Sunday, December 22, 2013

Old San Juan: Color and Sound

I'm waking up to my last day of vacation. It's an overcast morning here in Old San Juan, and there is a new cruise ship at the dock. I've only had five hours of sleep after being up til two (I'll get to that later), but the sun is too bright to not wake up. I'm moving even easier than I did yesterday, so it's a good day!

Yesterday, I woke up feeling a bit better. Stiff but not desperately sore. We cleaned up our place and sat on the porch, soaking it in one last time. We started the drive to San Juan, seeing everything we hadn't seen in the dark on our drive out a week ago. The whole journey was complimented by a beautiful sky, mountains and hills on the horizon, and the sea shining to our right.

About half way through our journey, we stopped in Coamo to check out their hot springs. With my back being so sore, I figured a brief stop would do it some good--did it ever! We stopped at the Hotel de Los Banos in Coamo and paid $7 to enjoy their hot pool. We didn't even go near the regular pool. We sat in the water under the umbrella and just soaked. After a week of cold showers, which we didn't mind much given the heat and hiking, a hot soak was just what I needed. We stayed for around an hour then dragged ourselves back to the car.

After only one missed turn thanks to incomplete directions from the car rental place, I handed over the keys with a big sigh of relief. It's nice to no longer be responsible, to not worry about the car, to not have to figure out how to get places. Back to my own two feet, which makes me deliriously happy. I'm a very good navigator, but especially using my feet!

The cab took us to Old San Juan and our hotel Pasado San Francisco, which is right off Plaza de Colon. On the sixth floor, it has a great view looking south and west. We got here slightly early but were able to check in, drop our bags, and get out to explore.

It's hard not to fall in love with Old San Juan. It has that old world European colonial charm with its narrow cobblestone streets and little squares. Yet, it is distinctly Puerto Rican with its vibrant colors, its love if Christmas, and the music streaming from every window/bar/restaurant. Here your eyes are busy in a different way, trying to take in all its vibrant energy and color. It's also impossible to not spend a great deal of money in restaurants and shops.

We spent the afternoon eating and walking and shopping. We returned our beach house keys to the owner who lives in Old San Juan, and we visited the Cathedral just on time to see a wedding. I love spying a wedding on vacation; they seem to enchant the place a title more. The cathedral is beautiful with its gorgeous ceilings and small chapels. The remains of Ponce de Leon are buried there, which brings a bit of complicated history into the mix. I caught a cat wandering the cathedral and exiting through a gate. These wandering cats (and dogs and horses) really are a symbol of this island. We even caught one on top of a car just lounging away.

We wandered the streets and shops, spying what we might want to buy later. Then, we found a cafe, Cafecultura, for our late lunch and snack. Then we were up again, wandering and buying and snapping endless photos. As the stores started closing up, we made it back to our hotel for a little holiday snooze before going out for the night.

At 9pm the fun began with dinner at Cafe Berlin downstairs. Wow, what a delicious meal. There were like seven vegan options, but I opted for the tofu with he Puerto Rican criollo sauce. The sauce was this gorgeous mix of tomato sauce, mushrooms, and capers. There was a gorgeous mix of rice, beans, and plantains on the side. Janvier had the traditional mafongo, plantains with seafood, which she loved. I tried to eat nice and slow, but my god was it good. The waiter came to take my plate and he chuckled and said, "I guess you liked it." Every last grain of rice was gone. Unfortunately, they were out of the vegan carrot cake, which made me cry, but he assured me the guava vegan cake for tomorrow would be delicious. I might just need a to-go box to take to the airport.

We then went up the street to Noyorico, a music venue just a block away. It was recommended by a friend of Janvier's and a guy we met at the coffee shop. You can hear the music from a block away. The bar just flooded with sound and the glorious beating of drums. Wow what a sound!!! Before we could catch our breath after a few songs, their set was over and a new band was preparing. In between the sets, salsa music was dj'd and couples were flooding the floor. I had to decline a few offers to dance because my back just couldn't do it, but Janvier got out there and danced for us both! Besides, it's sometimes more fun to watch all he various moves and styles. Then, the next band was up and playing salsa music. The floor got even more crowded. Before we knew it, it was 2am and we were walking back to our hotel, the music pushing us along, my ears ringing with the drums and cow bells.

So now it's Sunday morning. There are castles and streets to explore before we catch a cab at 1:30 for the airport. With snow and ice waiting for us in Chicago, we are going to soak up as much vitamin D as possible, despite the morning shower we just watched from our patio.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Taking It Slow and Heading to Old San Juan

Last morning in Playa Santa. We're cleaning up and basking in the sun drenching the patio. Our little cat neighbor came to visit us one last time. Bags are packed, house is straightened, not much else to do but drive to San Juan.

Yesterday was a relaxed day where we just lingered on the porch, read, wrote in our journals, and enjoyed the breeze. Clouds rolled in and out all day, and it was a perfect day for lounging.

All was well until the afternoon when I bent over to pick something up. I found myself on my knees with a back that was going out. The rest of the afternoon and evening I iced and took ibuprofen, hoping it would get better over the next 12 hours. I had a decent sleep under the living room fan, waking up sore but more mobile than yesterday.

I'm relieved to be driving into San Juan to get rid of the car and enjoy our last night in the city. I'm not sure how active I'll be, but at least we'll be in Old San Juan with much to do and places just outside our door.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Hike to End All Hikes and the Bioluminescient Bay

Sometimes, it's just hard to admit defeat, especially on vacation. One of the things we wanted to do on our hike Tuesday was to see the mangroves, but having already hiked an hour and a half, we only made it a half hour along the trail before needing to turn around and head back for lunch. So, on Thursday we thought we'd give it another shot.

We arrived at the beach car park at the Parque Estatal de Guanica around 10:30m and began our trek to the mangroves. We knew it was 3.5km but other than that, the trail map was pretty basic. By the end, we would wish for a pedometer to know for sure.

The hike travels mostly along the beach and cliffs, so it is a hike with a view. The sun reflecting along the water, the spray of the waves on shore, the butterflies and birds flittering all around, and the various cacti and bushes dotting the view--these all made for a beautiful hike. The trail was mostly straight and no fuss until after an hour.

It was at this point that we found ourselves navigating a barely clear trail through brush, beach grass, rocks and cliffs. I began to seriously wonder if we would ever find our way out, and I kept mentally making guide markers--this funny bush, that cairn, the cactus in the path, etc. The trail had no markers, so we had no idea where we were on our trek. The cairn on the cliff was the only small marker. We then found ourselves on a wide path that seemed like a road. It made its way downhill, and I had a good feeling that we were almost there. After 20 minutes of going uphill several times, we looked at our watches and the blazing sun overhead. We looked up the trail, which was once again heading uphill, and decided we had to turn back. It had been 1hr 40 min and we had no idea what else lay ahead.

So with reluctance, we turned around and began the long trek back. By this time, the heat was in full force, and my body was getting more and more tired. I luckily had a long sleeve hiking shirt and hiking pants on, so most of my pale skin was protected from the brunt of the sun. Only my hands ended up a little burnt. We made our way along the cliffs, through the mysterious parts of the trail, and back on to the main trail along the coast. With Janvier walking ahead of me, she was my touchstone of movement. Every 20 min or so, we'd find a spot of shade, and I'd sit and try to cool off. It took all my willpower to get up and keep going. I concocted all sorts of worst case scenarios in my head, which mostly involved the park rangers coming to rescue us. I began to feel like Frodo walking half blindly through Mordor, barely putting one foot in front of the other.

But, then we were at the half hour turning point from Tuesday, and then there were people on a beach, and then there was a garbage can, and then, finally the car. I've not been so grateful after a hike in a long time that a garbage can seemed like the relieving sign of civilization and survival! 10:30-2pm. What a hike.

You can imagine the flopping down on couches and beds that occurred when we made it home. It took me awhile to eat my avocado sandwich for lunch. I napped and took ibuprofen for the small leg cramp that creeped in. After a nap, all began to feel better. So it was time for a low key adventure.

The bioluminescent bay in nearby La Parguera was on our must-see list, so off we drove to be there for the 7:30 boat. Unfortunately, we couldn't escape the fact that this was a full moon cycle and the bio bay would be diluted by the moonlight. The first tour was sold out, so we walked around the little town, which had the feel of a seaside carnival, buying cheesy souvenirs and buying food from a simple food stand. Beans and rice and some unfortunately dry plantains for me, and a chicken empanada for Janvier.

The 45min boat tour was run by Johnny, a man who looked like a man of the sea and sun. The boat was full of Puerto Rican families, except for us, and we were able to understand most of what he said. He navigated us without lights through the dark bay, until we were in the middle of a mangrove forest (alas we could only see their sillouhettes!) and then his assistant, a guy in his early 20s jumped in the water. His job was to swim around the boat to show us the organisms lighting up. We put our hands into the water alongside the boat. It was like sparklers in the water, quick bursts of lights and then they'd disappear. Anyone who wanted to swim was invited in, so a few kids took the plunge in their swimsuits.

It was impossible to get photos, but it was a fun Experience on a gorgeous night. It was over too soon as the moon came up in its waning full moon glory. We all stared at the moon and the star filled sky on our cruise back to shore. It's reflection lighting up everything around us.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Town, a Lighthouse, a Sunset

It's a beautiful morning here in Puerto Rico, and before I go off to enjoy it, I thought I'd write about our Wednesday adventures.

I took the lessons of Tuesday at heart and settled into a morning of reading, journal writing, and watching the sea. Half way through the morning, a beautiful brown cat came to keep us company. He flirted with us for pets and then basked in the sunshine. His blue collar and bell indicate that he was a local cat, probably adept at visiting new guests. The sun was warm, and my pale skin drew in the vitamin D.

After lunch, we went on our daily excursion. This time a triple stop: the town of San German, the Cabo Rojo lighthouse and the sunset at El Combate beach. We drove to San German, and Google took me through Lajas again, which irritated me from the night before. So, we turned around and got on the right road and made it to San German.

An almost five hundred year old town, it has all the charm of an old chapel ruin and new-ish charm of the early 1900s architecture. Our first stop was the Museo de Puerto Cielo, where a very friendly museum director named Guido, took us around the museum, giving us little bits of history on the church and town. Rebuilt 50 years ago, it still has a ruin of the old chapel and the original old wood beams. As we were preparing to leave, he handed us two CDs of Puerto Rican music and his business card, saying to call if we have any trouble anywhere. So, off we went to the next square to admire the various architectures and colors. A cute old town definitely worth a casual meander.

Then, back in the car and back south to the far western peninsula of the Cabo Rojo reserve and lighthouse. The roads meandered through quiet countryside with a few small herds of cows and lots of trees. The guidebooks all caution about the terrible dirt road with potholes that leads to the lighthouse, but it was easily navigable and not so bad--not like the roads and potholes I remember in Kenya! The lighthouse sits atop beautiful cliffs and is a beautiful grey and white with bright green shutters--which seemed to me another reminder that the Puerto Ricans love color. We walked all around the lighthouse, soaking in the beautiful spot. It was Janvier's first lighthouse, so I was quite glad to share my passion for them with her.

After a good hour or less, we made our way back to the car and El Combate, a small little coastal town with small beach houses and bars, but most of it was closed up. I imagine next week will bring out all the holiday revelers. We found a spot on the beach and watched all the clouds roll towards our sunset. It was a beautiful spot to sit, and music wafted from the bars while we waited. While we couldn't see the golden orb sink beyond the water, we caught all the beautiful reflections off the layers of clouds. So while we didn't get the sunset we searched for, we still found beauty.

We made it home and cooked up our dinners, sinking into bed early and pleasantly exhausted. The only down side was being woken up this morning with a mosquito in my ear. We get ready for the day, which will include a hike along the beach, hoping to reach the mangroves this time.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

When Vacation is Both Doing and Doing Nothing

Vacation has a funny way of reminding us to slow down, that we don't have to do everything. I didn't remember this until after I had tried to do everything yesterday. This morning, I'm sitting here in the sun on the porch and staring at the ocean, reminding myself of what I didn't remember a day ago.

Yesterday we did little lounging and lots of hiking. We went to the Bosque Estatal de Guanica, the bio reserve about 15 minutes away for a few hikes. I love when a hike gives you a view as a reward. We first took the hour long hike to Mirador El Vigia, which took us along the beautiful wooded forest with an eclectic mix of trees. We could hear the geikos scurrying in the undergrowth as we walked, which kept us laughing at their startled behavior. The butterflies were everywhere, of all colors, and they never stood still long enough for us to capture them on film. Birds flew around and hawks above us. It was a hot day, but the breeze kept us cool. Then, we were at the Mirador and what a view. Nothing but hills covered in forests and a cloud dappled blue sky.

We walked back via the Camino Las Granadas, which gave us a nice path but no new view. Back at the car park, we strolled to the balcony with the ocean view. The turquoise seemed to call us, so off we drove to the seaside path. We traversed down a windy beach road that had us passing beach after beach, families and couples and school kids all out for the afternoon. We parked and strolled along the path to the mangroves. It was a beautiful stroll along the water, and we stopped again and again to take photos of the water, the vegetation, and the shore. Soon our stomachs told us that it was time to turn back. We never made it to the mangroves, but it was a beautiful hour long walk.

Back at the house, it was a late lunch full of good food and a little time for relaxation before jetting out to drive to see the sunset. If we would have listened to ourselves, we would have stayed here and rested. Alas, hindsight.

We drove the hour to Boqueron, watching the sun get lower and lower. The road took us through Lajas, causing us to miss the poorly posted turn. We traveled through town and country roads, arriving just as the sun was setting. I hurried the beach guard along, assuring him that I was happy to pay him $4.86 to park but could he please hurry up. It was one of my less calm moments! So, in we drove and instead of just paring and hopping out to catch it, I drove in search of the spot that seemed right, only to find ourselves at a dead end in an inlet where we couldn't see the sun setting. So, after a few "at least I'll get a shot or two of the sky" photos, we hopped in the car and drove the hour back home.

We settled into our exhausted bodies, ate dinner, and crashed early. For me, the day ended on the futon under the fan, yawning to Todd on the phone, and letting an Adam Sandler movie put me to sleep. Vacation, sometimes you need to give in to the urge to do nothing, especially after 2 1/2 hours of hiking!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

First Day Calm and Museum Surprises

It's been awhile since I've taken the kind of vacation where you take each day as it comes. No plans, just a vague list of try-to-dos. Yesterday was that kind of day.

After a morning of enjoying the view from the porch, a little morning nap to the sound of the waves and the merengue music, and a hearty lunch, we took a stroll down to the beach. Families lounged on the beach and in the not too cold water. It's a small little local beach, and I imagine we'll be back often.

We then decided to go do something, and of all our options, the Museo del Arte in Ponce won out. So we packed up and took the drive west. It was a beautiful day with only a few clouds, and we were able to see all that we missed the night before. Beautiful forest covered hills with the mountains in the distance. The sea to our right, sparkling in the afternoon sun.

The guidebooks all say the museum has a superb collection, including some Pre-Raphaelites, but I wasn't expecting the many surprises I found. We first did the Puerto Rican art exhibit which was extensive and eclectic-from painters to printmakers to photographers, it told a fascinating story of the island's history and art. After an hour in that exhibit, it was time to see the Pre-Raphaelites. The other main exhibit was one on British art, and in there was a wealth of P-R that simply took my breath away. Leighton, Rossetti, Morris, and so many glorious Burne-Jones paintings and sketches. I was giddy as I stood in front of Leighton's 'Flaming June' but I was emotional in front of Burne-Jones's 'The Sleep of King Arthur in Avalon.' This immense floor-ceiling-wall-to-wall painting took my breathe away. To find such a masterpiece here was a gift, and I simply circled the room and tried not to cry. You can bet I marched right to the giftshop and bought quite a bit.

All of these works belong to the museum, and I urge all of you to visit this museum when you come to the island. It's a gorgeous building. While the second floor permanent collection didn't wow me (I've seen enough Flemish, Dutch, and Christian themed works to last me a long time), and I never even made it to the contemporary wing, I left speechless. The drive back home with he purple tinted mountain horizon seemed an appropriate end to the day.

After a better sleep, despite a cat fight outside our bedroom window, a storm in the night, and a mosquito that kept looking near my ear, I am eager to get out In the day. Our sky is gray today but I'm sure it will pass soon enough. With no set plan, all good things are possible.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Everything Looks Different in the Morning

One forgets how initially stressful driving in a different place can be, especially in the dark. We landed later than expected, so by the time we got our rental car and headed on the road, the sun was beginning to set. We made it through the highways of San Juan and on to the main highway that would take us south just in time to catch the glimpse of mountains on the horizon.

An hour and a half later, we exited the main highway and began weaving our way through the coastal towns of Guanica, Ensenada, and finally Playa Santa. The directions were slightly vague (a few steps really meant a few minutes), but we called her and she guided us through the unexplained 10 minute drive through the windy, tree lined roads that led us to our beach house.

We could hear the waves and the crickets, but everything as shrouded in dark. After a difficult sleep in the heat and with an air conditioner that sounds like heavy machinery, we woke up to the sun rising over the bay. Our sweet little porch is lined with flowers and palms, and the geikos and birds were out to meet us. I could stare out at the bay and find my calm space where I could see the beauty around me and revel in our good sense to stay off the beaten path.

We've visited the Econo grocery store and stocked up on provisions, so we can sit back and enjoy the beach... Once it decides to stop its little drizzle.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Puerto Rico...Ready, Set..

Not quite ready to "Go" but almost! 2 days until departure and the suitcase is collecting bits and bobs as I work through the last few days. I've done a miserable job practicing my Spanish (I cracked open the book yesterday), but I hope it will all come back to me. Janvier has been practicing so I'll let her do the translating.

This trip is a bit of a mystery trip, with not much "planned" but lists made of possibilities. So, we'll land, head to our rented condo and begin exploring. There are rainforests, bioluminescent bays, art museums, and beaches on the list, so we will have plenty to choose from. I mostly look forward to traveling with a good friend and seeing a new place.

For today, I enjoy our beautiful Christmas tree, the last day of work, a weekend of packing, The Hobbit, and time with Todd. Presents are wrapped, calendars are done, and Christmas will be here when I return in a week. Adios Chicago and 20F and hola PR and 84! With lots of sunblock at the ready, this redhead is ready for a new adventure!