Thursday, August 14: This morning, we plan to drive northwest from San Juan to visit the Arecibo Observatory and then drive through the karst mountains of the country. We’re following a driving tour outlined by Lonely Planet Puerto Rico. Before we depart, we stop at Quiznos, where we pick up coffee and bread and cheese for a picnic lunch. Then we go to Condado pick up juice drinks from Crush Juice Bar. Mike gets a “Red Carpet” and I get a “Mango Berry Blitz.” These huge and healthy drinks make for a tasty breakfast. I also pick up some plantain chips for snacking.
After a 2-hour-long drive where we keep setting off alarms at every toll plaza, we arrive at the Ángel Ramos Foundation Visitor Center, opened in 1997, which features interactive exhibits and displays about the operations of the radio telescope, astronomy and atmospheric science.
These scientists at the entrance seem to be involved in a serious discussion.
The Arecibo Observatory is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), operated by a consortium of SRI International, USRA , UMET, under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The observatory’s radio telescope is the world’s largest single-aperture telescope. It is used in three major areas of research: radio astronomy, aeronomy, and radar astronomy. Scientists who want to use the telescope submit proposals that are evaluated by an independent scientific board.
The telescope has made appearances in motion picture and television productions, including the James Bond movie, GoldenEye, and Contact, starring Jodie Foster. It got more recognition in 1999 when it began to collect data for the SETI@home project. It has been listed on the American National Register of Historic Places since 2008.
The main collecting dish is 1,000 ft (305 m) in diameter, constructed inside the depression left by a karst sinkhole. It contains the largest curved focusing dish on Earth, giving Arecibo the largest electromagnetic-wave-gathering capacity. The dish surface is made of 38,778 perforated aluminum panels, each about 3 by 6 feet (1 by 2 m), supported by a mesh of steel cables. The ground underneath is accessible and supports shade-tolerant vegetation. (Wikipedia: Arecibo Observatory)
To aim the telescope, the receiver is moved to intercept signals reflected from different directions by the spherical dish surface. The receiver is on a 900-ton platform suspended 150 m (500 ft) above the dish by 18 cables running from three reinforced concrete towers, one 110 m (365 ft) high and the other two 80 m (265 ft) high, placing their tops at the same elevation.
The platform has a 93-meter-long rotating bow-shaped track, called the azimuth arm, carrying the receiving antennas and secondary and tertiary reflectors. This allows the telescope to observe any region of the sky in a forty-degree cone of visibility about the local zenith. Puerto Rico’s location near the Northern Tropic allows Arecibo to view the planets in the Solar System over the Northern half of their orbit. The round trip light time to objects beyond Saturn is longer than the 2.6 hour time that the telescope can track a celestial position, preventing radar observations of more distant objects. (Wikipedia: Arecibo Observatory)
On the way out of the observatory, I take some photos of the surrounding forest and mountains.
We take a drive through Puerto Rican towns on curvy mountain roads and it’s painstakingly slow going. But we get to see how regular Puerto Ricans live in the mountainous regions.
Karst Country has hills and mogotes, which are jutting peaks. The karst formations in Puerto Rico are a result of carbonic acid in the water systems draining into cracks in the limestone of the island. Due to Puerto Rico’s climate, this process has left many caves and canyons on the island that make up the third-largest cave system in the world. These “karstic landscapes” can be found throughout the north coast of Puerto Rico. (Planetware: Puerto Rico’s North Coast Attractions)
Lonely Planet Puerto Rico recommended two lakes to visit along the drive through karst country. We stopped at one, and now I forget the name. It was mediocre at best. I guess I was expecting something a little more exotic, lush and tropical.
We make a stop for drinks and snacks and Mike buys himself some Nutter Butter cookies. He already bought a jar of peanut butter to have in our hotel room; he spreads it on crackers when he has a hankering for a snack. I know that, in general, he loves snacks of peanut butter on graham crackers, on celery, basically on anything, often with raisins sprinkled on top. When I see he has bought himself some Nutter Butters, I say, “You and your peanut butter. You really ought to be a peanut butter farmer.” He cracks up laughing. Of course, I meant to say he ought to be a peanut farmer, not a peanut BUTTER farmer. He says, “Yep, I need to go and grow some peanut butter!” This is another ridiculous joke we share for the rest of our trip.
In the afternoon, we return to our hotel and sit in the jacuzzi again with rum and grapefruit juice. Then we head out for dinner at the most atmospheric restaurant in the Miramar area, Casita Miramar. The decoration is romantic and filled with cookbooks, old photos of Miramar, vintage furniture, a high ceiling and beautiful arches. It’s like being transported back to another era. The menu is written on a chalkboard so it can be readily changed. The restaurant focuses on giving traditional Puerto Rican dishes a creative touch.
Mike orders a stuffed red pepper dish and I order sea bass. The restaurant staff is very efficient, almost too much so. Because of their super speed and efficiency, we feel a bit like we’re being rushed. The staff brings a free corn fritter appetizer that’s delicious, but as we had already ordered other appetizers, we had a twice as much as we intended, making us as stuffed as the peppers. A delicious dinner and lovely evening.