Helen was sound asleep in the passenger seat as we wended our way along Highway 186 in Puerto Rico, traversing the slopes of the Sierra de Luquillo near the western border of El Yunque National Forest. We came up on a bridge across one of the streams that bound down the mountain slopes in a long series of cataracts, and as I looked up to my left I saw several locals sitting on huge boulders in the middle of the stream, wearing variously shorts and bathing suits, but all with the air of having just enjoyed a dip.
Now of course there was no pool to be seen, at least from the road, but one thing I know from growing up in the mountains myself, and from having wandered down many side roads in lots of places in this wide world, is that local people are never wrong. So, as there was a place next to the bridge wide enough to park near the car that was already there, I pulled over and went to investigate.
From the road I could see that, while the streambed was at least twenty yards wide where the road crossed it, just upstream from where the locals were sitting it emerged from a narrow crack in a sheer cliff face. The mountain itself was rather gently sloping at this point, and I could see daylight through the trees above the little bluff; but for whatever reason at this point in the stream bed the mountain had jutted out its chin, except for that little crack. The cliff face seemed about twenty to thirty feet tall, and the crack was no more than five feet wide. I couldn’t tell how far back the crack extended because it went back at a rather sharp angle, so that from the road I could only see the right-hand wall extending back for a few feet before the left-hand cliff face blocked the line of sight.
But whatever was behind the crack, I knew what must be in front of it, because I could see those shorts and swimsuits: a “hole” where water was trapped between cataracts, deep enough for a few men and boys to cool off in on a hot tropical afternoon. And I had already stopped at another bridge and another stream and seen for myself how clear and cool the water was. I had no swimsuit with me, but I wanted at least to see the pool. So I began clambering over boulders, making my way along the left-hand side of the canyon up toward where they sat.
It took about a minute to get up level with them, and there it was.
I didn’t really want to intrude upon the other folks’ day, but I was curious about what was behind that crack. So I started working my way from boulder to boulder across the stream, over to the huge rock smack in the middle where they were placidly sitting, taking no apparent notice of me, even when I stopped at the boulder next to theirs and took another picture.
But while I could now see at least a little way back into the interior of that tiny little secretive chasm, and could see more of the sky behind it, I still couldn’t see all the way to the back to where it, presumably, opened up to where the little stream flowed into it; and I could hear the unmistakable sound of water cascading down rock, coming from somewhere upstream. So, with a polite “Discúlpenme,” I crossed in front of them, moved shifted my weight across to the next rock, found handholds and footholds, worked myself over the top and down to a nice solid purchase next to the water, almost to the far right of the stream. Then I looked up to see what was hidden deep inside that dark, narrow crack in the sheer rock, and saw this:
I had never thought that a twenty-five foot waterfall could be shy; but that was my first thought. A very maidenly catarata she is, hiding demurely back within her chamber.
Eventually I heard Helen calling me from the road; she had awakened and come looking for me. By then I had fallen into conversation with the others there at the pool, who had been amused by the care I took not to fall in and get Helen’s iPhone wet (my own iPhone was useless for pictures because the memory was full as I hadn’t gotten around to downloading pictures for, oh, maybe a year or so). I called to Helen that I was on my way down, and the others decided their day was done too and started clambering down as well, each of us taking a different route.
Once back on the road I took Helen all the way to the very far edge of the bridge, and sure enough, you couldn’t see the waterfall. So I showed her the picture. Then something occurred to me, and I asked one of my new acquaintances a question, speaking English without thinking (we had been mixing English and Spanish willy-nilly up to that point):
“Does this waterfall have a name?”
He looked confused for a moment, and I was surprised that he didn’t understand that bit as his English had generally been better than my Spanish up to that point. (This, you understand, is not a high bar.) I tried again. “Esta catarata, ¿como se llama?”
He said slowly in English, “I don’t know…I think it must have a name…”
“Espíritu Santo,” said one of the boys, who was walking past us at that moment headed for the car.
The older man and I both translated simultaneously for Helen: “The Holy Spirit.”
Later, however, I realized that we were standing at that moment on a bridge over the Río Espíritu Santo, so that the boy may not have understood the question and may have been telling me the name of the river rather than of the waterfall itself. But as I would like to have a name for that waterfall, and as there is nobody to tell me I’m wrong, it is, as far as Clan Pierce is concerned, henceforth la Catarata Espíritu Santo.
And sometime before we leave Puerto Rico, I’m going back there with a bathing suit. For I grew up, after all, as a country boy in the mountains; I was a local long before I was a tourist. And I have never felt anything but deep pity for those deprived persons who have grown up swimming in swimming pools rather than swimming holes.
Edited to clean up some typos. Also, this entire post has since been incorporated into this one, which presents the whole day in its entirety and thus presents this vignette in context.