Updated: May 15
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.
Sea Kayak Puerto Rico Circumnavigation