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The East Coast Hawaii

Puerto Rico came to my attention in 1968 when the the World Surfing Championships were held in a small town named Rincón on the island's west coast.  The waves were excellent that year and the pictures in the surf magazines piqued my teenage surf crazed soul.  The town where the championships were held was called Rincón (pronounced Reen cone') and I put it on my list of "must visit someday," destinations. Over the years several of my surfer friends brought back stories of their visits, the gist of which was, 'it's friendly, cheap and way cool, like Hawaii back in the 1960's."  Last week, my family and I returned from a lengthy vacation in Rincón and I'm please to report that it's every bit as nice as I'd ever imagined.  The surf is still great too!

Las Playas de Rincón 

As an introduction to this wonderful place, let me paint you a picture.  It's early morning and your eyes have popped open as the sound of a rooster filtered through the window.  The instantaneous heat and brightness of the tropical sunlight is still a few minutes away as the sun hasn't yet cleared the lush and craggy limestone hills looming behind the beaches of Rincón.  You wander out to the wide sandy beach and find that the sand is cool and dry on your feet.  Sand comes in many varieties, some more "simpatico" than others.  Rincón's sand, like so much else about it, seems somehow perfect; not so coarse that it hurts your feet to walk on, but not so powdery and fine as to get into everything either. 

There's a northwest swell running today, and glassy little waves are cracking the stillness on the rocky reefs of Sandy Beach.  No one is surfing yet and the place has the unreal feeling of a set piece of theater being presented to an empty house.  The coconut palms hanging over the wide beach, the clear warm water, the hint of offshore breeze are almost too perfect1.

There's a complementary breakfast, Puertorriqueño-style laid out under the thatched roof of the Tamboo Tavern2.  Fried plantains, fresh mango and papaya, chicken empanadas, and that excellent island-grown coffee.  You've become friends with Clara in the last few days.  She's minding the bar and keeping the breakfast table stocked but there's plenty of time to chat because no one is in much of a rush around here.  

Clara is a local girl, raised in barrio Ensenada. She moved to Puntas when her father inherited a little farm or finca, from his uncle back in the 1960's.  She went to the local schools and has landed a pretty good job here, so she's a happy camper.  She and her husband plan to build on the land her father gave them next year, then they'll have kids.  Her English is better than your Spanish, and you both laugh when an intractable bit of vocabulary comes up.  The perfectly bilingual expat Gregorio will resolve any mysteries when he arrives to pick you up for the daily surf trip.   

Nothing is pressing, no hurry is hanging over head. You're in Rincón, Puerto Rico and as Clara says, "la vida es muy rica."

History

Most people assume that Rincón got its name from the giant rugged point that forms a corner (rincon in Spanish) on the western coast of Puerto Rico, but it is more likely that it was named for Gonzolo Rincón, a Spanish landowner who established the town in the 16th century. The history of Rincón stretches all the way back to 1493, when Christopher Columbus is rumored to have visited during his explorations in the area.  

In the early 1800's, Rincón was a favorite hideout for the legendary Caribbean pirate Roberto Cofresí Ramirez de Arellano3.   His ship "La Ana," was a dreaded sight to the Spanish captains whose ships were laden with treasure from the new world.  The bold and dashing Cofresi was known for his daring raids as well as his generosity in sharing some of his loot with the poor people in the area. 

In 1825, the Spanish navy sloop "San Jose de las Animas" and Captain John Sloat of the US Naval Forces, in command of the Schooner Grampus, cornered Cofresi in the Bahia Boca de Infierno (mouth of fire) near Guayama.  After a fierce battle, La Ana was driven ashore and Cofresi and his crew were captured.  At dawn on March 29, 1825 Cofresi and ten of his men were lined up against the walls of the El Morro fortress and executed, ending the life of one of the Caribbean's most legendary pirates. Most of Cofresi's treasure has never been found and many believe that some of his treasure still lies hidden in the limestone caverns around Rincón.  In fact, some Spanish treasure has been recovered over the years in the local waters.

During the late 1950's the Sea Beach Colony became the first of many low- key vacation resorts to come to Rincón.  Since that time, the town has grown at a modest pace and managed to retain some funk and soul.  

Puertorriqueño Culture

A little Spanish goes a long way in Puerto Rico, both in helping to decipher the sometimes confusing roadside signage, as well as breaking the ice with a new friend. Puerto Rico is predominately a Catholic country, but religious tolerance is general.  Family ties are strong and young people have a natural respect toward their elders that is both refreshing and surprising.  In general, a feeling of formality and politeness governs most interactions initially, but friendships develop easily with these warm and open people.  Most Puerto Ricans are pretty conservative in their clothing and manners as well as their politics.  

The subject of Puerto Rico's political destiny is a hot button on which opinions vary widely. Several referendums on political independence from the U.S. have failed over the years, and most Puertorriqueño seem content with the current status quo. Many of the people you meet will be very familiar with America and have traveled to the U.S. or had friends and relatives who have done so. They are justifiably proud of their homeland and have understandable concerns about preserving their unique culture against the onslaught of American marketing and economic development.

Despite the obvious signs of economic development one sees along The Parrot Highway between San Juan and Rincón, there's still a lot of poverty in the country.  I was told that over 80% of the students at the local high school were from families receiving some form of financial assistance from the U.S. Federal Government.  Puerto Rican families are very cohesive and tend to take care of each other.  So, even though many people are relatively poor by U.S. standards, the familial safety net combined with easy access to welfare monies, a mild climate and a  relatively low cost of living moderate the problem.  As my friend Gregorio remarked, "If you have to be poor, this isn't a bad place for it."

Living in Rincón

The vegetation is lush and tropical, graceful coconuts palms and breadfruit trees, punctuated with the iridescent orange blossoms of the tropical tulips.  The humidity is remarkably low for a tropical island and over the course of the year the temperature varies between 75° and 90° Fahrenheit (24° - 32° Centigrade).  A nearly constant breeze helps keep things comfortable.  The rainy season runs from June through the end of September.  During this period you can expect at least a little rain each day as the moist air of the Bermuda High passes over the island and deposits it's load of precipitation along the way. Hurricanes are a possibility, but most of them hit the eastern end of Puerto Rico.  The rare hurricane that makes a landfall on the west end of the island tends to cause wind-related damage rather than flooding.

In an act of far-sighted governance, the lawmakers in San Juan recognized the beaches of Puerto Rico as a national treasure and ruled that they would all be publicly owned.  Bolstering this ruling are zoning laws ensuring that development along the coastline must be set back a generous distance from the beach.  The net effect of this is that you can walk for miles along the white sand beaches, admiring the clean turquoise water or stopping for a picnic under the shade of a palm tree. The beaches to the south of town are protected from the predominant swells, so they don't tend to have large waves and are good for children.  The beaches to the north, in the Ensenada and, especially, Puntas catch the brunt of the swell and produce waves that are excellent for surfing.

Visitors can choose from a wide range of accommodations, with sleepy inexpensive guesthouses ($25 - $75 U.S. per night) on one end and the world famous Horned Dorset Primavera resort4  ($250 U.S. and up per night), the only Relais & Chateaux property in Puerto Rico, on the other end of the decadence scale. 

Dining in Rincón is a treat.  I prefer sampling the local Puertorriqueño restaurants and there are plenty to choose from.  The fare generally centers around rice and red beans (habichuelas) with pork, beef and chicken, seasoned with adobo, a traditional marinade made with garlic and oregano. Cooking bananas or plantains are a local specialty and are prepared in dozens of ways including tostones (fried like potato chips) and amarillos (baked).  For a quick snack you can try the empanadas, deep fried turnovers stuffed with all kinds of goodies.  Fresh seafood is also a mainstay in Rincón, and dining on a burrito filled with lime-baked dorado (Mahi Mahi) on the porch at Maria's is a sublime experience.  There's a fully stocked supermarket it you feel like cooking your own meals.

Actividades

For a day or two, just decompressing on a warm sandy beach with a friendly waiter to bring you umbrella drinks is bliss.  But once you've gotten the pro forma slacking out of the way, you'll want something interesting to fill your days.  Happily Rincón has a wealth of activities to choose from from sightseeing to X-treme sports

Rincón has excellent waves and lots of them. It's not considered good form these days to be very explicit about someone else's surf breaks, so I'm just going to advise any surfers reading this to put it on their list of destinations not to miss.  Once you get there check in at the West Coast Surf Shop5 to jack into the local conditions.

Other activities include excellent diving  on the surrounding coral reefs (snorkeling and tank dives are both excellent6), sport fishing, horseback riding, biking, caving, whale watching, and expeditions to the nearby islands of Desecho & Mona7.  If you only do one day trip, the drive up to the Arecibo Observatory is well worth the effort.  Suffice it to say there's plenty to do in and around Rincón no matter what your preferences.

Around and about

Geographically, Rincón is a sandy coastal plain surrounded by steep limestone hills. The town center is a compact business district situated around the Catholic church and a small plaza.  The two police stations, library, primary and secondary schools, supermarket etc. are all within walking distance of the plaza.  

The majority of Rincón's 15,000 residents live in the nine villages or barrios surrounding the town proper.  Each of the barrios has its own character, with those lining the beaches (Puntas, Ensenada, Pueblo, Calvache and Barrero) attracting most of the tourist-oriented businesses, while the barrios up in the highlands (Rio Grande, Cruces, Jaquey and Atalaya) are utilized for farming and other more traditional Puertorriqueño neighborhoods.

Driving in and around Rincón can be a little tricky for first time visitors.  The roads aren't very well marked and it's difficult to obtain a detailed roadmap8 of the area.  Faith and patience will reward the intrepid motorist however and the locals are friendly if you need to ask directions.   

All of Rincón's major roads come together near the center of town.  Route 115 runs north from the center of town  through the barrios of Ensenada and Rio Grande before passing through the nearby town of Aguada and connecting to Highway 2.  To the south, Route 115 traversing the barrios of Pueblo and Calvache.  Route 412 proceeds southeast from downtown Rincón  and passes through the eastern barrios of Pueblo, Cruces, Jaquey and Atalaya.  Route 413 is a loop road that exits off of Route 115 on the edge of Rincón and circles the Ensenada and Puntas areas before rejoining highway 115 in Rio Grande. 

 

Getting to Rincón

Many major airlines fly to San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico.  From Boston, a round trip ticket is currently about $450 U.S.  Once you land in San Juan, the car rental companies all have busses that will transport you to their headquarters.  

Driving instructions from San Juan to Rincón: 

From San Juan Airport, follow Route 26 in the direction of San Juan. Exit at Minillas tunnel, change to Route 22 in the direction of Bayamón / Arecibo (also known as the Parrot Route). Follow the Parrot Route signs to the second intersection with Route 115 in the direction of Rincón and turn right. Follow 114 all the way to Rincón. The trip will take approx. 2 hours from San Juan. 

If you want to save some time, it's not much more to take a commuter flight from San Juan to Mayaguez, the closest airport to Rincón.  In this case, the driving instructions are simpler:

From Mayagüez Airport, Take Route 2 North 1.5 miles to the Anasco Intersection. Turn left onto Route 115 and follow it all the way to Rincón.

Living the dream

Rincón has a large and growing population of expatriate Americans9, drawn by the prospects of living inexpensively in paradise.  To a large extent their dreams are coming true.  Real estate is cheap, along with the other necessities of life,  and there are no visa or passport problems because legally, Puerto Rico is part of the U.S.  The people are friendly, the living is easy and the surf is great.  Oh yeah, no Federal taxes either. What's not to like?

Wasting away again in Margaritaville
Searching for my lost shaker of salt
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame
But I know that it's my own damned fault...

- Jimmy Buffett

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1 Beside The Pointe Inn & Tamboo Tavern: http://www.besidethepointe.com/links.htm
2 Beautiful photos of the area by Chantik: http://www.chantik-photo.com 
3 The Dread Pirate Cofresi:  http://www.solboricua.com/pirata/Cofresi.htm
4 Deluxe accommodations: http://www.horneddorset.com
5 The friendliest surfshop anywhere: www.westcoastsurf.com/
6 Rincon Dive shop: http://www.tainodivers.com/ 
7 Adventures and X-Treme Sports: http://expedicionespalenque.com/
8 Rincon area maps: http://www.besidethepointe.com/map.htm
9 Expatriate extraordinaire 'De Island Mon': http://www.islandmon.com/

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