Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Relaxing without a Canary is living on the edge.

The road from Ponce led us through a series of terrifying twists and blind curves, as we headed south-west along the coastal highway. Much of the coastline is pockmarked with sprawling industrial plants and factories, and every so often the vista is disrupted by the incongruity of a rusted smokestack or a radio tower. The road is wide enough for precisely one and a half cars, which is problematic when passing. Over bad stretches of road, dogs will chase the car snarling.

Guanica houses one of the main wildlife preserves in Puerto Rico, a highly diverse forest system beginning at the ocean shore and ascending through the "dry forest" from salty wetlands to a deciduous fringe and into a thick jungle. Views from surrounding hilltops reveal undulating, verdant expanses framed by tall palm trees and punctuated with highly inappropriate and frankly dampening plant life.
The ocean here is flat and indolent, and the sharp curves are often accompanied by a blinding glare from the still surface of the water. At high noon it looks like an igneous mirror, and the only oceanic property it exudes is the heavy infusion of salt in the air, which parches you. There is no shoulder to the narrow road, and the abrupt descent is a dusty jag of baked, scorched rock.

The Copamarina beach resort lies languidly at the end of a precarious, scorched highway, on a poorly marked and dilatory debouchement. The parking lot is arid and silent. Once inside, however, the shaded stone floors lead to tall pitchers of lemon water slick with condensation, and the long stretch of lawn gives way to a white sand beach that shimmers like an oasis in the sun.

a damn sight better than playa salinas.

The rooms are dark and simple, the blinds controlled by pins that fit into worn grooves holding the slats open.

I did not mean to include that guy.

This is a place to go when you want to do absolutely nothing but sit on a beach and drink overpriced mojitos.

and I do.

There is no nightlife apart from the hotel cantina, no restaurants apart from the hotel dining rooms. There is a small beachside bungalow owned by the hotel which will loan out expansive, worn towels in a surprising shade of turquoise, and sells a depressing and exorbitant assortment of ghastly trinkets, plastic sunshades, candy, cigarettes and coke.

This was the first time we had actually made it to the beach, and it was perfect. We anticipated at least two days of glorious nothing before we became stir crazy, but by the end of the first afternoon I was highlighting the end notes to Dombey and Son and Mike was sitting in the dormant shallows, resolutely carving an immense crater into the sand of the placid ocean floor with crazed dedication.

This was not a venue that was fraught with excitement. We had some bad drinks, some good drinks, and I got half of the worst pedicure of my life. None of this is worth recording here, since if you are the kind of asshole who wants to read some other asshole's bad review of a pedicure that you will probably never get then this is not the blog for you. Sorry.

On Monday we headed due North to the mountainous center of the island. We stopped first for a brief hike in the national reserve, which is a quiet, stifling haven for small flowers and songbirds. We managed a close look at a few prismatic hummingbirds, and caught brief glimpses of huge wings and talons circling high above us.

We anticipated a drive of about an hour and a half to the center of the island, which turned out to be not only unreasonably sanguine but profoundly foolish. To assume that a place in which the second most common form of transportation is bareback on a feral horse, on roads that would feel confined in a clown car, through pockets of such minimal population that the roadside stands still sell cans of coke emblazoned with characters from Space Jam, for chrissake, to even briefly entertain the prospect that a people who can countenance a restaurant called "MR POLLO" will live in a region that will be accurately represented on a map is fatuous. We got lost.

We got SO lost.

Even using a map and a GPS, we found ourselves looking for roads that didn't exist, roads that had probably never existed, roads in such ignominious straits of disrepair that the title was a misnomer, roads that led off cliffs, roads that stubbornly refused to intersect with larger arteries portrayed on the map but instead meandered blindly upwards, ever ascending, until they sputtered out in a mud filled rut, or a gravel pit, or once, to our mortification, at the front door of a decrepit hacienda bringing the entire household racing to the edge of the porch in wonder. It was getting dark by the time we finally arrived, irritable and cramped, at the town of Jayuya. At this point, directions to our hotel became slightly more comprehensible, as the Spanish was less heavily accented and some people spoke a little English. Also, there seemed to be less potential for error. ("Now joo gonn go toward the gas station. It's the onny one joo gonna find.") Grumpy and persecuted by stray dogs, we finally reached the Hacienda Gripinas.

This place might as well exist in an alternate dimension, for all the trouble we had getting here.

A moribund coffee plantation, the restored mansion has small, dark rooms and massive, spacious balconies that look out over the mountains. The air is heavy and fragrant, the coffee rich and deeply satisfying, the food a revolting viscous mass of deep fried carbohydrates in unclarified animal fat. (Dinner and breakfast are included!) The town is small and unpredictable, bursting into patches of thickly grouped homes and businesses and then just as swiftly retreating into wild stretches of sparsely populated woodland. The main street is crowded with parked pickups, and traffic is a mess. But for all the people trapped in the congestion, nothing is open, and on the flyblown counters of dark restaurants, scrofulous pieces of fried chicken become dessicated and shrivelled under the strange red glare of the heat lamps.

The hacienda is a small paradise far outside the town. In the evenings when the light fades the hoarse and interminable bitching of the chickens is succeeded by the mechanical trills of night birds and nocturnal frogs. You can smell the honeysuckle and the jasmine, and when night settles, tiny lights blink greenly in the brush.

Some of the springs have rocks that contain archaic petroglyphs which would be of great interest to historians and anthropologists were they not perpetually obscured by maladjusted Puerto Rican teenagers chain smoking and wearing Yankees hats and high-waist elastic underpants.

At the spring fed pool, we made some nice new friends.

This dog was such a spaz that when she saw a person, she wagged her tail so hard she fell over. Awwwww.

On the way out of town we stopped at the famed Heladria de Lares, nefarious for its preposterous flavors such as "garlic," "casserole" and "corn." I had the "sweet rice," Mike tried the "plantains." both were delicious.

North of Jayuya are the Camuy caves, a vast underground system of tunnels and the favorite lurking spot of about 9 billion bats, and several trollish species of crickets and spiders.

Mike won't even look at this picture.

The caves are mostly comprehended by a 268 acre park, which offers guided tours through the larger caverns. The afternoon tour focuses primarily on the enormous Cava Clara, a misty, spectacular chasm 200 feet underground. Light breaks through at surprising intervals illuminating the glistening formations sporadically, and over the heavy sound of your own breathing can be heard the rhythmic dripping that startles the blind fish. In their own way, the Camuy caverns are as peaceful and calming as the comatose beaches. Unless you're claustrophobic. Or hate spiders.


  1. Ummmm.... I might be the type of asshole who wants to read about your bad pedicure. For example. Why was it only HALF of a pedicure? What happened to the other half?

  2. By the time I made her stop I only had one foot left. She filed all the skin off my toe! The temptation to be scathing on Yelp! was overwhelming. I could have FLAMED that yatch. Doesn't she know who I am?!?