When I got off the cruise (review to come) in Mayaguez I was quite excited, mainly because I was going to see a place that wasn’t a popular tourist spot. Mayaguez is a port (town/city?) on the western coast of Puerto Rico and it immediately reminded me of childhood summers spent in the Carolinas with the heat, humidity, and old feel to customs building. The excitement that this brought was short lived.
Welcome to Mayaguez
I had been one of the first off the boat and we were taken by bus to the customs building, which I personally stood outside of for about half an hour. I had been hoping that coming through U.S. customs this way would be simpler than most of the Airports. Turns out that it took just about as long without the air conditioning. At this point the excitement was starting to wane, but it was still there.
I hadn’t made it through customs when I realized most people didn’t speak English and it became very apparent within the first few hours that this was going to be the norm. Pay close attention to the word “didn’t”, as I found that most people could the moment is was convenient for them and they were done watching me fail miserably at Spanish. I would be gazed upon as if I had two foreheads when I asked if they spoke English and I would make an effort at Spanish until a disgusted look would eventually cross their face as they would ask “What do you want?”
I hate to have to generalize like that because some of the people I met were really nice, but even most of them took some warming up to.
After making it through customs, I jumped in a cab and asked for a hotel. Mayaguez had been an unexpected change in plans so I didn’t have hotel reservations. The first hotel that I stopped at, the Howard Johnson, seemed nice and the receptionist may have been the nicest person in the town, but they were full. She recommended I check the Hotel Colonial. I found the place on my iPhone, which was thankfully working splendidly here, and found that it was close enough to walk to even with my luggage in hand. I’ll save my thoughts on this hotel for a full review later.
I settled in with the tv and air conditioning on just long enough to cool down from my walk and decided it was time to start exploring what I had seen on the taxi ride. There had been some nice looking buildings and parks/town square looking areas that I thought would be worth looking into. The first thing I noticed was that the place was practically dead. It was a hot day, of course no one was going to be out wondering the streets!
But that wasn’t it… I hadn’t totally put my finger on it yet. As I came across what appeared to be the main square of the town there were a few old people out playing chess in the park and a few people at an outdoor food stand that had a few tables. It just still seemed way too dead.
Shops were empty or closed. The few people I came across that were under 70 struck me as either thugs or bums. Everything seemed to be in a state of disrepair. I continued walking and realized that many of the large buildings that I had seen poking through the skyline were hospital buildings. A few nurses and other hospital staff scurried through the few open restaurants on what I would guess must have been a real quick lunch break.
I stopped to eat at a local restaurant where I was almost rushed through the nonexistent line. Two people had walked in behind me but they could have easily gone around as I stood back from the ordering area attempting to read the menu. I tried to pass them off to the lady taking the order but she insisted I place my order. I got some kind of chicken wrap. It was good, but not worth writing home about. Or to you for that matter. There was a group of young ladies, 17-21 if I had to guess, celebrating one of the girls birthdays that took up about half of the dining area. They were the most jovial group I came across during my trip to Mayaguez, but they left shortly after I arrived.
After I ate, I continued to explore. The place had the natural beauty of the Caribbean with the abandoned feel of Billy Joel’s Allentown. As I drew further and further from the center of town it just got worse and worse. It was very obvious that many of the buildings hadn’t had a fresh coat of paint since the 90’s, which was made even clearer by the abundance of 90’s model vehicles. There were houses with trees growing right up through them, a further indication that the 90’s had been this towns last whiff of greatness. By the end of my walk I felt as if I could return in another ten years and find this place to be an excavation site as ancient as the Mayan Temples.
I decided to return to my room and try to figure this place out. Turns out that it had once been a booming industrial town composed of Tuna and clothing factories until the 90’s. There was a great write up on it on wikipedia that I highly recommend if you want to know more, but it never explained what had happened to cause the mass exodus. So I decided to go talk to the owner of the hotel. He had been one of those people that hadn’t come across as really wanting me there when I first arrived and I still got that feeling. I almost walked away, but my curiosity got the better of me and I struck up a conversation anyways. Turns out he was a retired Army officer and we had shared some old stomping grounds. Once we made a connection he seemed to spark up a bit and became much more welcoming. That is, until I asked about what happened to the town.
The old man recounted the tale of how the town had once been an amazing place to visit. I let him ramble on about all the stuff I had just read online. How there had been a huge Tuna industry and how things had just fallen apart once the industries moved their operations to Ecuador. When I finally asked why the industries left I was a little surprised by his response, not his answer, but the way he looked as he gave it.
“They raised the taxes” was his answer. “So much that it was cheaper for them to move their operations.” There wasn’t even a hint of distaste towards the companies or the government as I would have expected. There was almost a hint of defeat, acceptance, and maybe even guilt. I wanted so badly to ask if he had been a supporter of the tax hike, but I had just gotten the guy to open up and I didn’t want him to shut down any more than he was going to as a result of this conversation.
There were now two things keeping this town from collapsing entirely, a college and several hospitals. It wasn’t long before I came to the conclusion that this area was probably only alive because of it’s position as a U.S. territory. News reports flooded with how the FBI was moving in to help Puerto Rico get control of it’s spiraling car theft problem. Buses marked “HEAD START” were the only school busses I saw. Hospitals showed obvious signs of government placement. Atlas had certainly shrugged enough to rattle this place.
It was now clear that the feeling of pure death I’d felt since arriving in town wasn’t just the town itself, it was also the people. Most of the residents were knocking at deaths door or struggling to keep those people alive. Walking through Mayaguez was one of the most eery feelings I’d ever felt. Had it not been for the pure creepiness of the town, it would have been an exciting place to visit. The pure destruction itself would have been reason enough to check the place out. I’m glad I went, but I doubt I’ll ever return.