Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Puerto Rico - a tale of one rainy holiday.

There's really only one simple criteria that a tropical paradise vacation has to meet, and that is: good weather. Alas, one's good fortunes are never guaranteed on this front, and so it was that our Puerto Rico vacation was almost entirely rained out.

I had already been to Puerto Rico by myself, 5 years prior, enjoyed glorious weather, azure Caribbean seas and many a rum punch on a gently swaying catamaran. I had also had a quasi-religious-semi-life-altering experience at the Bioluminescent Bay of Fajardo, and extolled the experience so much to Flo that it was basically the lynchpin that sealed our decision to choose Puerto Rico for Thanksgiving 2013. Alas, even the biobay experience was denied to us, not even by the weather, but (apparently) by a water treatment plant spilling toxic sludge into the fragile ecosystem of microscopic plankton and killing off the magical dinoflagellates. We still went, but - well, let's just say it wasn't the same.

Ok, so it wasn't a total waste, of course. We know how to make the best of a wet situation.

Tiny Old San Juan is a magical place, even under storm clouds. The two forts - San Cristobal and El Morro - remnants of Puerto Rico's Spanish colonial past - are both worth the visit. They are essentially one fort (the fortified wall runs the entire way between the two) full of hidden passages, tunnels, gallows, and secret staircases.

San Cristobal fort
the sprawling grounds of Fort San Felipe del Morro

San Juan is nothing if not colorful. Facades are bright, street art is funky, and the locals... are a mix of both.

here is me, foolishly wearing a slinky little sundress while 40mph wind blows in another storm.
Since things like snorkeling and boating were not in the cards, we decided to drive West to visit the Arecibo Observatory. Built in the 60s by Cornell University scientists, this mammoth contraption remains today the largest radio telescope in the world. Movie buffs will know it as a prop in "Goldeneye" and "Contact", and nerds will recognize it as the place where their SETI@home data goes to be crunched.

a close up of one of the three support towers.
After visiting Arecibo we drove south to the coast, for a quick stop in the town of Ponce. The biggest attraction here is the Castillo Seralles - a mansion built by the family that has owned the Don Q distilleries, and kept the world pleasantly tipsy with its wonderful rum - a bottle of which we faithfully nursed in our hotel room every night - for 150 years.  Sadly, we couldn't take photos inside the Castillo, but look it up, and go visit if you're in Ponce, it's a nice trip down memory lane. The free tours, offered by a slight local history buff who seems to be nostalgic for - and slightly enamored with - the Seralles family, are also a nice treat.

view of Ponce from Castillo Seralles
Seralles' back yard
Once you leave the mansion, cross the street and walk up the hill to the Cruceta del VigĂ­a. Trust me, you can't miss it.

You can go up into the observation tower and take in some nice views of Ponce. The history of the Cross is quite interesting, though. This newer, larger cross is a respectful nod to the original cross that stood here. This was the site of an important landmark in the 1800s, when Ponce was under constant threat of attack from corsairs. In those days, a watchman would man a cross-tree (cruceta) and use colored flags to signal which ships were approaching Ponce harbor, and their points of origin. Merchants would monitor the cruceta for arrival of their ships, and everyone else would keep an eye out in case pirates approached. It was basically the early version of our beloved color-coded terror alert system. (Today's sarcasm threat level: Orange!)

This is a small, but beautiful city with quite a few striking, architecturally- and historically significant buildings, neat little squares and parks that were all lit up with Christmas cheer (always fun to see Christmas lights on palm trees). As a silver lining to the non-stop rain, once it cleared up a bit in the evening, the sunset turned out to be gorgeous.

Postcard-perfect Ponce
One day did turn out to be mostly sunny - our last day, of course. We took the opportunity to explore the area and do some ATVing on a private ranch.

This is what it's supposed to look like!

This is a private ranch that does adventure type tours - ziplining, ATV-s, etc. This is a view from the zipline platform.

some air plants up in the canopy

The ATV ride was pretty extreme, by the way. There had been so much rain recently, that some mud pits covered the entire wheels of the ATVs, and we'd burst in and out of them in terrific explosions of black sludge, with the machines straining and skidding all over the place. Definitely gets the heart pounding. Neither of us flipped though, and we did see a cayman sunning itself on a log, so it was all good.

Other than that, we did manage to spend some time on the beautiful beach of Ritz Carlton, running back and forth from our chairs to the canopied patios, as the storms rolled through. The magnificent sunsets helped deal with the weather a little.

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