Ponce, Arecibo, Aguadilla, Mayaguez, Guanica, Guavate/Cayey, Coamo & San Juan in Puerto Rico, 2008:
The giant radio telescope operated by Cornell University in Arecibo, Puerto Rico had long fascinated me when I first saw a picture of it in the encyclopedia my parents bought for us when we were still growing up in Baclaran, Paranaque. Four decades later, I finally saw the not only the radio telescope but also the fantastic vistas along the way as we drove the mountainous route to the Arecibo Observatory from Ponce. Even our trusty GPS had problems distinguishing the treacherous side roads along the narrow, two-way stretch of Highway 10 as well as the other "carreteras" (Highways 111, 129, 134, 625 & 623) that lead to the observatory. There is also a museum/visitor center in the complex named, Fundacion Angel Ramos Visitor Center. But to find the world's largest radio telescope in this very remote part of the globe was simply spectacular!
Food & music were also part of the reasons why we decided to visit Puerto Rico. And so, we drove a good portion the Autopista Luis A.Ferre (aka, Freeway 52) to eventually reach the mountainous portion of Carretera 184 towards Guavate - a resort town that is very popular for its numerous "lechoneras" (roasted pig -golden-brown with very crispy skin - stalls). We had our 'cholesterol-feast' at the "Lechonera Los Pinos" (made even more popular by Tony Bourdain when he ate at this stand in his "No Reservations" series on the Travel Channel). These lechoneras not only offer good, authentic Puerto Rican food but also music -salsa, jibaro, 'bomba' & of course, the canciones - as well...specially on weekends (we're lucky to be there on a Saturday!).
YouTube video clip of the surrounding "lechoneras' can be viewed here:
Dotting the main highways are numerous "panaderias" (bakeries) offering baked treats & sandwiches inside neat, white boxes. We had our mid-afternoon merienda - as well as breakfast - in these panaderias which not only gave us time to relax from all that driving but were also easy on our budget. Puerto Ricans also love their roadside BBQs as well. We caught up one of these along Carretera 129 on our way to Arecibo. Plantains (mashed bananas laced with 'sofrito' that were then deep-fried) were aplenty - my favorite being the 'piononos' (cup-shape plantains with either beef, pork or seafood fillings. These very good appetizers that goes well with their local brew, Medalla, that I had for most part of our trip (though I had to admit that the Perroni beer -an Italian brew/import - recommended by our server in a tapas bar in Ponce was also very good).
Our visit to the southern city of Coamo was also memorable. We missed a turnout (Carretera 546) along Highway 153 and ended up in a cul-de-sac. The household which we asked directions for even escorted us directly to the Parador Banos de Coamo, using their own vehicle! Some believe that natural hot springs in Coamo, was the elusive Fountain of Youth that the Spanish conquistador, Juan Ponce de Leon (he was also the first governor of Puerto Rico) was searching for! We soaked for a good while in the naturally-heated pool and after a few drinks of beer and the local Coco Rico (coconut juice canned as a soda drink), we showered and headed towards Barrio Guavate in Cayey.
All good travels wind up in the main city - in our case, San Juan. On a nice Sunday morning, after we had rooftop breakfast in the hotel (Hotel Melia) we stayed at in Ponce, we loaded up our luggage in our rental car (a 4-door, Toyota Yaris) and took the almost 2 hrs. drive to San Juan via Highway 52 again. We stayed at Best Western-Pierre in the Santurce area of San Juan. We toured Old San Juan and had the luck to be part of a street fiesta along Calle San Sebastian. The street is very popular among art lovers as well as for people who simply love to stroll and grab a quick bite and/or have a few drinks. We also toured some of the beach areas as well as a glitzy hotel/casino in Condado.
Finally, on the same day before we headed back to the mainland, we briefly stopped by Plaza del Mercado in Santurce where we bought some ground coffee, chorizos and sampled some of the best 'empanadillas' (turnovers filled with either beef, chicken, pork or seafood (crabmeat, conch or lobster).
Puerto Rico has so much to offer in the little time we had. Our brief tour in the islands could be summarized as follows: San Juan-Ponce-Arecibo-Hatillo-Aguadilla-Aguada-Mayaquez-Guanica-Coamo-Cayey. We definitely missed a lot but also gained so much from the interactions that we had with its generally, very friendly and fun-loving people. We can't wait to visit the place again!
Muchas gracias, Puerto Rico !!!
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