Friday, Feb 17, 2006

In the week before the trip, we were anxiously watching the San Juan weather report. The prevalent weather icon for the island is usually a little sun, but the five days of our trip were stubbornly obscured by a rainy cloud and as the days passed by, the pesky icon did not seem to be willing to move into someone else's vacation slot.

So my mood on Friday the 17th, as we were driving to the airport was rather sombre. Not to blame it on meteorologists alone: when my car clock shows 5:20am I am usually in a sombre mood. But the silver lining of the early departure was that at 11:45am our plane was sitting on the tarmac at San Juan Airport and to our great surprise the sun was shining as if it didn't read the morning forecast. We hadn't officially entered the island yet, but we had already learned its Rule Nr. 1: "In Puerto Rico, the Weather Forecast is just an entertaining talk show that has very little impact on what's going on in the atmosphere." After all, it is an island, so clouds come and go and there are no predictable weather systems to rely on.

The other passangers were also quite relieved and were obviously intent on watching the sunlit subtropical scenery from the airplane's windows. They were so reluctant to leave the airplane that I began to suspect that the whole island is just one big drive through, best admired from the economy seats, and that we'd soon exit the runway, merge onto the Highway 52, drive the plane around the island and take off for DC in the evening.

But people finally deplaned, Louka's tripod (our only checked luggage) was successfully conveyor-belted onto the carousel and we found ourselves submerged in a bright sunshine, the kind you can only see below 20 degrees of latitude. Having images of the dark and dreary DC morning still fresh in our memory, we patiently waited for the rental car shuttle and felt like being instantly teleported onto a set of a sunscreen commercial.

We were entrusted with a Chevy Aveo, whose color must have served as an indicator that the car is rental and that we are naive tourists that should be taken every possible advantage of. I really cannot imagine that anyone in their right mind (and even most people in their left mind) would choose such a bizarre color for their own car - it looked as if a huge aligator ate 25 pounds of orange peels with some toothpaste thrown in and then regurgitated it all onto a sun-bleached ping-pong table. But such trivial detail could not dampen our high spirits. Being properly labeled and identified by this automobile's discoloration, we entered the Puerto Rican traffic.

Here we soon learned the Rule Nr. 2: "Driving in Puerto Rico is extremely liberal and is based on the principle that you create the traffic laws as you go and hope that other drivers will be able to deduce them from the way your car is moving." Changing lanes as often as possible is considered part of a good vehicular hygiene, kind of like changing your socks and underwear daily. Puerto Ricans are Masters of this healthy habit, which in fact is a multidisciplinary endeavor, involving some precision maneuvring, some gymnastics and a lot of suicide counceling (seriously: we saw a motorcycle guy, who stood up on his seat in full speed and in the middle of heavy traffic).

Originally our plan was to head straight for the hotel, but weather being as inviting as it was, we decided to head for the El-Yunque rainforest, about 30 miles east of San Juan and enter it from the north (leaving the exploration of its southern part for later - for Tuesday, as it turned out).

Slowly digesting the Rule Nr. 2, we first followed Route 26, but soon merged onto the excessively potholey Route 3 and headed straight east, towards Canovanas and Road 191, which was supposed to lead us into the heart of the rainforest. We also learned our first Spanish lesson when we realized that Salida is not a picturesque little town just off of the Highway, but a Spanish word for "exit". Ours came sooner than we had expected and we would have taken it smoothly, had it not been for a truck that was parked in the exit lane, going casually about its business as if the right to block the traffic had been granted to it by the King of Puerto Rico himself. Thusly we learned a small footnote to the Rule Nr. 2: "In Puerto Rico, you can park wherever you or your car wishes."

This little Corollary made driving on Road 191 more fun than trying to parallel park a combine harvester on a one-way street near Adams Morgan. In most countries you drive on the right or on the left. In Puerto Rico, you drive in the lane in which there are fewer parked cars. Quite simple.

After about 5 minutes of weaving through jutting station wagons and dozing pickup trucks, we left the not-so-affluent town of Luquillo (Louka observed that Puerto Rico looked much like Bulgaria, where he was born) and started our ascent into the El-Yunque Rainforest. The scenery was gradually becoming camera-worthy. The lush and provocatively green vegetation was a welcome respite from bare trees of Virginian winter. The leaves looked so juicy that I wished I could have chopped them up into a chef's salad and the colors were vivid almost to the point of abrasiveness. Soon we reached the first waterfall (El Coco) and got out of the car to meet with the subtropical flora in person.

The El-Coco waterfall was really just a medium size creek dancing down alongside a huge stone wall, but it was admired by many tourists and we happily joined them.

After the waterfalls, we made two more stops. The first at a small kiosk by "El Mina waterfalls", where we ate two cheeseburgers and followed a short trail into the forest in vain pursuit of potential parrots.

The second one at the Yokahu Observation Tower, which we climbed to feast on the dazzling greenage and greenery of the forest and on turqoise waters of the ocean deep below.

When we turned our eyes away from the ocean, we saw the shaggy head of El-Yunque peak, beckoning us higher.

We took the steeply climbing road as far as we could and hiked the rest to the peak. Louka had his high-powered camera ready and I carried the tripod, just in case there were some unexpected waterfalls at the mountain top.

The trail through the forest was cemented, otherwise the incessant rain would wash it out. Every so often there was a little hut by the trail, serving as a shelter against tropical showers; but we were lucky - not a single droplet fell on us. The forest itself was literally breathing. It smelled fresh, looked fresh and was so dense with trees, bushes, vines and underbrush that you'd have to be a fool to cut short through it. It looked a little bit like the Rainforest Section of the Baltimore Aquarium, except it was much thicker, much deeper and there was no glass ceiling. At least none that we could see.

At the peak there was another observation tower and many new trees that were smothered with parasitic plants and intertwined with each other so as to give the whole rainforest the impression of a runaway life.

The tower's battlement made for quite a comfortable chair.

We climbed only to the first in a series of peaks (950m) and then decided to go back. We reached the highest ring of the forest and flora was most likely to be the same at this elevation. But more importantly, we wanted to reach our hotel during daylight.

On our way back we stopped at a little dam, and then returned to Route 3 through the parking maze of the little town at the foot of the mountains. We continued east towards Fajardo, where the road turned south and southwest, circling around El-Yunque, and becoming the Highway 53. Since it was a toll road, there was very little traffic on it and we found ourselves on the road 901 at its end quite soon. Thanks to one wrong turn, we also got to see the ocean at close range kind of prematurely. But we went back to where we took that turn and soon found Route 3 which lead us to the Hotel.

It was much much smaller than we expected. In fact, at first we missed it, since it was completely obscured by an overgrown hedge. Its main parking lot had about 6-7 slots and the whole establishment had a definite Ma&Pa feel to it. Thanks to the receptionist Rebecca we got the first taste of Puerto Rican hospitality and quickly settled in in room #4, circa 20 yards from the splashing ocean. The room wasn't luxurious by any means, but it didn't provide shelter for any offensive animals and thus served its purpose quite well.

We just missed the sunset, and with it a great photo-op, but decided to take a walk down the gravel seashore anyway, just to see what lies behind the hotel and also to dip our toes in the ocean. The water was pleasantly warm, the palm trees were majestic and the beach was slowly being invaded by little side-walking crabs.

After walking about half-mile west, we found a seafood restaurant, where we ate fresh fish, drank some German beer and realized that Puerto Rico is not that bad after all. Around 9pm we came back to the hotel, relaxed on deck-chairs by the ocean, watched stars and discussed some problems of astrophysics. Since neither of us was an expert in this discipline and our blood did contain some alcohol, we had concluded the day with the observation that the whole science of astronomy was a scam.