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Puerto Rico and Culebra
January 8-15, 2007
As our quest to see as much of the world as possible continues, we find ourselves in Puerto Rico, destined for the Forts of San Juan, the El Yunque Rainforest, and the small island of Culebra.
Our flight into San Juan arrived late on the evening of January 8, 2007, so we opted to stay at the Best Western, which is located right in the airport. I can’t emphasize enough how convenient this stay made our first night, and then in the morning we enjoyed a really nice continental breakfast complete with eggs, yogurt, pastries, and breads. Fueled and ready to begin our day, we picked up our rental car at Dollar and set out for the San Juan National Historic Site.
Puerto Rico, in spite of its small size, offers up a tremendous amount of diversity—you can hike, swim, kayak the bio bays, surf, snorkel, and enjoy a rich historic past. Seeing as how we were in San Juan, we opted to learn more about the historic past on our first day.
San Juan is home to more than one-third of Puerto Rico’s population, making it a bustling island metropolis. Despite the traffic, getting around in a car is no more difficult than any other city, so do not be afraid to rent your transportation. We made our way towards Old San Juan—a community characterized by pastel-colored homes, cobblestone streets, and laid-back plazas. This spectacular walled city offers incredible walking and sight-seeing, and is easily incorporated into a hiking tour of the San Juan National Historic Site.
This impressive historic park includes forts San Cristóbal, San Felipe del Morro, and El Cañuelo (currently closed to visitors), plus bastions, powder houses and three fourths of the city wall. These spectacular historic structures were built by Spanish troops beginning in 1539 and spanning almost 250 years, despite the long construction time, you can easily visit the entire site in a single day. We began our hiking tour at San Cristóbal, made our way down Calle Norzagaray—about 0.25 miles along the city wall, ending with a tour of El Morro. The two forts, and portions of the city wall, provide the hiker/photographer with endless opportunities for amazing vistas—particularly photogenic are the old sentry towers that claim the sapphire blue Atlantic Ocean as their backdrop. Within the confines of the forts you can explore the many tunnels, towers, plazas, and batteries—highlights for us included drawings of ships left by imprisoned sailors on the walls of San Cristóbal, stacks of mortar shells and bronze cannons complete with detailed engravings, the impressive six levels of defense at El Morro, which is both a World Heritage Site and a National Historic Site, and the San Juan Cemetery (adjacent to El Morro and visible from its ramparts).
Fort San Cristóbal:
City Wall:
El Morro:
After hiking around the impressive forts, it is a short jaunt to the San Juan Gate where you can add a stroll along the Paseo del Morro to your plans. The seaside Paseo del Morro is located within the boundaries of the San Juan National Historic Site. The walkway, approximately a half-mile roundtrip, follows the massive sandstone walls, dating back to the 1630’s, that surround the city of Old San Juan. After strolling along the scenic Paseo del Morro, continue your exploration of Old San Juan by walking the old cobblestone streets and picturesque plazas—we spent half a day hiking this trail, Old San Juan, and the forts of San Cristóbal and El Morro—quintessential Puerto Rico!
We ended our tour of historic San Juan in the early afternoon, grabbed some lunch, and headed for the hiker’s Mecca of the Caribbean National Forest—also known as El Yunque.
The Caribbean National Forest, or El Yunque, was set aside as a reserve by the Spanish in 1876 making it one of the oldest protected forests in the northern hemisphere. The forest became part of the USDA system in 1903, and it remains the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System to this day. Several trails are scattered throughout this impressive park, and two of the most popular are the Big Tree Trail (0.9 miles one-way) and La Mina Falls Trail (0.7 miles one-way). These two trails are both a means to the same end, that end being the 35-foot tropical beauty of La Mina Falls—an exquisite waterfall that drops over a jumble of huge rocks into a picturesque pool where hikers can choose to swim or simply rest and enjoy the lush rainforest. The forest reserve contains more than 23 miles of well-maintained trails, where plenty of rugged terrain and tropical weather combine to provide something for every hiker. We wanted to experience as many trails as possible on our visit, but we held one hike above all the others—the trail to the summit of El Yunque Peak (3,496 feet above sea level). This incredible adventure takes you to the lofty summit of El Yunque, where incredible views of the forest and possibly the coast await the fit hiker. For more information on this hike, please visit our hiking website, Natural Born Hikers where we have a detailed report about our climb to the summit of El Yunque and Mt. Britton.
We split our exploration of this beautiful forest up over a two-day period, with an extra half-day added at the end of our trip. On our first day, we stopped at the El Portal Rainforest Center where we acquainted ourselves with the layout of the park and its flora and fauna—this is also one of the few places to buy maps and reference books within the forest boundaries. Continuing along scenic Highway 191, we drove to the end of the road—take note, some maps suggest that you can traverse the forest via this route, but Hwy 191 has been closed by landslides just south of the Palo Colorado Visitor Center—enjoying the many roadside features such as, La Coca Falls, Baño Grande, and Yokahú Tower. As the sun began to set, we made our way to our hotel in Fajardo. Our choice was the Fajardo Inn, and it would be our home for two nights.
Our next day was spent entirely at El Yunque, hiking the Big Tree Trail, La Mina Falls, and of course, El Yunque Peak. After a hike in the rainforest, nothing hits the spot like a cold drink, especially when you can enjoy a delicious piña colada smoothie—just head for “Yuquiyú Delights” food concession at Km 11.6, where you can get smoothies, cola, water, and the best burgers this side of the rainforest!
Back at the Fajardo Inn, which we highly recommend, we enjoyed dinner at the Blue Iguana—a great little on site Mexican Restaurant. Stuffed to the gills with fajitas and tacos, we retired to our room to prepare for our ferry ride to Culebra the next morning.
Early on the morning of January 11, 2007, we left the Fajardo Inn for the Port Authority Terminal, about 5 minutes away. Our goal was a ticket on the passenger ferry that departs at 9:00am on most mornings, we opted to park our car at the secure parking lot and then rent another car once we arrived at Culebra, and this all worked out fine. We parked our car and headed for the ticket booth, where we bought a one-way ticket to Culebra for $2.25 per person—next stop paradise.
The ferry to Culebra was right on time, and boarding was uneventful. Once on board there is plenty of room for luggage and dive gear, either inside or at the stern of the boat—depending on which ferry you happen to board that day. The voyage across the Caribbean Sea takes approximately one hour from Fajardo to Culebra, depositing the passenger at the small town of Dewey.
Culebra, one of the Spanish Virgin Islands—the other is Vieques, is smaller and quieter than its counterpart. Geologically speaking, Culebra is more a part of the Virgin Islands than it is of Puerto Rico, and it lives up to the beauty associated with that island chain. In particular, you will note the similarity when approaching by ferry—lush, jagged peaks fringed by beaches and offshore cays await the visitor. We had arranged for a rental car while on the island—a Jeep Liberty from Carlos Jeep, and a shuttle was waiting at the ferry dock when we arrived. The white van whisked us down the narrow streets of Dewey, past the obligatory souvenir and dive shops located at the cheery little dock, towards the rental lot located near the airstrip. Check-in was smooth and fast, which was great because we were eager to explore the island.
Armed with a map, sunscreen, and our hiking boots we set off down the first road we could find—route 250 towards Zoni Beach. On the far eastern end of Culebra, just past the road’s end, you will find one of the jewels of the Caribbean—the mile long stretch of white sand called Zoni Beach. Zoni is long and straight, with spectacular views of several offshore islands—such as, Cayo Norte, Isla Culebrita, and on a clear day, St. Thomas. The isolated beauty of this beach makes it the perfect place for a hike, especially since its natural splendor is best enjoyed by a quiet seaside stroll. We made our way down the beach towards a cliff with large rock outcroppings, admiring along the way the stands of coconut palms that offer shade to the visitor. When we arrived at the rocks, we could see colorful reef fish swimming in the crystal clear waters of the Atlantic Ocean. After a brief sojourn along the rocks, we made our way back to our car, once again basking in the warm Caribbean sun and the pristine landscape that lay before us. Back at our car, the clock and our stomachs were telling us it was lunchtime, so we aimed the Jeep towards Dewey and El Batey—a small roadside bar and grill, with outside seating, that serves up amazing burgers and fries. After lunch, we decided to see if our room was ready for check-in at a quaint little guesthouse called Casa Ensenada.
To our enjoyment, the room was ready and one of the owners, Jackie Pendergast, showed us the layout of the property and offered tips on where to eat and what to see on the island. Casa Ensenada, a waterfront guesthouse located on Culebra’s main harbor, Ensenada Honda, has a pier with free kayaks for guests and boat rentals for anyone. The property is owned by a sweet couple named Butch and Jackie Pendergast and their dog Cocoa, and has available for rent three units—a Pequeño, an Estudio, and the Grande Room. Our island home would be the Estudio, complete with a kitchen and private bath. The room consisted of a futon, and two twin beds pushed together, a television, refrigerator, microwave, ceiling fan, and air conditioner—perfect for our three-night stay. The only issue we had with the stay was the fact that you only get one set of towels—a bath towel and washcloth each—for the entire three-day stay. You do also get two beach towels though, but even with that addition, things get a little gamey towards the end of your stay, but other than that, we greatly enjoyed our time there.
Satisfied with our accommodations, we set off once again to explore Culebra, this time heading for Playa Flamenco and the hike to Carlos Rosario Beach. Two of the best snorkeling spots on Culebra are found offshore of Carlos Rosario Beach and Tamarindo Beach, both of which are located on the northwest side of the island. The only way to reach these secluded beaches, barring boat access, is by foot—the mile long dirt path can be accessed via the Flamenco Beach parking lot. Once you have made your way to Flamenco Beach, a 1.5 mile crescent of sand perfect for walking, look for the trailhead to Carlos Rosario near the southwest corner of the parking lot—you will see a large green sign welcoming you to the Luis Peña Canal Nature Reserve and a chain link fence with an opening that marks the entrance to the trail. Before you begin your hike, take note of another sign found near the entrance, this one warns of the danger of possible unexploded military ammunitions—a reminder that you do not want to wander off the trail on this hike. Once you have read the signs, begin your hike by entering through the opening in the fence where you will then follow the path as it begins to climb uphill to a crest. At this point, you can see the ocean. Continue hiking along the trail, admiring the cacti and the scenic views, until the trail turns north and then heads back down into the scrub towards the beach. When you reach the bottom of the hill, after about a 20-minute hike, you will finally come to a beach, but don’t get confused—this first beach is Playa Tamarindo, another great snorkeling destination, but alas it is not Playa Carlos Rosario. To reach Rosario, head north from Tamarindo across the narrow Flamenco Peninsula until you find the entrance to Rosario—just another 5 minute walk from Tamarindo. On our first hike to Rosario (it was so nice we hiked it twice), we made that very mistake, but the snorkeling and scenery at Tamarindo was certainly nothing to be disappointed about—but, unfortunately, when we returned to correct our mistake the wind had kicked up making snorkeling at Carlos Rosario impossible. Nonetheless, the hike was still worth it, as the beach at Rosario is stunningly beautiful—would have been even more beautiful if we wouldn’t have carried all our snorkel gear—c’est la vie! Anyway, we did get to snorkel at Tamarindo on that first day, and it was really nice—all the usual suspects showed up, including parrotfish, blue tang, trumpetfish, angelfish, sergeant majors, squirrelfish, butterflyfish, surgeonfish, needlefish, snapper, and even an octopus. The reef itself is also vibrant, with a variety of hard and soft corals to keep you entertained. Both of these beaches can easily eat up an entire day, so be sure to bring snacks and beverages along with you on the hike, as there are no services at either destination. When we returned to Flamenco Beach on that first evening, we took the time to walk down the beach at sunset. Playa Flamenco, listed as one of the Caribbean’s best beaches, is a great place to take a stroll, either pre or post Carlos Rosario. At the northwestern tip of the beach, you will find an old tank rusting away in the sand. Pershing tanks have been part of the Culebra landscape for half of century—they were originally used for target practice by the military, but have now been adopted by the islanders as defense against unregulated development.
After a long day of snorkeling and hiking, we were ready for dinner and the Dinghy Dock restaurant fit the bill. This dockside restaurant serves a variety of fresh meals, salad bar included, with the added entertainment of the huge tarpon that swim next to the dock at night. You might also see the local bats zipping about above the water, catching their share of bugs for dinner.
Day two on Culebra found us at Soldier Beach, or Punta del Soldado, located on the extreme southwestern tip of the island. This rocky beach is accessed by driving down a steep hill, just past the pavement’s end, on a rutted dirt road—or you can choose to walk this section, but either way, find your way to this beach as it has great snorkeling and solitude.
We spent the biggest part of the day exploring the beach, and snorkeling the reef where while out in the water we met an unexpected visitor—a beautiful spotted eagle ray with a wingspan of about 5 feet. The ray, with a shark sucker in tow, cruised around with graceful motion, appearing to be as interested in us as we were in it—on several occasions it circled back to swim only feet from the two of us. It was an exhilarating experience to say the least, and it was without doubt a highlight of the trip. Back on shore, the rocky beach is perfect for beach combing—thousands of tiny shells and coral rubble make for a fun-filled day. Soldier Beach rates as one of our favorite beaches on Culebra, and the snorkeling really is excellent—the best snorkeling is out to the left (southeast) towards the point, about a 50-yard swim.
Note: All underwater photos taken with a Canon sd550 in a dedicated Canon underwater housing.
As the sun rose high in the sky, we opted to head back to Dewey to grab some lunch—our favorite restaurant on the island, Mamacita’s, was our destination. Mamacita’s cheery atmosphere of al fresco dining and bright colors—pinks, blues, and yellows make up the tropical color palette—sits overlooking the canal and serves up sizable lunches and gourmet dinners. Oh, and be sure to watch for the iguanas that like to sun themselves on the dock—you just might have one looking over your shoulder while you dine on burgers and fajitas.
Later in the afternoon, we set out to hike to some of the more remote beaches on the island, in particular the beaches of Brava and Resaca topped our list. First, we headed for Playa Brava, located at the end of the road just past the cemetery on Route 251, but the end of the road turned out to be a literal connotation for us—two dogs were blocking the gate that leads to the beach, so we decided it was too risky to get out of the car. Next stop, Playa Resaca—named for its dangerous rip tides and undertows, it is a beautiful strip of sand reached by a steep, boulder lined trail found on the north side of the island of Culebra. The trail, widely considered the most strenuous and difficult hike on the island, plunges its way down a precipitous hillside on the slopes of Mount Resaca—the highest point on the island at 650 feet above sea level. Giant boulders, tangled mangrove roots, and coconut palms that shade orchids and bromeliads make up the largest remaining forest on Culebra—the “boulder forest” is a sub-tropical forest maintained by the Fish and Wildlife Service and set aside as part of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge. Rugged Resaca Beach is a scenic treasure, and you will usually have the entire place to yourself, unless you are visiting in the summer when you might be sharing it with nesting leatherback and hawksbill turtles. The endangered sea turtles lay their eggs on this protected beach during the night from February through November, and it is very important that you not disturb this area during this time. The hike lived up to its reputation, but we enjoyed every grueling moment—yes, I think there is something wrong with us.
We returned to our room at Casa Ensenada just as the sun was setting, and just in time for the power to go out across the entire island—thrown into darkness, we gathered up some flashlights, and lit a candle. Okay, we had light now, on to other worries. Our biggest concern during the outage was what restaurants ran on a generator (food is very important), turned out that just one, the Dinghy Dock, won that honor. Needless to say, the place was packed, but once again the dinner was great and the tarpon were still hunting near the dock. After about two hours, the power came back on—at about 9:00 pm, so the entire night wasn’t a total washout.
In the planning stages of our vacation, we had set our third day on Culebra aside as a day spent on the water—either by water taxi or boat rental. We decided we would have more autonomy if we rented a boat ourselves, so we made arrangements with Butch to take out the 18-ft, 6-person, 40-hp, electric/console-controlled, vee-hull motorboat for the day—our plan was to motor to Isla Culebrita and Cayo Luis Peña. These two small islands are part of the wildlife refuge, and they provide the visitor with unequaled snorkeling opportunities and even some great hiking trails, or so we’ve been told. As luck would have it, our boating day happened to be one of the windiest days of our stay, and this kept us from enjoying all that the offshore islands have to offer. Despite the wind and the rough seas, we were able to reach Isla Culebrita, but we were not able to anchor—if they would have only had a mooring. Frustrated and disappointed in our abilities, we gave up and ventured towards the—hopefully—less windy side of Culebra. Whereas Isla Culebrita lies off the eastern shore of Culebra, Cayo Luis Peña rests on the leeward western coast, so we held out hope that the waters would be calmer. On our first attempt to reach Cayo Luis Peña, via the open waters around Punta Soldado, the waves spooked us enough to send us running for the shelter of Ensenada Honda—pause for a bit of background here, we are experienced boaters, but we did not have experience with rough seas, so our confidence was near ground level at this point. Once back in the safety of the harbor, we regained our composure, and opted to cruise through the canal for safer passage. Boating through the canal allowed us to get up close and personal with several of the local pelicans who perch in the mangroves that line the shore—intermittently diving into the water for their meals. As we exited the canal, leaving the pelicans behind, the water seemed promising and the wind was indeed less gusty.
We circled around the cay, enjoying the sunshine, the views of Las Hermanas, and the calmer weather, until mooring along the east coast just offshore from one of the beaches. It was nice to be stationary for a change, and Pick decided to jump in and swim to shore, in order to check out the reef. As we suspected, the water was so churned up from the swells that the visibility was extremely poor—so much for our day of snorkeling. Even though we were disappointed, we still greatly enjoyed boating around Cayo Luis Peña, hopefully one day we will return and see the islands in all their glory.
After about a half-day, we returned the boat and drove once again to Soldier’s Beach—visibility was just as bad here, but the solitude of the rocky beach made for a perfect day of sun worshipping. We fashioned a little bench out of some old wood and some coral rubble, sat in the sun, enjoyed a picnic and some great beach hiking. Then, as sunset neared, we made our way back up the rocky road, past scenic Malena and Dakity Harbor towards Melones Beach. Punta Melones, a rocky point with a navigation light, lies to the right of the stony beach and its shallow reef, which marks the beginning of the Culebra Marine Underwater Park. This western facing beach is perfect for tropical sunsets, and the sailboat moored offshore when we were there added a beautiful component to the photographs we took that evening.
The last day of our vacation was spent revisiting some favorite locales—we hiked to Carlos Rosario, walked the golden sand at Flamenco Beach, and then caught the 1:00 pm ferry back to Fajardo. Once on the “mainland” again, we headed back to San Juan—with a quick excursion back up Highway 191 into the rainforest, where we once again enjoyed a burger and smoothie at Yuquiyú Delights. On that last day, we savored the relaxation and warmth of the Caribbean, for the next day we would be back in the snowy cities of Ohio—dreaming of yet another amazing destination.
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