Give Puerto Rico a Chance
by Jeremy Smith
I never thought of Puerto Rico as a very welcoming place. Whenever it was mentioned in conversation, the first image that would pop into my head involved a shady character selling stolen Rolex watches in a dark alley. I have been to this island many times, although my experience there usually consisted of nothing more than grabbing a meal at the airport’s food court while waiting for a connecting flight.
In December of 2007, I sailed to Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan on S/V Splendido, a Beneteau 57 on which I work. Splendido’s owner, Michael, and I were to spend New Years’ Eve there with several friends who were flying in to meet us for the holiday.
We anchored near the San Juan Bay Marina and took the dinghy to shore for the evening so we could get our bearings. As we walked out of the marina and through a Sizzler Restaurant parking lot, our preconceptions of Puerto Rico were almost immediately confirmed.
We began walking along a dirty four-lane highway toward downtown Old San Juan. Along the two-mile walk through a ghetto, we walked through several floods as raw sewage bubbled out of manholes. We were approached by beggars and offered various creative substances as we walked along the pitch-black street. Michael and I thought, “Yup, this is Puerto Rico.”
The next day, we mustered up the courage to make the trek to Old San Juan again and became determined to find a way to anchor Splendido closer to the downtown area prior to our guests’ arrival. We had been impressed by Old San Juan, but weren’t so crazy about the trek to get there from the marina.
We came across a fisherman’s village, Villa Pesquera, near Fort El Morro and noticed they had a small dock. We approached the locked gate and asked a fisherman if we would be allowed to use the dock for our dinghy. At first he was a bit hesitant, as he explained in very limited English that they had a dangerous watchdog and their dock was broken. Eventually, he agreed and we later moved the boat so it was anchored out of the shipping channel and in front of their property. We anchored in front of the fishermen’s village at GPS coordinates 18.27.740N, 66.07.196W. The location is approximately three quarters of a nautical mile up the channel from the first set of markers and on the port side.
Within a few hours, the fishermen had gone out to the local hardware store and happily made us a copy of the key to their gate. They spent most of the next day repairing their dock specifically for us and did a beautiful job. Throughout our weeklong stay there, they were as friendly and helpful as they possibly could have been. We developed friendships with many of them. We even bought some treats for their dog, Bong-Bong, but unfortunately he never showed too much enthusiasm.
Little did we know, our great experiences in Puerto Rico were only beginning. Whenever we went out in town, the friendly locals almost constantly greeted us. If we needed information about something or even looked like we might be lost, someone was there to help.
To ring in the New Year, we went into Old San Juan with our guests, expecting a party resembling Mardi Gras. After all, we assumed, “This is Puerto Rico. These locals all must be party animals!” We were surprised to see very few people out on the street, and many of the bars and restaurants were actually closed. We learned that the Puerto Ricans actually view New Year’s Eve as a holiday that should be spent at home with their families, not the typical partyers’ paradise seen in so many other places. There were no wild parties to be discovered, but it was refreshing to find a place that still prioritizes family values over drinking.
Once the holiday was over, Michael and I had to visit San Juan’s US Coast Guard Base to take care of some administrative business with our captain’s licenses. Concerned about the red tape we were about to endure, we went to find the office, get fingerprinted, and fill out a couple of forms. Security reluctantly permitted us to enter the complex and directed us to the appropriate office.
We entered and sat across from a man who, at first, seemed like a strict administrator. We started making conversation with him, and before we knew it we had learned much about his family and culture. The whole bureaucratic process would normally have taken no more than a half hour, but instead we were in the office for almost three hours socializing. Before we left, we had become his newest friends.
We returned to Puerto Rico again in December 2008 and visited Fajardo, a port on the island’s eastern coast. We anchored in the harbor and were initially not very impressed. Compared to many of the other ports we had recently visited, it was not terribly scenic and the shoreline was littered with big marinas and commercial docks.
We took the dinghy to Sun Bay Marina and found a place to dock it. As we were tying it up, a woman from the nearby office called us over and introduced herself as Olga. We assumed she was going to tell us we couldn’t leave the dinghy there. Actually she wanted to let us know that we could leave the dinghy there if we wanted to, but we could also go to a nearby lower dock within the marina so we wouldn’t have to climb over the high seawall. Even though we were not customers at the marina, Olga was more than happy to help with our many questions about where to go for provisioning, marine stores, and all the other cruising essentials. As we walked out of the office, she told us that she would make sure the marina’s security guards watched the dinghy while we were gone.
Once back at the boat we couldn’t resist moving into Sun Bay Marina, something we very rarely do, since the rates were so low and Olga so helpful.
While onboard the boat at the dock the next day, we were approached by a man named Michael who runs Caribbean Sailing School out of the same marina. He had noticed us sail into the harbor a few days before and was curious about the Beneteau 57, so we invited him aboard. He was impressed with the boat and asked if he could come back later with his wife. Around cocktail hour he came back with his wife, along with two friends. It was time for a party! The six of us had a great time and by the end of the evening, a whole new social circle had adopted Splendido’s owner and me.
During the next few days, we visited our new friends almost every day. We went out to dinner with them and even were invited several times to their beautiful home on Isleta Marina, an island within Fajardo’s harbor. We felt like we had instantly become part of their family, although we had only met these people days before.
Despite my initial concerns, Puerto Rico’s locals are friendlier than those on almost any other island I have visited. This island should be viewed as a gem of the Caribbean. In both San Juan and Fajardo, our initial impression of the area was poor but we were quickly proven wrong once we met the wonderful residents. The Puerto Ricans impressed us over and over again and I would recommend to anybody that they visit this fantastic island. Remember, you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Copyright© 2009 Compass Publishing