Before it’s too late, I had better wrap up my account of our legendary Puerto Rico vacation. What follows includes the most beautiful, sublime, fascinating, and thrilling moments of our entire voyage.
As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the first excursions out of San Juan that we made was to the mountainous interior of the island. On the same day we went to the Arecibo observatory, we had also planned to visit the Parque de las Cavernas del Río Camuy. Alas, when we reached the park gate, the attendant told us that all that day’s tickets had been distributed. We would have to return later in the week.
We left San Juan early on a Sunday morning to make the drive back to Camuy. We reached the park and got two of the limited number of tickets that would be distributed that day. Once inside I understood why they had to limit access.
Visitors wait at a covered area near the park entrance and wait for their number to be called. When it’s your turn, you line up on a wooden ramp before boarding a motorized tram. The tram follows a winding path down the mountain and stops at the bottom, where everyone steps off and the fun begins.
Through a narrow opening in the rock, a path leads into the cave. Near the opening, a little sunlight peeks through and some vegetation grows, but deeper in it becomes dark, and nothing does. Some electric lights prevent total blackness and inevitable injury on the sharp limestone formations that cover the floor. After a short walk you come upon a domed chamber of overwhelming size. I can’t give any technical details, but believe me when I say it was enormous. The tallest building in Gainesville could easily have fit inside with room to spare.
We were warned repeatedly not to touch anything in the cave, and at a low spot near the end of the cavern we saw why. All the water that flows down the walls of the cavern makes its way to a pool near the opening at the far end. In that pool are micro-organisms that live only in that cave, and nowhere else on earth.
Exiting the cavern at the far end, you find yourself near the bottom of an extraordinary sinkhole. It isn’t anything like the sinkholes you find in Florida, which are wide and shallow. This was a pit hundreds of feet deep, with a narrow opening to the sky at the top, ringed by trees. A waterfall splashed down to the floor, which was still some distance below us. Some way off you can see the opening of another cave that looked to be smaller than the one you just exited. But as you approach that cave, you realize that it is huge. A large aircraft could have flown comfortably through the opening. We were not allowed to get near that cave though, which is off-limits to all but a few trained spelunkers.
Back in the giant cavern, you head along a different path and soon hear the sound of rushing water. None is visible anywhere, but the sound becomes louder until it is clear that a raging river is near. That river is, in fact, down a deep, black crevasse. I had a terrible vision of falling down, and being washed into the abyss. I realized I was in Xanadu:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
I believe that that cavern may be the single most impressive natural wonder I have ever beheld. Alas, the darkness within the cave made photography extremely difficult. That is why I have few good pictures.
For similar reasons, I have even fewer photographs of another natural wonder we visited near the end of our trip. At the far eastern end of the island, near the town of Fajardo, there is a small city park along the water. It looks a lot like any waterside park in Florida, with picnic areas and a boat ramp. But shortly before dusk each night, trucks hauling trailers loaded with kayaks line up along the sea wall, and the tourists begin donning life jackets. The guides distribute collect shoes, distribute paddles, and assign kayaks, and as the sun sets, everyone begins rowing across the marina. At the other side, you enter a narrow channel through the mangroves, which tower over your head and in some places form a tunnel over head. Moving with the tide it takes about twenty minutes, and when you arrive in a large open lagoon it is already dark.
The first thing I noticed was the sky. Except for some low fog around the mountains that circle the lagoon, it was clear, and I saw more stars than I’d seen since I was a child. The guides turned off the glowing sticks mounted to the rear of each kayak, and then the only artificial light came from the lighthouse on the mountain. Looking down, it was immediately apparent to me why this lagoon is so special: the water glows. Microscopic animals living in the water emit a powerful light when disturbed. Scooping the water in my hands, I could discern each individual point of light, though the animals themselves are much too small to see. When I ran my arm through the water, all the individuals shined together, and it looked as though there was a bright blue light beneath the surface.
The tour guide, in his own kayak, explained how those organisms required very particular conditions to live, and how that lagoon was one of only a handful of places were they could be found. Two similar environments could be found elsewhere in Puerto Rico, but they are not as well protected and one, in Ponce, has been virtually ruined by motorized boats and swimmers. In Fajardo, swimming is prohibited, and only kayaks and canoes are allowed in. Moreover, the lagoon was practically a secret: Miriam grew up in Fajardo and never heard about it while she lived there.
After about a half hour, we began paddling back to the marina. The tide was against us, though, and it took almost three times as long to make it through the mangrove maze as before. We were further slowed by kayakers from another tour coming in. In the mangroves, it was almost totally dark. We made it back to the park where we had left our car, and began driving back to San Juan. It was hard to get that glowing lagoon out of my mind.
Near Aguadilla, at the far west end of the island, we visited where I rode a horse for the first time. The Paso Fino is an easy-to-ride horse that originated in Puerto Rico, which was good for me, because I wasn’t sure what to expect. My horse practically rode herself. When I pulled back on the reins she stopped, and she never refused to move to what ever side I directed her. I was placed at the back of a short line of horses because my horse apparently didn’t like having other horses behind her. But Miriam was two horses ahead of me, and I wanted to catch up. I wasn’t supposed to, but I did it anyway when our guide wasn’t looking. We had set out from the ranch, rode across a grove of trees, over a dune, and were on a deserted beach. The horses didn’t seem to mind trotting through the water, though it was a little scary when they got close the the edge of a dune.
After about twenty minutes or riding along the shore, we reached a rocky outcrop. We tied the horses up to some trees, and climbed along the rocks to near the entrance of a sea cave. The tide was too high and the surf was too rough to get any closer, but it was still fun.
The ride back was hard. Someone at the front of the convoy made his horse run, then all the horses wanted to run. Paso Finos a smooth riders, but the trotting still made my shoulder hurt. Still, it was a fun and memorable experience. I had never done more than pet a horse before, so getting to ride one along a beach was wonderful. And getting to ride one along a remote beach, away from anything man-made, was even better.
The caverns, the bio-luminescent bay, and the horseback riding were the highlights of our vacation to Puerto Rico.