La isla del encanto
Although much of the news from Puerto Rico earlier this year focused on the island’s expected troubles with Zika virus and deteriorating financial and economic conditions, my recent vacation confirmed why the island is known as “la isla del encanto” (the island of enchantment). For starters, Puerto Rico is a large island that offers a wide variety of activities. As a territory of the United States, it adheres to standards required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The island’s proximity to the east coast of the United States means I can get there via a non-stop flight from Washington, D.C., and I don’t need my passport. The U.S. dollar is the standard currency. English is widely spoken. There is plenty of the familiar, yet much that seems exotic.
On a six-day trip with my family in mid-July we split our time between two parts of the island. Since the north coast is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, where the water is rough and there are limited options for scuba diving or snorkeling, the highlight of our time in San Juan was visiting two famous forts - Castillo San Felipe del Morro (“El Morro”) and Castillo San Cristobal.
Access for all
Both forts were built by Spanish troops in the 16th Century, and today they are part of the San Juan National Historic Site, which means they are maintained by the National Park Service. As such, there are wheelchair accessible restrooms and an accessible trolley that shuttles visitors for free between the forts and a number of other stops in old San Juan. Access to the different floors in the forts is achieved by either climbing stairs or traversing long, steep ramps, so I spent the majority of my time on the main floor at both El Morro and Castillo San Cristobal. The spectacular views of the water and surrounding city were worth the price of admission ($5 for those age 16 or older; free for those with a disability and an NPS pass), and I was awed by the design and historical significance of these forts. Its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is further indication of the uniqueness of the San Juan National Historic Site.
While San Juan is a major city with nearly 400,000 residents, Rincon is a small town best known for its winter waves that draw surfers from near and far. The primary reason for our trip to Rincon was to go scuba diving, and as luck would have it, the weather cooperated and we were able to make the fourteen mile journey through the Mona Passage to dive the protected waters that surround the uninhabited island of Desecheo (Desecheo is designated a National Wildlife Refuge and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). Led by staff from Taino Divers, my nephew Roger and I descended to about 50’ where we saw gigantic barrel sponges that looked like ancient pottery, healthy and colorful coral, several Pufferfish, a Lionfish, and one very enormous crab. There were plenty of the usual Caribbean suspects (Parrotfish, Angelfish, Blue Tangs, Butterflyfish) on this dive, too, and the sensation that I had entered my own private aquarium brought an immediate sense of peace and tranquility when I rolled forward off the dive platform.
Dives and beaches
After four memorable dives and three wonderful nights in Rincon, where I fell asleep to the sound of Coqui frogs and waves crashing on the beach outside my room, we packed our bags for the drive back to San Juan. The best decision we made on this entire trip was to stop at Crashboat Beach, in Aguadilla, where for two hours I watched from a concrete pier while my brother and his son snorkeled in exceptionally clear water that varied in shades of blue. Crashboat Beach knows no UNESCO designation. It receives no protection or assistance from agencies of the federal government. It is a simple, beautiful beach where locals congregate on perfect white sand, palm trees sway in the tropical breeze, pelicans gracefully patrol the sky, and the splendors of the ocean can be enjoyed with nothing more than a mask and a snorkel.
The enchanting island
Whether your ideal vacation includes visiting world-renowned landmarks, exploring the beauty of the natural world, or immersing yourself in a vibrant culture, Puerto Rico has plenty to offer. It is undoubtedly a most enchanting island.