Our windshield wipers ineffectually swiped at the fine mist that wafted down from the trees as we drove slowly through the inky darkness of the Puerto Rican rain forest. We could hear the sharp cries of the coqui frogs through the open windows. Occasionally, a white chicken would amble across the road. I gripped the wheel with both hands, ready to swerve away from an oncoming car that might come careening around the bend. The steep roads were too narrow for cars to pass one another, and each encounter with another car necessitated moving as far as possible to the side of the road without getting stuck in the ditches that lined it.
We had been lost on El Yunque for an hour looking for Casa Cubuy, the ecolodge where we were to spend the weekend. The narrow roads snake all over the mountain, each looking remarkably like the one before it. We despaired of ever finding the place.
Finally we stopped at a ramshackle bar. People were loitering near the entrance and in the darkness across the road. While the people at the bar looked at us strangely, I had the impression that we could have quickly made friends with them over a beer. We asked for directions and finally got some from the young, inebriated owner. They were heavy on landmarks (“make a left at the church”), but we eventually found Casa Cubuy.
It was too dark to see anything, but we heard the sound of a nearby waterfall pounding the rocks.
The next morning we stepped out onto our terrace to see a huge misty mountain dotted with waterfalls. The ubiquitous coquis were singing in a chorus with other unidentifiable birds. We headed downstairs for breakfast.
Breakfast was outdoors; the sound of the waterfall punctuated guests’ conversation. Most of the other guests were American hiking and nature enthusiasts who had been to El Yunque before. It felt a bit colonial to meet adventurers who travel to an island to spot rare birds and plants but speak little of the inhabitants. As if to accentuate this point, an older Puerto Rican couple was also staying at the lodge. They were dressed more formally than the others and looked uncomfortable. They spoke no English, so Ben and I chatted with them in our abominable Spanish.
On the advice of the owner of the lodge, we called a local guide to arrange a hike to a remote waterfall. A man with a Massachusetts accent answered the telephone. He wasn’t free that day, but said that his son would be happy to take us.
An hour later a small boy arrived at our door with a couple of walking sticks. I felt the colonial feeling more strongly. But the scene also reminded me of an Indiana Jones movie: me, my boyfriend and a sharp-witted boy heading off into the jungle.
Despite his youth, Daniel was a good guide knew a lot about the rainforest. We learned about special plants that only grow in El Yunque, saw hanging tubers, many kinds of wild bananas and plants that fill with water when they are cut, a boon to the thirsty traveler. We followed long-abandoned train tracks high into the mountain. Our hike culminated with a climb up a ladder that looked like it went straight up into the sky. At the top was an idyllic waterfall. Daniel explained that the area was free of graffiti and trash because people believe the chupacabra (literally, goat sucker, a mysterious monster believed to suck the blood from goats) inhabits the area. We saw no signs of him, however.
We had our lunch by the waterfall. Daniel gave us some fruit from his father’s fruit farm. It seems that after failing in Florida, his father discovered that the Puerto Rican rain forest is an ideal place to grow many different kinds of fruits. He has even created a new one on his property! I didn’t recognize the fruits he gave us. One was brown and very, very sweet, with a shiny black pit in the center like a pupil in an eye. The other was more citrus-y, with a waxy skin.
When we got back to the lodge I took a walk down a steep hill to the waterfall. The sun was setting but it was still warm enough to enjoy the cool water and the view of the misty mountains stretching out in all directions. Though anywhere else it would have been prime mosquito hour, here the coqui frogs eat them before they can eat us.
That night, not wishing to brave the treacherous roads, we decided not to go too far for dinner. We ended up a few doors down at a place that didn’t entirely look like a place of business. Other than the Christmas lights outside, it could have been a private home. But the interior looked more like a bar/restaurant. A lively group of women was gossiping and playing pool in the corner. A kindly looking older couple, most likely the proprietors, staffed the kitchen/bar area and kitschy memorabilia covered the walls. The food options were relatively limited: mofongo (savory fried plantains) with chicken or pork and a couple of tangy sauces. Drinks were similarly limited: piña colada or beer.
I took the piña colada and the mofongo with chicken. The drink was delicious: creamy, not too sweet and quite strong. I didn’t like the mofongo as much. I think perhaps I simply don’t care for mofongo, but I found that even the accompanying sauces did not alleviate its dryness and stickiness. Yet I had wanted desperately to like it since I had watched it slowly, lovingly prepared by the older couple.
We spent the rest of the night on the porch of the lodge listening to the waterfall and the coquis, sharing a bottle of white wine.
The next day we said goodbye to El Yunque and headed back towards San Juan. Near the docks, the old part of the city was mobbed with tourists from a cruise ship. But just a few blocks away, the streets were empty. We followed the narrow streets up to El Morro, an old fortress used by the Spanish to defend San Juan from sea invasion. From there, you can see across San Juan: La Perla, the shantytown outside the city walls, the old city and, further on, taller buildings. In the other direction, just a blue expanse.