Rural Puerto Rico: getting lost in paradise

Puerto Rico may not be everyone's idea of a remote, enchanted island, but where else can you stretch out under a semitropical sun with the local English-language daily and get the NBA scores and stock reports from the day before?

If that isn't paradise, what about Puerto Rico's handy proximity to so many winter-weary North American cities? If you are up early enough for the 7:50 a.m. Eastern flight out of Kennedy, you can be on the beach by early afternoon (and the same goes for travelers from Boston, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington, all the non-stop hops to San Juan).

Another asset, of which I took advantage as soon as the plane was aloft on a recent Sunday morning, is that Puerto Rico is a US commonwealth, with US postage rates. Same stamps, in other words. So I was able to attack a batch of overdue correspondence and bills. And there is no Customs and Immigration line to buck on either end.

No wonder more than 2 million people visited Puerto Rico last year, the highest such figure in the West Indies. The balance of them nested in the Condado and Isla Verde resort sections of San Juan, of course. And that's where I draw the line. If I'm flying 3 hours and 30 minutes I don't want the same crowds and excitement I'd find a few blocks from my house on Upper Broadway.

So I struck out for the southeast coast, toward the town of Humacao -- or more precisely for the resort of Palmas del Mar, which occupies 3,000 rolling acres a few bumpy miles from Humacao. Palmas may be deep in the countryside (an hour's drive from the airport), but it's not exactly rustic. It is a cluster of Mediterranean-style, many-hued villas that had trouble surviving its early-1970s birth but now seems hardy and prosperous enough. Things at Palmas do not always run as smoothly as the high-paying winter clientele demands of them, but there is no faulting the design and natural beauty of the place. There are 20 tennis courts, five pools, a fine, long beach that makes me wonder why people bother with pools, horseback riding, a much-praised golf course, sailing, and fishing.

Frankly I didn't concentrate on Palmas's sporting program, choosing instead to use the resort as headquarters for forays into the countryside. Still, I couldn't resist the beach for 8 a.m. jogs and 10:30 a.m. tanning and reading sessions. By lunchtime, though, I was itching to hit the road and try my luck with the fascinating and occasionally frustrating puzzle that is Puerto Rican country life.

One day I set out for El Yunque, the rain forest I had heard so much about but had missed seeing on previous visits. I had directions to stop for lunch at El Carey ("the sea turtle") in Humacao Beach. On the main street there -- not to be confused with the larger nearby town of Humacao -- I spotted a big wood-plank sign, "El Carey." The tiny building beside it was bolted shut. As I was peering into a darkened restaurant across the street, known as Mrs. Right Place, a voice behind me said, "Closed." It was a passing villager, and in the hot noonday sun on the otherwise deserted street, he pointed me in the direction of his first choice, Paradise Seafood.

What I like about rural Puerto Rico is that you are not likely to meet busloads of tourists along the way; even one other North American in a small town is a surprise. So my ears twitched when, seated in the Paradise and dipping into an octopus salad with a plate of fried plantains, I heard a man at the next table speaking English to his two Puerto Rican companions. They were talking about a hole that had been made in the plate-glass front door. "It happened just an hour ago," the American said as the three got up to leave. "It was probably a bullet." One of his friends laughingly said I should sit in the corner, out of the line of fire. I didn't know whether to laugh or bolt my food. So I did both.

Back at the car, I saw a man emerge from the tiny building beside the El Carey sign. It was clearly his dwelling and not a restaurant. Then I realized the sign was pointing down a side street to the waterfront. There I found the real El Carey, a small tiled building with yellow trim and yellow-striped awning. I might have stopped for dessert, but I was overdue -- one might say years overdue -- at the rain forest.

There was no rain that day. The sky was almost cloudless and the air grew noticeably cooler as I wound upward through the Caribbean National Forest. I could hear the words of a Puerto Rican friend, in fact the very friend who had recommended El Carey: "I have always loved the rain forest. One of my favorite sports is to follow the little rivers to their sources. The idea is to pick one that looks small and mysterious."

On an island where I found it hard enough to follow the right country road, let alone a meandering jungle stream, I decided not to test my adventuring spirit. Instead I got directions from a young park ranger, Hector Torres. ("New York?" he said. "That's my town. I was born on 119th Street.") He told me how to get to Mt. Britten, one of two towers in the park that command startling views of the island and miles of blue sea.

To tell the truth, I never did find Mt. Britten. I got lost hiking up the wrong road, and in the end I had to settle for views from the smaller tower and from the little restaurant, El Yunque, that crouches in a tangle of liana and bamboo. When I arrived it was well past lunch, the only meal the restaurant serves, but Carlos, a waiter, was still there talking to a colleague and enjoying the view. He said he'd thought of getting a job at one of the island's bustling hotels. "But now I think I will stay here," he said. "I like the coolness of the rain forest and the view of the ocean. For me it is like a vacation when I come to work."

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