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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Trailblazing In Puerto Rico; Service Trip Takes Travelers Off Beaten Path
By KAREN SAMELSON
27 March 2005
Copyright © 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.
Sitting on a rocky promontory with our lunches, we rested our muscles as we surveyed the rain forest below and watched the hawks soaring around us. In the distance, the vivid blue Caribbean waters lapped at the beach where we would take a dip later in the day.
Not bad for a working vacation in Puerto Rico.
In the morning we had helped stabilize two areas where small mudslides had impeded the trail to the top of 3,496-foot El Yunque peak. We also had cleaned palm fronds from a small drainage channel.
Doing volunteer work with the Sierra Club or other similar group is a great way to get an inside view of a national forest or park. We worked with U.S. Forest Service employees who knew the lush forest like the back of their weathered hands, and the ground transportation, lodging and food were taken care of, though we paid for the privilege.
Sure it's work, and that means sore muscles (no machete injuries, luckily). But participants get the chance to explore places they'd never see otherwise and at the same time give back to the out of doors. In our down time we had opportunities to lounge on the beach, hike, bird watch, kayak and snorkel.
The lush Caribbean National Forest, better known as El Yunque rain forest, is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. forest system. Its protected status dates to 1876, when Spain proclaimed 12,000 acres in Puerto Rico's Luquillo Mountains as a forest preserve, one of the first in the Western Hemisphere.
The U.S. Forest Service adopted it in 1903, five years after the United States took control of the island in the Spanish-American War.
Today the national forest covers 28,000 acres and has international recognition as a U.N. Biosphere Reserve. Situated about an hour east of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, it's accessible to travelers and locals alike.
"I love it here," a Puerto Rican named Jose said as we chatted atop the windy El Yunque peak. It was his fourth visit to the mountain, the first for most in our group.
Typical work day
On the first work day, we grabbed rakes, shovels and machetes and set off, sort of like the Seven Dwarfs, following Forest Service worker Roberto Rijos Ramirez. (Actually, there were 14 Sierrans, which is how many people fit in two rented minivans.)
We hiked up the Bano d'Oro trail to three pools built as a trout hatchery in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Forest Service is thinking of restoring the ponds and wanted to see what was left.
We began by pulling up delicate green ferns and pink impatiens that had sprouted up over the years in the first dry pool. This went against the grain for some home gardeners, but impatiens grow wild in Puerto Rico. Over in the second pool, Keith McIntosh from Boston dug through the dirt until he finally found the pool's concrete bottom.
We felt like archaeologists, using our shovels to try to uncover the structures and figure out how the water had been channeled between the pools.
We discovered how quickly well-watered vegetation can take over parts of the park get close to 200 inches of rain a year. It's easy to work up a sweat in that kind of humidity the temperature was close to 80 degrees in March so breaks to get a drink and snap pictures were a must.
Around noon we pulled out our sack lunches along a creek that was enveloped by tree ferns, palms and red bromeliads. I caught a glimpse of a small brown animal crossing the stream a mongoose! Mongooses, among the rain forest's non-native species, can be a problem because they sometimes are rabid, but this one just ambled off.
The mongoose is one of only a handful of mammals in the forest. But it teems with little lizards, Puerto Rico's beloved coquis (tiny tree frogs) and a variety of birds, including hummingbirds, thrashers and the strangely named bananaquit. Just don't count on seeing the endangered Puerto Rican parrot that's bred there.
Time for relaxing
Our workday, which usually began when we piled into our minivans at 7:30 a.m., ended around 2 p.m. The laid-back Puerto Ricans don't want to wear out the volunteers.
After "work" the first day, we hiked down the popular La Mina Trail to La Mina Falls, where we found plenty of Puerto Ricans and other visitors in bathing suits lounging on the wet rocks. Mona Ruttenberg from Virginia and Keith braved the chilly water; the rest of us just soaked our tired feet.
We returned to the road via the 0.7-mile Arboles Grandes (Big Tree) trail, which has interpretive signs explaining the flora and fauna.
The Arboles Grandes trail, like parts of other popular paths such as the El Yunque Trail, is paved. This comes as a bit of a shock for Sierrans used to leaving their hiking boot prints on dirt trails, but given the amount of rain and traffic (including women in high heels), it's easy to see how erosion could be a serious problem otherwise.
Another afternoon we stopped at El Portal Tropical Forest Center, a must-see for visitors. The airy site has an open-air concourse with live orchids and interactive exhibits.
After work, we always found time to drive down to the beach at Luquillo before dinner. Some of us played in the ocean surf, others walked the beach and a few simply dozed on the warm sand. Occasionally we saw pelicans that dive-bombed into the turquoise sea, looking for dinner.
The nearby El Flamboyan bar, where a pina colada was an affordable $3, was another popular stop. The bar clientele, like the town of Luquillo itself, seemed to be a mix of snowbirds and Puerto Ricans. We also sampled some local dishes made with plantains at the food kiosks.
Eventually we'd head home to our small bunkhouse, which belonged to a church camp a few miles from the forest boundary.
Trip participants took turns preparing meals under the watchful eye of assistant leader Jill Brooks of Georgia. As usual on service trips, the food was tasty and ample.
In the evenings people read, played cards or chatted and got to know one another. Our amicable group included two mothers with daughters, a college student and pair of doctors. By 10 p.m. we usually were ready for bed. The work was by no means back-breaking, but after a day of working and playing we were ready to climb carefully into our wobbly bunks.
Sometimes the work was more exploratory than labor intensive. On the last day, our wish to work on the La Coca Trail with 28-year Forest Service veteran Rafael "Raffi" Corcino was granted.
Because the trail had been closed for a while, we ended up simply helping Raffi scope out what work needed to be done. We took turns pushing a wheel that measures distance, which is harder than it sounds, given how rocky the trail is. When we came to a serious tree fall or destabilized area, we recorded the distance and problem and took a photo to help the Forest Service determine what repair materials will be needed.
Raffi shared his forest knowledge with us as he walked, lopping off overhanging palm fronds, ferns and vines. At one steep spot we found nicely scored, round steps made of mahogany, fashioned from trees downed when Hurricane Hugo devastated Puerto Rico in 1989, Raffi said.
Hurricanes certainly take their toll on the forest, but like after forest fires in the American West, new life springs back quickly, including the fast-growing cecropia tree.
"It really does look prehistoric, the land that time forgot," Jill said as she surveyed the lush forest along a creek.
At La Mina River, we stopped where the water cascades over several sets of small waterfalls. Some of us took a cool dip.
The hike was a bit of a culinary tour: Raffi showed us an orange tree, although the fallen fruit tasted more like grapefruit. He pointed out a breadfruit tree, a coffee tree and a cacao tree, slicing into the yellowish pod to show where cocoa comes from. Banana trees were plentiful, but, alas, the fruit was too high and too green to sample.
Just as we were getting tired and hungry it was close to 2 p.m. and our tuna sandwiches were in a cooler at the end of the trail Raffi spotted a boa constrictor. We gathered round, eyes agog, with our cameras clicking as the 5-foot snake slithered up into a tree to escape the human intruders.
Snakes in general are pretty unusual in Puerto Rico, and the endangered Puerto Rican boa is indeed a rare sight.
"You are lucky. I'm lucky, too," Raffi later told us.
Sierra Club service trips vary in their focus; I've done trail maintenance in the Coconino National Forest near Sedona, Ariz., pulled invasive grasses at Canyonlands National Park in Utah and helped plant cactus carefully at the Grand Canyon visitors center.
All trips include a day off so that the people giving up a week of their hard-earned vacation can relax, or more likely explore the area.
In Puerto Rico we all had Wednesday off and got to choose between a day in Old San Juan or a day of kayaking and snorkeling. Eleven opted to go kayaking.
Actually, we'd already been kayaking once. On Sunday, our orientation day, trip leader Roger Straw from Virginia had arranged for a visit to a bioluminescent bay near Fajardo, one of three such sites in Puerto Rico.
That night we paddled sit-on-top tandem kayaks through mangroves to a lagoon in the Cape San Juan Nature Reserve as guide Mark Donaldson from Las Tortugas Adventures told us about red and black mangroves and their strange long roots. As the sun set, he explained how the mangroves deposit vitamin B-12, which nourishes microorganisms called dinoflagellates that create the odd glow.
We were a bit skeptical when we dipped our hands in the water, but as it grew darker and we swished our hands around, we really did see some bright little sparks. Some of us carefully slid out of the kayaks into the water and could see the glowing down our legs. We paddled back in the moonlight, sticky from the super-salty water but entranced.
A kayak expedition
On Wednesday we met the guides from Las Tortugas again and assembled snorkel gear and kayaks, under the tutelage of former Coast Guard member Gary Horne.
Gary gave us a little snorkeling instruction in shallow water and then led us to the inner edge of a reef. As we swam along he pointed out blue tangs and other fish, corals, sea cucumbers, sea urchins and a small squishy thing in a hole that someone said was an octopus.
After an hour or so of snorkeling, we climbed into our kayaks. My paddling partner, Nancy Anderson from Maine, deftly worked the rudder to avoid the rocky shoals, and we grinned broadly as we rode the big waves. Yee-haw! At one point I noticed a dark shadow gliding through the clear watera manta ray.
At lunch time our guides put up umbrellas to protect us from the sun and dragged out the sub sandwiches, sandy and damp enough they might as well have been on a submarine.
Walking the beach, we saw a disturbing amount of trash and packed out a little of it. Recycling, and the whole environmental ethic, is not as advanced in Puerto Rico, but some environmentalists and eco- tourism guides such as Gary and Mark are working on raising awareness.
We portaged the boats (well, the guides did) into an estuary as a great white egret watched. The overgrown channel was too narrow for kayak paddles, so we pulled ourselves along by the hanging mangrove roots to a lagoon in the Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve. As brown pelicans roosted in the trees, several frigate birds wheeled above us, looking like prehistoric pterodactyls.
The sky to our west darkened, and we managed to paddle to the take-out point before the rain began.
The kayaking was one of the week's highlights, but working in such beautiful surroundings with people who want to make a difference is what makes such a trip so rewarding.
Between the work and the play time, we managed to get a nice view of Puerto Rico, including a quick taste of Old San Juan (and a rum drink) before our planes departed for the cold mainland. Not bad for a working vacation.
IF YOU GO
San Juan, Puerto Rico, is a five-hour flight from Chicago. U.S. citizens do not need passports, just a government-issued ID.
For information on the Caribbean National Forest, visit www.southern region.fs.fed.us/caribbean . The El Portal Tropical Forest Center is near the entrance to the park on PR 191. El Portal is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and costs $3 for adults, $1.50 for children 4 to 12.
The Sierra Club offers service trips throughout the United States. Trip prices range from about $400 to $1,100 for one week. For information, go to www.sierraclub.org/outings/national or call (415) 977-5588.
Las Tortugas Adventures offers a variety of kayaking trips, including bioluminescent and snorkeling trips in the Fajardo area. For information, visit www.kayak-pr.com .