An aroma of sea salt, fritter and rum pervades Boquerón, a little beach town in the southwestern corner of Puerto Rico. At night, when the smell is combined with the sight of the beach shacks that dot the shore lit up by old Christmas lights, you could be forgiven for thinking you had wandered into the middle of a pirate den. Pool tables line the insides of the bars where children of every age pretend to be grown-ups. Legend says that Boquerón was hometown to Cofresí, a trader operating between the islands of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but also a dedicated pirate who attacked merchant ships supplying other islands of the Caribbean and Venezuela. Something about the legend must have rubbed off on the town. Or maybe it’s because I visited this place as a child, with the worlds and characters of Peter Pan and The Little Mermaid swashbuckling their way through my imagination.
The real essence of the town is its people. Individuals come and go, but something about them always seems to linger in the air. Some came from big cities, running from addictions or the mafia; others came to retire to an easygoing life; some didn’t survive the 80s, but the ones that have stayed have maintained this town’s shaggy, happy, half-drunken lifestyle.
The locals come from many different places around the world, which makes the environment particularly friendly to visitors. I asked one of the local oyster sellers, Vivianne Cruz, what she liked most about the town and she answered simply “the beaches and the people,” while cutting open fresh clams and explaining the various side effects and benefits of consuming the delicacies in a very raunchy tone, definitely worthy of an audience. Vivianne works Thursdays through Sundays from 11am to whenever she pleases. Sometimes she’ll be at one of the local bars having a beer or two; if she feels like it, she’ll be manning her stall. Even if this woman doesn’t manage to make you smile, if you believe her stories, her magic oysters will ensure a good time.
Next to Vivianne’s is Tati, a lady who will always be found barefoot in the streets of Boquerón unless she’s working in the kitchen. Tati was once the owner and teacher of the only windsurfing business in town. Later she ran a kayak rental shop. Her skin is toasted to a perfect tone, largely thanks to these water sports, and she still looks like she could jump on a windsurf board despite her years. She wears baggy shorts and a t-shirt that’s too big for her, but her best accessory is her mischievous smile. If you end up going barefoot in Boquerón, don’t be surprised if Tati salutes you with two thumbs up and a big “yeeeaah!”
Miguel Torres has been living in Boquerón since 1990. While painting one of his signature pieces, a t-shirt with his interpretation of the town on it, he discreetly sips at a local beer. His reason for living and working in Boquerón is simple: “at the same time I work, I enjoy. I’m always on vacation.” Torres explains that even though business is slow in the rest of the world, there always seems to be tourism here. He has a BA in arts and worked as a graphic artist for one of the main university campuses in southern part of Puerto Rico before moving here.
Sitting in a plastic chair leaning to his left, legs crossed nonchalantly, cigarette in one hand and a cheap rum flask in the other, Mike McCoy, big ship captain, a feature of any beach town, explains that he ended up in Boquerón when he came on a trip with his wife and she left him for reasons unknown. McCoy did as any real captain would do, and hung around, piloting and fixing private sail boats, with a flask always somewhere close to hand. “I’ve been drinking all my life,” says the captain, with a handsome Popeye smirk on his face. He’s been sailing almost as long: McCoy explains that he lied about his age in order to become a sailor in the British merchant navy before the minimum age of eighteen. The captain, who hasn’t left the island for twelve years now, refused to pose for a picture because he claims some Middle Eastern government is still searching for him. McCoy lives in one of the sailboats that float in the bay and comes in to town everyday on his dinghy.
Passing the captain a beer every so often is Rita, an ex-bistro and club owner from Belgium. The soft-spoken lady came to visit a gentleman friend in Mayaguez, the next city along the west coast of Puerto Rico, back in 1993, and made the usual trip down to Boquerón. She enjoyed it so much that she came back in 1994 and rented a little cabaña on the outskirts of town, and stayed for about a year. Leaning over the bar and handing Terry (McCoy’s real name, it turns out) a local beer, Rita explains what she liked so much about the place that eventually made her stay. “I liked the weather, the beaches … they taught me how to play pool and dominoes, but I didn’t like the dirt and the people leaving trash in the streets.” This has all changed dramatically, thanks to campaigns to keep the beaches clean. But of course, the people meant more to Rita than a little rubbish ever could. “They cared and worried about me when I left for five days without telling anyone,” she says. When she first arrived, Boquerón’s current bartender had the habit of going to the same place for breakfast every day. When the locals saw that she went missing for a few days, they called the police in to find her. Rita was once in charge of 52 employees, owned one of the biggest clubs in Belgium, the Beethoven Kelder, two restaurants and a few bistros. She sold everything to come live in Boquerón and start a little adventure in a place where the people knew her just a little, but cared for her more than she could have imagined.
From a very young age, I learned that Boquerón was my parents’ favourite long weekend destination. I remember four aunts from my mother’s side of the family renting cabañas in a long line along the beach: slightly crazy women, obedient husbands, cousins, grandparents, the sun, the ocean, and fresh, fried fish. I would lie on the beach at night and scour the horizon for shooting stars. Playing billiards in town and running errands to the local shop made me feel mature beyond my years.
Teenage years in Boquerón were equally memorable: flirting eyes darting across bars, and being kissed in the moonlight to the sound of waves lapping on the beach. My adventures from those years are just the type of teenage memories I want to have.
The trip to Boquerón is always fun: the road in itself is so beautiful that the trip is worth making just to admire the landscape en route. During the journey at some point, my mother would begin to bicker with my father over the details of a famous story about a group of naked drunk people running up and down the little streets of Boquerón. Was this because my father was part of this infamous group? How could he not have been? Back in the day, he did his time in town for work reasons and, like most visitors and inhabitants of the town, went out and had the typical happy hour drink or two after five. According to his long-time friend Tony López, an ex-resident of Boquerón, my father was a bit of grouch at that time and didn’t want to be friends with him. After a couple of beer sessions and a López family dinner invasion (two children and wife included) to the Castillo residence, I guess my dad was left with little option. Lucky for him, as he became very close to Tony, who was a regular at la esquina, the corner that serves the best empanadillas in town, and perfectly chilled beers. La esquina is located next to Vivianne Cruz’s oyster stand and acts as a meeting place for all who visit Boquerón. It is right next to a small dock that looks like it’s about to collapse at any moment and has direct access to the beach, which make it a fun place to hang out.
The story goes that one night at la esquina, the assembled locals decided to have some drinks at the beach and go skinny dipping. So off they went, having fun under the Caribbean moonlight, and all of a sudden, the police show up and start getting everyone out of the water. Cue a dozen naked backsides trying to get to their cars unseen; all but one. López stayed for a while mooning the cops, “so they could have a good look.”
About 25 years ago, López retired from the Boquerón lifestyle and is now living in Utuado, in the centre of Puerto Rico, where he runs a small estate with three cabañas and a restaurant with his wife. He came to the island 38 years ago, when his parents decided to sell their apartment in Washington Heights. He explained that the first time he came to Boquerón he took just his bathing suit and a towel. “I went like a tourist, y me quedé jukiao’ con la esquina" (I got hooked on the corner). Like a few other residents of Boquerón, Tony quickly changes between English and Spanish, both with a thick New York accent: sometimes you can’t understand what he’s saying, but it all sounds like it must be terribly funny, given that he laughs his way through whatever point he’s making.
At some point in Puerto Rico, the Spanish word regalito (little gift) took on a new meaning: it became a sort of slang for referring to a person who turns out to be full of surprises when under the influence. It can also be used when a person has reacted dramatically to a situation (in this usage, not necessarily after drinking). This word is used across most of the island as far as I know. But the people who have been very close to our special town have a way of using the phrase: they say that a person pulled a ‘Boquerón gift shop’ on you, or that they were the ‘Boquerón gift shop’ at a certain moment of the night. The phrase doesn’t just refer to a little ‘gift’ of one reaction or another: the person made such a show out of it that they were awarded the whole souvenir shop. The people I met at Boquerón don’t necessarily spend their lives making ‘Boquerón gift shops’ of themselves on a daily basis, but the gifts that they give you certainly bring you back for more.
María Alejandra Castillo went to the University of Puerto Rico, and has a BA in journalism. A professional dancer, she is taking a short break to complete her master's degree in Mexico City, but is working her way through the performing arts environment in the city.