Sunday, March 26, 2017

PUERTO RICO: ARRIVAL IN SAN JUAN, DINNER IN LEVITTOWN, AND AN ICE BATH IN EL YUNQUE NATIONAL FOREST

When my husband suggested a Caribbean cruise, I thought he was kidding. It sounded so ordinary, the kind of trip other people take while we are somewhere a bit more unusual. I have to admit, it wasn't my first choice for how to spend my spring break. However, our trip far exceeded my expectations. We had a blast.

I got a little confused with all the names for this area: the West Indies (so named by Europeans of Columbus's day to distinguish it from the East Indies), the Eastern Caribbean, the Greater Antilles (Puerto Rico), and the Lesser Antilles (the rest of the Islands we visited). Even my phone was confused. At one point I saw "Welcome to Jamaica" on my screen.

We flew to Puerto Rico and spent two days there before boarding a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that took us to the US Virgin Islands, St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Lucia, and Barbados.

One of the things that made the trip extra fun was that our traveling companions were my brother and his wife from Utah, and my sister and her husband from Montana. We met up in New York's JFK airport. There is something magical about meeting traveling companions in an airport so far from home. Maybe the magic is that we were able to find each other! Twenty years ago before we all had cellphones, it would have been a lot harder.

Bob and I were lucky enough to get an upgrade to Delta Comfort seats on both legs of our journey, and I had a window seat for the flight into San Juan. Although there were no skyscrapers to speak of, I was really surprised by how large and modern the capital city appeared from the air.

Then I saw his huge iguana walking across the runway, and I realized we weren't in California anymore:
As soon as we walked off the plane and into the San Juan airport, we were hit with a cacophony of noisy color:



Puerto Ricans are definitely not shy about color.

We caught a shuttle that took us to Ace car rental, where we picked up a Toyota van, booted up our GPS, and headed to the Comfort Inn in Levittown, a planned community suburb of San Juan that was built in 1963 by William Levitt, an American considered the father of modern American suburbia and one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century." There are six more Levittowns in the United States: in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and three in Maryland.

We asked at the hotel's front desk for a dinner recommendation, and they sent us to El Kampestre, a local restaurant within walking distance of our hotel that turned out to be highly rated on Trip Advisor.

We started by sipping a refreshing blend of pineapple, orange, and grenadine (pomegranate) juice:

Before our trip, I had researched what we should eat in Puerto Rico, and several sources mentioned a uniquely Puerto Rican dish called mofongo.  I ordered Mofongo Relleno de Camarones. It was made of mashed green plantains blended with shrimp and vegetables and formed into a dense ball. It was served with tostones, which are crispy fried plantains:
It was unlike anything else I've had, and while it wasn't exactly my favorite dish, it was fun to try something that seemed pretty authentic. Much to my sister's dismay, we discovered pretty quickly that a LOT of Caribbean dishes include plaintains. She is allergic to bananas and we assume plaintains would give her the same reaction.

Bob ordered Asopao de Pollo, a Puerto Rican chicken and rice soup:

Bob thought it was a little bland, but fun to try.  However, once he drenched it in El Jibaro que Pica, a spicy, vinegary sauce made in Puerto Rico, his rating went way up.

Our first experience with local food at El Kampestre was lots of fun, but our first experience with Caribbean S--L--O--W dining was a bit of a shock. It took us something like two hours for a relatively simple dinner.

The next morning we headed southeast to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system--a good reason to keep Puerto Rico part of the United States. It also has 23 species of plants that are found nowhere else on earth--another reason to keep the country in the fold.
The park was known as the Caribbean National Forest until President George W. Bush signed an executive order in April 2007 changing the name to El Yunque National Forest, a name that more accurately reflects local heritage and culture. I've found several theories about the origin of the name El Yunque, including a version of a native Taino word, yu-ke, which means "white lands," or the Spanish word yunque, which means "anvil," but neither of those seems relevant to the forest. I like the theory that it gets its name from a local native spirit named Yuquiye, which means "Forest of Clouds." The second tallest mountain in the forest is also named El Yunque.

The park opened at 9:00, and at about 9:15 we got in a very S--L--O--W moving line of cars at the gate, another example of the relaxed pace in Puerto Rico. Eventually, we made it in and spent a few minutes in a nice interpretive center


Right away we began to be seduced by the vibrant tropical colors. I took millions dozens of pictures of flowers on this trip:




There is a nice trail that starts near the interpretive center: 

Hey! Didn't I see these people in the JFK airport?


I loved the unusually large, flat, green snails in the forest:



We were intrigued by these white leaves that were about the size of a dinner plate. We searched the canopy for the trees they had fallen from in vain:


The Emerald City Forest:

We drove deeper into the forest, stopping for some pictures along the way. This is La Coca Waterfall:

Dave! Dave! Look at the camera, Dave!

Next we set out on the La Mina Trail, which leads to La Mina Falls, a 35-foot cascade preceded by many smaller falls along the trail. The hike is about three-quarters of a mile and involves a lot of stairs, but the trail is paved and well-maintained and not too difficult.

We noted several small pools on our way down to the falls:

We came across a small group of people gathered around what I thought was an unremarkable tree:

. . . but then I realized they were gawking at this rather remarkable anole:

I got a better look at one a little further down the trail. There is something about them that reminds me of a giant insect:

Bob caught this particular anole, and it wasn't too happy about it:

He puffed out his dewlap in an impressive display of courage:

Tarzan, are you up there?

Mowgli (or Kaa), are you in there?

We heard La Mina Falls before we got there, and it wasn't just the sound of rushing water that we heard.

The place was wall-to-wall bikinis and swim trunks.

I put my toe in and decided that the description of "refreshing water" was a gross misstatement. "Subarctic cold" was more like it. However, that didn't stop my brother from hopping in:


. . . nor did it stop my brother-in-law from taking a dip:

My sister Chris was contemplating how to get her husband's frozen body back home:


The rest of us were feeling just a bit of peer pressure to comform, but we weren't too keen on the crowds of people in the main pool. We headed back up to other falls we had passed on our way in:

Aha! There's the perfect spot, and we can have it all to ourselves!


Looks like a sauna bath, right? NOT. We felt like ice cubes in a very cold drink. Just looking at this picture makes me shiver. However, after you sit in cold water for a while, it starts to feel warmer, right? NOT HERE. We stayed in as long as we could, just to say we'd done it, and then gratefully climbed out.

Back to the (warm) car:

Our last stop was the 75-foot-tall Yokahu observation tower built in 1963. We had tried to stop at it on our way in, but there was not a single parking spot. We had better luck the second time around.

The tower is exactly what I picture Rapunzel's tower to look like:


A sign provides evidence for the "Yuquiyu" origin of the name "El Yunque":

Ninety-eight twisting stairs lead to the observation deck:

Windows along the way provide beautiful views:



The view from the crenellated top was a little misty, but still spectacular:

I think the pointy mountain in the center of the photo below is El Yunque Mountain:


Far off in the distance, we noticed some buildings:

That's the city of Luquillo, the tall buildings being hotels:


A trip to El Yunque was a great way to start our Caribbean Adventure. Even the frigid water was a good beginning as it provided a distinct contrast to the warm Caribbean Sea waters we experienced later in the trip.

4 comments:

  1. I thought the overall trip was a blast. Each island was different from each other and the cultures varied. And some of the shore excursions were incredible. It whetted my appetite for more.

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  2. Yep...you look frozen in that water, but good for you. Such a beautiful place--I had no idea!

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  3. This was one of those trips I thought would be fun for a lot of reasons, but it was even better than I dreamed. Other than the endless plantains.

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