I had dreamed of visiting the island of Puerto Rico for over 6 years. I had made some attempts at planning a trip, but it would never come to fruition. The main thing that attracted me about PR was the reputation for the good waves it can get. California was also on top of my list for travel for the same reason of good surf. California also held the added appeal for being the land of my birth and that I had not been there since I was 5 years old. The downside of Cali was its cold and murky waters. On the other hand, the waters are warm and clear in PR year round.
For the past few years I have traveled extensively. Some of my most notable trips have included Cali. In April 2009 I returned to California after 30 years. Since then I have been back 3 more times all without visiting PR at all. PR was lowered in my travel priorities for a few reasons. The main reason being that after experiencing the dramatic wild places of the west, I felt like PR was not on the same scale. Also that my trips are centered on capturing dramatic video and photos and not so much on activities like PR has to offer. In all my trips to the west coast I had yet to even touch the Pacific ocean much less surf it.
It is now 2011 and I decide to plan an under the radar “so to speak” trip to the island. As I researched possible itineraries I started to become quite excited about this trip. This would be a different venture from all the prior ones. This was a trip to an island as opposed to the US main land. Furthermore the culture would be different than what I am used to. This was my most economical trip of this scale. The air fare was $250, car rental $140, gas $90, minimal food expense (no groceries) etc. I stayed 3 nights in Rio Piedras with my mother’s cousin and his wife (Bichara & Ada Haber). The other 2 nights for $160 in Quebradilla’s excellent ocean front hotel with a balcony affording a wonderful view.
I plan the trip for the 1st week of February disconnected from any holiday or any such thing (other than Super Bowl weekend). Like I said before it was under the radar. I did not disclose my trip to most people I am in contact with. I especially concealed it from my Puerto Rican friends so I could surprise them when I returned. So in this so called off season venture ($250 flight as opposed to $600 in December) the weather tends to be much better than say summer time when it is hotter and wetter. I was foreboding the weather circumstance due to forecasts of rain. The weather ended up being quite good; temperatures from low 70’s to low 80’s. At one point it was in the mid 60’s. The sunshine seemed brighter there than what I am accustomed to. Could this be a result of being closer to the equator?
I need to stop rambling and get into the actual trip report. Day 1 I venture into the tropical rain forest El Yunque. I arrive early enough to enjoy some silence and solitude on the trail to La Mina Falls. The 1st thing that impressed me of PR and especially the forests is the rich shades of lush green in abundance found all over the hills and mountains. The variety of trees, plants and flowers growing wildly all over the place gives it a real jungle feel. As I am hiking the trail the mist of a cloud passes by the side of the mountain right where I was at. The sun was shining in rays thru palms and other tree leaves creating a spectacular effect right before my eyes. I consider this a photographers’ ideal setting. I was able to capture quality video and photos of these special moments.
In total I hiked about 6 miles within the jungle. Some of it was steep, rocky and slippery. I did slip and fall a couple of times. I arrived at a prominent peak with a tower on it to see an expansive view. The atmosphere was hazy making for lousy pictures. The mountains in PR are not impressive in and of themselves especially when compared to the mainland’s West Coast. They are mostly rounded peaks and you will never see snow on them. The thick foliage on them causes them to seem featureless from a distance, but upon closer inspection they have their own appeal. When the lighting is right with the right mixture of adorning clouds these mountains are beautiful in their own right. The flowering trees on these mountains add wonderful color.
The tourists are now fully present this Thursday afternoon. There were some tour groups that tended to be in the way a bit. A couple of out of shape people would also be in the way of some trails.
I was on my way out of the forest when I stopped at a picturesque road side creek with some cascades. I saw a couple of locals follow an undesignated trail along the creek. I later followed the path and found 2 small but nice waterfalls. The couple was sitting by the 2nd falls when I arrived with my camera gear. The guy gave me a little bit of a hard look when he saw me. I don’t blame him. I saw that yonder was another water fall that looked much taller than the others. At 1st it looked like getting to the waterfall was inaccessible because the creek’s side path abruptly elevated. I actually found a relatively easy way to reach this waterfall carefully holding my camera gear. This unadvertised waterfall is about a 30 foot high free fall off a mountain cliff into a pool. Though I was unprepared clothing wise, I took off my shirt and shoes and went into the pool and underneath the pressure of the falling water. This is the 1st time I fully immerse myself under a waterfall. These waters are relatively warm compared to the rivers I have entered in the West or the springs in Florida. It was a great 1st day to my adventure.
The following day was one of my worst days of travel (scenic wise) of all my trips. I traveled over 6 hours and never saw my intended target. I started to see an unfortunate trend in all the places I traveled within the island. Every neighborhood was either crummy or just plain undesirable. I mean the houses and streets seemed like they are all in disrepair. The organization of the streets was poorly planned as well. The place I wanted to see on the coast is called Punto Ventana. It is a state park and there is not one sign leading to it that I saw. The locals I asked were clueless. The one person who instructed me to its whereabouts (a man working on a bridge in a construction crew) failed to know that the bridge to reach the place was also under construction thus preventing access to the place altogether. My GPS had very little information when it came to parks and recreation. There were times the GPS lead me into a road that ended in some ones back yard. The maps that I printed from home did little to help me navigate. I tried to wing it a few times to find points of interest and I would just go thru a maze of crummy neighborhoods. I am sorry to report that most of the people reminded me of the people in Miami (self centered and arrogant). The people in service like restaurants and hotels would be extra courteous, but the ones in the street not so much. The people that I met from the States (Mainland) were of a different temperament which goes with out mentioning. Other than some people from another town asking me for directions only one Island Native spontaneously spoke to me. He in fact complained how so many natives trash the island. The traffic could be just as bad as or worse than grungy US cities. The driving habits are even worse than Miami. Many roads are very narrow (looking like a one lane road) and cars almost scrape each other when passing. I went into a one way road (I saw no sign that said do not enter) and people all over started to yell at me. The reports of thieves and crime are prevalent enough to make one feel paranoid most of the time.
On another occasion on a road with dips and holes the size of small swimming pools, I passed a couple cars. One car was actually on the wrong side of the road, and they beeped and yelled something at me (which I am glad I did not hear) as If I was the one on the wrong side of the road. Then I see a pick up truck with some girls in the back drinking beer (on this majorly bumpy road) in the morning.
This is some low class stuff. Overall I was surprised not that these conditions and people were in PR, but that it was like this just about everywhere I went. Unlike all my other trips I did not feel at home for a good portion of the trip. I almost forgot Spanish while I was there for some reason too. This feeling was especially felt when I was standing in line inside a gas station (80 cents a litter / Prices are not in gallons) because I could not use my credit card at the pump. As I heard people’s conversation it all felt foreign to me.
Speaking of Day 2, after I filled up the new 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer I wander aimlessly for hours in mountain roads and find no parks at all just crummy houses and a lot of abandoned buildings too. I only find a steep bluff with a river running thru it shaded by large trees and bamboos. I hiked down the steep sides and found a peaceful place to refresh and stretch my legs after innumerable fruitless hours of driving.
Even though I had not planned to go to El Castillo San Cristobal in San Juan, I went because of the extra time I had on Day 2. This was my 1st look at the North Coast and its strong surf. I went around the historic sights and saw some interesting statues and the Fort itself. All of it was really no big deal for me. It felt like St Augustine but less organized.
I start Day 3 leaving the prison house in the morning for the last time where I stayed for 3 nights. The home itself is pleasant enough inside though it is quirky. The neighborhood itself is shadowed by large office buildings of medical research and the like. The residential area does give the impression of potential peril especially in the night time. There are no side walks and to park a car one must climb the curb side. Bichara has converted the house from when he purchased it in 1970 into a unique set up. What was once a car garage is now a kind of semi-outdoor lobby of sorts where coqui chirp all night while unseen. In 40 years living in PR, Bichara had only seen the small frog once. This being the entry point is locked by numerous heavy padded locks to accompany the metal door’s bolts. As I afore mentioned, the morning release was an ordeal that took several minutes of a methodical routine. Inside you may find an excellent 47 inch Sony Bravia LCD with a Sony Blu Ray Player (unfortunately I brought a standard DVD of a video presentation of my trip to the NW). That is the living room which I think was formerly the garage. When one enters the rest of the house via the kitchen it is like entering a house within a house with another door with locks. I stayed in a quaint guest room that captured my attention in increments. The 1st thing that got my attention was a painting of the island of Cuba as a geographic whole. The painting looked familiar because I had seen the artist’s work as child. This was my grandmother’s painting done a year before I was born in 1972 while she lived in Stockton, California. I failed to ask Bichara about the painting and how he got it. It was obviously given to him. He went from Cuba to Puerto Rico and became a distributor of cloth to clothing shops thru out the Island. By the grace of God, he became successful at this until his retirement a few years ago. He had his home office behind what is the semi-outdoor living room.
The small room I stayed in had a couple of book shelves that became my main source of entertainment one of the evenings. Among the books that I looked at were of the grandest wonders of the planet to a book about Cuban song writers. I found some books with some interesting dedications and some other curiosities.
I am hoping for a turn around in momentum from Day 2 as I venture to my 1st stopping point which was Puerto Nuevo in Vega Baja. This is a beach divided by a large hammerhead shaped exposed reef rock. The entire parking lot was under construction, but fortunately there were only a few people at this time so I basically parked under a palm tree on the sand. As I was on these sharp and slippery rocks with all my camera gear a rain shower hits causing me to make haste (careful not to fall on these unforgiving rocks) to the Lancer. I was soaked and my equipment was wet. I thank God the gear was unfazed by the water, but my exploration sure was.
The next stop was Cueva del Indio. There was a film crew there doing I don’t know what. I parked at one spot, got out ready to go when someone told me I need to park someplace else because the film crew vehicles needed it. I park where he told me and I was ready to go again when someone else in a truck asked me to park someplace else so I did. I was looking for the person I needed to pay $2 to park and these 3 guys just gave me peculiarly annoying stares. Ok so forget you guys I am going to see the cave. I start to video when someone else says to me in English that I could not photograph the place that day because the film crew only had rights so forth and so on. I asked but for 5 minutes to get in and get out, and he says if the bosses find out there would be big problems. I complained more to myself than to him that for the last couple days I seem to be blocked from all the places I am trying to get to. I find detour this, bridge closed here and now this. I am now in the town of Arecibo trying to find Puerto Hermina which is some ruins located on a river mouth to the ocean. I was fascinated by this place when I saw pictures and read about its pirate history. My GPS and printed maps helped me none. I asked a couple of ambulance drivers and they were clueless as was my common findings with the locals. It was feeling like my last major trip (Desert Southwest) where I had made it to only about half of the places I had in my itinerary. In the Desert SW Trip there were good (and sometimes great alternatives). This was not the case here in PR. At this point when I did not find what was in my plan, I would only be wandering in a maze of crummy hoods and narrow streets. In the mainland when I don’t get to my intended place for whatever reason, I do some researching in my GPS and or Michelin Road Atlas find something that is quite appealing. The GPS had very little registered from PR. I gave myself a good back up for this day in my planning. I was expecting not to have time to visit the Camuy Caves this day. On Monday when I was thinking of going the caves are closed. This place is easy to find especially with the ample amount of signs. It is the only place I actually paid to enter. The parking was $3 and the tour $15. I consider it worth it albeit pricey. I now have my ticket for the next cram tram. The cram is for proximity to people. I sit there feeling cumbersome with my tripod, waist pack, Olympus body/ lens around my neck and the headphones with radio piece that narrates each station of the cave whilst there.
Okay down we go via a steep windy path made just for the tram. The view as we spiraled down into this immense sink hole of sorts was dramatic with its trees displaying florescent like leaves. Now we all dismount receive instruction from our bilingual female leader and begin at a huge opening to Clara Cave. I loved it from the onset. I was not coerced to keep up with the main group so I lingered well behind to set up for my shots with the tripod using slow shutter to properly expose the dark cave. The last cave I visited on a serious impulse was Colossal Caves in Arizona where no tripods were allowed. Needless to say my photos were subpar. In that case I was given a personal tour, this time there were about 40 people in the tour. The main cavern itself is a vast arena like dome adorned with stalactites, stalagmites and columns. We reach the other end of the cavern to another opening that overviews a large hole on the opposite wall and puddles of a river underneath. The places where the cave opens up to daylight were very interesting due to a distinctly projected bluish glow and the translucent green vegetation growing in response to the light. I have nothing else to compare this to in my travels.
So now things are looking up, but I get lost trying to find the hotel for about 20 minutes. I could swear that it was east of the highway, but after calling the hotel (fortunately I had it in my cell phone from my previous call a week ago) they directed me to west of the highway. I was able to check in at about 1:30pm (instead of waiting till 3pm). I think I already said this; in any case I loved the view from the room’s ocean front balcony and lack of people. The people that were there were sufficiently mild mannered. I actually was concerned that for one of nights my stay coincided with the Super Bowl. I was thinking that I might get rowdy neighbors. It was not the case whatsoever. The main sound I would hear was the sound of ocean waves.
15 minutes after checking in, I was checking out the beach in my board shorts. During my 2 ½ day stay I saw no in the ocean or even on the sand in front of the hotel. I entered the beautiful ocean with its strong waves and randomly spaced reef rocks. Water shoes would have been helpful to avoid striking my feet against rocks due to the strong currents. It was one of the most exhilarating ocean experiences without my surf board I have had. On the 2nd day in this beach I discovered the place where Rio Guajataca ends in the Atlantic. There is this rock shelf on the edge of the river’s mouth where thick vegetation softens the rock so walking barefoot on it is totally pleasing. One of the best parts of this place is the shallow pools created in these shelves where you can sit inside while strong waves crash on its edge and splash all over the pools and cascade on its other sides.
After showering, I cruise the beautiful beaches of Isabela (Bela means beautiful). The only way to reach the beach is via run-downed neighborhoods with narrow streets that lead into one ways with little or no warning. Then from the slums you will see an abrupt change when you get to the coast. There are luxury hotels and restaurants along with tourists from far and near. The tourists from near live in PR, but in other cities. Isabela has an excellent coastal drive that affords good ocean views in route. I stopped at a couple spots to explore, but the mostly cloudy conditions detracted the scene badly. Then a wonderful window of heaven opened up in the way of sunlight mixed with dark clouds for contrast. I started to take photos like it was going out of style from where I was standing on a reef outcrop. A few minutes later I drive to another spot where the waves were splashing high and dramatic. The timing was great with the light shining on the crashing waves and dark clouds for a backdrop. After a little while the window closed and I was behind closed doors in my hotel before the sunset behind the clouds. Now I had to resolve the toilet not flushing issue. A cute girl (custodian) was sent to fix it which she did easily.
The other thing I needed to resolve after a day’s journey was on Day 1. I was thrown a curve ball when renting the car. The plane was delayed causing me to just barely make the 10pm closing time of the car rental agency called “Target”. The issue was they had to charge me for insurance if I did provide my insurance coverage sheet (not just the ID card). I was calling my agent for them to fax the sheet, but there was no answer after waiting for many minutes. The rental place called Target had me as their last customer so I was preventing them from closing and going home. The only solution was to put the $15 per day insurance on the contract and when I provide my sheet the next day a new contract minus their insurance would be rendered. I was even being offered to follow one of the employees to Rio Piedras so I would find Bichara’s place. My GPS calculated my position at that time so I didn’t need to follow him. That would have been a weird way to start my PR driving experience. The rental agencies name “Target” was placed on the rear of their vehicles. I thought this ironic in a place infamous for crime. “Hey there goes a tourist” would the criminal element suggest when seeing Target. The Target was missed in my case fortunately. I am not exactly a typical tourist neither with my street background and what not. I gave some locals hard stares and some lip in one occasion. This is not my advocating what absurd visiting surfers do to the locals in the line up. This being said some retaliation may be in line. I am sure there are cool people native to PR, but I met very few of them. Did I already say the prevailing temperament reminds me of Miamians?
So after Day 1 was over I go to Target to renew my contract and save myself over $70. I called from Bichara’s house with my cell phone while the signal strength would fluctuate. I was fortunate and glad that I communicated with a customer service rep (outsourced to an Indian girl) who promptly faxed the insurance info to Target. This of course was cause to put in my request for leaving the “residence” which requires the lowering of the bridge etc. Upon my return (the bridge lowered then raised again as the coqui chimed his protest), I sat and conversed a while with Don Bichara. It was unfortunate timing that Ada (Lady of the Estate) was sick with flu during my visit. On another note, my visit coincided with that of their daughter and son in law Adita and Harry (native to the Island). It was a blessing to share some time this late evening right after I arrived (Welcoming Committee) with this couple now residing in San Antonio, TX. Due to their occupations they relocate cities within the US every few years. Adita works as a surgeon for the armed services, and Harry in Road Engineering. Their last location was near San Francisco.
On the 3rd night of my stay (after skunk day), I was discovering the oddities in my small quarters when Bichara kindly offered dinner. I said to him as I did the previous night that I already had “my way” BK. It was a artery clogging #5 on the menu with a milk shake (meal replacement) eaten greedily and hastily while finishing the last few miles of driving in the unattractive streets of beloved San Juan. What I learned later was that his other daughter (my cousin?) who lives in PR and had bought and brought Arabian food. The name Bichara is indeed Arabian, I am told by Prima Raquel (A book by the same title in the library of the small room.) So while I was studying oddities, they were wondering why I was rejecting them. I did indeed fall asleep early that night despite the room’s window inability of being shut (thus hearing the noise in the living room / mainly TV).
Now it is Day 4, and I purpose to see the famous surfing beach Rincon. I knew it would be flat, but I was hoping to see some other features of appeal. It was a beautiful morning, but most of it was spent driving thru neighborhoods. There is no freeway on the west side of the island. I get a little bit disoriented trying to find Cabo Rojo on the extreme southwest side but finally find it. The couple of miles of road to reach a parking spot were the worst dips and holes I had ever experienced. The coasts by the lighthouse are made up of dramatic sea cliffs. After a little while the few people (some bikers) left thus leaving me alone in this great place. Once again I had more time than anticipated (unusual for my outings) so I go to a state forest called Guajataca. There were no real hiking trails or overviews in this thickly vegetated place. It was a very narrow road among very steep and windy turns. The instructions were to honk your horn at every turn and leave the car windows slightly open. It is a dangerous place to drive. The rest of the day was similar to the previous in that I went inside the ocean and took a cruise by the coast. At this point I felt like a day 5 was not really necessary.
It is now Day 5 which was supposed to be a half day before I return to America. I quickly changed my mind that Day 5 was not necessary. I went to the place (near the hotel where the waves splash high) to the river’s mouth before sunrise. It was another excellent morning as I enjoyed this wild scene with no one in sight for about an hour. The place was transformed from what I saw in the middle of the prior day where undesirable people were scattered everywhere. The place reflected a peace this morning as the sun rose over the hills, birds/ crabs on the rocks and the surf pounding while the wind was light. I wisely did not check out from hotel (as I would have done normally) so I got some toast from the hotel breakfast offering washed up a bit then checked out at around 8:30am. It is time for redemption concerning Cueva del Indio. I parked and paid the owner of the house whom quickly found me this time. The parking lot is his front yard. As opposed to a camera crew and confusion, I had the place to myself save for the dogs and iguanas. This is a great place with sea cave features. You can climb down a ladder to get into the cave area. I began to descend, but I did not feel comfortable doing this with my gear. These 2 of 3 Dalmatian like dogs started to put on a show for me by play fighting. One of them also approached me so close he ran into me. The friendliest locals that I ran into or rather ran into me. The waves were doing their thing crashing on the cave walls and shooting thru holes in the rocks.
I then travel south on HWY PR 10 which was the best road I’d seen on the trip. It is a fairly straight 4 lane road with new pavement passing thru a gap in the mountain range. The major portion of this road that I saw didn’t have houses or other structures unlike everything else I saw. The scenery makes it a pleasant drive altogether. My colleague at work who was born and raised in Vega Baja told me that a few years ago the original road was destroyed by a hurricane. They did a fine job in remaking it. I see a sign that says Lago Dos Bocas so I follow. There is a bridge overlooking a lake surrounded by mountains on one side and a river on the other. The power lines greatly detract from an otherwise great view of Rio Abajo. I wanted to make it down to the river and finally found an access point from someone’s back yard. I trekked through jungle (saw a small snake there) and reached a section of rapids. The only rapids I saw in the whole trip. The water color though not appealing being brownish but the place as a whole is wonderful. On my way back to the main road I see a sign for the Arecibo Observatory. I foolishly take the bait and wind up in a maze of neighborhoods with sign after sign indicating the observatory yet no sign that you are actually close. One of my gripes of the poor organization and lack of vision in PR has to do with a lack of posted info concerning places and such. What that sign needed to say was; Arecibo Observatory 20 miles. I was running out of time so I turned around in the midst of the labyrinth. A couple of hours later I am passing the rental car agency with time to spare. I wanted to see a place called Pinones, wash up, fill the gas tank, change cloths and get something to eat. I did get to see the beach of Carolina (very nice). I ended up getting so disorientated and down right lost that I never did wash up or get food. It was a nightmare trying to find the rental place even though I had just passed it 30 minutes earlier. I would enter and exit the wrong highways, and in one instance had to pay a $3 toll just to re exit. I tried to program the GPS to what I though was the location, but only got more lost. I would eventually find the right road, but I was confused as to which direction to take. I did about 3 ultimately frustrating circles getting jammed in traffic after every few miles. I greatly feared losing the 5:35pm flight. The only help came when I called the agency and they directed me to them. I finally find the place and we (I was the only one in the bus) get stuck in traffic in the shuttle to the airport. I this point I basically resigned my expectation of making the flight. It must have been but a few minutes that I miss the final cut off. That one extra circle of madness I did, done did me in. I had to go thru an extra inspection of bags at the sidewalk of the airport and was rescheduled for a 9pm flight. I was thinking maybe the next flight being 7pm. The worst behind me I settle in the terminal for a 4 hour delay. I was sticky and stinky from a day’s adventure in the hot sun. I even had scratches on my legs from jungle trekking. After an overpriced and semi stale pizza from the terminal’s Dominos I review my pictures and videos to delete unwanted files. The time went by relatively quickly. I had a window seat in the plane with no one occupying the 2 next to me. Since I must have smelled something awful, this was an extra good thing. I arrived 4 hours past schedule. Instead of my brother in law picking me up at the MIA, I had Robin from Nica get me. That was much better than grabbing a cab. After the ordeal, seeing Robin was a good thing. You ask me what I thought of my trip to the Isla del Incanto, I would give you the now classic answer “I loved it and I hated it.” The love is sufficient to bring me back one day God Willing.