South of the Equator

December, I decided, was a great time for vacation.

Before schools let out for the year or the holidays were in full swing would be a fantastic time to get out of town and explore some place new. 2016 had already been a good year for travel with trips to Toronto, back to Cancun and Tulum, San Diego and Texas/Louisiana.

In the end I decided that tropical was the way to go and booked roundtrip flights to Puerto Rico. If you’re thinking PR is in the Gulf of Mexico you’re mistaken, it’s actually in the Caribbean east of Florida, Cuba, Haiti and the US Virgin Islands. One hour ahead of the East Coast, PR is a US territory so no passport is needed and US dollar is the currency.

Because it was a trip that resulted in a lot of pictures, I’m breaking this up into 2 posts. First: Sacramento to San Juan, Fajardo and Culebra. Part 2 is here.

Here we are somewhere off the coast of Florida:

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and getting ready to land in San Juan:

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I arrived midday Saturday, picked up my rental car and headed east to Fajardo where I checked into a condo by the beach. Situated on the 24th floor, it had a nice view of the ocean but an amazing view of the mountains:

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Although, the morning sunrise from the condo wasn’t too shabby:

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I settled into the condo and then left before it got too dark for my 8pm kayaking tour in the nearby bioluminescent bay. I have zero pictures because a) it was pitch black and b) I was trying not to fall out of my kayak.

Still, it was an amazing 2 hours on the water, my wristband kept the mosquitos away and it was super cool to see. We also spotted crabs in the mangrove roots, iguanas and a giant termite nest.

Sunday I slept in a bit and then headed up to El Yunque National Forest, part of the US National Parks service and also the only rainforest. Here’s what I didn’t know: the visitor’s center (while nice) is completely unnecessary. It’s $4 per person which isn’t bad unless you’ve got a van full of people but all they do is give you a paper map and answer questions. The trails do not start at the visitor’s center and you can bypass it completely. There’s a great big map just a few feet up the road:
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In fact, you can drive 13 km up, all the way to the observation tower at the top of the road. There are several places to park along the way and then hike trails to observation towers and waterfalls.

The road is pretty rough in places so watch out for potholes and cars parked on the shoulder if you go.

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The whole rainforest is pretty shaded so I didn’t need to worry about getting a sunburn. This turnout about 5km up had the most fantastic view of the valley and east side of the island:

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See those two white towers on the far left? That’s where I was staying!

About halfway up is the Yokahu tower:

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It’s pink and pretty awesome. A little further up are 2 trails leading down to the same waterfall. These are treacherous. They appear easy at first:

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Stairs! Railings! Easy. Ha.

Very quickly you realize that most of the path is narrow, slippery, missing hand rails and steep.

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It’s beautiful but that caution side should really be at the beginning of the trail.

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The waterfall at the end is amazing though the water is freezing and once you get in you could amuse yourself by watching people scream when they got their feet wet. Also: it’s not a “walk in by a sand beach” type waterfall. You’re going to be climbing over rocks and slipping and hopefully not looking like a fool.

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The trip back up was treacherous – partly because I forgot to eat lunch so was tired/hungry and climbing out and everyone knows the ascent is much harder than the descent. But I made it out and back to my Airbnb in time for an amazing sunset:

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That night I also treated myself to a cool restaurant for dinner and had this seafood thing that I can’t explain but was very tasty:

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So that was my weekend in Puerto Rico.

Early Monday morning I was up and off to Ceiba airport (about 10 min away from Fajardo) for a flight to Culebra. We had some mix up with the reservation which meant I ended up on a private flight on a tiny plane. It wasn’t all bad, I got to see a rainbow from the plane and the flight only lasted about 12 minutes which is much preferred to a 90 min ferry.

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Flying into the island is a little like Lost and you go directly over Flamenco Beach, one of my next stops.

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Yes, that’s a tank in the water.

After landing at the airport, I went across the street for my rental Jeep and then right to the beach. It was beautiful and completely deserted.

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The water was crystal clear, the beach had white sand and the sky was clearing up.

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I did walk the mile down the beach to the tanks, which the US military left behind after using the island for training. Tank #1 was up on a little hill a ways back from the beach:

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While tank #2 was right in the water:

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The locals spray paint them for fun but as you can see they’re also rusting quite badly.

This is the point where my amazing trip started to go a bit bad – I’d woken up on Monday with a stuffy nose but by mid-day I was congested, had a killer headache and was starting to feel really ill. My place in Culebra wouldn’t be ready until 2pm so I ended up driving around the island for awhile and then sleeping in the Jeep at Zoni beach while it rained outside. Soon enough I was able to check in and get some sleep. I did venture out for dinner but the taco place left a lot to be desired, even if this sign made me laugh:

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The service was just really slow and it took the guy ages to bring out my check so I could leave.

I didn’t sleep well Monday night with my fever breaking about 3am and alternating between huddling under the thin blanket for warmth and hugging an ice pack from the mini fridge to my head.

Tuesday morning I was luckily able to get a flight back to Ceiba instead of taking the ferry and arranged to keep my Jeep an extra few hours. I went right back to the room and slept for a couple hours before departing.

Part 2: Rincon, getting injured, Old San Juan and heading home

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