epic island road trip!

Sabado 25 de junio de 2011 

Saturday was fairly lackadaisical… The highlights were taking my camera out into the forests and getting some nice shots before getting rained out. Then heading into town with Elanie (a student researcher)  & Elogance (a Columbia U student) in search of corrugate for making spider houses.  Although we were empty-handed corrugate wise, Elogance had armfuls of food including about 20 lbs of ribs for a potluck he decided we were having Sunday night.

Domingo 26 de junio de 2011

Sunday was an early morning with lots of plans in store for the day. Friday night I met Rich, who is a grad student living at the “stream house” which is another El Verde building located halfway down the mountain. Rich had less than a week left in PR but has a lot of things he wanted to do on the island before leaving, so a few of us decided to get in on his bucket list.  I got up at 7 to pack my stuff and eat my breakfast (buttered toast with jam and glass shards). Liza, Rachel, Rocio and I headed down the driveway to meet Rich. Once at the bottom he was not there so, trying to make the most of time we starting walking down the main road. 25 min later we were in a downpour and 35 min later we were out of El Yunque Nat. Forest. 20 yards from the stream house, a red Toyota Tacoma extended cab rolls up. We climb in realizing this was the nicest vehicle we had been in yet while in PR.

After driving considerably west of San Juan, we headed south on Hwy 10. Due to an electronic pass on the windshield we were able to speed through all the toll booths. After 1.5 hours cumulatively, we pulled off at a Texaco gas station and hiked up and then down a dirt path. As obscure and remote as the place was, there were people everywhere. We rounded a corner and came to a large cave mouth with a smaller – steeper cave entrance below it in the foreground. After taking some photos I went to get in line behind Liza to enter the steep slippery slope leading in to the larger cavern. Once I was close, I saw that a climbing rope was tied from a rock and the top and another 40 yards at the bottom. A man with a helmet and headlamp waited at the bottom. I soon realized he was a tour guide and I was amongst a tour group. There was light at the end of the cavern from a distant opening 3/4 up the rear wall. It seemed like I had just gotten in and snapped a few shots before my group was off again. Soon we were headed down into the more narrow cavern. The caves were the result of karst topography in west-central PR. Because limestone is “soft” it is easily worn away by water and in the case of the second cave, large stalactite type rock formations hung from the ceiling. Due to my photo taking I was again left in the dust (actually there is a more appropriate, wet term) and alternately in the dark.  Before long I was in the middle of a large cavern and walking through a puddle of mud. The cold mire spilled over my chacos – gross. After plenty of frightening stumbling around, I rounded a corner and headed for the light. As I got closer I could see the light was from a large hole in the side of a tall mountain (which I was inside) the hole was approximately’ h x 70′ w. The cave was appropriately named Cueva Ventana which translates – window cave.  And a window it was! it looked over a fertile river valley complete with ag. fields and bordered by  lush rolling hills. Spectacular sight!!! Swooping above our heads was a dance between winged mammals and feathered birds (bats and swallows). I learned Rich also had a run-in with the muck. I also learned the muck was much more than that, it was in fact guano :0 !!! We could not wash up at the Texaco station in which we were parked due to lack of running water. So we used our water bottles and did the best we could. While I was watering the lawn out back, I saw the biggest and prettiest skink I had ever seen – 40m!

Soon we were again headed south on Hwy 10 with even more of the most amazing landscape I had ever seen. Perfect steep rolling hills on either side of us, in rows – foreground, middle and background. They looked exactly how any child would depict a scenic panoramic view. From time to time we would pass strange rock formations and cave openings (similar to the one we were  just in) on the sides of the steep green gumdrops.

After coming to an abrupt dead-end on the Hwy, we back tracked and took a scenic detour (which is actually the only route – Hwy 10 is not finished yet) on a road that could rival any San Fran St. in steepness and curves. We skirted a beautiful river as scenic as could be – just calling to be kayaked. We passed people bathing and filling buckets from pvc pipes jutting straight out of the side of the sheer hill slope. We stopped at a vacant one up the road so that Rich and I could wash off the poo. I couldn’t help but put my mouth under the falling stream of water and have a taste. The water was pure and sweet and no doubt tasted better than the most expensive of expensive bottled water. I regretted not filling my water bottle as Rich had…

As we were speeding along back on the main drag headed for Ponce, we experienced a blow out on the front drivers side tire. Not wanting to get in the way, I ate my sack lunch and enjoyed the local topography as the spare was put on. For reasons unknown, every other car that sped past us was sure to honk. Soon we were on our way but dangerously low on fuel. We turned off on 123 and filled the tank. Alejandro is from the area and had recommended a place for lunch but we realized we were already too far south. We continued on and soon found ourselves in the non-touristy impoverished district of Ponce. Not knowing what we were looking for, we were all surprised when the buildings got rapidly nicer before suddenly opening up to the historic Ponce town center. We parked and headed through the Plaza Las Delicias in search of lunch. It wasnt long before learning that many restaurants are closed on Sunday. We stopped to talk to some locals sitting outside the consequential Policia station. They kindly pointed us towards Cafe Tomas. Having already eaten I settled on a cup of beef soup and an appetizer sampler. Everything was breaded, deep-fried and not overly impressive apart from the ping pong ball sized cheese balls which I had been eying up in the first place.

We wandered the grand streets that embraced the town square. With everything being closed and silent we decided to head back toward the center. Despite a onimous sky rolling in from the central mountains, we stopped for ice cream at a place across from the infamous black and red stripped fire house as per Alejandro’s recommendation. I was hoping for pistachio but settled on china which was not as exotic as I thought but instead plain ol orange. We lounged around the Lion’s Fountain before heading out.

We headed east along Hwy 52. I dozed off while squeezed in the middle seat. I was lulled to sleep by the roar of the wind coming in through all 4 rolled down windows as traveled at 65 mph. I jolted awake to the lurch of the trucks brake in time to see a police officer standing on the side of the Hwy and pointing at us as two cars pulled off the road on either side of us. Rich let off on the gas and pulled onto the shoulder while looking in the review mirror in amazement  and confusion as to what just happened. Without stopping, it was quickly concluded to keep going. 5 min later there were police lights behind us and we were pulled over the old-fashioned way. The officer walked up to the passenger side of the truck and in spanish asked for license and registration. He silently wrote a ticket and without saying another word was off. We all looked over Rich’s shoulder to see what this was all about. All the ticket said was $95 for going 75 in a 65. The amazing thing was, we were stuck directly behind a car going no more than 65. Bewildered we continued on to Hwy 53 eastbound.

The drive was beautiful as we hugged the coast. When the Hwy headed north we got onto 901 and continued on through small towns with crowded coastal bars. Eventually we headed inland and up hill. The view over the sheer drop on the side of the road was beautiful with valleys and hills and ocean. Nevertheless the ride was uncomfortable as we nearly hit multiple people, dogs and chickens.

Soon we were lost as seemingly normal roads turned into narrow almost one ways, turned into driveways. After a bit of backtracking, we pulled onto a dirt road that Rich was familiar with. Vehicles and people lined the narrow road which ran parallel to Charco Frio – our destination. Charco Frio is a section of the Fajardo River whose cold waters hail from the high altitudes of the El Yunque Nat. Forest.

Of everything going on, on our way in, one little suv was noteworthy. It looked like the result of MTV’s Pimp My Ride, the trunk was open with a pair of “barn door” doors swung open below the above hatch. The whole inside of the back trunk was fiberglassed with speakers and subwoofers at every hump and valley. Likewise the doors of the trunk all had speakers and subs as well. The sound coming out of that thing could rival a Rolling Stones concert. Soon the parked cars were less and less until we came to a locked chain link gate. Rich honked his horn and not 5 min later a skinny old man in rubber boots and a young man our age came down from a distant house. Rich and Rocio haggled with the old man (Mr. Basilo) for a while before we paid our $8 and he let us through.

It was 6pm. The trip from Ponce was to have taken 1.5 hours but  ended up being over 3. We had only an hour to enjoy our final (and main) destination before sunset. I got my suit on while Mr. Basilo worriedly gave Rocio warnings and instructions. He then led us through his property and left us at another gate on the back side. We were soon running down the muddy bamboo forest trail, eager to make up for lost time. On the way we passed a young local couple and a group of American college-age guys. Finally we descended on an abandoned crystal clear water hole with oval tennis ball sized stones leading out to deep blue waters. The location was called Las Tinajas and consists of two sections. I swam across and climbed a steep rock just to dive right back in to 11′ pool. I then followed Rachel on a land path upriver in search of the notorious upper section. After a lot of scrambling around on rocks, trees and roots, I caught up with Rachel who was at the summit of a large rock overlooking rushing falls that pooled into deep blue water 35′ below. As soon as I got there Rachel had jumped. My heart was pounding more for fear than from the strenuous journey up to this point. knowing this was no time for thought processes. I hurled myself forward yelling Geronimo! Boy what a rush! After climbing back out and up, I got to the top to see Rich sliding down a 25′ natural waterside. I gave it a shot, and despite its appearance it was smooth on the butt before launching you into the deep pool. After doing each natural attraction a few more times we decided to head back due to the impending darkness. We climbed back on the opposite side of the river. The trail ended with a 15′ drop into a 10′  stone walled ravine just below a waterfall. It wasn’t until after you had hit the water and made your way to the surface, that you were aware of the current that grabs you. After 10 yards of floating I was able to stand on some submerged rocks with Rich and watched as the rest of the group made the night time plunge. Once all had jumped I turned around to find that we were in the quiet pool we had started at initially. We climbed out and put on our clothes on to the chorus of eager coquis ardent after a days rest.

After carefully making it back to the Basilo property by the light of Rich’s head lamp, we were greeted by a group of barking dogs. A nice middle aged woman came out of the house, quieted the dogs and showed us to a hose where we could wash up. She then led us back to the truck before heading down the road and opening the gate for us. We waved as we headed home.

An hour later we were on the west side of the forested mountains back at the El Verde Field Station. We found the kitchens and front porch were buzzing with Columbia U students and all the other student researchers stationed here. In addition to Elogance’s large quantity of grilled ribs, there was also various salads and dishes of cooked and fried tasties. Needless to say, I went to bed well worn but well fed.

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