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Monday, August 11:  This morning, Mike gets up early and walks to our local Quiznos to pick up egg and cheese sandwiches and coffee, which we polish off in our room.  Then we head to Charlie’s Rentals to pick up a Kia Rio for the next 4 days. The lady at the desk asks us if we’d like to opt in for a service similar to EZPass, which will enable us to drive through the automatic pay lanes at toll booths.  After we say we’ll take it, she warns us that the toll lanes work by photographs.  She says we shouldn’t freak out if a red light flashes or an alarm sounds, that we should just drive on through.  She says that in the end, the tolls will be communicated to the rental company and we’ll settle up when we return the car.

I never like it when alarms sound or lights flash, especially when I’m the suspected perpetrator.  Today, every time we go through a toll plaza, the red light flashes and a loud grating alarm goes off.  I tense up each time, turning around and looking to see if a police car is speeding after us in hot pursuit.  I do this every time, and Mike gets a big laugh out it.  He finds it funny that I think a police car is waiting at the ready to chase toll violators. This provides him a lot of amusement during the four days we have the rental car.

Other than the toll alarms, the drive is fairly straightforward. It takes us about an hour to get to El Yunque National Forest, a tropical rainforest of 28,000 acres in the Sierra de Luquillo.  It’s run by the US Forest Service and has a network of signposted, short, paved and relatively mild trails.

The El Portal Visitor’s Center is a pretty cool open air building with local artisans selling arts and crafts.

El Portal Visitors Center at El Yunque

El Portal Visitors Center at El Yunque

El Portal Visitors Center at El Yunque

El Portal Visitors Center at El Yunque

Leaving the Visitor’s Center, we see some beautiful tropical flowers including this Bird of Paradise.

Bird of paradise near the visitors center

Bird of paradise near the visitors center

The first thing we encounter is La Coca Falls, an 85 foot waterfall that cascades over some boulders.  It’s right along the highway and is swarming with people.

La Coca Falls

La Coca Falls

Our next stop is Big Tree Trail, a half hour each way through tabonuco forest to La Mina Falls.  The tabonuco forest grows below 2,000 feet and receives less than 100 inches of rain.  Tall straight trees, such as the tabonuco and ausubo, tower over us, and we’re surrounded as well by epiphytes (including many orchids), flowers and aromatic shrubs of many types (Lonely Planet Puerto Rico).

Big Tree Trail to La Mina Falls

Big Tree Trail to La Mina Falls

The trail is paved and damp, with leaves underfoot, and what do I do but slip and fall on my butt right at the beginning.  I jump up, wiping myself off, but not quickly enough to avoid having a number of fellow walkers worry over my well-being.

Big Tree Trail

Big Tree Trail

Root systems on Big Tree Trail

Root systems on Big Tree Trail

Big Tree Trail

Big Tree Trail

Big Tree Trail

Big Tree Trail

Ferns on Big Tree Trail

Ferns on Big Tree Trail

Big Tree Trail

Big Tree Trail

Big Tree Trail

Big Tree Trail

Moss covered rocks on Big Tree Trail

Moss covered rocks on Big Tree Trail

The trail is quite busy, but nothing prepares us for the crowds at the base of La Mina Falls, with its 35 foot drop. We’ve worn our bathing suits, and as it’s quite hot and sticky, we have been looking forward to dipping in the pool at the base of the falls.  However, the crowds turn us off to this idea.

La Mina Falls

La Mina Falls

We climb up a trail to the left of the falls, where I’m able to cut some of the people out of my photo.  It is quite picturesque, and we wistfully dream of having the pool to ourselves.  But alas, it’s not to be.  This is not my idea of an idyllic stop, so we traipse back along the 0.86 mile trail to the trailhead.

La Mina Falls with people cropped out!

La Mina Falls with people cropped out!

We continue driving up Highway 191, looking for the Mt Britton Trail.  We see the peak with the Britton Tower perched on top, and at first we think we’ll pass.  It looks like too much work!  Ultimately, we change our minds, and I’m so glad we do. This is the best hike in the park, not nearly as crowded, and the forest here is beautiful.

Destination: Mt Britton Tower

Destination: Mt Britton Tower

This trail is a 0.8-mile, 45-minute hike up through mid-level vegetation into the cloud forest that surrounds the peak, named after a famous botanist who worked here.

Mt Britton Trail

Mt Britton Trail

Mt Britton Trail

Mt Britton Trail

Roots on Mt Britton Trail

Roots on Mt Britton Trail

Moss and creeping vines on Mt Britton Trail

Moss and creeping vines on Mt Britton Trail

Mt Britton Trail

Mt Britton Trail

The trail is a continuous climb on paved surfaces to the stone Mt Britton Tower, built in the 1930s.  When not shrouded by clouds, panoramic views extend over the forest to the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean.  It is shrouded by clouds today, but we still get quite nice glimpses of the mountainous landscape.

In the cloud forest, Mt Britton Tower

In the cloud forest, Mt Britton Tower

Cloud forest, Mt Britton Tower

Cloud forest, Mt Britton Tower

Cloud forest

Cloud forest

Cloud forest

Cloud forest

Mike in the Cloud Forest

Mike in the Cloud Forest

Mt Britton Tower

Mt Britton Tower

The walk through this forest is so lovely, especially with the musical serenades of the coqui frogs and the birds.  I’m so glad we did this hike.  It is the highlight of our day. 🙂

Mt Britton Trail

Mt Britton Trail

Mt Britton Trail

Mt Britton Trail

Mt Britton Trail

Mt Britton Trail

By this time we’re getting hungry, so we decide to drive to Playa Luquillo, a balneario (a Latin American seaside resort town).  We want to check out its 60 famous food kiosks.  I don’t know what I thought kiosks were, but I certainly didn’t expect them to look like storage units containing restaurants.

Food kiosks at Playa Luquillo

Food kiosks at Playa Luquillo

We walk down the sidewalk in front of the kiosks, and at each entrance, we’re invited by restaurant staff to come inside and eat.

Food kiosks at Playa Luquillo

Food kiosks at Playa Luquillo

Food kiosks at Playa Luquillo

Food kiosks at Playa Luquillo

We finally decide on Kioska Terruno (#20), where we order two Medalla Light beers.  Mike gets a small crema de platano, a plantain cream soup, which is pretty horrible and tasteless. I order a chorizo a parrilleros, or grilled chorizo.  This is our first disappointing meal in Puerto Rico.  At least the beers are refreshing. 🙂

Terruno

Terruno

Terruno

Terruno

When we return to our hotel, we go out to the beach for a bit.  I walk around photographing the cool beach grape trees and palm trees that provide a kind of buffer zone between the high rises and hotels and the wide expanse of sand.

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

Beach grapes

Beach grapes

Beach grapes

Beach grapes

Beach grapes

Beach grapes

I stroll along taking pictures while Mike goes for a swim along the length of the shore.

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

the beach near our hotel in Ocean Park/Condado

After a while, we return to the hotel, where we have rum and orange juice drinks in the jacuzzi.  This could get to be an addictive habit. 🙂

In the evening we walk around looking for a restaurant in our area.  We don’t want to drive the car into Old San Juan and fight traffic or be frustrated looking for parking.  Nor do we want to pay $35-40 for a taxi both ways. We finally settle on Bebo’s Cafe, right next door to the restaurant where we ate last night, Basilia’s.  Bebo’s is equally unattractive (brightly lit, unadorned, and bursting with boisterous Puerto Rican families).  We have a pretty good meal here at a decent price.

Mike orders a Cuba Libre, which he’s disappointed to find is just a rum and coke with lime.  I’m settling for another Medalla Light, as I’m not a huge fan of hard liquor, rum included.  I’ve only been drinking it because it’s famously produced in Puerto Rico.  I order a meal of Arroz Camarones, or shrimp rice, which I mistakenly call Paella Camarones, because the dish is listed under Paella on the menu.  Confused, our Spanish-speaking waitress brings me a seafood paella including calamari, which I hate.  This causes quite a stir, but the way the menu is written is confusing.  I really can’t eat the calamari, so I have to send it back.  Mike orders Asopao de Gandules, a thick chicken and rice soup.  We feel bad about the confusion, and the owner tries to make sure we feel plenty guilty about it, but in the end, we make up, all apologizing to each other for the misunderstanding.   We order a flan to top off our meal.

Tomorrow is supposed to be a rainy day, so we’ll have to figure out what we can do that’s mostly inside.

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