Looking back at the Tuesday the 21st of July, the day after the three-way playoff that settled The Open, while Helen and I were still in Puerto Rico…
On my Puerto Rico bucket list, as will surprise nobody at all, was the highest point in Puerto Rico, Cerro la Punta.
This was a couple hours’ drive away by autopista, and conveniently for me was on a stretch of the Ruta Panorámica that we had not covered on our trip a couple of days earlier. So Helen and I set out reasonably early in the morning.
We stopped in at CVS there in Fajardo to get a phone charger, as I certainly did not want to be in the middle of Puerto Rico with no Google Maps. Fajardo is on the part of Highway 3 that is not an autopista but is a four-lane divided highway with concrete barriers in the middle and little frontage roads on either side, with on-ramps that give you maybe ten yards of merging space before they turn into shoulder, for access to all the roadside stores. — that is, there are stop lights and driveways all along either side where you can get on and off the highway, but the places where you can cross to the other side of the highway are relatively infrequent.
I pulled onto the frontage road, and then onto the little on-ramp, and was just about to look backward over my shoulder to make sure I could merge safely when suddenly I realized there was another car going the wrong way in my lane, bearing down on me at full highway speed. I had just enough time to swerve to the left out into the main lanes, with no idea whether I was about to get clobbered by a truck; but as the alternative was a head-on collision I swerved with all my might. The moment I was out of his path I cast my eyes up to the rear-view mirror to see whether I needed to swerve back onto the shoulder to keep from getting rear-ended. And I did see a vehicle behind me; but I was very happy to see that it was not a truck and that it was a good fifty yards or so back; so we were not going to get run over and killed. And do you know what else I was happy to see?
It was a cop. [At this point I am cackling evilly as I type.]
And as the wrong-way driver headed up the on-ramp, on came the red-and-blue lights, and the cop made a nice tight U-turn up the on-ramp and floored it. And I laughed for the next five minutes, and I have no idea how much of that was relief that we were alive and how much was a feeling that I had delegated vengeance to the cop. But I can guarantee you that to this very moment I have yet to feel any pity for the dude.
We didn’t bother with the scenic route on our way west this time. I was already familiar with the central autopistas because that’s how we came back after our first trip out west. From Fajardo down #53 to Humacao, then across to Caguas on #30, and then the run up and over the Cordillera Central on #52. This last road could have been a Colorado interstate if Colorado had tropical vegetation. From Caguey to the pass above Cayey you climb about 1,800 feet in a bit more than thirteen miles. Then you start going down, and at that point the slope gets serious. According to Google Earth, if you start at the highest point on the autopista, where you are at almost exactly 2,100 feet above sea level, and then you head south along the highway, then ten miles later you will be 250 feet above sea level. That is an average slope of 3.5%. For ten miles. Very nice stretch of road to my way of thinking.
When we first saw that stretch of road, coming back from Magayüez, we were headed north, rather late at night after a long day, and I was planning to get gas at Caguas. When we started climbing that ten-mile stretch, our rented Sentra told me I had sixty miles’ worth of gas in the tank. When we got to the top, it said we had nineteen miles left and dropping fast. Five miles into the downstretch it said, never mind, we were good for forty more miles.
At any rate, this morning we stayed on autopistas until we got to Ponce, and then Highway 10 took us up into the mountains until, at the top of the pass between Ponce and Adjuntas, we found the Ruta Panorámica again, about fifteen crows’ miles east of where we had abandoned it two days earlier, and just west of Cerro de Punta. Up we headed, and not wasting any time about it, either. It was nice to discover that this part of the Ruta Panorámica was reasonably well marked, and very well maintained; and so we had a pleasant little drive up to La Pica. Here we could for the first time see Cerro la Punta and know we were looking at it.
La Pica is actually on a fairly sizable high plateau. There is even enough room for an Iglesia de San Patricio (which does not look very Irish) with a flat parking lot and a basketball court, not to mention a gas station. By which I mean the plateau, not the church, has a gas station.
From La Pica, you climb very rapidly, on a very smooth and well-maintained Ruta Panorámica, all the way up to 3,810 feet, five hundred eighty feet from the top. And if you want to go all the way to the top…well, there’s a road that will get you to a small parking lot at 4,350 feet, and concrete stairs for the last forty feet. Well, sort of a road. A road, loosely so called. A road that disposes of its 510 feet of elevation in…seven-tenths of a mile. That’s an average 10% grade, and some parts of it were a lot steeper than other parts, not to mention washed out here and there.
I will ruin the suspense by saying that we did in fact, both of us, set foot on the very highest point of natural land in Puerto Rico. That is so that I can go ahead and show you the picture of the base of that last five-hundred foot climb, at the point where you leave the Ruta Panorámica, as seen from the viewing platform at the peak.
But before we set foot on the top, Helen had to endure the drive up that road. I had sort of an inkling that this road might be entertaining, especially in a Nissan Sentra, and so I put her in charge of videotaping it. Interestingly, the further up the hill we got, the more the video became a video of the dashboard, as Helen shrank lower and lower into her seat. I think maybe it shook her confidence when I had to shift out of drive into low gear because, even with the accelerator pressed all the way to the floor, the Sentra kept going slower and slower and finally started to stall.
But obviously we did make it all the way up, and later all the way down again. And once at the top…my, what a view. I’ll just let the pictures do the talking, even though they are somewhat gagged by the rain that was moving in beneath us. (We could see all the way to the Caribbean when we first got there but by the time we got the camera out the coast was obscured.)
Helen was particularly fascinated by the flowers and the bees. (I myself am more interested in bees in conjunction with birds but everybody to his own kick.)
Here, by the way, for no reason other than that Helen’s bee pictures reminded me of it, is an old limerick from, if memory serves, Bennet Cerf:
Concerning the bees and the flowers
And the birds in the gardens and bowers
You will note at a glance
That their ways of romance
Haven’t any resemblance to ours.
Helen and I each got a picture of the other standing on top of Puerto Rico (the highest point is under my left foot below), but I am not allowed to show you the picture of Helen, because unlike me, Helen was not wearing her makeup.
Helen’s editorial privileges extend not only to her being allowed to veto pictures of her, but also her being able to insist on the inclusion of the following picture of me, in which I was unaware that I was posing for publication.
Well, that’s enough of that. At any rate, after half an hour or so on the peak, we headed back down.
I had another stop in mind, one that was not technically on the Ruta Panorámica but that would require only a two- or three-mile detour. This was el Salto de Doña Juana, which is to say, the Doña Juana Falls. So we drove down (literally) the Ruta Panorámica headed for the crossroads at Divisoria, where we were due to turn left. But before we got there, we drove past something entirely unexpected, and I had to pull over and investigate.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Ruta Panorámica was created in the 1970’s in a burst of governmental enthusiasm, which enthusiasm subsequently waned. Here we beheld what once had obviously been a large and expensive rest stop, with a parking lot so big there had been a median between the inbound lane of the driveway and the outbound lane.
And now it was utterly abandoned.
The parking lot had been swallowed up in grass; concrete barriers had been rolled across the driveway.
The bathrooms had been stripped of all plumbing and abandoned to grafitteers.
You would have though no human being had set foot there in years, except that a small portion of the grass at the very front appeared to have been mowed somewhat recently — but only at the very front.
There was a fairly large outcropping of rock at the back of the rest stop, next to the shell of the old restroom. I was curious to see if you could get a good view from the rock and started to walk toward it. As I crossed the grass I caught a small movement out of the corner of my eye, and looked down in the grass. There I saw the only coquí I would see the entire trip.
The coquí may be the most beloved of all Puerto Ricans, human or animal. He is a frog, and he gets his name because of his distinctive call, which sounds very much indeed like “koh-KEE,” the second syllable being a perfect fifth interval above the first in pitch. If you have not been told about the coquí and you visit a Puerto Rican forest, you will certainly ask somebody what kind of bird it is that is making that lovely sound. But it is no bird; it is one of the many species of coquí, which come in various sizes and shades of color. I had of course been hearing coquí calls ever since the first day we arrived in Puerto Rico; now I was seeing one of the callers.
And just to give you some sense of the scale on which this high-volume singer is built…
In that picture my hand is about halfway between my camera and the coquí.
Once atop the rock…
…I looked around and discovered that the park – “rest stop,” I now decided, was too inadequate a word for what this place had once been – extended even further than I had expected. So, a bit to Helen’s alarm (since I disappeared from view for a while), I kept exploring. The atmosphere of ancient ruins became even more pronounced.
At the very back I could see a fence marking the end of the park. But I could also see that persons of initiative had removed a section of the fence, and that a well-trodden trail wound yet further back into the jungle. Naturally I had to investigate. And this is what I found:
Now this, to me, pretty much sums up the Puerto Rican government’s competence in matters of promotion of tourism, at least as far as the Ruta Panorámica is concerned. They have this promontory ending in this spectacular view. They spend a ton of money building a large and elaborate rest area at this very spot. And then they fence off the view.
I went back to the car where Helen was waiting patiently and told her she had to get out and come with me, which she obediently did. And here is Helen walking down the path, unaware that I was surreptitiously recording her reaction.
By the way, very much later in the day we passed through the township of Villabo, and drove past the Mirador Orocovis-Villalba, a very nicely developed and still very nicely maintained lookout point with the same kind of ridiculous view. But in this area there are a lot of houses, some of which are perched on that highest ridge and have just that type of view. Helen was asleep by then and I didn’t want to wake her up; so there are no pictures. But I did notice that one of those houses was for sale. That evening, just as we were coming into Cayey, Helen woke up. So once we were safely back on the autopista, I asked her to pull out her iPhone and see if she could find houses for sale in that area on the internet. And she did find two or three. The first one was for sale for I think about $30,000. The second was something like $20,000. The third, if memory serves, was $200,000. I think I know which of those was the one with the view.
Well, back at the old abandoned park, we took more pictures of the view, and of a butterfly who stopped by to share it with us.
Eventually we returned to our car to continue on our way. But as we did so, we experienced a minor disaster, though we weren’t aware of it when it happened. We became aware of it very rapidly, however, as soon as we got in the car and closed the doors.
Helen had managed to step in fresh dog poop with both shoes.
So for the next part of the drive, we kept the windows rolled down and I went around corners as fast as I could to try to keep as much air moving through the windows as possible, until we could get to the waterfall and hopefully find leaves and rocks and twigs and water with which to clean the shoes. (I may anticipate the eventual outcome by saying that I spent at least ten minutes trying to get those shoes clean well downstream from where people were hanging out at the waterfall, to no avail. In the end the shoes made the rest of the trip in the trunk. Helen was then quite astonished to find that as soon as we got home, I threw the shoes into the washing machine; she had never heard of anybody being so disrespectful to a washing machine as to wash shoes in it, much less shoes in that particular condition.)
In short order we had made our left-hand turn at Divisoria. This new highway was also headed downhill most enthusiastically, which leads to this picture that, if it were a painting, I might name “Commitment”:
You have to be really committed to basketball to play on a court where an errant pass is likely to travel two or three hundred yards downhill before you can catch up to it.
And then we turned a corner, and there it was.
Now when I had discovered the waterfall on the Río Espíritu Santo I had been caught off guard and unprepared. Today, however, I had known before we left Fajardo that the Salto de Doña Juana was on the itinerary, and I had my swimsuit and a spare shirt with me. So in short order I was in the water, whose temperature was perfect – cold enough to take your breath away when you first jumped in, but once you’d been in for thirty seconds or so, you felt like you would never want to get out again.
Just look how clear that water is:
There’s a story that goes with one picture…
Up until I met this young lady, I had found Puerto Ricans to be very hospitable. She, however, made it very plain (as you can see in the picture) that she was NOT happy to see me. I was floating serenely on my back, looking up at the waterfall, when she and her friend passed by me. She paused, and I looked over to say hello. But she spoke first, abruptly and brusquely, and in English.
“Are you from Puerto Rico?” It sounded more like an accusation than a question.
“No,” I answered with a polite smile.
Instead of smile in return, I got another question. “Do you know this place’s name?” Her tone of voice made it clear that she was already sure my answer would be another no.
“Sí,” I answered, “es el Salto de Doña Juana.”
Her surprise at my right answer, and her disappointment, were evident. “Oh.” A pause. “Good job.” She said this with the air of a woman who feels she has no choice but to say something complimentary about her husband’s ex-wife. Then without another word she turned on back on me and she and her friend swam away. Only with the exercise of the severest self-control did I manage to keep from laughing.
I had an experience a few days later (which will be told in due time, in another post) that I think helped me understand her evident hostility. I think that she must be afraid that if word of that waterfall and pool get out to gringo tourists, they’ll overrun the place and ruin it. Which, I admit, would be a pity. You, O Gentle Reader, are of course not an ordinary tourist and your presence at such a place would only enhance the experience of fellow nature-lovers, and therefore I am happy to tell you about it. But let’s keep it between ourselves, shall we? If I go back myself I would certainly hate to find the place overrun with Americans. They’re so rude and noisy, you know.
(I’m almost serious about that. I once spent several months living in England, and toward the end of my stay there I was on a train when a bunch of Americans got on the train, and Lord have mercy were they ever loud. I caught myself thinking some very unpatriotic thoughts.)
One other young lady deserves mention.
I’m sure this girl was a local; she swam like a fish and dove with nonchalant grace. Well, good for her, but then I’ve known lots of good swimmers and divers, and that in itself does not earn you a spot on my blog. But right before I left, she started climbing over toward the waterfall, as you see in the picture. To my astonishment (though Helen didn’t get a picture of it), she climbed all the way under the waterfall, six or seven feet above the water level, poised herself there with complete control for several seconds, and then dove into the pool from there. Only somebody who has tried to climb a relatively sheer rock face in bare feet when the rock was soaking wet, can begin to appreciate the degree of difficulty in this feat. Frankly I have no idea how she did it, but I hereby bow reverentially in her direction.
By the time we left, the afternoon was well advanced. We got back onto the Ruta Panorámica and headed for Cayey, where we could get back onto the autopista and hightail it back home. Helen by now was getting tired of mountains; so she went to sleep, and I tried to go fast enough to be onto the autopista before she woke up. And had the time estimates Google Maps gave me been even close to accurate, I’d’ve made it with room to spare. Unfortunately there was a lot of traffic from Villalbo all the way to Cayey, and to make it worse we spent the last ten miles or so trapped behind some large trucks, and so she woke up while there were still fifteen or twenty minutes to go – and woke up not feeling well. So I felt pretty bad about that, since she had already very politely spent the day on what I wanted to do rather than what she wanted to do. But once on the autopista our path smoothed out and our speed went up to seventy miles per hour or so, and we made our way back home in the darkness and…headed straight to the washing machine with a pair of sneakers.
We didn’t go back to la Ruta this trip. This means that I have two sections left to travel someday, when we come back to Puerto Rico to deal with this and other unfinished business such as a sailing excursion or cave tubing. First, there’s the section that runs from the Capilla de Santa Rosa by way of a couple of nice lakes, which Google maps says is about thirty miles and about an hour and half of driving. Then there’s Cayey to Maunabo, which is forty miles and about an hour and forty-five minutes.
But I think that if this were going to be my only trip to Puerto Rico, and if I were only going to get to drive two sections of la Ruta…well, it’s hard not to feel like I picked the right two.