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Puerto Rico, Beyond San Juan

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Photo: Bobby Fisher

Rincón isn’t happening. Antonio’s Beach is dead. The teenagers lounging around the pool at the Casa Isleña guesthouse are melting into their chaises; their Coronas are going warm. Across the parking lot, two college-age surfing instructors sprawl in their folding chairs and stare out at the ocean, impassive as Buddhas.

"When’s the next swell due in?" I ask the surfers.

"No idea, man," says one lazily.

A lone wave gathers strength as it slides toward the shore, musters a few inches of height, then surrenders to the sand with a hiss like that of a deflating tire.

On the beach, a girl stands up and points to the sea. Two kids by the pool rouse themselves, lean on the retaining wall, and peer out. A shout: "Mira!," as a couple hundred yards away, a snout arcs up from under the sea and a fountain of white erupts. "Humpbacks breaching!" Through my binoculars, I can make out two adult whales and, smaller but identical in shape, three juveniles. One is so tiny she might have been born that very day. Within minutes the humpbacks have disappeared and the hubbub has faded. But so has the gloom.

Here, a hundred miles from San Juan and the resorts of the island’s northeast, excitement takes a different form. Life moves more slowly and the rhythms of Puerto Rico’s traditions lie closer to the surface. Instead of discos and casinos, there are waves and whales, coffee plantations and timeworn mansions, seaside cafés and midnight swims. I’d come to escape the New York winter’s wearyingly drawn-out clutches, looking for a week of de-stressing and, I hoped, a taste of a different Puerto Rico.

There are times when you don’t necessarily want the fanciest or most up-to-the-minute spot. What you want is the feeling that you’re in a completely different place from where you started. I’ve come to think of this area—from the Rincón Peninsula on the west coast to the historic city of Ponce in the south—as the Other Side of Puerto Rico.

At that moment, though, I was thinking about waves. I began surfing in my thirties, much too late to ever be any good. But the thing has its hooks in me, and I could relate to the dour mood at the local bakery, where a gaggle of gringos were buying bagels and discussing the sad state of the surf. A 25-year-old from New Jersey was lamenting into his cell phone about the fate of his vacation. "It’s been pretty flat all week," he said. "I caught some waves my first day and haven’t been out since."

Start talking to the Americanos around here and you’ll find that many have been coming for years. It’s their home away from home, a place that they return to in order to commune with their own kind. Take Bobby Dozier. He came here 17 years ago looking for waves and wound up staying for good. Now he sells surfboards from a kiosk in his front yard. I sat down with him in his driveway and he told me how the world of gypsy surfers got turned on to Rincón after the World Surfing Championship here in 1968. But it’s never really blown up, gotten too big, or lost its flavor—it hasn’t turned into a surf Disneyland like Waikiki, crowded with newbie surfers on 12-foot-long rental boards.

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