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Puerto Rico, Beyond San Juan

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Photo: Bobby Fisher

I’d already surmised that Ponce isn’t exactly cosmopolitan. Earlier that day I’d stopped in at the city’s grand theater, built in the 1860’s, where I received a five-minute tour. Apparently some leading stars of the opera world regularly passed through about a century ago, but more recent highlights include a 1992 community-theater production of Man of La Mancha.

I confessed my newest fantasy to Melody: buying one of Ponce’s run-down palaces and moving here to fix it up.

She smiled. "All the old homes have been in the same families’ hands for generations, and no one’s motivated to sell," Melody said. "We’ve tried to buy one several times. But it hasn’t worked out for us so far."

Unrealistic aspirations shattered, I continued my circuit. West of Ponce, the climate turns arid. Low brown hills slope down to the dark flat sea. Turning off at Guánica, I found myself on a narrow road that rounds a series of high headlands seemingly untouched by human presence. I was entering the 10,000 acres of the Guánica Dry Forest. The desert-like ecosystem, my guidebook informed me, harbors such curiosities as the crested toad, the purple land crab, and a 700-year-old tree.

That evening I drove to La Parguera, a port town set amid the mangrove swamps, and bought a ticket for a ride on a motorboat to one of the nearby bioluminescent bays. Here the conditions have spawned high concentrations of microscopic, light-emitting algae, so dense that the water glows. The effect is said to be strangely beautiful, but I was skeptical. Algae?

The boat pushed off from the pier and then wound through the mazelike channels west of town before dropping anchor in a pitch-black cove. "Okay, you have five minutes to swim," the captain announced.

The idea of dog-paddling around the Black Lagoon was less than appealing, but I jumped in anyhow. I surfaced to find myself surrounded by a nebula that intensified with each stroke. Through these pinpoints of light, like sparks from a cool fire, I swam trailing a constellation and marveling at the wonder of it. Algae!

Most of the 39 suites at the Horned Dorset Primavera, the next stop on my itinerary, are two stories high, smell like an Aveda spa, and have their own plunge pools. Decorated in Spanish-colonial style, the rooms are sheathed in marble and outfitted with mahogany furniture from Bali and Italy, ceramic lamps from Morocco, old prints in gilt frames, and ceiling fans with blades fashioned from palm leaves.

Briefly, I wondered how I was going to be able to enjoy all that luxury. Then I floated in the pool, went for a walk on the isolated beach, and climbed into my four-poster bed and fell asleep. This was not a catnap but a narcotized slumber, followed by a wine-soaked dinner overlooking the sea.

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