My progress through the Caribbean continues in earnest. After leaving Haiti in a much more organised fashion than the previous time I left, I then arrived in Puerto Rico. This meant having to transit through Miami as there are no direct flights – and what a bane it was. Transiting really should be quite straightforward, but not in the United States. You have to queue for hours to get through immigration and then you have to collect your luggage (which has already been checked through to the final destination) and then you have to re-check the luggage before queuing again to get through to the departure lounge. Fortunately I had almost four hours to get this done – plenty of time, surely? Well, the first queue lasted around two hours, during which time I was shouted at for playing Angry Birds on my iPhone – “No cell phone use in this area”. I’d finished reading my latest book so I spent the remaining time in the queue getting rather bored and gearing myself up for the inevitable grilling as to why I was in Miami airport. Sure enough I was met, not with a smile, but an accusatory glance and tone of voice which was most uncalled for. This is not the first time I’ve found the US border control to be over-the-top in their dealings. The guy even accused me of being a ‘problem’ for asking why I had to clear immigration just to queue up again later. I did eventually make it through to the departure lounge, only for my flight to be delayed for several hours – grrrr!!
Puerto Rico is an ‘unincorporated territory’ of the United States, which means that it is controlled by the US and ‘fundamental rights apply as a matter of law, but other constitutional rights are not available’ – similar to the statuses of Guam and American Samoa. So I was ‘sort of’ in the US. Puerto Ricans have voted before on whether to become the 51st American state, or to become an independent nation or to keep the status quo. Needless to say, the status quo won the last vote.
It was my first visit to the island and my first sight flying in to the capital, San Juan, at night was of hundreds of baseball stadiums! Baseball is big business in Puerto Rico and there seemed to be a floodlit stadium on every other street corner – a rather strange sight from a plane at night. That is not where the US influence ends either. In fact, walking the streets of San Juan felt like I could have been in Miami to be honest. The only real nod to it being Puerto Rico is that the road signs are in Spanish and not English. They have many of the same shop chains – K Mart, Walgreens, Macy’s, JC Penney, Sears and the like. The island also has the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean and second largest in Latin America – Plaza Las Américas.
The island is not exactly thriving (it is poorer than the poorest US state) but the World Economic Forum has classified Puerto Rico as the most competitive economy in Latin America. It is certainly a lot more developed than most of the Caribbean and it even has interstate highways. The metro area of San Juan has a population of 2.5 million, the second largest in the Caribbean (after Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic) and as such the capital doesn’t feel like the ‘Caribbean’ that one sees on glossy posters in doctor surgery waiting rooms.
It’s a good job I had a couple of days break, then, to explore outside of the city and see some of the parts of the island which attract the tourists. Tourism is a major contributor to the economy and Puerto Rico has a diverse mix of activities and attractions available. It has the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System, the world’s largest satellite dish, the third longest underwater river in the world, and is one of only three places in the world to experience the wonder of bioluminescent dinoflagellates year round. Yes, dinoflagellates is a new word for me too. They are tiny microorganisms which live in water and emit a burst of light when disturbed and are really pretty cool. I took a kayak tour after dark in a bay near the town of Fajardo and spent half an hour just waving my hands through the water feeling that childlike wonder of discovery which us adults get all too rarely. Such was the nature of the trip that I was unfortunately unable to get any photos – however there are plenty from the Rio Camuy Caves and El Yunque National Forest for your viewing pleasure.