Putting the $354 million debt repayment aside, Puerto Rico is a stunning place to visit with much natural wealth. It is the easiest place to visit from Tortola and provided a much needed cultural and shopping fix. We spent a wonderful week after Christmas last year travelling around Puerto Rico.
For me one of the most amazing discoveries in Puerto Rico was stumbling across one of my favourite paintings ‘Flaming June’. For years I had this poster in my teenage bedroom, I loved the sleeping girl’s orange dress, her soft skin you almost want to touch and the peaceful feeling I had when looking at it. I hadn’t thought about this Pre-Raphaelite work of art for years until I chanced upon it in the Art Museum in Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city. I was so shocked to suddenly be looking at this picture in what seemed the most unlikely of places: there were no indications that this was an amazing work of art, no signs, no crowds, just a picture on a wall like any other. I thought it must be a copy, but it wasn’t. Of course Britain has bought and ‘acquired’ numerous works of art from all over the world but for some reason to find this in Ponce, an industrial city with a historic heart, seemed to me a quirk of history.
Sir Frederic Leighton’s ‘Flaming June’ (painted in 1895) was bought by a Puerto Rican industrialist and politician, Luis A Ferre, in 1963. He was on a trip around Europe puchasing paintings and sculptures for the Museo de Arte de Ponce which he had founded. He fell in love with the painting and paid two thousand pounds for it, at that time a great deal of money.
Maybe the U.K could help to pay some of the debt and buy it back? Perhaps not top of our Government’s priorites at the moment, any Russian billionaries living in Britain want to offer?
Of course, there is much more to see than just ‘Flaming June’. San Juan has beautiful colonial buildings, UNESCO heritage sites, cobbled stone streets, stunning churches, cafes, interesting shops and fabulous restuarants, and of course the giant shopping mall, Plaza las Americas. There is plenty to do for children, ours loved flying kites and rolling down the hills in the open fields of El Morro and the Children’s Museum in old San Juan was a big hit.
We travelled west of San Juan, stopping first at Arecibo to visit the famous Observatory featured in James Bond ‘Golden Eye’, it’s basically an enormous ear to the galaxy; the exhibition looked really interesting but with two children under 5 we didn’t get much of a read! Far better for us were the caves, Las Cuevas de Camuy. We descended about 200ft in a small train and then walked into these ‘caverns measureless to man’. Wandering through these incredible formations, viewing the stalagmites, the thousands of sleeping bats, the dark beautiful colours, was an incredible experience. The journey to both these places was stunning, through thick green forest, past beautiful villages, it was so good to get away from the typical ugly US shop expanse along the highways. Then we drove to Isabela, where we enjoyed an enormous beautiful and wild coastline which seemed to stretch for miles. Second to Rincon, this is a great place to surf and a bit quieter.
Next we travelled to El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s tropical rainforest, but we appproached from the South on a less popular route. We stopped off in a small town nearby for lunch and to get directions. There was one plaza and one run-down pizzeria. The toilet made me almost want to run out there and then but we persevered through lack of choice and cross children. The waitress gave my family a once over and asked me where we were staying, clearly they weren’t used to tourists visiting their town – I could see why. I told her we were staying in El Yunque, could she direct me? She told me to get going and not to come back. I had come from Tortola where the local people weren’t that friendly at the best of times, but this was a bit much. My Spanish is reasonable but I couldn’t quite comprehend what she was saying, something about guns and bullets coming down, she said it was ‘muy peligroso’ and looked at my children. We gobbled down our pizza and hurried to our rental car. At the supermarket (we were stocking up for our big night in the Ecolodge), I was handed a leaflet by a policeman telling people not to fire their guns into the air tonight (it was New Year’s Eve) and reminding people that two people had died the year before. Forty per cent of people in Puerto Rico live below the poverty line, you don’t see it in the heart of San Juan, but coming out into the countryside, it becomes more apparent.
El Yunque was fantastic, so wonderful to see the rich bio-diversity of a rainforest. We loved being in this world of green! The children loved running along the paths to find a waterfall. We loved listening to the sounds of the rainforest as we went to sleep. We felt very privileged indeed.