Puerto Rico is a portmanteaux of geographic personalities, an overstuffed valise of seductive charismas and tropic endowments. If geography is destiny, then Puerto Rico atones for the ill-tempers of other parts of the world, and instead is blessed with an island-wide jocund, incited, in part, by its natural features...its mountains, forests, beaches, rivers, lakes, cliffs, caves, and all between.
I've been to Puerto Rico many times, and each time I step off the plane I breathe deep. The very air seems to be made of a different and sweeter substance. But in my travels, I've noticed that each of the five major geographic regions offer up distinctive qualities and dispositions. They are, of course, bound together by a common pride and gladness for their shared ship, but they are also quite different, and each is worth visiting for its inimitability and exceptional assets.
So, I decided to parse it, and share my take on the extraordinary cast and temperament of these regions. Each is a country onto its own, and so very worth the time to explore.
1) The South
Starting from the Hilton Condado in San Juan it's a mellow 90 minutes drive to Ponce, named, some say, after Ponce de Leon, who sought gold and eternal youth here.
There is an elegant European flavor to the south of Puerto Rico, harking back to when its port was the busiest in the island. It was sugar that made fortunes for the early European landowners, and allowed a flourishing of art and architecture, and an eclectic melding of Caribbean and neo-classical styles.
Ponce, the Pearl of the South, is aunrhym graceful grande dame of a city, built for awe and bliss, and timelessness. Here dreams were drawn, and then realized.
Every building, every curve, every line, showcases a cultivated, enriched heart. There is beauty and meaning in every bite of the chisel.
Here is the architecture of happiness. It is art we can walk through. Design that makes us content; bellyfuls of colors to gulp.
It is the creation of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, and stimulates the people it serves. It makes us dance. It speaks to us of a degree of serenity, strength, poise and grace we seek everywhere, but find here.
Every brick seems alive, unruly and individual; every plank has the pulse of nature flowing through it. The space between is the breath of art.
Where can we find greater structural clarity than in the buildings in the South of Puerto Rico?
Where else can we find such unity of material, construction and form? Here the wisdom and joy of diverse cultures is stored. What feelings for material and what power of expression there is in these structures!
What warmth and beauty they have! They are the echoes of the men and women who first made this port their landing, and their home.
And now the romance and passion of their creations is ours, here in the South of Puerto Rico.
2) The East
How does it happen that the whole family comes together? How does it happen that tropical birds sing, that clear water flows, that the orchids unfold, that the dawn whitens behind the virgin forest on the quivering summit of El Yunque? A trip to the East of Puerto Rico, and all is said and done.
For families, this is the most amazing place, for the leaping greenly spirits of the rainforest, and for the blue dream of sky, and for everything that is natural, that is infinite, that is yes.
Parents can never have enough of the freedom children are gifted here. Mothers and fathers are refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor; the safety and welfare in the wild as well as the resort; the sea-coast with its adventures, the wilderness with its vines and flowers, even the rain, which plays like a band. There is always music amongst the trees here.
The East emanates a subtle, precious light, day and night, demonstrating the unsurpassed truth that this is a playground for children of all ages. This is a place that enables happiness...and a happy family is but an earlier heaven.
The East is the acreage of a rainbow, the portal to grasping the mystery that breathes behind things. It is the wondrous garden with trails that wind like helixes, with broad beaches and vibrant birds, with bioluminescence and the self-propelled flowers called butterflies. There are so many ways to share this bounty of the treasured island, from kayaking to paddle boarding, horseback riding to golf, tennis, fishing and swimming, from sumptuous meals, to the laughter-filled water parks.
Here families are unrhymed poetry, stanzas of sand, sun and sea. Here they find a freshness and candor in their clan. They strengthen bonds, like the ever-thickening vines in the rain forests.
Why does a child on a water slide wave at his parents every time he splashes down - and why do his parents always wave back? It all becomes evident here, in the East of Puerto Rico.
3) The North
The North of Puerto Rico is like the monkey who locked up
the zookeeper. It has put away the constrained thinking that keeps others stuck
in unproductive routines, and allowed its wildness to escape the margins.
Because it's faithful to our childlike imaginations of wilderness, our youthful
notions of life authentic and unadulterated, the North remains a true, original
adventure. Here we can remember what makes life rip-roaring and breathtaking.
We can test our mettle, hear our hearts race, and even encounter a bit of
danger. This is a world painted in bold, unrepentant strokes: where
parrots and kingfishers swoop over waterfalls, and the rushing water of a life
well-lived can splash you in the face.
Let's look at some of the elements that make up The North:
Style. Style is the perfection of a point of view, and what
views there are here, cliffs that cast off to infinity; mountains that scratch
the sky. Golf courses so green and perfect they seem expressions of
imagination. Everywhere there is color, there is fashion, there is coherence,
there is style. If James Bond vacationed, he would come here.
Adventure. Every turn here reveals a story. Every step a
discovery. Here you can ride a horse on trails to lordly views; you can dance
in public; you can spelunk through some of the world's largest cave networks,
and float on underground rivers; you can be a bird on a wire, and zipline over
ravines and streams. Leave the ordinary behind; the adventure of life begins
Play. You can sift the fine sand in your fingers and toes;
you can hike the lush forests and parks; you can skip rocks in the
shimmering lakes; you can swim, dive, sail and dine. Play till the sun
comes down, and then play some more.
Luxury. No need to set an alarm here; you can sleep in. You
can indulge in fine cottons and linen; you can spoil yourself with spas and
baths; you can treat yourself to the finest wines and cuisine. Pamper yourself
with exquisite, attentive, personalized service. You can relax, refresh and
revive, and undertake the noble art of leaving things undone.
Beauty, spirit, freedom, comfort and poise...these are hallmarks of
the North of Puerto Rico.
4) The West
To stand at the edge of the sea; to sense the ebb and flow of the tides; to feel the breath of moving water, to watch the flight of shorebirds, is to have knowledge of things nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.
This is a place that whispers to the soul, imploring mind and body to relax, to let go and be at peace again. The needle of serenity follows its own magnetic north here, and points to the fine sand and radiant sunsets.
This is the Gate of the Sun, the least spoiled and most uncrowded sanctuary of the island. The long fetch of the peninsula makes the surfing unreasonably good.
Tomas Ramirez, owner of Combate Beach Hotel, is the man to see here. A former pharmaceutical executive, he fell in love with the West and bought his boutique hotel on the sand. He speaks to the laid-back, chill nature of the region, and will give insider tips on the best places for red snapper, conch and lobster; the best places to ride the waves and dive beneath them; the wildlife refuges; the Guanica Dry Forest, the legendary lighthouse; and where to best see and feel the salt flats.
This is the place to toss the cell phone, to bury the digital devices, and just surrender to the senses, the present and the frisson of being. Connectivity is as useless and fugitive as necklace beads without a connecting chain, and we are so much better for it.
At the end of the day, it is here you will delight in the magic and thrills of paradise; it is here you can find your real self. Simple and grand; timeless and radiant--this is the West of Puerto Rico.
When you stand atop a ridge in the Cordillera Central and look around it seems this is the world's first morning. This is a land of innocence, of new beginnings, of fertility, of pure, clean water and abundance.
This is a place unfit for civilization, but the fruit of the tree of adventure is plucked here. From its lodges, to its caves, it ziplines to its trails, adventure is the vitalizing element here. Adventure is everywhere.
This is a wild scape, where the trees look as though they have been awoken in the middle of the night and had no time to fix their hair. Sunbeams fracture across the leaves. Waterfalls spill diamonds into limpid pools. Volcanic peaks dissolve into the hard, blue sky. The tropic birds enjoy a vast, loose agenda, and my eyes bewilder at the colors of their freedom. The hills undulate as though they form the backbone of a giant beast that has laid down to sleep and might at any point awake and stand up several miles high, shaking off the vines and trees like pieces of fluff caught on its felt green jacket.
It is here I meet two personalities who help define this region. The first is Steven Weingarten, who runs the Casa Grande Mountain Retreat, a former coffee farm sprawling across 107 acres of unruly rainforest.
Steven is a former New York attorney who fell in love with the mountains of Puerto Rico while visiting in the mid-90s, and now runs one of the best eco-lodges in the world, while teaching yoga in his on-property studio daily. "There's a certain feeling about the mountains that's spiritual in nature. With the elevation here you're closer to whatever higher power you might think about or consider when you're talking about spirit," reflects Steven standing above his retreat. "Institution is the shadow and length of the man. So, this place is my work of art."
whom I meet at the Casa Grande Café, along with his partner, Bárbara Cruz. Together they are journeying to all 78 municipalities throughout the island, and recording the splendor and magnificence of each through Instagram and other social media. He offers to share a drive through the enveloping mountains, and along the way speaks of the land and its allure. "I really love this place. Just driving here from the coast, it's like entering a portal, especially with the road carved into the big mountains. I learned to be in love with getting lost here. It's an adventure. You always end up somewhere beautiful and unexpected. It's very rewarding. Sometimes you find the way, and sometimes the way finds you."
There you have it. My attempt to decode the geography of personalities in Puerto Rico. Ultimately, though, it's like an unsolved Rubik's cube, always presenting new combinations, and enticing possibilities. Back at Water Beach Hotel, the zen-like eco lodge on the beach in San Juan, I had a chance to review my findings about the different regions of Puerto Rico.
The only common filament is a love of place, and a daring joy of living. When you come here the island stirs some ancient urge to shed our northern skins, to quit the cult of speed, to shatter the glass between before and after, and dive right in, to indulge in the irreducible essence that is Puerto Rico.