Puerto Rico V: El Yunque

Yokahu Tower

Reading this week:

  • The Slave Trade Today by Sean O’Callaghan (this book is definitely unethical and has some clear errors but is probably useful as an artifact)

Our fourth day in Puerto Rico dawned bright and early (kinda, we were reasonable about it) because we had big plans to escape the confines of San Juan and explore this gorgeous island. That’s right, we were renting a car, and having successfully secured passes the previous day, our first stop was El Yunque National Forest.

Picking up the car and getting there was easy, and the first place we stopped was of course the Visitor Center, aptly named El Portal. We could have done more research on El Yunque before we left, so we were unaware that you don’t need the pass to visit El Portal (though there is an entry fee, but if you have a National Parks Pass you can get in for free). So if you are visiting Puerto Rico and don’t get the El Yunque pass, don’t despair, El Portal is great! It’s a largely outdoor visitor center complex that tells you a lot about the history of the forest and all about the different ecosystems there, and has an extensive set of “discovery trails” that take you through a forest section and you of course see all sorts of plants and stuff. Also a delightful gift shop and cafeteria. We poked around and had a grand ole’ time but worried about the time on our timed passes we set out for the park proper.

The causeway is the entryway to El Portal with the discovery trail below.

When I found out the park had passes I figured it was just a COVID thing or something but now I understand they are very necessary. The forest, or at least the portion that requires the passes (there are actually a lot of ways to access the forest, it is a relatively small portion that requires the pass though it is where many of the popular trails are) is basically one long road with various small parking areas. You drive up the road, steeply ascending the mountains of El Yunque and can stop off and park at various spots to hike the myriad trails and see the multitudinous sights. There is only the one road and only so many parking spots, so if they let just unlimited numbers into the park it would only be one long perpetual traffic jam. But as it was it was quite pleasant and fairly easy to navigate.

Serious hiking!

Neither my super amazing girlfriend nor I were prepared for any serious hiking. That def requires a bit of planning, as many of the trails (they sternly warn though we did not verify) are fairly strenuous and take a few hours to traverse. It seems like an awesome experience but for sure looks like a thing best started early in the morning and with plenty of water. But the forest was still awesome for us more casual viewers. There are plenty of places to get food (we stopped by a very tiny hot dog stand run by a woman who seemed far more east coast than central Puerto Rico and I wondered how she wound up in the middle of the United States’ only tropical rainforest selling potato chips) and easier sights and we enjoyed a number of them.

View from the tower.

The first and one of the most spectacular sights was Yokahu Tower which is a big ole’ tower you can climb up and get fantastic views of the forest stretching down to the ocean on one side and on the other the very peaks of the mountains, including the eponymous El Yunque. So we climbed up and snapped a bunch of photos and then went down and got that hot dog I mentioned and then got back in our car and continued to climb up the mountain. We hadn’t planned out anything beforehand so we mostly stopped at whatever was interesting. There was a pool you couldn’t swim in built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and um lots and lots of trees. One thing I liked about El Yunque is they were in fact really into trees here, focusing most of the materials on the environmental aspects of the park. They were super into it, though I do think that was potentially at the expense of thinking about the original inhabitants of the park and that is always something we should think deeper about. We eventually got to the end of the road (there was road construction so on normal days you could go even farther) and hiked up the trail a bit, but then got tired and turned around. One nice thing is that we had the very picturesque La Coca Falls to ourselves on the way out and so we took tons of photos.

Baño Grande, Novia Pequeña

After having gotten our fill of El Yunque, we stopped by once again at the Visitor’s Center for lunch and then departed for Ponce, where we were planning on staying a few days. It was a perfectly easy drive over the mountains to get there and we settled into our place not too far from the center of town. It was a much different vibe in Ponce than San Juan and we were looking forward to spending plenty of time poking around.

La Coca Falls

300th Blog Post!

This is my 300th post on this blog! I will therefore do the very self-indulgent thing and do some personal reflection. Of course this whole blog is self-indulgent, as I think most blogs are, so we’re right on theme.

I am extremely pleased with having gotten to 300 blog posts. That wasn’t a particular goal or anything, but I like to think it shows some commitment. There have been ups and downs. I think for a while when I first started I was shooting for two blog posts a week, but that was unsustainable. I just wasn’t doing enough stuff. Once a week, however, I think is the perfect amount. It is regular enough to keep you honest but not too much that it is a burden. I chose to publish on Sundays because I read a lot of other blogs and not many publish on Sunday so I figured I would have a bit of a niche. Plus it gives me most of the weekend to scramble to publish something (I like to publish at noon). But even after settling on once a week there were some long stretches there where I didn’t write anything but now I am pretty dedicated to it and that feels like a good thing.

In my memory, the main reason I started a blog was as a creative outlet. At some point during my time at the Naval Academy I discovered that I needed some sort of creative outlet to keep myself from going crazy. Just doing schoolwork all the time didn’t work for me. Back then my creative outlet was writing for The LOG. But reviewing my aptly-named First Blog Post, I told the world my primary reason for writing this blog was to push myself to go out and do things and look at places. I think I have been pretty successful on both fronts. This blog gives me a way to put something out into the world, even if no one reads it except for my super amazing girlfriend, and it has definitely pushed me to go out and do activities I wouldn’t necessarily otherwise have done because getting blog material was the reason I needed to push myself out of inactivity. So that’s great!

In each of these posts I shoot to write about 750 words. This number comes mostly from the site 750Words, which I used to use. They explain that 750 words is about three pages of hand-written paper, which is what you are supposed to write everyday to become a better writer, or at least get in the habit of writing. I think I also read somewhere that 750 words is about the ideal blog post length because people will read it, or something. It hasn’t catapulted me to the top of the SEO ranks, I can tell you that (except for some very particular and very obscure topics), but still that’s what I go for, though some posts fall far short and some posts far exceed that goal. I explain all that to say, if I am somewhere near my goal of 750 words on average, and I have 300 posts, then that is over 200,000 words, which is a book! A book! I effectively wrote a book! A very disjointed book that will require a lot of editing but a book nonetheless! That’s pretty cool and I am proud of that.

In order to celebrate my 300th post, I’ve mostly done some backend stuff I have been meaning to do for a while. A big thing I did is go through and make sure every post had a picture (except for the very first one, just to be idiosyncratic). Some of these posts maybe didn’t need pictures but I added one for consistency’s sake. I have also fixed some errors I had been meaning to for a while, but since some posts needed it more than others and 300 posts (well 299 besides this one) is a lot to go through not every post got gone over with a fine-toothed comb. Nonetheless, there were some glaring errors that I have now corrected. There were other, minor things that were only for me like removing some pictures I had double-uploaded. Turns out editing a blog on your phone in a mud hut in Zambia is not the most technologically smoothest thing to do and will create some errors. But those are now fixed!

However I think for the average reader of this blog the most significant update is that every post is now in one or more categories. This is handy because it makes it possible to group say, all my London Missionary Society (or Chronicle thereof) posts in one place, or link together all my posts from travel to a particular spot like the DRC or Guatemala. I had meant to do this for a while but as the number of blog posts pile up it just gets to be a more and more monumental task but now I have tackled it and only hope that I remember to keep categorizing posts going forward. Here’s to hoping.

How I have I changed over the course of this blog? My life has changed a lot, that’s for sure. In my first blog post I was still in the Navy, and then I had a whole Peace Corps and then Grad School experience, and now I am back out into the “real” world doing a job. I have also met the most fantastic person in the world, my super amazing girlfriend. But most of that would have happened without the blog I think. As for blog-induced change, I have definitely developed more of a “voice,” as I said I hoped to do in my first blog post. Sometimes this has been a hindrance. In a blog post I will simply link to something as way of explanation but when I was in grad school this technique did not work in term papers and I had to adjust. And sometimes I worry when I am out and about in places I am spending time mentally writing a potential post instead of taking in all the beauty. But at the same time thinking about a blog post makes me think about the narrative of a place I am visiting and to be able to reflect and articulate what is significant about that story. So maybe pros and cons there.

I guess it’s not a great conclusion but moving forward I don’t think this blog will change much. By far my most well-read blog posts are the one about Joe Biden’s ties (I found it linked by a Russian blog for reasons that are inscrutable to me, and sometimes I wonder if people are searching for metaphorical ties and find my post about real ones) and the one where I mentioned a strip club on Saipan (as I linked to before in this very post). One move would be to chase these successes but I don’t think that is the direction I want to travel. I will instead continue to focus on obscure interests (that so far evidence shows interest only me) and the many many many more adventures I plan to have with my super amazing girlfriend. To any and all of you who read this blog thanks for coming along with me. Hopefully someday I will in fact write that real book and then when I become a rich and successful author people will all flock to this blog but you will be able to say to yourself that you were there the whole time, reading as he invented cool new KitchenAid attachments or looked at some dirt.

Thanks for reading!


Puerto Rico IV: Big News

She’s so fantastic. Super amazing.

Reading this week:

  • On the Missionary Trail by Tom Hiney
  • Simone by Eduardo Lalo
  • River of the Gods by Candice Millard

On our third day in Puerto Rico, we did wake up bright and early. Or earlyish anyways. During the trip we wanted to visit El Yunque National Forest, but pro tip for those that want to visit you need to get passes in advance and the correct time to do that is 30 days before you want to go, which is when the passes become available. A limited number are available the day before so we had to be ready and on our phones to snap up passes when they became available. We were ready and we did indeed snap up those passes.

By this point in our time in Puerto Rico we had managed to get a variety of Puerto Rican food for lunch, dinner, and even brunch, but we had not yet tackled the most important meal of the day. So for breakfast, on the suggestion of my super amazing girlfriend, we set out for a very cool old-fashioned diner named Mallorca where we got mallorcas, which are a Puerto Rican pastry that is apparently equally happy to be served with powdered sugar as it is to be served with ham, cheese, and powdered sugar. I opted for the straight powdered sugar version while my super amazing girlfriend got her mallorca with cheese and said she liked it.

Fueled, we were off for our next adventure, which was Castillo San Cristobal. I know a guy named Cristobal, so it was nice to finally check out his digs. Castillo San Cristobal is the other big fort in San Juan, the other one being El Morro which of course I covered last week. Our guidebook warned that if you visited both in the same day they might start to run together, what with them being two parts of the same interlocking city defense system, so we hadn’t done that.

While conceptually the two forts are pretty similar, we liked the vibe at Castillo San Cristobal a lot better. I think what it was is that it is more in the city. El Morro, as the name suggests, is out on a pointy point of land and it feels more like maybe you are out at sea or something. But Castillo San Cristobal is nestled firmly within Old San Juan, so as you look out you see the city and people and all that and it feels like you are in the midst of the hustle and bustle. But yeah like El Morro it has cannons and passages and I think we spent the largest chunk of our time hounding fellow tourists to take our picture. The single coolest part was probably in a dungeon-like area, where they had centuries-old graffiti of Spanish galleons, which is cool, but which had been drawn by “a Spanish captain held here to await execution for mutiny,” which is grim.

Leaving the Castille, we head back to our room to cool off and rehydrate and this was the most exciting part of the day, because my super amazing girlfriend found out she had finally been placed on the register for the foreign service!!!! This doesn’t mean she’ll be able to join the foreign service necessarily but it is a huge step and I am proud of her and she is the coolest person ever!!!!!!

To celebrate we got the hell out of San Juan. That’s not true, we had planned to leave anyways. My super amazing girlfriend had wanted to visit a rum distillery, and so we went to Ron del Barrilito in Bayamón. By visiting we actually missed the mark on the whole distillery thing, because they aren’t one, but oh well. To get over there we took the ferry, which cost an astoundingly cheap 50 cents and provided some fun views of the harbor if you weren’t too worried about leaving on a regular schedule. Ron del Barrilito is a Puerto Rican rum brand founded by an engineer with a fondness for port. What they do is take raw distillate, flavor it with dried fruit and the like according to their secret recipe, and then age it. We had a fantastic tour. We were the only two on it and our guide was a true Barrilito believer (he had a tattoo). We walked the grounds a little bit, looking at the outside of the house and the old windmill, then were brought into the bottling line and where the mix the distillate and everything, and then shown the aging warehouses which were of course filled with barrels. We learned some about the mixing process which I think is super impressive. A cocktail of your choice comes with the tour and it was great.

In the middle is the “Freedom Barrel,” which was barreled in 1952 and Ron del Barrilito says they’ll open up in the town square for everyone to drink when Puerto Rico gains its independence.

After enjoying the cocktail we head back to the ferry which we found out would not be leaving for like two hours. So we explored the waterfront there which was nice and watched two huge cruise ships pull into port. When we returned to Old San Juan we found it fairly packed but managed to find a quiet place for dinner, an experience only marred by the fact that a mango fell out of a tree and hit my super amazing girlfriend’s shoulder which really hurt her. Based on how delicious mangos are we both put aside any plots for revenge but this won’t be forgotten, mangoes. Also at some point we went to go see the tomb of Juan Ponce de León, again not thinking too deep about his legacy. All in all it was a fantastic day and we were left excited for our fourth day in Puerto Rico, which would see us break out of the confines of San Juan entirely.

The mortal remains of Juan.

Puerto Rico III: Mas Museos


Reading this week:

  • Beautiful Swimmers by William W. Warner

Look I’m sorry to have cut you off on that cliffhanger last week. Normally it’s easiest to keep each day of a trip like ours to a blog post, but we’re only halfway through our second day. You see, my super amazing girlfriend and I, if you can’t already tell from my many many blog posts, are Museum People. We go to museums. We kept meaning to hit up a beach in Puerto Rico, and we brought our bathing suits and everything, but we kept going to museums because that is what we like to do. We are extremely worldly and when I am just fantastically rich I am going to donate to so many museums just so I can finally get invited to a gala or two. This means this blog post got split up because man we went to a lot of museums that day.

But we didn’t only go to museums! For example, after we saw all there was to see at the Museo de las Americas, my super amazing girlfriend got a piragua as a tribute to In the Heights. We relaxed in the Plaza del Quinto Centenario and watched the crowds go by and one specific guy try to master some BMX tricks. He was very good and this was very nice.

Refreshed, we went to the Museo de San Juan. We really didn’t mean to go to this many museums this day (though I don’t know why I am apologizing) but we just kept getting through them. This was a nice museum, not least for the air conditioning, though it was more courtyard than museum. Still! A very nice courtyard. The most embarrassing part of our experience here is that we got into the foyer of the first exhibit and didn’t realize there was a second door, so we thought it was just a very small exhibit. After we went to the second exhibit we figured it out and saw the rest of the first. These two exhibits were some art displaying the history of tourism in Puerto Rico, and the second was a lot of silver displaying the history of religion in Puerto Rico.

Having finished Museum #3 and ready for more, we exited, looked out over the horizon, and set our sights on the final major destination of the day: El Morro. Properly Castillo San Felipe del Morro, it is a big ole’ fort that protects the entrance to San Juan harbor. In my journal I described it as “super-duper impressive.” You approach over that big field where people fly kites and where the Dutch apparently invaded that one time, over a very long road. You cross over the moat and before you know it, you’re in!

The thing I find most impressive about these sorts of old forts is that we just kept using them. One of the last things we did was descend down into the original tower of the fort, which is now fully encapsulated in one of the defensive walls. But there is a handy sign saying those bricks were laid 500 years ago and it feels like it. The fort I suppose isn’t actually that massive compared to like, the Hoover Dam or something, but the walls are massive and thick and standing at the bottom of one you see how it got the reputation of being (according to the National Park Service site) unconquerable. It’s got stairways and warrens to help soldiers get all over the fort and with its commanding presence over the harbor I would not be enthusiastic about going up against it. But despite it being at that point 400 years old I like how during WWI and WWII the Americans just moved in and set up new guns and kept on going. Though again with those walls you see why!

Heading down into the tower.

From atop the fort there are fantastic views of the sea and the museum displays are very good about explaining the centuries-long history of the fort and its strategic importance to the Spanish and then the Americans. With big ramps and all the different passageways like I said it is a very fun place to explore, though we got Very Hot and needed to make sure to rehydrate. Satisfied we had gotten an insight into coastal defense, we eventually left and then wandered around finding souvenirs and then dinner (a task that was hindered by most restaurants being extremely loud despite this being a Sunday night), and well fed we returned to the room for the night.