Puerto Rico 2008
Memorial Day weekend 2008 saw us flying to Puerto Rico for 3 ½ days. We enjoyed the old town of San Juan, hiked up to the top of El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest of the United States National Park Service, rappelled down 250 ft to explore a cave with an underground river and visited the world’s largest radio telescope in the hills near Arecibo. This is the story of one busy weekend…
In the morning Jill and I drive to my office in Fort Lauderdale. I will work for a few hours in the morning but take the afternoon off. Our flight leaves from Fort Lauderdale at 12:30pm.
We arrive in San Juan just after 3:00pm. In the airport there are big posters of the attractions of San Juan, including the forts of El Morro and San Cristobal.
Our first destination is the old town of San Juan. We will stay at a little hotel within walking distance of all major attractions, so we park our rental car. We check in our room and quickly head back out to take advantage of the sunny afternoon. We start out at San Cristóbal, one of the forts of the old town in San Juan. (For more information and a historic timeline, see the Wikipedia entry on San Cristóbal.)
Perfect evening light for photography greets us as we walk up to this National Historic Site. Here is a panoramic view from the top of this impressive fort. Note the rain shower to the South over the islands mountain range and sunshine and trademark Carribean breezes from the East.
It is the perfect contrast to the office just a few hours ago. No question this view and the historical details at display here help to quickly switch us into a vacation mood for the long weekend.
With it’s massive stone walls and several levels the fort provided defense in depth for the old town of San Juan roughly for the last 500 years. At the corners these forts have small sentries (“garitas”) which allowed guards to look out for landward and seaward approaches as well as the base of the fort walls.
The silhouette of the garita is often used as a symbol of Puerto Rico – for example many license plates show a garita as well.
Looking out of the garita provides a perfect photo opportunity with long shadows and the sun in the back. (Note the mountain range in the background, which is the tropical rain forest of El Yunque, our destination for tomorrow afternoon.)
The fort closes at 6:00pm. Shortly thereafter we walk over to the West corner of the city wall to El Morro. On the way is a small group of houses below the city wall called “La Perla”. For tourists we read it is not advised to walk in there – this place and the adjacent cemetery have the dubious distinction of being called the slum / cemetery with the nicest view on the planet.
The fort El Morro is closed, but we can still enjoy the city wall bathed in beautiful evening light by the setting sun.
Below is the city wall with the red-white La Puerta, the main entrance for ship-bound travelers over the centuries. The inscription reads: “Benedictus Qui Venit in Nomine Domini” – which is Latin for “Welcome to those who come in the name of the Lord”.
From the base of the magnificent tree there is a beautiful sunset shot looking West:
As we stroll around the city wall and back into the old town, we pass the seat of today’s government.
Shortly thereafter we find our way to one of the oldest restaurants on the Island, the Mallorquina, established in 1848 and serving food ever since for 160 years!
The giant wall-clock you can see through the doorway is interesting, as it shows mechanical dials for the month of the year, day of the month, hour and minute – it is also shown on the several decades old black-&-white photos inside. The food is delicious and we’re having a great time.
With this evening there is no wonder we are already in Island and vacation mode when we fall asleep in our small but central and cozy hotel room.
The next morning we weave through the streets of old San Juan.
We have breakfast at a local Puerto Ricon café. Everything here follows a certain rhythm, waiters are dancing or tapping spoons on plates to the rhythm of some music coming from somewhere. And the coffee is excellent.
Now fully awake, we continue to the plaza of the San Juan Cathedral.
This cathedral was built in 1540 and is the burial site of Ponce de León.
From here it’s just a short walk to El Morro, the main attraction and historic site.
We spend the next 2 hours or so within the walls of this fort. For information on this historic site, visit the Puerto Rico website or the Wikipedia entry on it. The historic timeline dates back to early 1500, with multiple attacks by the British and Dutch (most successfully defended by the Spanish) and ultimately by the Americans in 1898.
The view towards the harbor entrance with the multiple decks for canons is quite spectacular.
After this extensive visit to the fort we stroll back to old town across the lawn where kids traditionally fly their kites in the seabreeze. Coincidentally there is an event on this lawn later today with Barack Obama visiting and giving a speech. For a moment, we consider staying here and waiting for a few hours. However, this would prevent us from visiting our next goal, the El Yunque National Forest. So we keep going and drive out to the East heading for El Yunque.
Heading East, we seem to be driving into the only rain on the island. Obviously, it wouldn’t be called rain-forest if it didn’t rain a lot, practically every day.
First we stop at the Visitor Center to get some orientation and watch some movie about the flora and fauna of this rain forest.
Later we continue on the road up the mountain, passing some impressive waterfall along the way.
Shortly thereafter we park the car at the trailhead and set out in a mix of rain and clouds.
The trail is not steep, but quite slippery and we need to be careful. Water and mud everywhere.
As we’re getting higher and near the top, the canopy gives way to sweeping views of the surrounding island.
A bit further still and the clouds are lifting, as seems to happen most days in the later afternoon.
We get to the top of the El Yunque mountain at 3500 ft (1100m) and are lucky enough to see the surrounding island.
Unfortunately we can’t afford to linger here, as we need to be back down and out of the park before 6:00pm as they are locking the park gates of the road. So we are heading back down, even more careful as coming up not to slip on the wet and muddy rocks.
One last view of the canopy and the surrounding lush greens:
We’re heading back to San Juan and stop at a grocery store to buy drinks and food for our trip tomorrow. For dinner we first try another local restaurant in old town San Juan, but find it to host a private wedding party. Plan B is an Indian restaurant which also works quite well, especially with our appetite after El Yunque.
Tomorrow we need to get a really early start to drive 1 hr West to Arecibo and meet a tour group for our caving expedition…
At 5:15am we leave our parking garage in old town San Juan.
We need to drive about 1 hr West to Arecibo, where we will meet with the tour bus from Aventuras, a Puerto Rico adventure company.
The roads are empty, as expected. At 6:30am we pull into the gasstation which serves as our meeting point. We pack our gear and soon the Aventuras bus pulls in.
Tour guide and entertainer Rosanno explains the logistics, equipment and safety of the caving excursion while his partner is driving the bus (and mixing the sounds for the entertainment).
We stop at another café to finish up some paperwork and buy some last minute sandwiches or food items. Everything we bring needs to go in zip-lock bags – nothing will stay dry as the cave features a river which we apparently will cross and/or float in.
Once on location, Rosanno and his partner guide explain the equipment and some of the team rules of hiking as a group.
We get all equipment for the upcoming rappelling and caving, ranging from climbing harness to helmet with head-lights to backpack and life-vest. Of course, putting on and explaining the gear for a total of 17 clients takes a long time, but they entertain with a lot of jokes and fun little stories.
Eventually we get ready for the first section: A Tyrolean traverse on a zip line across a 100 ft steep gorge to a rocky promontory on the other side. Here Jill takes a few steps and glides away in good form:
On the other side, they have 3 fixed ropes to rappell down about 250 ft. Everything is well anchored and organized, they have good equipment and abseil-brakes, so nothing to worry about.
From the top it looks like this:
From the bottom, however, it looks like this:
The last 100 ft or so it is vertical under a big overhang, down to the cave entrance.
Jill tells me she has never done anything like this before – pretty steep to get started! At the bottom of the rappell we need to wait for everybody to come down, which naturally takes a while. Perhaps the group size is a bit too big for this kind of technical move. On the other hand, there is strength in numbers, and the many head-lights in the cave will certainly provide some amount of redundancy and safety.
Here Jill and I pose in front of the cave entrance while waiting for the entire group to get ready.
As one of the first tasks we need to jump from a boulder into the dark river. The first girl jumping in lets out a screem as if the water was very cold – however, air and water are around 75 F (22 C) so it’s not really too cold. Here is Jill taking her last dry step of this trip:
Looking back to the cave entrance shows the last rays of daylight and some head-lights on their way in.
Continuing on, we often walk submerged in water, or even float or swim between big boulders and stalagtite formations.
Good thing we brought the water- and shock-proof Olympus Stylus 790 SW camera – just like many other clients. At times the ground is muddy and the rock is slippery. In one spot we learn that there is a lake when there is a lot of water, but today there is only a long mud-flat which they refer to as Lake Nutella. It’s so slippery that one has trouble not falling. Furthermore, the mud seems to suck your shoes from your feet due to the vacuum under your boot when you try to pull out your foot. Speaking of boots, bring sturdy footwear that can handle the dirt.
At other times, the rock is calcite and offers a lot of friction and excellent purchase on the ground.
There are also plenty of critters underground. Of course we see plenty of bats as well as their droppings, which surprisingly allow small ingested plant seedlings to grow from the residual energy of the bat dropping. But there are also lots of cockroaches, spiders, and even the occasional scorpion. Don’t believe it? Well here you go:
We have lunch in a large hall with 150 ft or higher ceilings and candle-light. It’s a bit like in a church due to all the candle-lights.
Slowly the wet cold is creeping under my skin, and with just sitting there for lunch I’m getting a bit uncomfortable. So we pack everything away and start moving again. Unfortunately we need to get in the water again, this time floating on our back facing the low rock ceiling overhead.
Once past this narrow passage we get to a large column of beautiful stalagtites that double as photo background for all couples in the group.
After a little while we see the cave entrance again and soon we emerge into the black-green half-light in front of the cave.
Everybody is busy getting the gear sorted and taking in the experience. I think it is interesting how we are all soaking wet and shoes and cloths are muddy – but we feel great. Compared to floating in an underground river or wading through a mud lake “nutella” this is pretty good right here. Everything in life is relative…
A short and steep trail leads back out to the beginning of our trip.
After 20 minutes or so we are back where our bus is parked and where the dry cloth and towels are waiting for us.
While we are feeling fairly clean after a short fresh shower, the tour guides and helpers are cleaning and sorting the equipment in the background.
We enjoy some drinks and snacks and play with Max, the adorable local Husky dog puppy. ½ hr later we hop on board of the bus and drive back to the meeting point. There the plastic bags with our wet and muddy cloths are sorted out and we say goodbye for the day.
Great outdoors, friendly staff and a perfect organization make this an unforgettable trip. Later at home, Jill shows me in the National Geographic coffee table book “Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips” a photo taken while rappelling down to exactly this cave with Aventuras. Well, another one down, we have some 495 or so to go…
For this evening we drive to a mountain retreat called Casa Grande south of Arecibo. The drive is quite scenic. First there is a big Highway literally cutting straight through the hills of the socalled Karts Country.
Once we get past the town of Utuado the roads narrow considerably and we occasionally drive slowly behind some horsemen trotting down the road.
East of Utuado we reach the “Lago Caonillas”, a small lake created by a dam in the river.
A very short drive from here brings us to the Casa Grande, a resort built on the grounds of a former coffee plantation.
Other than the occasional horse or car passing by we only hear birds and the Coqui frogs in this lush mountain forest. When was the last time you had this view while waiting for dinner on the balcony?
The resort has no air condition, no phones or TV. So you definitely unplug – also no reception on the BlackBerry… We use the fan to create some airflow and hope that the morning sun will dry out our wet shoes and cloths.
Monday, May 26, 2008 – Arecibo Radio Telescope
We wake up to the first rays of sun reaching over the nearest ridge.
The mountain air has cooled off considerably over night, which is quite comfortable even without air-conditioning. The balcony is flooded with light and warmth.
The short walk-way between our room and the restaurant takes us 15 minutes today as there are so many photo opportunities along the way.
After a breakfast buffett we drive back towards Arecibo. Once on the big highway, we soon depart from it to take a shortcut on a very small and windy single-lane road. Even 20 mph seems like a fast pace in places along this road. By many measures, we are in the middle of nowhere here.
It feels all the more astonishing that this place is home to the worlds largest radio telescope. As we come close the structure with its three suspension towers reaching high above the tree tops comes into view.
The observatory was built in the 1960’s and has been used for scientific experiments for more than 40 years.
After parking the car and walking up about 500 stairs the view to the gigantic structure opens up.
The reflector on the ground has a diameter of 305m and consists of nealry 40,000 aluminum panels adjusted with great spherical precision to reflect all radio-waves to the secondary reflector in the dome-shaped structure in the middle, which then concentrates the radio-waves on measurement instruments.
I am actually surprised by what seems lack of maintenance and onset of decay of the structure. From photos I envisioned this thing to be spotless and bright white. In reality, it’s a dark gray with plants growing in some places, some small sections missing and lots of garbage in the form of plastic cups or small sticks littered in the middle of the big reflector.
The visitor center has some interesting exhibits and recounts the many Nobel price winners who studied astronomy and used this instrument. There is also a very interesting exhibit about the life of a star and various exotic stellar objects like neutron stars, pulsars, quasars, and black holes. Fascinating science - makes me want to turn the clock back and become a physicist!
On the way back from the telescope we stop briefly at the light house at Punta Morillos just East of Arecibo.
It is very hot and we need to get back to the airport for our flight in just 3 ½ hours. For now, we narrowly escape the rains of a huge dark black cloud forming over the Karst Country – but other rain catches up with us along the way.
We get back to San Juan airport with no problems and return the rental car.
Unfortunately this is the moment where I forget to retrieve the TrackStick from the car – so our GPS recorded route can not be uploaded…
A 2 ½ hr flight brings us back to Fort Lauderdale, and another 1 ½ hrs later we’re back in Palm Beach Gardens. What a trip in just 3 ½ days! If you want to see a lot of variety, throw in splendid natural environment, good food, a fun adventure and some high tech sight-seeing, then Puerto Rico might be just the right destination for you, too!