Puerto Rico offers some stark contrasts in its 3485 square miles: between beach and rainforest, extreme poverty and extreme wealth, the teeming city of San Juan and the miles of backcountry.
But the most interesting is the tension between its wholehearted Americanism and its Latin American feel. The structures and colors of the buildings, the signage, the foods could lead a visitor to believe she was on Mexico’s east coast, but the prevalence of K-Marts, Wal-Marts, Pizza Huts and McDonalds gives a whole different impression. Even the measurements different: the coastal regions’ highways show speeds and distances in miles, while the inland roads show kilometers.
A trip to El Yunque, the highest point on the island, was edifying. Where I was staying (more about that in a future post) is on the coast; Google Maps suggested a way through the center of the island to the rainforest that contains El Yunque and is also a national park, rather than a trip on the main highway.
The drive took our minivan up a winding road filled with tumbledown shacks and chickens crossing (yes, you know why), along with the occasional McMansion under construction, all with spectacular views into a deep green valley. And then the road ended 8 km from our destination; it turned out there had been a severe recent landslide.
Having no option, we turned back down the mountain, and as I watched men by the sides of the road cutting back the encroaching greenery with machetes and the ccasional power trimmer, it occurred to me that untamed, the jungle would overtake everything - shades of The World Without Us.
To get to the park's other entrance, we used the main coastal highway, which featured a strip of big-box stores that spread as far as the eye could see. Residential towers that resembled prison blocks looked down on it from hills above. It looked like a nightmare of consumerism, but I suppose many consider it progress beyond the jungle.
El Yunque was spectacular, with fascinating flora (leaves five feet wide) and fauna (snails five inches wide), and a verdant, vertigo-inducing view from the top. But guess what? The most immediately visible next peak is crowned by an enormous cell and communications tower.
Perhaps the owner of the home below on the mountain road was trying to adorn its structure in a similar way with the carefully protected rusted-out car frame on its roof. One obvious question is how it even got up there in the first place. Maybe, like the opera house in Fitzcarraldo, it was brought up through the jungle piece by piece.