A first look at the Porta del Sol.
ISABELA, Puerto Rico- If you could ever call a town idyllic, it would be Isabela. Paint a picture of a small Latin American town and your rendering will more than likely look just like it. There is a town square surrounded by old stone administrative buildings, a church, restaurants, and a mural of the Puerto Rican flag.
I ventured out to Puerto Rico’s Porta del Sol — the western portion of the island that is a mix of picturesque little towns and beaches (mostly beaches!) — and arrived in Isabela on a Sunday afternoon. The place was basically a ghost town. The streets were gauntlets of steel-shuttered shops, hardly anyone could be found anywhere, and the place was about as quiet as places get.
I rented a temp apartment on the outskirts of town — in the literal countryside, actually (there’s cows 50 meters from where I’m writing this) — and walked the 30 minutes to the town’s center. There is no better way to get a feel for a place than walk across it, and I was just impression-seeking on this day — no plan, no destination, just walking around to see what happens. But the people were all gone, inside … or somewhere else. But I knew that this was Sunday in Latin American and everybody was probably out getting drunk somewhere. I just had to find them.
I walked through town and down the hill that leads to the coast. I noticed this little pocket of houses over the edge of a small cliff when I drove out to that paradoxically pristine beach earlier in the day. Also, there’s a general principal in travel: when in doubt, go to a beach. As I got closer it became apparent that I was on the right path. A dune buggy full of reveling 20-somethings drove past me up the hill and I noticed cars full of people going in my direction. At the point where the main street broke off into a branch that winded down to the beach was a mojito bar that was packed with young people drinking sugar / alcohol drinks out of big gulp sized disposable plastic cups. I stood there for a moment debating on whether I wanted one. I liked the idea of sautering down to the beach in the warm late afternoon sun with drink in hand, but the vileness of the stuff won out. I couldn’t do it.
But it was clear that I wouldn’t be sans-drink for long. As I continued walking I could see down below in the near distance a strip of what appeared to be small outdoor bars that had a mass of people streaming around them. I found em. I walked up to one of the bars, which were more or less ten foot square toll booths, and ordered a Medalla.
Behind the row of booze kiosks was a small, concrete paved square that around two dozen mostly older people were dancing on. There was a DJ in the corner playing a mix of traditional songs and modern Latin hits. The people danced in the typical way that they do here — just kind of bobbing along as if floating in a gentle surf. But it was clear that most of the people out there were more than a little drunk. Around a hundred or so other people were standing around the square watching, eating from big platters of food, and drinking. I had found the beating heart of Isabela’s Sunday.
Book your room in the Porta del Sol now
I watched from the sidelines for a while sipping my Medalla and then wandered around the square to the seafood restaurant that was on the other side. I looked at the price list. It was what you’d expect to pay in a hipster area of New York City: $20 – $30 entrees. I decided to just stick with my beer and beef jerky.
There’s really not any tourists here and I began getting the feeling of being a gawker. I wasn’t in much of a talkative mood and it was high time to connect with someone or split, so I walked over the the beach and began strolling towards the sunset. I saw an iPhone sitting in the sand literally an inch from the rising tide. I rescued it and looked to find the owner. A lady came rushing over and thanked me. What a hero.
I walked to the edge of the beach and sat on an old concrete embankment and just drank my beer as I watch the sunset. Medella is a funny beer. It starts out really good and then gets worse and worse the farther you move down the bottle. By the top you’re at the bottom it tastes … actually, I have no idea because I always end up dumping them out before getting there.
Eventually, I had my fill of sunset and walked back to town. I saw a packed tienda bar and went in and ordered a Corona. I like these little bars in Puerto Rico. They’re both tiendas selling plungers and laundry detergent and full fledged bars selling beer and tequila shots. There’s always people in them, and it’s easy to assume that they’re there everyday, just hanging out, exchanging news, hearing gossip. Places like these are the engines of culture.
I believe these community hangouts used to be ubiquitous in almost every culture in some form or another — whether in a bar, cafe, restaurant, bust station, or farm supply depot — but now seem to be something the world is getting weary off. I really don’t see the younger generations just sitting around all day drinking and talking with their neighbors when they get older. Everybody leaves the village now.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
May 13, 2023, 10:27 am
Interesting take on Puerto Rico. Looks boring as hell. Are you going to be making any video and what gear did you take with you? Looks too tame for your blood. Though you did state that this was more of a mission to see if you still wanted to travel like the old days. Something about eating at Denny’s and car rentals felt wrong man. The walk slow mantra was sacrificed on the alter. I had high hopes you would be in prison by now or at least in the hospital. Thanks for a peak at life in Puerto Rico! Enjoying watching you get your travel stride back!