A Drive Through Southeastern Puerto Rico

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Las Tetas De Cayey

Las Tetas De Cayey

Many readers have commented that Puerto Rico By GPS hardly has any coverage of the southeastern region of the Island.  Well, there’s a reason for that.  The are three major attractions that all tourists ask about when they arrive in Puerto Rico: the old city, the rainforest and the beaches.

The old city —of course— is Old San Juan, a Spanish colonial city established in 1521 that is the second oldest continuously inhabited town in the Western Hemisphere and a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well.  This is the one place in Puerto Rico that almost 100% of our visitors get to see because the Island’s main airport is only a few miles away and all the cruise ships dock at San Juan Bay.

El Yunque National Rainforest is only about 25 miles to the east of the San Juan Metroplex and most tourists buy a day excursion to visit this one-of-a-kind area.

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Then there’s the beaches.  What can I say about the beaches?  Well let’s just say that I wrote a book about Puerto Rico’s beaches that covers 20 of the most gorgeous places in the world.  And I only scratched the surface!!!

So why is it that Puerto Rico By GPS doesn’t have much information about the southeastern coast of the Island?  Simple!  The southeast has stunning vistas and great restaurants, but great beaches is the one thing that it doesn’t have.  Most shorelines are rocky and full of riptides, all of which makes them downright dangerous.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t explore the southeast.  It just means that if beaches are your thing then you’ll find better options elsewhere on the Island.

But what happens if you are a photographer like me, or if you absolutely, positively love seafood?  Then you’re in for a treat because the southeast is peppered with some of the greatest seafood restaurants on the Island and the photo opportunities are stunning.

Last Tuesday I decided to put an end to the lack of coverage about the southeast in Puerto Rico By GPS.  So I hopped on my SUV and hit the road with my wife Zoraida.

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The best way to explore the southeast is to take road PR-52 in San Juan, drive all the way to Ponce on the south coast and then drive east on PR-3 along the coastline until you reach the town of Humacao.  From there you can connect with PR-30, drive to the town of Caguas and take PR-52 back to San Juan.

This trip was going to be a long one, so we left at around 8:00am and we were back home at around 8:00pm.

Monumento al Jíbaro.

Monumento al Jíbaro. Click on image to see it larger.

Our first stop was at kilometer marker “49.0” at the “Monumento Al Jíbaro Puertorriqueño” (Monument to the Puerto Rican Country Worker) (18.07106,-66.218312).  This monument was sculpted by Tomás Batista and unveiled in 1976. It’s also an excellent vantage point to see “Las Tetas de Cayey”, a couple of granite mountain peaks that are actually in the municipality of Salinas.  These peaks have an elevation of 2,762 feet above sea level and there name comes from the Spanish colloquial term for “breasts”.  I guess you could say that they are the most photographed breasts in Puerto Rico.

From there it would have been road, road and more road until we reached the town of Ponce, but since that was the very first place that I visited when we kicked off Puerto Rico By GPS, and the experience was rather bittersweet (read the article here), we decided to take exit 65 towards Campamento Santiago and take road PR-1 south towards the municipality of Salinas.  From there we took road PR-3 eastbound along the entire southeastern coast until we reached the town of Humacao.

Cococnut on the shore. Click on image to see it larger.

Click on image to see it larger.

The town of Salinas is famous among the locals for its seafood cuisine.  If you are into urban photography (which I am not) you can make excellent images around the town’s main square.  In my case I was on a mission to capture seascape images for a project that I am presently involved in for the federal government.

Oh, and if drag racing is your thing, the Salinas Speedway is an excellent place to spend a couple of hours watching the local “gearheads” burn some rubber under the hot Caribbean sun.

From Salinas we continued along PR-3 to the neighboring town of Guayama.  It was almost lunchtime so we stopped at a place called “La Casa de Los Pastelillos” (the house of the turnovers) (17.936356,-66.183156) where —as the name would suggest— you can get huge turnovers filled with almost anything you can imagine, including —of course— all kinds of seafood.

A stretch of coastline in Guayama right behind “La Casa De Los Pastelillos”

A stretch of coastline in Guayama right behind “La Casa De Los Pastelillos”. Click on image to see it larger.

Right behind the dining area there’s a stretch of coast that I wouldn’t be caught dead in.  But it makes for stunning photographs.  The shore is rocky, which almost always means lots and lots of sea urchins, and the tide is furious to say the least.

We returned to PR-3 and went a little further to the east until we reached road PR-7710.  This led us to the old Aguirre Sugar Mill. The sugar industry in Puerto Rico all but disappeared during the 60’s and 70’s but you can still see the many buildings that comprised an entire town known as the Aguirre Company Town during the 30’s and 40’s.

Aguirre had its own hospital, commissary, swimming pool, theater, hotel, golf club and post office.  But today most of its buildings are closed and have become living examples of urban decay.  In my humble opinion this is very shortsighted on behalf of the local government, as the entire area could be converted into a very interesting tourist attraction.

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From there we returned to PR-3 and headed east towards the town of Patillas.  We stopped several times along the way to make images of the shoreline, but —once again— none of these areas were suitable for swimming.

Punta Tuna Lighthouse.

Punta Tuna Lighthouse. Click on image to see it larger.

Eventually we reached the town of Maunabo where we visited, or rather photographed, the “Punta Tuna” Lighthouse (17.988256 -65.885203).  I had been meaning to add this image to my collection of the Island’s lighthouses.  However, when we got there the place was closed.  There was a sign on the gate that said that the lighthouse is open to the public Wednesdays thru Sundays.  And, of course, I went there on a Tuesday.

I was almost about to leave when I saw a couple men talking by the edge of the road.  I asked them if there was a vantage point nearby where I could make some images of the lighthouse.  They told me about a small trail to the left of the main gate that leads down to the shore.  So we returned to the lighthouse, parked our vehicle and walked down to the shore.

The view was OK but I had the sun in front and to my right; not the ideal position to make a good image.  However, I managed to hide behind the vegetation, used it as a frame, and came up with a pretty good image.

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On my way out I had an idea: why not find another vantage point west of the lighthouse from which I could shoot the lighthouse from the other side?  After trying several of the adjacent streets we ended up at the local fishing village (17.991227,-65.888781).  From there I could see a coastline in the distance that seemed to be the perfect place from which to take my shot. There was a group of locals talking by the pier and I asked them how to get there.  To my surprise, one of them was a retired gentleman from New Jersey who happened to make the small town of Maunabo his retirement paradise.  And, of course, everyone called him “el gringo”.

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Punta Tuna Lighthouse. Click on image to see it larger.

This man not only told me where to take my shot from, but he actually got in his car, told me to follow him, and took me straight to the spot (17.99099,-65.894553).  And, of course, the gorgeous shot that you see below was the one that I took from there.

From Maunabo we took PR-901, connected to PR-53 and eventually PR-191 to get to the south side of El Yunque National Rainforest.  I had heard that the other side of “El Yunque” was beautiful, but the fact is that the whole thing was disappointing.  The road is closed off at the very entrance (18.265204,-65.801089) and the only thing to see is a small aqueduct that no longer seems to be working.  Besides, I met a local man who told me that the area is ridden with thieves who watch as you walk away from your vehicle and steal your valuables, your radio or maybe even your whole car.

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So my advise is to save yourself the trouble and pass on the south side of “El Yunque”.

South side of El Yunque Rainforest.

South side of El Yunque Rainforest. Click on image to see it larger.

When we left the forest it was almost 4:30pm so we headed back to the San Juan Metroplex.  If you are going to be staying in San Juan, and you decide to visit the south side of “El Yunque” your best bet will be to make a right at PR-31 on your way out (there’s an old metal bridge there), follow it until you reach PR-30 and head west until you connect with PR-52.  From there go north until you reach the San Juan Metroplex.

All in all the trip was entertaining, there was plenty of stunning scenery to shoot, and if I had been looking for places to eat I would have had more than enough variety.  But now I understand why this area is not as popular as the rest of the Island: it has no beaches.  Of course, it has plenty of potential in other areas but local municipalities don’t seem to have the money, or the imagination, to develop that potential.  And it’s a sad thing because the area is just as beautiful as the rest of the Island.

Enjoy Puerto Rico,

©2015,Orlando Mergal, MA
____________________

Bilingual Content Creator, Blogger, Podcaster,
Author, Photographer and New Media Expert
Tel. 787-750-0000, Mobile 787-306-1590

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Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means that if you click on a link and purchase an item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services that I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Hacienda La Esperanza in Manatí, Puerto Rico

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La Casa Del Marquez, Hacienda La Esperanza, Manatí, Puerto Rico

La Casa Del Marquez, Hacienda La Esperanza, Manatí, Puerto Rico

Back in February of 2014 we visited “Las Cabezas de San Juan”, a 438 acre nature reserve run by the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust (Fideicomiso de Conservación de Puerto Rico).  This time my wife and I headed west towards the town of Manatí to visit Hacienda La Esperanza, a 2,220 acre property that was once a thriving sugar hacienda.

Hacienda La Esperanza is also run by the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust, and the experience this time was just as delightful.

Visitors must make reservations in advance.  No walk-ins are allowed.  I understand why they do this, but I also find it self serving in terms of customer service.  Furthermore, I find their website cumbersome and confusing.  If you don’t show up you’ll lose your money.  Entrance fees vary per tour.  We paid $12 per visitor plus a 7% tax.

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In any case, the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust’s URL is: https://reservaciones.paralanaturaleza.org/index.jsf and their telephone number is 787-722-5882.  You can also call the Hacienda directly at 787-854-2679 for more information and directions.

Other than these minor issues with their website the experience was a blast!!!

We were instructed to arrive at 1:00pm for a tour that was scheduled to start at 1:30pm.  We were also provided with releases that every visitor must sign before embarking on the tour.

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When you see this sign you’ll be almost there.
Click on image to see it larger.

Zoraida and I arrived exactly at 1:00pm.  A few minutes later our guide José arrived and introduced himself.  He was a young and pleasant man who proved to be quite knowledgeable throughout the tour.  The tour started at exactly 1:30pm with one guide and a party of six.

Hacienda La Esperanza is the largest property owned by the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust and, like its sister property in Fajardo, it is considered a natural reserve.  However, that’s where the similarities end.  Hacienda La Esperanza was one of Puerto Rico’s most important sugar haciendas during the 19th century.

The 19th century was peppered with economic ups and downs that had a direct effect on the Island’s social and economic realities.  In Europe, the Napoleonic Wars affected the movement of ships towards the colonies, which in turn had a negative effect on the movement of merchandize back to Europe.  This made it harder for the Spanish crown to collect taxes.

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In 1815 King Fernand the VII of Spain signed the Royal Decree of Grants (Real Cédula De Gracia) which allowed the Spanish colonies to trade with other European countries as well as with the United States.  This brought prosperity back to the colonies because it opened new markets; and —of course— it allowed the crown to collect its taxes.  It also allowed for the influx of tax-free machinery and tools which modernized production, increased efficiency and resulted in greater profits for the sugar barons of the time.

In Puerto Rico the 19th century was all about sugar and Hacienda La Esperanza was one of the places where it all happened.

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During the first decade of the 19th century a retired Spanish soldier by the name of Don Fernando Fernández arrived in Puerto Rico.  He became a slave trader and lived his first years on the Island in the city of San Juan.  However, the economic downturn caused by the Napoleonic Wars was putting a dent in his business.

In 1827, after the Royal Decree of Grants, don Fernando saw the opportunity to develop a plot of land that he had received from the King of Spain in the town of Bayamón, about 25 west of San Juan.  He established Hacienda Santa Ana, a sugar hacienda that produced “Ron El Barrilito”, which is still considered one of Puerto Rico’s best rums today.

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Business was booming and Don Fernando decided to expand his operations.  He started exploring the north central region of the Island and arrived at the area that would eventually become Hacienda La Esperanza.  The land was humid, flat, fertile and next to a river.  This guaranteed natural irrigation as well as a means of transportation for his products.

The exact year when Don Fernando established Hacienda La Esperanza is not clear but it appeared in the 1840 edition of the Manatí Register of Haciendas; so it was established sometime during the 1830’s.

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La Casa Del Marquez. Click on image to see it larger.

Our first stop was at “La Casa Del Marquez” (the house of the Marquez).  Marquez was a Spanish nobility title that was below duke and above earl (more about why it was called this way in a while).

“La Casa Del Marquez” is an example of the opulence that characterized the families that traded in sugar, coffee and slaves during the 19th century in Puerto Rico.  The building itself isn’t an original.  That one was destroyed by Hurricane Georges in 1998.  But it’s an exact replica made with different materials.

Luckily, the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust hired an architect back in 1976 to produce detailed drawings of the original structure.  Later on, when it was destroyed, it was those drawings that allowed them to bring it back to its original splendor.  Even so, there were certain wood species used in the original structure, like “moralón”, “ortegón” and native mahogany that are protected today.  So instead the actual version was built with “capá prieto” for ceilings and floors, pine for interior and exterior siding and cedar for windows and doors.

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Interior of La Casa Del Marquez. Check out the “ausubo” columns. Click on image to see it larger.

And there’s still another feature that you shouldn’t miss.  Take a look at the building’s columns.  They’re made of ausubo, a wood so hard that you have drill it first before driving a nail into it.

Other interesting features inside “La Casa Del Marquez” are a collection of 389 machetes and a “paño de querellas” (cloth of complaints) that was donated by a group of weavers from the town of Moca on the western coast of the Island.

Machetes were the tool of the trade in a 19th century sugar hacienda.  But not all machetes were created equal.  The longer ones were called sables and they were used by the people in charge of “supervising” the slaves.  The shorter ones (called mochas) were used by the slaves to prevent them from hurting each other accidentally and from using them as weapons during a possible rebellion.  Finally, the curved variety was used in combination with a “garabato” (hook-shape piece of wood) to cut the “pangola” grass that grew next to the sugar cane.

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Machete collection. Click on image to see it larger.

None of the machetes that you’ll see at Hacienda La Esperanza were the originals used by the slaves.  However, they are original pieces collected by Puerto Rican archeologist Ovidio Dávila throughout the Caribbean.  They are exactly like the ones used by the slaves back in the 19th century.

Back in the 1800’s life was pretty tough for slaves living in sugar haciendas.  They lived in barracks, slept on the floor, bathed once a week and did their necessities in a whole in the barrack floor.  The stench was so bad that the building was erected down wind from “La Casa Del Marquez”.

The king of Spain was well aware that there had already been a slave rebellion in Haiti between 1791 and 1804.  Some countries were against slavery and others –like Spain— considered it perfectly “normal”.  So in 1826 the king created something called “el lamento” which established the exact rights and obligations for both slaves and slave owners.

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Paño de querellas. Click on image to see it larger.

If a slave felt like his “rights” had been violated he could bring the matter before the town major, who would listen to both parties and decide who was right.  Of course, most of the time the slave owner would be “right”, which is why the “paño de querellas” contains the only five complaints filed against Hacienda La Esperanza.  And just to give you a little taste of what it was like to be a slave during 19th century Puerto Rico here’s a short list of a slaves “rights”:

  • Two meals a day
  • Three changes of clothes a year
  • If a female slave became pregnant her baby would automatically be born a slave
  • The baby’s first name would be a catholic name
  • His/her last name would be his master’s
  • At the age of six he/she would start working
  • If a slave reached the age of 60 (which very few did) he/she would be granted freedom

Across a plot of land, about 100 yards long, is where the hacienda’s sugar mill (trapiche) was located.

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Blood sugar mill (trapiche de sangre). Click on image to see it larger.

Hacienda La Esperanza was a model of efficiency from the very beginning, albeit for a variety of reasons.  The original hacienda had a blood sugar mill (trapiche de sangre).  Some historians say that it was called that way because sometimes the slaves would get their arms caught in the rollers.  However, our guide José insisted that the real reason was because it was powered by slaves and oxen and not by any alternate form of energy.

José insisted that the later steam operated sugar mill could just as well be called a blood sugar mill because slaves got their arms caught in that one as well.

So, if the original sugar mill was powered by oxen and slaves, what made the original hacienda so efficient.  It was the sugar cane itself.  The sugar cane planted at Hacienda La Esperanza was brought all the way from the Island of Tahiti in the Pacific ocean.  It was called “Otaheiti” and it had three very important characteristics:

  • Better yield (between 1/4 and 1/3 more)
  • Better burning bagasse (it burned better and hotter)
  • It matured quicker, which allowed for more sugar crops a year

During the 1850’s the United States and Europe entered the sugar market.  The United States made it out of Maple trees and Europe out of sugar beets.  This saturated the market and brought the price of sugar down.  The only way to compete in such a market was to reach greater efficiencies and that’s exactly what happened at Hacienda La Esperanza.

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But it was not Don Fernando who took the operation to the next level.  It was his son José Ramón Demetrio Fernández y Martínez (remember him?).  José Ramón was an educated man who had studied business administration in New York and London.  He was also willing to “bend the rules” every once in a while to achieve his objectives.

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Steam operated sugar mill manufactured in New York. Click on image to see it larger.

During the 1860’s he took over the hacienda and quadrupled production.  How did he do that?  Well, the first thing that he did was to get a loan from a bank in London. With that money he did two things:  he bought a small pier on the delta of the “Río Grande de Manatí”, on the northwest corner of Hacienda La Esperanza.  Then in 1861 he travelled to New York and bought a brand new steam-operated sugar mill.  Finally he had the pieces of the sugar mill delivered to his private port, brought up river to the hacienda and secretly assembled inside his production building.  Oh, and he didn’t pay any taxes for the machinery either.  What a guy!

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Steam operated sugar mill. Click on image to see it larger.

The new mill not only produced four times the yield but it also extracted all the juice from the sugar cane in one pass.  This resulted in drier bagasse that burned better.

In 1869 the hacienda was doing so well that Don Ramón was awarded the title of “Marquez De La Esperanza”, which is why the huge house on the property is called “La Casa Del Marquez”.

Sugar production at Hacienda La Esperanza was a unique process in which nothing was wasted.  Once the sugar cane went through the mill you were left with two byproducts: cane juice and bagasse.  The next step was called the “Jamaican Train”.

The truth is that it wasn’t actually a train.  It was called that way because it consisted of a series of kettles (peroles) that decreased in size and the process was invented in Jamaica.  The “Spanish Train” which preceded it used one furnace under every kettle while the “Jamaican Train” used one furnace underneath the smallest kettle and a duct that distributed the heat to all four kettles.  This resulted in a more efficient use of the bagasse.

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Original kettles from the Jamaican Train. Click on image to see it larger.

The cane juice would be poured into the furthest and largest kettle where it was brought up to a boil.  Once some of the water had evaporated the resulting syrup would be move to the next kettle using giant spoons.  This process would go on until the syrup reached the last (smallest) kettle and became molasses. From there it was removed and placed in giant cones where it was left to cool off and become muscovado sugar (raw sugar).

Of course, this last stage had its own perils.  Hot juice would frequently drip from the giant spoons burning the slave’s arms and legs.  That is why, even with all the hardships that came with cutting sugar cane in the fields, the slaves preferred it to working in the sugar mill or at the Jamaican Train.

During its golden era in 1870 Hacienda La Esperanza had 152 slaves, but in 1873 slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico and that spelled the end for the hacienda in 1880.  By then José Ramón had taken up gambling and he lost a great deal of his fortune.  The rest was seized by the bank that loaned him the money for the sugar mill.

Our tour ended at the Jamaican Train and we headed back to the parking lot.  On the way back there was something that caught my attention.  It was the absolute silence.  I could just imagine what that place must have been like back in the 1800’s and now you could barely hear an occasional bird.

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This is truly a place that everyone should visit.  Not only because it puts a lot of things that we usually take for granted into perspective, but because it gives us a rare glimpse into what life was like just a century and a half ago.  Besides, the steam operated sugar mill at Hacienda La Esperanza is in perfect operating order and it’s the only one of its kind left in the world!

Once again my hat goes off to the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust (Fideicomiso de Conservación de Puerto Rico).  Zoraida and I loved it!!!

©2015,Orlando Mergal, MA
____________________

Bilingual Content Creator, Blogger, Podcaster,
Author, Photographer and New Media Expert
Tel. 787-750-0000, Mobile 787-306-1590

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Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means that if you click on a link and purchase an item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services that I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

San Sebastian Street Fiestas… An Exercise in Dissonance

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Original Cabezudos. I shot this picture several years ago without knowing what I was shooting.

It’s almost that time of year, when people from all parts of the world converge in Old San Juan to celebrate “Las Fiestas De La Calle San Sebastian”, the largest street festival in the world taking place during the month of January.  But this time around there’s static in the air.  The organizing committee is fighting the mayoress and the mayoress is fighting the organizing committee.  Together they’re throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

Official Itinerary in Spanish. Click on image to see it larger.

Official Itinerary. Click on image to see it larger.

Here’s just one example.  A few minutes before writing this article I was trying to get a copy of this year’s itinerary.  That should be a simple enough task in an Internet connected world, right?  Wrong!!!  The only one available (obviously put together by the Municipal Government) doesn’t include the events that are under the purview of the Organizing Committee. And if you’re looking for one in English forget it.  That beast doesn’t exist!

Now, here are a couple of questions for the powers at be from both sides.  Isn’t Old San Juan the capitol of Puerto Rico?  Isn’t Old San Juan Puerto Rico’s crown jewel when it comes to tourism?  Shouldn’t the San Sebastian Street Fiestas be a tourist magnet like few others during the month of January?  Oh, and one last question… Isn’t January the peak of Puerto Rico’s tourist season?

Now, here’s something that makes no sense to me.  If the answer to all the above questions is yes, shouldn’t both sides stop trying to derail each other and work together for the sake of Puerto Rico?  Heaven knows that we need the tourism dollars and the worldwide exposure.

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Last year you could cut the tension with a knife.  Each side was doing its thing but you could breathe the separateness.  It was all around you.  This year it’s gotten worse.  They even took the matter to court over patent and copyright issues.  Why is it that a group of Puerto Ricans can’t get together and work as a team?

Here’s a suggestion before I get off my soapbox.  Instead of going at each other’s throats, a few weeks before the event, why don’t they start the fighting in February and bicker all year long.  Maybe that way they’d hammer out a solution before next year and the world won’t be deprived of one of its most colorful events.

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Finally, this year there will only be only one “comparza” (cabezudo parade) with the original cabezudos, which ironically is the emblematic event that added color to the fiestas several times throughout each of the four days.  I obtained this information directly from a member of the organizing committee. It will take place on Thursday, January 15, around 5:00pm; right after cutting the inaugural ribbon.

OTHER ARTICLES ON PUERTO RICO BY GPS
ABOUT THE SAN SEBASTIAN STREET FIESTAS

The 2014 San Sebastian Street Fiestas Are Underway!
San Sebastian Street Fiestas 2014… Let The Party Begin!
Meet The Cabezudos… San Sebastian Street Fiestas 2014

©2015,Orlando Mergal, MA
____________________

Bilingual Content Creator, Blogger, Podcaster,
Author, Photographer and New Media Expert
Tel. 787-750-0000, Mobile 787-306-1590

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Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links on this page are “affiliate links.” This means that if you click on a link and purchase an item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services that I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”