Puerto Rico — If Charo were a city, she'd be San Juan - all bounce and bustle. That's all very appealing. But after you've done the glitzy new Sands Hotel scene and eaten at the local hot spots, it's time to head for the hills.
Actually, that's a good choice. There's a lot of glossy-green, lush Puerto Rico out there quietly waiting in the woods.
A week on this island was a chance to squeeze from between the high-rises in new San Juan and discover the wildness and wonder of this tropical isle.
It was also an opportunity to check in at a few of Puerto Rico's paradors. These are bed-and-breakfast affairs modeled after Spanish country inns. They are, by definition, ``situated in a historic place'' or in a ``site of exceptional scenic beauty.''
Outside the cities, Puerto Rico has all you want in the way of interesting terrain. Toward the center of the island are high green mountains with wonderful vistas. Elsewhere the land is punctuated with everything from sinkholes and limestone caves to arid areas and rain forests.
Scalloped beaches rim the island on all sides. A few minutes out of San Juan and you know this isn't Nebraska.
Driving between the major cities here can be an adventure. At every traffic light vendors trot between the rows of cars hawking their wares: fruit, popcorn, bananas, braids of garlic, fans, and candy.
Farther out in the suburbs, the highways are dotted with all sorts of eye-catchers. Chicken, grilled right there beside the road; chilled coconut milk served in its own natural container; baskets and hammocks swinging from trees; even occasional stands where used hubcaps may be bought cheap if you happen to be missing any. It's hard to make time with so much to stop for.
The first parador I visited (along with a few bused-in guests) was Banos de Coamo, a 3-hour drive from San Juan. This resort, built about the turn of the century, reached the height of popularity in the 1920s.
The drawing card here was a thermal spring, which attracted people of means from around the world. Even Franklin Roosevelt vacationed here. Once thought to be Ponce de Le'on's fabled ``Fountain of Youth,'' these magical waters have not had the power to save this parador from showing its age.
After falling into 18 years of decay, Banos de Coamo reopened as a parador in 1976. The friendly and helpful Umpierre family is working around the clock to restore its old grace. New two-story, long, wooden buildings are just finished. They contain large, comfortable rooms, simply furnished, with private baths.
Outside, an old ``Roman'' pool is being repaired, while the adjoining exercise room is still something of a squatters' village for resident chickens. A larger swimming pool is in good repair, and the grounds are in the process of being landscaped.
Both pools are fed by 109 degree F. natural hot springs - little relief from the 90 degree heat for me. Most guests didn't seem to mind at all.
Meals are served in an old, vacuous dining room with black and white marble floors and chandeliers. A pair of stereo bug-zappers on each side add an eerie blue glow to the interior, and some interesting sound effects when an uninvited moth gets too close.
Then there are the metal chairs that screech along the floor like amplified fingernails on a blackboard as guests seat themselves for meals.
Food here is generally OK if you stick to the chicken and vegetable dishes. Forget the fish, which tends to be overcooked. Mofongo may sound like an African tribe recently discovered by National Geographic, but it is actually a dish of plantain, garlic, lard, and pork cracklings pounded with a stick and formed into a ball. It's a staple throughout the island, and should be sampled at least once.
Banos de Coamo is a convenient and quite comfortable oasis between San Juan and Ponce. The staff works desperately hard to please. In a year or two it should really be in good shape. In the meantime it's still a quiet and historically interesting place to hang your towel and soak your feet as you plan your trip to Ponce.
Ponce is the second-largest city in Puerto Rico. It is also the hottest. ``It's so sunny here, even the cows wear sunglasses,'' quipped Carlos, our driver.
You can get a broad view of the city from La Cruceta del Vigia - a giant 110-foot cement cross built on a hill overlooking Ponce. It's a smaller version of the more familiar ``Christ of the Andes.'' This one is better. It has an elevator.
Another attraction while you're up there is Castillio Serralles - a splendid stucco, apricot, and white villa built in 1939. Originally a private home, it has been recently renovated and is now a Music Museum.
Back in town, if you can deal with the traffic and the heat, be sure to visit the neoclassical Armstrong House, home of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. It stands directly across from Our Lady of Guadaloupe cathedral. In fact, when the Armstrong family would marry off a daughter, a red carpet was rolled from their front door right across the street to the church.
The church plaza, with its lion fountains and gardens, is a popular promenade for local couples and an active spot for fundamentalist Christians, equipped with a three-man band and loudspeaker system. Don't miss taking a look at the red and black wooden firehouse attached to the back of the cathedral - not that you could miss it.
The cultural jewel in town is the handsome Ponce Art Museum, designed be Edward Durell Stone. It contains the most extensive art collection in the Caribbean.
You'll need a day at least in Ponce to see it all - a day and a half, if there's traffic.
If you're there around lunch time, try La Monserrat Sea Port Restaurant, just 15 minutes west of Ponce on Route 2. There's a nice view of the sea and plenty of shade under the broad orange-and-white awnings. One should hope the service didn't drag as when I was there, but the seafood will be fully as good.
Nearby and worth a stop is Hacienda Buena Vista, a restored corn mill originally built in the mid-19th century. At one time it served as a boardinghouse for engineers from England, Scotland, France, and Spain. It's a good example of Venezuelan architecture. You'll be shown how a 1-foot-wide aqueduct runs the mill, if you can get by the geese that guard the place as if it were a vault.
Try to spend a night at Parador Gripinas, just two hours from Ponce. This 200-year-old former coffee plantation has been done over and now sports a fresh white-and-green paint job. We pulled up the long driveway lined with royal palms during a dark night in a torrential rain. The old plantation glowed, as warm and inviting as a Japanese lantern. We were soon dry and rocking away on the living room's polished floor in bentwood rocking chairs, while awaiting supper.
We were not alone. The place was crawling with gringos on the inside and coqui frogs chirping on the outside.
These tiny, tan frogs could sit comfortably on your thumb. Invisible during the day, they come out and sing at night. We managed to catch one in a glass tumbler long enough to study the little sticky-fingered fellow before releasing it on the back veranda.
A wonderful dinner of chicken fricassee, shrimps, fried plantains, English potatoes, and sweet saut'eed bananas was all we needed to set us up for Dreamland. Rain plinking off the corrugated metal roof and a chorus of coquis sent us there.
The 17 or so paradors throughout Puerto Rico are inexpensive, and a delightful stay. Rates are from $30 to $65 per room, double occupancy. The food is usually native, and good. You may book from the States by calling toll-free: 800-443-0266.