Excursion to the West: Rincón – the Surfers’ Town and the Central Mountains
On Saturday we took our guests to the west coast of Puerto Rico to watch surfers and whales. The drive along the north coast is very different from other parts of the island with the so-called karst* landscape with ridges and hills. The small but quite high peaks are all green, so it is like driving through a countryside of funny-looking green mini-mountains.
It takes approximately 1,5-2 hours to reach Rincón, but the motorway stops just after Arecibo – and the rest of the way is full of car dealers, and people selling products at the roadside / traffic lights (from food & drinks to hammocks & beach towels). Once you arrive to the west coast, highway 413 is the legendary surfers’ route passing all the important surf sites. The sticker with the road sign and the slogan Road to happiness can be seen on every other car in the area (and actually all over the island).
I missed getting a photo of a car sporting the sticker, so this one is from the Calypso Café in Rincón
We stopped at Playa Maria and the Hot Wavz surf shop to ask for advice where we could find the surfers as the sea looked really calm to us… The owner of the shop was very friendly and helpful, and he explained that nope, it has been a bad surf season with few good breaks. I asked what they will do next week when the Corona Extra Pro Surf Circuit competition is to take place in Rincón… we were told that if the situation is really desperate, the organisers will probably use boats to create the much needed swells. And for whale watching, well it is whale season at the moment but of course you can never be sure to spot one!
Following the advice we received, we went to the Domes beach, where there always are small waves, even when all the other surf sites are flat. The beach has an fascinating history, the name comes from the green dome that housed the first (and only?) nuclear reactor in the Caribbean – it functioned briefly in the 1960’s and managed to contaminate the workers and have one reactor failure in that short period. As the Lonely Planet states; it now serves as a museum to the misguided pioneers of nuclear energy, who thought they were doing the world a favor by building their little reactor on a site that has been visited by an earthquake and a tidal wave within the last 100 years.
Without having seen much surfing, nor any whales 😦 we decided to head to the central mountains, but first it was time for lunch at the Calypso Café (above the Hot Wavz surf shop). The terrace has a great view over la Isla Desecheo just off the coast – it is supposed to have the best snorkeling / diving in the Caribbean! A tropical rain started to pour down just when we were about to leave, and we huddled on the terrace while waiting for the storm to pass.
View from the Calypso Café when it started to pour down – tropical rains fortunately don’t last too long…
Going east from the coast, we followed route 111 via Moca (famous for its lace), San Sebastián and Lares (birth place of José Feliciano – Mr Feliz Navidad (the song)). In Lares the traffic was brought to a stand-still by a political rally – cars and trucks, as well as the sides of the road were filled with people waving political banners (such as Fortuño para ganar and Alan 2008**), American flags (!?) and posters of politicians (we even recognised one man at the side of the road as one of the candidates!!), while political songs were blaring from loudspeakers – it was quite a spectacle and very interesting to experience!
Just when we thought that we had escaped the traffic jam, the right front wheel struck something and we were left with two big holes and no air in the tyre! While O and P changed to the spare wheel, with the encouragement of an old man living nearby, M and I looked at the beautiful view over the mountains, and hoped that we wouldn’t be hit by one of the cars passing us, still with their flags and political banners flying from the windows.
The Cemí mountain, considered holy by the Taíno, indigenous people of Puerto Rico.
Our destination was el Parque Ceremonial indígena de Caguana, unfortunately we arrived 1,5 hours after closing time and only the security guards remained. However, they took pity on us, poor Europeans with a flat tyre, and gave us a guided private tour in the park while the sun was setting! It was a special atmosphere in the natural, botanical garden at dusk, with the Cemí mountain towering in the background and the guard explaining (in Spanish) about the indigenous Taíno ceremonies of ball games (bateyes) and the rock carvings. The site dates from around 1200, and was excavated in the early 20th century – the archaeologists have concluded that it was probably one of the most important Taíno sites in the Caribbean***.
The rest of the trip continued on the narrow mountain roads passing another few political rallies and we did get stuck in another traffic jam. The roads in Puerto Rico are uneven and full of pot holes, so we were quite nervous that the spare would either overheat or break, but we managed to get back home to San Juan without any more incidents.
*) Karst is formed when carbon dioxide-filled rain hits carbonate rock, such as lime-stone here in Puerto Rico – it forms a fascinating landscape of mogotes (conical peaks), sinkholes and subterranean caves. The word karst is derived from the name of a region in former Yugoslavia.
**) I will find out more about the complicated Puerto Rican politics (Statehood vs Status Quo vs Independence) and try to write a post about the up-coming elections. Luis Fortuño is the non-voting Puerto Rican member of the US House of Representatives and the pro-statehood leader.
***) The Taínos were one of the indigenous people of the Greater Antilles that settled in Hispaniola (island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Puerto Rico. Their culture reached its peak in the 1300 and 1400, but was destroyed by the Spanish colonialists. By 1550 only 60 Taínos remained alive (out of probably around 30,000 when Columbus arrived in 1493!), however their cultural legacy lives on in Puerto Rico.