Puerto Rico: Beyond San Juan

Arriving in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, I was taken aback with just how close the beach was to the city. It seemed to be quite possible to experience this idyllic island without venturing far from the capital. Whilst this is undoubtedly true and possibly quite tempting for some, I knew I had to leave the bustle of San Juan behind to see what else the island had to offer. Soon, the busy casinos and beaches became wildlife watching and food festivals. With so much to do on the island, the focus of this article is on some of the most unique destinations to steer the unacquainted visitor towards the wonderful fusion of natural beauty and Latin energy that is Puerto Rico.

(source: wikipedia)
(source: wikipedia)

The Vieques Bio Bay

Lying just off the southern shores of Puerto Rico is Vieques Island, the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world. This magical natural wonder is best visited at night, when in the waters of the bay are millions of micro-organisms called dinoflagellates,which are responsible for this natural phenomenon. When these tiny, plant-like particles under the water’s surface are disturbed, they produce a burst of glowing blue-green light. Kayaking through the mangrove trees on a moonless night, watching the oars glowing blue in the water is certainly a memorable experience, and the bay is a worthy member of the Puerto Rican Natural Landmark Association. If you arrive earlier in the day and find yourself waiting for night to fall, the waters surrounding the island are home to humpback whales. Look out for any movement which breaks the surface of the water, such as whales’ fins, tails or the water spouts which are formed when they exhale at the water’s surface.

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A Tourist’s Almanac

We’ve all been there. Going about our business, maybe shopping or meeting a friend for coffee, when WHAM! Floored and nearly concussed by a flailing arm or, more accurately, by the enormous camera with six-inch zoom lens clutched tightly in the hand of the gesticulating moron planted squarely in the middle of the pavement. From your position on the ground you take in the rest of the figure. The enormous rucksack, the camera case, the improbable hat, the illogically tiny map and the look of extreme bewilderment. Of course. You helpfully point out Buckingham Palace, which is straight ahead in the distance, smile off the exclamations of gratitude and go about your business.

china-tourist_2452071b(Selfie-taking tourists can be found dotted around cities everywhere. www.telegraph.co.uk)

Tourists. A familiar sight to all of us, whether at home or abroad. In some places – think central London or the Louvre – it seems impossible to move more than 100 yards in any direction without being confronted by a guide with one or more of the following: megaphone, balloon on string, flag on stick, enormous yellow umbrella, expression of vague exasperation as they vainly try and corral the chattering hordes following them and round up stragglers. Equally, at some point we’ve all noticed an irritable man speaking V.E.R.Y L.O.U.D.L.Y A.N.D S.L.O.W.LY to a hapless ticket inspector, traffic warden, police officer, shop assistant or random stranger. Remember the times you’ve muttered imprecations to yourself as you’ve tried to move past the enormous mass of cameras (with people attached) walking at the speed at which rock erodes and suddenly stopping to photograph passing taxis. Why must they walk so slowly? Why do they always move in herds? Why can’t they stop blocking the damn pavement and let me get on with my life?

However, there’s an obvious roadblock for those who just want to lay into tourists: my Dad. And another: your Dad. And your Mum. My Mum. Me. You. Whether it’s a case of speaking to a waiter in slow, careful English (accompanied by gestures when you can’t remember the French for “medium-rare”) or spending the entire holiday sunning yourself beside a pool in front of a gigantic white hotel surrounded by other English people, most of us have been tourists ourselves, in every sense of the word. There’s often a bit of hypocrisy about all this: the same people who reserve the right to roll their eyes theatrically at the number of tourists clogging up their own country do so while behaving in the exact same way the instant they leave the country. Or even behaving worse. Whether it’s because of our stag parties in Prague, our bratty teenagers screeching their way around Costa del Sol, booze cruises to Calais or fighting-Germans-for-space-round-the-pool, we Brits have no right to snort about the hordes of Americans and Japanese blocking the Underground entrance as they debate the best way to the British Museum.

So what can be done when we’re abroad? Can we avoid behaving in a way that provokes mirth or irritation from the locals, without having to take an A-Level in the local language or spend thousands of pounds on hiding away in some exotic “retreat”? The short answer is “yes”. The long answer is “yes, if you follow the steps outlined below”:


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A Heads-Up about Bologna

Bologna is the clear choice for study abroad in Italy. Why? Well, it’s a city of 120,000 students and is a short train ride away from the home towns of parmesan cheese (Parma) and balsamic vinegar (Modena). That’s why, during my time on Erasmus in Boliwood (as it became known), my fellow students and I picked up on a few interesting morsels that will give you some idea about what it’s like living here. Here’s just a sample…


Men change their minds quickly

During my time in Bologna my friends and I received invitations to ride on guys’ mopeds, were offered spontaneous proposals of marriage and were told that we had “eyes as blue as the sky”, often in the early hours and on occasion in the romantic milieu of a local kebab shop. The next day, however, suitors would either act as though they didn’t know you or instead focus their romantic advances on other Erasmus potential. Whether through embarrassment or fickleness, consistency is not their middle name.

Spaghetti Bolognese is not a thing

What we think of as “bolognese” sauce is in fact “ragu”. It has only come to be known as bolognese because Bologna produced the original and best ragu (not that I’m biased). So if you ask for spag bol you run the risk of being presented with a bowl of spaghetti in plain tomato sauce and the person offering to you will almost certainly be wearing a confused look.

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Stranger Danger

The mantra I have had since my arrival in Spain is that if someone invites me on a trip I will go, in order to explore more of the country, meet new people, and just become a bit more independent overall.

This stemmed from a long-held admiration of my mom who, after spending her entire life in South Africa, where she was born and raised, decided to go to America to be a nanny. I remember her telling me when I was younger that yes, she was scared, but when she was invited by someone in the street for dinner one day she just said yes. She now has a great group of lifelong friends with whom she is still in regular contact.

I’ve always liked this idea, as well as my mother’s bravery in doing what she did. So when I came here I wanted to do the same thing.

18gibraltar.span583(The sun is setting in Gibraltar. Is the main street really the only feature? www.nytimes.com)

When a friend of mine, another English Language Assistant in Málaga, told me a teacher at his school had offered to drive him and two friends to Gibraltar for the day, I leapt at the opportunity. I knew almost nothing about the place, and who would turn down the chance of a free ride there and back, since the guy was going there himself? “Only a fool” is the answer.

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What’s in a flag?

The worlds of international relations and music collided recently. What’s that you say? Bono has brokered a peace deal between Israel and Palestine? No, not quite. Madonna finally adopted a child of every possible ethnic denomination and has gained a permanent seat at the UN? Wrong again! Louis Walsh offended everybody through making simplistic comparisons between contestants on the X Factor and other more famous people entirely based on their race? Well, yes, but let’s not dwell on that.


In a more underwhelming story, a Taiwanese artist has inadvertently become embroiled in a dispute in the sticky domain of cross-strait relations. Deserts Chang, a little-known singer from the island, was performing in Manchester to an audience of her fans principally from the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (China). Whilst the distinction might sound like something from a Monty Python sketch, it’s rather a large difference and there are big issues and ardent views everywhere in this relationship.

When you are from somewhere as geopolitically sensitive as Taiwan, there is no such thing as ‘just a flag’.

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