RTW2007: Puerto Rico, wherein our pedestrian polymath battles with mofongo, hunts for porky goodness and understands why nobody else uses the island’s pimped-out public transportation system.

I spent a week in Puerto Rico for the First Annual Wikitravel Get-Together, and here’s a pointer to the one extended story I wrote myself, on the delights of public transportation on the island: Poco loco publico. (Don’t worry, it’s a little more exciting than it sounds. I promise.)

Watchtower at El Morro Colonial house in Old San Juan

San Jacinto restaurant Highway in Puerto Rico

Giving a pithy summary of Puerto Rico is rather difficult, but saying what it’s not requires only two words: “not Caribbean”. On the face of it this seems like an odd assertion, and the climate is tropical all right (to a resident of Singapore, it felt almost like coming home), but it just doesn’t have that laid-back Caribbean vibe I was expecting (and found a little later on this trip). Puerto Rico’s not that big an island sizewise — you could drive around it in half a day if it weren’t for the traffic jams — but it manages to pack in a surprisingly varied amount of scenery, ranging from misty mountains and jungles in the center to near-desert with cacti on the arid south coast.

But the bigger difference is cultural: Puerto Rico also has only a small number of black people, resulting in a population that seems almost monolithically Latin. The older bits of Puerto Rico, such as the touristy but very pretty Old Town of San Juan and the colonial cores of places like Ponce and San German, are imported straight from Spain, with musty old fortresses and churches, pastel-colored colonial houses and stately plazas. But despite a few token attempts at resistance, like all official signage being exclusively in Spanish and distances in kilometers (while speed limits are in miles!), much of modern Puerto Rico is squarely American. At one end of the spectrum are the office buildings of central SJ and the plastic-y resort hotels of Condado; at the other are the dodgy strip malls and barrios around the city cores of both SJ and Ponce that look precisely like the worst bits of South Central LA. But outside the cities, you could occasionally find bits of the elusive “real Puerto Rico” like the seafood shacks of Pinones or the beaches of Guanica that, if you squint a little, wouldn’t look too much out of place in Thailand.

Pork chops (chuletas) in Puerto Rico Fish, plantains and salad at San Jacinto

As always, I spent some time digging into the local cuisine, and on Puerto Rico this can be summed up in two words: pork and plantains (looks like a banana, tastes like a potato). The Puerto Rico-est dish of them all is the infamous mofongo, which sounds like the punchline to a joke but is, in fact, a very real dish consisting of plantains repeatedly mashed and deepfried until you get a ball of solid grease and starch, occasionally leavened with bacon bits. It sounds terrible, and it can be, but if thoroughly soaked in seafoody sauce it’s actually pretty tasty. Alas, my explorations of the porkier dimensions of Borinquen cuisine were rather limited by traveling most of the time with four non-meatarians, so I missed out on sampling lechon asado and blood sausage — but at least the pork chops were pretty good.