Puerto Rico, January 2011

An excellent way to start the new year is to leave the US and head for a tropical island paradise. This year, we decided to be excellent, so the four of us, Peter, Louise, Madeleine and Toni, got up early on January 1, 2011 while most people in the country were lying in bed groaning and vowing never again to do whatever it was that they had done the night before, hopped into our car and drove to JFK. Our friend Joanne had booked a week in a three bedroom house in Rincon, which is on the west coast of Puerto Rico. We had a non-stop flight with JetBlue and were in San Juan airport by late afternoon where Joanne was waiting to greet us. We rented two cars and headed west, thinking we would just zip along the northern coast of Puerto Rico in no time at all and arrive in Rincon just in time for dinner.

This plan was only partly successful - the "no time at all" part was pretty much a failure. We had all kinds of directions on how to get to Rincon, but Toni and I, in the lead car, found that getting around Puerto Rico can require much more than that. It soon became dark and began to rain hard. Streets are often unmarked and we soon went astray. Reading the instructions suggested that the key to arriving in Rincon was finding Route 2, so when we saw a sign to Route 2 we sighed in relief and headed towards it. We then spent hours bumping along a road that wound through all the towns and villages on the northern coast, stopping at traffic lights every minute and a half. In doing this, we ensured our eventual arrival in Rincon, but we missed out on the opportunity of driving 60 miles or so along a modern superhighway, Route 22, parallel to and only a short distance from where we were. Toni explained that it was a lot like travelling from Larchmont to Boston along the Boston Post Road rather than zipping along the interstate for most of the way. But everything's an adventure when you are on vacation, so we rejoiced in being able to see so much of the country on our very first day there. We pulled into Rincon around 11 p.m. and soon were settling into Casa Tamara, our home for the next week.

Casa Tamara

Rincon is a small village, far away from the urban center of San Juan. It is known principally as a hang-out for surfer dudes and grizzled expats who are willing to tell you their life stories over a couple of rum punches. There are some beaches that I guess are well-known to the international surfer community, and the 1968 World Championships of Surfing were held in Rincon, although we didn't see a lot of surf or surfer action. There is a snorkeling/diving scene, especially around the island of Desecheo, which is a 45 minute boat ride from town. You can go parasailing; you can rent a boat and go deep-sea fishing. Inland, there are some parks with rain forest and lakes and some steep hills that offer E-ticket rides if you're brave enough to drive them. There is also the Río Camuy Cave Park, which features one of the largest cave systems in the world. And for the scientifically inclined, there is the Arecibo radio telescope, still the largest single reflector in the world, nestled into a hollow in the hills.

The five of us had a mixture of goals for our week in Puerto Rico, ranging from vegetating in the house to driving around the entire island. Some of us also had to spend some time working - Joanne was presenting a paper at a conference in Orlando on Sunday the 9th for which she had to prepare while I had to respond to several client emergencies. But we had good cell and internet service, so we could handle these tasks reasonably efficiently, although the splashing of the waves and the squawking of exotic birds were distracting. Actually, it was pretty noisy around Rincon - cars kept driving around with speakers blaring, although about what I don't know. It sounded a bit like advertizing - vote for me! buy Tide! - but later we thought it could also be teenagers just driving with the windows down. Chickens wandered down our street and there were a steady stream of cats coming through the yard.

The weather started out mixed - after the rain on Saturday night, Sunday was mostly cloudy and showery in the afternoon. But as the week progressed, the weather improved and overall it was quite satisfactory. Highs in the 80ies.

We spent the first day or so settling in and checking out the immediate environs. We could walk out of the house, head west through our back yard for about 25 feet and exit through a gate onto a lovely sandy beach. Nice! We discovered a place a little way down the beach called Villa Cofresi, which had a bar right by the beach, loud music and a more raucous feel to it. Its specialty drink is the Pirate Special - they whack the top off a coconut and fill it up will a variety of fine-tasting liquors. Also nice! A little further away and inland is the town center. It looks exotic, although the contents of the stores are pretty familiar. Most people speak some English, although it would definitely help to know some Spanish. Louise did pretty well with her high-school Spanish, plus what she has learned from a Rosetta Stone-type computer application. One day, I decided to get a haircut. I found a barber's shop, but without a barber. After I had been sitting there for 15 minutes or so, he showed up during a break in playing cards down the street and got to work. He had certain phrases down pat - "Hi - how are you?", "Shorter?", "Where are you from?" - but would just give an all-purpose nod and smile at anything I said in reply. But my hair got cut, so it all ended well.

Louise on the Beach Louise Chillin' Villa Cofresi Pirate Special
Welcome to Rincon Three Kings Xmas Tree in Rincon Night Decorations in Rincon
Rincon Lighthouse Group by Lighthouse Joanne and Louise on Surfer Beach Leaves by Lighthouse

What were the high points of the week? The coolest place we went to was entirely by accident. On Wednesday, we decided to head down to the southwest corner of the island, near the Cabo Roja wildlife refuge. At the very southwestern tip is a lighthouse which we planned to visit. The last stretch of road before we reached it was terrible and we were picking our way at walking speed among the potholes. But we finally arrived at the parking lot and climbed up to the top of the cliffs, on which the lighthouse stood. It was a fairly mundane lighthouse, but the views from the cliffs were excellent. As we strolled along the cliffs, however, we came on a perfect beach, nestled in perfect little arc. And the best thing about it was that it was by no means crowded, presumably because of its distance from San Juan and the difficulties getting there.

Later, after we strolled on the beach and marveled at its perfection, we went to La Parguera, a little town on the south coast and had dinner. It was the feast of the Three Kings, so things were hopping in town. There are also some bioluminescent areas in the bay and we went on a small boat after dinner to see one of them. It was a pleasant excursion, although not very exciting; I expected all sorts of strange post-apocalyptic glows as we approached the area, but it looked pretty normal. It was only when someone dived into the water that we saw the effect - I guess the bugs only get bioluminescent when they interact with something else.

Silly Group on Cliffs Cliffs Cliffs Cliffs
Down to Magic Beach The Magic Beach On the Beach On the Beach
On the Beach On the Beach On the Beach Leaving the Beach
Another fun trip was when Madeleine and I visited the Arecibo Observatory. (Louise and Toni were snorkeling instead.) We drove straight east, into the mountains, and through some pretty amazing-looking countryside. The observatory is hidden away in a hollow in the hills, far from interfering signals, although I wonder how that is working out in an age where everyone is carrying a cell phone and GPS. I don't think the telescope is at the forefront of science any more, but it is still in use. We were shown a cute little movie about a day in the life of the telescope and then got to look down on the dish from an observation deck. The reflector plates looked like they could use a run through the dish washer, but the detectors were very dramatic.

Mobile Pizza on the Way Camuy Caverns Model of Telescope Reflector
Special Shoes Reflector Plates The Detectors
On Saturday, we drove back to San Juan and returned to Stamford, just in time to a) come down with a miserablecold, and b) get a major dump of snow. So we can only wonder at these pictures of us in shorts, smiling in the sun and romping on the sand. Was that really us? If so, why did we stop doing it?

To finish off, here are some of my Pelican pics.

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