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Puerto Rico, Beyond San Juan

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Photo: Bobby Fisher

"The same people come back year after year after year," he told me. "Guys who first came at 17 are still coming at 60."

Since the surf wasn’t up, I decided to head inland. I drove south to Mayagüez, a port town with a gracious plaza in its historic center, and then drove east out of town.

The Ruta Panorámica is 165 miles of scenic switchbacks running along the top of the island’s central spine, linking quaint hill towns, forest preserves, and historic paradors, or inns. The foliage arched over the roadway in a series of cool, dark tunnels as I twisted my way higher into the sierra, past massive stands of bamboo, past chickens, dogs, abandoned cars, and glimpses of stunning vistas of the jumbled hills stretching into the distance like an angry sea frozen in green.

Not many mainlanders make it to this part of the island. The busy season is during summer school holidays, when Puerto Rican families escape the heat, splashing under waterfalls and hiking through the impatiens-choked forest. This is the home of the jíbaro, the hill-country peasant, a figure as evocative of Puerto Rican culture as the cowboy is of the American West.

My second night on the Ruta, I checked into the Hacienda Gripiñas, a parador that was built in 1858 as the homestead of a wealthy plantation owner. Today it evokes those long-ago days when gentility flowered amid backbreaking oppression. You can still imagine the planter holding court in the plank-floored living room, his visitors easing into the cane-backed rocking chairs.

My room was on the second floor, with windows looking out over the forest. Gripiñas is an imperfectly preserved old relic, but I didn’t care. To nap in the late afternoon, serenaded by roosters and tree frogs as the mountain air wafted in one window and out the other, was all I needed to erase the fatigue incurred by those twisty turns.

The next morning I decided to head for the nearest cross-island freeway, which sent me to the heart of Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city. Founded in the late 17th century, the city experienced a commercial boom in the 19th, then declined so quickly that no one had time to tear anything down. The center of town is crowded with wedding-cake colonial mansions, arrayed in a procession of balconies, balustrades, and bas-relief.

In the evening I strolled around the plaza. The fountains burbled and, once again, tree frogs chirped, and as I settled on a bench under the full moon, I appreciated the tropical custom of napping by day and dining late. The cool night air was a respite from the day’s solar assault. Admiring the impressive buildings around the plaza, I wondered: Did they seem as breathtakingly elegant in their day, or did they come across as gauche and overadorned?

I dined at the best restaurant in town: Mark’s at the Meliá. Chef-owner Mark French cooks steakhouse favorites alongside traditional Puerto Rican dishes. As I started into the shrimp mofongo—a dome of plantains suffused with creole sauce—his wife, Melody, sat down and answered my questions about Ponce. "It’s a big city, but it’s really a small town," she said. "Everyone knows everyone else."

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