Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The cold and the cotton stainers

This is a continuation of the story of my trip to Culebra, which starts here.

The Culebra Forum at is a peerless resource for anyone who'd like to visit Culebra. You can search the archives for your topic of choice, or post a new inquiry for residents and frequent visitors to answer. I'd spent a lot of time reading these forums, trying to decide what I needed to bring and what I didn't. There were many requests for information on Culebra's climate and I read through all the replies, how it was really very warm at night, how even cold sleepers had found a flannel sheet was more than enough.

I am a cold sleeper. I always doubt other people's advice on what to bring for sleeping. This time, though, I relaxed my guard a little. If other cold sleepers didn't need much, well. I just brought my fleece blanket.

I was cold.

I spent much of my first night tossing and turning, trying to get the blanket to cover both my wool-sock-shrouded feet and hood-cocooned head, trying to get warm. I was wearing all the layers I could manage and stayed above shivering temperature, but wasn't exactly comfortable. It could have been worse, though. The noodle bed was certainly supportive, if a bit firm.

Noodle bed, "pillow" made from clothing in duffel bag, black fleece blanket on top, hammock and some other items. Don't laugh.

It was cloudy so I decided to explore the island a bit. I thought it was important to find the nicest places early in my vacation so that I'd know where I wanted to spend my time. It wouldn't be any good if I spent the week at the beach I was camping on only to find on the last day that there was one I liked better down the coast, would it?

With my tourist map, the most accurate-looking representation of the land I'd been able to find, I set out to travel from Flamenco Beach, where I was camping, to Resaca Beach. I walked south up the steep road from the coast, looking for the jeep trail the map indicated led northeast to Resaca. After a bit of back and forth I still hadn't found it, so walked down toward the airport to try to find the real road that led toward the beach. I walked past a hill that reminded me just how dry the island is.

It took about half an hour to get to the airport. It was beginning to get hot. I started wandering around the nearby roads, trying to figure out whether I was on the right one. I found myself on another jeep trail that wandered behind the airport, came out onto a brief stretch of newly paved road in the middle of nowhere with benchless picnic tables under cupolas overgrown with grass that looked like they'd been built in a fit of optimism five years ago and then forgotten about, and which soon turned into a jeep trail again.

The sun came out. I walked past houses with TV blaring, houses with men working on cars out front, barky little dogs, lots of chickens, tourists in rented jeeps. I hit on what I thought was the right road and started climbing up to the spine of the island. It was steep as heck. I took a picture of a similarly steep road across the bay.

Walking up to the end of the street was like climbing six flights of stairs. I hadn't put on any sunscreen and even as the sun came out I nixed it for my legs, reasoning that I'd be vertical and there'd never be much direct light on them. I looped around jeep trails, trying to find my way up over the mountain.

Ensenada bay (perhaps the safest from hurricanes in all the Caribbean), with the town of Dewey. In the distance is the island of Vieques.

I passed an old trailer that was disintegrating in the elements, and was struck by the contrast between it and the newer buildings along the bay.

I realized I wasn't getting over the mountain, came down and found the actual right road, which went up and up and up. It turned from an asphalt, house-lined climb to a white concrete road winding through trees with only an occasional vacation house visible through the branches. I walked over a little bridge, peering down into the ravine on one side, and just caught sight of a big iguana before it dashed into the grass. The first time I'd seen one in the wild! And the road kept climbing. I'd been walking for three hours now, on a quest that was meant to take only about an hour. After all, Resaca Beach is just along the coast from Flamenco. Now I was sweating under the hot sun, far away from any beach.

I heard a noise and turned around.

It was the first horse I'd seen on Culebra. There are tons of horse on Vieques, of a special breed called the paso fino. This horse naturally has a very rapid, smooth gait with almost no bouncing up and down and they're sort of oddly fascinating to watch (see this amazing video on YouTube). I interacted with this horse for a bit, forgetting the ache in my shoulders, until I heard another noise behind me.

How cute! The foal was less interested in me than the mother was. I watched them for a bit longer.

Then it was back to the climb. Not long before noon I reached the top of the road. There was a sign for the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, telling me I was approaching a sea turtle nesting beach. My tourist map said the beach was a half-hour hike down the side of the mountain. A half an hour? Surely not! It covered an itty-bitty distance on the map! I was happy to get into the full shade and began clambering down over basalt boulders through the forest. It wasn't long before I noticed there were lizards everywhere. Tiny brown and grey lizards. I got a picture of one that was little wider than the blade of grass it was resting on:

If your browser allows, click on the image for detail. I assume it is a Puerto Rican anole.

The trail passed down into a spooky mangrove forest, branches and roots everywhere.

These mounds, which I saw many of on the trees, were a mystery to me. This one was maybe a foot and a half high. Its surface looked like lichen.

At last, after exactly half an hour, I broke out onto the beach. The waves were absolutely pounding the coast in a strong wind, and sea spray made the whole scene look fuzzy, out of focus.

The wind was coming in from the northeast and the waves were breaking chaotically, in all directions, up to five feet high or so. I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to swim here. The sand was more orangey than the picture shows. I took a long walk up the beach in the roar and spray, seeing human footprints but no other signs of people. I did see these tracks:

Undoubtably from an iguana, with the tail drag mark. I also found this on the other side of the beach:

A sea turtle nest! You can see the tracks made by the sea turtle and a hollow where I presumed the eggs were buried. I was also able to do a little beachcombing here as there were a number of very small shells, including a real treasure... baby nautilus shells.

The nautilus is different from other mollusks. Take a look at this picture of a nautius shell sliced in half. Unlike a snail shell, which is all open on the inside, a nautlius shell has chambers that are closed off except for a small tube in the wall of each. A nautilus can control its bouyancy by inserting part of its body into the different chambers and pumping as many as it likes full of gas. Thus it cruises the ocean, catching food with its tentacles, much more like a squid than it is like a snail, though all are related. At any rate, nautilus shells are unmistakable. My little specimens, less than an inch in diameter, had the chambers and tubes just like the big ones you can find for sale as home decorating items.

Before I left I visited the far distant end of the beach, looking again for that elusive jeep trail the map said was supposed to exist, to find nothing but a mysterious cabana erected by some vanished visitor:

I slipped back into the forest and began my hike back to the road. I did see another kind of lizard, a Puerto Rican ameiva. These were much bigger, though they wouldn't let me get close.

Perhaps the oddest thing I saw, though, was this:

These bugs are called cotton stainers, because their bodies can get crushed into the cotton they feed on. I would guess they're mating, though possibly they're playing rugby.

Tune in later for the rest of my adventures!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The first day, part 2

This is a continuation of the story of my trip to Culebra, which starts here.

When I got off the plane in Culebra, my first thought was that it smelled like White Sands National Monument in New Mexico (as detailed in this post from last summer). I waited by the baggage claim for my bags. The baggage claim consisted of a large hole in the wall next to the glass doors leading out onto the runway. The attendant put our belongings on a cart, wheeled it about twenty feet, bypassed the doors, and handed us our bags through the large hole in the wall.

I put my backpack on my back and slung my duffel over my shoulder and walked into town. Culebra looked, well, a lot like Vieques, the sister island I had visted a few years ago.

The houses were all made of cinder blocks, with metal shutters, for protection against hurricanes. Some were painted in colors that looked like they belonged in the Caribbean. Some were just, well, cinder blocks. Most places had satellite dishes (often several). There were lots of chickens and roosters in the street. The hills did seem more dramatic here, going right up to a ridge then coming down sharply to the ocean again on the other side.

I was heading for Colmado Mayra, which I'd heard had the inflatable pool rafts (one of which was to be my sleeping pad). Closed till 3:30! It was one o'clock. So I checked out La Cava, a nearby gift store, and saw that they had large inflatable turtles. Hm.

I wandered down the street until I came to the water, my bags growing heavy. I was at the ferry dock. There were shaded benches and I sat down to write in my journal. The aqua water stretched away to Vieques in the distance. I could see Vieques's Mount Pirata, which we'd wanted to climb years ago but were turned away by men with guns. They were U.S. agents monitoring drug trafficking activity on the 900-foot high "mountain."

Also at the ferry dock was a man vending food from a cart. He had a whiteboard out on which was written, "Kiosko pide que hay," which seemed to me to translate as "The 'ask for what there is' kiosk." Perhaps there was some idiom in use that I wasn't familiar with, but the title seemed very zen. Happiness comes to those who ask for what there is, rather than what there isn't?

Colmado Mayra finally opened at about 3:40, and the crowd that had gathered outside bustled in. For me it was like visiting a market in New York City... the carts were smaller than usual, the aisles just wide enough for one to go through, all the horizontal space condensed. I got some fruit and chips and a can of chili (with a pop-top, necessary as I couldn't bring my swiss army knife with me).

They did not have inflatable rafts.

They did have wacky noodles, which I stood in front of for a long time. I was trying to imagine how they might function as a bed. Then I tried to imagine how the giant blow-up turtle might function as a bed. The problem with the turtle, I imagined, was that it seemed to have one large, open main air chamber, where most of my body would be. It would be difficult to keep this pumped enough so that my butt and shoulders weren't simply resting on the ground with large, useless pockets of air surrounding them. So I purchased five wacky noodles, which would make a bed nearly as wide as my thermarest at home.

I then struggled to climb into a publico, or public car, with a backpack, duffel bag, bag of food, and five wacky noodles in my arms.

I was driven over the ridge of the island and down a long slope, past the lagoon, to Flamenco Beach. I paid the driver the $3 fee and asked around for the office. In the office, I paid for a week's stay at $20 a night. The woman at the desk wanted me to stay in area A or B, both of which were empty. I told her I'd heard E was nice. She said A and B were very nice, and they were empty! I had heard, but did not tell her this, that during the weekends A and B were crammed full of weekending Puerto Rican families blaring loud music. I said maybe I would stay in D. She said okay, but be sure to check out A and B!

I walked down the sand road with the ocean on my right, past a narrow line of mangroves, and the camping areas on my left. Each area was bordered by a fence in a different color. There were no numbered sites, but picnic tables, barbecue areas and trees scattered around each area. It took five minutes to walk all the way to section E. I walked back and forth along the sand road several times trying to decide where was truly the best place to camp. Finally I settled on D, which was nearly deserted and far from the haunts of the weekend crowds, and threw down my stuff.

The funniest thing was that in the hour I'd been trudging around, through town and camp, no one had asked me why I was carrying five wacky noodles. Perhaps such things are commonplace in Puerto Rico.

I set up my tent and got inside and noticed there was a bunch of sand in it already. The sand was blowing in through the screen! I didn't think of beach sand as being smaller than no-see-ums, but apparently some fraction of it is. Okay... actually, I did know this, being a geologist. I have separated beach sand out myself with a succession of twenty increasingly finer sieves. I just didn't think, you know, it would come in the screen.

Above, area de acampar D, my tent in foreground.

View toward the beach. It was really very close, just across the road and over the path.

And the beach.

I got changed and went for a swim, with my snorkel and mask, because hey, why not. The water was cold! I swam up to some of the near-shore reefs but they only had some algae and a few juvenile fish. So I puttered around near the beach. I watched a larger fish, one of the many silvery kinds that swim over the exposed sandy bottoms, feed by biting at the sand and spitting things out. I followed it for a long time. Then I got out, got changed and put together my noodle bed with some duct tape I'd brought.

It got dark and I was chilly so I went for a jog on the beach. At one point I felt sand hitting the tops of my trailing feet as I ran and realized I was ploughing through someone's sandcastle. The sky had become cloudy and there were no stars, but the world felt large.