Changing winds

Escaping to a tropical place from an already tropical place may seem redundant only if you've never been to an island in the Western Pacific, south of the Keys, or any other warm vacation spot not including Marco Island or Cancun, MX. Tropical locations carry as much homogeneity as a mountain made of rock, or an ocean, liquid--but other than it's physical makeup the line is drawn there. The tropics are not all created equal, and they fluctuate quite dramatically--climatically, topographically, and organically. The plants, animals, terrain, temperature, surf, locals, foods, hospitality--everything is different.

This time of year in South Florida we are reaching the end of the dry season, also known as "winter" for the Northern Folk. Temperatures here in South Florida are at a moderate and breezy ~80 degrees Fahrenheit, and ocean temperatures are just beginning to warm enough for diving, paddle boarding, wind surfing, and beaching without skins. Soon the Westerly winds will ease and ocean currents will reflect perfect lazy-day temperatures (air temperatures too, if you like it hot)--much like they currently are where I traveled from a couple weeks ago.

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico--click for entire photo album

Five of us spent our spring break in Puerto Rico this year to mark out some potential research proposals and play on the island. It was about 10 degrees warmer than Miami (and 10 degrees cooler in other areas) as we traveled around the coast. Our first day began at our arrival in Aguadilla at 3am. We picked up the rental and immediately began driving East towards Old San Juan.

We arrived in Old San Juan at 5:30am and walked aimlessly through the quiet cobblestone streets in search of a hostel to sleep for a few hours before the rest of our journey began. Quaint little men and women began their morning routine around 6am, and charming police stood on the corners of streets for greeting. We gave up on the prospects of a place to sleep, as Old San Juan is more expensive than modern San Juan, and most hostels were booked until evening, or could not sleep five.

The sky began to lighten and we decided to forget our fatigue and explore as we stumbled upon an old cemetery by the sea called Cementerio Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis. The sun was rising from the ocean into the clouds and the rays reflected from the marble white headstones in introduction and welcome to beautiful Puerto Rico. Mallorca bread, cafe sin (without) leche, lechuga and tomates for breakfast, then we were back on the road traveling East towards Fajardo. Our plan was to catch a day ferry to Isla Culebra for camping and snorkeling, but Culebra was sold out and the other ferry to Isla Vieques was delayed due to a cargo issue. On a whim, we decided to travel inland to El Yunque National Rainforest to check on camping options.

The US Forest Service is gracious and offers free camping permits in El Yunque National Rainforest as long as you have your own gear. We decided to camp out along La Mina River under a picnic canopy--this is not encouraged or advised by the rangers, but I do recommend some form of shelter as every evening there are heavy downpours. You will need headlamps, good gripping shoes, and must have no issues with trekking everything down in pack/on foot. If you hike down far enough, you'll eventually reach La Mina Falls. The sounds of the cherished Coquí surrounded us from all sides and the starry sky blanketed us like mother nature's nightcap lullaby. During the day, we hiked to the peak of El Yunque (twice, by accident), Britton Tower, and La Coca Falls. By night we remained locked-in after 6pm and safe, huddled around candles and a lantern while drinking wine and eating chips and salsa, and peanut butter, jelly, and banana sandwiches as the rain on tin and Coquís insulated the damp chilliness. After two days in cool, moist temperatures, we longed for familiar sandy beaches and the sun seen between the parting clouds from the peak.

On day 3, we packed up and headed back to the ferry in Fajardo that would finally take us to Isla Culebra. The hour and half ferry transport was rough for some, and eventful for others as we shared a wheel of coconut candy and two nearly got sick overboard. Boats on rough waters is the only time I amusingly bear a stomach of steel against my fellow comrades. The ride cost us a mere $2.50, and we made up the difference with a beer at landing as we decided on how we were to trek the 4 miles to Playa Flamenco for camping and snorkeling. Flyers could be found stapled onto posts for "Specialized Bike Rentals," but it was getting late and everything seemed to be winding down. To our luck, after one unanswered phone call, and a second answered later, we found ourselves in the back of an old yellow VW van, door-less and modified for the transport of bicycles--the laid back business of two bona fide hippies. Dick & Kathy rent out strictly Specialized and Cannondale bicycles by the day. They also have quite the collection of rescued cats, and old VW vans--both for fixing. Finding them was a gem in the rough. From their home in the country, we rode back into town for Zaco's Tacos for hibiscus margaritas, Presidente, and wine while devouring the most amazing black bean burrito ever. Maybe it was the alcohol and hunger talking, but goddamn that monster burrito was divine. Back on bikes and zipping through the hills in pitch black. It was no holds barred under a brilliant sky as selfish and fearless riding took over five, and one attended to road rash results at the bottom of the hill. She says it was worth it. I apologetically agreed as I washed and blotted antibiotic cream on her knee, shoulder and face. She said, "All I care about is that I still have my teeth." And that she did. What a menace.

In the morn we packed up as the office manager meandered around the beach, handing notes out to campers reading, "Come to office." More cafe sin leche, and the inhalation of the other half of my burrito that I had thoughtfully wadded up in my pack for next day's breakfast. We biked with our things to the office and after one look at "casualty menace" our campsite fee was waived along with kind directions to an amazing snorkeling spot in an area called, Bahia Tamarindo. This was some of the healthiest coral any of us have seen. There was a horned coral restoration research site, and every tropical Caribbean fish you could name; green turtles, rays, and more coral I couldn't name. We hiked and snorkeled all up and down Bahia Tamarindo until exhaustion from the sun set in and the reality that we still had to make the ride back up hill to port before 5pm.

We locked up the bicycles and called Dick for pick-up. Hanging out and napping in line while waiting to buy our ferry tickets back; recapping on the day and discussing our next move once back on the mainland.

The ferry back was chilly and we were so beat. All we could talk about was food and warm showers. And so, we booked our first and only night at the Fajardo Inn and treated ourselves to Mofongo (vegan-style, with fried green plantains mashed together with vegetables, broth and garlic), vegetable rice, and tamarind juice. Hot showers and sleep were upon us, and so was soon to be our last day in Puerto Rico.

Fajardo Inn had a free internet cafe, but no free continental breakfast. The Inn diner menu read that continental breakfast was ~$7 something for a meat and eggs duo, but 3 of us do not consume animal products (nor do we pay for continental breakfasts), and decided we'd be better off paying for our coffee and making headway southwest. Activities were narrowed down between caves in Camuy, hot spring in Coamo, or horseback riding and surfing in Rincón. The hot springs in Coamo was voted destination #1, which I was excited about since I was never able to enjoy the onsens in Japan because of taboo against tattoos. The countryside along the way was beautiful. The scenery completely changed and we were driving through the arid mountains of south and southwestern Puerto Rico. It was interesting to see how the climate and topography morphed from one part of the island to the next--North and Northeast Puerto Rico are relatively flat, except for El Yunque, where the climate seemed much more moist and inviting. There were many natural or man-created brush fires along the way and it was eerie to see dark stacks of smoke billowing up from speckled areas of the mountains along our drive.

The natural springs of Coamo (Los Baños de Coamo) are sulfur-based and were once rumored to have been Juan Ponce de León's legendary "fountain of youth". Kristel and I ended up not getting in--it was too hot and there were many older Ricos there happily devouring our three shirtless young men gracing their pools. All that excitement for nothing, but we were happy about our $3 contribution and enjoyed sitting under shaded umbrellas while chomping on pita chips, veggies, and hummus. Next, was onto Rincón. We decided to save the caves of Camuy for another time since Rincón was on our way back to the airport for our 3am flight.

Rincón was one of my favorite places. The town is a peaceful surfing community that all of us would love to settle down in during some point in our lives. We took a winding road along the beach headed towards the lighthouse, where we saw surfers and a hopping beach bar with live music. Some of us took off into the water at sunset to paddle board and surf, while others stayed on the beach and captured the moment. Afterwards was food and beers at the bar while enjoying the live entertainment before making the rest of our journey back to Aguadilla for our unanticipated flight back home; home to a tropics that just wouldn't be the same. And it definitely hasn't.

To be continued...


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