RINCÓN, PUERTO RICO — When the World Surfing competition came to Puerto Rico in 1968, Rincón wasn’t even a dot on most maps of the island. But that November, competitive surfers from around the world descended on the tiny west coast town, along with film crews for ABC-TV’s “Wide World of Sports, ” which was covering the sport for the first time.
In an instant, Rincón was transformed. Every year afterward, surfers began to flock there between November and April when waves peaked at 25 and 30 feet, and a rustic assortment of bunkhouses, fish shacks and watering holes opened up to serve them.
But then an interesting thing happened. As surfers began aging out of the sport, they continued to come, and they brought with them the carefree party vibe of their youth. That blended nicely with the endless flow of young surfers who continued to arrive. The result? A transient population of multi-generational water sports enthusiasts who play hard all day in the ocean and all night in the bars.
Over time, a few upscale hotels and restaurants came into the area to serve older tourists with fatter wallets and more discerning tastes, but the town retains a rough-around-the-edges, laid-back vibe that appeals to a bohemian crowd of all ages.
Surfing remains the No. 1 attraction. Rincón Surf School, which offers private and group instruction, is a great place to start for beginners. Or stop by one of the surf shops, like Mar Azul, to pick up a map of surf spots and hit the water. Sandy Beach and Parking Lot are recommended for beginners, thanks to their sandy bottoms and 6-foot swells; Tres Palmas is for experienced surfers who can master big waves and the rocky reef bottom.
But surfing isn’t the only water sport in town. Rincón is a major diving and snorkeling destination, too. Taino Divers offers daily tours to Desecheo Island and local reefs for beginning and experienced divers and snorkelers. Taino also offers sunset and whale watching tours, as well as offshore fishing and bluewater hunting charters for wahoo, tuna and mahi-mahi.
Stand-up paddle boarding and parasailing are also available, as is horseback riding for landlubbers.
Whatever you do during the day, be sure to wrap it up in time for sunset because watching that flaming yellow ball drop into the ocean is a major social event in Rincón. The large outdoor bar at Calypso Cafe at Maria’s Beach is a popular spot for sunset watching, thanks to its economical happy hour prices: $2 for cans of Medalla beer and $5 for plastic cups of rum punch.
But the premier spot for sunset watching is the large, oceanfront patio at La Copa Llena at the Black Eagle. Not only does it have the best view in town, but while you watch the show, you can sip a basil mojito and nosh on small plates of chargrilled octopus and mahi croquetas, or stay for dinner and dine on whole fried snapper or churrasco.
Once darkness falls, the surfing crowd usually heads over to Pool Bar, a dark wooded outdoor bar beside a small swimming pool and a large movie screen, which usually shows surf flicks. The older set might opt for a nightcap at Sea Glass Bar, a dark, cozy bar at the Lazy Parrot Inn. This terraced property features a full-service restaurant on street level, and a daytime poolside bar on the lowest level. But in the middle, tucked into a lushly landscaped garden lit with tiki torches, is this quiet spot where the bartender is knowledgeable and the conversation convivial.
For the late-night party crowd still raring to go, Shipwreck Bar & Grill is the place to go to close down the night. The covered patio bar beside Taíno Divers looks like something Gilligan might have built, but the crowd tends to be colorful and garrulous, and the menu offers above-average pub fare, ideal for satisfying the midnight munchies.
That’s all during high season, of course.
The rest of the year, from May to October, the number of visitors dwindles, and many businesses reduce their hours or shut down altogether. Rincón turns back into a sleepy little town much like it was before the World Surfing competition arrived in 1968. Plenty of the locals probably prefer it that way, but there’s no turning back now, especially when the surf’s up.
By Suzanne Van Atten