Note: we had an SD card issue so for the next few posts we will be using either Molly or Horatio’s photos or small thumbnail versions we were able to recover from ours.
We had been in San Juan, Puerto Rico for five days, enough to rest and recuperate from the offshore passage and explore both Old and new San Juan (see previous post). One day, Horatio, Molly, Bev, and Ted took the ferry to the far side of San Juan Bay for the Bacardi Rum Factory tour, where they don’t actually show the factory, but they do give visitors free rum samples. Meanwhile, with easily reachable attractions exhausted, Danica and I determined that it would be worth it to rent a car for a couple of days to visit some further parts of Puerto Rico.
Horatio, Molly, Danica, and I caught a bus to the rental car place, and after a bit of shuttling from place to place, were on the road to the rainforest. El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rainforest in the US. The attractions of El Yunque string out along a switch-backing mountain road that ascends into the rainforest. We decided to drive to the top first and then work our way down. But first, we needed lunch. A cluster of food shacks line the road just at the entrance to the forest. We stopped at one and found that it served a variety of odd-tasting fried things, including two forms of ground beef stuffed into banana and fried.
We passed up a tempting roadside waterfall photo op to keep to our plan of continuing up to the end of the road. From there, our hike to El Yunque Peak started. A stone path cut back and forth through the rainforest greenery as it climbed the hillside. Dense canopy, massive leaves, hanging vines and epiphytes, rain constantly dripping down on us: it was exactly what a rainforest is supposed to be. After a couple miles, we took a short side trek to Mount Britton Tower at the top of a ridge, just in time to shelter there underneath a violent downpour. Without any obstructions to slow it down, strong wind flung rain horizontal while dense white mist rushed over the mountaintops and surrounded us, offering only occasional glimpses of the land (see video below).
We enjoyed this dramatic experience for a while, and then as the rain let up, continued our hike towards the peak, despite a passerby warning us the trail was a river of mud. That turned out to be an exaggeration, but the climb was long, wet, and overall not pleasant. A stone platform waited for us at the peak, but it wasn’t really as exciting as the previous tower. Towering cell phone and radio antennas loomed abruptly out of the mist, surprisingly large and disturbingly close. This clutter on the peak ruined the feeling of isolation, but we were thankful that the road gave us a less muddy way to get back down.
One other attraction we visited on the way out was a side hike to a waterfall with a swimming hole at the base. It was a cold, rocky, and somewhat painful, but completely incredible experience to have a rain-swollen waterfall pounding down around you. After getting back to the car, we were exhausted and it was getting late (not to mention we were getting sick of the intermittent rain), so we headed home. But we still had a final task that evening evening, to use the car to fill up on more groceries from Walmart, which was completely packed, as it was nearly Christmas. When we finally got back to have dinner, it was 8 pm.
The next day, for our last day of having a car, we decided to head in the opposite direction to the Rio Camuy Cave Park. Puerto Rico is the largest, most populous place we expect to be for six months, and on this drive we really felt it. The residential area of San Juan was soon left behind as we passed many miles of industrial sprawl lining the south side of San Juan Bay. This was soon replaced by billboards, fast food joins, and sprawling outlet malls lining the highway. But eventually the development lessened and we turned inland to the sharp green hills of central Puerto Rico.
After we reached the cave park, we were shown a cheesy safety video, and then were driven down to the cave mouth. I don’t know if we knew exactly what to expect, but it was actually really cool. With a group of about 20 people, a tour guide led us through the toothy cave entrance through a series of massive underground caverns. We saw many interesting rock formations, explored huge chambers, woke up some bats, saw creepy insects (a ‘scorpion spider’), and heard an underground river. You could see the stalactite / stalagmite formation process in action, as many continuous drips fell from overhead in concentrated spots. The tour over, we stopped to inspect a broken down old steam locomotive someone had donated to the cave park (it seems that, not knowing what to do with it, they had decided to let it slowly rot to nothing in an obscure corner of the grounds). On the way back, we picked up a papaya and grilling peppers from a roadside food stand before returning to Koukla.
On final attraction that Danica and I managed to visit before leaving Puerto Rico was the art museum. There was an interesting sculpture garden, including a pond full of enormous carp that schooled towards us at our approach. Most likely they had learned to associate human proximity with the arrival of food. The museum included many interesting installations, from a musical typewriter you were allowed to play with, to an entire room set up like a surrealist barbershop. As we were leaving the museum, we were approached by a local art enthusiast working on putting together a comprehensive art tour of San Juan. Apparently the Puerto Rican art museum is more popular with the locals than tourists, and apparently we stuck out.
But then after our many days at Puerto Rico, it was time to move on. Following a day of furious prep work (getting water, fuel, doing laundry, ect.) it was time to go. We picked up our anchor, rounded out of placid San Juan harbor, and reemerged into the raging sea we had left behind 10 days before. Since there has been plenty of bad weather posts already, I won’t go into too much detail. It was a rough and uncomfortable sail to our next destination, the island of Culebra, but at least it wasn’t 12 days long.