Friday, June 20, 2008

Highlights from Puerto Rico

Well, I've obviously taken quite the break from blogging in recent weeks--justified to some extent, I think. Ten of those days were spent touring La Isla del Encanto, Puerto Rico. Not a terribly lengthy stretch with which to cover an entire island nation (sorry, free associated state), but I was amazed at how much of this stunningly diverse slice of earth I was able take in, armed only with a rental car, a tent, and a shamefully inadequate command of the Spanish language. Here are a few highlights from the journey:

El Yunque

This is an obligatory stop for most people on the island, from lifelong locals to passengers on the seemingly innumerable cruise ships at berth in San Juan Bay. And for good reason. This national park encompasses a tropical rainforest perched on the slopes of one of Puerto Rico's highest mountain ranges. It's visible from many different locations on the island, peaks shrouded in dense clouds.

Simply accessing the park is an adventure in itself. The provocatively narrow, switchback road leading up to the Palo Colorado Visitors Center prepared me well for similar mountain "highways" I encountered later in the trip. The hikes I managed were fantastic, including one that led me to the top of El Yunque peak itself. Getting an early start, I was fortunate enough to beat the clouds to the summit, enjoying several minutes of unobscured views back to the coast.

Laguna Grande and the dynoflagellates

Puerto Rico's three bioluminescent bays are another big draw. The best supposedly belongs to Vieques, an island just off the east coast, but being strapped for time I opted to check out this one at the northeastern tip of the main island.

Wow. The tour was a bit pricey but more than worth it. Along with a group of around 15, I cast my kayak into the ocean waves at 9pm and followed the guide through the pitch-blackness of a mangrove canal until the lagoon opened up before us. With every paddle stroke, every ripple, the water exploded in neon blue as billions of microorganisms fired their photosynthetic flares in self-defensive instinct. A remarkable sight, unfortunately impossible for me to capture on camera. Check out these shots to get an idea.

Winding through the Central Mountains

These are the island's spine, a rugged wall of stone dividing north from south. Again, navigating the roads and living to tell about it was half the fun. But I also spent two nights at a coffee-plantation-turned-tourist-hacienda at the foot of the tallest mountain in Puerto Rico. Of course I had to climb it. The terrain was wild, a far cry from the strip malls and stop lights that plague the flat coastal areas.

Bosque Estatal de Guajataca

After pretty much circumnavigating the entire island, this was my last stop before retiring to the comforts of San Juan. I started sweating well before the hike began, as getting there required passage along the most perilous road yet, as well as a Spanish pop quiz to locate the trail head.

Without much change in elevation, and nowhere near the biodiversity on offer in El Yunque, I wouldn't call the Interpretive Trail a thrill ride by any means. What it led me to--that's a different story.

The limestone that underlies this portion of the island contains some immense caverns. I'd been somewhat disappointed the previous day on my visit to the nearby Camuy River Caverns Park, as the main cave chamber was closed. But Guajataca Forest and its Cueva del Viento more than made up for it. This was one impressive cave, and I was free to explore it to my heart's content.

Old San Juan

I must admit I was completely unprepared for the charms of Old San Juan. So much of my trip preparation had gone into researching the rest of the island that I had all but neglected its crown jewel.

The historic section is on par with that of Quebec City...only better. Bright colors, narrow cobblestone streets, and a picturesque fortress to boot. Of course, my two nights in the Gran Hotel El Convento didn't hurt, either. San Juan left me wishing I had budgeted more time to relax in its Old World opulence, for all too soon I was bidding farewell to the island of enchantment.