Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Puerto Rico Thanksgiving


It was over a year prior that our family talked about meeting somewhere "in the middle" for Thanksgiving rather than the traditional Kirkland homebase. Both Costa Rica and Puerto Rico were discussed, and in the end the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was the more logical choice.

Leading up to the trip, I really didn't know a lot about Puerto Rico except you always hear it mentioned as being a "voided" location for free shipping and contests. Quite honestly, the last I really thought about this place was back in 1999 during the whole protest over the Navy on Vieques.

We all arrived and left at slightly different times. My sister and her husband Miguel arrived with their two children first.

Operation Puerto Rico Thanksgiving Team Members came from far and near!

Then my brother arrived in San Juan midday on Sunday, and he was in charge of the rental car and our condo. I was next to arrive Sunday night.

My journey began with my little adventure getting to the airport. Since I did not have a ride, I opted to explore what it would be like to take Charlotte's public transportation. This consisted of three transfers. I began by wheeling my bag out to South Boulevard where I caught the #12 bus, which because of our Lynx light rail system, no longer goes uptown. Instead, it dropped me off at the Woodlawn Lynx station. I then got on our light rail which took me uptown. With the sparse Sunday schedule, it was a cold wait in the uptown transportation center for the last leg, a #5 bus all the way down Wilkinson.

It was unbelievable quiet at the airport then. My experience was quite pleasant as I had the opportunity to see my friend Michele one last time before she moved to my great homestate of Washington. Thanks to the miracles of Facebook status updates (Scott is currently picking his nose...) I knew she was coming to CLT to pick up her boyfriend. So I got to meet him and rap about the Oly P for a minutes!

This also marked the first time I paid ($15) for my first piece of luggage... Oddly enough, my flight down was on American, and that went through Miami. But the return would be direct on US Airways. The plane was a small one and I thoroughly enjoyed following HWY 521 south, and then as we hugged the Florida coast. About 30 minutes before descending to Miami I suffered a NASTY sinus infection or something - unlike anything I'd gone through before. Departing Miami was a nightmare, as one of the pilots' indicator lights failed. But given the alternative, I had to gun it out. Unfortunately I was forced into a window seat on a large plane, so my legs were crying - but I did have a fascinating book that I burned through with utter delight.

I was keenly interested to know why Puerto Rico denizens were okay with being a part of the United States - maybe this was brought on by watching The Wind That Shakes the Barley the other night.... With the hour tacked on, I arrived late and was quickly uncomfortable in the long pants and long sleeves I needed in Charlotte. Since my brother continues to resist the mobile phone craze and my I can't dial my sister's Spanish number directly, I had to patiently wait and hope things worked out for the best with the late flight. Of course they did, with my siblings be the ones to officially welcome me to what I found to be a very odd place.

From the airport we eventually made our way east towards our condo in Loiza. Even though it was dark, I got my first indoctrination heading north and then east on 187 on how poor this area was. The "upscale" condos were naturally located in what I came to term "the compound," gates and concertina wire everywhere.

Our home operations for the week in Loiza

Sunday night marked the only night that my brother and I slept in our room with the air conditioner off.


In the morning we went out to the narrow beach to meet up with the four Codes-Bodien clan members. This marked the first time in almost a year I had seen any of them in person! I didn't bring my bathing suit that mornng but figured the time would come soon enough. That afternoon we picked up my parents and then did some grocery shopping for the upcoming week. Yay - all eight of us were finally together!


Today was the big journey into Old San Juan. After independently finding the same parking deck, we began the walk along the old city wall by going through an amazing environmentally-themed set of photos that even featured the Palouse! We then made our walk below the massive walls. Before going through a gate we took our first family photo then made our way toward the Fort San Felipe del Morro (called El Morro), which was built to fend off attacks via sea.

Hey look - it's everybody! El Morro in the background

After having our own picnic lunch, we entered the massive structure and explored away. Let me tell you about the view from the men's room - you can't beat it!!

Does your can have a view like this?

Codes-Bodien Clan getting all the attention at El Morro

My dad, brother, and I then made our way past some colorful houses towards Castillo San Cristobal, which was built later to fend off land attacks. We all then met in a square where Oscar, myself, and mother all got the chance to feed some pigeons!

Dani stone cold tired - that could have easily been me at the end of the day


Today was centered around the visit to the USFS's only tropical rain forest, El Yunque. It is technically called the Caribbean National Forest, but that seemed to be sidelined. Reaching the rain forest was not that difficult from Loiza. The visitor center, El Portal, was quite impressive (architecturally) and almost looked like where a James Bond villian would have his headquarters.

Future James Bond villian? I don't think so.

From there we stopped at La Coca Falls before huffing it up the Yakahu Tower. The views were impressive both ways, looking up towards El Yunque and then down to the coastline of Luquillo.

Yours truly hangin' with the nephew Oscar (5) on the top of the tower - El Yunque in the background

Even further up we all had a picnic lunch before the Spanish contigent went on a small family-friendly walk. The four of us descended down the paved trail towards La Mina Falls. The scenery was exquisite, and I especially liked some of the rest area structures that were built along the way. When we got to the falls I managed to snap a shot before people were crawling all over it. After watching this crazy fool attempt to climb up, I was the first family member to remove the extra clothes and jump on it - it was only cold for about ten seconds. Andrew then joined me.

Refreshment city! Note Darwin Award candidate in the background

We then hiked out on the Big Tree trail. There our car awaited us. We drove all the way up to the Mt. Britton trail. After climbing up tower, I managed to convince everyone the climb to the granddady peak, El Yunque himself, wasn't that far off. Unfortunately it was a bit of a rush as we had a deadline to get out of the park before it closed. The views from the top were rather amazing - we then plummeted down the steep tower access road to get out in plenty of time! That evening we watched Oscar and Dani as the parents took a well-deserved dinner on their own in Isla Verde.


Today obviously was the big Thanksgiving day. We all went down to the beach and then the pool, taking it quite easy.

Everyone should have this opportunity on Thanksgiving...

As if the beach wasn't relaxing enough, the hot tub also helped
Also a wonderful shot of Tanya and her husband Miguel

Preparing for the big American meal took a little planning, although the main obstacle were kitchens that were a bit lacking. Thankfully items like a potato masher and other seasonings helped us pull of the big task!


The four Bodiens hit the road west, laying out some of the $18 they spent in tolls to reach the town of Arecibo. Driving in Puerto Rico is weird, the signs are in MPH but the markers are by the kilometer.

Who wants some cheap gas? Oh wait, those are liters
Actually, it's still cheap gas (1g=3.78l -> $1.73 a gallon)

ALSO NOTE the 7/10ths on the price - a Puerto Rico original!

It's this pervasive blend that always flips you between wondering if you are in the USA or not. For virtually the entire trip, I felt like I was not. After briefly viewing the $0 admission area for the lighthouse, we headed south up into the rough karst country to the famed Arecibo Observatory, which recently had been featured in movies like GoldenEye and Contact. This was a special treat for me, and the tough steep pitch up to the nice Visitor Center was not a problem! They had a short film about a "day in the life" of everything that happens there which, despite the corny acting by scientists, was well worth the watching. Afterwards you go out to the viewing platform (not the same platform as shown in Contact, which must be further up) the view is finally yours. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to get a photograph that does the place justice.

Getting my science geek on at Arecibo

From there we took our first real rural winding mountain road directly east towards the main Highway 10. We stopped for a rural lunch of sorts, then saw a few of the big reservoirs that help provide infrastructure on the island that is only 100 miles by 30 miles. From there we continued east past San Juan and past Loiza towards Fajardo, which is on the east coast and the ferry jumping point to Vieques.

Just northeast of Fajardo was the Laguna Grande, a very special place on this planet home to the rare bioluminescent dinoflagellate, Pyrodinium bahamense. There are apparently five of these locations of year-round bioillumination in the world. There is a decent writeup on the Vieques site, which is essentially similar to Fajardo, here that outlines the conditions that must be met for these millions and millions of dinflagellates to flourish. We chose one of the ten tour guide companies that must vie each night for all the tourists flocking to see this really amazing display.

The route started at the park and then most of the work was going down a narrow (and dark!) mangrove channel to the actual lagoon. All the kayak were doubles so my parents took one and then Andrew and I manned the other. There were about a dozen kayaks in our party and we were led by our perpetual smart-ass guide Emmanuel, who apparently just saved a lot of money on his car insurance.

About halfway up the channel dipping the paddles begun to elicit a bluish glow. By the time we were in the lagoon it was quite a sight - most likely the highlight of the trip. Just so damn amazing.


On a self-proclaimed "rest day" most all of us headed a short distance west to the beautiful beach stretch just east of Isla Verde and ventured on the boardwalks of the Pinones.

Just another beautiful day in the neighborhood!

Only my mother could have the brilliant idea for these shirts...

Uncle Scott showing his nephews a crab

On our way back we stopped at one of the zillion roadside stands.

This restaurant has a lower Health Inspection Grade than the old Waffle House on South Blvd

Scarfing down some awesome food with some cold beer!

We all then went to the pool for one last time - it was certainly sad to see the Spanish contigent take their leave and head back to Madrid.


We were up quite early to drop the wave off (Andrew). From there we headed down the center of the island over a magnficent pass and on to the (dry) southern side of the island. Our primary destination was the Guanica Dry Forest, and not Ponce. This was a rather interesting experience. I chose a loop that began with the descent down the Ballena trail towards the Caribbean Sea. Off in the distance was Gilligan's Island (I kid you not), but we opted out of that adventure! On our way down we started to see some very interesting cacti, and then went off the trail to see a very old Guayacan tree.

Mom and Dad checking out the local flora in this unique ecosystem

A very special mom hugging a very special tree

According to Lonely Planet, this is the Spanish Dildo Cactus.
Maybe the woman who wrote the guide was lonely, or actually telling the truth. I don't know.

Once down on the road, we walked past some amazing beaches to the end of the road. There we hit the Meseta trail walking across an expanse that was unlike any other.

Mom amidst the stunning vegetation and views!

Dad looking out into the Caribbean - the winds were monster!

At about mile 4 we turned around and went back to the road dead-end.

This was my trip "money shot" of the largest iguana we spotted
I could only imagine what would happen if Winston was with us!

Our loop was finished by taking the Cueva and Lluberas trails back. It was a bit (just a bit) of a death march, and it wasn't even as hot as it was normally in these parts!!! Once done we went into town looking for some cold beer, but we couldn't find any! We then went back to the road we descended upon and chose a beautiful beach for our lunch.

Would you endure the tortures of eating lunch on this part of the Caribbean Sea?

One had to admit there was quite a bit of trash though with the driftwood. I was going to change into my swimsuit but as I went back into the copse there was this random dude smoking his cigarette. How weird! We then went to the next beach over for our post-lunch dip (and so we could say we swam in the Caribbean). I chose to change into my suit in an old pit toilet facility. There were two choices, and I thought I pick the worse the first time... After letting the sea toss me around a bit, I chose the other and was greeted by a rotting corpse of some large animal that went in there to die. The logical choice was a dog, as there is a massive problem here with stray dogs. It was super brutal.

From there we had some interest in hitting a few parts of the La Ruta Panoramica, which is a string of some 266 km mountain roads that connect the west and east coasts. Unfortunately we were going to run short. We erred in trying to go through Ponce as a shortcut, and by the time we got up to Highway 10 where it continued west (towards Highway 52, which we came down) it would be too late. Our adventure for the day was not over as we learned Highway 10 wasn't exactly a fast bypass through the mountains. Once past Adjuntus the road was super curvy and more and more improbable as we continued north. We finally did hook up with the Highway 10 portion we hit on Friday.


For my final day in this bizarre place the three of us went back to Fajardo but then continued down the coast. The weather had reverted back to some cloudiness. We stopped in Naguabo at the Playa Naguabo then continued down towards Tabucoa. There we hit a coastal part of the La Ruta that climbed up for some amazing ocean views! After going down a one-way street in Maunabo, we climbed up a tough pass on Highway 3 and then back down Yabucoa. It was at this point that we got on the "real" La Ruta Panoramica on Route 182. Not far into our journey there was a detour on Road 918. This was the most amazingly steep road we experienced on our trip, it just BLEW US AWAY how tough it was - my dad and I remarked no one could ride a bike up these roads, as it put to shame any route on the Tour de France. I am sure all of us had a sigh of relief once back on the main road, but it still was nasty slow work, but featured up some amazing scenery. We were hoping to hit it all the way to Highway 52, but we jumped off after the Bostal and stopped for lunch.

Our rental car after the Ruta Panoramica and Route 918...

By this time I had completed broken down and started feeding the stray dogs, including the short little guy that lived at the Loiza "compound." It wasn't too long from there that we were back in San Juan and once again I was at the airport.

As predicted, I was very excited about the direct flight back to Charlotte! And even happier to see Julie!

Public Facebook Photo Album - A Puerto Rico Thanksgiving

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