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Island life, Puerto Rico-style

A former Observer reporter divulges where to get bargains and see great beaches.

John Bordsen

Former Charlotte Observer staff writer Danica Coto has covered the Caribbean as an Associated Press reporter in Puerto Rico for the past year. Coto, 30, is originally from Costa Rica.

Q. Where do you live, and what's it like?

I live in Condado, about five minutes east of old San Juan. It's a suburb of San Juan and one of the most popular places for tourists to stay. People associate Condado with restaurants and boutiques, and the ocean's right in front.

Q. How far do you actually live from the coast?

Right there. A minute walk.

Q. That must cost an arm and a leg.

It depends. It took me about three weeks to find the studio apartment I now rent. You can also find an apartment above a Gucci store that goes for $2 million. Not my price range.

Condado is mostly tourists with some Puerto Ricans as well. It's known for attracting wealthy Americans: There are lots of hotels here.

It feels like Puerto Rico nonetheless. I love my neighborhood because we get a new influx of people every week.

But on weekends, I prefer to go to Pinones (“pin-YO-nayz”), a neighborhood about 10 minutes east of here. It's where you find the best street food in Puerto Rico.

Pinones is known as a predominantly African American community. It hugs the coastline and there's a boardwalk about 20 miles long. You can go walking or biking there.

And the music is cranked up with bachata and salsa. You'll find people dancing at 1 in the afternoon in the clubs at Pinones. The clubs are open-sided beach clubs that face the ocean. The scene is very different from Condado. A lot of low-income people live in Pinones. It's a great place with a lot of warmth and energy.

Q. Where's a good place to eat in Pinones?

El Pulpo Loco – “The Crazy Octopus.” They obviously have octopus, but also other seafood. And Comida criolla – the local food. That includes a great deal of pork, and mofongo, one of the most popular dishes. When I moved here, I ate mofongo for six months straight. It's a delicious concoction of dough made with mashed-up plantains; it's formed into a little bowl and fried with pork grease and bacon bits; you can ask for the “bowl” to be filled with fish, chicken or other meat; then it's drenched in sauce. In Pinones, the cost is maybe $5 to $7.

Q. You mentioned bachata. What does that sound like?

It's hard to describe, and I can't dance it. It has a particular rhythm and is something they dance a lot in Colombia. It's like salsa with a twist. On the off-beat, you have to lift your hip, kind of. Reggaeton is also popular here.

Q. You speak Spanish fluently – but the variety from Central America. Is your accent noticed in Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico?

All the time. It's automatic. I can't get five words out without hearing “Where are you from?” In Puerto Rico, whenever you have an “r” between vowels, it's pronounced as an “l”. Here, the word for “green” – “verde” – is pronounced “velde.” That's not how Spanish is spoken in Costa Rica, for the most part. I think the Puerto Rican accent is similar to what you hear in Colombia, but it's hard to put a finger on.

Puerto Rico is not very diverse; it's primarily Puerto Ricans and tourists… with a lot of Cubans and Dominicans. The people from the Dominican Republic, unfortunately, are viewed by locals the way Mexicans are viewed in the United States. It's an uneasy relationship. Many Dominicans come here looking for jobs. The majority are working class.

The majority of people here speak Spanish, but in tourist places outside San Juan, you'll find people who speak English. And outside San Juan is where you'll find the real Puerto Rico.

Q. Outside San Juan: Where to go?

I like to take people to Guajataca (“gwa-ha-TAH-ka”), a beach on the north coast, about an hour and a half west of San Juan. It's one of the first beaches you see when coming down a hill – an amazing view. The coastline and water are absolutely beautiful; many people surf there.

And in the southwest corner of Puerto Rico is a place called Cabo Rojo that has spectacular views. It's a different kind of environment – rugged, with lots of cliffs and darker water. It's wonderful.

It's possible to drive around the entire island in one day. I did that with my dad. I recommend going west, dropping south, then coming back east.

On the way back, halfway through San Juan, is a place called Guavate (“gwa-VAH-tay”) where this narrow road crawls up a hill and you see smoke rising from all these barbecue pits. You see the pigs roasting there; they ask what part of the pig you want.

Dad and I got a pound of pork with a side of yucca and plantains, plus two soft drinks. It came to $5 and was delicious.

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