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Shopping in Puerto Rico


The most impressive of the island's crafts are the santos (saints), carved religious figures that have been produced since the 1500s. Craftspeople who make these are called santeros; using clay, gold, stone, or cedar wood, they carve figurines representing saints, usually from 8 inches to 20 inches (20 cm-51 cm) tall. Before the Spanish colonisation, small statues called zemi stood in native tribal villages and camps as objects of veneration, and Puerto Rico's santos may derive from that pre-Columbian tradition. Every town has its patron saint, and every home has its santos to protect the family. For some families, worshipping the santos replaces a traditional mass.

Art historians view the carving of santos as Puerto Rico's greatest contribution to the plastic arts. The earliest figures were richly baroque, indicating a strong Spanish influence, but as the islanders began to assert their own identity, the carved figures often became simpler.

In carving santos, craftspeople often used handmade tools. Sometimes such natural materials as vegetable dyes and even human hair were used. The saints represented by most santos can be identified by their accompanying symbols; for example, Saint Anthony is usually depicted with the infant Jesus and a book. The most popular group of santos is the Three Kings. The Trinity and the Nativity are also depicted frequently.

Art experts claim that santos making approached its zenith at the turn of the 20th century, although hundreds of santeros still practice their craft throughout the island. Serious santos collectors view the former craftsmen of old as the true artists in the field. The best collection of santos is found at Puerto Rican Arts & Crafts.

The most popular of all Puerto Rican crafts are the frightening caretas – papier-mâché masks worn at island carnivals. Tangles of menacing horns, fang-toothed leering expressions, and bulging eyes of these half-demon, half-animal creations send children running and screaming to their parents. At carnival time, they are worn by costumed revellers called vegigantes. Vegigantes often wear bat-winged jumpsuits and roam the streets either individually or in groups.

The origins of these masks and carnivals may go back to medieval Spain and/or tribal Africa. A processional tradition in Spain, dating from the early 17th century, was intended to terrify sinners with marching devils in the hope that they would return to church. Cervantes described it briefly in Don Quijote. Puerto Rico blended this Spanish procession with the masked tradition brought by slaves from Africa. Some historians believe that the Taínos were also accomplished mask makers, which would make this a very ancient tradition indeed.

The predominant traditional mask colours were black, red, and yellow, all symbols of hellfire and damnation. Today, pastels are more likely to be used. Each vegigante sports at least two or three horns, although some masks have hundreds of horns, in all shapes and sizes. Mask making in Ponce, the major centre for this craft, and in Loíza Aldea, a palm-fringed town on the island's northeastern coast, has since led to a renaissance of Puerto Rican folk art.

Another Puerto Rican craft has undergone a big revival just as it seemed that it would disappear forever: lace. Originating in Spain, mundillos (tatted fabrics) are the product of a type of bobbin lace making. This 5-century-old craft exists today only in Puerto Rico and Spain.

The first lace made in Puerto Rico was called torchon (beggar's lace). Early examples of beggar's lace were considered of inferior quality, but artisans today have transformed this fabric into a delicate art form, eagerly sought by collectors. Lace bands called entrados have two straight borders, whereas the other traditional style, puntilla, has both a straight and a scalloped border.

Generally, shopping hours are Monday-Wednesday and Saturday 9 am-7 pm; Thursday-Friday 9 am- 9 pm; Sunday 11 pm- 5 pm (shopping malls). Some shops open on Sunday if cruise liners are in port.

San Juan

The streets of Old Town, such as Calle San Francisco and Calle del Cristo, are the major venues for shopping. Malls in San Juan are generally open Monday through Saturday from 9 am to 9 pm, Sunday from 11 am to 5 pm. Regular stores in town are usually open Monday through Saturday from 9 am to 6 pm. In Old San Juan many stores are open on Sunday, too.

Native handicrafts can be good buys, including needlework, straw work, ceramics, hammocks, and papier-mâché, fruits and vegetables, as well as paintings and sculptures by Puerto Rican artists. Among these, the carved wooden religious idols known as santos (saints) have been called Puerto Rico's greatest contribution to the plastic arts and are sought by collectors. For the best selection of santos, head for Galería Botello, Olé, or Puerto Rican Arts & Crafts. Some of the best santos on the island can be seen at the Capilla de Cristo in Old San Juan.

Puerto Rico's biggest and most up-to-date shopping mall is Plaza Las Américas, in the financial district of Hato Rey, right off the Las Américas Expressway. This complex, with its fountains and modern architecture, has more than 200 mostly upscale shops. The variety of goods and prices is roughly comparable to that of large stateside malls.

The Condado section of San Juan is home to fine designer stores such as Cartier, Gucci, Ferragamo, Mont Blanc and Dior.

The premier store selling grotesque masks (caretas) is La Calle. Masks can be seen in action at the three big masquerade carnivals on the island: the Ponce Festival in February, the Festival of Loíza Aldea in July, and the Día de las Mascaras at Hatillo in December.

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