The best part of our week in Puerto Rico does not come with photos. The motivation to travel to Puerto Rico was to experience the bio-luminescent bays, where tiny organisms (dinoflagellates) emit a blue light when the water around them is agitated. The best viewing area is Mosquito Bay on Vieques Island. You can get there by ferry (near Fajardo) or small plane from the main island. We took the ferry and rented a car for 24 hours to explore the island with. A sunken ship remains in the harbor, damage from the last big hurricane.
There are many outfitters who run kayak tours of the bay, but we chose a company that uses glass-bottomed kayaks. The best time to go is on a moonless night; our night had only a sliver of moon, so it was pretty close to dark. For the most part, I keep expectations low about anywhere I travel, that way I'm seldom disappointed. But my expectations for the bay had started to creep up a little. Fortunately, I was not disappointed! It was sooooo cool (in the refined vernacular of one with a degree in English). Erik and I were in a tandem kayak, and as we paddled through the water and looked at the bottom of the kayak, it looked like we were traveling at warp speed through space, like is depicted in Star Trek or in Star Wars just before the Millennium Falcon jumps to light speed, where the sky (or in this case, the water) is just streaks of light. Sometimes we could see when a fish swam in the water beneath us, making blue trails in the water with its fins.
Swirling my hand through the water or dripping it off my paddle produced the prettiest results ... how much more simple can giddy delight get -- run your hand through water and let it drip off your fingers. All-natural trippiness, courtesy of the ever-imaginative Mother Nature. Truly, nothing short of magical. It would not seem poetic, only cliche and obvious, to say out loud while you're in the biobay that it's a reflection of space in the water or vice versa, but since we're not floating in it at the moment, I'll go ahead and say it. The black night sky is full of dinoflagellates, and the black bay waters are full of stars.
We followed that up with another trip from the main island to a different bay at Fajardo on board an electric pontoon boat. I wasn't sure how tiring kayaking would be (turns out not remotely, the trip was super easy), so I'd booked a motorized ride for the next night. If we had taken that trip first, maybe I would have been a tinge disappointed, but maybe not since I still would have experienced something brand new that included sparkly light. In any case, this outing into Lagunas Grande, which is supposed to be the second-best bio-luminescent bay in Puerto Rico, didn't match the blue glowing magic of the Vieques trip in any capacity. However, we did see sparkles and we could more easily pick out the individual organisms tumbling off our fingers as we let the water drip. We were with another family of three from the East Coast who had never experienced anything like it, and being around the kid and his excitement enhanced our experience. The neatest thing about that trip was that we had to travel through a very dense mangrove swamp to reach the bay, we went through a channel that was like a tunnel in the mangroves, with iguanas drooping their legs and tails from the branches above us. Erik and I both thought it was just like a ride you might take at Disney World.
But back to Vieques ... so during our day exploring this tiny island with the rental car, we spent most of our time in a most unexpected manner. I had projected the day would be spent looking at natural features -- beaches and jungles. Instead, we spent most of our time at ruins! First, the ruins of the Central Playa Grande sugar mill in Esperanza, just a short distance inland from the main tourist drag of the island (where most restaurants and hotels are). I didn't know about them beforehand; we just noticed these interesting-looking crumbling building fronts, and got out of the car expecting only to snap a few photos of the picturesque decay. But once we got close to the buildings, we realized there was far more to them.
There were a few pieces of old machinery in the yard. I always like this kind of stuff even if I have no clue what it is or what it does.
This building, in particular, you can't tell at all from the road how huge it is. It looks like just one little wall of a small building still standing, right?
We stepped inside and did one of those slow-motion blinks of "whoa!" It was huge! The way in which the jungle was so wholly overtaking the cement and metal was fascinating. It felt other-worldly. Sorry to bring up Star Wars again, but it kind of made me think of Dagobah, the planet where Yoda lives. I have since learned that the ruins date to about 1860. So this is what a century and a half does to a place here. In another century, there will probably only be rubble.
The next ruin seemed utterly out of place on this little island. It was such a mystery, but we were fortunate to stop by a visitor's center in an old fort before we left the island, where we asked about it. But first I'll let you see if you can figure out what the place is. This is what we saw from the road that intrigued us.
There was a sign saying it was public land, so we walked down to it and poked around under the grandstand. It was pretty neat, and we could see clear evidence that wild horses had been finding a pleasant refuge in here.
Then we walked up to the long cement building, and again, way more than we could see from the road unfolded as we explored huge rooms along a massive hallway. There was a rusted-out van at one end of the entrance to the grand hallway.
Perhaps now would be a good time to point out that I came to Puerto Rico with an injured foot and had to wear this big boot thing the whole time. As long as my foot was in the boot, it didn't bother me, and I actually got along just fine. Though, I hadn't been prepared to be walking through thorny bushes to reach mysterious ruins on this day, so actually what suffered the most here was my other foot in a flip-flop and my nylon skirt that kept catching on the thorns. Anyway, I think I'm going to adopt the photo of me below as my SKJ Travel logo. Kind of sums up why I even have a website and share my travels of the world.
Figured it out yet? What is this mysterious complex? It was supposed to be a community center ... with a swimming pool and basketball court and weight room, and two fields with grandstands for outdoor sports. A huge financial undertaking that apparently fell prey to corruption, as so many things with high financial stakes and values do in this imperfect world. So there was no money to complete it, and it fell into ruins. The man at the visitor's center pulled our leg at first when we asked him what the giant ruined building was; he said, "Where is that?" We told him, and he said, "Huh, I've never seen it. I don't know what it could be." But such a huge thing on such a small island ... his statement was quickly evaluated as impossible. Then he laughed and said what a misery it was, an eyesore, a constant reminder of incompetence and corruption. A pity -- it would clearly have been a great benefit to the community.
There were a few non-thorny bushes we passed by, such as this one. A flowering tree, actually. And below that is a quick pic of the hilltop fort, El Fortin Conde de Mirasol, where we spoke to the man who clued us in to the mystery.
One of the things we particularly liked about Vieques was all the free-range animals. Dogs, who were even chilling out on the rooftops, chickens, and most appealingly, feral horses. "Feral" often implies a skittish and maybe aggressive animal, but these horses are very docile. Locals ride them all the time -- no saddles, they just grab the manes; some kids we saw weren't even wearing shoes while riding. It's quite picturesque, the random grazing horses everywhere, even though I didn't get any good pictures myself. But if you like horses, Vieques would be a delightful place for you.
Puerto Rico, it turns out, has a major "cruising" culture. People driving their cars up and down the streets, back and forth just cruising, like I used to do in high school in the 1980s (haha, embarrassed to admit). One guy in Vieques was particularly amusing, as he was cruising the main street in Esperanza that fronts the ocean along which the restaurants are lined with their beach-facing patios. He wasn't cruising in a car, though, he was cruising on one of the horses, trotting and clomping up and down the street, back and forth, all by himself. I don't know if he expected a pretty lady to spring from one of the patios and ask for a ride, or what his purpose was. I guess in cruising it's just about being seen.
There was one alarming sign I saw ... Yikes!
OK, back to the main island. I imagined Puerto Rico was a small enough island that we might run out of stuff to do after a week, but in fact, we'll need to come back to do some stuff we didn't get to! Probably the most famous part of Puerto Rico (besides Old San Juan) is the El Yunque National Forest rain forest. We spent a day here. The only thing we couldn't do was swim in the waterfalls, as so many other people were doing, because of my injured foot encased in its giant black boot -- I couldn't get it wet and I couldn't walk yet without it.
It's a rain forest indeed, with all the fecundity one expects, the wild dreamings of the color green, as if it's secretly planning to take over the world. We could hear lots of birds singing in the dense trees, but caught very few glimpses of them. Snails, however, were abundant -- dynamic and dangerous creatures that they are! I stood for a little while and watched the riveting drama unfold .....
My fascination with lizards has grown from my time spent with the iguanas in Ixtapa, Mexico, each year. For the first time in my life, I was pleased to find little lizards all around me, and was anxious to photograph them. But they're speedy little boogers who often scamper away just as you get your finger on the shutter button. But actually, once you find a few and see how uber-camouflaged they are, you imagine that they are probably all around you by the dozens and you simply can't see them! (and I should note, I like them in the forest now; I still do NOT like them in my hotel rooms!)
A creature that I typically feel a range of emotions about from annoyance to fear to loathing, pretty much dependent on its size, is the spider. Yeah, I'm one of those arachnophobic girly girls. However, I cannot deny the glory of a well-rendered spider web. Truly, they are amazing and I give full credit to these creepy critters for their artistic merit. I was delighted to find this small guy in the middle of his web right in the middle of a very rare shaft of sunlight penetrating the dense rain forest canopy.
We didn't see an over-abundance of blooming flowers, but the ones we did see were lovely. And then I saw this crazy mass of branches that immediately brought to mind a Chihuly glass sculpture I saw at the Denver Botanical Gardens. If he takes inspiration from nature, surely the similarity of these two is no coincidence. Check it out -- what do you think?
These look like little people with their arms curled in, wearing skirts. OK, their heads aren't very attractive - little fuzzy stumps - but otherwise they're graceful.
There are two towers in the park that you can climb to the top of to get wonderful bird's eye panoramic views of the island. An old one, and a new one. I wish I received a dollar for every person who commented on me hiking through the rain forest and up the towers in my boot. Everyone was so impressed and amazed, but it honestly wasn't very difficult. I certainly wasn't about to stay home in my hotel room! Anyway, those dollars would have bought some pretty swanky meals in San Juan!
One thing I didn't realize is that the interior of the island is a spine of mountainous rain forest rising high up from the sea level. The roads through the interior were probably the windiest, twistiest roads we have ever encountered. And that's saying something. So if you love a tight turn, rent a sporty car in Puerto Rico! We didn't have a sporty car, but ours was good enough to have some fun. The main east-west route across the interior is the Ruta Panoramica. Do not travel it if you are prone to car sickness! For us, we loved it. You can travel right to the apex of the island and look down to the ocean on either side, north or south.
We stopped off at the main cultural attraction in Puerto Rico. I knew nothing about indigenous cultures on Puerto Rico. The Parque Ceremonial Indigena de Caguana was a small but very educational museum in the middle of the island. We even got in free because the man who normally sells the tickets was sick that day. Apparently no one else could do the job. There's a small museum with artifacts and informational murals about the Taino culture who lived here and built these ceremonial ball courts, in use from about 1200 to 1500 AD. Outside, there are two small courts lined with short stone "monoliths," which I put in quotes because that conjures images of something large, but they're quite small. It kind of looks like the courts are surrounded by tombstones. A few of them have their original petroglyphs still visible. My favorite is the one that looks like the iconic kid's ghost costume (far right) ... two eye-holes cut out of a sheet. It's just so simple and because of the Halloween similarity, so cute.
My inclination is to tell you a bit about the Taino people and the Caguana site, but this post has already gotten a bit out of hand, so you can Google it. Suffice to say, if you find yourself on Puerto Rico, even though it's a tiny monument compared to so many others of enormous magnitude that I've been to, I recommend stopping in. In my opinion, it's always worth knowing what came before you, before your own culture and your own culture's history. Step outside yourself.
These are the ball courts. I was enamored by the thought that these huge trees could be the same ones as the ancients stood under, but when I asked the security guard about them (the only guy on hand since the ticket seller was out sick), he said the trees in the site now are not very old, 50 to 100 years old. I was disappointed, but glad I asked because otherwise I might have waxed on like an idiot about the spirituality in standing beside the same living tree as the ancestors but looking at the ball court with utterly different eyes. The last part still is true, of course, but the poetry is reduced when there is nothing else held in common than the inanimate court and the eroded stones.
Here is the detail of some of the petroglyphs on some of the individual stones.
Just a short distance north from the ancient Caguana site is the Arecibo Observatory, home to the world's largest radar-radio telescope, probing the depths of space with modern technology. We drove from San Juan one day specifically to see this, as it was touted in my guidebook as a primary, world-class attraction on the island. Imagine our disappointment when we got there to find out it was closed until the summer! Some anomalous reason, I don't even remember what for now, but we were not the only disappointed folks who had driven a couple hours from San Juan to see it. I felt a little badly for the security guards, whose fault the closure was not, but who had to deal with disappointed visitors venting their frustration surely every hour of every day. This is as close as we got to the enormous dish.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that time when I was nearly eaten by a gigantic plant. That was hair-raising, but I survived. So all's well that ends well -- a week in April in Puerto Rico. I'll make a separate post about Old San Juan.