Loíza, PR

St. James Carnival

Moon Puerto Rico, 4th edition

LOIZA, 29 kilometres northeast of San Juan, “holds a special place in Puerto Rican history,” says the 4th edition of Moon Puerto Rico. Furthermore, “for now, there’s little American influence or tourist industry in Loíza, which makes it the kind of place you should experience sooner rather than later.”

In particular, the guidebook recommends coming around 25 July, when the week-long, “not-to-be-missed” St. James Carnival (Fiestas Tradicionales de Santiago Apóstol) is on. The carnival’s history is complex and goes back to the Spanish Inquisition, which doesn’t seem a good thing, but has turned into an event filled with “parades, music, dance, food, and elaborately costumed street theater.”

That gives Loíza the chance to show off some of the things it’s best-known for: bomba and plena music, “traditional drum-heavy styles of music that originated in Loíza and thrive there today”; and the vejigante mask, made from coconut shell, wire and papier mâché, with protruding horns. This “has become a highly collectible, iconic symbol of the festival and Puerto Rico as a whole.” The guidebook says that several workshops create the masks, but “the Ayala family artists in Loíza are considered the masters of the form.” Prices range from $30 to $250.

Loíza is special because it was settled mainly by Yoruba slaves from Nigeria, brought over to work the plantations. They intermarried with the indigenous Taíno Indians to produce a tight-knit African-Caribbean community. But it’s also an economically depressed area where there’s a “thriving local drug trade [and] the crime rate is high.”