Things were starting to thaw out, I had just hit 6 months without a vacation, and saw a cheap flight to Puerto Rico. With that aligned I booked a flight, made the following Itinerary and planned a week trip around the island.
We will get into the nuances and my thoughts on the island, but let’s do the basics. Puerto Rico is commonwealth and unincorporated territory of the United States, which I believe means that they can declare bankruptcy and their debtors cannot reach back and grab their personal assets (read tax/accounting joke). PR was taken under the wing of the US at the beginning of the 20th century as a strategic point for naval military operations. The island has remained someway tied to the US since that time and that is about as far as I am going to take it. It is an incredibly complicated relationship and are free to read about it at the Wikipedia site
The unfortunate part is that although in many ways it feels like entering a 3rd world country you are paying US prices. I tend to stay in hostals when I travel, but they did not exist for anything under $75/night, which did not fit my budget for this excursion as I have other more important trips coming up. My backup plan was to camp and rent a hatchback car where I could crash when need be.
Leading up to this trip I had ruptured a disc in my back and after spending time in ER, was doubtful of my ability to survive the plane ride. Taking an extra round of steroids seem to help and I was ready enough to head out. I had also vowed to drop 20lbs before stepping on the plane. As a younger friend of mine pointed out on a constant basis, I was now old, fat and bald; a brutal combination. I could solve one of these, so my work was cut out for me. I am happy to say that I dropped the weight to get down to my college average (190), which I had not seen since.
I found the ticket for $250 on Spirit, which I thought was great, but you also have to realize now that the airlines nickel and dime the hell out of you these days. Everything from changing seats to bringing a carry-on that does not fit under the seat (charging $30 each way). I bought a new backpack
that seemed to fit the requirements and packed it full of food, camping junk (difficult as everything had to pass carry-on security) and the space remaining was for snorkel, cameras, flip-flops, and of course the bare minimum of clothing.
I arrived at the airport at 5pm after getting out of work at 7am and not sleeping too much inbetween. I made it through security, landing in Ft Lauderdale for first leg. I was next to fly into Aguadilla, a small town on the West coast of the island (opposite to San Juan). I stopped at a bar in the airport to grab a beer and overheard 4 extremely inebriated women (40s) playing drinking games and raving about how they were flying to Aguadilla and onto Rincon (popular beach/surf town) where I had planned to conclude my trip. Before I had my beer, one had come over to ask if I wanted to join them. I was at a crossroads and I was not even incountry yet. If I hung with them I knew that there was a good chance I would end up hanging in Rincon, using them as point of origin and a potential improvement on my current plans of camping/car sleeping. I choose wisely and told them I would pass and just watch TV. She stayed and kept conversing, getting less coherent as the hour went on. I actually cashed out and choose to wait by the plane as it was getting a little annoying. Shortly after getting on the plane there was some commotion and all the stewardesses were laughing and rushing around. Apparently one of the drinking crew had pulled the old Bush Sr. trick of heaving on the Japanese Prime Minister to his right, but in this case it was a PR(Puerto Rico) lady with her kids. The rest of the trip went smooth and we landed at 3am in PR…let the games begin.
I picked up the rental car, big surprise they did not have a hatchback, so I received a “similar car” which was an economy Asian import of some kind. It’s width was no more than 5ft and cab length of 6ft. Trust me on these dimensions as I became quite familiar with them.
It was 3am and, following my itinerary, I was off to Isabela and into the teeth of the island to Bosque Estatal de Guajataca. I will save the driving conditions story, but coming from the brutal winter of the Michigan I was loving the 80 degree temps and sea spray. I misjudged the size of the island. I was used to maps of a certain scale and when planning for PR, locations appearing about 1 hour apart, were really 10 minutes.
I was in the town of Isabela rather quickly. I should say that I misjudged the size of the towns as well. San Juan was really the only town that had some tall buildings and any sort of economic infrastructure. I arrived at the main Square (Plaza) and parked to grab some camera shots. All Latin American towns are fairly similar in that they all seem to have at least one Plaza de Armas, with a Church and a fountain. I got my camera out and noticed no one else was around, not even any cars, and all buildings (shacks) had rebar (construction metal bars used to hold concrete together) on their windows. I became a bit nervous and scurried back to my car and felt I would be safer when I got in the jungle.
I did see a couple horses eating out of a dumpster but was to scared to park for a picture. I soon realized I would have 100 more opportunities for this shot if so desired. Every building had rebar on its windows. In fact it pretty much was encased in a cage of rebar. Some tried to decorate the rebar or have it orchestrated in some sort of design but must just had it laid out vertically around the place.
Once I got to the park there were no lights and I just pulled off in a small clearing. I should say that most parks or tourist attractions are unlike in the states. There are very few if any signs, and no guardrails, designated parking areas, or friendly drawings of talking animals directing you like sheep to the pleasure center. So I parked where I thought was right and planned to sleep 2 hours until light and set out on a hike. I have become quite good at "car camping" and knew that sleeping reclined in the shotgun seat is your best option. I sat there messing with my new waterproof camera (Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS1), trying to figure out to take extended shutter speed pictures (the ones you see at night, where car lights are trailing off). It took the full 2 hours as I sat swearing why I was not smart enough to figure this out before I left.
At first light, I found what looked like a trail guide and took a picture of it in case I got lost along the way.
I will say that their trail markings leave much to be desired, but this, like the lack of signage around entrances was a blessing as it keeps most people away. Fortunately on this trip my GPS on my phone was also working, so that combined with maps and directions, allowed me to triangulate my position most times on the road.
It was raining as I began hiking, which was normal in PR, but it was not hard and rarely lasted long. Besides, I was just happy it was not snowing. My destination was a cave about 1 mile into the trail. The trail was rough at times.
I arrived soon enough at the cave entrance. Again this was no Mammoth Caves welcoming. There was a little platform leading into a deep pitch black hole. I was just lucky there was a rickety wooden staircase in this case, must have been from some of the surplus bailout money.
On the cave floor it was pretty scary as no one around and just heard bats. I could only shoot short distance pictures and not even enough light for a slow shutter speed (1 minte expose), which is pretty freakin dark. Not sure if more scared of gangbangers or some yet to be discovered cave creature. I kept hearing whispers in the wind for “my precious”, but I kept calm.
I found one spot near the entrance where I could draw some light. Shot 1 below was with the flash and 2 was with a one minute exposure.
I found all these broken stalagmites/tites with a geode-like appearance. Could be result of vandalism or maybe just crystallized bat droppings (Guano to the educated)?
Once I return to surface I headed for an observation deck with was a nice relaxing view of the rainforest.
Being around noon I retraced back to the car and north to the coast. I stopped on a hill to take a shot, and once I snapped it, my leg began to sting and I realized I had stepped in fire ants. Damn those hurt and all seem to know how to sting at the same time. I had forgotten about them since I lived in FL.
I followed my directions to the Parque Cavernas Rio Camuy. This was the modern cave park I had expected, PRs version of Mammoth Caves. As I entered the area, I saw throngs of Americans and ridiculousness.
I stocked up on water from tap (remember that) and left as I dislike tourists in most cases and the attractions are usually so sanitized it feels like a film set. On the road, I bought some oranges from street vendor.
They are not like in US. I guess they have not been genetically engineered because they have 2wice the seeds, half the taste and are impossible to peel. The locals rip off a part of skin and just eat through the fruit.
I made it to the Observatorio around 2pm. It was where scenes from James Bond (GoldenEye) and Contact were filmed. Not much to look at and it did not really look in that good of shape. But “it was there” and I had to be able to say I saw the largest radio to outerspace in the world.
So now I was searching for Texaco station for a random day trip in PR I read about on the Interweb, but first stopped by one of the few natural lakes on the island
Here is a shot of a road
I did not place an object for scale but this is a two-way road that is about 6 feet wide…pretty standard. All switch backs and other cars drive crazy…each corner you’re prepared to get hit….your body is in constant state of flexion. There are random house everywhere along these roads and their inhabitants all get up to look at you like it is some kind of event that someone passes by. You just hope it does not dead end as there is no way you are backtracking that for 30 minutes.
I find the gas station and start looking around back for this nonmarked trail described to me.
I find something that fits that loose description and start hiking. I wonder out loud why I would follow a nonmarked trail behind a gas station, let alone one in PR. I then see this hole in the base of a tree
What else does one do when finding such a thing but go down it like Alice in Wonderland. I took this picture with 1 minute shutter speed near entrance to see what it was in here.
In actuality this next shot is looking up at entrance in normal setting.
I have a low powered head lamp on. I start moving towards open spaces, going further into tunnel. Once I turn a corner no light is visible from the entrance and my headlamp sucks. A couple more turns and I come to this hole that stick out of side of a mountain
One of the most amazing sights of my life. Something you see in a movie where people are trying to escape from being trapped and push through a boulder and open up to this new civilization. The cliff was a straight drop and it was not stable so I did not get much closer, but enjoyed view for about 20 minutes.
Back in the car, I headed north to Arecibo on the coast. Downtown I met an attractive female cop, asking her where the beach was as I needed to clean up. She said something in Spanish and took off. I just kept working my way along the coast for a spot with few rocks. She came back and was miffed…I guess she wanted me to follow to show me a place to go. I thanked her and said I would be ok. I found this beach, not sure if allowed on as none one else was there, but there was able to clean some clothes (Bio safe soap…still should avoid) and dry clothes on rocks.
I came back to town. Unlike the towns on Central America the cities are not that old or pretty. These are a couple shots of random building off the main plaza.
I had eaten a few CLIF bars and some oranges but thought I would try some local stuff. Most every corner was piled with vendors selling fried stuff under heating lamps, which looked scary as you did not know what was under that crisp exterior. I ended up going to a “Taco Maker” and had Chicken BBQ burrito. This is basically a Taco Bell, it was ok. I was a little scared as the week before I left, I ate a taco from TB and had a pretty bad reaction. I am normally a Vegetarian but a couple times each year, when not traveling internationally, break down and eat meat. Well, a few hours after eating the taco I became sick and felt the world was closing in. I struggled to get upstairs and passed out in the hall with a feeling of impending doom.
I was along the coast toward San Juan when I found this beach (Cueva Del Indio) where you could climb out to edge on this rock and see a cave underneath. Well, the rock was sharp as hell, I am alone, and getting to old to do all the dumb stuff that comes into my head. Besides, this had rolled ankle written all over it.
As I was working my way towards the city limits of San Juan, I saw a car on the opposite site of the median of the freeway climb the median guardrail and flip over. I just kinda drove by saying wow. After a few moments I thought about stopping, but noticed hundreds of people getting out of their car to help, pretty much everyone but me. I don’t know why but I felt weird stopping in a foreign country like I needed to know Spanish to help. I looked back and there were 20 guys rolling the car back over. I carried on my way singing a Lady Gaga song, swearing to stop at the next major accident.
I came into SJ about sunset. This has been a pretty long day as I have been awake for about 50 hrs less the one nap I had before boarding the flight yesterday. I should have probably separated this blog into another day, but I tend to follow the belief of Jack Black, when he says in a movie after trying to grab a nacho and picking up pretty much all the food, ”If it all comes together, that is one nacho.” Well, if I am awake the whole time, that is just one long day.
This is a shot looking out onto the Fort of El Morro. I parked right here along street. Spots are hard to come by in this area so like what you say when moving a refrigerator or hooking up with a fat girl, "where do you want this cause when I put it down we are not moving it again." Bascially, I was gunna sleep right there.
This Fort was created a few years back by the Spanish to protect the main trade/gold route from the Caribbean to Europe. It has remained pretty much intact. The shot below is from the fort looking across at another small isthmus creating the harbor. There is actually a small fort with cannons over there in case ships trying to enter the harbor try to avoid the Fort of El Morro.
I don’t think the shot does it justice, but in the picture below the clouds felt like they were at eye-level, not far off the coast and possessing an incredible texture to them, unlike I had seen before.
Below is a shot of a boarded window I found interesting, along with a church.
I was in Old San Juan, which lies at the end of a peninsula that is San Juan. Old San Juan has all the historic sites, so I decided to make that home base. I stopped in this bar and sat in the corner for a few hours watching the locals, which is to say tourists, as I was a stone’s throw from the docks for all the major cruise lines. I was pretty drained, so I made no attempts at conversation, not that it should shock you as being different from my normal M.O.
After sampling all the trendy overpriced bars and walking by a few shops selling Tshirts of every way to express to others that you have just visited Puerto Rico, I decided to retire for the night. Crawling into the backseat I tried a new layout as I was parked under a street light. It did not matter as my night would be cut short. The Calm before the storm