The morning of our second day in Puerto Rico took us to the mountainous interior of the island. Heading west out of San Juan wasn’t too bad, since all the traffic in the morning comes into the city. As you drive, the view to the south is one of rugged mountains. The nearer ones are not so intimidating, but behind them, further inland, is a much more fearsome range. That was where we were heading. I’ve written already about the dangerous and unsafe mountain roads. However awful they are to drive, they lead to interesting places.
Our first stop was the Arecibo Observatory. Operated by Cornell University, it is one of the largest radio telescopes on Earth. Pictures don’t do it justice. It is really enormous. I seem to recall the tour guide saying something about twenty-five football fields fitting inside. Astronomers chose this specific location for a few reasons, of which the most significant were the proximity to the equator, and another being the big hole that existed naturally between the surrounding mountains. The had to do only a little blasting to fit the reflector. Looking at the different antennas from the rim of the reflector you cannot tell how large anything really is. But when a man passed in a basket over head, his tiny size gave some indication. The short film we watched in the visitor center explained that the round sub-reflector suspended high in the air is the size of a three story building. The pointy antenna next to it is almost a hundred feet long. Three colossal concrete towers support the cables, and those cables are embedded in massive concrete anchors. The air at Arecibo was fresh and in the shade I felt so cool and comfortable that if I closed my eyes I could imagine that I was in the North Carolina mountains.
Our next stop that day was to be the caverns in Camuy, but we arrived to find that all the tickets had been sold for the day. We decided to head instead to the nearby Caguana Ceremonial Ball Courts. The Taíno lived here in pre-Hispanic times, and left petroglyphs which are on display and are fascinating. Now, a cynical person might say, “well sure, this place is interesting, but while the Taíno were drawing on these stones, the French were building the cathedral at Riems“. That may be so, smart guy, but as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel, geography and technology are crucial to the development of any society. Europeans lived in the most fertile place in the world, had horses and access to almost unlimited resources. The indigenous people of the Caribbean had to cope with frequent hurricanes, occasional earthquakes, land that was far too rugged to sustain substantial populations through agriculture. The ball courts at Caguana are fascinating, and you could see how the stones surrounding them were brought up from the river running through the canyon below. All around the site were enormous Ceiba trees, which were easily over a hundred feet tall, with massive trunks that dwarf a man. The park was practically deserted, and the weather was lovely.
The drive back to San Juan gave me another opportunity to experience awe and terror, as I passed gorgeous scenery, and treacherous driving conditions. At one point, a convoy of ambulances approached from behind with lights flashing. I moved over to allow them to pass, but they didn’t go any faster than anyone else. I concluded that emergency vehicles in Puerto Rico must always just travel with flashing lights. Meanwhile, when I did hear a police siren, I looked around expecting to find a patrol car. Rather, I discovered a motorcyclist and his girlfriend, using a police siren to attract attention.
We joined our friend Maggie, who lives in Puerto Rico, for dinner at a restaurant with a cool Egyptian theme. At the conclusion of the meal, a belly-dancing girl came out and entertained everyone. I can see why that custom is so popular.
It was after ten o’clock when we arrived back at our hotel, and I was ultra tired. The next day we would explore San Juan.