When I was a kid, we went to Puerto Rico every year. My mom's parents still lived there, high in the western mountains on the outskirts of a tiny town called Lares. We'd spend long weeks tucked away in the jungly forest there, in an old house on stilts that overlooked what was once my family's coffee and fruit farm. The days were steamy and slow, with not much more to do except take long strolls through the mango groves or watch the sky change on the wide front porch. It was there, in that remote, buggy place we lovingly called "the campo" that I first felt the strong call of the tropics in my veins; its languid pace and viney hush tugging at my heart like a magnet pulling me home.
I'm not sure why I eventually stopped visiting Puerto Rico, but around the time I graduated from high school, my yearly trips back had become sporadic at best. Just a few frenzied jaunts to see family here and there. Maybe as an escape-craving teenager, and later as a career-focused grad, the place just felt too familiar, too small, or too much like somewhere my parents used to go. The island's later fall into debt — along with the disconcerting whispers of poverty and danger that floated back to the States from bitter relatives left behind — didn't help.
So it was that over a decade passed until I finally returned — and then it was only because of the island's proximity to New York and the promise of good waves and Thomas' bewilderment that he hadn't yet seen this place that was once such a big part of my life. We went in February, at the very tail end of the surf season, and my mother's warnings of muggings and dilapidation and chaos rang in my ears as we packed. "Don't expect too much," I told Thomas. "It's nice but it's really not that great."
Except, wow, what a dumb thing to say. If ever I've regretted being negative about something it's about that. Because listen: Puerto Rico is more than great. It is a gem. It is a wonderland. And it is as under-rated as they come. When our plane began its descent into San Juan and I saw Thomas' eyes widen at the sight of El Yunque rising majestically in the distance and the sparkling water of the Caribbean flinging itself like a storm onto the walls of the city's fabled Colonial fort, the mist that had clouded my mind lifted almost as fiercely as it'd once hung around.
In its place was that familiar, magnetic pull. The pull that comes from a youth filled with sunburnt afternoons on gold-flecked beaches and evenings watching my abuelo roast coffee over an open in the backyard; from the sounds of my mother speaking Spanish with her aunt at the kitchen table and the sharp smell of cilantro growing in my abuela's garden and the orchestra of a million coquis chirping as I slept beneath the gauzy shroud of a pink mosquito net. I'm ashamed that — much in the same way that the island's been poisoned with bad policy and debt — I somehow let its magic slip from my hold for so long. Because for every bad thing you may hear about Puerto Rico, there are a million and one beautiful things about the place you may never know.
That is, of course, unless you take the time to actually go.