Saturday, Feb 18, 2006

The next day we heroically got up at 6:30am, as we planned a trip to the Vieques Island and needed to catch the ferry in Fajardo at 9am. We left the hotel around 7:30 and started backtracking along the way we came in the previous evening. On Route 3, just before Maunabo the road passed underneath an alley of exotic and spreading trees whose overarching boughs joined for a green and kind of gothic looking tunnel. As if the nature decided to teach humans a lecture in architecture.

At Maunabo we decided not to take road 901 like we did yesterday, but to continue on Route 3, which seemed shorter. Well, at least the distance traveled was a bit shorter, although the road had to climb over the local range of Cuchilla de Panduras and that made the resulting time much longer. Also in Maunabo we lost additional time, because Route 3 suddenly disappeared and when we tried to reconnect with it, we found ourselves in a one-way street going in the opposite direction, a fact which kind local gentlemen pointed out to us by wild gesticulation.

This is probably a good place to introduce three games that the Puerto Rican Roads like to play with weary travellers:

  1. "Hide and Seek" - you drive on Route X into a given city; the Route X suddenly disappears without any trace and the only way to get back on it is to talk to locals using the original language of Don Quixote De La Mancha or to drive around the town in a random search, trying to find it yourself, which was an effort also worthy of Mr. De La Mancha's name. For non-Spanish speaking gringos, the latter is actually the faster method. The desired Route is usually entered from dirty sideroads hidden behind inconspicous gas stations.
  2. "Coin Toss" - you drive on Route X and you come to a completely unmarked T-intersection, bearing no indication as to which way the Route X is going. Please, toss your coin. The Puerto Rican roads are built in such a way that trying to apply any kind of geographical common sense results in a wrong solution. In fact, if you really want to beat the system, apply your sense of direction, make your choice and then take the other road.
  3. "Bye Bye Suckers" - you drive in the right lane of the two-lane Route X, when suddenly without any sign or warning the right lane turns, exits and never comes back, leaving you stranded in the Middle of Nowhere, Puerto Rico. When on a highway, stay in the middle lane, for you never know....

We got our first taste of "Hide and Seek" in Managua and when we finally found our beloved Route 3 and started to climb into the hills, we also got our first taste of Puerto Rican rain. Well, let's just say that if rain was part of the GDP, Puerto Rico would be the Kuwait of the Caribbean. In addition to rain the road was rather circuitous and curving incessantly so that driving on it felt like twining the Giant Slalom at the Winter Olympics. It slowed us down quite a bit and when we finally arrived at Yabucoa and started looking for Highway 53, it was pretty clear to us that we won't be able to catch the 9am ferry unless we can figure out the principles of the superluminal travel real fast.

To make things even worse, we must have tossed our coin wrongly somewhere, for the road we were on started to climb with the ferocity of a sugar smuggling sherpa, although we remembered distinctly that the highway 53 lead through a valley, which we now saw from a higher and higher perspective. When the perspective became undisputably bird-like, we called it quits. We pulled over and canceled our trip to Vieques. Or rather postponed it till tomorrow.

Our first idea was to simply swap the plans and head for the West Coast, where we wanted to go the next day. But we already went too far east, so we agreed that we'd drive through the Carite Forest, which was a bit to the east and then trace the south coast and invade the beaches of Ponce, the second largest city of Puerto Rico.

Well, we looked across the valley and across the ocean to say good-bye to the Vieques Island, turned the car around and took the road 182 west. We bought some food and gas and without the ferry pressure everything seemed much brighter. We had all the time in the world and the road wended its way through picturesque terrain, here climbing steep slopes, there winding through local villages with plenty of free range chicken, horses and dogs roaming around. Every now and then we saw banana trees with the actual fruit on them, but we came about a month too early for the harvest.

When we stopped to look at one of the trees, we noticed that the cluster of fruits segues into a long stem - which looked like an elephant's trunk - ending in a strange bulb that was either a flower or one of those flower parts for which I don't even remember its Czech name, much less the English one. But it looked very exotic. Kind of like a snake with a pointy onion for a head.

Few miles down the road 182, we made another stop to take a picture of one of the ubiquitous car wrecks. The number of defunct vehicles that we saw on roads and in people's backyards was amazing and second only to rural Missouri. Apparently, when there is a car accident in Puerto Rico, people don't call a tow truck (the nearest such service is in Florida Keys); they just leave their cars where they are and take a bus home or call a friend. This is very useful for local police. If, say after a year, they needed to verify some minor detail about the accident, they wouldn't have to painstakingly search through photo archives, they'd just drive to the site and the cars would still be there in the incriminating position.

And usually in a mint condition. Just hop in and keep your hands on the steering wheel.

Soon we came to the intersection with the road 7740 which was our ticket to the Carite Forest. But as we stood there, we noticed a small one lane road climbing steeply into the dense woods and marked only by a sign in Spanish from which we didn't understand a single word. And since our guide through this island was a little book titled "Puerto Rico - Off the Beaten Path", we decided to take the narrow road, hoping that the sign didn't translate to "The Official Home of the Puerto Rican Mafia, please, keep your gunbelt fastened at all times".

But it was quite safe and boring. Just a couple of farming settlements at the top. Nothing adventure hungry Eastern Europeans would be willing to leave the discomfort of their Chevy Aveo for. So we descended back to the intersection, unriddled with bullets, and continued our journey west and then south until we came to a place where a flooding creek took a hearty bite out of our road.

I suggested that perhaps we should take a hint and take a bite out of our food too, but Louka convinced me that few miles down the road there is a lake and there is nothing more relaxing than a picnic at the lake. So we just took a couple of snapshots of fern trees that adorned the opposite hill and were about to leave...

...but before we took off, we noticed old tracks trying to mount the hill to our right and we thought we should give our guide's title one more shot. And it was a well-aimed one. The tracks soon lost their breath and turned into a spoor disappearing between ferns...

...and fern trees...

...and reemerging on a mowed lawn, indicating that this was in fact someone's slightly neglected backyard...

...that culminated in an orchard of banana trees.

We walked around for a bit and, satisfied with our little expedition, and returned to the car waiting patiently on the asphalt of the beaten path. We loaded ourselves in and continued the journey to the lake. After a few minutes Louka spotted one of its inlets in the valley below on the right and since the road seemed to veer to the left, we took an unmarked turn to the right. It went downhill so we were sure it had to lead to the lake. Well, it didn't; in Puerto Rico things don't always work as straightforwardly, but after a few additional turns and some enjoyable backing up we came to the entrance to a private condominium complex, which bore all the marks of the lakeside community. And best of all - its main gate was foolishly open.

Nicely manicured playground reinforced our hopes that if the lake had a nice shore, this would be it. But soon we found out that the landscaping jurisdiction of the condominium ended with the last house on a little knoll overlooking the lake and to get to it, we had to descend a completely unkempt and treacherously steep slope with no sight of a gravel path or marble stairs.

That was a big warning that the lake is going to be a little bit on the uncultivated side. And sure enough, when we got closer, we noticed that not only it had been thoroughly neglected, but it also had a distinctly unhealthy color (I'd say it must have had complicated measles very recently).

But nothing could dissuade us from having our lakeside lunch on a tree trunk, surrounded by all sorts of interesting looking plants and parasites, which we hoped were not carnivorous as we didn't want to share our meal with any kind of life-form that was unaccustomed to the proper use of napkins.

After lunch we continued our journey south and soon reached the town of Guayama, where we played "Hide and Seek" with Route 3 again. Only after the Route had its fun with us, could we finally start pushing west, this time tracking the ocean at a fairly close proximity. We passed through Salinas, Santa Isabella and were on our way to Ponce when we got into thinking what lies behind the palm trees we could see in the distance. Surely there must be some hidden beaches in Puerto Rico that only locals know about and which the Department of Tourism keeps hidden from prying cameras of vacationing Americans.

Determined to find that magical cove with white sands, strewn with pearls and conch-shells, we took a left turn into a narrow dirt road. We weren't discouraged in the least by passing a local dump that would raise many an eyebrow in the hallowed halls of the Environment Protection Agency and continued our bumpy ride oceanward. We passed a house with a local man (or a faithful plastic replica thereof), whose frown made it very clear that in this part of Puerto Rico, welcome committees are hard to come by. Unfazed we kept going and finally came to a little clearing, moonlighting as a parking lot, which was within a stone's throw of the ocean. But when we made it onto the beach - it looked rather plain and was strewn only with empty cans and washed up lumber.

So we learned an important lesson: that all the beautiful Caribbean beaches had already been discovered and from now on we should trust the beachgoing wisdom of our guide.

When we arrived to Ponce, Louka decided that he needed to buy flip-flops. As we were just passing the JC Penney, we stopped by to make a purchase.

Inside we found out that their shoe department only carried designer flip-flops for $50, such price clearly defying their very purpose (actually, that kind of footwear probably has its own "raison d'etre" rather than "purpose"). So we left the Mall unflip-flopped and went to a grocery store to get some food. And lo and behold, there we found a great assortment of flip flops for $5. That only confirmed my suspicion that the best way to find anything is to stop looking for it and go somewhere where it shouldn't be in the first place (this principle works on cars, jobs, rare books, girls etc).

Having bought proper footage and proper foodage we headed for the beach. Along the way we noticed that cloudes that were gathering around the mountains started to expand towards us and so we took a toll road to beat the rain. Unfortunately, we must have tossed our coin wrongly again, for instead of public beach we entered a Hilton Compound and immaculately dressed guard informed us that proceeding to a beach is in principle possible as long as we become members of a "Premier Golf Resort Vacationing Paradise", pay a hefty entrance fee and watch 2 hour video of Paris Hilton. Well, maybe next time. We turned around a carefully manicured bush a nd returned to our race with clouds.

We lost by about 2 minutes, but it turned out that the fabled Ponce beach was too shallow for swimming anyway. If you wanted to get in at least a knee deep water you had to walk half a mile into the ocean and then kneel. Obviously, the only living organisms that could swim in such conditions without badly scraping their knees were plankton.

We packed up our beach gear and decided to try and reach the West Coast after all, even at the cost of some night driving on our way back. We chose the Route 2 to Mayaguez and during this trip which took about 75 minutes, the sun and tropical showers changed turns at the atmospheric steering wheel at least three times. No predicting weather in Puerto Rico! Fortunately, when we reached Mayaguez it was the sun's turn. More or less.

We took the road 102 and drove south alongside the glittering ocean. At Joyuda Beach we dipped our toes in its waters and together with 102 turned east to reconnect with Route 2. But before we joined it, another quick shower gave us a photo-op with a double rainbow, which we gladly exploited.

We returned to Ponce around 6pm and since it was still daylight we went to the city center to shoot some pictures. We were lucky enough to catch a wedding procession...

...passing by a city hall.

The town square also featured a fountain...

...a local hotel...

...a church...

...and all that could be admired from a tourist train.

After a while, it got dark and we left the town for good.

Since there was little to see now, we took highway 52 to Guayama, where we had a quick dinner at Church's and around 10pm got back to the hotel.