It was Thursday, the 23rd of July, two days before we were due to fly out of Puerto Rico. For almost two weeks Helen had gone kayaking and beaching despite being unable to swim, and driving on mountain roads that she found boring and occasionally motion-sickness-inducing. Meanwhile I, who love mountains and kayaking and swimming, had been having a high old time. And frankly, I was feeling that it was high time we had a Helen day, or at the very least a Helen excursion; and I had come up with a plan. I had noticed that there was a botanical garden in Caguas as we passed through on one of our Ruta Panorámica trips, and I had surreptitiously checked it out on the internet and found it highly rated. Now this seemed to me to be right up Helen’s street: she could take pictures of all the tropical trees and flowers and find out what their names were.
This seemed like a good plan and she was excited when I originally proposed it. That had actually been a couple of days early than the Thursday on which we find ourselves in this post, and we had gone into action the previous day. But the botanical garden had turned out to be closed on Wednesdays, and the day had gone rapidly downhill from there, badly enough that I had no stomach for a long post documenting it. (It did improve at the very end; but not enough to turn it from a bad day into a good one.) So I was really looking forward to giving Helen a nice three hours or so at the botanical garden. And then, because we had a friend who was going to be vacationing in Puerto Rico shortly after we left, and because that friend wanted a bit more information about El Yunque, the plan was to spend the afternoon in El Yunque trying out a couple of the hiking trails, and maybe swimming below the famous waterfall on the Río la Mina.
We arose reasonably early in the morning and made our way back down the coast and through the valleys of the Ríos Valenciano and Guarabo to Caguas, and found the botanical garden open for business…and it turns out that the less said about that botanical garden the better. Blindingly hot day (by Puerto Rican standards); very few plants of any beauty or interest at least at that time of year; no signs at all to tell you the names of the plants you were looking at; a tiny pond and paddleboats so lame that we simply dropped the boat tickets we had bought at the entrance gate into the trash without using them, on our way back out to the parking lot. I have absolutely no idea what the people who gave it five stars were thinking.
There was one thing I did enjoy, though, as well as one thing I was proud of.
The one thing I enjoyed was Helen’s reaction to the sign on the ladies’ bathroom. I don’t think she had noticed the Spanish for “ladies” up until that point, as most bathrooms we had encountered used the standard international pictures. But the bathrooms here had nice big wooden signs reading “Caballeros” and “Damas.”
“Kenny, what does this mean?” she asked, though of course she had a good idea.
“You mean damas? It’s Spanish for ‘ladies,’” I answered.
This kept Helen amused for some time, because dàmā (大妈) is a common Chinese word that means something along the lines of “woman whose age and weight are both represented with large numbers.” She didn’t necessarily want to go into any bathroom set apart for dàmās. But then since Helen is winningly petite and is still possessed of girlish rather than grandmotherly beauty, there was hardly much likelihood of confusion.
The one thing I was proud of? How well Helen kept her temper. And for that matter how well I did – I had wound up in a towering rage by the end of the previous day and had stalked around very obviously and very strenuously and not very successfully trying to exercise self-control. This day, the further around the botanical garden we went, and the more obvious it became that my big scheme for giving Helen a treat just for her was a hopeless failure, the more we grinned and rolled our eyes at each other. We enjoyed each other’s company, at least, even while forming a settled conviction that we would never again set foot in this particular tourist attraction. That was more than my bad temper the previous day had allowed us.
So we decided to get a head start on El Yunque…but at this point I made a decision that very much improved our Thursday but was to have a less happy impact on our Friday. I decided that since we had picked up extra time by leaving the botanical garden early, we could use the extra time to go to El Yunque not on the autopistas, but instead using the back roads that would take us through Lomas to El Yunque by way of the waterfall on the Río Espíritu Santo. I had brought a swimsuit, so I would be able to swim…and I was delighted when I opened the trunk and ascertained that the waterproof camera was still there.
It took a while to get back to the waterfall, given the roads we were using; and when we got there we found that there were a few more people hanging out there this day than there had been on the day we first found it. Still, it was hardly overrun with humanity.
I helped Helen make her way up and over the rocks (there was some…well, not really rock-climbing, but at least rock-clambering to do, especially for somebody built on the Helen scale rather than the Kenny scale). She settled herself on a rock at the edge of the pool in order to have a pleasant time reading with her feet in the cool water while I swam, and this was good for her feet…
…but alas not so good for the book, which decided to go swimming when she set it down for a moment on the rock beside her, having underestimated how steeply the rock slanted down to the water.
Meanwhile I climbed up one side of the cliff face a little ways in order to get a better picture of the falls, armed this day with the Nikon rather than an iPhone. And from here I could see that, as I had expected, the huge boulder that was blocking the mouth of the crevice, hid another, very narrow pool at the base of the falls.
That settled it. I had arrived with a plan, but now I had a commitment: I was going to find a way past that boulder with the waterproof camera, swim in that pool, and take a picture of the waterfall therefrom.
Into the water I went, and I swam directly to the base of the boulder. I had been able to see from the far side of the pool, back when we first found the place, that there were possibly passageways under either or both sides of the boulders. Now that I was there at the boulder itself, I could see that the right-hand side was impenetrably blocked, as there was another even larger boulder underneath and behind the one visible from across the pool. On the left-hand side there had once been a gap plenty large enough for a middle-aged gringo; but at some point in the past a tree trunk had been swept down the river and had gotten itself immovably wedged into the hole, blocking it off. And this was an ausubo trunk, the sort that reacts to water not by rotting but by petrifying.
I hated to give up, though, and there was a little bit of space under the petrified ausubo trunk to go back along the side of the big boulder with my head still out of the water. So I eased myself back…and found that, about three feet back, a little space opened up to the right, and above that space was a chimney that opened to sky five or six feet above the water level.
I haven’t rock-climbed in a while and I was in bare feet and about seventy pounds heavier than back when I free-climbed half the cliff faces in Robbers Cave State Park. But there was no way I was going to go home without getting up that chimney and out the other side. And in short order, Helen was able to take these pictures (from which you will finally be able to get a true sense of the scale of the boulder and the waterfall behind it).
There was one more large boulder wedged in the crevice about five feet past the front door, so to speak; but the right-hand side of the crevice had a sloping half-ledge just above water level. So it was a matter of moments to make my way around the boulder and into the private, quivering pool where the waves formed at the base of the waterfall were reflected back and forth from one side of the crevice to the other all the way out to the base of that back-door boulder, so that not for all the decades or perhaps even centuries that that pool has existed, has its water ever been still. And there I took my Holy Grail of a picture. I took ten or eleven of them actually, just to make sure at least one of them would be good.
Alas, now comes the time of sorrow. Back when I first mentioned the acquisition of the waterproof camera, I said that it came to a tragic end, but gave no details. Here it is my sad duty to record its fate. When we got home at the end of this day I rushed to Walgreens, which had a big sign advertising one-hour photos. But when I got there, they told me that for old-style film cameras, there was no longer any place in Puerto Rico that could develop the film – they would have to send the film off to the mainland to be developed, and I would have it back in, oh, say, a month.
“I’ll be in Texas myself in two days,” I said somewhat crankily. “If it has to go to the mainland I can take it personally.” Privately I resolved to get a second opinion at CVS, which also advertised one-hour photos. Once the second opinion turned out to be identical to the first, I yielded to fate and packed the camera.
Back in Texas, I went back to Walgreens. “It’ll take a couple of weeks because we have to send it off to a central processing center in…” I can’t remember where they said – Atlanta, I think, but honestly I’m not sure because I pretty much stopped listening after the phrase “a couple of weeks.” Then to Wal-Mart, where they told me, “Five days,” and I said to myself, “That’s probably about as good as it gets.”
But now there was another problem: when I tried to rewind the film, it got stuck. I couldn’t get it to move, and neither could the Wal-Mart photocenter dude. So in the end I just put the whole camera in the bag with a brief note telling them what had happened and telling them they could keep the camera if they would just send me the pictures.
A week later I was back at Wal-Mart, and they handed the pictures into my hot little hands, and I made myself wait until I got home because Helen was waiting for ingredients for dinner. Finally, I stuck the CD into the laptop and opened the pictures…
(I don’t really want to go on.)
I wound up making Helen’s blog because she heard me laughing in helpless resignation (as an alternative to hurling objects around the room in fury) and came in to find her husband saying, “There must have been some little lens cap or something on that camera that I didn’t notice,” because all the pictures were black. She thought that this was exactly the kind of air-headedness that she (and apparently her readers) inexplicably find “cute” when I commit it; and so she posted a couple of my snapshots on her blog along with the story. But one of her readers noticed that the pictures weren’t actually totally black and challenged my lens-cap theory in the comments; and we went back and examined those pictures more carefully…and I am now quite, quite convinced that some idiot at the Wal-Mart processing center ignored the note and, without rewinding the film, opened the camera outside of the darkroom, thus exposing the film.
So my lovely pictures of fish on the reef at Culebra, and of the private inner sanctum of the Holy Spirit Falls…they have perished. [takes out his Army bugle and mournfully plays taps]
I spent fifteen or twenty minutes there in that pool in the Holy of Holies (which seems to me a good name for the inner sanctum given that the waterfall is the personal property of the Holy Spirit). But it eventually occurred to me that it had been a long time since Helen had seen me, and as a non-swimmer and non-free-climber herself, she finds it especially stressful when her middle-aged husband disappears alone into a place where he has two different ways to get himself killed. So I made my way back out of the Holy of Holies and into the main pool, where Helen was very happy to see me.
I really didn’t want to get out of the water, and before I got around to it a couple of teenaged boys had shown up, giving me a good excuse to hang out and collect local information. One of them had very good English, and he and I had a nice pleasant chat. High points:
- I was amused to hear him refer to northern and southern Puerto Rico as the “nature side” and the “cement side” of Puerto Rico, respectively. He also told me that he doesn’t like San Juan, but that he wouldn’t have said so had there been any other Puerto Ricans around to get angry with him for uttering such a heresy.
- He lives in Barranquitas and spends a lot of time swimming in the various rivers in the mountains – the day before he and his buddy had been in the pool beneath the Salto de Doña Juana, as a matter of fact.
- He asked whether I thought the water was cold. I told him no, it was perfect. He grinned and said, “That’s what all the Americans who swim in our mountains say. But if you ask a Puerto Rican, we all think it’s freezing.” Considering that their baseline water temperature is “Caribbean beach,” one is hardly surprised, of course.
- He said he had never seen anybody swimming at this waterfall before, and pointed to a waterline that I hadn’t noticed (you can see for yourself in the pictures where the rocks around the pool change color). It turns out that the ordinary level of the pool is at least two feet higher than it was when we were there, and my guess is that at that water level, and with the flow rate necessary to maintain it, that pool is not ordinarily a safe place to bathe. So I was even luckier than I realized. In fact, it turns out that Puerto Rico is in the middle of a terrible drought — Raymond says everybody in Puerto Rico is hoping that Danny will hit them head-on because they are so desperate for rain. Now that, my friends, is desperation.
- He had no idea that there was a way back to the inner sanctum. I showed him how to get there, and shortly thereafter he was crowing to his friend, “It’s as if I never saw el Espíritu Santo before!” This implicitly resolved my question as to whether the waterfall was itself named for the Holy Spirit, or whether it was only the river that was so called.
- As much as I wanted the waterfall to be a caterata and therefore a shy young maiden “hiding demurely back within her chamber,” my closer inspection had led me to think it was probably more of a salto than a catarata. I asked my new friend about it, and he considered the matter gravely, and then said, yes, he agreed that salto was more appropriate. So I suppose I’ll have to call it the Salto Espíritu Santo from now on. (sigh)
- He told me about cave tubing on the Tanamá river. Ai-ya, why wasn’t he there the first time we were there? Later I checked the Trip Advisor entry for Tanamá River Adventures: 118 reviews of which 116 were five stars and the other two four. I’ve NEVER seen that kind of Trip Advisor score. Okay, I now HAVE to go back to Puerto Rico.
- Also he highly, highly recommended a guided hike through the Cañón de San Cristóbal near his home. He tried to describe to me the unique shade of blue water in the pools of that canyon, and having looked up pictures thereof I have to say he did a surprisingly good job. So that’s ANOTHER reason I have to go back to Puerto Rico.
I spend so long in the pool that when we finally left, I was surprised to discover that I hadn’t left time to do our El Yunque hiking. So I postponed that to the following day, which was to be our last full day in Puerto Rico. We were already planning to leave Fajardo in the late afternoon and spend the night in Viejo San Juan before catching our 6:00 a.m. flight. Now we altered the plan a bit: we headed on home and went ahead with packing and cleaning. We would leave the next morning rather than the next afternoon, and take an hour to run down the trail to La Mina Falls. That, at least, was the plan. How it worked out…well, there’s one Puerto Rico post to go, I suppose.
But before packing, there was one more thing on the day’s agenda: we were going out to dinner with Raymond and his girlfriend Amarilys at the Gran Meliá golf resort. Which we did, and we had a very good time, because we like them both a lot. But as I didn’t do anything stupid or air-headed, and as it was already too dark to play golf by the time we got there, there would be no entertainment in my describing the evening; so we are done for the day.
One day left in our Puerto Rican vacation; one more post to get us onto the plane…