In Puerto Rico, there's room at the paradors

Looking out from my balcony after the roosters had roused me one morning, I could have sworn I was in the hill country of Spain or Italy. Well, Mexico perhaps, but certainly not south-central Puerto Rico 14 miles from the Caribbean at a hot springs spa called Banos de Coamo.

The little hotel at the end of the road is part of a chain of a half-dozen paradors or country inns owned or partially administered by the Commonwealth Tourism Development Company. The inns were loosely strung together four or five years ago in the manner of the government-operated paradors of Spain and the posadas of Portugal, and though Puerto Rico has been slow to promote the idea, a certain brand of traveler -- inquisitive, adventurous, budgetminded -- has been won over.

Frankly I didn't know what to expect other than what I'd read in the government-printed brochures (available from the Tourism Company of Puerto Rico, 1290 6th Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10019), so I was in for more than one suprise. As I neared the town of Coamo on a warm afternoon I suddenly encountered a number of runners hugging the roadside, taking their after-work constitutionals. Some were only school-age, several of them so small and determined I wondered if they were running from a tyrannical teacher.

This was no road race but a normal afternoon turnout of Coamo's jog-happy citizenry who evidently were into the sport long before it spread across North america. I had missed by only a few days the San Blas Invitational, a half-marathon race that brings some of the world's great runners to Coamo each February and ties up the surrounding roads in a tailgate festival of cheering, barbecuing, picnicking Puerto Ricans.

The 48-room Banos de Coamo is headquarters for the race and, because it is a convenient and quiet mile's run from the main road, a handy destination for the town's afternoon joggers. Long before the first Coamo jogger tested the hills and heat of this scrubby but somehow appealing farm country, the natural hot springs were drawing visitors from all over the island, and beyond. Banos de Coamo in its original state was Puerto Rico's very first resort, having opened in the mid-19th century. In 1933 President Roosevelt came to take the waters. Today the spa is tailored to 1980 tastes.

To hear the innkeeper, Antonio Umperre, tell it, Banos de Coamo is not modern enough. We were sitting in the garden at dusk not far from a giant, spreading saman tree which shaded bathers 120 years ago. Mr. Umperre said the inn fell on hard times in the 1950s, was closed down in 1958, and left to decay. In the mid-1970s a rebuilt inn was opened. The two-story, while stucco main buildings with their red tin roofs are new, and so are the swimming pool and open-air lobby, but there are stumpy brick and mortar remains of the original buildings. They loom like Roman ramparts, 10 to 12 feet high, sprouting tiny palms and clusters of fuschia-colored bougainvillea, which camouflage loudspeakers. From the loudspeakers, day and night, pours Latin music.

I could have done without the music, and I am not sure the inn needs a tennis court or basketball goal, as Mr. Umperre believes it does. His point, I gathered, is that the spa needs more playthings to improve business. He said the rooms are sold out on weekends when Puerto Ricans are in residence, but weekdays can be eerily quiet among the ruins. Mr. Umperre also mused about introducing a riding program, an idea I can more easily endorse. He raises show horses, the impressive Paso Fino strain, on a farm nearby, and he is hoping the government will wake up soon and help establish a stables at Banos de Coamo.

Whether the tourist office has been lax in promoting the paradors or whether travelers simply can't warm up the idea of touring Puerto Rico and staying in country inns as they might in Europe, the fact remains that the paradors are economical, offbeat, and highly available. A room at Coamo -- simple, clean, air-conditioned, with a straw rocker on the balcony -- costs about $35. For only $21 you can have a double room at the Hacienda Juanita or Parador Gripinas, former coffee plantations in the highlands west of Coamo.

Each parador advertises something of interest for its guests to see or do within a short drive. Parador Gripinas, for instance, is not far from the Indian Ceremonial Ballpark at Utuado where Taino Indians held ritual activities at the time of the Spanish conquest. El Guajataca and Vistamar both face the sea on the northwest coast. Parador Martorell is close to the splendid Luquillo Beach and not far from El Yunque rain forest.

At breakfast I met Robert and Gerda Schoenfeld of Bethesda, Md., who are parador-hopping. They liked Banos de Coamo but were partial to Martorell, a seven-room private house. "Only one room has a bath, but that's no bother," said Mrs. Schoenfeld. "You get a large breakfast included in the cost ($34 to $ 38), and that means fruit, cake, buns, sliced meat, juice. Everyone sits down together at a large table. We were very impressed with the woman of the house. She runs a tight ship."

Down a flight of stone steps from the main pool is the thermal bath -- a smaller outdoor pool with 106-degree water. There I met Irving Levett of Richmond, Va., who along with his wife was spending a month at the inn. Their chief discovery had been a good Chinese restaurant, Mei Ling, a few miles away. They seemed content to float in the mineral baths, swim in the main pool, do the crossword puzzle in the San Juan Star, and meet the new guests who came and went each day. It sounded like a tight enough schedule to me.

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