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Discovering Puerto Rico's Paradores

June 19, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

JAYUYA, Puerto Rico — On the veranda of a 200-year-old planation home on what was once a coffee planation here on the island's central mountains, we sit with novelist James Michener and his wife Mari. The coffee we sip has the tangy, sweet flavor of the local beans.

Michener is here researching yet another book, "Caribbean," which will be published sometime before 1992, the year of the 500th anniversary of the voyage that brought Christopher Columbus into these Caribbean waters to discover a new yet very old world.

This old plantation home is one of the country inns known as paradores puertorriquenos , Puerto Rico's counterparts to the charming paradores of Spain. The mountain vistas from our balcony are part of a Puerto Rico that seems another world away from the island's beach resorts and the U.S. commonwealth's capital of San Juan.

Roads to the paradores puertorriquenos are often narrow and winding, through mountain ranges of tranquil and lush beauty, remote from main tourist destinations.

We are at Parador Hacienda Gripinas. Eusebio Perez del Castillo was the original plantation owner almost two centuries centuries before it became a parador . When his coffee reached Pope Leo III the Pope was so delighted that he proclaimed the wealthy owner a marquis. The plantation is gone, but the parador still grows plants for the coffee it serves to guests.

Restored Haciendas

The hacienda has been restored to a 19-room parador , complete with hardwood floors and ceiling fans that keep fresh mountain air stirring above cozy beds. A waterfall drops to the pool area as people walk on the paths above. A room for two is about $40.

The nearby town of Jayuya was the center of the pre-Hispanic Taino Indian culture. Just west, in the central mountains, Caguana Indian Ceremonial Park in Utuado preserves a site of native ritual and sport.

Close to Utuado, Casa Grande is the 16th country inn on the parador trail, following the rules set by Puerto Rico Tourism Co. in 1973 when the parador program was launched. Double rates are from $35 to $76.

As in Spain, criteria to be met by each parador include closeness to a historic site in a location of exceptional beauty. The new two-story Casa Grande has 20 rooms with balconies from which one sees the Central Cordillera valleys and steep mountainsides and a swimming pool. As at all paradores , the restaurant combines continental fare with Puerto Rican delicacies.

We had driven to Jayuya in a rental car from our Hyatt Dorado Beach resort on the north coast of the island, 22 miles west of San Juan. The route was along coastal Highway 2, then down mountain roads 149 and 146.

Every exploration along the trail of the paradores leads to memorable discoveries. We stopped to photograph mountain crests rising above canyons and valleys in mystical green waves.

The day before setting out to visit Parador Hacienda Gripinas we headed west along the many bays and beaches toward Parador Vistamar. This parador is high on a cliff overlooking a wide sandy beach in the region of the coastal towns of Arecibo, Camuy and Quebradillas.

The Arecibo Observatory is inland from the coast in a primeval karst forest of limestone mounds and areas hollowed like dry ponds and lakes. It has the world's largest radar-radio telescope, with a huge curved reflector that bounces a 2.5-million-watt beam out into the universe. Visiting hours are from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays.

Nearby, Rio Camuy Cave Park, open Wednesday through Sunday, has one of the world's largest underground rivers and one of the largest cave systems in the Western Hemisphere.

A short walk from Parador Vistamar is a railroad tunnel carved late in the 19th Century through a cliff for trains carrying sugar cane from Mayaguez and Ponce to San Juan. Parador amenities include 35 air-conditioned rooms, two swimming pools, a tennis court and a restaurant.

A drive on Highway 3 east from San Juan along the coast will take visitors to El Yunque Rain Forest, the only tropical forest in the U.S. national forest system. There, around the peaks of El Yunque and El Toro, each about 3,500 feet high, are more than 200 species of trees, only half a dozen of which grow in the continental United States. It is also a bird sanctuary. The Sierra Palm Visitors Center gives nature talks.

The rain forest is part of the paradores trail. Highway 3 leads on from the forest to Luguillo, one of the island's most popular beaches.

Martorell, the first parador opened on the island and close to the beach, is a little retreat with seven guest rooms. Tiny hummingbirds share the outdoor breakfast patio.

Along the back roads we kept hearing the name of Borinquen, the name given to the island by the Taino Indians. It is a name that always will be cherished by the Puerto Rican people, whether the island remains a commonwealth or becomes the 51st state.

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