Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Tropical Escape: Puerto Rico

     I have not had a blog post in over a week and with good reason, my husband and I made a decision a month ago (during the January blizzard) to get away over the long weekend, to somewhere warm. Puerto Rico fit the bill perfectly and we traveled in a way we have not yet done so before, using AirBNB's and taking a late night flight in all in the name of saving money.
     I will do somethings I don't normally do, and that is discussing some of the places we traveled to, tips in finding them, and just our experience in Puerto Rico for anyone searching for some anecdotal info on travel here, as I found other similar blogs to be of help in such a way. So you can read on, or honestly skip to the pictures, I won't be offended!

     Why Puerto Rico? We wanted WARM, and this had warmth and a bit of exotic flair to it, as it's a US territory, so it didn't require a passport. A fun challenge is getting around with the knowledge of only high school level Spanish in your brain (and let me tell you, it really is not helpful but more so, embarrassing). I like adventure and a little bit of discomfort in traveling, and language can very much be that discomfort, I find it really rewarding to have a good time and overcome the language barrier.

     Bonus benefits? American money is accepted, many people do very much so speak English, and it's beautiful! Oh, and you can wear shorts, tank tops, and flip flops all day everyday... and I did! The temperatures were daily reaching into the 80's and depending on your location of this not so large island you could experience a variety of climates, hot & humid, arid, and the rainy cooler mountains. If you are not adventurous and seek out some familiar options for food, shops, etc- they have all the same stores like K-mart/Walmart, grocery stores, and fast food & chain restaurants.

     Rough spots? Tax rates are high! And there are other imposed taxes on things like hotels, etc on top of the 11% sales tax. It is one of the upsides of things like AirBNB. The roads can be tough-- narrow and on the sides of mountains, surprise speed bumps and drain lines, and in general can be poorly maintained. Diet... I gave up on being a vegetarian, I delight in discovering local cuisine, but if you are super strict, there is so much pork, fried meats and seafood in like... everything. And almost all the food was fried in someway- so don't try to be healthy. Stray animals-- get used to it, feral creatures are EVERYWHERE!

     This trip was not just about ecotourism, it was to escape the New York winter and spend some quality time together with my husband. But of course, I was always on the lookout for anything that crossed our path.

     Our trip involved renting a car and traveling the island over 5 solid days, our red-eye flight gave us a head start in allowing us a full day to begin our trip with from San Juan, with a pit stop in Piñones, with our destination being the mountains, just east of El Yunque in Ceiba. That's where our first of a series of blog posts will leave us!
In our search for a place to kayak on recommendation from another blog, we searched around Piñones for a place called COPI, a community center that has bike and kayak rentals. Our first attempt in finding it resulted in us pulling over to check out a beach, Playa Piñones, and giving us our first taste of that Caribbean blue water.
Here, a brown pelican rides the surf like a pro.
Brown pelicans and royal terns dominated the airspace here. Coral fragments littered the beach, hinting at what lies below the waves.
A royal tern flies overhead.
When we finally found COPI, we rented a 2-person kayak and paddled around the lagoon that it resides along. for an hour and $30, it gave us a chance to explore the mangrove lagoon.
We were welcomed into the lagoon by resting royal terns on pilings and buoys.
For anyone searching for this place, another tough challenge in Puerto Rico is that places just don't show up on Google maps, but COPI is the first left when heading East from San Juan after you cross the Boca de Cangrejos, we wasted close to an hour searching for this place. But bonus is we found out that the loop of road across from it on 187 are little restaurants and kiosks to buy food and drink in, which is exactly what we did after. They are right on the water with a little path to stroll along at your leisure or rent a bike and ride.
On our kayak we spotted a silhouette in the trees turns out to be a reptile that is near and dear to my heart...
Green iguanas, like it is on most islands in the Caribbean is introduced in Puerto Rico. Their normal range is Central and South America - but I love seeing them. I had one for 15 years, Spike, and he was the best companion I ever had, so I am only overcome with joy when I see these guys.
Those spindly fingers and sharp claws are perfect climbing tools, iguanas are very at home in the trees where they can escape from large ground predators-- or in Puerto Rico, dogs (I saw an iguana being eaten by a feral dog in trying to find COPI and it was not something I was ready to see).
Iguanas have that dewlap below their jaw that serves a myriad of purposes... it can be a solar panel and help them bask, it also is a great means of communication, it can help the iguana appear larger to predators, when males are attracting a mate or warning rivals to stay away they flaunt their dewlap and bob their heads.
The lagoon we kayaked was surrounded by mangroves, which almost seemed to form small islands or extensions of land with their amazing root systems. The mangroves provide perfect habitat for oysters which were attached to many of the roots we saw through the clear water. Also mangroves are tolerant of salt water and the harsh conditions they grow in.
The amazing tangle of roots that crabs can hide in, and other creatures can attach to and grow on.

The stilt roots of mangroves are helpful as they access the air allowing the plant to take up oxygen that is lacking in the silt that it grows in. We often forget- myself included that plants, while they make oxygen, they need it too for processes other than photosynthesis that are vital to survival. Oxygen is used in respiration, just like it is for you and I and respiration occurs in all cells in a plant.
If you can read past the bird poop, this sign notifies boater that manatees live in the area. We sadly did not see any, but they love lagoons like the one we were in. It is just that motorized boats need to be careful as manatee are susceptible to boat strikes which often result in injury and sometimes death.
A handsome little blue heron as well as many birds that went unseen thrive in this habitat. Those mangroves do provide some amazing cover. 
A royal tern welcomes us back... I think.
On shore I encountered this white-winged dove, which aside from the white wings, looks very similar to mourning doves we know so well in New York.
Oh yeah, the feral animal thing, chickens were one of my faves to see, especially hens, because they do not crow-- and sometimes they had a brood on minions with them... Roosters are something after this trip I could do without for a while, they don't just crow when the sun comes up...
A young male green iguana basking on the dock after we pulled in. We also saw lots of anoles and Ameiva exsul, or the Puerto Rican Ground Lizard or siguana.
There are quite a few anole species present on Puerto Rico so getting them all identified is going to be tricky and fun, especially since males and females can very in appearance, and honestly individuals can too. Also cruddy pictures can make it tough as well.
I learned that this guy here is a Puerto Rican crested anole, and as their name implies, individuals can grow a little crest along their neck, back, and tails
After our kayak experience and lunch across the way, we walked a small portion of the beach, because- why not!
We found a few of these little dark urchins, about the size of a silver dollar. Urchins are in the same family as sea stars, the echinoderms. Echinoderm literally means spiny skin-- a definite trait of the urchin!
I saw something briefly bury itself in the sand... and dumb me was like why don't I dig it up. So I dug it up and out came this crab that pinched me (hard) and upon my immediate reflex of backing off, he assumed this stance that reads to me as "come at me, bro!"
I am amazed by the stray dogs, they don't beg or bother people, they just carry on. I was told by the woman we stayed with that in where she lives they have dogs of their own, they live in your gated yards or on leads. But they feed the stray/feral because they tend to be better guards and help the folks who feed them feel secure. But I cannot imagine that it is an easy life, living in the street in the rain or the heat.
There is definitely a cultural difference in companion animals and how they are incorporated into the lives of humans. 
A zenaida dove walks away with a shadow that seems to mimic the white marking on its secondary feathers of its wing.
Our drive up to our mountain Bed & Breakfast was very beautiful.

Our view from where we stayed, you cannot be upset waking up to this! This green, lush forest sang at night with coqui frogs and others and in the morning with the coos of doves. Anytime you look out from the mountains you can see the coastline due to the small size of the island.
We ended our evening with a walk along the beach in Fajardo. An amazing full day behind us with a rainforest adventure ahead!