A Travellerspoint blog

Puerto Rico and back to Philly

the good the bad and the ugly!

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On Sunday morning we got up and got our final packing done and had breakfast and were waiting to get off the boat by 8.00. By 9.00 we were outside the information centre in San Juan being told it was closed till 10am and there were not busses anywhere and we had missed the ferry anywhere too. We tried calling the campground at St John and couldn’t get the phone to work then the payphone wouldn’t work either. Eventually the really helpful lady in the ferry ticket office called for us and found they had space so we shared a taxi to the airport with a couple of Germans who were also backpacking after getting off the ship. We were in line trying to buy tickets to St Thomas when Steve got chatting with a nice Puerto Rican guy who assured us Puerto Rico was a much different place outside San Juan and we should rent a car and see the island. He said we’d find lovely wee guesthouses right on the beach with really friendly people and it would only cost about $20 a night. He also said we could just pitch a tent by the beach anywhere we liked and we’d find lots of gorgeous beaches. He made it sound so good and so much cheaper than going to St John that we changed our plan and went and rented a car. We headed for Fajardo to see how easy it was to get across to Vieques and couldn’t find any information at all when we got there. We did find a natural reserve that did tours of 4 of Puerto Rico’s ecosystems so did that. It was an excellent tour and we saw the sandy beach, rocky beach and their different ecosystems then the lighthouse for great views over the whole area and some aquarium tanks, then finally the mangrove swamp. I loved the mangroves best and we learned about the different species of mangrove and which different areas they inhabit and how they extract salt from the water. Some sweat it out through their leaves and the leaves are covered in salt, others had glands that extract it and still others have filters in their roots so the salt never even gets in. it was really fascinating and we also saw several different birds. The swamp is around a big lagoon that is bioluminescent at night too and they do tours by kayak, so we may do that since it seems very difficult to get over to Vieques. We also saw lots of pretty big iguana and it was nesting season so they were all hanging out around their nests and sea grapes which are just like regular grapes but grow on these huge bushes beside the sea and don’t make good wine. After our tour we set off looking for somewhere to stay for the night and that’s where it all started to go wrong. There was a gorgeous campground right by the beach with a guard on the gate so when we eventually found it; we thought we were really sorted. Unfortunately it’s a national park campground and they are closed on Monday and Tuesday and you have to stay 2 nights – that meant we couldn’t stay Sunday night because we weren’t staying a second night! The logic of this one really baffled us but we had to go find somewhere else. Some time later after asking at lots of places we eventually had to settle for a place that seemed perfectly pleasant but cost us $95 – far from the $20 we were expecting. It was also pretty noisy and we didn’t sleep real well. We did get a good breakfast in the morning of oatmeal (they make it very runny with milk and lots of sugar and honey – a very different beast to Scottish oatmeal!) and potato omelette (Spanish tortilla). Then we got on the road to get out of this touristy area and find what we had been promised. The day didn’t get any better and we ended up driving for hours and not even being able to get to a beach because they were all either looked after by the park service (closed on Monday and Tuesday) or inaccessible because you had to get to them through a resort. So although all beaches are public it actually isn’t that simple in reality. We basically ended up driving all day and seeing very little that was pleasant (we did see a dead man in a car just after an accident and we ran over an iguana so both of those were probably bad omens) and only one pleasant stop for lunch at a tiny little and very windy bit of nice beach watching a pelican diving for his lunch too. We started looking for somewhere to stay in the southwest corner of the island about 1.30 and ended up half way up the west coast at 7.30 in tears in a small surf pub waiting for some guy to show us to a studio he had empty because a couple of surfies (who usually rent for 4 – 6 months) had just moved out. It was only (!!!) $40, which was half the price of anything else we’d seen. It was revolting but we stayed anyway. We wore shoes at all times, left lights on so we’d know how many cockroaches and mice were on the floor and left as much as possible in the car. There was no hot water and we decided to sleep in our sleeping bags instead of their sheets. In the morning the shower was a small dribble of cold water and we left as quickly as possible. By this time we were very much regretting the decision to stay in Puerto Rico and thinking that instead of driving aimlessly round being thwarted at every turn by the parks service we should have been doing our morning yoga on a gorgeous sand beach before going hiking in the forest to another gorgeous beach or kayaking round the bay to watch the turtles nesting in the evening. Puerto Rico was definitely a bad decision.
So Tuesday could hardly get any worse. We stocked up on groceries and then stopped at a pretty beach for a stroll then continued our trek around Puerto Rico looking for a reason to be here. We headed inland and went to an old Taino Indian ceremonial site, which was really interesting. There were 10 ball courts (kindof like the Maya ones and the rules were the same but they didn’t do sacrifices here) and the game was thought to be more of ritual value than sporting. I guess that’s a bit like football today! All the courts had perimeters of standing stones and the ones surrounding the main court were bigger and also had petroglyph carvings of the deities they worshipped. The whole landscape in the area was stunning, with really high rounded peaks and deep sinkholes – rather like an egg carton but much steeper and deeper. It was all surrounded by rainforest and the roads were challenging even without the torrential rains that kept hitting us. The roads were always dry within 10 minutes because it was so hot. We drove along a nice lake and then up into the forest again in search of an observatory, which is the biggest functioning one in the world and is now only used to listen for alien contact! We never found it. We did end up in several peoples gardens in the back of beyond so eventually gave up and headed for a campground which in true Puerto Rican style was very difficult to find, not signposted, and you had to have a permit for which had to be collected in a town 40miles away. However, also in true Puerto Rican style the people we did find were really friendly and went out of their way to help us and said we could just stay anyway. We went to have a look before we went exploring further and it was a tiny place literally in the middle of the rainforest and there was no-one else there. The horror stories on the telly of white tourists getting hijacked in remote locations got the better of me and we decided that given our luck so far in Puerto Rico we probably shouldn’t take unnecessary chances. So we set off on that long trek looking for a place to stay again. This time it only took 3hours of hell and the result was similar – in tears by a pub and being shown to some place known by some guy drinking at the bar. This time however we actually did ok from it and ended up in a wee cabana under palm trees by a pool in a safe and quiet location. The cabana was old and tired but spotlessly clean and we would happily have eaten off the floor! The property it was on was fabulous with a big house then a pool with 2 cabanas and a big covered patio area with party lights. We had our dinner on the patio of the cabana then had a peaceful evening – although not quiet with all the birds and singing insects. That’s also not the same sort of noise as the construction the first night or the next-door telly and arguing last night.
The next morning we had a nice quiet start and a nice breakfast sat on the deck of our wee cabana. After breakfast we had a walk on the beach then managed to phone the campground and check that we could stay. The drive back over to Fajardo was uneventful and we got to the camp and got set up by 3.00. It was a very pleasant camp with nice facilities and you could walk down to the beach through a gate. Just as we were about to do that the security came and told us we weren’t allowed to camp there. So we had to move down the road to the public beach and had to pay to park the car there. The facilities weren’t as nice but it was slightly closer to the beach and it didn’t take us long to get set up again. We didn’t get fully organised on the assumption we would be told to move again but it seemed we were ok. We were horrified when a group of 20 highschool kids turned up and set up camp next to us but they seemed to be all right and had good adult supervision. Certainly they were very quiet when they came back form their dinner and went to bed because we never heard them at all. We had a relaxing afternoon just doing absolutely nothing other than lying on the beach, walking along the beach and swimming. Dinner was taco shells with refried beans, sitting on the beach, watching the sunset and we went to bed fairly quickly after dinner because the bugs came out and didn’t seem to be sufficiently deterred by our bug spray. It was pretty hot in the night and we were very glad we had got new sleep sacs because it was far too hot for sleeping bags.
We started Thursday morning in a much better frame of mind and actually had a really pleasant day. After yoga on the beach, jogging along the beach, a swim and breakfast we settled down to do very little for the day. We had thought we might go up to El Yunque – the rainforest but decided we were relaxing well and we’d seen supposedly the best rainforest in the Caribbean in Dominica, so gave it a miss. We walked along the length of the whole beach in the reserve we’d visited on Sunday and there was no-one else on the whole beach and lovely white sand, coconut palms, and clear blue green sea. We just lay on the beach and relaxed every time we got tired or went in for a swim and it took us over 3 hours to walk what must have been 3 miles. We had some nice wildlife experiences – sea cucumbers, lots of wee fish, a puffed puffer fish (dead though), white herons, frigate birds, and lots of iguana. While we were lying on the beach a big old iguana came down just near us and must have been a bit short-sighted because he never noticed us and strolled down to the water and in for a swim. There may have been a couple of females nearby too because he certainly looked a bit like he was showing off, doing lots of head nodding and showing his wattle. We had tacos for lunch again then relaxed and swam a little more, had an early dinner and went out to go on a bioluminescence bay tour. We had arranged it in the morning as we passed a lot of kayaks on the beach and the guy was to pick us up at 6.30 so we were ready waiting. At 6.55 we gave up and decided it was just Puerto Rico continuing to be rotten to us and were deciding whether to walk along and see if we could see anything in the Laguna from the beach. Then a guy turned up and told us to get in his truck, which we did, feeling very nervous about being picked up by total strangers and keeping one hand on the door. He was a really nice guy and did take us along to our tour, which was just running a bit late. We eventually got set up in open double kayaks and got going. We paddled up a mangrove channel, which was pitch black in parts but was really great and slightly spooky at times. It was quite narrow in parts and we passed several other groups of kayakers going the other way so there were a few collisions. Once we got into the Laguna we could really see the glow and it was fantastic. The glow is caused by caused by wee organisms called dinoflagellae, which are something between, and plant and an animal – they use photosynthesis to store energy and then when they move at night they rotate at high speed and give off this amazing light. You can pick up a handful of water and see the individual dinoflagellae like tiny stars in your hand which was really really cool. It was amazing to drop a handful of stars over your leg in the kayak. Once we were out in the Laguna and Jose had found a good spot we jumped in the water and then we all glowed. The faster you moved the more you glowed and if you just moved really slow you could see individual stars again all over your arms. The moon came up while we were out which was gorgeous too and we have some photos that are incredibly unlikely to come out but we had to try. Once we were back in the kayaks we could see fish moving in the water and they glow too – especially if you frighten them and they have to swim away fast – so we spent a while chasing fish too. The paddle back along the channel was fairly hard work because it was against the current but was still great. It was nice just to be paddling again but we didn’t like being in a double as much as single kayaks. I think they assume the girls will need help against the current so always use doubles – I guess I’m a control freak and like to be in control of where I’m going myself rather than just being supplementary power. We got back to our tent about 9.30 and it was a little cooler than the previous night so a bit more comfortable. It also rained a bit in the night so we had a wet tent to pack up in the morning.
Friday morning started in the same way as Thursday – yoga, jogging and swimming before breakfast on the beach. Then we got packed up and there had been enough sun to dry out the tent and some other wet stuff. The traffic had been pretty bad the last couple of times through San Juan and we had to have the rental car back by 1200 so we left plenty of time. We didn’t get lost as we’d expected to and the traffic was light so by 1130 we had returned the car and were at the airport. We just had time to kill till our flight at 330 but are getting quite good at filling in time at airports. The flight was uneventful un baggage claim really quick after we waited ages then discovered a small A4 hand written paper saying that US Air baggage claim was in the next terminal over! George collected us and we went home and had a lovely quiet evening with Sally and George. It was a relief not to be in Puerto Rico but looking back probably half our time there was ok and half unpleasant. The bioluminescence certainly made up for quite a bit and the tour of the mangroves the first day was good and the Indian ceremonial site and all the landscape around there, and finally a lovely relaxing day on the beach. I still wouldn’t go back there and will be writing to the ‘lonely planet’ with a few crucial things they missed.
Saturday was a chill out day and we got chores done like washing and George and I spent some time sorting out and updating my computer. We took Maggie out for and walk and really just had a much needed quiet day.
On Sunday we had a quiet start and then went Philadelphia to the museum of anthropology and archaeology. It was a really good museum and we only looked at a few areas but learned lots. They had a great exhibit of National Geographic portraits over the years with some really stunning pictures. We looked at the pacific peoples exhibit and learned a few things about how and where they had come from and the migration pattern, which was something, I had not seen before. Then we spent the rest of the afternoon looking at the Maya, Native American and Native Alaskan exhibit s, which told us lots about the history and culture and beliefs of the people and was very interesting and well presented. We came home in the evening and had wine and cheese before lasagne for dinner and we all drank a little more than planned and consequently had a slow start the next morning although no-one was actually hung over.
Monday afternoon, after breakfast, we headed into Philadelphia again and went to the Ben Franklin Exhibit at the National Constitution Centre. It was excellent and the whole centre was really well done with lots of interactive things and we learned tons about American history. Ben Franklin himself was a really remarkable man – as well was being an amazing diplomat and advocate for the new American union in Britain and France, he was also a very intelligent man and an inventor and entrepreneur and a printer and writer. He must be one of the most talented historical figures I have come across. We also met up with John and Carol for the museum and went to dinner with them afterwards at the City Tavern, which is an accurate period pub from the time of the revolution and was a real pub at the time too. A lot of the prominent figures in American history have eaten or stayed there and the waiters all dress in costume and the food is authentic – and very very good. I had a mallard duck sausage then a turkey pot pie from a recipe of George Washington’s wife and her chocolate mousse cake too. Steve had a pepperpot soup, which was fantastic, and a veal sausage with sauerkraut. There are quite a lot of German influenced foods around here because of the Amish population in what is called Pennsylvania Dutch country. They also had some great beers from recipes of Ben Franklin, and George Washington’s.
Tuesday was another nice quiet day. George and I both had dentist appointments in the afternoon and we all just relaxed for the day. The dentist I saw was really nice but basically said we couldn’t be sure why I had toothache but it was either because of a big chink off my tooth or the decay under the filling. One would get better and the other would get worse so we decided to just wait and see and I have antibiotics and painkillers if it gets worse and will get it sorted out back in NZ. The dentist also gave me a really big discount because I was paying up front so it didn’t cost us much either. We had a nice quiet evening and Sally made chicken and biscuits for dinner. American biscuits are more like british scones and they go under the chicken casserole kind of like dumplings. It is very good.
On Wednesday we had another fairly gentle start tot he day and got shores done for the morning. I abandoned yoga due to too much help form the animals. We all set off from the house late morning and drove south into Amish country. We came at it from the south side so we’d see a different part to what we saw last time. We stopped for lunch in an Amish restaurant and had an all you can eat soup and salad including a really nice broccoli salad. Then we went Amish hunting- a very culturally insensitive thing to do but apparently, according to a university expert it’s actually ok to take photos but not to be intrusive. We took photos from inside the car although we did put Steve in the back with the tailgate window open so he could shoot out the back. We saw (and got pictures of) some really nice cultural things. It was ploughing season so there were lots of men out in the fields with their teams of horses – usually six horses or mules all side by side. The landscape was really pretty and the sun came out from time to time on the farmhouses with large silos, birdhouses and black robes hanging out to dry. All the different colours of the plough lines across the land made it a beautiful stripy design with several different greens and lots of shades of brown and red-brown earth. We saw the children walking home from school with their wee hats and lunch bags. They all walk which means the schools have to be close by so there are lots of one room schools and I guess the kids only meet their near neighbours at school. They don’t have regular bicycles but hinges that have bicycle wheels but a scooter instead of a seat so they are standing and move by foot power instead of pedal power. We spent most of the afternoon driving around looking and taking pictures then went home. Sally had to go out for choir practice and we’d eaten lunch pretty late so we had dinner when she got home at 9:00.
On Thursday morning we got going a little earlier because we had more chores to do before we went out. We got our laundry done & packed up a big & very heavy bag of stuff we don’t need & then it got FedEx’d to Duncan in L.A. Then we borrowed some warm clothes & all went out to the Philadelphia aquarium. It was very very cool. We had lunch first then went in to visit the hippos – Jenny & Button who George adores because he has done a lot of photography for the aquarium & photographed Button’s birthday party a couple of weeks ago. The hippos have a great habitat – as does everything else in the aquarium – and there’s lots to keep then amused. They were just resting in the water though so we carried on around the shark tunnel, which was also pretty cool. When we went back the hippos were busy playing & we watched them & took pictures for ages. They were chasing logs, swimming round the pond (which also has underwater viewing) & jumping up & down by the underwater viewing window. We looked around the rest of the aquarium, which also had some pretty cool stuff including leafy sea dragons, which are kind of sea horses, but they look like they have leaves all over them. They were really beautiful. There was also a big octopus, a pretty jellyfish tank (seems impossible), a porcupine & a very friendly duck that just stood and posed, & a touch-a-shark pond. The seals were also cool & had an underwater viewing area & a seal pup that liked to chase our hands on the glass. Sally had bought a hand puppet seal so we got the pup to chase the hand puppet & he was really fascinated by it and very very cute. We went home and did our final chores, packed & had a nice final dinner & evening with Sally & George.

Posted by lyndalb 17:53

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