Saturday, August 4, 2007

Chillin’ in Puerto Rico

I came home from my vacation in Puerto Rico this past Tuesday. I had a great time – very relaxing, lazy and intense at the same time. I was staying at the Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde (see photo to the right) in Carolina. I had a fabulous view overlooking the beach below and the Atlantic Ocean from my hotel room and balcony.

Puerto Rico is located in the northeastern part of the Caribbean, east of the Dominican Republic. Carolina is Puerto Rico’s fourth largest city, located close to the capital San Juan. Puerto Rico's most famous baseball player, Roberto Clemente, elected into the Hall of Fame in 1973, was from Carolina.

View from my hotel room / balcony

The hotel had a casino, the Banana icecream and pizza/snacks bar, the Picante cocktail bar, the Salsa restaurant which served breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets, and the outdoor ocean-view Sirena restaurant, which is where I took my breakfast to enjoy the very soothing morning view of the beach and ocean with the occasional jogger in the waterline before heading to the rainforest (see separate blog post). The hotel also had a very nice pool area, a fitness center with treadmills, a stair-master and weightlifting machines and handles – and believe it or not, I actually used the fitness center once during my vacation and it felt good, although it rendered me a terrible muscle ache in my calves for days afterwards.

I was dancing ten nights in a row in Puerto Rico, of which eight of them were at the Puerto Rico Salsa Congress (see separate blog post).

There were salsa bands playing in the Picante bar area on the ground floor of the Courtyard Marriott Hotel every afternoon and evening. This was a very pleasant distraction. When you came in from the pool or the beach you could always sip on a glass of white wine or a rum drink and chill before going to the room to get ready for the congress parties. Puerto Ricans are very family oriented, it seems. In the pool area you always saw them in groups with several children and the adults were always very loving and playful with their kids, being very proud of them, judging by their faces. In the Picante bar there were always older couples drinking cocktails and enjoying the bands playing. As soon as the band started playing a slow bolero, all the older couples were up on the dance floor, closing their eyes and holding each other tightly, many of them having to lean forward due to their potbellies to be able to put their cheeks against each other, and seemingly really enjoying the dance. Very endearing.
Salsa band playing in the Picante Bar

The night after my arrival, I was dancing till 3 am in the Picante bar and made friends with Edgardo, a local engineer in his 50’s who has been to the congress for a number of years – I saw him every night there trying to work off his potbelly by dancing and sweating intensively for hours… ;-)

On the Friday before the congress, there was a salsa band playing in the lobby of El San Juan Hotel. I had e-mailed the organizer and president of the Puerto Rico Salsa Congress, Elí Irizarry (his regular job is tour manager for El Gran Combo!), and learned that there would be a few dancers there. Elí was a very friendly and nice person, buying me drinks at the bar and introducing me to some early arriving dancers, including Brian Libier & Mechteld Sterk running the Salsaddiction dance school in Holland and competing in the World Salsa Open a few days later (although they actually were disqualified since the rules stated a time limit of each performance of 2 min and their routine was 2 min 44s…such a shame they hadn’t checked the rules – the audience gave them standing ovations after their performance!), and Patrick, another Dutch dancer from the dance group Los Intocables (see a video on YouTube of all of them). Saturday was the congress welcome party and Patrick’s birthday so he was in a good mood and we ended up partying to mostly reggae ton music (yuck) in the Brava nightclub at the hotel.

Elí Irizarry

Apart from the nightly salsa dancing I was very lazy in Puerto Rico. I slept late (when dancing till 3, 4 or 6 am every night for ten days you get a little worn out…), went to the pool and beach, read a book in the hammock and watched the sunset over the beach. My salsa friends Alberto and Laia from Stockholm came and joined me at the Courtyard a few times, enjoying the pool, beach and restaurant with ocean-view (see photos below).

Laia and Alberto at the Sirena restaurant

Pool area at the Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde

Visit to Old San Juan
One of the afternoons, I went with Alberto, Laia and a young dancer from Brazil, Gustavo, to Old San Juan. After a visit to a reggae music and paraphernalia store where Laia and Gustavo to the owner’s amusement started dancing while listening through a bunch of CD’s, we went to see fort San Cristóbal.

This was quite an interesting visit. Christopher Columbus (‘Cristóbal Colón’ in Spanish) discovered the island of Puerto Rico in 1493, and in the 50 years following, Spain built a vast and lucrative New World empire that helped it become the leading European nation at the time. The conquests of Mexico and Peru provided the Spanish treasury with dependable sources of great wealth in precious gems, gold and silver. Spain sent two armed ship convoys to the New World every year to assure safe delivery of these riches, and the Caribbean Sea was a vital passage-way. It was however also a dangerous maze of islands with few harbors of refuge, and Spain’s authority and territorial rights to the Caribbean were constantly challenged by pirates and the traditional European enemies (England, France and Holland). San Juan was established in 1521 as “the key to the Indies” at the most strategic location on the island of Puerto Rico, and Spain built massive fortifications in the San Juan harbor and other key harbors in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico to safeguard New World possessions and maintain its trade monopoly.

There are two forts in Old San Juan, Castillo de San Felipe del Morro (“Castle of St. Philip of the Headland” – see video here>>) and Castillo de San Cristóbal (“Saint Christopher Castle”). Laia, Alberto, Gustavo and I entered the latter, built 1634-1678 and the largest fort built by the Spaniards on the island. These two massive stonework defenses are the oldest European-style fortifications within the territory of the United States. Unlike El Morro, whose main job was to prevent enemy ships from entering the harbor, San Cristóbal protected the land approaches to San Juan from the east. It’s an example of the “defense-in-depth” principle, meaning that each part of the fort is supported by one or more other parts. If a fort has a single barrier and the enemy breaks through it, its defense is broken. But if a fort has several barriers, each higher and stronger than the one in front of it, and the enemy breaks through one of them, the attacker can still be driven out by fire from the barriers behind it. Both of these bastions and batteries are impressive remnants of Spain’s historic power in the New World. Read more about the history of Puerto Rico here>>

You’ll find a selection of photos from Castillo de San Cristóbal below.


From left to right: The Spanish colonial flag (the “Burgundy Cross”, 1516-1556), the Puerto Rican and US flags

Gustavo & Alberto

Me, Gustavo and Laia on the bastion wall

Gustavo, Alberto and Laia in dungeon and catacomb

Iguana lizard

The two forts San Cristóbal and El Morro lie within a mile of each other with a strong city wall in between. We took a walk along the wall and the scenery was beautiful with ocean waves hitting the cliffs below and some houses built on the outside of the city wall. San Juan’s soldiers and settlers once grew food on small plots inside the great walls. Plátanos (plantains), a banana from Africa, and West Indian crops such as sweet potatoes, pumpkin, yucca, malanga and yautia supplemented regular military rations. These fruits and root fruits are common still today in Puerto Rico and my personal favorite was mashed yucca filled with shrimps and a Puerto Rican red sauce with lots of garlic which I was served at Edith Café in Carolina.

Most of Spain’s New World colonies revolted and gained independence during the 19th century and by the 1890’s only Cuba and Puerto Rico remained part of the once so powerful Spanish empire in the Americas. Spain lost Puerto Rico to American troops in the Spanish-American war by the end of the 19th century, as already mentioned in my blog post from the trip to the rainforest.

Colorful colonial style buildings with overhanging balconies pave the cobblestone streets in Old San Juan. The town is very picturesque with inner patios, courtyards, and small town plazas. We hit a Puma store with discounted prices and I bought a cool new bag. The visit to Old San Juan was ended with a cold Medalla Light beer at an outdoor bar before we headed back to Isla Verde and El San Juan Hotel to watch salsa dance performances.

Streets of Old San Juan

Who wouldn’t want to play basketball in this kind of environment with the Atlantic Ocean and palm trees on one side and the medieval city walls of Old San Juan on the other?!


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