El Moro, Old San JuanCheck out my photography homepage here: Stephen Hayden Photography
Cannon ramp down to the lower decks in the oldest Spanish fortification in the New World
Local business' that made the trip happen: Aventuras: San Juan, Puerto Rico Taino Divers: Rincon, Puerto Rico Lemontree Inn
What drew me to Puerto Rico? Looking back on it, I'm not quite sure. It could have been the first time I heard about the bio-luminescent oceans, great diving, El Yunque(the only tropical rainforest in the US Forest Service)or gigantic caves. Ahh yes, an article on Mona Island, "The Galapagos of the Carribean". While I didn't go on a multi-day excursion to Mona Island, I did find out why Puerto Rico license plates say "La Isla de Encantada"...
My plan was simple, rent a car and see as much of the island as possible. This method sacrifices quality, but gives a great quantity of experience. To me my precious 2 weeks of paid vacation needs to be spent well, and the best way to start the trip was to make reservations for adventure trips. The first and most anticipated was the all day excursion through the Camuy Caves. The Camuy river is among the top three for longest underground rivers in the world. The cave system is massive, and I signed up for an 8 hour excursion with http://www.aventuraspr.com.
Directions? Puerto Rico feels like a US state in Latin America, but it is closer to Venezuela and Columbia than Florida!
They also offered an all day Canyoning trip in El Yunque, which I signed up for as well. Scheduling one tour for the third day of my trip and one tour for the end of my trip gave me 10 days to circumnavigate the island.
DAY 1- Despite Puerto Ricans being US citizens, using US dollars and not passing through customs, arriving in San Juan definitely felt foreign! Puerto Ricans are unique; they are both diverse, attractive, cultured and friendly. I picked up my rental car and took off . I studied maps of PR for many months prior to my arrival, and it was easy to head east along the shore passing through Loiza and the sprawl of San Juan to Fajardo. I must admit, the first few days were very unpleasant... The heat was getting to me, as were the endless bugs, reggaeton music, my asthma acting up and nobody would speak to a gringo in Spanish! I spent the night in a small motel on the very Northeast tip of the island, going grocery shopping, swimming in the ocean and arranging a dive trip near Isla Palominos in 2 days. I fell asleep to the chirps
El Moro Cemetary
Huge Cemeteries surround the north end of El Morro. The history here was incredibly rich, from Christopher Columbus to Ponce De Leon to Pirates.
of Coqui's, small frogs that coat Puerto Rico like icing. Their incessant chirping is surreal, a constant reminder that millions of lives and entire communities exist apart from Human Experience. Tomorrow I will go to the rainforest of El Yunque!
DAY 2- El Yunque is spectacular. The whole north slope of PR is coated in forest, but higher into the hills brings you deeper into the forest. Going higher proved to be the only relief from the heat, even then it was moist and sweaty. The Coqui's increased substantially in number, I stopped my car as wild iguanas crossed the road. Palms and ferns appear in every imaginable color and shape. Im a bit suprised at how small El Yunque(and by extension Puerto Rico) is. The mountains remind me of the Transverse Range in Santa Barbara. Seemingly imposing, once you get on the top you see it is just one large sloping crest. I stop at some turnouts and hike up creeks along with the other tourits. I go for a swim, and the cool water is the most refreshing thing I think I could have imagined given the heat. Most of the day is spent in these pools,
El Moro Lookout
Lookouts made for great viewpoints over the ocean and cliffs while the winds howled into the windows. Unfortunately, the foul smelling urine and trash inside ruined the moment.
and I go for a small hike through the forest. I need to find a play to stay that night, as the broken air conditioner and broken mosquitos screens of my previous night's accomodations didn't sound appetizing for a second night. I found a 4 star hotel in downtown Fajardo near the harbor, made a reservation for 2 nights, had some comida tipica and fell soundly asleep.
DAY 3- I was very ready for my first dive trip after certification one month prior in Monterey! We met at 8am, the operators were friendly although a bit unorganized. No matter, we had a good crew of 2 divemasters and 6 divers. The boat was big and new. The diving was out of this world. The water was so crystal clear, at 30 feet it felt like I was standing in the sunshine. Coral and songes of all shapes and forms, schools of brightly colored fish and cool water that chilled the Puerto Rican heat. I realized after the first dive that SCUBA diving while on vacation is like icing on a cake! After a lunch of juice, water and sandwiches we went on the second dive a ways away from
El Moro Lighthouse
A new Lighthouse was constructed recently, but the old foundation still remains. The architechture is incredible considering this was a 16th century Spainish colony.
the first. It was scenery I had only witnessed in pictures, shallow turquoise ocean waters giving way to deserted islands of sand and palm trees. I saw a pair of lobsters that were at least 3 feet long, a baby sea turtle, and an eel. We returned and I was completely refreshed and glowing with excitement about Puerto Rico. I was exhausted after the diving trip in the sunshine and heat, but my caving tour departed the following day at 5am and I needed to find a room in San Juan to make the early morning drive easier. I made my reservations at the Holiday Inn in the trendy beachside Condado district. Just like in Chile, I found driving in a different country challenging and fun. I took a nap and went shopping. I retired at 8 pm as I had to get up at 4am and locate an obscure parking lot on the outskirts of San Juan.
DAY 4- Finding the Aventuras crew was a bit tricky! It was so early it felt like it was in the middle of the night, being completely dark and calm. No cars were out, and this helped me avoid an accident
El Moro Greens
No country could conquer the Colonial Spanish in Puerto Rico. The Dutch came the closest, taking Old San Juan and holding out on this grass for weeks. The relentless firepower and vigilance from the soldiers inside El moro, and a valiant unexpected attack from a Spanish general drove them back to their boats and back out of PR.
as I both drove through the maze of Puerto Rican freeways and looked at my roadmaps. I had no idea what I was in for until I met Rossano, the lead guide and owner of aventuraspr.com. His optimism was infectious. We had a crew of about 10 people, and the photo-painted van had a dvd player and comfortable chairs. It also had a PA system, which Roassano made good use of. It became apparent this was no ordinary tour, as Rossano began a one man show that was nothing short of completely entertaining! It was both comedic and informational. You could tell Aventuraspr.com was team building and motivational activities as much as Adventure Guiding. The drive to the caves was about 1.5 hours and half of that time was being entertained by Rossano. Aventuraspr has a facility outside of Arecibo for Team Building, including a ropes course, tribal music on a ghetto blaster and mini ampitheatre set in the rainforest. Its no wonder MTV's "road rules" and "Real World" came here to film, the operation is top notch and totally enjoyable every step of the way. After putting on our gear, we began the abseiling into the giant gorge encrusted
El Moro Mega Cannon
Foundations from one of the large cannons on the very top of El Moro.
with rainforest. Huge snails with shells like a nautilus cling to the trunks of the branches, the afternoon thunderstorm clouds start to build and you start to sweat from the combination of wetsuit and harness. Once inside the cave and the river, a feeling of being in an netherworld paradise sets in. The river is cool, I find myself dipping in it as often as possible. The formations are both intricate and grandiose, the chambers large enough to fit a small skyscraper. Some Sections of the caves were narrow slot canyons where we slowly float down the cold river past huge blades of rock. Other sections entail scrambling over 20 foot tall formations slick with muddy water trickling in from above. The trip runs through a giant 2 mile loop, it didn't take long before all of us were completely disoriented and in complete submission to our guides. They point out features of the caves that are unique, like the fossilized oysters complete with fossilized pearls. The mountains of Puerto Rico used the be the seabed, a revelation that never looses its impact for me. How special it is to experience this place. We stopped for lunch in the caves
El Moro Complex
Built from local stone 400 years ago into a 200 foot high cliff.
center. As we keep going and going through the cave, the guides point out that we have just made a giant loop and are in the same spot we had been previously. The difference is the water level, having already risen 4 feet since we entered! Now we all understand why it was necessary to leave so early in the morning, the daily(yes, everyday) thunderstorms are unpredictable- leaving late in the day with drastically changing water levels would be dangerous. We returned to San Juan at around 3pm glowing from the experience, although a bit tired. For me, there was more adventure ahead, as I was to drive back west to the surfing mecca of Rincon for more diving the following day.
I followed the coastline towards Areceibo, and what a beautiful coastline it was. I was finally away from the sprawl of San Juan. I passed through a small town where school was just let out, and it confirmed my belief that the best way to see what the people of a far off place is like is to see the children! When I got to Areceibo I headed south, into the flat topped limestone mountains and valleys.
Old San Juan
All of Old San Juan was surrounded by a great wall to keep out pirates and invaders. The city itself is very unqiue, colorful and well preserved.
This limestone landscape known as karst is home to the caves I just visited, and near Areceibo its also home to the famous radio telescope featured in the movie "Contact". Once I got to Dos Bocas Reservior, I was in awe of the landscapes that kept unfolding. Huge limestone cliffs covered in forest gave way to milky brown rivers. I saw few people, rare for an island of 5 million with one of the highest population densities on Earth. Following the Cordillera Central, I drove west towards Rincon. By this time my body was aching and my mind was craving sleep! I arrived in Rincon an hour before sunset, secured accomodations and had dinner. The west facing coast was perfect for sunset pictures, so I grabbed my camera and headed to Steps Beach. Christopher Columbus landed not 5 miles from here! As the sun set and the flashes from distant thunderstorms competed with the colors of the setting sun, i couldn't help but feel the timelessness of this special island.
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