wet t-shirts and seemed to take special glee from their rhythmic shaking.
Finally, on our last day, to cap the trip, I took a taxi to Armandito’s café — for photos to send family, to honor a Cuban patriot, and to eat breakfast. I asked the driver to take me to El Antiguo Malecón, which translates as “The Old Seawall.” Now, Puerto Rican Spanish makes little distinction between Ls and Rs, and San Juan, unlike Havana, does not have a malecón. The driver thought I’d said maricon, which translates as queer, as in homosexual. Embarrassed, he responded that bars wouldn’t be open this early in the day. When I burst out laughing, so did he. I explained the misunderstanding, related Armandito’s story, and shared this pilgrimage to his memory with him. He offered to wait while I visited and breakfasted, for no charge.
The manager, a well-endowed but all-business blonde, remembered Armandito fondly. She’d worked many years with him, but cousin or not, I still had to pay for my meal. The men drinking coffee — they were all men, and old at that — were talking politics. Pro-Trumpers and Democrats. But it was all very civilized. The Trumpsters were passionate but polite, the Democrats, somewhat disengaged. I broke in and identified myself. After a few warm greetings, we all went about our business.