Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Friday, May 02, 2014

Two days in Puerto Rico

So we went to Puerto Rico. I had been talking about Puerto Rico for some time as I had been there twice before and, at five years since my last visit, was beginning to crave some good beach and snorkeling time. Sarah had originally decided that a big vacation was too expensive. I had told her that I wanted to go somewhere for a real vacation, and booked my weeklong trip to Death Valley. After I did so, Sarah said she would be okay shelling out for a trip if we could go somewhere really special like Puerto Rico. So that is how I ended up taking two weeklong vacations within two months of each other.

Plane tickets to San Juan were relatively cheap, but we'd need to take two 4-hour flights, arriving in San Juan at dusk. See below a shot of San Juan -- on the peninsula in the distance -- with the main part of the city at upper-center and Old San Juan to its left:

And a close-up of Old San Juan, with the ancient fort El Morro at left and giant cruise ships docked at right:

When we got off the plane, we went to find a bus. We located a fellow with the taxi service who said it was impossible to take a bus out of the airport. (I knew that wasn't true because I had read on the internet that we could take a bus from the airport, and everything on the internet is true.) Someone else finally directed us to the second level, where we waited for a while at a bus stop that someone else eventually told us was the wrong one. At this time, we noticed a bus was pulling in. We ran into the street and flagged it down and, thankfully, it stopped.

We got off at a stop outside the airport and had a long wait among the palm trees and bats for our transfer. Across the street was a family restaurant and, next to it, a building reading "COCKFIGHTING" in large letters. Pale, knobby-kneed tourists shuffled toward it from the hotel.

Our next bus took us into the city in the dark, down streets barely wide enough to fit a bus, past shops with barred windows. We talked in Spanish with some of the other passengers. I don't know what they said because my Spanish isn't that good. In order to redirect the conversation toward something I actually new how to say, I asked whether this bus went to Old San Juan, though I already knew (internet).

"Yes," the man across from us replied in rapid-fire Spanish. "This will take you right to San Juan." He said a bunch of other stuff but I have no idea what it was. I like to think that my accent is just so good that everyone assumes I'm fluent.

"Old San Juan?" I asked.

"No, no, not to Old San Juan! You need to get off and take the T5!"

This prompted some other people on the bus to join in in an incomprehensible conversation, eventually including the bus driver, who finally told them that yes, this bus did go to Old San Juan.

When we got off an hour after leaving the airport but only $1.50 poorer, we walked to our hostel, the Posada San Francisco. For some reason I never took a picture of it, though it's a lovely building (you can see it here). As we stepped up to the door, a man came out of the "food court" and let us in. We wandered around looking for the check-in desk. There wasn't one. We went up a couple floors, but no desk. I pulled out my papers and found that we were supposed to call to be let in. Well, we had already been let in. Was that man supposed to check us in?

Leaving tired Sarah on the 3rd floor, I went back down and encountered the man, who told me I needed to go up to the 5th floor. He directed me to take the elevator. I said, "My friend is waiting for me up there." I tried to go up the stairs, but he blocked them with his body. I took the elevator up to the 5th floor. There was nothing there. I went down several flights of stairs until I found Sarah. We took the elevator to the 6th floor and found an unmarked door, which we knocked on. Some people, presumably hostel guests, opened it from the inside. There was a desk there, with no one behind it.

I found a number in my papers and called it. A woman said she'd be right there. She checked us in and led us to the room and then we were alone.

It had been very hot in the hallways. The air conditioners in the rooms vented to the hallway instead of to the outside. There were shared bathrooms in the hall; the one closest to us had two shower stalls. The toilet was in one of them. Our room had a bed, a cross on the wall, a TV and fridge and AC unit and a metal chair, but no nightstands. (The hostel website warns, "PLEASE DONT BOOK IF YOU NEED MORE THEN BASIC AND SIMPLICITY YOU WILL NOT BE SATIESFIED.") But it was very pretty and clean enough, and the AC worked.

We rested a bit and then brought our bags of snacks out onto the shared balcony, having some hard boiled eggs and a mango for supper. I shot this photo of the Plaza Colón.

After eating we walked around a bit in the hot dark and then went to bed. It was hard for me to sleep. I'd had a busy month and an even busier week just before the trip, and my body was used to going, going, going. My mind wouldn't stop running. Eventually I fell asleep, and woke up to light coming through the room's one tiny window high above our heads.

That morning we walked to a breakfast place the hostel proprietress had recommended, the Cafeteria Mallorca. I ordered a mallorca sandwich, which was a grilled ham-egg-and-cheese-sandwich on sweet bread with sugar on top. It was very good and I would love to make them at home. Unfortunately, I'm not allowed to eat sugar. In the picture, Sarah is poring over one of our two maps of Old San Juan. (I usually come very prepared -- in this case, with about 20 printed pages of supplementary info, maps, directions, phone numbers and ideas for our trip.)

Sarah did not have a mallorca sandwich, and will regret it the rest of her life.

We set out to explore Old San Juan. San Juan was founded by the Spanish in 1521 (though they originally named it Puerto Rico; the island was San Juan, but at some point they got flipped). In this ancient part of the city the architecture is lovely and well-maintained, but for some reason I only took a couple photos of it. Here is one of them.

My main impression of old San Juan, though, was how noisy it was. There was construction (or, I suppose, restoration) going on everywhere and cars rumbling by constantly on the tiny, one-way cobblestone streets. We spent hours looking for particular picturesque streets that I had seen on the internet (we never found them), as well as five-century-old churches that turned out to be closed for renovations. Here is a picture of Sarah with some graffiti, instead.

We walked and walked in the heat. When we finally came to one of the ancient walls encircling the city and looked over it to see the stunningly blue ocean, I felt a billion times better than I'd felt in months. It was so beautiful, and the breeze coming off the water felt so great, I couldn't wait to get to Culebra where we would spend the majority of our trip snorkeling and lying in hammocks on the beach. But we still had a lot of exploring ahead of us.

There are many museums in the city, and we wanted to see some of them. We entered a large public building where the Museo del Indio was marked on my map, and walked to the front desk. I expected to see maps or signs asking for donations, and didn't, so we asked the guy behind the desk where the Museo del Indio was. He said it was in the white building down the street.

We went to the white building down the street, which turned out to be the Ponce de Leon House, in which Ponce de Leon had never lived. But since we were there, we looked around for a while, and used our Spanish in trying to get directions from a young security guard and tour guide, both of whom were very shy and cute and knew about as much English as we knew Spanish. Eventually we learned that the building we wanted was across the street. However, as the Casa Blanca de Ponce de Leon was closing for lunch, we figured the Museo del Indio would be too, and decided to head up to El Morro, the ancient fort whose grounds take up a good portion of the bulge of land that Old San Juan sits on.

El Morro dates to 1539, and it served the Spanish and then the U.S. Military until 1961. The U.S.'s first shots of World War I were actually fired from this fort, on a German ship trying to deliver supplies to submarines in the Atlantic. It's a really cool fort with multiple levels, semi-hidden staircases, and tiny sentry posts suspended over the water that are great places to make out in -- none of which I took pictures of. (The sentry posts, las garitas, are truly cool and can be seen here.)

Here is a picture from the entry of the fort's grounds, with cruise ship for scale:

And one lonely picture of the inside:

We looked around the fort, admiring the displays on cannons and various types of cannonballs and mortars... I did, anyway... and ate lunch in a lovely secluded recessed window that was shaded and looked out on the open sea, disturbed only by the occasional tourist tripping over our legs trying to shoot a movie out the window.

I shot this picture of the infamous La Perla slum between the walls of San Juan and the sea (into which the police refuse to go! though I have no idea whether that is true).

Here is Sarah writing in her book.

We eventually wandered out on the grounds of the fort and found a nice place to do our physical therapy (both of us have bad backs!). It was very windy and Sarah had to keep holding her dress down. The grass was only about an inch high, but it wasn't clipped -- it just grew that way. I read that the U.S. had used these grounds as a golf course when they occupied the fort.

Here is a closer-up shot of the cemetery that also lay between the walls of the city and the sea:

And then we went to the museum we had been trying to find, which was in a barracks that dated to the 1800s.

The museum stuff was good plus we had a very nice smoothie.

Another really enjoyable thing about Old San Juan, which I did not capture very well by photo, were the free trolleys than ran about town. One of our rides in particular was heart-stoppingly like a roller coaster, careening over the exceedingly narrow and bumpy streets at high enough speed to make us fly out of our seats, and make the poorly-secured parts of the trolley thunder out in staccato like a machine gun when we went over a grooved speed reduction zone.

Another shot from around town...

We walked by the shore for a bit. There were many feral cats. Find the feral cat in this picture!

For a while we were just riding the trolley because it was fun, not to go anywhere in particular. It took us back to the fort, from where I snapped this picture. In the near distance you can see the other fort, the Castillo de San Cristobal. It dates to 1783, way too modern for us to bother visiting.

That night, back in the hostel, Sarah had availed herself of the tiny folding scissors in my first aid kit for something or other, and when she couldn't get them to fold up properly, she handed them to me. In trying to fix them I managed to slice my finger open and had to get the band-aids out. I had just injured myself with part of my own first aid kit.

We were early to bed, and I rose at about 5 in the morning. We had to finish packing, find a taxi, get to the airport by 7 to pick up our rental car, head to the rainforest, hike vigorously for 3 hours, then head to the coastal town of Ceiba to return the rental car and get a shuttle to the Ceiba airport by noon to catch our flight to the small island of Culebra, where we would be spending the rest of our trip.

Things weren't supposed to be so rushed... we were supposed to spend a leisurely day enjoying the rainforest and then take an evening ferry to Culebra. However, I had been following the news, and recently the government's fleet of 7 ferries had been reduced to just 1, all the rest having broken down. Scheduled ferry trips were being delayed or cancelled, and many passengers were being left at the docks because there weren't enough seats available. So at the last minute I bought plane tickets for us. Unfortunately, all the late afternoon flights were sold out, so we would be leaving a little after noon. So, only three hours in the rainforest. All right, it's a small rainforest anyway -- only about 43 square miles, about a quarter the size of Denver. I am not kidding.

At 6AM, there was one taxi waiting outside in the square where normally half a dozen would sit during the day. No one came out as I approached. I tried to peer into the tinted windows but saw nothing. Finally I knocked on the window, and after a moment, a man came out. As we drove off he explained he had gotten there at 2AM and had been sleeping.

As he drove toward the airport, we talked about our plans to go to the rainforest, and even though I had printed out directions and maps, I let him reiterate 6 or 7 times how to get there. "Just keep left," he kept saying (or possibly right, I've since forgotten -- but for the sake of this blog entry I'll just say left.) "You come to a split, stay left. Then you come to the highway, you stay left. Just stay left." He repeated this until I was going out of my mind. As we got onto the highway, I noted all the traffic coming into San Juan. He said what we were seeing was nothing -- in another half an hour, no one would be moving.

When we arrived on the airport grounds, he asked where he should drop us off. I told him Avis was in the terminal building. But the rental car drop-offs came first, and he asked if maybe we shouldn't get out here. I said I didn't know, so he stopped to talk to the guy manning the little security booth at the gate. Apparently the guy told him to bring us to the terminal, so he did.

We got out and went into the terminal and began looking for Avis. Shortly we gave up and asked a security woman for assistance. She told us that only a few rental car places were in the terminal, and that the Avis office was back at the rental car drop-off place. She said the Avis shuttle would take us there.

So we went back outside and stood at the curb. After ten or fifteen minutes, no shuttle had come. I called the number for Avis, which rang and rang. This office was supposed to be open 24 hours. I had been listening to the ringing for 5 minutes when Sarah walked over to another company's shuttle and asked the driver if he could take us to Avis. He said he wasn't supposed to, but he guessed he could. So we were beginning to load our luggage into that van when someone at Avis finally picked up.

I explained that we were at the airport and needed a shuttle to come get us, as we had a reservation to pick up a car at 7AM. (It was now a little after 7.)

"What flight did you come in on?" asked the man.
"No flight. A taxi driver brought us here."
"Why didn't he bring you to the office?"
"Some guy said he had to bring us to the terminal."
"What guy?"
"I don't know, the guy where you bring the rental cars back."
"I don't know what you are talking about."

Anyway, he said they were going to send a shuttle for us.

Ten minutes later, the shuttle showed up and drove us the short distance down the road to the office. As we passed the security booth with "the guy," I shook my fist.

We got our car. I considered trying to follow my own directions and map, but the taxi driver's instructions were so simple. I kept left, and kept left. We went over a toll bridge. After a while the highway became a street with stop signs and traffic that was barely moving. The sun was at our backs. But we were supposed to be going east.

"I think we're headed into San Juan," I said.

We turned around and headed back, but when I realized we would be going over the toll bridge a second time, I turned off and we used my printed map to find a detour back to the highway. (This turned out to be a good choice; the toll, an unknown amount at the time, arrived later on my credit card -- charged via an electronic badge in the rental car -- at $9.75.)

So, we saw a little bit of backroads Puerto Rico. Mostly trees and copious auto parts shops and people trying to get to work. But after all that had happened over the last day and I half, I was now convinced that NO ONE IN SAN JUAN KNOWS HOW TO GET ANYWHERE. It's a wonder they survive. But, I suppose, if you're already in the Caribbean, how much does it matter whether you get where you're going?

Unsurprisingly, we were late to the rainforest -- I had wanted to be there when they opened at 7:30. (Yes, the rainforest has an opening time.) We drove up the narrow twisty road, finally disembarking onto a trailhead as it was nearing 9AM. We had to hike hard!

The rainforest, which is also known as Caribbean National Forest or El Yunque, is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. It's the only tropical rainforest in the National Forest system., and it occupies a small patch of mountains on the east side of Puerto Rico.

We hiked the La Mina trail, which I had hiked years ago the first time I was in Puerto Rico. It's the most popular trail in the park, but we only passed a few other people due to the early hour. Some pictures!

As we walked along we could hear the mating call of the coqui, the dime-sized frog that is a symbol of Puerto Rico. (Listen here.) The internet says that the coqui only sings at night, but we heard them all right, though not as many as in that recording, so I don't know what to say about that. I thought it was a lovely sound and so do the people of Puerto Rico, who lament the lack of a nighttime lullaby when they are off the island. The people of Hawaii, however, where the coqui is invasive, consider it a horrible sound (akin to the noise pollution of a lawnmower!) and those who are old enough to remember pre-coqui Hawaiian nights pine for the silence. Which all goes to show you that everything is a matter of perspective.

After the La Mina trail, we wanted to use our remaining half-hour to hike somewhere quiet, away from the noise of the rushing river and the road on which loud vehicles were doing tree-trimming work, so as to listen to the noises of the forest, and chose the nearby Caimitillo trail. This turned out to be a mistake. Not only was there more tree-trimming work taking place there, but the trail appears to be a favorite for cruise ship tour groups. I don't think it would be inaccurate to say that every member of the groups we passed was an elderly overweight white person -- not that there's anything wrong with that. But the homogeneity of the groups was stunning.

We did get a little time to ourselves which was very enjoyable. But Sarah felt, not unreasonably, that the Puerto Rican jungle would be greatly enhanced by the addition of monkeys. There are no large mammals native to Puerto Rico. Just too lazy to swim the Caribbean. Lame. We did see some giant tree snails, if you like that sort of thing:

And then we climbed Yokahu Tower, which is cool. You can see the ocean from there.

A shot to the south, toward the mountain peaks:

And then we raced out of the rainforest and through the traffic of eastern Puerto Rico, and down to Ceiba. Google believes everything in Puerto Rico is 30 minutes apart, but it took us nearer to an hour. When we were almost to Avis, the countryside was becoming more country-ish, and we realized we were heading out of the "town" part of town and might not another gas station. So we turned around and drove back to the last gas station we had passed, then back to Avis, which we first went right past on its little country road, the building and sign were so small.

It was now about 50 minutes till our flight. We were supposed to check in 45 minutes before the flight. The lone employee was involved in a long conversation with the person in front of me in line. We called the airline to let them know we might be late, and they said it was okay to show up just 30 minutes before the flight.

When I stepped up to the desk and said we had a flight to catch, the woman told us it was no problem, we could just walk in right before they took off.

"But they said to be there half an hour before," I said.
She laughed. "No, I work with them all the time. You can just show up."

This was probably true. And we were in "the islands," where a person is expected to relax, be patient with the inefficiencies, and take things as they come. However, we didn't KNOW it was true, and so we were a little tense over the next extremely slow half hour as the woman finished her discussion with the other customer, interrupted typing up my info to have a cell phone chat with a friend, told me to pull my car around, disappeared, returned, told me to pull the car around somewhere else, had a discussion with another couple that arrived, and then finished our paperwork. Then she drove us to the airport. We checked in.

The part of our trip that involved arranging and finding and picking up and checking in and driving and calling and rushing was over. All we had to do now was get on a little plane that would take us to a mostly-undeveloped island, and relax on the beach for the next four and a half days.

We had been in Puerto Rico for less than 2 days, and had had a lot of adventures. For a couple months before the trip I had been burning the candle at both ends as well, with a new job and with preparing for the trip itself. Now, with nothing to do but wait in this little echoing terminal, I found it impossible to actually relax. It would take another few days to feel like I was finally slowed down.

While waiting in the airport we were talking with a family whose kids were being silly, and the father said to them, "We don't want them to think people from Denver are crazy." I thought, "That's an odd thing to say -- how does he know we're from Denver?" Then I realized that he meant, of course, that they were from Denver. They turned out to be from the neighborhood just next to ours. We told them that we were in fact crazy.

Our plane took off late. It was almost full -- seven passengers.

El Yunque in the distance, in the clouds:

A storm over the ocean:

And coming in to land on Culebra, the scrubby 3x7 mile island off Puerto Rico's east coast:

Culebra's town:

Here we would relax and snorkel for the next four and a half days. More to come in part 2!