Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What to do in Isabela, Puerto Rico

Isabella is not a tourist town. People don't fly down from their cold, damp houses in the north to lounge about in Isabella on Jobos beach...but maybe they should. It was in Isabella, where we stopped on our way to Maravilla B&B that we had the warmest reception of our trip (of which everyone was incredibly friendly) and saw some things we really hadn't even expected to find.

The main plaza, that displays the Rodin-esque sculpture pictured above, is a tiny blip in the sprawling town of closely packed orange and pink houses The narrow streets seem to wind on forever past porched houses with tropical bloom gardens and then suddenly you are dumped out into the main square. We backed our tiny rental car into a questionable spot on the corner of a street musing about whether or not Puerto Rico tickets as heavily as back home but decided to chance it and find some lunch.

We hustled into the first sandwich shop that looked like it could accommodate a vegan. Orange booths lined the restaurant and the boards hanging above the grill displayed a confusing mixture of English and Spanish words. We stood in front of the counter and stared at the menu, poorly translating among ourselves until the woman next to me kindly stepped in. She was a Puerto Rican woman who had lived in New York for over 20 years until she decided to come back to her home town. After she helped us order our lunch she asked, "So what do you plan to do in Isabela?"

If the stares and looks of surprise as we drove into town hadn't been enough to give away the fact that tourists were not a common occurrence (at least not in October anyhow)her question pretty much said it all. "What is there to do?" Was the question I replied with. Luckily, in a town as small as Isabela, everyone knows everyone.

"Go a few doors down to the tourism office and ask for Miguel. He can take you wherever you want to go." So we did. And we were showered with gifts, like a tiny pin of Isabela's shield which features the cactus, their town symbol and and charming if amusing photograph of the mayor with his grandchildren. He introduced us to everyone in the office and took us on a little office tour to see the photographs of Isabela's most beautiful sites.

Miguel, who insisted we call him Mike, had lived in New Jersey for a large chunk of his life, but he too had chosen to come back to his home town. Bright and boisterous and ever so excited to have tourists to entertain,
he gave us his phone number to call him the next day so that he could take us to see the Blowhole on Jobos Beach.

The next day we made plan to meet up with Mike but first we wanted to see the old train tunnel outside of town. Tunel de Guajataca used to connect the towns of Isabela and Quebradillas in the early 1900s but recently it has been named a historic site and leads to Guajataca beach. Guajataca means water ladle in Taino, the native language, and this beach is praised for its white sands but is also a dangerous beach with sharp rocks and high waves.

This giant sculpted head sits down the road from the tunnel and is a representation of Mabodamaca. Cacique Mabodamaca was the chief of the Taino people and when the Spanish invaded Puerto Rico he defended his people and his land. There are several legends about how he died. The one that I find most romantic is that he fell off a cliff in battle and the golden pendent he wore, called a guani, that signified him as the chief, fell into the ocean with him, never to be seen again.

After visiting the beach and trying to photograph the crabs sunning themselves, who were all too wary of me and scuttled away as soon as I crouched down, we drove back to Isabela to meet Mike. Mom had called him the day before to make plans to meet in the square and get a tour of the town and a trip to the blowhole. "How much?" Mom asked on the phone to which Mike loudly replied "Oh no! no! It doesn't cost anything. This is my job, it's my pleasure." Definitely not a tourist town.

On the first day in Isabela we had noticed these Charlie signs on lots of houses and so we asked Mike about them. "They're election posters," he explained. "Charlie is a good friend of mine, and he's running for Mayor. A local artist made those signs and sells them around town." When we asked if he thought Charlie would win he just smiled and said one could never be sure.

He drove us all around Isabela, to the beach and to the little resort communityVilla Montana that had been built recently for tourists. He made us promise that if we came back to Puerto Rico we would stay in Isabela for part of our trip.

And then the grand finale, he took us to Jobos Beach and El Pozo de Jacinto. The story of the Blowhole of Jacinto is as follows: There was a little boy named Jacinto who lived in Isabela with his mother. Every day it was his job to take their cow out to feed on grass. One day there was a terrible storm with wind and rain and lightning and Jacinto said "I'm afraid to go outside today. I don't want to take the cow out in the storm." But his mother insisted and so Jacinto went. He was walking with the cow on the coast near the ocean when a sudden bolt of lightning and clap of thunder burst through the air and he and the cow were so scared that they jumped and fell into the hole and were swallowed up by the ocean.

Now, when you visit the blowhole you have to yell "Jacinto, give me the cow!" and Jacinto gets angry and water rushes into the blowhole and shoots out the top, splashing the person who dares ask for his cow.

We had a really great day with Mike and I could see myself spending more time in Isabela, hanging out at Jobos beach and eating some tostones with a cocoloco in my hand. Nothing says Puerto Rico like fresh fruit juice, coconut milk and rum right? Although I'd probably go for the virgin variety myself and not taint all that sweet sweet papaya and pineapple juice!

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