Illustrator. Photographer. Random thinker. Um rato de praia.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Puerto Rico boasts tasty waves, filling food

I wrote this story for the Travel section of Florida Today newspaper in 2005.

Puerto Rico boasts tasty waves, filling food

Long considered the Hawaii of the Atlantic, Puerto Rico provides warm, crystal-clear waters, bigger, more powerful waves and reef breaks.

Surfing in Puerto Rico increased dramatically after the 1968 World Contest. Since, it has been the first trip and favorite reef-break training ground for Atlantic surfers, offering good surf in a beautiful U.S. territory with a mix of Latin culture and American convenience.

Peak months for surf are November through March, although Puerto Rico can get sizeable surf during hurricane season.

The majority of the surfing breaks are on the northwest tip of the island between Isabela and Rincon. This area offers a variety of breaks situated within a short drive time, depending on the direction of the swell.

Although March usually is a good month for waves on the East Coast, I figured the chances of catching some waves on my birthday would be greater by visiting Puerto Rico then.

An 8 a.m departure from Orlando International Airport and a noon arrival in San Juan, plus the two-hour drive to the northwest tip of the island, guaranteed that I could be in the water the same day. Now, JetBlue flies directly from Orlando into Aguadilla, saving the drive from and back to San Juan.

Surf, eat, surf

Most days start out with a dawn surf check, surfing until about 9:30 a.m., then a run to one of the many panaderias (bakeries) for quesitos (cheese-filled pastries), warm bread and coffee. Then back for another surf session until lunchtime.

For the less adventurous, there's always the McDonald's or Pizza Hut route for meals, but I chose to sample some of the local cuisine.

Brisas del Atlantico restaurant, with its $5 all-you-can-eat buffet, was outstanding. The food was fresh and abundant, which included arroz con habichuelas (rice and beans), carne asada (beef stew), chuletas (pork chops), serrucho (swordfish) and bacalao (cod) and tostones. Tostones (right) are twice-fried green plantains that make a great appetizer or side dish. They usually are served in restaurants to accompany seafood dishes, but they go well with any Puerto Rican dish.

After lunch and a rest to avoid the midday sun, it's time to check the surf again for a late afternoon session.

For dinner, there are plenty of choices to accommodate the budget.

One day, I went back to Brisas del Atlantico restaurant for dinner to try mofongo, the national dish. Mofongo is not for those who are watching their cholesterol. Traditionally prepared in a mortar and pestle, monfongo is made by mashing tostones with garlic, olive oil and chicarrones (fried pork rinds) or bacon. Then the mix is hollowed out to form a bowl and is stuffed with a variety of fillers in a sauce. Some popular fillers are shrimp, lobster and stewed chicken.

Another evening, I found Happy Belly's Bar & Restaurant on the beach road in Playa Jobos. It has a great oceanfront view by day. While eating your lunch, you can watch the surfing action from the restaurant's open-air deck. At night, the sound of the waves and the salty smell of the surf enhance the dining experience. There's live and/or DJ music and dancing on most nights and it stays open until 4 a.m.

I found Happy Belly's to be convenient and priced fairly, with steak and seafood dishes at $15 to $20, fresh mah-mahi sandwiches for $7 and a nightly special of chicken or steak fajitas for $5. Add a side order of tostones and you have a very satisfying meal.

One of my visits there coincided with the Cuba vs. Puerto Rico baseball game of the World Baseball Classic.

Although I'm not a baseball fan, I got caught up in the excitement of the crowd watching the game on TV at the bar and found myself out of place rooting for the team of my home country of Cuba. As one of the Cuban players hit a home run, I hollered loudly and got some menacing stares. No beer bottles were thrown, though.

Catching waves

Near the town of Isabela are the surf spots Jobos and Middles. The take-off zone at Playa Jobos is right next to the huge lava rock formation, and after a steep drop, it offers a speedy, long ride.

Coincidentally, after the wave has spent most of its energy, the wave rolls into a semiprotected cove with a sand bottom, which is the ideal training spot for the many young local kids who are just starting to surf.

Further west are Surfer's Beach and Wilderness, spots that can hold size and provide long rides. When the swell gets too big for these spots, a drive to Wishing Well, Crashboat or Gas Chamber is in order. Further west, the town of Rincon has the reef breaks of Domes, Maria's and Dogman's.

An added bonus to surfing the Rincon area is the chance of seeing endangered humpback whales. The winter months are the prime time to watch the largest mammals. They travel thousands of miles from the cold waters off the U.S., Canada, Greenland and Norway to the warmer waters of the Caribbean to mate and give birth.

The area of Isabela, Aguadilla and Rincon on the northwest corner of the island is so jam-packed with things to do on land and sea, you could exhaust yourself before you exhaust the possibilities.

It's a good thing it also is a relaxing, off-the-beaten-path destination, because after a long day of playing and sightseeing, you'll need a restorative meal and a cozy place to lay your head.

For the days when the waves are too small (it happens), there's snorkeling at Playa Jobos in Isabela and at Blue Hole in Shacks Beach or a short drive to the caves at Camuy.

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