Thursday, November 29, 2018

Puerto Rico Adventure - Day 3 - 3 Miles of Muddy Slip & Slide

[Composed 11/22/2018]

Today's adventure: hiking in El Yunque National Forest. Research into the park warned that many, if not all, trails were closed due to Hurricane Maria. Yesterday, we stopped by the visitor center and were informed that a handful of trails had re-opened. However, I had my eye set on something a bit more obscure than the main park trails: the El Toro and Trade Winds trails. These are the most remote trails in El Yunque and would take us to the highest peak in the park.

The two trails string together to form a 6 mile or so, point-to-point hike. In my mind's eye, I figured we could yo-yo the trail, making for a 12 mile day. Long, but not impossible.

We had no problem finding and parking at the El Toro trail head. We started up the trail and it quickly transitioned from uphill, to uphill and muddy. And then it became uphill, muddy and slippery. Our pace slowed, and so did my plans of a 12 mile hiking day. It wasn't long before I realized I was going to get that day of hiking I wanted, I just wasn't going to get the planned mileage.

The trail, other than being muddy and slippery, was in fine shape. I was a bit worried that the hot and sunny weather would make the hiking unbearable, but this wasn't the case. There was enough shade and breeze, that even in long pants we didn't cook too badly. The views from the trail were good, and by the time we reached the summit of El Toro, they were downright gorgeous.

Speaking of long pants, I took the warning that you should wear them seriously and I'm glad I did. At times, the trail narrowed and you couldn't help but be attacked by the brush along the trail. At night, as we enjoyed dinner, Shira noticed her right arm was covered in a series of raised slash-like rashes. Apparently she was allergic to some plant along the trail. Had we been in shorts, I can't imagine what our legs would have looked like. I'm also glad I brought dedicated trail runners for the hike. They, along with my pants, were mud-soaked. Had I tried to get by with one pair of shoes for this trip, I would have been hurting.

We didn't see a ton of wildlife: mostly interesting butterflies and other creepy crawlies. One new animal for me was the tree snail, which is a pretty hefty fella at 3 inches or so in diameter. The first one I found was at the summit of El Toro, and I was confused to be finding marine life at the peak. True to their name, on the way down from the summit we found a whole family snails hanging out in a tree. I saw a couple of hummingbirds too, but I wasn't quick enough to snap pics of them.

Two gals passed us on the trail and we caught up to them on the summit. They worked for El Yunque and told us a bit about the area. One had a long walking staff which was little more than a section of PVC piping. I asked her about it and she explained that it's an instrument she uses to measure tree growth. She had it with her, however, to bat away spider webs. Shira spent a good bit of time doing this with her trekking poles, so I could see why she had brought it along.

After a nice lunch on the summit, we turned around and headed back the way we came. The descent wasn't as bad as we had anticipated and before we knew it we were back at the car, back to town and feasting on a falafel burger and fish tacos near our hotel.

I still think it would be an epic adventure to do both the El Toro and Tradewinds trails in one day. But I was more than satisfied with our shorter hike; what it lacked miles, it made up for in views, butterflies and raw challenge.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Puerto Rico Adventure - Day 2

[Composed 11/21/2018]

Today's primary activity was a night-time kayak in the bioluminescent bay of Laguna Grande. Our meetup point was about an hour east of our hotel. This gave us a relatively chill day to make our way to the Northeast corner of Puerto Rico.

Lunch was a delicious meal at Cocobana, which truly exceeded expectations. The lentil soup and banana-almond-coconut smoothie were both especially delicious.

Before making our way east, we hit a local Wal-Mart to pick up some provisions. Apparently the rest of San Juan had the same idea, and I can't recall seeing such a mob scene in a Wal-Mart parking lot or a store in general. Everyone was patient, but my gosh, who ever spent 20 minutes just getting into a Wal-Mart parking garage? Between our visit to a supermarket yesterday and the food section at Wal-Mart, we're quite surprised at the number of heschered items available. We've been to supermarkets back in the states that had far fewer marked items. There doesn't appear to be a notably large Jewish population, yet, there's no lack of marked items. Perhaps they send the same items to San Juan that they do to Miami or something? Who knows, it just means we're definitely not going to starve.

Shira's driven all over the world, and she's finding something unusual about drivers here: they're slow. The highways may be marked 65Mph, but people regularly drive at or 5 miles below the speed limit. Who ever heard of an entire culture doing this? Mind you, they're not sticklers for the law. Earlier in the day, after waiting for what seemed a couple of minutes, the driver in front of us at the red light gave up on it changing and just drove through. That, and the fact that we encountered a number of intersections with flashing or off traffic signals, tell us that the people of San Juan are cool with improvising traffic law. But still, who hits the open road and thinks yeah, let's cruise this baby 5 miles under the speed limit?

We took a delightful stroll along Seven Seas Beach. The views from the beach were perfect, and the water was toe-soaking perfection. But what really got me were the presence of a number of golf-ball sized gelatinous balls that had washed up on the beach. I've never seen anything like it. Perhaps they are cousins of jellyfish? All I know is, if I hear of an alien invasion in the next few weeks, I won't be especially shocked. The small spheres look like a dead-ringer for alien breeding spawn.

And before we knew it, it was time to get our lifejackets on and get our safety briefing for our trip to the bio-bay. Shira and I paddled out to the lagoon with the rest of our group, and tried to keep from crashing into the mangrove trees that lined the channel leading to the bay. I mostly focused on shooting pictures, which left Shira steering and powering our vessel. But she's used to this.

We couldn't have picked a less ideal night to see the bioluminescence of Laguna Grande. The issue: we had a completely full moon. This made for a romantic and picturesque paddle, but made it so that we'd never see the relatively dim light of the luminescent algae. The tour company, however, had us covered. Literally. Once we arrived at the bay, and it got fully dark we had a short star-presentation (also impeded by the super bright moon) and a discussion of bioluminescence. The guides then produced a 'canopy'--which was just a fancy way of saying tarp--and spread it over our boats. At the guide's instruction, we splashed water into our boats. Sure enough, tiny sparks of light appeared. If you splashed your hand in the water, you'd see dim light as well.

Alas, Shira and I were both underwhelmed. The light sources were way dimmer than even a firefly, which apparently uses the same chemical reaction (but is of course, far larger). Perhaps on a moonless night it's a magical spectacle? I'd file the experience as a delightful night kayak trip with a little quirky science on the side.

The most impressive part of the evening was the explanation of why the algae light up in the first place. It's something I hadn't given much thought. The answer: it's a defense mechanism. If you're a microscopic organism, there may not be much you can do too protect yourself. But if you light up, then you make your predators visible to their predators. The result: you become a less appealing snack because indulging in an algae buffet risks getting eaten yourself. Nature never ceases to amaze!