Looking back on the first Saturday of our Puerto Rico vacation…
Puerto Rico is not a terribly large island – a rough rectangle about a hundred miles long and about thirty-five miles wide – and so when bad weather caused The Open to be canceled on Saturday, we decided to take a field trip from our apartment on the extreme northeast corner, at Fajardo, to a well-known public beach on the extreme southeast corner, at Boquerón. Google Maps wanted us to take autopistas (the Puerto Rican equivalent of interstate highways) wherever possible, but we overrode Google’s advice for the early part of the day and took the coastal highway through Emajagua and Lamboglia. It wasn’t quite California’s Highway One or Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, but it was spectacular enough to justify the detour – though there were, alas, very few places where it was easy to pull over and take pictures, and Helen was asleep (when we are on narrow twisty roads and she is asleep I hate to wake her up, because as long as she is asleep I know she isn’t carsick).
From Highway 91, near Emajagua
Helen doesn’t swim yet (though, as you will hear in a later post, she is tackling the problem rather bravely), and so when we got the the very lovely, but very crowded, Balneario Boquerón (“Boquerón Beach”), she simply set herself up in the shade with her sunglasses and festively flowery skirt and zoom-lens-equipped camera…
Helen at Boquerón Beach
…and spent the next hour taking pictures of everybody on the beach except me. I don’t blame her in the slightest for ignoring me – I was very boring. As far as I can tell there is nobody on the island of Puerto Rico who knows how to give a good Chinese massage, and my back was getting worse every day. So I simply got out into the nice clear cool water under the tropical sun, and stationed myself where I could rest on my knees with my head out of the water.
Kenny at Boquerón Beach
Then I dug each foot and each knee well into the sand to make a nice solid base, relaxed every muscle in my back for the first time since reaching Puerto Rico, let the water, instead of my back muscles, do the work of holding me upright…and went happily to sleep. Every few minutes an unusually large wave would come through and knock me onto my face in the water. I would, half-asleep, push myself back up, re-set my knees and feet, re-relax my back, and go back to sleep. It was a WONDERFUL forty-five minutes or so.
But we couldn’t stay too long, because the part of the trip I was looking forward to the most was still ahead of us, and I didn’t want to use up too much daylight drowsing on the beach. (Well, sort of on the beach. Within ten or so yards of the beach, at least.)
I had read in several places of the Ruta Panorámica, an official government-designated route that runs along the spine of Puerto Rico’s central mountain range, the Cordillera Central. Tiny little mountain roads with insanely steep slopes, tight hairpin corners, and barely enough room for two cars meeting each other to get by without folding in mirrors…what’s not to like? Well, if you’re prone to car-sickness, there is that, I suppose. But I have an ambition to drive the entire thing, and while I didn’t complete the mission this trip, we at least got a start.
Now the thing is, you have never seen a tourist initiative as half-hearted as this whole Ruta Panorámica thing is on its western end. (In the middle it gets better, but we started on the western coast.) This should be one of the world’s genuinely spectacular roads and should bring tourist gold to every small town on the route. But instead…well, say that you get to an intersection and you’re not sure which way is the RP. You can’t tell from the highway number because the RP changes from one highway to another no less than thirty-one times in its meandering path from Mayagüez to Maunabo. And usually there is no sign to help you out. If, however, you do happen to choose the right road, then three or four miles later, at some randomly-chosen location of no apparent significance, you will see an old sign that says cheerfully, “Ruta Panorámica.”
Even getting started in Mayagüez is ridiculously difficult. I saw no signs anywhere in Mayagüez mentioning the RP; I just happened to know it was there, and I had Google Maps on my iPhone. So I knew I was trying to get to Highway 150. (“Highway” here in Puerto Rico means basically “any paved road at least eight feet wide” so perhaps I should just call it Road #150 so as not to give my Texan Gentle Readers any false impressions. And while we’re at it – when I’m driving around the eastern coast, Google Maps keeps telling me to get onto “Interstate 3.” I have no idea why they call this road an “interstate.” It isn’t labeled that way on any Puerto Rican sign; Puerto Rico has autopistas that are quite good but they don’t pretend that Highway 3 is an autopista. No road, be it an autopista or a one-way dirt footpath, goes out of Puerto Rico into any other part of the U.S., so the “interstate” can only be called “inter” rather than “intra” by outraging the English language. Also Puerto Rico isn’t a state so it should be intracommonwealth rather than interstate. And then there’s the fact that you have to stop at a traffic light every three or four hundred meters as well as the fact that people pull out into the right-hand lane from driveways from time to time as well as the fact that Puerto Rico knows that Highway 3 is not an autopista and doesn’t call it one… Why, I repeat, does Google think this road is an “interstate”? This has been a Special Public-Service Rant from the Department of Accuracy in Nomenclature. We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming.)
You see, down in the right-hand corner, Road #105. I was coming in on 2A, heading south. Calle Candelaria seemed a reasonably good-sized street so I turned left on it. You must realize, by the way, that I had Google maps on my iPhone and the one-way arrows were too small to see given the scale I was using as I drove into town. Therefore I was surprised to find, upon reaching the street that on the map was labeled 105, that it was one-way in the wrong direction, and also about one car-width wide, which explained the one-way sign. So I turned left, turned left again as soon as I could on Calle Méndez Vigo, and turned back north on Calle Liceo / 349 – pausing in the middle of the street for a moment in order to expand Google Maps as much as I could. That allowed me to see an arrow informing me that Calle San Rafael / 105A was apparently one-way in the wrong direction. I drew the conclusion that Calle Ote / 105 must be two-way once you got past Calle II de Agosto, which was one-way in the wrong direction, so I went on to Calle Santiago Riera Palmer (Palmer? Santiago Riera Palmer? One of these things is not like the other…). There I turned left and at the next block…discovered that, no, Calle Ote / 105 was still one-way in the wrong direction. Left I went again (there being no choice) and circled back to Calle II de Agosto, and out of simple desperation this time I went all the way up to Calle San Rafael / 105A. Aha! This one was actually two-way from Calle Ote / 105 headed west and only turned one-way where it intersected Calle Ote / 105. But I couldn’t actually see anywhere to go other than left on Calle Ote…until we got to the intersection and saw what looked for all the world like a single lane running about thirty feet uphill to a blank stone wall, presumably with a left-hand turn allowing you out of it. And there on that wall, where it could be seen as long as you were standing no more than thirty feet from it AND in the middle of the street, was the helpful sign: “Ruta Panorámica.”
This reminded me irresistibly of Arthur Dent’s explanation of how he finally found the plans to the bypass that required the destruction of his house:
[Said the bureaucrat,] “But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”
Once we were finally on 105, however, I got very happy very quickly. This was my kind of road, running right up along the ridgetop of a long natural buttress extending down from the high mountain ridges to the plain. The road was just wide enough for you to negotiate your way past oncoming traffic, on the rare occasions when traffic oncame, and the reason was quite simple: there frequently wasn’t room to make it wider because you had a sheer drops a foot from the roadway edge on either side. But there were astonishingly many houses. Most of them were single-room houses not because the people were poor (judging from the expensiveness and newness of the cars parked under them they were quite the opposite, paying good money for spectacular views) but because even a single room sticking, say, twenty-five feet out from the road, required forty-foot stilts to reach down far enough to catch up to the mountainside.
Puerto Rico is a semi-poor, semi-Third-World island that had the severe misfortune of being a Spanish colony for several centuries, which is to say, for about four centuries they lost the lottery of life. And while matters have improved a great deal during their American century, they still have not been what you would call consistently well-governed, as witness their current financial travails. So there isn’t a lot of money to spend on road maintenance, and what money there is doesn’t tend to be wisely spent. This is hardly the fault of the local residents, who (as has generally been my experience in badly-governed countries from Mexico to Kazakhstan to China, but sadly excluding the very-badly-governed-indeed New Jersey) are friendly, admirable people who show a great deal of ingenuity and resiliency in dealing with life situations that would render your average pampered American urbanite hopelessly non-functional. Although if you grew up like me in southeastern Oklahoma, la Ruta Panorámica is a significant improvement over some of the washboard dust-and-rock state “highways” back in the Little River area of the 1980’s, and you’d feel right at home except for all the Spanish.
It does, however, mean that while you can see places on la Ruta Panorámica that once had been cleared and widened to provide scenic overlooks, the rain forest has taken control right back and the trees once more provide an impenetrable screen. As I say, you can see both how this ought to be a tourist mecca, and also precisely why it in actual fact is not. But every so often the drops are so sheer that the tops of the trees are still below you, or else a local resident has kept his own view clear and you can borrow it. And then it really is quite remarkable – the mountain ridges are clothed in jungle but they are clearly knife-edge ridges, and you don’t have to get very far along la Ruta before you are looking down on clouds trapped between those precipitous walls. The panoramas are really well worth the effort, even on a day like the day we travelled this western section, when we spent a lot of time in clouds ourselves and therefore the green of the jungle and white of the clouds looked more like grayscale than color, even in real life.
Atop the Ruta Panorámica
Far up in the mountains, almost an hour (which is to say fourteen miles) from Mayagüez, we came to Maricao, which bills itself on a small sign at the edge of town as la Ciudad de Café (“the City of Coffee”), but for historical reasons only. Per Wikipedia, “Many of the old plantation houses have been converted into museums to stimulate the tourism industry. While Puerto Rico still has a niche in the gourmet coffee market, the large scale coffee growing which built Maricao is no longer economically feasible.” That is to say, the purpose of present-day coffee plantations around Maricao is to have something to show tourists, because you can’t actually make money growing coffee. Now as a tourism strategy this doesn’t sound like an intrinsically bad idea to me. However, they don’t really have the marketing down – I drove through the middle of Maricao and wandered around in it for half an hour or so on foot, and the only reason I know that there are coffee plantation museums for tourists to see in Maricao is because I read it just now in Wikipedia.
I missed a turn at Maricao but didn’t realize it at first, because I felt like I could use a cup of coffee and was looking for a place that would sell me one, on the assumption that la Ciudad de Café would probably have some good stuff. (I did not, at the time, realize that the sobriquet referred solely to past glories.) A little panaderia/pizza place was open; so I parked the car and Helen and I walked in. After the obligatory exchange of, “Buenas tardes,” I thought I might get lucky and actually get a latte; so I asked politely, “¿Se vende café con leche?”
She assumed an expression of deep regret. “No, Señor.”
“Ah.” I gave her my best c’est la vie shrug and said, “Pues, solo café.”
“No, Señor, no hay café aquí.”
Wait, this is the City of Coffee and you don’t sell coffee? Surely I had not properly understood. “¿Café no se vende?”
Well…okay, then. Ah, well, Helen was in the mood for a snack, and they had quite an array of pastries on display, including some very good-looking cheescake. Helen ordered the cheesecake, and while I knew I ought not have anything sweet, I couldn’t resist trying the flan. The cheesecake slices were already on little plates; so the proprietress pulled one out and handed it to Helen. Then she took off a shelf behind her a little styrofoam cup just like the ones you would serve coffee in, and for a moment my hopes soared: perhaps I had misunderstood? But then she slid a spatula under a square of flan, dropped it into the cup, stuck a little plastic spoon in it, and handed it to me with a smile.
I smiled back. “Gracias.”
I went back and sat down. “How is the cheesecake?” I asked Helen, and got a thumbs-up. Then I took a bite of my flan.
My God. In one of Essie Summers’s pet phrases: “and it was not blasphemy.”
I took another bite, reverently. The second bite was as spectacular as the first.
Helen looked up and saw my expression and did a double-take. “What?” she said with evident amusement.
I savored the taste, carefully considering my words. I swallowed. Trying not to exaggerate, I said slowly, “I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted flan better than this.”
Helen rolled her eyes at me. “You always exaggerate.”
I took another bite. My GOD.
“No,” I said with consideration, shaking my head slowly and resisting the urge to rise to my feet and sing the Nunc Dimittis, “I think this really is the best flan I have ever eaten. They’ve done something with the crust – caramelized it I think. It’s almost crème brûlée.”
A few moments later I looked down into my cup. Somehow it had all disappeared.
“I’m getting another one.”
“WHAT? No, your blood sugar, you’re not supposed to…”
“I can’t help myself.”
I got up and walked back over to the counter. I tried to tell the proprietress, “Este flan…” Words failed me, as happens often in Spanish. I waved my hands in the air helplessly, then said, “…espectacular.” She understood the body language, if not the Spanish, and broke into a huge smile. “Gracias.”
“Un otro, por favor.” I handed her the cup. She smiled and refilled my cup with another slice of flan. I paid her, sat down, ate it…then told Helen, “Okay, I have to leave or I won’t be able to keep from ordering a third.”
I stepped back to the counter and the proprietress glanced down to see how much flan she had left. Quickly I asked, “¿Dónde puedo yo comprar café?” which fortunately she understood to mean, “Where can I buy a cup of coffee?”
She told me that if I went out the front door and turned left, then at the end of the street there was a place called “El Buen Café,” and she thought I could possibly buy coffee there. As I thought it quite beyond the pale of possibility that a place named “The Good Coffee” would not in fact sell coffee, I felt reasonably optimistic. I thanked her and stepped outside, leaving Helen to finish her cheesecake, and headed up the hill toward the church, along the Calle José De Diego. At the third intersection my street ended at the Calle Corchado, and there, sure enough, was El Buen Café – securely padlocked. I stood and looked at it for a moment, shook my head in resignation, and then turned and started back toward the bakery/pizza place.
But I remembered that about halfway up the street I had passed a small cafeteria whose door was open. Perhaps they would have coffee? As I came back up to it, I stopped and then stepped inside. There was a middle-aged man behind a tiny bar, and two of his friends seated on the customer side of it. A series of about fourteen or sixteen pictures of Puerto Rican patriots hung on the wall, each with a fifty-word biography under the picture, and next to them a sign saying sternly that anybody who wanted to play dominoes absolutely had to make a purchase, no matter who he might be. The three men looked up at me with some curiosity.
“Buenas tardes, Señor,” I said to the apparent owner.
“¿Se vende café?”
He gave it a few seconds thought, then said in English that was heavily accented but considerably better than my Spanish, “Can you wait two minutes?”
“Absolutely,” I said with relief.
He stepped into a back room and then came out with a small personal coffee maker good for about two cups at a time, plugged it in, and set about making me a cup of coffee. I had time to read the life stories of most of the patriots on the wall before he said, “It’s ready, Señor.”
I took the coffee gratefully and tasted it, without very high hopes since I rarely drink coffee black. To my relief it was actually quite good. I smiled and thanked him. “How much do I owe you?”
I gave him a dollar, waved off the change, thanked him, stepped back out into the gray daylight, and walked back down to where Helen was waiting, having finished her cheesecake.
I wish I could remember the name of the place that has the best flan I’ve ever eaten, but I didn’t take a picture of the sign on the outside, and now all I can remember is that it was ____ and ____’s Pizza. Something like “Maria and Jerry’s Pizza.” If you go to Maricao, it’s at the corner of the Calle José De Diego and Highway #105. I didn’t try the pizza, because we weren’t hungry enough. But just before we left, I did ask the proprietress whether their pizza was as good as their flan:
“Señora, su pizza…”
She looked blank for a moment, then the penny dropped and she smiled, “Ah, pissa.” Apparently in the Puerto Rican variety of Spanish, “pizza” is pronounced with a soft s rather than with our accustomed ts sound.
“Sí, su pissa…¿es tan buena como su flan?”
She beamed. “Mejor, Señor.” And if their pizza really is even better than their flan, then I want the recipe and the franchise because there is a commercial empire to be built.
Home of the best flan I’ve ever eaten, in Maricao
There wasn’t a lot of daylight left at this point, and Helen was now awake and subject to carsickness and boredom; so I figured we would hop off la Ruta at the first convenient point and drop back down to the southern expressway. Fortunately, the first convenient point to leave la Ruta didn’t come until after we had passed through the Maricao State Forest, which local residents refer to as Monte del Estado, after the highest mountain therein. And la Ruta runs right along the highest ridge thereof, and just before it dives down toward the saddle east of the Monte del Estado, you come to a hollow stone tower in a roadside park built by the CCC under FDR.
We did, however, have an excellent view of a phenomenon that seems odd to people who grow up in the flatlands, though mountain folk have seen it all their lives. When a nice wet wind is blowing straight into the side of a steep, sharp-edged mountain ridge, the wind gathers up all the cloudlets and water vapor and pushes them up the mountain, sweeping the windward side of the mountain clear of clouds. But when the wind clears the summit and is finally able to continue on its path, its momentum carries it out over the top and up a bit higher, before it flattens back out and hastens away at its new elevation, rather than diving back down the mountain’s lee slope. The clouds and vapor, however, obey the call of gravity and drop out of the windstream….and the moment they drop into the still lee-side air, they quit moving and start piling up. So you get clear sky on the windward side, and thick fog on the other, and if the summit is sharp enough the fog and the clear air can be only a few yards from each other. Which means that whether or not you can see through the fog, say, a radio tower, can depend entirely on which side of the summit the tower is placed.
(What you can’t tell from this still picture, is that the wisps of clouds on the right hand side of the picture are racing uphill like mad, while the fog on the left-hand side isn’t moving at all.)
We were not blessed with perfect solitude at our tower. When we got there, the roof was already occupied by a family with a couple of teenagers, presumably belonging to the old SUV in the parking area. They seemed perfectly nice and were no problem. When the college kids showed up in a Volkswagen Bug blaring forest-shaking rap music, however, we decided we were ready to go.
From there we headed for home. And here we were betrayed, I would have thought, by Helen’s iPhone and her iPhone maps app, which for some reason thought the best way down was to go a couple of miles along 366 and then take 371, a precipitously plunging, genuinely one-car-wide road that required me to negotiate by eye-contact and sign language with the one car we met in order to find a spot on the saddle wide enough for us to squeeze by each other without someone’s falling several hundred feet down the mountainside. Eventually we came to an intersection and turned left onto what was now a legitimately two-lane road, and I pulled to the side at a wide spot to make sure we were still on the right path. And just as I was about ready to pull back onto the road and go forward, an old SUV sailed past us – with the same family that had been up at the stone tower! So I suppose the iPhone maps app wasn’t entirely insane after all, and that really was about as good a way down the mountain as any.
We followed the other family down the mountainside for several sinuous miles, trailing happily along in their wake knowing that if there were upward-bound lunatics taking corners at outrageous speeds they would hit the SUV rather than us. Finally the SUV’s turn signal flashed left, and then they turned into the parking lot of a little café. Just as I started to speed up and go past them, one of the teenaged girls stuck her head out of a back-seat window and started waving madly at us and calling to us…but by the time it registered on me that they must have actually recognized us from the top and wanted to talk to us, we were already past them and turning the next curve. I thought about going back, but there was no place to turn around and we were still two and a half hours from home and Helen was tired…so I just decided to keep going. I still feel a bit guilty as I type this, and if you, Gentle Reader, are a member of that family and you ever read this, well, discúlpeme, por favor. Nothing personal, I promise.
We returned to the Ruta Panorámica a couple of days later, but that’s another post.