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June 30th - Day 14

The latest forecast has worsened, and I likely will only be able to get back in the water on July fifth. Tomorrow the East winds will be sustained at 25mph, The worst of the storm will be in the afternoon of July third; Waves are projected to reach 18 feet and the winds will gust above 40mph. July fourth will still be pretty choppy, and then on the fifth conditions should be normal again with calm mornings and manageable headwinds in the afternoon. Unfortunately, that means I’ll only have 11 days to complete the journey, so it will be a stretch for me to go to Viequez and Culebra. It’s an eight-mile crossing from the mainland to Viequez and another ten-mile crossing from Viequez to Culebra. The Vieques crossing is against the wind, and the Culebra crossing wind is exposed to the ocean swells, and I would need calm conditions not to drift past the islands. I’m afraid that like Caja de los Muertos, those adventures will be for another journey.

There were a lot of things to sort out. First on the list was finding somewhere to stay after July first when I get kicked out of the hotel I’m at. I found one place in town through Airbnb very close to a viable place to launch in the morning for the July 4th night. The price seemed like a total rip-off, $109 for a modified shipping container, but the host assured me it had AC and there would be space in the fenced area for the kayak, so I ponied up the money for the reservation.

Next was where to keep the kayak for four days until I could launch again. For now, I have it sitting pretty just outside my room door shaded under the concrete walkway overhang from the second floor. I even found a hose to wash the salt off and would be thrilled to leave it there until launch day but the hotel staff told me it was a bad idea.

“On the holiday weekends this place gets filled with drunken riff raff from San Juan who puke everywhere. There’s a good chance some drunk guy will piss in your kayak, or worse.”

“Oh, I pee in the kayak, and don’t do it drunk. But yes, someone else’s pee is a different level of repulsion.”

Fortunately, for me the hotel receptionist offered to keep it in his house, a twenty-minute drive away, but I would need a car to take it there. Therefore, the issue now became where to rent a car, and not just any car, but one to fit my kayak. I checked on google and found an Enterprise Rent a Car office at the Ponce Airport thirty miles away. The town here is too small and far from Ponce to be worthwhile for an Uber driver, but after asking around at the local marina I was given a number for a private driver who would be willing to make the journey. I think he could tell from the sound of my voice that I was in a bind because he charged me $120, paid in cash, one way. I felt ripped off, but I soon forgot about it when Enterprise hit me with the cost of an SUV rental. “The four days will run you $900 plus tax.”


“Are you sure?” I asked, and then asked again to make sure I’d heard it right.


“It’s the last SUV we have and if you don’t take it, I’m pretty sure it will be gone in a few hours. The holiday weekend is coming up, and I’m surprised we’re not sold out already. Bring it back before 12:00pm on July 4th or you have to pay for an extra day. Tolls get billed to you separately plus a 10% fee. And we also need a $200 security deposit.”

I had no choice but to swallow this bitter pill. There went a good chunk of the money I earned gambling.

With all that out the way, I felt like the day could finally begin. I took a drive on a road called La Ruta Panoramica , which runs along the spine of the diving mountain chain in the center of the island and climbs some 3,000 feet. Getting up there was quite the ordeal. The road crosses through the jungle, is narrow like a goat trail, and so steep that I had to stretch my neck out to keep my eyes on the pavement. At one point, it felt like the car would lose traction and topple backwards. The most harrowing aspect of these narrow mountain roads in Puerto Rico is that they are all two-way traffic, and whenever a truck comes in the other direction, someone has to drive backwards to the nearest bend and hope there’s enough width for both vehicles. 


Once I arrived at the summit ridge I relaxed a bit. The view is stunning; on one side was the Atlantic Ocean and on the other, the Caribbean. It was surreal to look on either side at the light blue water and think, “yes I paddled there, and there as well.”

As I kept driving I came across a sign on a side dirt road for Cañon Cristobal. I had heard about a large canyon in Puerto Rico that few people visit. The road had a gate with a padlock, but it was easy to walk around. I parked the car and went to see how far it went. As I walked, two local girls caught up to me. I asked them if they knew where the road went, and they said it later turned into a trail further up and ended in a waterfall. They went on ahead and decided to follow them but given that I wore flip flops, and they wore shoes, they soon outpaced me.

Just as they had said, the dirt road gave way to a trail, which descended some 300 feet into the dense mountain jungle. I walked for about 3 miles until the trail ended at a viewpoint of the Cañon Cristobal and what I think must be the biggest waterfall in Puerto Rico which  dropped some 1,000 feet down a steep limestone cliff into a thundering river below. It’s a mystery to me however as to where the two girls went. The trail did not have any branches. I did not see them on the way back, and when I arrived at the trailhead, only my car was there. Where could they have gone I do not know.

July 1st - Day 15

This morning I made a big fuck up. I was backing up the car, and I hit a concrete bollard in the parking lot. The bumper has a few scratches and a tiny dint. It’s not particularly noticeable if you are not looking for it, but the scratches are definitely there. Maybe Enterprise won’t notice if I don’t say anything. It’s ironic that for my kayak, which has a black hull, the scratches show up white, but on the rental car, which is white, the scratches are black. Sometimes the world is so unfair.

I spent the morning taking the kayak to the hotel receptionist’s house just out of town. Everything fitted inside, but only just I had to push the driver's seat all the way forward. I’m glad I had a place to drop off the boat. The only thing worse than driving through Puerto Rican mountain roads would be driving through them with my knees to my chest.


It has only been two days since I last paddled, but this sudden change of rhythm makes it feel so much longer already. It will be three more days before I am back in the water.


I wasn’t too sure what to do with my sudden free time, and ended up driving around a lot. I stopped to see a ziplining tour center but half of all the tourists in Puerto Rico apparently had the same idea. Just the registration line was as long as anything you’d find at a Disney theme park. I didn’t want to wait around for hours for 3 minutes of entertainment.


Some of the roads I drove through today were even more harrowing. The GPS isn’t always very useful here. Several mountain roads that collapsed after hurricane Maria, haven’t been rebuilt but the GPS doesn’t seem to know that. Three times it told me to take a path only to end in a road closure sign. At other times I was second guessing what the GPS told me. “Siri, I don’t care if the way you’re telling me to go is ten minutes shorter, you can’t see how steep the drop is here, and I don’t want to fall off the edge.”


I eventually ended up in a place called Caño Blanco where a local pointed out to me that down a steep dirt ravine was a river where the water was crystal clear that cut through a gorge of white limestone. “There’s a grassy area where you can park. Don’t go beyond that by car because the road is really bad if you don’t have four-wheel drive.”


I parked the car where he’d told me and then walked through a trail of tall grasses before ending up at a pebbled river downstream of some exposed limestone rock formations. I dipped my toes in the water to test the temperature. It was refreshingly chill and I decided to see how far up the canyon I could swim. I didn’t make it very far as the river narrowed quickly and the water became quite fast. I reached a small waterfall where just upstream of it, two local boys were swimming in a calm water hole.


“How did you get there past the waterfall?” I asked them.


They pointed to the top of the cliff some 20 feet high. “You gotta jump.” Said one of them.  If I was younger maybe I would have followed them, but I wanted to finish the journey around Puerto Rico more than I wanted to find out the depth of the swimming hole.

July 2nd - Day 16

I had to leave the hotel in Salinas as there have been no cancellations for Independence Day weekend. The tropical storm is now officially Hurricane Elsa. It’s tracking well south of Puerto Rico. But the winds and waves are still battering the coast quite hard.

I called up my Puerto Rico friend asking if he might have a place for me to stay for two days. “Yes not a problem. I have a restaurant with an outdoor field and a kayak rental business by the reservoir in Caguas, come around in the evening and I will get you a shower and a decent place to camp. Google “Paradise Paddles” and you’ll have no trouble finding it.”


I went to see a place called El Yunque on the Northeast side of the island. The high mountains here are the first landing for the trade winds sweeping in from the Atlantic Ocean and so it’s the rainiest place in Puerto Rico. The trees are a lush bright green, the mountain summits are almost always covered in fog, and the rivers run full. It’s also apparently one of the most Popular tourist attractions in Puerto Rico, even more so on a holiday weekend. Damned be the hurricane if it means losing vacation time seems to be the motto for hundreds of cars idling up the tortuous road to the main entrance. I decided it wasn’t worth while going to a place with a theme park feel where I would be wading through throngs of tourists for a chance to see some random waterfall, and went to check out the south entrance to the reserve where the guide book indicated there was no entrance toll.


Nothing is especially far in Puerto Rico. The island is only about a hundred miles long from East to West, so it’s not possible to be much more than fifty miles away from anywhere. However, distances here would be more accurately measured in hours, than in miles. I took the better part of the afternoon to drive around El Yunque, making my way through tortuous roads, rickety bridges, several dead ends and the odd stop at a scenic river crossing before I found the south entrance which was just a parking lot next to a trail called El Camino del Toro.


As I stepped out of the car, a couple and their dog emerged from the trail. “How’s the path?” I asked.


“Oh, it’s really muddy. You can see that Leslie here is going to have to be wrapped in a towel before we put her in the car.” Said the man pointing at his mud-soaked Labradoodle. “You’re  going to need some boots. Those flip flops will get sucked right out of your feet. It’s about three miles each way, but it will take you quite a while. If you’re going, you better go soon before it rains again.”


I debated if I should go alone, but I noticed two more cars in the parking lot, so I presumed there must be other people on the trail. I put on my kayak booties, grabbed a full liter water bottle, and set off up the mountain.


The first mile was not bad. I began to think that perhaps the couple had been exaggerating a bit and maybe their dog rolled on the mud. However, I was soon sobered when I came across a pair of hikers on their way down who told me they had decided to turn back before the summit because of the poor trail conditions. A half mile father and it became clear they were not exaggerating.


At first I managed to skip the muddy puddles by jumping between exposed rocks and planks of dead wood, however those soon became too spaced out and there was no choice but to sink my feet into the mud, first down to my ankles, and then in a few bad spots, half way up to the knee.


After parting with hikers on their way down, I presumed that at least one or more people must still be on the trail ahead of me to account for the second car in the parking lot. That gave me some measure of comfort to think that I was not alone in this jungle, and that if something happened at least someone was bound to run into me, probably. I soon caught up with the next group of hikers, a couple from Utah who were very obviously going slowly given the terrible conditions. We decided to continue the trail together.


In these jungle trails the most challenging aspect is psychological rather than physical. After an hour of slow progress through the mud I started to feel very frustrated with the succession of false summits thinking we had cleared through the worst, only to find that the next section was even more challenging. I looked at my phone and saw that it was 6:00 pm. “If we are not there by 6:30pm I’m turning back,” I announced.


“We should be close; elevation wise we are already past 3,000 feet the map showed that the mountain was just under 3,300 feet.”


Unfortunately, that was an imprecise substitute for distance; the trail very often had a descending section where the elevation so hard earned, was quickly relinquished, and the thought of having climbs on the way back only added to my mental agony. And then the rain started.


When we reached a saddle point with a view of the true summit enveloped in clouds another 100 feet higher I’d felt like I had enough. “Look guys there won’t be any bloody view to see up there, it’s drizzling, the sun has set already, and I am wearing prescription sunglasses, once it gets dark, I won’t see a palm in front of my face, let alone where I’ll be sticking my foot.” We parted ways, I turned back, and they kept going. The mountain can have a throw away victory in this battle. It didn’t feel important enough to me. The challenge I set out for me is to paddle around Puerto Rico, and I would feel indignant to think I’d failed at that because of a twisted ankle in a mud puddle.


I made it to the car muddied and in complete darkness, but without issue, but I felt guilty that I did not linger to wait for the couple from Utah as they went for the summit. If all went well, they would take at least another 45 minutes. They were a pair, looked fit, and the trail had good cell phone service, so I convinced myself that they would be ok. Hopefully I won’t hear about a lost pair of hikers in El Yunque on the morning news.


My day wasn’t done yet. I still had to meet up at my friend’s restaurant in Caguas to have a place to stay for the night. I put Paradise Paddles on the GPS and took off.


If there is one thing more frightening than driving on a Puerto Rican mountain road, it’s driving on a Puerto Rican Mountain road at night. There are hardly any lights, judging the width of the road is more difficult, and negotiating passage with the on-coming traffic is that much more tenuous. By far the worst moments were when the on-coming vehicle had a single lamp, and I was left to discover if it was a motorcycle or a fat delivery truck with a burned-out headlight. Somehow I survived these tense encounters and arrived at Paradise Paddles without any incident. I felt relieved when I pulled into the gate, parked the car, and turned off the engine. Finally, I could rest.

July 3rd - Day 17

I feel as though this one day stay in Caguas and Paradise Paddles was a change of gear from yesterday’s climb and drive. The restaurant is in a pleasant grassy field rimming a reservoir that runs through the middle of the town. There are many trees along the shore for shade and today there was a light cool breeze keeping both the heat and the bugs away. By the water are several tables with straw sunbrellas where I felt I could sit for hours watching the wind blow small floating islands of duckweed and water hyacinth.


I finally got to meet my friend here in Puerto Rico whom thus far I had only known through Facebook and some phone calls. I was curious to see what he was like in person; in his photographs he has a puffy face with a broad forehead, a sturdy barrel chest, and sports a beard shaped like a truncated pyramid that is wider than his face. When we finally met, he had the rugged mountain looks to match expectations, though I was surprised to realize how much taller I was than him. He reminded me of Gimli from The Lord of the Rings if Gimli had retired from Middle Earth, moved to the tropics, and swapped his battle axes for kayak paddles.


“Welcome to Paradise Paddles! Make yourself at home. There’s a shower for you to get all that mud off of you.”


We spent a few hours swapping stories about paddling adventures. I noticed he had three paddles tattooed on his lower arm, and when he told me about some of the sections still ahead of me I listened intently so I would know what lay ahead. “You have to be careful around Luquillo once you are back on the North side. Lots of corals there, the waves break over the underwater rocks, and the brake zone moves around a lot with the tide. Don’t get comfortable.”


Later that morning I drove around town to see what there might be to do. On the outskirts of town, I found a botanical garden. It was a good location to walk and stretch the legs, but unfortunately the place has been through some rough times. Hurricane Maria left no stone unturned in Puerto Rico. The Palm Tree Alley which should have had palm trees species from all over the world was just a bunch of stumps, the orchidarium had the roof nets blown off, and the water lily pond looked like a dirty bathtub.


When I went back to Paradise Paddles in the afternoon, the place was packed with two events going on at the same time. One was some kind of corporate retreat. I sat close by to where they were having a presentation with speakers; it seemed like it was about some kind of self-help/ personal growth talk, but even after watching it for a while, I couldn’t tell what the point was.


The other event was a children's party with lots of young parents and little kids running around playing hide and seek and chasing after a soccer ball. Later a helicopter started hovering over the reservoir close to where we were, and everyone walked to the water’s edge to look. The helicopter flew away a little before swooping back for a close pass a few feet above our heads. At that moment someone one in the cockpit looked down the open door, reached inside to grab what looked like a large cement bag, and started pouring out the contents. A fine blue powder rained down in a cloud and everyone clapped and shouted out with joy. “It’s gonna be a boy!”