Culebra And Vieques

Next day in Isabella we took surfing lessons. I had wanted to do this for as long as I can remember, and it finally happened. Long story short – 90$ for two people got us about an hour and a half lesson, and we were both standing up on the board by the end of the lesson. Here are two pictures to prove it:

PR Surfing 1PR Surfing 2

Thats me on the left, and Crystal on the right. Unfortunately some of our pictures of this part of the trip got lost. Otherwise, I could show you a few better pictures of it. Also, the camerapersons didnt know how to use zoom, so I had to blow the pictures up a bit. Anyway, it was fun, so who cares about pictures!

As soon as we hung up our boards we hopped in the car, still dripping, to make a lightning trip across the island to catch the ferry in Fajardo to the island of Culebra.  We got there on the ferry that night, (at $2.25 apiece its the first affordable thing Id seen on the island!), but of course the ferry took about an hour and a half, so we got there well after dark; unfortunately, the people who were supposed to meet us and take us to a rental house had heard that the ferry wasnt coming, so they didnt bother to meet it.

But strangely enough, we asked one of the ferry workers where there was a place we could stay, and he had a friend who had an apartment he rented out (for $75 a night!) with air conditioning and hot water. We looked at each other and said “this cant end well”, but at 10pm on an island where they roll up the streets at six you cant be too choosy. So we went there, and it wasnt too bad. It was certainly better than sleeping in the ferry station!

Now, about Culebra: if you took away all the drunk ex-pats, the incredibly bad streets (and I say this with Mexico and Ecuador under my belt, so when I say “incredibly bad”, keep that in mind!), the general and unnecessary clutter and dirtiness and the overpriced housing it would be a nice place. It does have nice beaches, and it is possible to get away from the people. But it wasnt the paradise it was advertised to be. But then, what place is ever as good as its advertised to be by the local tourism commission?

Playa Flamenco is touted as one of the top ten beaches in the world – and it IS nice. But it has that “developed by US National Park System” feel about it now, which kinda ruins it for me. You know, brown signs everywhere saying what you cant do, run down bathrooms on site, camping, dirty concession stands, roped off paths, etc.

So we took a left at the Flamenco parking lot and walked across the hilltop for a trip of 12-15 “Lonely Planet” minutes (which was 30 minutes in the real world) to Playa Carlos Rosario, which is a very nice beach – almost as nice as Flamenco, I think – but completely undeveloped and only a few tiny signs of civilization. And had some of the best snorkeling Ive seen so far, in my admittedly limited snorkeling career.

Carlos Rosario 1Carlos Rosario 2Carlos Rosario 3Carlos Rosario 4Carlos Rosario 5

Next day I went Scuba diving to Culebrita, a little island a mile offshore from Culebra. It was a typical scuba trip. But rather a disappointment, for visibility was low, fish were scarce, and the coral looked kinda dilapidated. From what someone told me, their coral reefs have some sort of a disease and theyre dying off. I gather its being kept hush-hush though for tourisms sake. Personally, I got much  better views while snorkeling during the surface interval than I did diving, this one for instance:

PR Culebrita

On the upside though, I did get to test my 33-foot-waterproof camera at 35 feet deep so I know for a fact that it functions as per specs. At least, in that area.

I was the only other diver there with the divemaster from Aquatic Adventures, and I was disappointed in him too. He didnt seem to care whether I could keep up or not. I later learned he was trying to find an anchor hed lost at the same time he was supposed to be taking me on a dive, so he was much more interested in covering ground than showing me the reef. It took me three times to get him to stop and slow down so I could keep up (and Im not a slow swimmer!), and then finally I had to tell him I wanted to surface (because my ankle was killing me), so he signaled “ok – go back to the boat, Ill stay here”. So that left me finding my way back to the boat by myself (something divers are never supposed to do!), with my ankle cramping from trying to swim fast enough to keep up with him. Needless to say, that was annoying.

At any rate, I was pretty well tired of Culebra already and Puerto Rico in general, and had determined that unless something incredibly unusual came up in the future, I was never coming back. With that in mind, I wanted to make sure I hit all the “oh, you were in Puerto Rico? Did you see.” I was going to run into later. That meant a trip to the Bioluminescent bay in Vieques, the El Yunque cloud forest, and the El Morro fort in Old San Juan. So we made a quick trip to Vieques next.

To get there, we took an island hopper – a converted 4 seater plane retrofitted to seat 9, including pilot. From the back seat, to anyone who was prone to claustrophobia, it could have been construed as a flying coffin, but I didnt mind it. After all, how upset can you get on a flight that never exceeds 600 above sea level, and where the entire flight (including takeoff and landing!) takes less than NINE minutes? And the pilot kept making jokes about the inflight meal and inflight movie the whole way :)

One fact that would have made me decide in Vieques favor earlier on (over going to Culebra), had I realized it, was that both islands were administered by the US Navy for a long time. But the Navy, after a certain amount of protesting, pulled out of Culebra in 1975. It didnt leave Vieques until 2001. That meant, I realized after the fact, that Culebra had had 35 years to fill up with misfits and to be generally messed up by civilians, whereas Vieques was still largely pristine – half the island was STILL off limits because of the risk of unexploded ordinance (the Navy had used it for a live-fire testing range for war games).

Because of that, I liked Vieques better, even though I only spent right at 24 hours there. It seemed less I dont know, dirty. This will no doubt offend any Culebrans that read this, but I cant help it, thats just how it was to me. The beaches on Culebra were nice, but nothing else was. The beaches on Vieques are also nice – perhaps equally nice – and the rest of it was nicer. More upscale, but no more expensive. No doubt it will look the same as Culebra after 30 years of civilian occupation and touristation but for now, its the only place in Puerto Rico I MIGHT go back to – if I had to.

But enough rambling. The reason we went to Vieques was to see the bioluminescent bay. This bay literally glows in the dark. Apparently these dyno-flaggelates (which I think is Greek for underwater power-bugs or something like that maybe) are tiny microscopic lifeforms which, for some reason as yet unknown to science make the water literally glow whenever it is disturbed – by an oar, a fish, or what-have-you. Of the few dozen bays in the world that have this phenomenon, this is by far the brightest.

We got to the south side of Vieques, to the town of Esperanza, just before dark – in time to take some pictures like this:

PR Esperanza 1

But we hadnt been able to get ahold of any tour operators to take us to the bay yet. So we werent sure we were going to get to do it at all. However, through a bit of luck and some phone calls we managed to find someone who I think was just starting in the business, so we actually got it $5 pp cheaper than anyone else had it – making it $25 for about an hour and a half trip. Of course, only about 45 minutes of that was on the bay, but that was long enough.

Unfortunately, for some reason I dont understand, the light that the organisms give off, while bright, doesnt register on most cameras, even on low-light settings. I tried taking videos and pictures in a dozen different settings, and they all show the same thing – blackness. So we had to be content just to enjoy it and remember it. Each time the paddle dipped it showed a very pale blue-white (more white than blue) froth behind it – each time you dip your hand in the water is greeted by a flash of light. The high point of the evening came when we jumped off the kayaks into the pitch black water – only to see it turn brilliant blue-white as we splashed in. I jumped in with my eyes open, and watched the water glow as I crashed into it – no doubt disturbing billions of tiny entities from their otherwise peaceful existence.

But I think even cooler was that as we paddled across this shallow bay in absolute darkness (well, almost absolute), the fish that were scared by the noise of our paddles scattered in every direction underwater – as they did so leaving behind a luminous trail, punctuated by brighter spots where they turned and pushed harder against the water.

Anyway, thats thus far the first thing that Puerto Rico offered that I felt actually lived up to its advertising. And it was neat, I cant deny that. And it was actually worth the price to see it. Of course, the downside was that the other name for the bioluminescent bay was “mosquito bay” you can imagine what that meant :)

Posted on October 27th, 2008 by Natnee and filed under Puerto Rico | 2 Comments »

El Combate to Hurricane Omar

We spent the next day or two working our way up the west coast, where nothing of particular note took place until we arrived on the north coast town of Isabella. This town has a famous surfer break at Jobos Beach (pronounced “Hobos”), and we found a hotel that was right on the water again. It had a nice balcony from which we could watch surfers all day. It had been a stressful trip at times up to this point, so we holed up there for several days. During this time we found some fascinating erosion features – the waves had eroded the soft stone into something that I would have thought could only be found on the surface of the moon.

Isabella 1

Obviously, there would be less water on the moon, but, its the only thing it reminded me of except perhaps for where Bruce Willis had to drill that well in the movie “Armageddon”. Anyway, the waves constantly pummeled the rock creating some quite impressive spouts – sometimes almost 50 feet in the air!

Isabella 2

These rocks were part of formations that were hundreds of feet long and popped up here and there for miles along the shore – which made for a lot of interesting exploring – and plenty of photo ops.

Crab 3Isabella 3Shell 1Anemone

The last is one of my favorites from the whole trip. It was taken at very close range – about 3 inches – with my cool waterproof camera. A bit farther down the road we found a swamp filled with egrets (I think? Ornithology is not my foremost talent) nesting

PR Bird 1

And then we took the party underwater for snorkeling at Shacks Beach. Just finding it was an adventure in itself, but thats too long to get into here :)

PR Fish 1Fish 2

The visibility wasnt great and it was my first time snorkeling and taking pictures so the pictures didnt turn out as well as Id hoped. But it wasnt my fault! The dratted fish kept moving! Anyway, youll see some much better snorkeling pictures next entry. Meanwhile, to digress a few days, we heard that Hurricane Omar was going to pay Puerto Rico a visit. Apparently, Omar was quite angry at Puerto Rico for some reason (maybe he didnt like fast food and traffic?), so he was preparing to mop the floor with it. At first, we heard we were going to get 20 inches of rain, category 2+ hurricane, etc. Naturally we stocked up on water and food and watched the weather channel more frequently.

Next day, the forecast was 10 inches. The next day it was 2. Then it “hit” and we got about 10 drops. Seriously, it never even rained. It blew a few gusts, looked kinda dark on the horizon the afternoon we snorkeled and then nothing. Not that Im complaining about how it turned out, but the gloom and doom forecast was way off base – but then the weather channel is known to overreact it keeps people watching the weather channel.

More next time

Posted on October 22nd, 2008 by Natnee and filed under Puerto Rico | No Comments »

Patillas To El Combate

Anyway, next day we drove east to Ponce, which was a disappointment – I was never much of a fan of architecture anyway, and most every city in Mexico has nicer parks and buildings – and we drove around town looking for unsecured wireless networks so I could check my Email, then headed west. Got lost a few times along the way because Puerto Ricans dont seem to like using road signs. Well, theyll use them occasionally, but not AT the corner – just about a half mile down the road as if to say “Yes, you guessed right, this IS the road!”.

But then, Puerto Ricans dont really care about road signs or rules anyway. The traffic violations Ive seen are just unbelievable. People (pedestrians, mind you!) will walk out in front of traffic, stepping off the curb without even looking at the cars coming, and just expect you to stop. Cars will back out into the street, without a thought that there might be someone coming. And no one seems to find this strange.

For example, as we were heading west out of Ponce that night, we got off the main road to get gas and somehow got turned around, headed up into the mountains. So here we are, on what is barely a 1-lane road, heading up into the mountains, after dark, on winding mountain road, and we turn a corner and find about a dozen cars parked in the middle of the road; people on them, around them, just having an impromptu fiesta! Apparently a few friends had passed each other on the road, then a few more had stopped and made it a party. Right in the middle of a curve, too, and no one bothered to get off the road!

If I had to describe the drivers here in a word, it would be “selfish”. Thats just the only way to put it. Ive been to Mexico, where the driving is insane, and Ecuador where it is absolutely suicidal, but nothing compares to Puerto Rico. They just dont care about anyone else on the road. They are going where they are going, and theyll cut you off, back out in front of you and anything else necessary to get where they are going. Theyll open their door while parked alongside a major highway, double-park, and even park in the middle of streets in the middle of town!

To illustrate this is an event from a bit later in the trip; hands-down, this was the Puerto Rican Driver Prize. We were driving down highway 2, which is the main road that circumnavigates the island around the coast, which is usually a divided 4-lane highway. We were getting off the road to grab a bite (at Wendys, where else?), and noticed an 18-wheeler in the turning lane. It wasnt moving.

As we got closer, we realized it not only wasnt moving, it wasnt even running! We thought this odd, at best, but figured he must have had engine trouble? What else could explain a trucker parked in the turning lane on the only major highway on the island?

Then we went to Wendys. And found the driver in line, ordering lunch. And that sums up driving in Puerto Rico. Moving right along, after arriving in the southwestern area of Cabo Rojo, we set out for the local salt flats. Wed read about these before leaving home. Apparently this corner of the island has a few shallow inland salt flats where people have been mining salt for thousands of years. The ocean blows spray in periodically, then it just dehydrates leaving salt behind. The salt flats themselves were kinda boring, but we were surprised at the amount of people we passed on the narrow gravel road.

So naturally we kept going to see where the people came from. Rounding a bend in the road, we found Playa Sucia – an absolutely gorgeous mile-long stretch of sand and blue water hidden at the end of the road. There was also a lighthouse up on the cliff, but I was never a huge fan of lighthouses. Nonetheless, we hiked up there for some fantastic views, such as:

Cabo Rojo 2Cabo Rojo 3

Then we got in the water, which was remarkably salty, even though it was in an open bay. There were probably 50 people in and around the water, which didnt really fill up the beach much, considering its size. We tried snorkeling, which didnt work very well since the sand was so fine. Much finer than what they have even in the nicest beaches in Florida. But it made snorkeling lousy because everything was covered in dust. So we went for another hike on the other side of the bay, and got a really great picture:

Cabo Rojo Landscape

Im really proud of that one; it captures the colors really nicely. So much so that Ive uploaded a full-resolution copy, so you can follow that link and save to desktop or screensaver if youre as fond of it as I am.  Its pretty big, so I only showed the link on this page. Of course, I took pictures of other things too, such as this unidentified waterfowl:

Unidentified Flying Object

It was quite a long hike. And a fun one. Its amazing the things being exposed to the elements can do to rocks, and how it affects different ones differently

Cabo Rojo 4Cabo Rojo 5

But it was a very nice day trip. We got back in time to catch this sunset:

Sunset From El Combate

Posted on October 19th, 2008 by Natnee and filed under Puerto Rico | No Comments »

San Juan To Patillas

So after landing in San Juan, we grabbed our rental car – which somehow always takes more time than it ought to – and headed east to Fajardo. Since we had nothing to eat, we opted for the safe choice – Taco Bell. Mind you, we would have tried something more adventurous, but Taco Bell was our preference of the US fast food available, and that was ALL that we saw in San Juan. We then stopped at Wal-Mart (again, the only real choice we saw), and were appalled at the prices but bought a few things to get us through the night.

Since we landed about dark and had to do all this en route, we didnt get to Fajardo, our first stop, until about ten. Now Fajardo is a port town, and those are notoriously seedy. I had taken the precaution of writing down several good options I found on the internet, which werent in Lonely Planet, to check out. We found one place – about the quality of what wed stay at in Mexico for about 50$ – for 150$. I balked at that and so we went down the road. We tried place after place, but no one was around at any of them. Finally, we found one place – The Lighthouse of Las Croabas Guesthouse – for 75$. We happily set down there for the night, hoping the next day would be better.

Well, next morning we saw the ocean for the first time – which was, admittedly, a nice deep Caribbean blue – and then headed into Fajardo again to try and find a ferry to the nearby islands Culebra or Vieques. The auto ferry didnt leave until 2:30, so we wandered around, ate a bite, checked Email, etc. Finally about 2:30 we decided that rather than go to the islands, wed just head south around the island first.

So we followed the coast road, checked on several hotels which were shamefully overpriced for what they were – none compared to a Days Inn back home, and for triple the price! And this is the LOW season! Well, finally we found one for 120$, but we had no choice. And it was at least ON the beach. And when I say on it, I mean on it. Waves splashed 10 steps from our door. Big steps, but steps nonetheless.

We decided to hole up here for a day and catch our breath. It had been a fairly stressful trip thus far, and without anything positive to show for it. So we ambled around the beach, I played with my new snorkel-proof Olympus 1030SW camera, taking some underwater photos along with some lizards and crabs:

LizardOur Hotel in PatillasPR CrabPR Crab 2

And at this point I had the first actually positive experience. It started like this; after dark on the second full day I was checking my Email on my laptop. This man walked up to me and asked me if I knew spirit air. I wasnt quite sure what he was asking, but I said yes, Id heard of it. And he asked me a few more questions that I didnt really understand, but I understood enough to know that he wanted me to go to the website. So I did, and then he asked a few more things so I just let him use my computer to show me. He said itd just be five minutes.

Soon his sister came up and we started talking. And it seemed odd to me that I could understand her, and she me, fairly well. I was at a loss to explain it, until she explained to me that she was from Colombia; then it made sense! I can understand Colombians! Just not Puerto Ricans! So I explained that to her and she said not to worry, that SHE couldnt understand Puerto Ricans either! So its not just me!

Anyway, we exchanged stories and since we were circling the island in opposite directions we exchanged hotel information and where the best beaches were, that sort of thing. She told me that Columbia was not at all like it is in the movies; the drug lords have been thrown in jail and the coca plants have been uprooted. She said that it is safe for Americans to travel there and made it sound really nice. Shes a lawyer from Cali. Ive always wanted to there anyway, and she said I can stay with her in Cali if Im ever in the area.  She also owns a finca (small farm) and wants a well drilled, and since I happen to sell well drilling kits all over the world, we might work something out :)

Anyway, during all this time her brother, who is a systems engineer, was still using my laptop. Turns out He was trying to travel to several places in the US as cheap as possible, and you probably know how much time that can take.

So we talked some more, and he used my computer some more, until something like three hours had passed before he finally was finished. His sister made a big joke out of his “5 minutes” turning into “3 hours”, but I didnt mind; I was glad to meet someone I could talk to :)

Posted on October 16th, 2008 by Natnee and filed under Puerto Rico | No Comments »

Puerto Rico – Overbuilt, Overhyped, Overpriced

 Start with your home town. Then remove all restaurants that dont have drive-through windows. Multiply the ones that do so that you can find about a half-dozen Burger Kings in as many miles. Remove all fresh fruit and vegetables from every plate, except for the occasional scrap of tired lettuce. Then add 50 years to all your buildings, and put bars on EVERY window in every building and home in town.

Double the traffic, triple the length of all the stop lights, then raise the prices to about double what youd pay in most parts of the US, surround the whole thing with an ocean, and you have Puerto Rico!

A bit too unkind? Perhaps. But its a not-unrealistic view of the Puerto Rico Ive seen so far. To be fair, there are occasionally local restaurants – although you must venture quite a ways off the beaten path (and I do mean QUITE a ways) to eschew the ubiquitous US burger chains – but these local restaurants seem to have an incredibly narrow list of menu options – as bad, if not worse, than Ecuador (see “Arroz By Any Other Name”). And almost everything is cooked in lard.

As far as I can tell, the only indigenous cuisine consists of either roast pig or something called mofongo. Mofongo is a mashed plantain banana dish, with the starchy plantain stuffed with chicken, conch, lobster, octopus, etc. Like all meals here, it comes with no side dishes and starts at about 10$, with some of the pricier variations costing as much as 20$ a plate.

This is not in a 5-star (or even 2-star) restaurant mind you, this is in a roadside shack. And while I tend to be fond of roadside-shack-restaurants, 20$ a plate (which is not even a slight exaggeration) seems more than a tad excessive. That said, mofongo can be fairly tasty which is thus far the only positive thing I can say about the cuisine. I hear in San Juan they have some haute cuisine, which is even more ridiculously overpriced, but I doubt Ill be sampling that.

I have yet to see anyone here eating a vegetable or fruit of any kind. Everything is either fast food, or pure meat. I dont even see any significant starch (rice, tortillas, etc). I was on the island for 2 days before I found a banana to buy! Every town of even moderate size has a Wal-Mart and a Sams Club, with all prices being at least 30%  higher than in the states.

But enough about griping about the prices. For now, anyway. I should note that Puerto Ricans speak a different version of Spanish than anyone else in the world. They sort of ignore the last syllable of every word and run it into the next one. I speak moderately good Spanish, good enough to get by in Ecuador and Mexico without too many problems and communicate fairly well. But in Puerto Rico, they might as well be speaking Arabic. They cant understand me much, and I cant understand them hardly at all.

The upside to all this? Well, it has a beach. Some are nicer than others. Ive not been on the best beachy sides of the island, so its not fair to judge them all yet. But thus far they are its only redeeming feature well see if there is anything else as we go along

Posted on October 12th, 2008 by Natnee and filed under Puerto Rico | 1 Comment »



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