Puerto Rico IX: El Final

Reading this week:

  • Ever Green by John W. Reid and Thomas E. Lovejoy

Loyal reader(s), thank you so much for going on this whole Puerto Rico journey with me. I know I’ve extended it beyond all reasonable bounds but the story reaches its thrilling conclusion here. When we last left our plucky protagonists (my super amazing girlfriend and I) we were just departing Jayuya to head to our final night’s stay.

We stayed in a tiny little lodge overlooking the Cañón Blanco. Cañón Blanco is a short stretch of Río Caonillas that our host told us was only uncovered by Hurricane Maria and has a whole variety of petroglyphs (though they are hard to spot and we didn’t wind up seeing any). I’m a little out of timeline order but although we didn’t see any petroglyphs the Cañón Blanco was still a gorgeous spot. As the name suggests it is a series of cataracts on the river carved out of white stone. It’s actually only about 10 yards off the road but despite that it feels totally cut off from the rest of the world and you can just listen to the water and the frogs and admire the valley and the mountains around you. It was only a short walk from our lodge and along the way we got to admire all the different flowers and trees that populated the valley.

As to the lodge, I just told you in the last blog post how wild I am for integrated farming. So imagine my joy after seeing Sandra Farms when I then came to this lodge which was yet another integrated farming dreamland. The lodge’s host had sculpted the area off the deck into everything I would ever want out of a yard. There were banana trees, papaya, guava, sugarcane, mango, even tomato and pumpkin. It was great and after I complimented her on it, she showed us some spots we missed, explained that she was trying to live off the land, and gave us mangos, which is an A+ garden appreciation interaction if there ever was one. There was even an aggressively friendly cat to top it all off. The night was capped off by a drive up to the top of the mountain where we ate dinner at a restaurant at the end of another ridgeline road with a deck looking down and out over these unforgettable Puerto Rican mountain landscapes. The coquí then serenaded us to sleep.

Our final day in Puerto Rico started late, since we had no reason or desire to rush out of this idyllic little valley. When we finally did get a move on it was an easy drive back to San Juan. The one thing we had missed on our first go around was the Casa del Libro, and given our passion for both books and museums, we could hardly stand to leave Puerto Rico without seeing it. On the day we visited they had an exhibit up featuring centuries of Puerto Rican maps, from the earliest depictions by the Spanish to American army maps from shortly after the Spanish-American War. We spent the last few hours we had in Puerto Rico wandering around Old San Juan one last time, getting ice cream and trying to do some last-minute souvenir shopping. Then it was off to the airport and back home to Tink.

“Vista de la bahía de San Juan,” Peter Schenk, 1625

I am really glad we visited Puerto Rico. It was not what I was expecting. There are the little stupid things, like the fact I really was not expecting there to be mountains in central Puerto Rico. Hills yes, but the mountains? Geology man. More significantly I had really expected more of a Guam vibe, since both islands in many ways have similar backgrounds, joined the US at the same time for the same reason, and are of course both currently US territories. I’m struggling to put it in a way I am comfortable with, because by definition both Puerto Rico and Guam are equally American, but Puerto Rico felt to me with my Maryland background more foreign than Guam ever did. Pontificating out of my ass here, I wonder if the difference is that Guam feels like the US liberated it after the Japanese invaded during WWII, whereas Puerto Rico has only ever seen the US continue the same political limbo it has always left it in. It was also very eye-opening to walk around Ponce and see the impact Maria had and is still having on the island. I said it at the time but I wished I could have seen Ponce even 10 years ago. It was clear before but even moreso now that the US really needs to fix its relationship to its overseas territories. Although it is up to the people in these places, I personally support statehood for all US territories (after significantly improving indigenous rights in the case of American Samoa). Puerto Rico was amazing and eye-opening and I am so glad we went.

Puerto Rico VIII: Coffee Coffee Coffee

Carmelo and a coffee plant.

Reading this week:

  • The Black Joke by A.E. Rooks (fantastic!)
  • You Have a Friend in 10A by Maggie Shipstead

Look, I know I have stretched this Puerto Rico series beyond all reasonable limits but we’re almost there. Our final full day in Puerto Rico was probably my favorite. My super amazing girlfriend had wanted, despite being a avowed tea fanatic, to see a coffee plantation. All the recommended ones were extremely difficult to actually tour due to limited times, so we wound up finding a tour at Sandra Farms Coffee and it was the best thing that could have happened.

Getting there was no easy feat. By this point we were prepared for the roads in central Puerto Rico, but that didn’t mean my super amazing girlfriend’s stomach liked them any better. We were however on the lookout for any dirt trails that Google tried to lead us down and managed to avoid them. The approach to Sandra Farms is over the windiest and hilliest road yet, but one stretch along the ridge of a mountain rewarded us with the best valley views yet with the shimmering surface of a lake far below. With the wisdom of experience we had left plenty early and thus arrived plenty early and got to poke around.

Coffee seedlings.

Much to the chagrin of my super amazing girlfriend the two things in this world that really get me hot and bothered are steam power and integrated farming. I would have gone absolutely gaga over this place in my Peace Corps days and since I’ve learned to be somewhat more demur I only went bananas. Because, you see, they had a ton of bananas and just about every other fruit and vegetable imaginable. Sandra Farms is draped over a mountain ridge, with coffee plants running down the steep incline. In and about the coffee there were the just-mentioned banana trees, and as I wandered around snapping photos I saw more and more. There was taro, dates, coconuts, tomato, passionfruit, star fruit, everything. And while we waited an extremely friendly dog trotted up to greet us and it was just perfect.

View from the farm.

And then the tour began! Capping the trend on this trip, we got the personal tour for just the two of us. Our guide was Carmelo, who ran the farm for the owners, Israel and Sandra, who are retirees. The tour didn’t cover much geographic ground, and thinking back it would have been cool to see the cacao plants, but it was nonetheless very thorough and lasted about two hours. He began with an extensive history of coffee cultivation in Puerto Rico including an explanation of the latest labor practices and trends on the island which I was very interested in. Then he took us to the coffee plants to show us what it was supposed to look like, how it was picked, and various pest control measures. We proceeded to the processing equipment for extracting the coffee bean and drying it, which on Sandra Farms will soon be solar powered. And then the tour capped off with a trip up to the house, where he showed us the roaster and then we got to sample the goods. Carmelo ground the coffee beans for us there and made us pour-over coffee so it was just perfect and then we got to sip coffee while sampling the chocolate the farm also produced while overlooking some of the most gorgeous sites we had seen yet. There was also a puppy! We then of course bought chocolate, biscotti, and turmeric they grew on the farm and extremely happy departed back down the road.

Interior of the Museo del Cemí.

The day was far from over! For our next stop we went to Jayuya, home of Casa Nemesio Canales and the Museo del Cemí. These two museums are right next to each other on the same plot in the middle of a verdant valley surrounded by mountains. We took a wrong turn on our way but got there eventually. Both museums are very small. The Casa is a museum to Nemesio Canales, a Puerto Rican writer who participated in the revolution in the 1860s. The house has displays on his life, the town, and what living in Jayuya was like at the time. The Cemí museum is shaped like a cemi stone and is also very small (big for a cemi). Inside there are some very nice displays with Taino artifacts. And uh there you go.

From there I finally took pity on my super amazing girlfriend’s stomach and we proceeded to our place for the night, which was absolutely stunningly drop-dead gorgeous and I cannot rave enough about it. But I’ll rave about it in the next and final post.

Casa Nemesio Canales

Puerto Rico VII: Higher and Higher

Reading this week:

  • Fuzz by Mary Roach

One thing we had been wondering as we wandered around Ponce is where all the tourists were. The plaza around Parque de Bombas wasn’t exactly crowded, we had the Music Museum to ourselves, and Tibes Indigenous Site had as many stray horses as guests. But today we found our answer: Castillo Serrallés.

Castillo Serrallés is the former residence of Don Juan Eugenio Serrallés, who made it big in the sugarcane business and founded Don Q rum. It is perched high up on the hill overlooking Ponce and is quite the architectural feat. We were stunned to find the first two morning tour slots sold out and had to settle for noon (we spent the morning strolling along a beach, the only time we touched the ocean). We arrived to find probably 20 or so other tourists already waiting. My theory here is that they were almost all on some version of a rum tour, seeing various rum sites around the island. Which is sad, because there are a lot of other cool museums and sites in Puerto Rico and as we saw yesterday they could do with some tourist dollars.

View over the garden.

The tour of the mansion however was pretty good. The house itself is an excellent architectural example, made of concrete and looking like a Spanish villa or something. It is as luxurious as you would expect the home of a rum baron to be, and you’ll have to take my word on it because they didn’t allow pictures inside. The main attraction is probably the garden, which is a sculpted landscape cascading down the hill with a fountain and trees and all that. At no point in the tour did they discuss the sugarcane industry itself, except to show some pictures, which had me concerned because we were celebrating wealth built on the back of an industry which to put it mildly didn’t have great labor relations. But they had a butterfly garden that despite the lack of butterflies was pretty enough to distract from little questions like that.

From there we crossed the street to go up the Cruceta del Vigía. This is a big cross-shaped building that it turns out is not religious at all, but is instead modeled after a yardarm flagpole that was historically on the spot that displayed the flags of the ships in the harbor for the convenience of people who didn’t want to bother with the half-day drive into town (at that time) if their ship hadn’t come into harbor. Included in the ticket for the Castille is a ticket to go up into the building, which offers views even more sweeping and panoramic than those you got from the Castille. It is very nice! There’s also a bar. Then next door to that is a “Japanese garden” which is not as nice as the garden in front of the Castille but someone is training those bonsai trees and it is peaceful in its way.

At this moment, since it was late but not too late in the day, we continued our now tradition of showing up at the last minute to Taino sites. We had planned to go at some point to the Caguana Indigenous Site, especially after our guide at Tibes told us that Caguana was modelled after Tibes. We wanted to complete the set. Maybe we should have gotten the hint, however, that it would be a doozy to get to when Google Maps informed us it would take an hour to go the 30 miles or so to get there. Unburdened by knowledge, we set off, thinking crossing the mountains would be as easy at the trip between San Juan and Ponce.

This was not accurate. We were unprepared. In this area of Puerto Rico the roads rapidly become these well-paved but tiny, windy, and steep paths the curve up and down mountainsides, letting you easily imagine plunging to your sure death if you take the turn wrong. I eventually got pretty okay at driving these, but on this first trip we just kept waiting for it to end. And my poor super amazing girlfriend, whose stomach was not ready for what we were going to put it through. The only saving grace here was that the drive was gorgeous. Stunning mountain valley after stunning mountain valley, overrun with lush vegetation. Honestly with all these roads you don’t really need to go to El Yunque at all. We still have some lingering questions after the drive, like, how on earth did they get those roads there, and also what do the people who live on these roads perched on the side of a mountain do for a living, and most importantly why did all the other drivers tailgating me think that was going to help the situation???

Luckily, we survived at made it to Caguana (not before Google tried to take us on a dirt road up the side of a mountain, but we resolved that eventually). It was really nice! Again, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Where Tibes was at the base of the mountains on the plain, Caguana is nestled firmly in the mountains and is surrounded by gorgeous peaks that the nice people at the site said might be the inspiration for the characteristic cemi stones. And the sounds! It’s worth going just to hear all the birds and other animals making the spot serene but alive. The site didn’t take too long to explore. They have a very tiny museum and then you were off to see the stone-lined courts. These were lined with larger stones than at Tibes, and here the petroglyphs were marked and easier to see. We basically walked around long enough to get our land legs back while I tried to imagine a whole crowd of people there watching a ball game and performing ceremonies, and then got back in our car for the return trip we were no better prepared for. Again we survived and for dinner back in Ponce we had Mexican food and ice cream in the plaza and it was a perfect evening.

Here you can see half the museum.

Puerto Rico VI: Menos Museos a Ponce

Reading this week:

  • African Kaiser by Robert Gaudi (could have used a more enthusiastic editor)

Our fifth day in Puerto Rico found us waking up in Ponce. Visiting Ponce was quite an experience and not really at all what I had been expecting. We planned two full days in Ponce and the major reason for that is all the museums in the town. The guidebook we had in fact described Ponce as a museum town and that was very clearly true at some point.

The first place we went is the Ponce Art Museum, aka Museo de Arte de Ponce, ie MAP. We approached and were very quickly disappointed, finding it closed. I’m going to say this was not entirely our fault, as there was another confused dude wandering around trying to figure out if there was another door or something, and once we tried to figure out what the deal was the museum’s socials and website had wildly conflicting information. For example, the website said “The Museum is partially open.” I eventually found an article that explains a lot of the museum’s current woes, which are both a litany of natural disasters and more man-made ones. The forces that hit an institution such as MAP also seem to have barreled over the many other museums in the town. Ponce looks like it was once home to a wide variety of the local cultural institutions my super amazing girlfriend and I are big fans of, and man tell you what if I was the rich it is to places like this my money would go.

Despite all that we did manage to find some gems in Ponce. The brightest building there is of course the Parque de Bombas, which houses a small museum all about the Bomberos. I was delighted to discover that Teddy Roosevelt had visited at one point and had given them a trophy. Everyone likes trophies. Then we wandered on down the street and walked past the Museo de la Historia de Ponce, which we knew would be closed, but luckily a block beyond that is the Museo de la Música Puertorriqueña, which is fantastic.

I should clarify that in many ways the Museo de la Música Puertorriqueña is not fantastic. It took us a bit to find the door, first off (I led us the wrong way and my super amazing girlfriend eventually led us the right way), and also it was very hot and there were very few signs around to explain things. However, when we went we were the first people to have visited in days and therefore got a very personal tour from the very nice man working there that day. It was fantastic, as he showed us around and even went so far as to play some of the instruments for us. He was very clearly dedicated to the collection they had there and it was in fact pretty impressive, including a very old Rickenbacker electric guitar and on the wall a number of prints by Rafael Tufiño. I mentioned before the Puerto Rican museums’ dedication to contextualization, and here was no different. Alongside the numerous Puerto Rican instruments the museum put similar and ancestral instruments from different cultures around them as a way of explaining how Puerto Rican music developed, all explained in detail by our extremely gracious host. It was sad that we had to leave eventually but off we went.

Our host, peeking in from the right.

For our next stop, in what would be a trend as we visited Taino sites, we arrived shortly before closing at the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center. This was probably my super amazing girlfriend’s favorite part of the whole vacation. We were not in fact the only tourists here (I forgot to put this in somewhere, but also there were free-range horses in the parking lot) but nonetheless we got yet another excited and personal tour around the place. “The place” involved a small gallery of art we didn’t get to see, a museum, and the site itself. Calling Tibes a Taino site is actually a little wrong, as it is largely a pre-Taino site, as the museum aptly explains while it walks you through the cultural development of the island and the significance of the site. After the museum our new host walked us through the botanical garden standing between us and the site itself, and then off we were to the site. The main body of the site is a series of courts or fields outlined by stones. The courts were apparently home to a ball game and other ceremonies, as well as being an astronomical observatory. Our host showed us the various alignments and the different pictographs at the site, and it was great to walk around and try to get a feel for the pre-European history of the island for the first time on our trip.

Since like I said it was nearly closing anyways our visit wasn’t all that long and off we were for what would prove to be our most harrowing journey of the day. We had wanted of course to go to a lechonera but hadn’t found a convenient time until now, so we started driving back across the mountain range. This was all going smoothly until we got really close and it started to rain. This was the first of many windy mountainous roads we would travel over the next few days, and I was inexperienced and nervous in the rain. We kept trying to find ourselves a lechonera only to keep finding them closed, what with lechonering being mostly a lunch thing it turns out, and the starting and stopping and lack of dinner and the getting dark and the rain and the blind curves was stressing me out. Thankfully we finally found a lechonera that wasn’t closed and had what was the most delicious pork I had ever tasted. We ate more than I actually thought would have been possible between my super amazing girlfriend and I.

One final anecdote from here. I had been amazed during my few attempts to speak Spanish at how bad my pronunciation was, as evidenced by the utter confusion on the face of anybody I tried to talk to. I was wondering how bad I could really be, like when I tried to say “treinta” how did the nice lady at the gas station get “ochenta?” I had been discussing this very topic with my super amazing girlfriend as we travelled back over the mountains. Which brings us to the lechonera. My super amazing girlfriend pointed at something and the nice lady behind this counter said something that sounded like “thirty.” We were bewildered, because nothing in this situation had anything to do with 30. After an unedifying back and forth the poor lady got out her phone and went to Google translate and pointed at the English result, which was in fact “Turkey.” So I learned that day that no yeah I am really bad at Spanish. Thankfully, humbled and full of pork, we made our ways back to Ponce and settled safely back in for the night.

“Danza Negra” by Rafael Tufiño, 1968

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

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

Sun-kissed.

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.

Puerto Rico II: Museos

Reading this week:

  • Between Man and Beast by Monte Reel

Our second day and full first day in Puerto Rico dawned bright and early, except it didn’t because it was delightfully dark in our room and we were on vacation. Our first destination of the day was Casa Blanca, where we arrived shortly after it had opened.

Casa Blanca is one of if not the oldest structure on the island (and is therefore one of the oldest structures still standing in the US) and was originally built as a house for Ponce de León, whose legacy we never quite saw deeply considered on the island. It kept being used for various things over the next few centuries, and eventually we got to visit it. It was a really nice museum! It wasn’t large, but admission was only $5, so not a shabby way to spend some time.

We were still getting used to the immense beauty of Puerto Rico at this point so one of the best features of Casa Blanca was its viewpoint on said beauty, which was excellent. The displays in the house itself were mostly concerned with the construction and physical history of the building, with many many “windows” into the actual brick and masonry that the building is constructed of. These windows list the various approximate dates that these building materials were placed there. One thing I was surprised at here and would continue to be surprised at was just how out in the open everything was, in that they had centuries-old artifacts just chillin’ exposed to the ocean air. My instinct is to put them under glass but I suppose if they survived a few centuries already they would survive a few centuries more.

I really enjoyed the architecture of Casa Blanca with its openness and handy-looking kitchen, but the best part (besides the stray cat curled up beneath a bench) was probably the courtyard. It was this gorgeous tree-lined space with a fountain in the middle providing a cool oasis and all that right in the heart of Old San Juan and it was great. We gotta get one of those for our place.

As the title of this blog post suggests after this museum we continued to go to more museums. The next step was the Museo de las Americas. When going there we were thwarted by several things. The first was our inability to find the front door for a bit. There was some construction and confusing signs in my defense. The next was that we were very confused why there was no one at the entrance, which we eventually figured out was because the museum was still closed. So we had a lovely brunch at a place on the ground floor and when the museum opened we dove in.

The Museo de las Americas covers a lot of topics, from the African influences on the island to contemporary art movements. When we went they had a section on a contemporary art group, “Agua, Sol y Sereno.” That group puts on a variety of performances, involving sometimes these large masks and other caricatures, many of which were on display at the museum. One performance they would put on was a commentary on the food situation in Puerto Rico, where despite the lushness of the island much of the food was imported. I was just thinking to myself that I would have liked to see that one when we discovered that they were putting on a performance at the museum in like, 15 minutes. So we got to see that! It was very good, and I think we got the gist of it largely thanks to the museum displays. However afterwards there was a discussion portion which we could not understand (it was in Spanish, you see) but were too embarrassed to leave because there was no easy way out. It was my super amazing girlfriend that was brave enough to rescue us and get out of there. Still, quite an experience!

My one other comment on the Museo de las Americas is that they and in fact many of the museums we went to were very good about contextualizing what they were putting on display. I mentioned their African exhibit and what they are doing there is going back to African traditions that were imported by enslaved persons in order to show the roots of different aspects of Puerto Rican culture. It was very good and it was far from the last place that really worked to show the sources of traditions and other cultural aspects and how Puerto Rico has transformed them to produce the culture of today. It was really great!

Puerto Rico I: Arrival in San Juan

Reading this week:

  • The House on the Lagoon by Rosario Ferré

Almost but not quite a year into our jobs, my super amazing girlfriend and I decided to take a vacation. We took that vacation to Puerto Rico and it was a blast. We had decided to go to Puerto Rico because we wanted to go somewhere exotic and foreign, but going someplace actually foreign was too much of a logistical hurdle. So, in the long tradition of exoticizing anyone with a different accent, we settled on Puerto Rico.

I am extremely harsh on us in that paragraph and this comes from guilt from seeing references to TikTok videos saying that people should stop visiting Puerto Rico. I have a lot of different thoughts on that topic and a deep interest in the United States’ territories, having lived in Guam for two years. In that vein I was very interested in visiting Puerto Rico to get a better glimpse into how the United States is treating the place and what the situation really is on the ground. Without pontificating too much based on a one week vacation, in the end I was surprised at how different Puerto Rico was. I had expected it to be a lot like Guam (which the US also took over in the Spanish-American War) but it felt much different than I expected. But first of course we had to get there.

Traveling to Puerto Rico went perfectly smoothly, and we arrived at right about lunchtime and immediately caught a ride into Old San Juan where we were going to spend a few days. Burdened with our luggage and needing to kill some time before we could check into our room, we stumbled around until we found a magnificent lunch place that I regretted not being able to rediscover the rest of our time there. While in grad school, only a whopping one year ago, I took two years of Spanish classes which were almost entirely wasted on me. I relate that to say that I didn’t know what it was that I was ordering off the menu, much to the surprise of my super amazing girlfriend, but like all the food we had in Puerto Rico it was delicious and filling. We had a couple of beers to kill some more time and basked in the literal warmth of Puerto Rico and the metaphorical warmth of being in a new and exciting place where we were bound to have memorable adventures.

When enough time had passed we head into the heart of Old San Juan to check into our room and then turned around again to see what we could see. This was great. Old San Juan is not a large place and takes like 15 minutes to walk from end to end. On this first walk we admired the park filled with pigeons, various old chapels/churches/cathedrals, and did some touristy photos in and amongst the colorful streets. The most gorgeous part was when we hit the north side of town and got our first look at El Morro, and the massive field in front where people were flying kites in the late evening. As we walked around a cargo ship drove right by El Morro and into the harbor, which of course I was gaga for.

Heading southward, we were then delighted to find all the street cats. We eventually made our way down to the Parque de Los Gatos, though man that park is an absolutely minefield for cat poop. Despite that the views of the harbor were beautiful and we took a bunch of selfies, as one does. We then headed down through the San Juan gate and strolled along the waterfront, taking many more selfies along the way. We proceeded to a pre-dinner Sangria at a tapas place before settling into a bar to get some grouper and fried plantains for dinner. On a short post-dinner walk (to aid in the digestion of course) we poked around even more of Old San Juan, and I admired people’s windows where there was no glass but only wooden bars, making an intimate connection between the street and their living room. Then it was back to our room to chill for the night and prepare for a big day two.