Puerto Rican Ramblings – Chapter 3

The interior of Puerto Rico can look a bit like Hawaii if you can get away from the towns and villages. This is a roadside view of the mountains where the rain forests live. We stopped so I could get a shot out the window. The narrow, winding roads out here are not crowded, and it’s no big deal to stop. Hell, you could stop and set up a fruit stand blocking half the road and no one would care.  

Here is some traffic congestion. We tried for days to get tickets to visit Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest. The websites are jacked, and after several tries we figured these tickets must be going to tour operators. So we scheduled a visit with a tour operator. 

Our instructions said to meet in front of a Ralph’s Supermarket. The guide did not provide transportation. And so like a funeral procession, the guide led about 10 vehicles up into the mountains, snaking through innumerable small towns and villages. 

Behold the official parking lot for our tour of the El Yunque National forest. It became evident to us after passing no signs for El Yunque, and then seeing these marvelous accommodations, that we were not entering any official National Forest entrance. However, by this time all of us had gotten this far, we were a captive audience. 

And yes, the entrance to the parking lot was between those two ruined buildings. An old man, who looked like Hemingway on his final bender, guarded a gate, which was simply a muddy chain on a hook.  

The start of our trail into El Yunque National Forest. Or so we were told. We were to soon discover there is no trial here. Just a river. 

Twice on our ‘trail’ we had to ford the river. Here is one of our guides, Joel (sp?) helping our fellow hikers across. Joel was a decent guide and saved me more than once from sliding to what I’m certain would’ve been my death. But you know me, I’m terrified of water. It would turn out water was the least of my my worries.

Now we come to the long photographic gap in our adventure. Modern iPhones are billed as water resistant but not MUD RESISTANT. After fording the river twice, we were guided into what I can only describe as a fuck-ton of mud. Mud up the sides of river ravines. Mud down the sides of cliffs. Mud paths so narrow and slick you had to shimmy through muddy crevices like inebriated swine. Mary, Sam and I were slicked with mud up to our gills. 

Needless to say, we safely tucked away our smart phones. This shot here I took on the hike back, after I had an opportunity to wash myself in the river. See this mud at my feet and coating my sandals? It covered us from toes to teats. 

There was a moment of hilarity on the hike out of the forest. One of the college women in our group slipped in the mud and fell face first into a stinking trough of this sticky shit. Much cruel laughter ensued. 

Here is the river in the middle of our journey. It was crowded with all kinds of hikers. There were natural water slides and diving rocks and ropes to swing off–all manner of water sports. 

It’s at this point I knew we were not in the El Yunque National Forest, and would never step into it. Park Rangers would never allow this kind mud-slicking mayhem and wild water shenanigans in a protected forest. This kind of wholesale touristy kind of undisciplined tumult is destructive to local flora and fauna; our useless mud-rutting up and down the river valley only leads to more erosion and the destruction of rare plant life, which is the environment that protects rare species. Alas, this is Puerto Rico. There may be laws, but few of them are enforced. 

On a lighter note: Look closely at the man hanging from the end of the swinging rope, in bright green. That’s Sam! 

Our trio of mud-hikers, washed clean with river water. There was a Lutheran pastor in the group that I hobnobbed with. When I told her I was an apostate, she offered to baptize me. And that is why I’m afraid of water.

Once we hiked back and got out of the parking lot, our Google navigator got confused for a while trying to lead us out. There was no signage and no help from the guides, and our phones could barely pull a signal. However, we did drive through some lovely groves of bamboo forest. 

Some of the rough and gorgeous Puerto Rican interior we drove through looking for civilization. 

I know, this looks a lot like my first shot, but it’s just so beautiful. Our leaving the El Yunque forest that we really never visited. 

The next morning Mary and I took a long stroll down our beach to see how far it went. I felt like a kid again, and that we were walking along the shores of The Mysterious Island. During our whole walk we only encountered one other person. And on this long stretch of beach, there wasn’t a hint of human development. 

The dangerous and rocky ocean along El Cocal Beach. 

Looking backward, you can see Mary’s and my footprints in the sand. In the distance you can see the white rooftops of our gated community. 

My sweetheart and Yours Truly on El Cocal Beach, Puerto Rico. 

Puerto Rican Ramblings – Chapter 2

Puerto Rico is part of the Greater Antilles Archipelago which essentially forms the northern border of the Caribbean Sea. As this first photo shows, this island can be exquisitely beautiful. Puerto Rico’s climate designation is Tropical Rainforest, and so the coastlines are gorgeous. This shot is right on the beach where our Airbnb is on Puerto Rico’s southern shore near a town called Yabucoa.  

For our journey to Yabucoa we drove south from San Juan through part of the island’s interior. Here’s a shot showing what the typical towns look like. Lots of roadside eateries, homes and businesses. The roadway pictured here is in good shape, which is not the case for most of the roads we’ve driven on. Most secondary roads on this island (and most side streets in the capital city) are full of potholes, narrow, rutted and with no shoulders. One of the potholes was so bad that we had to refill the air in one of our tires. 

Another shot of a small town on the way to Yabucoa. In the distance you can see clouds storming over the interior. Like any tropical volcanically-created island, weather tends to crowd along the mountaintops. 

Closer up you can see all kinds of electrical and cable wires. Puerto Rico’s infrastructure barely runs. The island is finally back to being fully supplied with electricity after Hurricane Maria five years ago. It took some places seven months to get power back. You can see part of the reason why. Powerlines and poles are everywhere, leaning, tilting, sagging. And the history of power management in Puerto Rico is rife with underfunding and corruption. In our drives we passed a solar farm and a wind farm, but as of today the island still gets 97% of its power from fossil fuels. 

A view of Puerto Rico’s mountainous interior from the car. In a few days we’d drive up there to visit the rainforest. 

And here we are, at our lovely Airbnb just south of Yabucoa on the Caribbean Sea. This is the view from our porch. It’s a five minute stroll to the beach. 

Another view of the beach at our Airbnb. This is the view to the left just as you step out onto the beach. 

This is one of my favorite spots on the beach, in the shade under a palm. Just about every day this week there have been riptide warnings. The surf is wild and pounding. Mary and I have waded out to about knee deep. Sam’s braver, venturing out on his boogie board. You have to be very, very careful. Tourists drown here. 

I’ve done some writing and some reading here. A lovely spot for that. 

This is the view to the right as you step out onto the beach. 

What is this charming little cottage, you ask? Why, it’s our trash hut. We come here to dump our garbage. It’s right next to…our entrance gate. 

Yes, I hate to admit it, but we discovered that our Airbnb is in a gated community. Alas, the gate only works about half the time. Repairmen were here just yesterday; today it’s malfunctioning again. As I’ve mentioned in a previous travelogue, Puerto Ricans are obsessed with locking and gating things up, and this place is no exception. 

Even the garbage house has a lock. And since I’m talking about garbage, Puerto Rico does not make it easy to recycle. Only about 2/3 of their towns offer recycling facilities, and they are not standardized. In fact, it is the law that you must recycle in Puerto Rico, but it is not enforced anywhere. It’s just too damned expensive for any company to collect recyclables and ship them off island. And the government itself is too cash-strapped to start doing it. In related news, Puerto Rico has 29 landfills, and most of them are overflowing and do not comply with US standards on the mainland.  The nearest recycling center to us? 8 miles. And if you tote your stuff there, it might not be open. 

For one of our days here we decided not to lie on the beach or visit the trash hut. We took a catamaran out to sea so that Sam and Mary could go swimming in the ocean where there are no murderous riptides. I do not swim, I do not go into any ocean water that’s higher than my nipples. Here’s the gang on our boat, slathered up with sunblock and ready for a day at sea. 

A view of the eastern side of the island of Puerto Rico. As I mentioned before, you can see how the clouds cling to the mountains in the center. 

A tropical rain squall skirting over the ocean. These squalls are an almost constant feature, day and night. Hey, smartphones are water resistant now, so why worry? If you get wet, the tropical sun will dry you off in minutes. 

This is what sunrise looks like at our Airbnb. With some coffee, it’s a fine thing. 

Puerto Rican Ramblings – Chapter 1

Long before the Russians ruthlessly invaded Ukraine, Mary and I had arranged a trip to Puerto Rico, inviting Sam to join us. And so on the flight over, the number one topic of conversation for Sam and I was the continuing war in Ukraine. 

Strangely, in the next couple days, Puerto Rico would show me that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Puerto Rico, to this very day, is a living example of humanity’s darkest side: the predatory instinct of dictators and colonizers to subject others they see as their lessors to slavery, subjugation and destruction.  

Our first view of Puerto Rico. This is a snippet of land called the Islet of San Juan. The original settlement of San Juan, now Puerto Rico’s capital, was built on this finger-shaped island, which rests just north of the actual big island of Puerto Rico. It’s now connected to the main island with a bridge and a causeway, effectively making a peninsula. 

We got our rental car (which took almost as long as the flight from the continent) and crossed the San Jose Lagoon. It seemed to us as big as a sea itself. 

For our first three nights in Puerto Rico we rented a VRBO in a residential district of San Juan. Everything around San Juan is locked up. And by ‘locked up’ I mean double-locked. Our front door is deadbolted, and the carport gate has a padlock. 

A shot of our local neighborhood at the end of the block. Mary, Sam and I walked to dinner our first night, and we learned that everybody here locks and gates and bolts everything. And on top of that, business establishments add chain link fences with razor wire. Yes, we passed a garden nursery that had closed up for the night. In case any thieves might be interested in stealing a flowering bush or a sapling, they’d have to 1) get past the chain link 2) get past the razor wire and 3) contend with the guard dog (yes, there was a guard dog), and 4) then break through any number of locks or bolts. 

Of course, this is all related to the high rate of poverty on this island. And that is the fault of the United States, in my opinion. 

The next day we headed to Old Town San Juan (the part of the city on that Islet we saw out the plane window) to explore some Caribbean history. This is a view out over the Bahia de San Juan (Bay of San Juan), the body of water separating the islet from the main island of Puerto Rico. In other words, the mountains you see on the horizon are the center highlands of Puerto Rico.  

Another view similar to the previous shot. We stopped at an outdoor bar to liquor ourselves up before tromping about in Old Town. This is the wharf were all the monstrous cruise ships anchor. 

Old town San Juan dates back to when Spanish explorer Ponce de León founded a settlement here in 1508. That makes San Juan the second oldest Western civilization city in the Americas, after Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, founded just 12 years earlier. San Juan, as it eventually became known, was vitally important to the Spanish because of Puerto Rico’s geographic location in the Caribbean Sea. Prevailing routes for sailing ships went past Puerto Rico, and the Bay of San Juan made this an excellent harbor. 

The Spanish would control this island for the next 4 centuries, until the United States won it from Spain. And so everything in Puerto Rico is deeply Spanish: the language, the culture, the food and the architecture. The buildings in downtown San Juan are built in a kaleidoscope of colors, reflecting its Spanish and Caribbean origins. 

Well, not all the architecture is of Spanish influence. This is the Bank of Puerto Rico, an Art Deco masterpiece. It’s 11 stories tall, and for for many years it was the tallest building in the Caribbean. 

We visited the Bastion de las Palmas, part of the walled city of San Juan. This section of wall was built in 1624 to guard the Bay of San Juan, which you can see just below the horizon in this photo. The Spanish built this wall to fight off the Dutch, who were trying to capture this port. 

Yes, the history of Puerto Rico is long and bloody. The Spanish, Dutch, British and Americans all fought to claim this island. For Puerto Rico means ‘Rich Port’ and it’s aptly named. This island was created by volcanos, and as a result of that, the rivers on this island were littered with gold. That’s right, early colonizers found the river beds sprinkled with gold. What really got the Spaniards interested was that Ponce de León found that the indigenous Taíno walked around buck naked wearing nothing but gold necklaces and gold loin cloths. 

What did Ponce de León do? He enslaved the Taíno.

Mary and Yours Truly at Bastion de las Palmas. It was a lovely day, and easy to forget that this place was born and bred in bloodshed. 

The very old Caribbean towns are as close as you can get to Europe without going there. So many streets and avenues in Old Town San Juan are full of cafes, bars and restaurants. 

Furthermore, the Puerto Ricans have done an amazing job of controlling Covid. They have strict masking rules for indoors, and one of the highest vaccinations rates in the US (Puerto Rico is a US territory). On three different occasions so far, Mary, Sam and I had to show proof of vaccination to enter. We did not mind at all. 

Pigeon central. They sell seeds to kids so that they can throw it around and get splattered with pigeon guano. 

We spent part of our first day sampling Puerto Rican cuisine. This is a Quesito Cortés from Chocobar Cortez, a traditional Puerto Rican pastry of chocolate and cheese. You wouldn’t think these two foods would go together, but they do. 

This is La Borinqueña, a prominent feature at Chocobar Cortez. She is a Puerto Rican superhero, and every large chocolate bar you buy here comes wrapped in a La Borinqueña comic strip. She was created by artist Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez to celebrate Afro-Latinx beauty and power. She promotes social justice, protects the environment and works to preserve the history of Puerto Rico, including ALL of Puerto Rico’s many ancestors and mixed races.  

For lunch we dined on some traditional Puerto Rican cuisine. The star feature are plantains, which are in the bowl to the left. You smash up the plantains with the wooden pestle, add some of the chicken and then upend the whole thing on your plate. To fortify you for all this work, they also serve you a mojito.  

Another specialty of the region is their amazing ceviche. Pictured: My second ceviche dish of the day, this one served on a half avocado the size of my head. 

We ended our second night at a rooftop restaurant. Here are Mary and Sam. Behind them, stretching south, is the Bay of San Juan and the island of Puerto Rico. 

Mary and Yours Truly at our rooftop dinner.  

We began our second full day with another trip to Old Town San Juan. As I said before, old town is very European and has a lot of squares. Here are Mary and Sam soaking up the morning tropical sun. 

Another example of how colorful and bright the buildings are in Old Town San Juan. 

A common feature through San Juan–both in old town in and in the residential areas–are rooftop gardens. They are everywhere. The people here love to create these tiny private oases of small tropical gardens and flowers.  

Our big visit of the day was hiking up to Castillo San Felipe del Morro. This was the big Spanish fort that basically held and protected this port for about 400 years. The large empty field of grass leading up to the fort is called an esplanade. The Spaniards cleared this field of any vegetation or buildings so that attacking armies had no place to hide as they approached the walls of the fortress. 

When the Americans captured Puerto Rico from the Spanish at the beginning of the 1900’s, they used this as a golf course. But now this region is a World UNESCO site, and so everything is being reverted back to original historical accuracy.   

Atop Castillo San Felipe del Morro. 

Three flags fly over the Castillo San Felipe del Morro:

Center: The American flag, since Puerto Rico is a wholly owned territory of the United States, its residents have been considered US citizens since 1917. But they can’t vote. Too bad. 

Right: The Puerto Rican flag: Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, but what does that mean? To this very day that’s being debated. Our Puerto Rican guide (from our first day food tour), when asked, told us that he thinks a majority of Puerto Ricans would vote for US Statehood. It’d certainly be better than what Puerto Rico has right now. A 43% poverty rate (compared to the US average of 13%), with no real representation in Washington. 

Left: The Spanish Military flag: As I said above, everything here is rooted in Spanish culture. Yes, the US took over at the start of the 20th century, but for 400 years before that the Spanish were in control. And the Puerto Rican people have mixed ancestors. The Spanish came and enslaved the Taíno. When the Taíno had been effectively obliterated, the Spaniards brought in slaves from Africa. All this blood has mixed together to make modern Puerto Rico. They’re still not independent. 

Since the Castillo San Felipe del Morro is now a UNESCO world heritage site, the US Park District is constantly repairing this historic fort. There is no one from the US working to help the poverty here. 

A view back from the top of the fort along the Islet of San Juan. To the left is the Atlantic Ocean. To the right is the Bay of San Juan.  

Yours Truly, Mary and Sam atop the battlements of Castillo San Felipe del Morro.

Finally, at the foot of the high ground of the Castillo, as you walk back into town, you run into the Ballajá Sculpture. Artist Victor Ochoa created this in 1992 to symbolize the local San Juan district. It represents the oppressed peoples here, those who have neglected them, and the spirit that is working to revive them. In short, it honors Puerto Rican heritage. 

And so, yes, this island is a living, breathing example of the brutality of colonialism. And judging by what’s happening in Eastern Europe right now, we humans haven’t learned a damned thing.