Colorado! Part IV: Breckenridge

Reading this week:

  • The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
  • Engineering in Plain Sight by Grady Hillhouse

Sunday, our final full day in Colorado, we headed to Breckenridge. Finally used to the new time zone we woke up a bit late and rushed over to A&A’s house, where we picked up just the one A (my super amazing girlfriend’s sister) and head out to the mountains so as to double our altitude. Our goal for the day was to go on a hike. A&A are both avid hikers and outdoor adventurists, and while my super amazing girlfriend and I have spent time outdoors we were not prepared mentally and physically for an arduous hike and were shooting for something more in the goldilocks zone.

Unfortunately, we were thwarted. We drove to the trailhead, admiring the jawdropping views that are just workaday in that part of the country only to find that no parking was allowed at that spot. There was another parking spot we could have used, but besides the fact it was apparently in the middle of a passive-aggressive (though on the aggressive side) feud between some Trump-loving locals and what they appeared to think was the personal malice of the Biden administration, it was several miles away and A found the thought of hiking up several miles of dusty road just to then begin the actual hike unappealing. Fair!

Lookin’ cute!

So we drove to another place where parking was allowed and found something that resembled a trail. It quickly morphed into a steep rock scramble, and of all the choices in the goldilocks story none of them involved rock scrambles. We instead were left to do the only sensible thing: take numerous extremely cute photos on the edge of the parking lot so it didn’t look like we were in a parking lot but had hiked to the panoramic valley we found ourselves at. No one needs to know! We did look cute too.

Unmarred by sweat, we went into Breckenridge proper, first saying hello to the troll. There is a troll just outside Breckenridge named Isak who is quite popular. He is located 400 feet down a lovely trail from a convenient parking lot, with the last 40 feet or so of the trail consisting of the line of people patiently waiting to take a photo with him. One of the guys ahead of us took a picture just of the DVD of Morbius with the troll, saying he had driven 10 hours just to do so. I admired his dedication. We too took our picture, though A was worried about the optics of hanging out in a troll’s crotch, a solution to which we never came up with. We looked cute in front of that valley though, and our cuteness was certainly not dimmed here:

From there we walked into Breckenridge proper where we enjoyed lunch and looking at various shops including, you guessed it, a used bookstore. I bought two books and might have bought more if I had dug deeper into the stacks; it is a chaotic bookstore where the treasure is buried. Seeking slightly more oxygen, however, we went back to Denver where we went straight to the Denver Cat Company, because if there is anything we can’t resist (besides yarn shops and used bookstores), it is a Cat Café! This was a lovely little chill cat café with plenty of friendly cats and we had a lovely hour hanging out with the cats. Of course the experience made all three of us yearn to be back with our own cats, and while A had only to wait for us to drive back to her place my super amazing girlfriend and I had to wait a whole day to be reunited with our sweet baby angel Tink.

And that wrapped our time in Colorado, just about. We had dinner at an Israeli place that night which was delicious (I should make hummus at home) and then next morning had a perfectly smooth time at the airport and traveling home. Colorado was a lot of fun and perhaps I should make more time to explore the American West more. I’ve been to many chunks of it, like I mentioned in the first post, but this is a big country we got and there is tons to see. It was also fantastic to hang out with A&A and spend time together. There is lots more to see in Denver and hopefully one of these days we get to go back.

Colorado! Part III: Boulder

Reading this week:

  • In Small Things Forgotten by James Deetz

Day 3 of our Colorado adventure was when we finally broke free of Denver. But not before breakfast! Since breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and we had already had a fantastic breakfast the previous day, we really needed to go all out if we were going to improve on the breakfast experience once again. So we went to Good Bread. Good Bread is the dream of every Instagram baker realized: the woman opened up a bakery. You gotta get there early because they sell out, and we managed to arrive a few minutes before they opened. There was a line and we waited patiently for it to move but we eventually got in and got our baked goods. Since both A&A and my super amazing girlfriend were talking about following this woman who opened her own bakery, and about seeing all her stuff, I had imagined that I would find one harried woman running around selling baked goods but she had a whole operation with several dudes running around baking and selling those baked goods. A whole bakery empire! It was fantastic.

Inside the teahouse.

Fueled up, we headed to Boulder. Boulder is a lovely town but the main draw for us was the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse. It has a fantastic backstory but as far as my super amazing girlfriend is concerned, you had her at “teahouse.” She had visited a few years ago, last time she was in Colorado, and I think would have been perfectly satisfied if we had gone to Colorado only to visit this place. It is indeed gorgeous and they had pretty excellent tea and brunch to boot. The day we visited it was surrounded by a farmer’s market, where we bought a variety of items which all went into an absolutely delicious dinner that very night. After the tea house we poked around Boulder more. We checked out every place which you should at this point expected us to have checked out, including a bookstore and a yarn store. Then we did a photoshoot in the various combinations of our crowd against the stunning backdrop of the Boulder mountains in order to prove we were there and show off our smiles:

And with that we packed up and headed back to Denver, tuckered out by the sun and shopping. The ladies cooked a fantastic dinner for us and we relaxed in A&A’s lovely back garden. Tell you what though man. A&A’s friend came over to hang with us. He was fantastic. But I complained in the first of this Colorado! series that I have become an east coast liberal elite. I don’t know if anyone gatekeeps that, but I have for sure become a DC type. I didn’t know what to talk about in Colorado. I am used to a DC conversation, where everyone says hello and then you start talking politics. We solve all the world’s problems in between trivia rounds, or at least complain about them. Easy! But Colorado man. I didn’t manage to nail down what they talk about on this trip. Hiking trails maybe? How beautiful the stars are? How those poor DC saps must suffer in that humidity while all they have to do in Denver is drink massive amounts of water and continually apply lotion so they don’t shrivel up like a sun-dried tomato? Maybe I do need to get out of my bubble.

A&A’s fantastic garden, a wonderful bubble outside one’s own. The bees agree.

Colorado! Part II: Denver Art Museum

Reading this week:

  • Archaeology from Space by Sarah Parcak

Our second day in Denver dawned bright and early. This was because of timezones and such. After hanging out until a socially reasonable hour, we drove ourselves back to my super amazing girlfriend’s sister’s house. Her initial is A, and her fiancé’s initial is also A, so as shorthand I will henceforth refer to them as A&A. Anyways. The previous day they had provided us breakfast, so to appropriately thank them for their graciousness my super amazing girlfriend and I went out and got us bagels at a convenient delicatessen. These were real New York bagels, boiled in real New York water, which is what makes them New York bagels. How often do you think they change out the water, at the bagel shop in Colorado? But with that adventure over and with A&A both having to work (it was Friday), my super amazing girlfriend were on our own to explore the great city of Denver. We decided to hoof it this time since A&A live conveniently close to downtown.

During this whole trip I couldn’t quite put my finger on Denver. I think a major thing I have learned in our trip out there is that I have become quite firmly an East Coast kinda guy, potentially even an East Coast Liberal Elite type person. This is hard to admit. I was born in California and long cherished a notion that I was the bohemian type that you imagined living out there as a Maryland-raised youth. But instead, faced with the trendy stores in Denver stuck between the boarded-up store fronts, I just felt a little out of place. But maybe it was just the lack of humidity. It dried me out man. I like my air moist and my wet bulb temperatures high. This was not a popular stance in Denver.

Shaking Out the Bed by Dana Schutz, 2015

Also not a particularly popular stance, from the people we spoke to anyways, is that the Denver Art Museum is stunningly fantastic??? This is where my super amazing girlfriend and I chose to spend the majority of our Friday. I referenced it last post, but since we have the National Gallery in DC, I just assumed the Denver Art Museum would be a two-bit hokey thing focusing exclusively on cowboy pictures or something. Good thing I got out of my coastal bubble because this place was great! I spent the rest of the weekend talking up the museum only to be met with a general reaction of gentle bewilderment (super amazing girlfriend aside, because she agrees), like maybe I was a little bit off my rocker. Maybe these Denver people are too busy applying chapstick (because of the dry air, you see) to notice.

As to the museum, we were under the initial impression that the entire museum was housed in the shockingly angular building pictured at the top of the post. It certainly looks like an art museum. Woe betide the poor office worker that has to suffer in a corner office in a building like that. We were to find out that building only housed by my estimation about a third of the museum, but even that section alone would have floored me. I have held myself to only about three pictures of art in this post just to keep things reasonable. I took dozens of pictures and that was me trying to hold myself back.

The angular building contained a lot of more modern and contemporary art. I took the picture of Shaking Out the Bed, above, because I admired it size, audacity, and colors. It is like a 6- or 7-foot tall painting. The closeup on the right is me trying to take a picture of the brushstrokes. One thing I’ve come to enjoy about looking at these paintings in person is getting up close and at an angle so I can admire the brushwork that goes into them. There is nothing too crazy in Shaking, brushwork-wise (as far as I can tell), but it’s something you don’t get in the print. Though I do like how Dana clearly managed to pull off in one stroke the essence of the sprinkle or whatever covering that donut. Someday maybe I, too, will be able to paint a donut.

After getting our fill of angles and realizing there was a whole other building to the museum, we took the bridge over to the second part. Turning the corner I stopped in my tracks when we suddenly found ourselves facing down several massive totem poles. We explored this floor and then kept on going up and up and up and slowly came to terms with the scale of the museum. It is big! They have a lot of art! And a lot of different kinds of art! These sorts of art museums are the most overwhelming to me. It is one thing to go to a contemporary art museum or whatever, and get in the contemporary mindset and see a lot of that art. You can categorize it all and the mental load required for analysis isn’t taken up just with grounding yourself. But there was so much stuff and so many different kinds of art that it is taxing just to keep up. So we had a break in the lovely café they have there and my super amazing girlfriend eventually bought one of the mugs they used because she liked it so much.

Puebloan Mug, 1150-1300

Meanwhile I was admiring the above mug. One thing this museum did well was mix different ages of art when appropriate. They had a large section on indigenous art, including a huge wide range of ceramics. Pots on pots on pots man, ancient and modern. I was blown away by the above mug because it looks like something I would use. Like, I’m going to keep an eye out for it at the next art fair we go to. They should have sold it in the gift shop. But nonetheless it is at least 700 years old! Some Puebloan dude (or woman) was enjoying, um. I guess I don’t actually know. Not coffee I guess (bummer for them). Beer maybe? Anyways it is super cool. Art! This is what brings us together!

Wide Lands of the Navajo by Maynard Dixon, 1945

Earlier up at the top I mentioned how I expected this museum to just be cowboy art. Well, they did have a good chunk of cowboy art, and other western art inspired by the American west and southwest. I bought a postcard of the above picture in the gift shop. I liked the colors. But there were lots of dudes on horses and all sorts of cool looking things. But that was the very last section we looked at and by this time we were pretty pooped. So finally we left the Denver Art Museum, blinking in the sun. But our day was not over!

No, the next thing we did was the thing you gotta do when you visit Denver: we poked around the Colorado State Capitol building. This was not quite what I was expecting. You can visit the Maryland State Capitol building and it is sorta museum-like, they have displays and stuff. I was expecting the same in Denver but mostly you just have the run of the building. There are murals and a lot of brass. So that was interesting. But the most interesting part is of course outside, which is the marker that is a mile above sea level, which is important to the mile-high city. Since it is so important we took a picture next to it:

And at that point our day was in fact finally over. Not really, we went to dinner at a lovely Asian fusion restaurant and had more good times with A&A, but the touristy part of the day was over. Eventually we collapsed asleep.

Colorado! Part I

Reading this week:

  • How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman

My dad once sagely told me that “you can’t choose your relatives, but you can choose your in-laws.” I know what he meant but in the context of my dad being a married man with in-laws, I’m not sure what exactly he was trying to convey. Anyways this was years before I started dating my super amazing girlfriend of course. She has one sister, and her sister and her sister’s fiancé live out in Colorado. They’re absolutely great and so we went to go visit them over Labor Day weekend!

Back when I was a wee youngin’ (Middle school, specifically), my family undertook a couple of cross-country roadtrips. This means, for most any particular place in the United States, I can say I have been there, though most of the time that is about it. I don’t remember if we did anything in particular in Denver. Getting there this time around was much smoother than driving all the way from Maryland, with our flight landing 45 minutes early and an easy train ride bringing us right into downtown. My super amazing girlfriend’s sister picked us up from there, gave us some coffee, and then loaned us her car and sent us on our way because she had to work. So we went to Wings Over the Rockies.

There was no particular reason we went to Wings Over the Rockies. Perhaps you can tell from the name, it is an aviation museum. The rocket ship it has along with the display on NASA makes it more specifically an air & space museum. My super amazing girlfriend has expressed interest in looking at planes and currently works at NASA so it seemed appropriate. On the particular day we visited it was also hosting a retirement ceremony from the Space Force to lend credence to its space bonafides. It is strange that the Space Force exists and it exists in such a capacity that you can retire from it.

As an air & space museum honestly it was a lot better than I thought it would be. As will be evident in this and later posts, having grown up in easy driving distance of DC I am under the impression that the Smithsonian is the best museum there can be and other museums that cover the same topics are but shallow imitations. But Wings Over the Rockies is very robust and dedicated to its mission of explaining the history of Colorado-based aviation.

One of the particular strengths of the museum was in showcasing call signs. Unfortunately for the public at large, movies such as Top Gun have made the uninformed think that callsigns are cool. In the harsh, cold light of reality, call signs are almost invariably insulting and Wings Over the Rockies preserved them in their full glory. I guarantee LCDR “Manbag” Connor would have preferred to be called something like “Maverick,” but instead that like one time he carried around a carrier bag or whatever has been immortalized forever in this temple of Colorado aviation. I thought it was hilarious and spotting the various call signs was worth the price of admission alone.

I guess to step back for a moment the museum itself wasn’t too large but managed to pack a lot into it. It is housed inside one of two original aircraft hangers from the former Lowry Air Force Base. The main floor of the hanger is packed with a multitude of planes. My favorites tend to be the tiny ones I can imagine owning, though they also had an F-14 and some more exotic historic aircraft which was cool. They also have a series of side-rooms with more in-depth exhibits, like a room full of historic radios and another of very nice aircraft models. Discovering that it is on the home of the former Lowry Air Force Base went a long way in explaining what a giant aircraft hanger and a museum was doing in the middle of is otherwise a quiet suburban community. It also led to the appalling discovery that I was standing in the original home of the Air Force Academy, certifiably the lamest of the service academies:

Those poor zoomies. Anyways. It was a lovely museum and after carefully inspecting all the planes we went across the street to the other old airplane hanger which housed the Lowry Beer Garden. We had some drinks and some mini cheese sticks, marveled at the magic of time zones and early mornings which made us feel very tired despite it only being mid-afternoon, and wondered why all the other people at the beer garden on a Thursday afternoon weren’t at work. We basked in each other’s company and the warm glow of the Colorado landscape, and then went to a bookstore to round out the rest of the workday. Then we had a fantastic taco dinner courtesy of our hosts before checking into the Motel 6 and collapsing asleep, our first day in Colorado successfully and fruitfully completed.

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.