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St. Paul Pioneer Press

It Is Easy To Find Adventure In Puerto Rico


6 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 St. Paul Pioneer Press. All rights reserved.

Knight Ridder News Service

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico – The narrow canal of seawater slices a path through the forest of mangroves, whose branches close together overhead and create a tunnel of darkness. Zipped and buckled into life vests, two to a kayak, our group of 12 adventurers begins to dip paddles rhythmically into the black water.

"Left. Right. Left. Right," each lead paddler hollers to the bowman.

We're lucky on this autumn evening. A slight breeze – and a liberal dousing of repellent – is keeping dime-sized mosquitoes away from us. And there's no moon overhead, which makes it all the better to see the glow-in-the dark creatures we're stalking. Soon we'll be in the midst of one of nature's more dazzling wonders: a bioluminescent bay in the still waters of Fajardo, about an hour east of San Juan.

In single file, we rely on 4-inch, glow-in the dark bracelets – one on the bow, one on the stern – to help keep track of one another in the pitch blackness.

Although we've been instructed to shout out directions from the tour guide in the lead boat to our fellow kayakers, we're new at this, food writers and editors from across the country who have gathered for a conference in San Juan.

We often fail to warn the folks behind us about the dangers hiding in the darkness. Veering from one bank to another, we take turns collapsing into convulsive fits of laughter. Some of us crash into the bow of a pleasure boat, unwisely docked just inside the entrance to the canal. Others collide into a half-submerged tree trunk smack in the middle of our watery path.

Finally, a mile into this late-night adventure, the canal opens onto a wide, glassy-topped bay. Sweating, panting, with blisters forming on our palms, we've arrived.

Laguna Grande is home to hundreds of thousands of single-celled bioluminescent dino-flagellates – tiny plantlike organisms that glow neon-blue when disturbed. On moonless nights like this one, the tiny organisms provide the only source of light in the bay. We sluice our hands through the water. It sparkles, shimmers and glitters like a giant, watery Fourth of July sparkler.

We quickly lash the seven kayaks together and jump into the water, letting the phosphorescent micro-organisms light up our bodies and transforming this clutch of adults into a gaggle of giggling jumbo-sized kids.

Finding adventure in Puerto Rico is as easy as finding a rum drink in Old San Juan. Whether you're seeking frothy surf and fine-grained sand, verdant greenery in a rain forest or a watery microcosm teeming with nature's fireworks, it's here.

The island's relative smallness makes it easy to do three very different activities in as many days: Hike through a rain forest, snorkel off an island and frolic in the darkness in a bioluminescent bay.

And you'll still find time to sip that rum punch in Old San Juan or tour the Bacardi Rum headquarters.

WONDROUS POINTS OF LIGHT Laguna Grande, a bioluminescent bay that's part of the larger Mosquito Bay, is one of the best places in the world to swim with the stars. But, in this case, the stars are the tiny dinoflagellates.

Paddling through the canal is rigorous, and children afraid of the dark might be scared out of their wits. But it's worth the trip. The experience is one of a kind. I feel like "Aladdin's" Jasmine, riding on a magic carpet, swooping her hands through the Milky Way.

We lie on our backs in the bathtub-warm water and wave our arms and legs up and down, back and forth, creating images of sparkly angels as the glow surrounds us. I bicycle-paddle furiously, churning the water beneath me into a foamy, shiny froth.

Handfuls of water shimmer down our cheeks and noses, shoulders, arms and fingers as the bioluminescence traces our bodies. Thirty minutes later we reluctantly clamber back into our kayaks, calmer, fatigued and still completely in awe of this wonder of nature.

TROPICAL RAIN FORESTS Cloaked in raincoats of primary colors, we huddle another day at the entrance to a pathway leading upward into El Yunque Rain Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System. Light drizzle stops and starts. It has been raining since early this morning, and by now the creeks are engorged.

Our small group of about 10 climbs slippery stone steps leading to La Coca Falls, a waterfall tumultuously cascading into a muddied pool. The exotic locale reminds me of a scene from "Survivor" or "Gilligan's Island." I almost expect to turn around and see Dr. Doolittle come out and greet us, followed by the giant sea snail.

Everything seems bigger, wetter, louder and more pungent in the rain forest, from the iguana we spy lounging atop his favorite preening place to the quarter-sized snails inching along the foliage. Watching the snails crawl along the pathway, the food fanatics make crass remarks about butter, garlic, parsley – and escargot.

More than 100 billion gallons of rain fall each year on the 28,000 acres of El Yunque, feeding the streams that pour into waterfalls, including La Coca Falls. Thirteen hiking trails crisscross the terrain, which is home to more than 240 kinds of trees, as well as orchids, the tiny coqui (tree frog) and the cotorra, the endangered green parrot of Puerto Rico.

Some of the rocky trails are wide and roomy; others are merely suggestions. None will disappoint. We slip and slide over the paths, pausing when the tour guide stops to tell stories about the green parrots and their nesting habits.

We linger in front of the falls, letting the mist moisten our faces. We mug for one another's cameras, looking like gigantic water balloons but with heads, hands and feet.

Despite our guide's best efforts on the two-hour walk, we scatter shotgun style from the falls to the gift shop before climbing over the guardrail to take a peek at Iggy the iguana, one of El Yunque's mascots. Tiny lizards careen across the tangle of tropical flowers, the color of Kansas prairie sunsets.

One by one we climb the 1,575-foot Yokahu Tower, whose circular staircase opens up to an open-air viewing perch.

At the top, we have a 360-degree view of this section of the forest. Wisps of fog hover over and around the mountains 3,500 feet above sea level.

On occasion, the sun breaks through the rain clouds, and its beams turn the dark-green foliage to electric greens and shiny browns. Off in the distance, we see the ocean breaking and the spires and cathedrals of Old San Juan.

FERRY, SNORKELING, SANDY BEACHES Miss the ferry out of Fajardo and you'll lose more than a few hours waiting for the next one.

You'll miss a chance to chug across turquoise-blue waters on a shuddering, surging ferry. You'll miss the chance to mingle with islanders, returning to their homes after a day of shopping. You'll miss a chance to nap or share an apple with a pair of precocious sisters, whose family history still doesn't make sense after an hour-plus of questions.

Fortunately, three of us catch the 90-minute ride one morning to Dewey, the only town on one of Puerto Rico's most popular snorkeling sites, Culebra island.

At Culebra Divers, a snorkel and dive shop just beyond the end of the dock, the young owner is ready to ring up mask and fin rentals. We tell him our shoe sizes, hand him $12.50 and head back out the door and around the corner, where a small bus awaits. We pay the $2 fare, and the driver pulls out of the small village, heading toward Playa Flamenco, a few miles away on a curving blacktop road.

It's early, but the sand already scorches our bare feet. We slip and slide up over the berm and scramble to find a shady space to stash our gear.

The wide, white-sand beach curves from rocky point to mountain slope. A nesting area for sea turtles is taped off on one end; the rusting hulk of an American tank sits at the surf's edge on the other end, an angry reminder of the days when Culebra was used by the U.S. Navy.

We scatter toward reefs, still stirred up by the autumn hurricanes. The waves are easy to power through, and the snorkeling is easy, especially for the first-timer among us.

The hours pass quickly as we explore several snorkeling sites.

We snorkel near the tank but back away when the surf shoves us toward ugly jags of rusting metal. We gingerly crawl over and around oversized volcanic boulders, taking care to not slice our bare feet on the jagged edges. Littered with bleached bits of coral that seem to glow in the soft morning light, the beach looks like a prehistoric burial ground for bones.

On the other end of the beach, we snorkel near an abandoned pier. The surf is stronger here, and I hang on to pieces of dead coral. After I'm still for a few moments, all kinds of fish come out to play – angelfish, spadefish, Spanish grunts, even a few that remind me of Dory and Nemo, from "Finding Nemo."

Locals advise snorkelers to cut through a footpath to get to Playa Carlos Rosario, another snorkeling site. But our day is gone, and the bus is waiting.

After returning our gear, we step into the tiny bar next door. We've just enough time to order a potent rum and Coke for the ferry ride back to Fajardo.

Getting there: All major airlines travel to San Juan, most arriving and departing from Luis Munoz Marin International Airport. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory; American citizens do not need a passport or a visa. Taxis and hotel shuttles are easy to catch outside baggage claim. Expect to pay at least $8, plus tip, for a taxi to your hotel.

Getting around: All major U.S. car rental companies operate in San Juan, but you may find a cheaper rate from a locally owned company.

Where to stay: Hotels in San Juan range from the exclusive Ritz-Carlton San Juan Hotel, Spa and Casino to the family-friendly Courtyard by Marriott San Juan Isle Verde to privately owned places like the Hotel Miramar. A three-tiered system is used: budget (from $40 to $75 per night), moderate ($75 to $200) and top-end ($200 and up). High season lasts from mid-December through mid-April. It's typically less expensive to travel during the "shoulder" seasons of spring and fall.

WHAT TO DO: Mosquito Bay: Most of the major hotels will arrange tours to Mosquito Bay, outside Fajardo. They will, of course, charge a fee for setting up the excursion. The guide will collect his portion (about $50) after the trip is over. He'll provide the kayaks, paddles, mosquito spray and the mandatory life vests.

Contact your hotel concierge for tours from San Juan. Island Adventures conducts tours from Vieques Island. Call 1-787-741-0720 or see Prices vary.

El Yunque Rain Forest, near Rio Grande. Also known as the Caribbean National Forest, this is the only rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system. The 28,000-acre refuge, 26 miles southeast of San Juan, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day but Christmas. Admission is free, but the El Portal Information Center, which has films, exhibits and interactive displays, charges $3 for adults, $1.50 for children ages 4 to 12 and adults older than 65. Children younger than 4 are admitted free. Call 1-787-888-1880 or see .

Snorkeling in Culebra: Snorkeling on this 7- by 3-mile island is easy to arrange, especially if you opt to spend the night. Check www. or for details. Both can arrange classes, snorkeling day trips (about $45 a person, including equipment, lunch and refreshments and visits to two sites) or full-blown dives. Culebra Divers is certified by the Puerto Rico Transportation safety board. Culebra Dive Shop is authorized by the Public Service Commissioner of Puerto Rico. Both are endorsed by the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. For more information on Culebra island, send e-mail to

To learn more: Puerto Rico relies heavily upon tourism, and there are several thorough Web sites, including the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau's at . Call 1-800-875-4765. Other helpful sites include,, and

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