Танци и печени прасета в Гуавате

Още един епичен Трифон Зарезански уикенд.

Красива пуерториканка танзува бачата

Красива пуерториканка танцува бачата

Има едно уникално място в Пуерто Рико, ако не и в света, наречено Гуавате- малко планинско селце, където всяка неделя се събират тълпи от хора. Още към 11 часа преди обяд започват да прииждат от всички кътчета на острова и задръстват единствената главна улица. Трафик, коли, хора, музика бумти, дори ако времето е лошо и вали проливен дъжд. Ако случайно попаднете тук ще се зачудите защо е тази лудница? Отговорът е: заради прасетата.

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Но ние не попаднахме случайно тук. Доведоха ни наши стари приятели-крузъри, които срещнахме за първи път преди 6 месеца в Понсе. „Искате ли да опитате от местната кулура: автентична традиционна музика и храна?“ – ни писаха Грег и Мишел, които са прекарали доста време в Пуерто Рико и знаят къде кога какво се случва. Разбира се, че искаме! В неделя на обяд нашите приятели ни взеха от пристанище Фахардо с кола под наем и след час и половина пристигнахме в Гуавате, не далеч от Carite Forest Reserve.

Коли, народ, дандания - Гуавате, Пуерто Рико

Коли, народ, дандания – Гуавате, Пуерто Рико

От край време в Гуавате местните пуерториканци идват да похапнат традиционно печено прасе. От двете страни на улицата има десетки малки ресторантчета Lechoneras, в чиито витрини бавно се въртят на шишове прасенца-сукалчета, само в неделя. В двата най-големи ресторанта El Rancho Nuevo  (Новот Ранчо) и El Rancho Original (Оригиналното Ранчо) на дансинга се вихрят луди танци- меренеге, салца и бачата. Музиката изпълнявана на живо е оглушителна, почивка няма. Тук е мястото, където Антъни Бурден от предаването „Без Резервация“ и Андрю Цимерн от предаването „Странни Храни“ по TravelChannel се идвали да дегустират най-доброто от Пуерто Рико.

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Пуерториканците обичат да си организират семейни мероприятия през уикендите. Навсякъде по плажове, паркове и ресторанти се празнува края на седмицата, дори и да няма никакъв специален повод. Празненствата винаги включват много ядене, пиене, музика и танци, цял ден и цяла нощ. В Гуавате ситуацията е неконтролируема.

бачата

бачата

Пристигнахме към 2ч. следобед. Валеше дъжд, но никой не му обръщаше внимание. Капанчетата от двете страни на улицата, в продължение на няколко километтра бяха вече задръстени от хора, 99% местни. Наредихме се на опашка и докато ни дойде реда да поръчаме гледахме прасето, което хипнотично се въртеше на шиша си. Мая беше потресена: „Като видях прасето, беше останала само задната му половина, се почуствах вегетарианка. Хапнах само малко ориз.“ Освен прасе се продлагат и много гарнитури- традиционни пуерторикански деликатеси: сочна варена юка с чесън, сладки жълти картофи, които се топяха в устата, два вида пържени банани, доматен ориз с черен боб, кървавица и др. Всичко беше безкрайно вкусно и само 8-9$ порцията включваща 3-4 гарнитури и бира. За 27$ се натъпкахме и остана за вечеря (порцията на Мая).

На масата, всеки сам си прави порцията от обилното количество месо и гарнитури, които ни връчиха.

На масата, всеки сам си прави порцията от обилното количество месо и гарнитури, които ни връчиха.

След като надигнахме сити погледи от чиниите и след като безуспешно се опитахме да разменим две приказки с Грег и Мишел в кратките паузи между песните, не оставаше нищо друго да се прави, освен да се танцува.

Мира танцува с една от местните таланти. Тази жена имаше най-сърцераздирателните задни части и умееше да ги жонглира като факир...

Мира танцува с една от местните таланти. Тази жена имаше най-сърцераздирателните задни части и умееше да ги жонглира като факир…

Единствено Мая не се забавляваше. В съчинението си на следващия ден тя писа:

Аз лично мразя тълпите и силната музика, особено музиката, която не ми харесва. Чуствах се объркана и изгубена. Всичко се сливаше. Всички говореха на испански. Музиката гърмеше все едно над главата ми излита ракета. Както каза Грег, зъбите ти започват да вибрират. Много хора танцуваха. И аз бих танцувала, ако музиката беше хубава. Идеше ми да се гръмна. Но ми хареса факта, че нормалните, обикновени пуерториканци се забавляват от време на време. Също ми хареса дългото приятно пътуване с кола в компанията на Грег и Мишел и разговорите ни в колата- страхотни хора.

С Грег, Мишел, Иво и Мая в Гуавате

С Грег, Мишел, Иво и Мая в Гуавате

Ако питате мен, аз бих останала да танцувам до последната песен… За мен това изживяване си остава най-автентичното, най-забавното, неповторимо изживяване в Пуерто Рико. Ако предпочитате да се смесите с местните и да не срещнете нито един друг турист, ако латиноамериканските ритми ви стоплят кръвчицата, ако обичате печено свинско и сте любопитни да опитате местни деликатеси на ниски цени и ако смятате да посетите острова само за един ден, изберете неделя (дори и да вали като из ведро) и отскочете до Гуавате!

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Муика на живо и танци в Гуавате

Муика на живо и танци в Гуавате

Мира и Мишел на дансинга

Мира и Мишел на дансинга

 

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Puerto Rico Conclusions

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Short History

 

The history of this island, the smallest of the Greater Antilles, is marked by an almost constant struggle for independence, yet independence never came. Larger world powers have always controlled the island thus shaping its identity into what is today Puerto Rico: a territory with two flags, two languages, and two cultures strangely intertwined. It reminded us of another such double-language double-flag place back in Canada where the issue of identity and independence still creates controversy.

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An important commercial and military port of the Spanish Empire during the conquest and colonization of the New World, Puerto Rico experienced a great economic decline in the last half of the 19th century as the agricultural industry struggled. Commerce with United States and the European colonies in the region was restricted until 1897 when the island, stricken by poverty, was finally granted autonomy from Spain. One year later, as a result of the Spanish-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in exchange for a few million dollars.

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Since then, the island has been a property of the United States with a Commonwealth status. A U.S. military government followed by a civil government built a large infrastructure: roads, ports, bridges, hospitals and schools, and introduced great investments thus reviving the Puerto Rican economy in the 1920s. But this economic growth had a price on the Puerto Rican identity. There was a period when it was a felony to display the Puerto Rican flag in public, sing patriotic songs, and the only official language was English. In the 1930s, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party struggled in vain for the country’s independence. The majority of people felt more comfortably being a part of the rich powerful United States of America. A referendum held in 1967 affirmed overwhelmingly the continuation of the Commonwealth status with voters for independence gaining merely 0.6%.

View of Ponce

View of Ponce

 

Today Puerto Rico is an ‘unincorporated territory’ but not a ‘state’ of the United States of America, has its own Constitution but benefits from all rights and freedoms the American citizens have, including unemployment insurance and welfare.

 

Quest for Authenticity

 

Our quest for authenticity in Puerto Rico was somewhat difficult and confused until we realized its unique flavor is precisely this mixture of cultures. Latinos who speak Spanish and listen to salsa yet drive the same cars on the same roads like Americans; who eat mofongo and empanadas but wear the same clothes and shop for the same products in the same stores and shopping centers like Americans. A culture with a deep Spanish root like all other Latin American countries, but Americanized.

 

If you ask someone Are you a ‘proud American’ or a ‘proud Puerto Rican’? you may get a very interesting answer. Try it!

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The Happiest People on Earth

 

The very first Puerto Ricans we met as we sailed in a small harbor west of Ponce told us they were the happiest people on Earth. Two guys in swim shorts kayaked to our boat to greet us. We discussed many diverse topics, in English, ranging from religion to sailing to economics. They said that Evo looks like Jesus without hair, that if we go to the Bermuda Triangle we will disappear for sure, and that the best beer is the free beer. We agreed with them completely on everything. They also said: 

 

We chill on the beach all day and listen to music. We are all set. We receive welfare each month from the American government so we don’t have to work, it’s enough for the rent and for beer. Life is beautiful. (They tell us that 60% of all Puerto Ricans are unemployed and receive social benefits from the U.S. government. The official unemployment rate is around 14% which is still very high. Their standard of living is much higher than most Latin American countries.)

 

 

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We spent our time in Puerto Rico shopping: provisioning and upgrading the boat, and visiting some of the island’s most popular points of interest: Old San Juan, El Yunke, Viequez, and Culebra. We learned that the popular places are usually very crowded, especially on the weekends.

 

Old San Juan

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We had the best time in Old San Juan visiting the two big defense forts built in the 16th and 17th century where many epic battles were fought, roaming through the colonial town’s narrow streets, and eating the best frozen yogurt.

 

Read full article Cats and Ghosts. Battles of San Juan

 

El Yunke National Park

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El Yunke is the most popular tourist destination in Puerto Rico after San Juan. It is a national park with a large territory covered with tropical rainforest, with rivers and waterfalls, and a number of hiking trails. While it is the most beautiful rainforest we have ever seen, our hiking experience there was very disappointing. We went on a Saturday and the place was so packed with tourists, we got stuck in a human traffic jam on the trails.

 

Read full article El Yunke, Unfortunately

 

Culebrita

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Even though there are not as any sites to visit and things to do on land as in Dominican Republic, cruising around Puerto Rico is much easier and more fun than around the Dominican Republic. On the south side of the island there are many anchorages just a few miles away from one to the next. We would sail for 3-4 hours in the morning and spend the afternoon in a new place each day. Our favorite spot became Tortuga Beach on Culebrita, a beautiful lagoon home of hundreds of sea turtles.

 

Read full article Culebra and Culebrita

 

 

 

 

 

Facts and Useful Information

 

 

 

·         Puerto Rico is United States of America – Almost everything is the same, it’s very strange and unexpected.

 

·         Checking in by boat – you have to go through U.S. immigration and customs and agriculture inspection. All you need to pay for is a cruising permit good for 1 year, costs $19 (Canadians don’t need visas, other countries citizens do need to apply for US visas before travelling to Puerto Rico). The officials are extremely nice and it is easy and even pleasant to check in if you don’t bring any foreign garbage. Remember, just don’t bring any garbage.

 

·         Language – Spanish is the local language, but almost everyone speaks English

 

·         Shopping – After the Bahamas and Dominican Republic and before the BVI and the Antilles island chain, you have to stock up in Puerto Rico where you can find everything and it’s cheap. There are Walmart, HomeDepo, and Sam’s Clubs in every big city, and WestMarine in San Juan and Fajardo. Here the motto “The more you spend the more you save” is 100% valid. There isn’t a cheaper place for provisioning until you get to China.

 

·         Fishing – We would catch a mahogany snapper almost every time we trolled, plus a tuna, a few barracudas and a reef shark. We released the barracudas and the shark; ate the snappers.

 

·         Security – Many people told us to be careful and not to trust everyone as the crime rate in Puerto Rico is very high. We never had any problems.

 

·         Transport – There is no public transport between the big cities. (Everyone has a car in Puerto Rico.) The only way to go from Ponce to San Juan for example is to rent a car, take a taxi, or hitch hike. Rental car rates are the same as in USA.

 

 

Other related articles:

Bahamas Conclusions

Dominican Republic Conclusions

 

 

 

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Culebra and Culebrita

Culebra

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After a few days in Vieques, we sail 9 miles north to Culebra, Snake Island. Once a refuge for pirates the archipelago comprising one big island and 23 smaller ones is now part of Puerto Rico and the Spanish Virgin Islands.

We anchor on the west side of Culebra and walk across a little hill to Flamenco beach ranked #2 in the top 10 most exotic beaches in the world (I don’t know who ranked it; the beach is nice but nothing too special and there are way too many people making it not so exotic for our taste).

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As we walk towards the west end of the beach which looks more secluded, we encounter the most peculiar object. A rusty old tank all covered with graffiti. Beautiful!

Maya writing her name on the tank

Maya writing her name on the tank

Looks like the U.S. Navy was here too! The entire archipelago was used as a gunnery and bombing practice site since the beginning of the Second World War until 1971 when the people of Culebra begun protesting the Navy’s bombing activities and in 1975 all operations were moved to Vieques. This explains the bombs in the water around Vieques and the tank on the beach in Culebra. But, if the bombs in the water are not yet a popular snorkeling destination, the tank on the beach is a local attraction, a work of art to my view.

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Culebrita

East of Culebra lies a tiny island populated by hermit crabs and wild goats, Culebrita, Little Snake Island, where we spend a few more days swimming, snorkeling, and hiking in the hills.

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hermit crab

hermit crab

 

On its north side is the most beautiful  lagoon we have seen in Puerto Rico, with fine white sandy beach and palm trees, and if you walk or kayak to the east corner you will discover a few small natural pools formed among black volcanic rocks.

Maya and Mira at the pools

Maya and Mira at the pools

The only way to visit this place is by boat and, except on weekends when locals and tourists invade it, the anchorage is so peaceful and serene.

Goats in Culebrita

Goats in Culebrita

An abandoned lonely lighthouse stands on top of Culebrita, a pleasant walk away from the beach.

Nick, Pete, and Vick walking to the lighthouse

Nick, Pete, and Vick walking to the lighthouse

Built between 1882 and 1886, it was the oldest operating lighthouse in the Caribbean until 1975, when it was finally closed down.

Culebrita Lighthouse

Culebrita Lighthouse

Spiral steps rusting away, red bricks crumbling down, paint peeling off, today it is a beautiful old ruin still standing on its hill watching the sea and the boats sailing back and forth.

View fro the lighthouse

View fro the lighthouse

          Good by old lighthouse.

          Good by Fata Morgana.

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Vieqes, The Devil At Work

Sun Bay

Vieques, the biggest of the Spanish Virgin islands lying 8 miles east of Puerto Rico with a land area of 52 square miles, is today a popular cruising destination with many little harbors on the south Caribbean side just a short distance from one another. The most attractive one is Sun Bay with a long sandy beach and a row of palm trees offering tourists and locals a perfect spot to chill and enjoy the tropical sun and water.

Maya in Sun Bay

Maya in Sun Bay

We park Fata Morgana close to the beach on the far east corner for a couple of days and do just that: chill. The kids: Maya, Viktor and his two best friends Nick and Pete (with us on the boat for two weeks), have a blast playing in the water with all sorts of inflatables and going on ice cream missions walking all the way to the other corner of the beach where the ice cream place is.

Nick, Pete and Vick in Sun Bay

Nick, Pete and Vick in Sun Bay

Bioluminescent Bay

Not far from Sun Bay is Mosquito Bay, a natural landmark where bioluminescence can be observed at night. The luminescence is caused by a micro-organism which glows when the water is disturbed creating a trail of neon blue. The first Spanish colonists exploring the area thought that the bioluminescence was the work of the devil. Today the bay is national park with no admission fee, and a major tourist attraction with organized tours in the middle of the night for $45 per person. We decide to check it out.

Evo and Ivan ready for some water-fun.

Evo and Ivan ready for some water-fun.

Thus, around 10 p.m. our group of seven grab various inflatables and small boogey boards and hike on a dirt road in a forested area for about half an hour, in the dark, braving hungry night bugs, all the way from Sun Bay to Mosquito Bay only to be greeted by two police officers guarding the area, extremely impolite, who inform us that we are not allowed to go in the bioluminescent bay if we haven’t pay for an organized tour, otherwise we will have to pay a fine of $500 per person.

Soon a huge group of tourists arrive by school bus, with a trailer full of kayaks behind. They all have paid for the tour and are looking at us as if we are some sort of criminals trying to sneak in for free. We can’t believe this! Is this place a private property, we ask. No, but there are strict rules and regulations and if you break them you will be punished, the police woman tells us very aggravated. We just hang around for a little while watching the tourists getting ready for the bioluminescent tour. Evo has a green headlight and the police woman tells him No green light is permitted; he switches it to red and she tells him, No red light is permitted, and he jokes asking if purple light is permitted. If you say one more word I will arrest you, she screams at him and everyone is looking at us.

Tourists at the Bioluminescence Bay

Tourists at the Bioluminescence Bay

We walk back to our beach and back to the boat disappointed not only because we didn’t see the famous bioluminescent bay (we have seen intense bioluminescence in Sand Key Florida and near Havana Cuba last year, so for us it’s not such a huge deal), but because of the attitude towards us and towards Nature. In some countries the limits on freedom and the free are unbearable and even the littlest site of natural beauty, a forest, a waterfall, a bay, has been transformed into a money-making tool in this case for private gain through organized-tours-only.

How To Visit The Bioluminescent Bay in Vieques For Free

There is a way to visit the Bioluminescent Bay legally and for free as it is not a private property but a national site with free admission. You can bring your own kayak but you have to have a lifejacket, a whistle, and a glowing stick and you are good to go and explore it without getting a violation ticket. You can bring your kayak either by carrying it or transporting it overland all the way from Sun Bay, or you can anchor your boat outside Mosquito Bay and kayak across the shallow channel in the bay (don’t forget the lifejacket, whistle, and glow stick). Best time to do it would be after midnight when the groups are gone and most probably the police too.

We consider doing this the next evening but we are already turned off the whole thing.

Explosive Bay

The next day, we sail to an anchorage at the east end of Vieques where we are in for another surprise. The place is completely deserted. No settlement on land, no boats in the anchorage. We like this. In Puerto Rico all nice spots are usually crowded. The guys decide to go spearfishing but return shortly only to announce we are surrounded by bombs.

The diving team

The diving team

 In 1941, during the Second World War, the United States Navy bought two thirds of Vieques in order to provide a safe haven for the British fleet should Britain fall to Nazi Germany, which never happened. After the war, the US Navy continued to use the island for military exercises, and as a firing range and testing ground for bombs, missiles, and other weapons. After the war, the locals protested the United States Navy presence angry at the expropriation of their land and the environmental impact of weapons testing and target practices which continued for many decades. In May 2003 the US Navy finally withdrew from Vieques, and much of the island was designated a National Wildlife Refuge under the control of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

But we don’t know all that. We don’t know that the quiet anchorage we are in was until not so long ago a site for weapon testing and is filled with all sorts of bombs and missiles, some unexploded. Thousands of them, some huge sticking out of the sand, piled on the bottom of the sea in 10-20 feet of water.

Evo checks the anchor. No bombs near it. On the beach there is a sign: DANGER! Restricted Area. Unexploded Ordinance. What do we do? We decide we are not going snorkeling and fishing anymore today and we are getting the hell out of this place first thing in the morning (if we are still in one piece).

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Sailing Puerto Rico. Ponce and The Coffin Island

 

Puerto Rico, unlike the Dominican Republic, offers many weather protected anchorages especially on the south and east side, which makes the island a fun place to cruise and explore by sea.

 

Ponce anchorage and La Guancha boardwalk at sunset

Ponce anchorage and La Guancha boardwalk at sunset

We spend two weeks in Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico, at anchor there. The anchorage in Ponce located between the marina and La Guancha, a boardwalk with many little restaurants, is not very popular with cruisers. It’s not our favorite anchorage either, deep with murky waters, it gets very noisy with 6 different types of music booming from La Guancha’s restaurants until late at night; powerboats, paddle-boards, kayaks and jet-skis zooming through the anchorage every day. On Saturdays, kids from the sailing school practice sailing between the anchored boats hitting them from time to time, by accident (or for fun). Fata Morgana got a big black scratch on the port hull by one of the sailing school boats.

Mira at la Guancha

Mira at la Guancha

We use our time there to provision the boat, even though there are no shops near by and we walk for over an hour to get to Sam’s Club and WalMart, a few kilometers away to buy what we need. We don’t mind walking, we actually enjoy it, except when we have to carry cases of beer or 50-pound bags of flour on our backs in the scorching heat of the day. But we did it.

We also meet great new friends in Ponce which is the best part of our stay there, Greg and Michelle s/v Semper Fi who invite us for a movie (Captain Ron) and popcorn on their boat and give us tons of tips about the places we are planing to visit next down the Caribbean islands; and we share our daily walks to the shopping mall as well as rental car for a week with the SailingDee family making a few trips to San Juan, the mountains, and the stores together.

 

With Maria Dee enjoying pork chops at a local restaurant

With Maria Dee enjoying pork chops and mofongo at a local restaurant

And when swallows start building a nest inside Fata Morgana’s boom we know we’ve been here too long and it is time to move on.

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With our friends who come for a two-week visit we first sail to Caja de Muerto, The Coffin Island, just 7 miles southeast of Ponce. It’s a very little island with a nice beach and an old lighthouse perched on the hill, beautiful.

Beach at Caja de Muerto

Beach at Caja de Muerto

The legend has it that, many years ago, after her tragic death, a sailor buried the woman he loved on this island and would visit her grave every now and then. Pirates decided that he is hiding a treasure on the island and went looking for it but all they found was a coffin with a dead woman inside.

 

Lighthouse Caja de Muerto

Lighthouse Caja de Muerto

On weekends the small island and beach can be crowded with weekenders from Puerto Rico, but on a Monday it is completely deserted and wonderful.

 

The Nomadiks & Friends at Caja de Muerto

The Nomadiks & Friends at Caja de Muerto

From here we sail east every day for a few days, a few hours in the morning, until we reach Vieques, an island southeast of Puerto Rico.

 

 

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El Yunke, Unfortunately

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El Yunque National Forest in northeastern Puerto Rico is located on the slopes of the Sierra de Luquillo mountains, encompassing 28,000 acres (43.753 mi² or 113.32 km²) of land. Ample rainfall creates a jungle-like setting — lush foliage, crags, waterfalls and rivers are a prevalent sight. The forest has a number of trails from which the jungle-like territory’s flora and fauna can be appreciated. It is home to over 200 species of trees and plants, 23 of which are found nowhere else. 

– from Wikipedia

 

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We first attempt visiting El Yunke about a week after arriving in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Everyone we meet, locals and cruisers, tell us You have to go to El Yunke, it’s amazing!

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After two hours of driving with a rental car (there is no public transport from Ponce where our boat is to anywhere in Puerto Rico) we get to the national park’s entrance only to be told that El Yunke is closed until further notice, at least few more days, due to too much rain and landslides. Disappointed, we drive back.

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About two weeks later we get another chance to visit El Yunke, on a Saturday. This time it’s open. Admission is free. We put on hiking shoes and prepare for some serious hiking. This should be the Puerto Rican equivalent of Dominican Republic’s Pico Duarte. But pretty soon we start seeing disturbing signs, things are wrong.

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First red flag: on the parking lot before one of the trails to the waterfalls there are so many cars and busses that we have hard time finding a parking spot.

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Second red flag: From the cars and busses descend young girls wearing high hills and miniskirts, obese men, women and children, Asian women wearing romantic long dresses, and Hindu families with silk saris and sandals. Not exactly the kind of people and equipment you see on hiking trails. Suspicion starts creeping in our minds.

Third red flag: The hiking trail is paved! It is not a trail but a narrow “street” made of concrete and there are steps to go up and down. Every now and then there are small rain shelters and the place looks more like a residential area than a forest.

Waiting for incoming traffic to pass before being able to continue down the "trail"

Waiting for incoming traffic to pass before being able to continue down the „trail“

 

Soon we are stuck in traffic on the narrow “trail”. Hundreds of visitors creep slowly up and down, usually led by the slowest of the group, a large lady who barely walks, passing is very difficult, and we have to stop and wait for incoming traffic too. It gets worse when someone in front decides to light a cigarette and we all have to breathe it.

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We are no longer seeing the forest, the trees, the river, the waterfalls. Our entire attention is focused on the traffic of tourists all around us. Guides caution their groups to „stay on the paved trails at all times because the forest is full of poison ivy and there are no hospitals nearby.“

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As we get to the famous waterfalls we witness another perversion. People have surrounded the little pool under the fall and wait in queue to take turns photographing each other with the waterfall behind them, the same picture they have seen on the brochure. But it’s hard to take a picture with no strangers in the background.

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We can’t take any more of this. We run back to the car and escape this crowded place, heading to a more secluded and less populated area back in the city: the shopping mall.

Conclusions:

1. Never visit El Yunke on the weekend.

2. Avoid the popular „trails“ and find some less popular unpaved ones.

3. Go early in the morning when there are less people.

4. Instead visiting El Yunke, which is the most popular tourist destination in Puerto Rico, visit a less popular park or forest, there are plenty of others on the island.

5. El Yunke is the most beautiful rainforest we have seen so far, but we had the worst hiking experience there…

 

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Cats And Ghosts. Battles Of San Juan

San Juan View from Fort San Felipe

San Juan View from Fort San Critobal

Old San Juan is full of cats. You have to be very careful not to step on a cat when walking around looking up at old historical buildings, for the cats, like shadows, blend with the cobblestones paving the narrow streets of the old city.

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Founded by the Spanish colonist Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521 on the north-eastern coast of the island, San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico is the capital of Puerto Rico and the second oldest European capital city in the New World after Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

San Juan Port entrance and stone wall

San Juan Port entrance and stone wall

Enclosed by massive stone walls at the mouth of San Juan Bay, Old San Juan is today a major cultural tourist destination attracting visitors with its ancient two-storied houses, a network of narrow streets covered by adoquine, a blue stone cast from furnace slag brought over as ballast on Spanish ships, historical buildings housing museums and cultural organizations, public squares, and cathedrals.

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But the most important buildings declared National Historic Sites here are the city’s former defense forts: Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristobal, a part of humanity’s cultural patrimony.

El Morro

El Morro

Built by the Spanish government in the 16th and 17th century the two forts defended this important seaport used by merchant and military ships traveling between Spain and the Americas against foreign powers.

Battles of San Juan

Many battles took place outside the stone walls of these ancient forts, battles of epic proportions. In 1595 Sir Francis Drake attacked the city but the El Morro’s canons repelled the English battleships.

In 1625 the city was assaulted by the Dutch but El Morro withstood once more and was not taken. Instead, a counterattack left many Dutch soldiers dead after Puerto Rican soldiers and civilian volunteers of the city militia boarded and defeated the Dutch ships.

In 1797, during the French Revolutionary Wars, the British attacked San Juan once again but the siege of the city was unsuccessful and the British army was forced to withdraw in defeat for a second time.

Finally, in May of 1898 United States Navy ships arrived at San Juan Bay. The American bombardment caused a lot of destruction on the city, but the Spanish forces commanded by Captain Mendez heroically withstood the attack for many days. Yet, with just one signature, Spain ceded the island to the United States after the Treaty of Paris agreement. Puerto Rico became and remains to this day an unincorporated territory of the United States.

During the next century, many uprisings against the United States occurred in different places in Puerto Rico all by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, and failed. One of the most notable ones is the uprising in San Juan on October 30, 1950. A group of nationalists attacked the residence of the Puerto Rican governor and the United States Federal Court House. The battle between the nationalists and the police lasted 15 minutes and four of the five attackers were killed.

El Morro and the Atlantic Ocean

El Morro and the Atlantic Ocean

Walking next to the stone walls all around the small island looking at the bay, and through the narrow streets of Old San Juan stepping on the blue cobblestones from the Spanish colonial era, roaming inside the dark humid corridors of El Morro and Fort San Felipe is an unforgettable journey back in history and our best experience in Puerto Rico.

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Maya

Maya

Iguana on the stone wall, Fort San Felipe

Iguana on the stone wall, Fort San Cristobal

 

San Juan Cathedral

San Juan Cathedral

View of San Juan

View of San Juan

 

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The Murderous Mona Passage. Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico

After exactly one month in the Dominican Republic, a month full of unforgettable adventures and precious experiences all over the island, we are ready to continue our journey. But it doesn’t matter if we are ready or not. Continuing our journey depends entirely on the weather.

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The passage east from Luperon along the north cost of the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico is considered one of the most difficult and dangerous passage in the world. This 250 nautical mile stretch of Trade winds, high North Atlantic seas, untenable rocky shore, great variation in depths, unpredictable currents, and fast-forming storm cells across the Mona Passage and the Puerto Rican trench, the deepest hole in the Atlantic Ocean, has been the final stretch for many sound boats and experienced crews, including Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria.

For one month at anchor in Luperon we listened to the horror stories of fellow sailors who have braved these waters, many damaging even losing their boats.

“We call Luperon ‘The Trap’. You know why? Because lots of cruisers arriving from the Bahamas get stuck here for months even years and cannot continue east. Some sell their boats and take the plane home”, they tell us.

They also tell us that the only possible way to transit these waters safely is to study Bruce Van Sand’s book The Gentlemen’s Guide to Passages South and do exactly as he says. Not to read the book, to study it! Bruce Van Sand, “an American working internationally as systems engineer” who lives in Puerto Plata (and we had the good fortune to meet him there and chat for a while), has been cruising these waters for decades back and forth over 100 times and knows them better than anyone else. His book is the result of extensive research and experience providing all necessary information about choosing weather and sailing strategies, planning routes, understanding wind, land and cape effects, avoiding shoals, currents, and storms.

Cabo Samana, DR

Cabo Samana, DR

Luckily, we have the book.  We begin reading and re-reading it hoping the precious information inside it will enlighten and reassure us. It surely does enlighten us, but instead of reassuring us it terrifies us even more. In The Mona Passage and Sailing The North Shores chapters we read about such terrors as “the cape effect” which “can murder you”, “severe wicked thunderstorms” that “charge like bulls”, “a wedge of swift and raging water” behind capes, “unpredictable currents everywhere”, “coastal acceleration”, “ferocious swells”, “rough shoals”, “shock waves of heavy conditions” , and “hydro-thermodynamic chaos”. Sailing here can be “flat out suicidal”, according to the author. “You probably shall have the stuffing kicked out of you”.

Mira with Bruce Van Sand, Puerto Plata, DR

Mira with Bruce Van Sand, Puerto Plata, DR

Not a fun book to read if you are planning to actually go out there and attempt sailing the Dominican Republic north coast against the Trades and crossing the Mona Passage, but it surely thought us a lot, and we did appreciate every bit of information and advice in it. We did follow the few simple rules from the book and we did have “a thornless passage”

The rules:

·         Choose an oversized weather window;

·         Go only when the forecast gradient wind blows less than 15 knots south of east, less than 12 knots if blowing dead east, and less than 10 knots if the wind has any northerly component;

·         Hide behind the capes in the daytime and transit them at night motoring when the wind dies out due to the night lee and the katabatic wind effect;

·         Stay close to shore, 1 to 3 miles, or in about 80-100 feet depth;

·         Plan 2 nights and 1 day to cross the Mona Passage;

·         Stay clear of the shoals in the Mona Passage;

·         Avoid the storm cells by tacking north-northeast for half the Mona Passage and then tacking back south.

Wing-on-wing

Wing-on-wing

A weather window opens up right when we need it, after a month of steady 20-25 knot east trades and two days after we return from our epic Dominican Republic road trip ready to sail! It is a giant window of mild south and southeast winds less than 10 knots, an oversized window forecasted to be wide open for about a week with a period of deadcalm and virtually no swell. This kind of weather conditions form here probably once or twice a year. We and about a dozen more boats anchored in Luperon among which our friends the SailingDee family, grab the opportunity and…jump right out of the window!

Dolphins guiding Fata Morgana

Dolphins guiding Fata Morgana

We start in the evening, as Mr. Van Sand taught us, shamefully motoring, stopping in Rio San Juan, 50 NM east of Luperon, to rest for a few hours. We plan to stop again in Escondido, then in Samana, and finally in Punta Macao before crossing the Mona Passage but we end up sailing straight to Puerto Rico from Rio San Juan non-stop as the sea conditions are perfect and we decide to keep going. The crossing takes us 5 days, sailing 80% of the time, motoring only the first two nights along the Dominican north shore and past some of the capes. The Mona Passage is so calm, we let the kids steer the boat. We even have a period of becalmed seas but the “unpredictable shifting current” is in our favor and we slowly drift towards Puerto Rico, avoiding shoals and storm cells from the north.

We arrive in Ponce, Puerto Rico after 5 days of very pleasant relaxed sailing, our fuel tanks half-full (last fueled 5 months ago in Key West), nothing damaged on the boat, none of us tired or scared. We actually enjoyed this passage a lot, enjoyed sailing, and even enjoyed a nice big mahogany snapper who joined us for lunch (and for supper) near the Puerto Rican shores.

What to do with a big fish in 4 steps:

Step 1 – Pull it out of the water;

Step 2 – Remove head, skin, and bones and form nice juicy fillets;

Step 3 – Fry the fillets with egg and flour;

Step 4 – Enjoy!

Mahogany snapper

Step 1

 

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Step 2

 

Step 3

Step 3

Step 4

Step 4

 

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