Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Fond Memories

My first year in Puerto Rico is complete.  As I look back on the year, I smile at what I consider my “highlights.”  These moments weren’t always the big events of the year, but they are the times I remember most fondly. 

Here’s a synopsis of my “Top Ten” from Year One:

10. Girls’ weekend at the El San Juan Resort and our trip to the nightclub there, Brava
                All five girls went on this trip.  We stayed at the luxurious El San Juan Resort, where we enjoyed getting dressed up to go to dinner, then changing and getting dressed up again to go to Brava for the night.  We were silly and happy and truly enjoyed ourselves.  The next morning, we made no rush to leave; we relaxed by the beautiful pool until mid-afternoon, then came home.

9. The San Blas Half Marathon
                Running in this elite race in the mountains of Coamo was such an absolutely cool experience.  There was so much support and such a feeling of camaraderie running the race.  Because of the difficulty of the course, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment as I crossed the finish line.  And despite my slow finish time, I managed to win a cash prize for my time because there were so few women running in my age category!  (Read the blog entry)

8. Iguana in my house!
                The fear of a lurking iguana and the process involved in chasing it out the front door is definitely something I never expected to experience and will never forget. (Read the blog entry)

7.  The staff Christmas party
                The last day before I flew home for Christmas, all of the teachers gathered for a party.  It was day full of good food, great company, and dancing.  Our celebration began around noon, and went on until almost midnight.  I have great memories from that day/night.

6. A “date” day with Rachel in Ponce
                One Saturday in March, Rachel was in need of some cheering up.  She and I went together to Ponce to visit the larger mall there.  We spent a few hours shopping, then had a “date night dinner” at Macaroni Grill (where our waitress sadly gave up trying to speak Spanish to us before our main course arrived).  We traveled from there to Santa Isabel, where we did some more shopping at good ol’ Marshalls, then saw a movie at the theater there.  The whole day was full of laughter, great conversation, and good memories.  Maybe we didn’t see or do anything monumental, but it’s one of my favorite memories from this year. 

5. Mandy and Nick’s visit in January
                I spent a fantastic week with my friends Mandy and Nick when they came in January.  The week was relaxed, yet enjoyable.  We enjoyed Guayama and Guavate, spent Saturday hiking and rappelling in the rainforest (one of my favorite things to do here), and on Sunday we ventured into Old San Juan and experienced the hectic celebration of the San Sebastian Street Festival.  Monday morning and taking them to the airport came all too soon. (Rappelling AdventureSan Sebastian Street Festival

4.  Watching the sun rise over Old San Juan from the rooftop hot tub of Da House
                At the beginning of September, Kelsey’s brother and Danielle’s boyfriend both came to visit, and all of us spent a night at Da House in Old San Juan.  After a failed attempt to go to a club, we passed our night in the hot tub on the roof of our hotel, enjoying the moonlight.  Three of us—Chamron, Keith, and I—made it to stay awake and watch the sun rise over the San Cristobal fort.  It’s a memory I’ll always cherish. (Read the blog entry)

3.  Three days in the rainforest with my sister
                The last few days before I came back to the states, my sister Liz and I spent 3 days hiking in the rainforest.  The first day we spent in El Yunque proper, hiking to the highest point in the national forest.  The second and third days we spent at an eco-lodge called Casa Cabuy, where we found the perfect mix between relaxation and exploration.  There’s no one else I would have wanted to spend those three days with, and the time was perfect. (Hiking El YunqueCasa Cabuy)

2. Exploring the cliffs at Playa Sucia for the first time with Rachel
                In November, I went to Playa Sucia, in Cabo Rojo, for my first time.  Rachel and I spent an hour exploring the cliffs by the light house there after everyone else turned back.  We found a natural bridge, a hole peeking down into a grotto, and a small “cave.”  My adventurer’s spirit was in high gear; we both delighted in our discoveries. (Read the blog entry)

1.  Thanksgiving break with Rachel and Kelsey in Rincon
                At the beginning of Thanksgiving break, Rachel and Kelsey and I spent 3 days on the west coast of the island.  We went to Crashboat beach, got stuck in a horse parade on our way to our hotel, got lost trying to find waterfalls in the mountains, got rained on at the beach more than once, saw every landmark in the city of Rincon, rode horses on the beach, and had a great time with each other.  (Read the blog entry)

And my favorite memory from the year… (Is this cheating?  I guess I couldn’t leave it at just 10): Countless sleepovers at Rachel’s apartment
                My weekends at Rachel’s consisted of weekend afternoons spent sitting on the futon, laughing about ridiculous things, eating, watching movies, playing cards, and sometimes doing school work.  We made pad thai.  We had a Christmas movie marathon and drank hot chocolate, trying to get into the Christmas spirit amidst the tropical atmosphere.  We played rummy and Phase 10.  We had breakfast at noon, lunch at 4pm, and dinner at 7 before I would leave to go home. 
                Those were fun days.  Relaxing, joyful, happy days.  What it comes down to is that these memories are defined by the people I spent them with.  That’s why my favorite memory is not of seeing something wonderful, or doing something epic.  My favorite memory is of spending time with a good friend.  It’s something I could do anywhere—but it happened to occur in Puerto Rico.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Perfect Last Day in PR (until August…)

I wasn’t expecting much from our Hiking and Caving trip in Utuado, with Batey Zipline Adventures.  Originally, Rachel had wanted to go cave tubing on the Tanama River.  However, due to the difficulty of finding a cost effective, English speaking tour company that offered such tours, we ended up opting to go with Batey, even though they take a small row boat through the tunnel cave instead of inner tubes.  The tour fit into our budget and included 5 caves on a 3-4 hour hike. 

So, no, I wasn’t expecting a lot.  I went on the tour after 3 days spent hiking in El Yunque; I figured the hiking wouldn’t be exciting, and I feared the caves would be small caverns rather than extensive caves. 

It’s more than fair to say my expectations were exceeded.  Our guide was great, the tour was personal (just the 5 of us, the guide, and his cousin), the hiking was fun, the caves were cool, the weather was perfect, and the company was great.

I don’t have many pictures of the day, for two reasons.
1) Caves don’t really photograph well (especially with my un-professional camera); they tend to just look like over-exposed rock.
2) For much of the tour, we were in or very near water, and my camera is not waterproof.  I didn’t want to risk anything. 

So instead of pictures, I’ll just describe (to the best of my ability) my two favorite parts of the tour. 

First, Cueva Hueco.  This was the fourth cave we toured, and was by far my favorite.  The cave is a tunnel through the mountain side.  During the rainy season, it is used as a hurricane shelter.  Before the local farmers built the suspension bridge over the canyon, it was the only (quick) way to get from one side of the mountain to the other.  (Don’t ask me how a tunnel through a hillside and a bridge over a valley get you to the same place…but that’s what our guide told us.)  The cave is not lit, of course, so we turned on our head lamps (supplied by Batey Tours), and entered.  The passage was not tiny—we never had to crawl or turn sideways—but we did have to duck, and at one point our guide told us to hold our backpacks in front of us to ease through more easily.  I felt like I was on a real cave adventure (something I have always wanted to do). 

In the middle of the cave, we stopped, and all of us took a seat on the dry cave floor.  Our guide, Paul, explained something interesting and historical (I can’t remember exactly what at the moment, but it was surely both interesting and historical).  On our way out of the cave, Paul stopped and played the “drums” for us.  The formations hanging on the cave wall are hollow, and each have a different pitch when struck.  It made the coolest sound; I wish I had a video, or even a picture.  (Rachel took a video.  I’ve no idea whether it turned out or not.) 

So that was Cueva Hueco (which translates to “Hollow Cave,” in case you’re wondering.) 

My other favorite moment was simply walking upstream through the Tanama River.  It felt like the set of some beautiful, tropical movie.  The striking limestone walls of the canyon, the brilliant green foliage, the bright blue sky, and the emerald green water of the river combined to form a surreal vision I hope I always remember.

Most of my pictures didn’t do the scene justice, but these two come closest.  

Sunday, June 3, 2012

An Escape at Casa Cabuy

I was pumped to stay at the Casa Cabuy Eco Lodge after reading about it in my guide book, but the place surpassed all my expectations.  The building is set right on the hill overlooking a valley of the rainforest.  One entire wall of our room was windows for us to look out on the lush scenery.  A 10 minute hike downhill from the waterfall brought us to an impressive waterfall.  We got there too late on Sunday to do any exploring, but made plans to conquer more trails on Monday.

Monday morning, it rained.  Lots.  No worries, though; we were in the rainforest, after all, and Liz and I just pulled on our ponchos and set off to explore.  We decided to do a long hike in the morning, then go and explore the falls in the afternoon. 

Just up the road from the hotel, 3 trails in the south part of El Yunque have their start.  We decided to take the Sabana Grande trail up to El Toro peak, then come back down.  However, on our hike up the road to get to the trail head (the gates were locked since it was a week day, so we couldn’t drive all the way there), a man walking two massive dogs stopped to tell us two things.  Number one: Please don’t go in the river.  The current is strong after all the rain, and it’s dangerous.  (noted.)  Number two: After you come to the next gate, keep going for just a little bit, then take the little path off to the right.  It will lead you to a small bridge where you’ll get a spectacular view of the waterfall. 

Sounded promising…so before tackling the Sabana trail as planned, we decided to find the off-shoot path he’d described.  We passed the 2nd gate and continued up the road, looking for a trail off the to the right.  After about 15 minutes of walking up the sodden road, the trail seemed to end.  Well…correction.  A path continued after the end of the road, through grass and mud.  Liz took approximately one step before her shoe sank into a puddle ankle deep.  We turned around and headed back for the Sabana Grande trailhead, agreeing to give up on finding the bridge. 

As we came back down the road, I noticed a tiny path off to the side.  That had to be our path.  So we took it, and found ourselves walking along (sometimes on top of) a large water pipe.  Super cool!  We found the little bridge, took our awesome pictures, and then decided to continue along the same path for awhile, since it was enjoyable walking along the pipe next to the river. 

No swimming?  But then...why give us
the handy ladder?

Sadly, after a few more minutes, we came to what certainly appeared to be a dead end.  We turned back. 

Cross the pipe...or turn back.
Walking around in the mud and rain and having trouble finding your correct path sometimes dampens your ambition and your energy level, so at this point, we decided to abandon the idea of hiking the Sabana Grande tour.  (About halfway along it, the trail becomes a “primitive” trail, the sign told us.  Based on our experiences on other “maintained” trails, we weren’t really sure we were ready to tackle “primitive” in the mud.)  So, we headed back to the Eco Lodge.

We spent a few hours reading and relaxing and having lunch.  Then, at about 1:30, we left again, this time to hike to the waterfalls and beyond—the trails maintained by the hotel. 

These trails were quite the adventure, to say the least.  After 10 minutes of switchbacks down the mountain, we came to a river crossing.  A rope was tied across to aid hikers, but there was no way to cross without getting one’s feet wet.  Plus, we couldn’t tell where the path continued on the other side. 

handy dandy rope!

The falls, as seen from the middle of the river.

Yet after a few minutes’ deliberation, Liz and I crossed the falls.  On the other side, we found not so much a maintained path as a game of “follow the yellow flags.”  We hopped over rocks and between trees, looking for the next piece of yellow caution tape tied to a tree to tell us which direction to head.  How FUN!  We came to a second river crossing, and a really big tree, and finally stopped at the end of the trail, at another river.  Despite the day’s rain, the waters were calm there, and the setting was utterly peaceful. 

The path leads between the two big rocks!  Walk on the fallen trees.

The peaceful end point to our hike.

We returned to the hostel around 3:00pm, showered, read for awhile, played cards, and waited for Rachel and her friend Karen to meet us there.  The evening finished with dinner at a local restaurant, a game of Phase 10, and an up close encounter with a coqui frog that made Rachel’s year

coqui in Rachel's lap!

Tuesday morning after breakfast, the four of us (Liz and I, Rachel, and Karen) took the short walk down to the first waterfalls and spent nearly an hour there playing, climbing, and taking pictures.  Because it hadn’t rained the day before, the water was much calmer, making climbing much less terrifying.  We had a blast! 

If I could spend every day in the rainforest, I don’t think I would get tired of it.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

On Top of the World

From the Yokahu lookout tower
The 2 points we hiked to.

I like hiking.  Like a lot.  I always have.  When I was little, I would look forward to the yearly school trip to Hixon Forest, hoping each year that we’d spend more time in the woods than in the visitor’s center.  I’d beg my parents to take me to Perrot Park in Trempealeau.  I would climb up in the pasture behind my grandma’s house with my cousins, “discovering” rock formations and tree forts and exploring the ridge as if there were a possibility of finding new areas.  One of my all-time favorite vacations was the summer I was 18, when we camped in the Canadian Rockies and I hiked up to the glacier at Lake Louise.  The hike included clambering over snow and ice at one point, and hanging onto a rope on the side of the mountain at another.  I was in love.

This past weekend, Liz and I spent three days hiking in El Yunque, the national rainforest of Puerto Rico.  This became one of the highlights of my entire year.  I hope it’s an experience I can repeat next year.

On Sunday, Liz and I hiked to the highest point in El Yunque.  We took a detour on our way and hiked to the top of Los Picachos, which I must say looks even more impressive looking down on the hike than looking out from the top of it. 

The final steps up to Los Picachos

view from Los Picachos

Los Picachos--the twin peaks

We then stopped at a rock outcropping another hiker told us is called Devil’s Fall, where we truly felt like we were on top of the world.  Apparently it is called “Devil’s Fall” because on a cloudy day, you can sit on the edge there and watch the clouds roll up, the moisture hitting you in the face.  But as the clouds pass, they can attempt to pull one down with them, which is why it’s important to sit and hang on!

We then finally made our way to Roca El Yunque—the highest point.   It was miraculously a clear day with not a rain cloud in sight, and we had great visibility from the peak. 
View from the highest point in El Yunque

climbing up the last bit to the top...

Okay...maybe it wasn't as steep as I was
making it look.  Photo illusion fail due to
people in the background! haha

After hiking to the top, Liz and I were feeling ambitious and decided to do one more short hike.  (The first hike had taken us just 3 hours round trip).  We ventured to the popular La Mina trail down to the waterfall there, but the trail was closed due to repairs.  We followed a group of people over the barrier, but after not even a quarter mile, we decided to turn back because sections of the trail were literally just missing and piles of rocks, etc, were strewn about.

Yeah, the railing's supposed to continue there.
And the path...there's supposed to be one.

Deciding that we were suitably tired for the day, we then drove to the Casa Cabuy Eco Lodge, where we were spent the next two nights, finding the perfect balance between hiking and relaxing .