Image: La Puerta de San Juan
Ty Sawyer
Nightfall just outside La Puerta de San Juan.
updated 12/5/2007 4:24:51 PM ET 2007-12-05T21:24:51

When I hear the hotel concierge mention something about a lobster that likes night swimming, I stop her immediately. “Perdón, perdón, más despacio, por favor.”

She smiles then gives me directions to a seafood restaurant she recommends — this time in English — and I scold myself for even trying to ask a question in Spanish. I’ve just landed in Puerto Rico and have ridden by taxi through jungles and along rugged coastline to the west end — more specifically to the Copamarina Resort in Guanica.

Almost all Puerto Ricans speak English — it is a territory of the United States — so I’m not sure why I feel the need to practice a language I haven’t spoken since college. I guess it’s because most Puerto Ricans speak Spanish to each other — heatedly and almost impossibly fast — about what I assume must be all the local secrets and news worth knowing.

Later that night as I dig into ceviche with a spicy tomato sauce base, I start to wonder if there’s something behind all the fast talking. Is there so much happening at once in Puerto Rico that if you don’t fire off your words quickly you might miss out on something great?

Expedition to Mona
It’s the next morning and I’ve been perched in silence on the fly deck of Adventure Tour-marine’s boat for three hours, waiting for a shape to appear on the rippled horizon.

“There, do you see it?” asks Alberto Martí, our guide from PADI Five-Star IDC Scuba Dogs dive shop in Guayanabo.

“I think so,” I say, squinting to decipher if the white smudge is a series of breaking waves or a landmass.

Ten minutes later, I can clearly make out the white cliffs. As we motor closer, shades of green fill in the background until Mona Island emerges from legend and becomes real.

I’d first heard of Mona years ago when I lived on St. Croix working as a dive instructor. When talk turned to diving — as it often does in dive towns — visitors who’d been there would get a far-off look in their eyes. “Ah, Mona,” they’d say, as if recalling a former lover. Then they’d tell me more about this “Galápagos of the Caribbean.” Separated from Puerto Rico by a 67-mile swim, Mona’s fauna flourished independent of outside influence. Now, the limestone cliffs fence in monkeys, giant iguanas and birds found nowhere else.

We jump in for a drift dive at Carbinero — a wall steep enough to hold its own against its more famous cousins in the Caribbean, like Bloody Bay Wall. A slight current leans on us, allowing us to forgo that nuisance called kicking and concentrate both on the smaller creatures inhabiting the wall and on the depths from which pelagics might appear.

Slideshow: A Mermaid’s Playground We see two hawksbill turtles in the 150 feet of visibility, and only after we hit the one-hour mark does the current take a decidedly different turn as we enter slightly stirred-up water. We’re certainly not complaining as we start our ascent.

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As we rest aboard the boat during our surface interval, Alberto tells us another reason people visit Mona: to hunt pigs and goats. At first I balk, exclaiming that the wildlife should be left alone, but Alberto explains that the goats destroy the iguanas’ nests and the pigs love to eat sea turtle eggs.

I think about this for a minute. “Hunting season starts in December, you say?”

Before I get too engrossed imagining a Charlton Heston-style vacation, we pull anchor and head to Captain’s Point for another drift dive. Overhead, the sky is full of birds and bats that spill out of the caves in the limestone cliffs each time a large wave breaks at full speed against the landmass.

Once we arrive at Captain’s Point, I jump in and free-fall to 90 feet. Again, visibility stretches beyond 150 feet, allowing us all to monitor each other and see who is spotting the best critters. When several divers hover together tightly, I swim over to see what they have discovered — a yellow stingray. I investigate farther under ledges and find lobsters and crabs large enough to suggest that few — if any — human hunters or fishermen swim these waters. 

Looking up, I catch only a glimpse of Alberto’s fins as he disappears behind a fold in the limestone curtain. I follow as he swims to shallower but more unpredictable water — just yards beneath where the waves break. He lets the swell carry him into a cavern, and I’m right behind him.

My movements are carefully timed to avoid careening into the walls as I enter another sunlight-drenched cavern, awe-striking in its size. I tremble as the sound of the waves crashing into the island echoes through my body. I chase Alberto from cavern to cavern, each time exiting when the surge catapults us into open water.

That night on the phone with a friend, I try to describe the day’s dives and how incredible Mona Island is. The words come tumbling out of my mouth as I try to explain — that this island in the middle of nowhere is teeming with life. I barely pause for air.

Midnight ritual
When I hear about the Festival of San Juan — an annual ritual on June 23 in which believers attempt to cleanse a year of sins by jumping into the sea 12 times, starting precisely at midnight — I’m immediately intrigued by this display of others’ faith, perhaps because I have so little of my own. But sins or not, I want in.

Minutes before midnight, revelers of all ages gather on the shoreline at Copamarina Resort, laughing, shouting and cheering. Before I know it someone grabs my hand and pulls me a few yards out into the moonlit water. We plunge in then race out to do it again. I realize I’m having trouble keeping up because rather than focusing on my own scramble through the water, I can’t help watching the faces of those around me: They look so happy and free — and their energy is infectious. Amid the frenzy, the voice of an older woman booms into the night, laughing and calling out our dip count.

After the magical 12th dunk, all freshly anointed and pardoned of a year’s misdeeds, we linger in the moonlight, basking in the pure glow of this clean-slate state. Then it’s back to the Copamarina’s bar. We can’t race each other fast enough to enjoy another round of mojitos and to uncover what else the night may hold.

Las Pesotas
The next morning, shouting is coming from the dive boat and I frantically scan the horizon to find what the fuss is about when three dolphins shoot out of the water. Thinking their presence must be an omen that the diving around Desecheo won’t disappoint, I laugh, wondering if some last night’s faithful fervor might have rubbed off on me.

Like Mona, Desecheo is uninhabited, unless you count the goats, lizards and rhesus monkeys biding their time among the shrubs and cacti. It’s much smaller than Mona —only a little more than half a square mile. It’s also much closer to Puerto Rico’s mainland — the boat ride takes less than an hour.

At Yellow Reef, a site protected by a curled finger of rock outcrop, I peer down at the sponges so brightly visible that they look like lift bags. Guessing we’re in only 60 feet of water, I notice my depth gauge reads 85.

Our dive group explores the site and finds that although it’s lovely — visibility stretching to 120 feet — it doesn’t leave us breathless. Back aboard the boat we nibble sandwiches as Captain Elick tells us about the monkeys. Apparently, they don’t take to kindly to strangers and have been known to pelt visitors with stones. Before I can test that lore, we’re nitrogen-greenlighted and Captain Elick asks where we want to go. One of the guests requests that we head to Pesotas, which is Spanish for nipples. The rocky site is named after the pinnacles that jut from the water.

As we motor closer, white streaks of water bend against rock before scattering like broken glass — each wave is like a bottle of champagne christening the rocks.

I jump in after Alberto and chase him as he swims in the wake of an eagle ray. Not surprisingly, we’ve lost the group by the time we navigate yet another swim-through, this one leading to a cavern. For the first time this trip, I shiver. Swirls of cold water — each bringing a burst of increased clarity — tell me that within the cavern lies a freshwater upwelling. We peer into the cavern’s recesses for a moment before deciding to return to the 80-degree water to keep exploring.

We find ourselves swimming against a current. We’re circumnavigating the island via a submerged plateau that rings the island like the second tier of a wedding cake. Below us the bottom plummets, and the current charges up from the depths where just out of sight any number of pelagics might be swimming.

Slideshow: Picturesque Puerto Rico (on this page) We duck behind rocks to catch our breath, and I welcome the respite — a chance to pause. The pace slows, and I watch the ocean triggerfish above. A school of black durgeon circles closer to the island. I steal glimpses of the surface and the sergeant majors that can’t seem to — or don’t want to — escape the strong-armed pull of the breaking waves. As I watch them give in and let the current carry them where it may, I’m inspired to let go myself and see what comes next.

It’s another adrenaline surge as we’re carried by the current before deciding to power again into the melee, then steer ourselves into another bend in the spur-and-groove formation of the island. We find several sheltered areas, one hiding a napping nurse shark, another a green turtle and its baby, while the third exposes a school of horse-eye jacks — all seemingly oblivious to us. If we want to find our own spot, we’ll have to keep following the dramatic terrain.

This is the dive I’ve come to Puerto Rico for. I can’t stop spinning around to take it all in. I want to cement these images in my mind. I want to slow it all down so I can experience more of the thrill, but then again, at any other speed, it wouldn’t be Puerto Rico.

The party continues
I try to picture the nuns who padded across the corridors of El Convento before it was converted from a nunnery intro a five-star boutique hotel. I get as far as imagining a doe-eyed Julie Andrews singing with her arms outstretched before concluding that other than the colonical architecture — including the stalwart two-story wooden doors at the entrance —which might be a bit austere, the mood is nothing but romantic.

In the center courtyard, vines and other greenery frame the potted palm trees from which strand upon strand of twinkling lights hang, creating a magical glow.

As the bellhop escorts me to my room, he tells me that Jennifer Lopez and Antonio Banderas have both patronized the hotel, but when I ask about any artists in residence, he shakes his head. I’m surprised because the hotel has such good energy and personality. When he closes the door behind him, I feel that this is still a place of sanctuary: Outside, locals buy shaved ice from plaza vendors, and tourists mill in and out of the shops looking for hammocks, sun hats and sundries before making their way to attractions like El Morro Fort just a few blocks away. But within these walls, there’s only silence. I resolve that if I write a novel, I’ll do it here, then I slip down to the manager’s cocktail hour for cheese and a glass of wine.

Later that night I meet up with David Martinez, a dive instructor I met earlier in the week. We’re sitting atop bar stools inside El Batey, a dimly lit hole-in-the-wall bar with concrete walls and a ceiling covered in the passionate graffiti scribbles of youth. We’re sitting close to the door so we can watch the steady streams of tourists and locals that float in and out of the bar with the breeze. In the back, the jukebox hums with a mix of tunes seemingly at odds — the Ramones and the Cure alongside Tom Waits and Ella Fitzgerald — but linked by a common denominator: All the voices overflow with passion.

I buy time and another round of the bar’s namesake drink — a mix of coconut rum, light rum and pineapple juice — and ask him what he wants to talk about.

“Digame tu parte favorita de Puerto Rico,” he says, sipping his drink.

I wonder where to start and find myself describing everything all at once — el buceo de Desecheo que está loco (the diving at Desecheo that’s crazy), los monos (the monkeys) y corriendo en el mar a medianoche (running into the ocean at midnight). The week’s activities parade through my mind, and I  realize I’ve barely slept during my time here.

Then another breeze perfumed by the flowers hanging from the residential balconies wafts in, and with it comes another group of tourists — their skin not yet sunburned, so we know they’ve just arrived.

“Welcome to Puerto Rico,” David says, raising his glass. “Tell me, where are you from?”

They rattle off their hometowns, the destinations of their cruises, the schools they’re on holiday from and what they hope to see in Puerto Rico. When they ask me what our plans for the evening are, I think of the Nuyorican Café with live music and all the restaurants, like the Parrot Club and Dragonfly, clustered on South Fortaleza Street in an area dubbed SoFo.

“I don’t know,” I say. “The night is full of possibility.”

© 2012 World Publications, LLC

Photos: Picturesque Puerto Rico

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  1. Eye on the word

    The Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in San Juan is a 16th century citadel. It was designed to keep seaborne enemies of out San Juan (thus the gun turret pictured). In 1983, the United Nations declared "El Morro" a World Heritage site. Today, it is Puerto Rico's best known fortress, with more than two million visitors a year. (Francisco Turnes / Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Hidden beauty

    Isabela is a coastal city in Puerto Rico whose main industries include tourism due to it's classic and secluded surfing beaches, panoramic views, rainforest, rivers, caves archaeological sites and more. (ervphotos / Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A beacon of the times

    The Punta Higuero Lighthouse in Ricon, situated on POint Juguero, was built in 1892 by the Spanish and rebuilt in 1922 by the U.S. Coast Guard after a 1918 tsunami hit the coast of Puerto Rico that also damaged the structure. The lighthouse still works and employs an unmanned 26,000-candlepower rotatintg beacon. The beaches around the Punta Higuero Lighthouse are also popular surfing destinations, and visitors converge in the area to see the annual migration of humpback whales. (fotoamateur / Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Buried in history

    The Cementerio de San Juan (San Juan Cemetery), located between El Morro and the cliffs above the Atlantic of Old San Juan, is known for being one of the most picturesque burial grounds. The cemetery is also noted for its elaborate tombstones and the neoclassical chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene, which dates to the 19th century. Many of Puerto Rico's earliest colonists are buried here. (tank bmb / Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Staying afloat

    Tourism is a big component of Puerto Rico's economy, and supplies about $1.8 billion annually, with millions of visitors visiting the island. It is estimated that about a third of the tourists come on cruise ships. (Ritu / Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Traveling back in time

    A church stands on the grounds of La Fortaleza in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The old city is a historic district of seven square blocks made up of ancient buildings and colonial homes, massive stone walls and vast fortifications, sunny parks and cobblestoned streets. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Withstanding time

    Old San Juan in Puerto Rico is the oldest settlement within the territory of the U.S., and spans just seven square blocks. Here, the La Fortaleza (the governor's mansion), a part of the old city wall and a gate are pictured. (tank bmb / Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Historical colors

    Colorful homes line the cobblestoned streets in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Popular pastime

    Locals often gather at the many plazas of Old San Juan to chat and play dominoes. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Room with a view

    In Old San Juan, one of the oldest cities in the Americas, embellished balcony doors, such as the one pictured, are not unusual in the city that dates back to 1521. Most buildings are more than 150 years old and are evidence of the Spanish architectural heritage. (capricornis / Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Natural beauty

    The El Yunque National Forest is the sole rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System, according to the park's Web site, and is relatively small at 28,000 acres. It features a year-round tropical climate and immense biodiversity. About 600,000 tourists each year enjoy all that the forest has to offer, including wildlife, waterfalls, hiking and camping opportunities, and more. (ervphotos / Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Guiding light

    A 19th century lighthouse -- called the Los Morrillos -- sits atop a towering cliff that overlooks the waters of Cabo Rojo, located at the southwestern tip of Puerto Rico. The cliffs around the lighthouse drop more than 200 feet into the ocean. The lighthouse was originally built in 1882 to guide ships from the Caribbean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Today, the lighthouse is completely automated, and a renovation cleared the interior of everything of historical significance. (ervphotos / Back to slideshow navigation
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