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.


Poco loco público

This little island‘s got a lot of things going for it, but public transport ain’t one of them.

My mission, should I choose to accept it, was to make my way from Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city (pop. ~200,000), to San Juan, its largest (pop. ~2 million). One might assume this would be easy; one would be wrong.

Puerto Rico has a population of four million, most of which at any given point can usually found in traffic jams, beeping at each other in a laid-back Caribbean kinda way. There are no scheduled buses, no train services (aside from an underused $2 billion white elephant in SJ that goes from nowhere to nowhere) and, in fact, no public transportation of any kind except for the público, a shared taxi along the lines of the jitney, servees, sherut, minibus and its million other Third World cousins.

Ponce has a spiffy new público terminal only a few blocks from the hotel, so a little before 6 PM (just as all the shops around me were battening down their hatches and reloading their AK-47s) I peeped in for a visit. There were neat piers, showing all sorts of fascinating places that you could go, but there were no cars, no people, no information desks, no kiosks, no schedules, nada. I shrugged my shoulders in a laid-back Caribbean kinda way and moseyed back to eat more ice cream at King’s.

So this morning, at (for me) the dauntingly early time of 8:45 AM, I set off to explore públicoland once more. Fortunately, I was waylayed by the friendly tourist info office guy, who informed me that I should’ve been at the terminal at least an hour and a half ago, and would surely be doomed if I failed to haul my gringo ass over by 10 AM. I panicked in a laid-back Caribbean kinda way, which means I ate a leisurely breakfast, meticulously packed up my stuff (why does it seem to multiply by itself?) and rolled my tote down to Calle Union to check out the situation.

There was a large gaggle of people hanging out at pier 5A, who asked me if I was going to San Juan, and I thought how lucky I was — surely we’d be on our way in minutes! Alas, it soon transpired that everybody except me was a público driver, and they needed another 5 pax before the next one would depart. Every other público in the terminal was a clapped-out minivan with dents and a random paintjob, but those to SJ — and only those to SJ — are pimped out white Crown Chevys with red vinyl seats that only need a retractable roof and a couple of boricua flygirls (mm, Catholic schoolgirl uniforms) in the backseat to act as props in a rap video. (Yes, I thoroughly regret not taking a picture.) I chatted with the one guy who spoke good English (thanks to a 15-year stint in NY and PA), practiced my woeful Spanish with the others and whiled away the time until 11 AM, at which time I realized that the total sum of other people who want to go from PR’s second largest city to its largest city on this fine Wednesday morning appeared to stay constant at zero. However, the cabbies had told me that around 1-2 PM-ish, the solitary chófer from San Juan would set off on his return trip home, passengers or no passengers, so I had a clear ventana de oportunidad here. I informed the drivers of my intentions, they nodded, plopped my bag in Don Chófer’s trunk and admonished me to be back by 12, or else.

“Over-cautious twit”, I thought, and set off back to the city to poke around the La Perla theater (being renovated) and the Ponce History Museum (renovation nearly complete, but they forgot to install a single word of English explanations). Cultural quota filled up, I then stopped to pick up a sandwich cubano from the deli nearby, and in a laid-back Caribbean way sauntered back to the bus terminal 15 minutes past 12… only to find el Chófer standing in the middle of the street, telling me to get my lily-white gringo ass into his público pronto. Miraculously, he’d found three others who wanted to go to SJ, and as soon as my mofongo-softened butt hit the seat, he pushed the pedal to the metal and sailed off towards the highway.

After having heard Sapphire’s 3.5-hr horror story, I was rather surprised that our driver headed straight for the tollway, and despite a dribble of construction and a tropical downpour along the way we made the 100 km from Ponce to SJ in slightly over an hour. (The rain actually helped: after it started, he was able to drive straight through the AutoExpresa RFID toll lanes without stopping, because the cameras can’t read yellow público plates in the rain!)

I’d made it to Rio Piedras, público capital of Puerto Rico, now I needed to go the last 10 km to San Juan Viejo. I’d been told that “B-1” was the correct bus to take, but such a beast didn’t seem to exist, and following el chófer’s final advice to Pregunta! Pregunta!, was informed that “A-9” would be a better choice. The A-9 pier was next to the Metrobus Ruta 1 and Metrobus Express piers, which also seemed to go to San Juan, but the bus driver at the Metrobus Express pier was gesticulating wildly in a laid-back, Caribbean style with a cop and wasn’t going anywhere. A chunky Latina chick noted that I’m far away from home, I noted back that yes, I am, and asked which bus I should take. “Any of ’em!”, was the answer, so I sat down and, in a laid-back Caribbean style, chomped on my slightly mushed but still utterly delectable cubano. (I’m still not sure what’s in it, but at least one part of the equation was salted ham.) I was down to my last bite when a M-1 suddenly materialized, causing a surge of people from the A-9 and M-E queues toward it, so I joined in the fray, deposited my two quarters and clambered on board.

This time, too, the journey took around an hour, although it seemed rather longer as it was mostly spent stuck in traffic. A frisson of excitement was provided by the light fixture above me, which regularly leaked water onto me and my fellow passengers, not heeding the advice of the Ass Baboons of Venus, who so clearly notified us all that “water and electricity are dangerous”.

But I did, eventually, find myself in Plaza Colon at the base of San Juan, and I surprised even myself by navigating my way to the HoJo Plaza de Armas without even glancing at a map. Total time from returning to Ponce’s terminal to checking in at the hotel was a little under 3 hours, and total cost (bus fare included) was US$15.50.  Now let’s see if I can find a decent dinner that costs less than that…