Monday, May 16, 2011

Puerto Rico Day Four

Day four was Easter Sunday, so we needed something to do that would not be affected by the holiday. Pair that with D's love of hiking and it was decided: we would tackle El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the national park system. Game on. We gathered up many snacks and water, strapped on our dorky hiking sandals, headed out...and did NOT get lost, for the first time on the trip. There was a lot of celebrating, especially considering the signage on the way there wasn't exactly what you'd expect for the roads leading up to a national forest. Which is to say there were no real signs, and it definitely looked for a bit like we had gotten lost, again.

We pulled into the parking lot and promptly (and gladly) ditched our car. First stop was a hike that was supposed to be short but difficult, probably due to the ten bajillion steps one encountered along the way. There was supposed to be some kind of swimming hole at the end of the trail, which I grumbled better be damn well worth it as my knees creaked in protest and reminded me that we would be going back UP all these steps on our way out.

The swimming hole was actually a series of pools and waterfalls created by a mountaintop stream that was supposed to be so pure you could drink from it. I commandeered this rock and promptly set to sunning myself on it while D swam around in the freezing cold water.

I was content to limit my swimming experiences to the warm, salty water of the ocean but D turned into a proper little fish, and risked life and limb to reach a succession of ever more isolated pools.

Once he had just about turned blue we decided it was time for lunch and drying off. We'd brought sandwiches from Kasalta's, this amazing little deli around the corner from our apartment, frequented by locals and full of authentic foods and exotic-sounding drinks. If you ever get the opportunity to try Ginseng Up, go for it. That stuff is delicious. After lunch we decided to get serious about this hiking thing, and left the tourists behind while we attempted to summit El Yunque, the peak for which the park is named.

The higher up we got the fewer people we encountered, until it was just us on the path, tromping along and marveling at how positively green everything was. The map we'd picked up at the visitors center in the parking lot was not terribly detailed or helpful, so we just followed our intuition when presented with an option, and tried to keep heading in the direction that seemed "up." We walked for hours and hours, stopping occasionally to refuel and drink water. Spread out along the paths were various stone shelters, created back when the Civilian Conservation Corps was busy helping to develop the national parks system. I kept remarking that I could not fathom hiking up and down this mountain multiple times a day, much less carrying heavy stones and equipment while doing so. Near the top we came across this exquisite little fireplace/chimney, perfectly constructed and preserved, having stood the test of time, humidity, and individuals who felt compelled to write their name or that of their love interest on every surface that would stand still.

We eventually came to a fork in the road where we took a wrong turn and ended up on a paved road, although I hesitate to call it a "road" as it was about 3 feet wide. I saw a radio tower in the distance, far off and very high up, and remarked that it looked like we'd be taking the road up since we'd lost the path and I was determined to make it to the top of the mountain one way or another. I thought the radio tower was the summit and the road the way to get there.

The road was less a road and more a torture device. It was searing hot out and we were no longer under the cover of dense green foliage but instead enjoying the brightest and most direct sunlight we'd seen maybe ever. Being that close to the equator will do that, I suppose. We walked and walked and walked, on a surface that was not flat but rather tilted at about a 45 degree angle. I consider myself in pretty good cardiovascular shape, what with the running and all, but I was downright alarmed at how hard my heart was having to work, and for such a long time. My calves were burning and my quads were shaky. We finally reached the radio tower and were crestfallen to see that the road continued up. I skittered to the top of the platform the tower was built on, hoping to see how much farther we had to go, when D asked if I could see anything. "Not really," I replied, "other than more road. And God, hanging out on that cloud right over there."

We did finally make it to the top of El Yunque, but it was a slight letdown as we couldn't see anything because we were literally up in the clouds. I'm sure it was a brilliant view but this is pretty much all we saw

Yep, that's a sunny afternoon on El Yunque right there. After a while it did clear up a little bit, which gave us this beautiful view of...the tops of clouds.

We finally gave up on the view and headed down the path, which had helpfully become apparent to us from the top of the mountain. On our way down we encountered giant snails the size of my hand, more little waterfalls and streams, and a man hiking barefoot while his wife wore his shoes. From her backpack hung high-heeled crocs, which I had until then not known existed. We gathered up the car and headed back to rest and pack for the next couple days, which involved ferries, kayaks, and glow-in-the-dark creatures.

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