La Isla del Encanto
The Island of Enchantment
Puerto Rico for me has been a long time coming. I have had vested interest in it because I’ve got family here somewhere and I am fascinated to learn more about both Caribbean history and island-culture.
Before leaving for Puerto Rico, I had a lot of mixed emotions and thoughts about what it would be like. I wondered how “Latin American” that it would be or possibly how “Americanized” the island is. I did not really know what to expect at all. I have known a few Puerto Ricans (a.k.a boricuas) at home, and the ones that I do know have been there for some time. Outside of that, I really had only a working knowledge of what the island is like.
I have been in Puerto Rico for a few days now and I have been able to explore a bit, so I thought that I would write a little reflection of Puerto Rico from a first impressions perspective. Obviously, these may change or may not with time and as I see more of the island. I’ll just talk at random below. You’ll see that the funny thing about my first impressions is that there are a lot of conflicting viewpoints. For example, a lot of things seem to be two different ways and sometimes undefinable in that they are contradicting.
Architecture is Beautiful
Not that I was expecting the architecture of Puerto Rico to be ugly, but it is surprisingly nice. Obviously, not all areas of the city, but specifically the Old San Juan buildings and some other select buildings that I have seen around the city. Old San Juan is a rainbow of colored buildings, which makes the area very beautiful. Understandably the architecture of Old San Juan is somewhat similar to the French Quarter of New Orleans. Both were constructed in the same era, so there are many parallels that I have seen from an architectural standpoint.
One of the main differences between the French Quarter and San Juan is that in San Juan you may see a row of houses and each of them are colored differently in bright colors. The buildings in the French Quarter of New Orleans are typically made of brick and darker colors. See some of the pictures here. I’ll add some more soon.
Wildlife is unique
The first day that I went to Old San Juan I was walking along the side of a friend up the main road called Avenida de la Constitución, when all of a sudden something started moving out of the corner of my eye. When I turned to look, it was a rather large iguana. I was able to snap this photo below of him before he ran off. This was not the only one that I saw though. There are many of them around the city and although I do not believe that they are native to Puerto Rico, I think that they thrive well in the tropical climate.
Additionally, I’ve heard the Coquí frog (a national symbol of Puerto Rico) many times. Those little buggers are all over the place. Their name comes from the sound that they make when they croak. It sounds like, co-key, which is essentially how you pronounce Coquí in Spanish.
There is a lot of poverty
Walking around the city of San Juan, it is nearly impossible to ignore the amount of poverty that exists within the city. There are poor people at many street corners just laying down or begging for some money. Stray dogs and cats can be found throughout the city fending for themselves. Prostitution is fairly prevalent on many streets.
There is also wealth
In stark contrast to the amount of poverty that exists is the amount of wealth that exists. Like many places in the world, they can often be seen near one another so extremes are seen as more extreme. When walking around the city you’ll see the different neighborhoods and the different levels of wealth among them. Then when you are closer to the beach or other touristy areas you will see brand name stores from the most well-known brands in the world. If you walk just 10 minutes away from there, everything is run down.
It is fairly “Americanized”
It is hard to ignore the American influence on Puerto Rico. It is obvious in many aspects. For example, there are many common stores that I would not have expected to see many of in Puerto Rico that are everywhere. Outside of the main fastfood chains, which can be found everywhere, I was surprised to see a Walmart and many different Walgreens around. Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, KFC, McDonald’s, are all here. You can virtually get pretty much anything that you can get in the mainland US here in Puerto Rico. That being said, prices are pretty comparable to mainland US. Food is slightly cheaper if it is local, but most everything else is almost identical in price.
Puerto Rico is definitely Latin American
On the contrary to Puerto Rico being somewhat Americanized, it is also quite Latin American/Caribbean in culture. It is very difficult to get anything done here quickly. I’ve talked to many local professionals who have expressed the same sentiments, so I know that it isn’t just me. The “mañana” mindset is here for sure. I’ll probably write an article on that in the future, but for now I am just observing. It can be quite annoying at times, then in other times quite enjoyable. It is strange.
Weather is Hot and Humid
Puerto Rican weather is great for me. It is hot and humid: two things that I am accustomed to from home in Louisiana. The coldest that the weather gets in Puerto Rico is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 Celsius). I am more than alright with that. I don’t really like cold weather at all. People who dislike the heat, would probably be slowed by the heat here. At times when the sun is at full mass, it can be quite hot.
English versus Spanish
I was really curious to know about how much Spanish was spoken with respect to English and vice versa in Puerto Rico. What has been interesting to me is that some Puerto Ricans are more or less bilingual. Others cannot speak a word of English. This isn’t a generational thing other, which is what people would generally try to reason with. I’ve met people that are 17 years old and cannot speak a word of English. Then, I’ve met people 40 years old who speak both languages just fine. There is not really a correlation between the two. I wonder what the influence of family and educational background is on this. I simply don’t know the answer.
All that being said, the Spanish here is interesting. Fundamentally, everything here is in Spanish, but it is a different type of Spanish than I am used to speaking. Because of the influence of English here in Puerto Rico, the use of Spanish is much more rampant.
I have also found that in the really touristy areas such as Old San Juan (Viejo San Juan) the store owners and shop keepers will be less likely to speak Spanish to you. Sometimes, I think it is because of the difference of accents. I typically overcome this by continuing to speak to them in Spanish until they respond to me.
I suspect that the further away I get from San Juan the more Spanish will be spoken primarily.
Getting Around is a Challenge
I am still in disbelief that there is no sure-fire way to get around Puerto Rico. Most everyone related to tourism has just told me to take taxis or walk. They have a local bus system that runs around the city of San Juan, but there is no website or schedule to show where or when the buses go. I have tried to find them online and even found a few websites, but all of them were discontinued. Many locals have mentioned these guaguas, which are local vans that drive between cities. The trick with them is that they are not consistent and only leave when they have enough people wanting to go to the same location. I have taken it once to get to the Bacardi factory, but that has been my only experience with it yet. I am determined to find a better way to get around Puerto Rico, or at least figure out the system of guaguas and local buses. I will make it a priority while I am here.
There is a MUCH cheaper way
I was told on the first day that I arrived that the cheapest car rentals were around $80 to start. Obviously, with the public transportation being difficult to figure out people will often look to other ways of getting around such as a car rental. I looked online and found a car rental for $9. Seriously, $9 for a car rental, from $80.
Additionally, I was looking at some different tours to do around the island and after figuring out one on my own, I was reaffirmed in my belief that organized tours are generally a huge waste of money. I had a similar experience in Turkey for the price difference between a tour and doing something yourself. For example, the organized tour to go to the Bacardi factory and back from a hotel in San Juan was $109. I traveled to the factory and back, easily, for $7. There is a much cheaper way to get around Puerto Rico and in my experience with the factory example, it is not that difficult to arrange at all. Truthfully, knowing Spanish has helped a little, so you should get started on learning a second language. It will enrich your life and make your experience better anywhere you travel.
Food is Pretty Good But Basic
I have really enjoyed the food that I have eaten so far. I’ve eaten mostly local meals and I have not been upset by any of them. The meals typically consist of a main meat dish then 1-2 sides which are commonly referred to as complimentos. I like it. The food is not all that complex though. Often, the meat is the most creative thing on the plate. Side dishes are basic rice and/or fried plantains, salad, et cetera. Some of the more ‘complex foods’ have been the mofongo dish, which as far as I can tell is mashed potatoes, meats, and spices bundled together and dried out lightly, then served as a ball/scoop.
There is more than meets the eye
I’ve only been in San Juan mostly for now, but I know that there is much more to see on this island. It may be small, but I can already tell that it is beautiful. There are a lot of nature related things to see and to do around Puerto Rico and I look forward to doing them. I look to systematically see different parts of the island over the next few months. Like with most places I think that it will take me a lot of time to explore and gain a more well-rounded idea of what the island is like.
I look forward to getting to know more about Puerto Rico, the boricua culture, and seeing things around the island.