Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The first day and the last virgin

What would you think if I told you there was a tiny Caribbean island that was mostly undeveloped, where the miles of beaches were pristine and often deserted, the waters crystal clear, the locals friendly and mostly English-speaking; where there was almost no crime, you didn't need a car to get around, could stay for $20 a night and eat for $8 a day, and didn't need a passport to get there?

"Sign me up," right?

But there's a paradox in writing about any paradise. The reason this island sounds so great is because it hasn't been overrun by hordes of tourists and developers--because hardly anyone knows about it. And though I tout my blog as being "unseen," which it mostly is because I'm too lazy to publicize it, I'd be naive to think it won't result in friends or internet-surfing strangers' turning up on her doorstep, bags in hand. "La ultima virgen"--the last virgin, as this island is sometimes called--will continue to slowly grow in popularity until she's a virgin no more.

So I had to think a great deal before I decided to tell my story at all, and in the end it comes down to the fact that of course paradise does not exist. Every place has parts that are ugly, parts that are boring, parts that stink. I will talk about these and then you may decide for yourself whether to take this vacation to Culebra.

I woke up at 1:30 AM on the Thursday before Spring Break to drive to Bradley International Airport outside of Hartford. We have an airport in Rhode Island, a perfectly good one, but it seems that everywhere I want to go can be gotten to by going through Hartford for about $100 less. I'd booked my ticket on, which let me search for the best prices within a flexible range of dates. I was off to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for $264 round-trip. I could have had a flight on a Wednesday for less, but I'd have missed chem lab. It occurred to me that I was essentially paying $30 (on top of my tuition) to pour acetic acid into test tubes for three hours, but hey, that's college. (It turns out that flights out of Logan were about the same price but, unlike Hartford, some were non-stop, which could be useful to know for the future.

Above are the bags I took with me. I have a little black duffel that's a bit smaller than the standard carry-on; in it was my tent, hammock, towel, blanket, whisk broom and a couple bagels, with assorted underwear stuffed in the corners. I vastly prefer this bag to the ones with wheels. The wheels drive me crazy. The last such bag I tried I was too tall for, and kept kicking the thing with my heel as I walked, tipping it over every 20 feet. But my duffel I can sling over my shoulder and walk like a normal person.

My backpack had my first aid kit, water socks, snorkel, water bottle, swimwear, five t-shirts, reading material, journal, toiletries, and some more snacks. I packed things this way so that the backpack would be heavier, having two shoulder straps instead of one.

I hadn't packed my sleeping pad, as there was no room and I'd read I'd be able to buy an inflatable raft on the island.

I got to the $6-a-day economy lot at Bradley and got out to wait for the shuttle. It was cold, maybe below freezing. I was wearing my sneakers and the only pair of long pants I'd have on the island, which converted by zippers into the only pair of shorts I'd have. I also had a t-shirt, white button-down shirt, sweatshirt, rain jacket and hat on. I was carrying enough stuff on my body to be able to fill another backpack. It didn't help against the cold though.

By 9:30 AM, the early morning already seemed like yesterday. I was sitting on a flight from Philadelphia to San Juan and the memories of my earlier drive and first flight were already hazy, as if eight hours of sleep separated me from them. I had been moved to an exit row, which had a ton of leg room and which I decided I liked very much. But I thought I ought to be prepared in case we had to crash into the Hudson or something, so I was reading the emergency pamphlet.

One page showed the conditions under which the emergency door was not to be opened, and I paid special attention to these. It showed a big red circle and slash over the handle, as a cartoon man peered out through the window to see, in successive panels, (1) grey swirls, (2) orange streamers, (3) blue waves, and (4) yellow confetti. In the absence of any accompanying text, I assumed this meant that I should not open the door in the case of (1) smoke, (2) fire, (3) water, or (4) parties.

We landed at San Juan unassailed by parties, and I beat it out to the street where the taxis gathered. My sense of hurry was instilled by a conversation I'd had a week ago:

"Air Flamenco, ¿cómo le puedo ayudar esta mañana?"

"Uh... do you speak English?"


"How much would it cost for me to fly from San Juan to Culebra on March 12?"

"Round trip it is $105."

"Oh! I'd like to book that, please."

"We have an 8:30 flight, a 10:45, a 1:00, and a 4:30."

"The 1:00, please."

"Okay." Long pause. "You know we are at Isla Grande, right?"

"...Yes!" Err, they were? Isla Grande was San Juan's smaller, regional airport. Not the one I was flying into. "Um... if my flight gets in to San Juan international at 11:30, will I have time to get to Isla Grande?"

"Do you have checked baggage?"

"No," I decided.

"Then if there is not too much traffic, you can make it. If you miss it, there is a $15 fee to rebook."

San Juan has a "tourist taxi" system with special taxis that charge set rates for travel to the various tourist districts of the city. I stood in line for the next taxi, told the attendant where I'd be going and how many bags I had, and she printed me a bill for $16 (this didn't include a tip; tipping is the same in Puerto Rico as on the mainland). The bill was handed to my taxi driver and I climbed in.

The San Juan I saw from my tinted window was full of art, both the kind deliberately installed by the city and the kind delivered by aerosol under cover of darkness. There were brightly-painted sculptures everywhere. There were tall apartment buildings with steel bars fully enclosing every balcony, even on the 20th floor. There were palm trees and pointy volcanic mountains in the distance. My taxi driver was asking me something. After some difficulty comprehending her in English I started speaking in Spanish, which prompted a rapid-fire response in Spanish that I understood equally little of. There is a Caribbean accent particular to Spanish-speakers of this area, and I cannot adequately describe it except to say it sounds nothing like the Colombian accent of my Spanish teacher.

In the end we had the same conversation, first in bad English and second in bad Spanish, about the fact that it cost about $50 to get to Culebra by plane but only $2.50 to get there by ferry. This is quite true, but there remains the fact that it costs around $70 to get to the ferry by taxi. A fine option if you're traveling with a group, but I was not. My friends were either too poor, to busy or too both to come with me.

I should mention that there is a third way to get to the ferry: by publico, or public car. These vehicles carry locals around Puerto Rico, stopping in each town to pick up or drop off more folks. The trip from San Juan to Fajardo, where the ferry launched, might have cost only $6--however, between the bus ride from the airport to the publico stop, the long circuitous route, and the possible necessity of taking the last ferry of the day over to Culebra, I might not have arrived in the campground until 10 PM. I'd have been traveling for twenty hours. Add to this the fact that many drivers apparently try to squeeze as much money as possible out of tourists, and the publicos didn't look so appealing, despite my love of a bargain. So I was traveling by air.

Here we are at Isla Grande airport.

It has various desks for the small regional airlines...

And a ritzy lounge where you can wait for your flight. What it does not have is TSA security. No lines, no x-ray machines, no baggage claim (unless you count "come get your stuff off this cart"). I was flying Air Flamenco, which combines relatively low prices with a fair number of flights per day. Other small airlines flew out of San Juan International for about $170, offered fewer flight times, or required you to get a party together before they'd book a flight. Air Flamenco charges $0.60 for each pound of baggage over 25 pounds, but I watched as they weighed my bags and though they came to about 27 pounds, I wasn't charged.

That is to be my plane, on the left. Each of the passengers is asked for his or her weight, and the crew arranges them so as to balance the plane. I was told to sit on the right side of the back seat by myself, and I climbed in.

The addition of the other seven passengers made for a tight fit.

Takeoff was fun, and cruising more so as these planes fly low enough to really check out the landscape. I must say, though, if you are thinking of taking one of these planes, that they are extremely loud. If your ears are sensitive you might want earplugs. All the bags on the plane, no matter their size, must go in the back compartment so things are balanced, but I kept my camera with me so I could take photos as we flew.

Suburban sprawl of San Juan. Puerto Rico is very densely populated in general (although, of course, most of it isn't quite this dense).

The rainforest of Puerto Rico's northeast. The mountains are often in the clouds, as they are in this picture. El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rainforest belonging to the U.S., and it's a wonderful place to visit.

Here we flew past the end of Puerto Rico and out over the open ocean. The water was aqua and I could see birds, giant even from our height, coasting over the waves. They were frigates.

We approached the island of Culebra. The larger land masses in the background are both part of Culebra, whose coastline is sinuous.

Finally a view of Flamenco Playa, where I'll be staying for the week ("playa" is Spanish for "beach"). You can see the waves breaking on the reefs offshore, and the lagoon where many migrating birds can be found.

And the town of Dewey, in background. This is the only town on Culebra. It has small stores, restaurants and hotels.

Learn more about Culebra and my trip in the following entries!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


I will be posting here very soon about my trip to Culebra. I should be able to begin this weekend. For now, here's a photo:

This was the view I had every morning, taken maybe 40 feet from my tent.