COFFEE AND A RAIN FOREST
A long day of travel has the whipped cream topping of almost assuredly guaranteeing a good night's sleep, and we pretty much accomplished that!
However, it was a bit odd to be rumbled into consciousness by the sound, repetitively, of nearby helicopters. Worried a bit that something amiss was occurring...but not enough to drag ourselves out from under the covers to investigate...we never did figure out what that was all about!
A hotel room cup of coffee was just enough caffeine to sustain us until we found our way out of the compound onto the road...and a lovely little (tiny) eatery called Dalia's Dinner. Obviously privately owned - check; enough cars in the parking lot - check; mostly locals inside - check!
We fumbled our way through the ordering process while the plump, gravely voiced cook took our orders.
"Oh, yes...two please!"
But we really weren't sure what we were in for as we finally took time to peruse the coffee selections on the retro style stick-in-the-red-letters menu board. Bring on the adventure!
As we slurped up the last remnants of nicely done scrambled eggs, bacon (a bit different tasting than what we're used to, but good), and the Puerto Rican version of toast - think thick sliced french toast sans the syrup - we continued to marvel at the coffee.
More reminiscent of the best Italian cappuccino, it was dawning on us that Puerto Rican culture is every bit as serious about their joe as our beloved Italians. We even spied a high end Italian made espresso machine in gravel voice's kitchen....ok, then!
We rose from the simple table, expressed our thanks and pleasure at a grand meal, and pushed into the warm sun towards the day's first destination - El Junque Rainforest. (Cue monkey screeches, parrot calls, and Tarzan yell....)
El Junque is practically out the back door from our location in the Luquillo area. We made access onto the entry road, and marveled as the flat, tropical landscape traded for elevation marked by lush, dense green of every shade and size imaginable. We rolled the windows down and let the cool, oxygen saturated air tickle our faces as we were greeted by the sounds of birds and bugs busied with their tasks. And wait...was that the two-step croak of the beloved Coqui frog, as well? It was...we delighted at finally hearing the song of this indigenous and beloved creature.
A quick stop at the incredibly well done and organized visitors' center resulted in a hiking map in hand, advice on prioritizing, and a restroom break. Even in the short time there, we noted the quickly increasing flow of visitors....time to ske'daddle to the trails!
Our course consisted of a drive to the upper reaches of the park road. I marveled at the very large 5 thick-fingered leaves, some qualifying for giant, that seemed purposefully placed in the roadway and forest floor.
They were stark white on the underside and positioned themselves in artistic form where they lighted, taking on a new life appearing as some sort of mysterious crustacean crawled to land, or maybe alien creatures quietly taking over! What a sight...I couldn't wait to get my hands on one.
Cresting the upper end of the National Park, we idled into one of the narrow roadside parking spots, gathering our gear, and found the entrance to the trail leading to a pinnacle viewing spot called Britton Tower.
The hike was indescribably beautiful. The air was a tenderly moist balm of soft scents that whispered life - some earthy and mildly pungent, others spicy & sassy. Punctuations of floral sweetness floating into our path mingled to make for an aromatic cornucopia. I inhaled as deep as my lungs would permit, noting that surely this must be some of the purest air we'd ever drawn.
The trails in El Junque are well laid paths of concrete and/or rock, but placed in a manner that spoke of great concern for preserving the natural beauty of this place yet allowing access to most anyone who is halfway steady on their feet. Being a rain forest, there are roque showers throughout the day (how's that for an astute comment?!), and the upper reaches are generally shrouded in a cloud veil of roving mist. It would've been a rather slippery, muddy trek without such great trails!
I paused often, trying to absorb the multitude of sights that lay in every direction I turned. The green was composed of every shade Crayola ever came up with plus a few hundred more! The diversity of leaf shapes created a humbled awe as I studied -- from ivy leaves almost as large as I was to the miniaturized lichen. Broad, slender, pointed, variegated, cylindrical -- shapes as varied as ones imagination could fathom -- made up this enchanted forest. From the smallest tiny lichen to towering giants, we beheld a Creation that had to rival Eden. (video clip)
Small streams criss-crossed our path -- some alive and burbling, some silenced and awaiting the next deluge. Brilliant ruby-throated bromeliads clung to trees, some nestled like eggs in tree arm nests, others clinging perilously on branches like daring acrobats tempting the net. Their beauty astounded me.
The one hour hike culminated at a beautiful Medieval looking rock tower that seemed mistakenly placed in this tropical paradise. However, I thank the souls that built it because the climb to the top presented a 360 degree view that was jaw-droppingly beautiful! We took in the scene from every cardinal direction while high altitude clouds dipped and swirled, often misting those of us lingering and not wanting to let go of such a sight.
Wanting to get in one more substantial hike before departing El Yunque, we opted for what the fellow at the Visitors' Center had suggested as "Don't Miss #2" - Mina Falls. As we noted on the walk down from the tower, the number of fellow hikers was dramatically increasing. We agreed that an earlier start if we were blessed with a next time would be a good idea!
The trail to Mina Falls was also very well laid out and incredibly scenic as it followed the course of the seemingly less-than-full-flowing river leading to the falls. And it was also quite crowded. We delayed our start briefly as a heavy shower moved over and took cover under one of a handful of nicely placed picnic "patios" that even included wood burning fireplaces. Nice! The rain let up a bit, and we turned to each other feeling a bit silly about any concern over getting wet -- we were in a rainforest, after all, and should celebrate any and all rain we were lucky enough to be under!
Setting off, we made our way to the falls, and yes....they were worth it, despite the crowded conditions. Many were swimming in the pool just below the falls, but we hadn't come prepared for such extra-curricular activities. Positioning ourselves on the bridge and found contentment as observers. For awhile. I just HAD to get my feet wet before we turned back!! Pulling my sandals off and handing my backpack over to less enthusiastic about wet feet Marty, I found my way into the shallows of the rocky bottom pool. As most other water fall pools I've ever experienced tend to be, the water was cold! But what a delight as I stood feeling the cold send sweet shivers of aliveness through me that manifested as one big smile on my chilly face.
About satiated with crowded conditions for one day, we began the walk back but sans the earlier leisurely pace. We decided to forego the "Don't Miss #3" trail so we would have time to visit the famous "Kioskas" or food kiosks along Luquillo Beach, as well as spend a little time on the beach itself. And we were pretty hungry by this point!
This "famous" row of kioskos is an interesting line-up of something like 50 or 60 rectangular-ish shaped, almost ramshackle spaces separated only by a wall, and opening to the street on one end and the beach on the other. At first glance, a turista might think "Really? We're gonna eat there??", but don't let visions of shanty town turned eatery get in your way.
Oh, the variety! Not only of appearance, but of food. The easterly end kiosks lured the hungry with up-front placement of the glass cases containing the plethora of fried items. One in particular seemed to be drawing a crowd, so we made a u-turn and bellied up to the case. Only problem was, we had no idea whatsoever what we wanted (or what all these items were) and had a million questions, and this was obviously not cool with the guy behind the case dishing them out.
We retreated and headed back towards another little spot that was less busy and overseen by a soft spoken, round faced lady who was happy to guide us through the options.
End result: a plate full of all kinds of fried goodness and two cold Medallas. Seating ourselves at one of the tired looking booths, we settled in to sample the medley. The beach was visible out back, sea breeze took the edge off the 80 something degree midday heat, and an enamored couple dropped change in the jukebox to rev up some salsa as they took cracks at the pool balls. Add some determined flies for ambiance, and we were set! Take a listen....
We concluded that while it was a culinary adventure worth taking, we'd probably not revisit another plate loaded with similar delights, thank you very much.
A post-meal walk (boy, did we need that!) lead us along the various kiosks. Most were food establishments, and besides typical Puerto Rican fare, one could choose burgers, Caribbean cuisine, Philly cheese steaks, hot dogs, and get a little souvenir shopping in, as well. Surprisingly to us, some of the places were actually pretty swanky little restaurants.
Luquillo Beach and Carmella
A U-turn and about one mile later we pulled into the Monserrate Balneario...the official beach park for Luquillo. An entry fee of $4.00 got us a parking spot within the fenced beach park, as well as access to nice sidewalks that meander through the palms, a couple of drink and food venues, a souvenir shop, and a bath house of sorts where 1.00 gets ya showers (kind of...), a changing area, and restrooms. Not a bad deal! The only mishap was that we had just 45 minutes to get ourselves in the water and out to change if we wanted to make use of said facilities! Bad timing on our part, but live and learn.
Wasting no time, we made our way to the seductive crescent beach of suede colored sand and turquoise water and promptly waded in. It was amazingly calm water thanks to an off-shore reef, and we easily understood why this is such a popular family destination. The water was cool enough to bring a hesitant tingle, but quickly became a salty balm that was hard to drag ourselves out of. We did, though, and made it to the souvenir shop in time to buy a couple of paper thin beach towels and high-tail it to the bath house to rinse and change.
Mission accomplished beach side, it was on to the next big ticket item on the day's to-do list... a pina colada, mon!! Puerto Rico is the self-proclaimed mother of pina coladas, albeit there is some contention on just where "the First" one was concocted. Who cares, really.... just pour us a cold one! We found ours at the little vendor closest to the beach, ordered up, and promptly took a spectacular seat on the sidewalk facing the beach. Paradise, let me tell you, as we sat cooled by our swim watching the late afternoon sun cast a warm glow over the palm framed beach before us as we slowly sipped that rum laced island fruit juice!
As the sun lowered itself closer to the western edge of the beach, Marty retreated to sit under a covered bench while I walked the shore. Just a sprinkling of folks remained on the beach and the scene was straight from a tourist's post card. I shuffled my feet in the gentle laps of water hitting the sand as I delighted in watching a gaggle of small children craft a sand palace. That swaying dance those long fingered Caribbean palms do so well would occasionally stop me in my tracks as I gazed at their grace. The changing light cast a new aura on the static scene so that each time I'd turn, it was again new and glorious. Hoping Marty wasn't getting too anxious at my dallying, I looked back to see him at complete ease. This is what a vacation is all about, y'all.
However, when I glanced a second time, I noticed Marty wasn't alone. A small girl -- one I had seen earlier running along the beach -- held his rapt attention. I wondered what the scenario was all about. After all, truth is that my husband isn't a huge fan of rambunctious little ones!
I edged closer, not wanting to intrude on this playful engagement, but incredibly curious and wanting some photos. It became apparent that both of these characters... this tourist fellow husband of mine and the adorable local charmer ... were highly entertained one by the other, and enjoying every minute of it! I finally inserted myself into the scene and was introduced to the delightful Carmella...a 4 year old who most likely found an instant friend in everyone and who spoke no English. Fortunately, Marty's pocket full of Spanish vocabulary was enough to keep a lively conversation afloat, as well as produce numerous giggles from Carmella. (Note: no worries on her safety...her family was on the other side of this covered bench area)
We visited for quite some time with Carmella, learning of her dog and where she lived. Her attention, though, became quickly averted when one of the smaller children, apparently her brother, appeared to get in trouble for something. Carmella's radiant expression quickly melted to concern, and she trotted off to see what was going on. We were able to say adios, however, as we eventually left the beach after sunset and wandered by the outdoor shower where she and her extended family were washing off the day's fun. What an adorable little creature we were so fortunate to meet!
The tropical twilight softly lit the way back towards our car and led us west towards Rio Grande.
Best way to end a perfect day? A perfect meal!! We cleaned up and found our way back to the illustrious row of kiosks, depending on Yelp to guide us to a good choice. After all, one absolutely can't judge a book by its cover in this line up!
We went with a place called La Parrilla; the reviews were good and it was one of very few places open on a Tuesday night. Good fortune for us, though, as the food was incredible!! We chose local dishes, and agreed that this was the best mofongo we'd met thus far. It also doesn't hurt that this open air seating area is a stone's throw away from the beach. I can't think of a better after-dinner treat that one more toe wiggle in the warm sand.
Paula A. Reynolds
Traveler or Tourist?
All photos used in this blog were taken by the author, the author's husband, or found via images.google.com Photo credit is given if possible.