We wound our way through four different types of forest on our 5-mile hike to the summits, crossing tumbling streams and listening to the sound of the coquis, the singing frogs who are the unofficial mascots of Puerto Rico.
Click on photos below to enlarge.
SATURDAY, we grabbed Sydney’s car keys again and headed up into the central mountains, the gorgeous hills that have been taunting me from the boat for weeks. Every morning and evening, the sun sets them aglow, dramatic shadows in the valleys deepening as the ridges reflect the amber light of sunrise/sunset. I’ve been itching to get up there and explore, and Saturday’s adventure was no disappointment.
As we turned left from the coast and began climbing the hills, the view transitioned from long, straight stretches bordered by agricultural fields lined with stately, old trees to switchbacks and striking views from on a narrow lane clinging precariously to the side of densely-forested mountains. I was big on the “Oh S*#t” handle and imaginary brake most of the day, but Philip’s an excellent driver (which is why he was driving), and we didn’t die.
Our first rather surprising sight was Lago Patillas, a small lake nestled in the tropical forest that looks for all the world like it should be in the Lake District (where Philip is from). Ok, so it’s not exactly the same, but still — ODD. Beautiful, but odd.
After more winding and twisting and stunning views, we found our way to Carite forest, where we planned to hike. Apparently, Puerto Ricans aren’t big hikers, so there aren’t many hiking paths in the forests. We managed to find one of the few, and it was paved, and about a mile round-trip. But it was a nice stroll through the forest under a gentle rain to a small waterfall and pool. Not too dramatic after the waterfalls of Dominica and Grenada, but pretty nonetheless.
Having worked up our appetite with a couple hours in the car and a brief stroll, we stopped just outside the Carite forest in Guavate, home of the famous Puerto Rican lechoneras roadside cafeterias — pork-a-rias! Lining the road through town are dozens of cafeterias featuring whole suckling pigs slow-roasted for 6-8 hours on spits over fires.
We looked for the place with the longest line and allowed the people in front of us to tell us what and how to order, and ended up with a huge pile of the most amazing melt-in-your-mouth roast pork with cracklin’, rice and peas, plantains and a local delicacy called a pastele (a Christmas thing, I think) which is mashed plantain and ground pork steamed in a paper wrapper, and actually sounds a LOT better than it tastes. Not sure if it’s always this way, but the one we tried was greasy and oddly sour. The rest of the meal, however, was divine. I should say, meals, because for $20 we had enough for two very large lunches and two very large dinners!
We heaved our stuffed bodies back in the car and made our way further into the mountains, headed for Aibonito and the Mirador Piedra Degetau, a scenic overlook that is supposed to have the best panorama of the island, with views of the ocean both north and south. Of course, it was totally overcast when we got there, so we enjoyed some nice views of clouds. A
There were a few stunning views as we made our way down out of the mountains, but this was the point at which the theme of the trip became, “Puerto Rico needs more scenic overlooks!” On a twisty, turny forest road with no shoulders, on which people nevertheless drive like bats out of hell, you don’t want to just stop your car for a gawk. Pull-outs are needed. And — frustratingly — there were none.
We made it back to the boat before sunset, and although I’d planned to save the pork leftovers for the next day’s lunch in an attempt to somewhat approximate a balanced diet, they didn’t make it to Sunday. Because we are big piggies.
Now, I actually hate running, despite having run track and cross country in high school. It’s just BORING. Really boring. I’d rather roller blade, or cycle, or hike. But if I don’t get off the boat and move once a day, I start to lose my mind and begin yelling at Pip just because he exists. So without blades, a bike or a nice mountain trail handy, running it is…
Just off the anchorage here (dock at the Loco Pelican and turn right at the road), there’s a long, sandy road through the mangrove swamps, next to the ocean — with a nice, big chain at the beginning stopping cars from using it. Obviously, someone uses it, but we suspect it’s a DNR access road.
In any case, it’s a lovely place — full of herons, egrets, pipers and surprising little beaches nestled among the mangroves.
The car rental itself illustrates one of the many reasons we’re falling in love with Puerto Rico. We’d called Stanley, the local car rental guy, the evening before from the marina office. When we arrived to pick up the car in the morning, the marina staff handed us a key and said that the car was parked outside: “It’s probably a Corolla. Or an Ecco.”
After some searching, we determined that it was the Corolla, got in and drove away — no paperwork, no payment, no fuss. “Oh, don’t worry, you pay when you get back.” At no point did anyone even ask for ID. They just handed us the keys for the day, and the next day, I returned the keys and $35 cash. I wish life were always this easy.
The countryside around Salinas is simply gorgeous — flat plains of farmland sprinkled with huge wind vanes and sleepy towns stretch from the dramatic mountains to the north to the sea to the south. Everything is lush and green, and the winding coastal road from Salinas to Ponce was often lined with trees, giving the impression at times of an English country road — albeit with tropical lushness!
Ponce is the second-largest city in Puerto Rico, and its cultural center. Our first stop was the world-renowned art gallery, Museo de Arte de Ponce.
The building was designed by Edward Durell Stone, who created MOMA in NY and the Kennedy Center in DC. I guess he really liked the way the Kennedy Center looked, because the Ponce art museum is pretty much the same general design, if a bit smaller. The collection was fantastic, particularly the modern and contemporary art and Puerto Rican collections. I was in seventh heaven, visiting a great art museum after a year of living without.
The main attraction in Ponce is the Plaza Las Delicias, the elegant square at the center of the city. Snugged up against the back of the Our Lady of Guadeloupe Cathedral is the Parque de Bombas, or old fire hall — reputed to be the most photographed building in Puerto Rico.
City workers were busy decorating the square and town hall for Christmas as we strolled around the plaza, enjoying an ice cream and watching the locals crowding the Christmas market.
After an amazing comida criolla (native cuisine) lunch at Cafe Tompy, we practiced reading Spanish at the Ponce historical museum, then wandered up to explore the market. Like much of the area, the market seems to have been hit hard by the recession. We’ve been struck by the large number of abandoned buildings, empty storefronts and closed market stalls, and the Ponce marketplace was no exception. One out of 10 stalls seemed to be occupied, and the place was pretty deserted — mid-afternoon on a Saturday.
Our final stop in Ponce was a guided tour of the Casa Wiechers-Villaronga, a turn-of-the-century historic house whose art nouveau decoration and furnishings are surprisingly well preserved. The coolest part was the pipeworks of the shower, with a sunflower-sized spigot overhead, two side sprays and pinpoint holes in the surrounding pipes — a shower that rivals today’s most luxurious shower spas!
More photos below — click to view full size.