Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Popping Back to Puerto Rico ….. March 2014

19 – 21 March 2014:  Ferry & Land Travel to Puerto RicoP3180076

Sojourn to San Juan

Although we have just spent a couple of weeks cruising along the south coast of Puerto Rico we didn’t stop anywhere long enough to do some land travel.  It’s a compact island with an extensive road network but has almost no public transport system.  It is also rumoured to have the highest percentage of cars per population in the world and infamous traffic jams!

Everyone we have spoken to that has been to Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, spoke very highly about the old walled town and fort area.  In those days the Spanish Conquistadores led the world in murdering, starving, raping and enslaving the native population in their driven desire for gold but they also built beautiful enduring cities.  As we are fans of Spanish architecture and are always happy to experience a slice of Europe whenever possible we decided to travel back to Puerto Rico by ferry from neighbouring Culebra, and see for ourselves how bad the traffic jams could be and to check out San Juans beauty first hand.

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P3190153In company with Jim and Carola off Koza we caught the 6.30am ferry to Fajardo on Puerto Rico.  Rather an early start for our excursion we thought! Lenny off Aussie boat Feijao was a superstar taking us ashore at 5.45am so we wouldn’t have to leave our dinghies tied ashore for 2 nights, and also kept an eye on Balvenie and Koza in our absence, thanks Lenny and Gina.

We arrived in Fajardo, collected our prebooked car from Island of the World RentalsP3180095 (after spending quite some time checking all the dents/dings and scratches duly noted on the outgoing contract!!), eventually we found our way to the highway north and in no time at all were in San Juan, not a traffic jam in sight. 

We made our way into the old town without any hiccups, found a parking close to our accommodation at SJ Suites  and were sitting back enjoying an excellent breakfast in a very Spanish cafe before 10am.  It’s amazing what you can achieve if you get up at 5am!!P3190123

Snapshots of San Juan

We spent the day sightseeing, it’s just a small old town area and it was a delight just wandering the streets; admiring the architecture - restored grand public buildings,  renovated residential homes, churches and cathedral, plazas and statues and beautiful blue cobblestone streets.P3180061

On the periphery is the town wall, several feet deep and extremely high – combined with the 6 storey high impressive El Morro Fort the defences for San Juan town and harbour were second to none and although there were several attacks by the British, Dutch and French over many years the Spanish never lost San Juan and their control over the gateway to the Caribbean.

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We explored this massive fort, a warren of rooms, armouries, batteries, lookouts, quarters and dungeons hidden inside it over 6 levels.  Probably the most impressive example we have seen in our travels and possibly the largest.

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P3180055Compact & Cute

We spent 24 hours in San Juan, but it is very compact so we felt we did it justice.  We covered nearly every street, alleyway and plaza, ate local empanadas in a tree lined plaza for lunch while watching heavily armed policemen patrol nearby government buildings at one end and tourists (yes, that includes Jim) having their photos taken with iguanas at the other end.

We had pina coladas in the bar that invented them, dinner in an “authentic” (touristy but very good) restaurant, walked the cool and shaded empty streets and harbour promenade early morning, just the 4 of us and hundreds of sleepy cats then returned to our previous mornings breakfast find for another excellent meal, bacon and egg toasted rolls and espresso coffees for 4 – US$20,  excellent.

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P3190158Space … the Final Frontier

We navigated our way out of San Juan with only one wrong turn and headed east towards the Karst Country and the Arecibo Observatory.  The observatory contains the worlds largest radar and radio telescope set above a 20 acre big dish (that’s the dish below us in the photo).  Launched in 1992 the idea is that this technology will allow us to chat with all the aliens out there in space, but has any one told the aliens they need to build one so they can talk back?? At $10 each entrance fee we felt it was overpriced, just a shame we didn’t see the ”buy one get one free voucher” in our tourist book until after we left!!P3190161

We drove through the Karst Country, hundreds of steep knobbly hills have been formed by water sinking into the limestone creating lots of sinkholes, which in turn has created the hills as these are the bits that haven’t sunk.  They were all very lush with vegetation and quite unlike anything we have seen before.  Unfortunately they do not photograph well, the different contours are so close together, steep and dense you lose the 3D effect.

Transiting Puerto Ricos Spine

We travelled along the high backbone of the country, climbing up and down then up again, on a maze of roads through some rather uninspiring villages and into the Central Mountains and cloud forest.  It is unfair to be too critical of the quality of the housing here, it is right in the middle of the hurricane belt and concrete block housing is the most sturdy.  P3190162However rows of little square block houses detracted from the natural beauty of the surroundings in the cloud forest high on the top ridge running through this island, there was certainly scope for improvement.

Carola found us a bed for the night at the almost new El Canon Guest House in Barranquitas.  It wasn’t an easy task finding somewhere to stay, most tourists to the mountains visit as day trippers from the coastal resorts or San Juan and there were few accommodation options.  The air was definitely cooler at altitude and the cloud forest lived up to its name, I took this photo during a brief break in the rain, minutes later we were engulfed in mist again. 

P3200163A Comedy of Mishaps

Next morning we headed east, the winding roads continued and it was slow going.  We had intended to detour to El Yungue National Park, but decided we had all seen enough trees to last us for a few more weeks so headed back to Fajardo early to have plenty of time to do some shopping at West Marine and Walmart (it’s a long time since we left the USA!) before the 7.30pm ferry.

Our foray into West Marine took way longer than planned as we were redeeming reward vouchers worth $240 and they were in $10 increments, 24 separate voucher numbers of over 10 digits needed to be input into the till by a not so speedy sales assistant.  P3190155This meant valuable time was ticking away so it was a speedy run around Walmart when we decided to catch the 3.30pm ferry instead of the 7.30pm as planned. 

Things turned a little pear shaped when Jim opened the car to unlock the boot, turned on ignition to get the aircon going then closed the door and all the doors locked - with key in the ignition!  But at least the boot was open, so we emptied the bags out, pulled down the small divider into the back seat and I just squeezed through (no photos thank goodness).

P3180054Back on the road we then missed the turnoff for the ferry terminal (a sign would have been very useful) so travelled several extra miles until the next motorway turnoff, time was getting very tight when we finally found the waterfront so we dropped Jim and Carola by the ferry terminal with their bags and the shopping to get the tickets while we took the car back.  

When we emptied the car only Marks bag was there, had Jim taken my bag by mistake or was it still in the carpark at Walmart?   While we were debating our next move Carola arrived with my bag, Jim had picked it up thinking it was Carolas and they knew we would be worried when they realized, so now three of us at the car hire office and Jim at the ferry terminal.P3180049 

With paper work finally completed it was a mad dash back to the terminal where things slowed down momentarily, the ferry had broken down – we weren’t going anywhere!   It was at this point when we were consolidating the shopping bags and packs that Carola realized that her pack was now missing.   She was sure she had given it to Jim when she brought mine to the car hire office, Jim couldn’t remember but was sure he hadn’t lost it, I thought she only had my bag but wasn’t sure either and Mark just didn’t have a clue!  It was a black day pack, can you imagine how many black day packs were sitting on the floor in the ferry terminal??!! P3180103or was it at the car hire office or possibly in Walmarts carpark? So off Carola went to the car hire office – again - and happily returned with her pack, all was well at last, we just needed a ferry.

We adjourned to a nearby bar for the afternoon and early evening, seemed the most sensible thing to do.  We were all finally accommodated on the car ferry which docked at 10pm, but of course we had no dinghies ashore, we had never planned to be back so late.  I had started chatting to a couple that looked liked fellow cruisers (its quite easy to pick us amongst the tourists) they were a lovely French couple off yacht Papaya and they offered to take us back to our boats at anchor, this was really kind of them as they weren’t even in the same anchorage as us.   Finally we were home by 10.30pm.

A Perfect End to a Comical Afternoon

 

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Virgins – First Are The Spanish ….. Mar 2014

16 – 25 March 2014:  Culebra & Culebrita, Spanish Virgin Islands – 18 19N 65 14W
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The Virgin Islands At Last

When we left the USA in December our goal for the season was to get to the Virgin Islands.  Finally, 14 weeks after leaving South Carolina and 50 miles after our crunchy start to the day in Puerto Rico we pulled in behind the reef entrance to Ensenada Honda on Culebra, part of the Spanish Virgin Islands, we were there at last.

We had never heard of the Spanish Virgins before arriving in the Caribbean, basically they consist of a handful of Puerto Rican offshore islands that lie between Puerto Ricos east coast and the US Virgin Islands further to the east.
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We spent a lazy couple of days in the peaceful anchorage inside the reef then moved all of a mile and a half up to the head of Ensenada Honda to Dewey township.  Another hectic round of socializing ensued as we met up with Aussies Koza and Feijao and Brits on Greta May.

P3160028Much Needed Exercise

We haven’t been swimming much this season, and the only walking we have been partaking in is the enforced visits to the supermarkets (too hot in the sun) so we decided to stretch our legs with a bike ride over to the top of Culebra to “one of the five most beautiful beaches in the world”.   It was a hot and sweaty outing with a nasty hill in the middle just to get the heart rate pumping and the legs wobbling.
  
The beach was packed, we never give much consideration to the day of the week, they are all the same to us, but it seems it was the weekend and the crowds had come over from Puerto Rico to enjoy all manor of activities – paddleboarding, surfing, swimming, tank spotting but mainly lying on the beach and baking in the sun.

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Paddle, shoot or surf at Flamenco Beach, Culebra 
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We left Balvenie and Koza at anchor in Dewey for 3 days and the 4 of us caught the ferry back across to Puerto Rico, picked up a hire car and set off to explore San Juan and inland Puerto Rico.  More to come on that excursion on a separate blog posting.

P3240012Cute Little Culebrita

We moved on a few short miles across to Culebras smaller neighbour and anchored off the southwest corner just inside the reef.  We were hopeful that the snorkelling would be good, but not today.  We had an easy walk up the hill to the abandoned lighthouse, the views were stunning. 

We could see down into the small bay at the top of the island, it beckoned us with its horseshoe bay, white sandy beach and outlying reef.  It was back to Balvenie, anchor up and around into Bahia Tortuga.P3240015

Turned Turtles and Bubbling Baths

We entered through the gap between the reefs, not something to be done with a northerly swell but we had good conditions, found a spot to drop and settled in to watch the afternoons entertainment of turtle catching.

A small power boat laid a net down the side of the bay, several people with snorkel gear jumped in and patrolled the net continuously and removed several captured turtles and one ray.  The ray was returned to the water but the turtles were put in big tubs, eventually the net was removed and off they went.
P3240036 It all looked rather professional although there was no signage on the boat or crew.  We certainly hope the turtles didn’t appear on a menu somewhere that night!! 

Our afternoon excursion was off to the baths.  Set into the headland on the eastern tip of the bay are a couple of rock pools.  The larger pool had quite some surge and big waves crashing into it and looked very  lively.  But set above it was a much smaller pool, just the biggest of the waves managed to flow over the rock wall providing plenty of bubbles and much entertainment.  There were even a few colourful tropical fish swimming around, all up a top spot for a relaxing afternoons dip.
 
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An almost perfect end to the day was happy hour ashore with the Kozas, watching the sun dip in the west.  I say almost perfect because the no-see-ums decided to join us too, such a shame as it was a magic spot. P3240071
A Northerly Swell is Coming …. So We Best Be Going

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Back Into The Caribbean ….. March 2014

9 – 15 March 2014:  Boquerón, PR to Punta Colorada, SVI – 18 17N 65 16W

P3080153Toiling on Toilets and Tasty Tapas

We spent a few sociable days and nights in Boquerón.  The anchorage was comfortable, the small town pleasant and the happy hours ashore cheap and cheerful.  It was also a top spot for skipper to undertake one of his favourite maintenance jobs – unblocking the toilet!!  This time it was a major, all the pipes needed removing and cleaning, so the adjacent cupboards are emptied, the shelves removed and chaos begins.  You can only imagine what fun that is, and best we not mention the smell!!

When the trade winds eased again (and the toilet was back in working order) there was a mass exodus, we headed down the western shore of Puerto Rico, left the Mona Passage behind us and officially re-entered the Caribbean, last seen over a year ago when we left Mexico and headed to Cuba. IMG_0373

We anchored the night tucked up deep inside Bahia de Guanica, not the most scenic anchorage but it was flat, peaceful and had a great tapas bar and winery ashore.  We joined plenty of locals under the palm trees for a lazy Sunday afternoon in company with Jim and Carola off Koza and Iain and Fiona off British yacht Ruffian.  We hadn't met the Ruffians before but Koza had and they are good friends with our friends on Serafina.  They are travelling west and onto the States and heard us calling each other on the VHF Radio so gave Koza a call and we all met up for a lovely afternoon, only slightly spoiled by extensive rain! 

Early Starts to Avoid the Sea BreezeP3100002

The southern coast of Puerto Rico has off shore islands, reefs or mainland harbours about every 20 miles, so it is perfect for leaving early morning and heading east to the next anchorage before the trade winds kick in mid morning, so this was our plan for getting to windward.  Our next stop was Ponce, we nudged our way into the small anchorage and settled in for a couple of nights.

Ponce is an old Spanish settlement, complete with the trademark Cathedral, central open plaza and surrounding handsome buildings.  We eventually made it into town after kindly being picked up by a local and dropped at the plaza. P3100020 It was much further than we thought and there were no taxis in sight, we would have turned around if he had not stopped for us.  We visited the Parque de Bombas, nowadays the tourist information - most recently a fire station and certainly an eye catching number painted in black and red stripes. 

The plaza centrepiece the Fountain of Lions was switched off, the Cathedral doors padlocked: old town Ponce was definitely closed but it was late Monday afternoon, maybe that’s why.2014 Puerto Rico But when we walked further afield, extending a block or two from the plaza it was clear that Ponce has fallen victim to the same fate as many towns we have seen when malls or large shopping areas with department stores move in – the life and livelihood is taken from the old town, shops are left empty and decay sets in. 2014 Puerto Rico Unless there is a community of inner city dwellers or a thriving tourist industry there is no longer any need to go “downtown”and the soul and life of the area is lost. 

Having said that the immediate area around the plaza was lovely, hundreds of birds filled the trees in the plaza and there was an extensive display of painted lion statues (as you can see from all the photos) which certainly brightened everything up, but there were very few people.

Our early starts motoring along the southern coast continued, next stop was tucked up in the entrance to the harbour at Salinas.  The depth in the entrance was marginal for us, but it was fully sheltered with towering mangroves so we went as far as we dared and plopped down the anchor. 2014 Puerto Rico

There wasn’t much in the immediate vicinity ashore but we heard there was a supermarket out of town so walked off into the heat of the day in search of fresh food.   We waved down a pickup to ask directions and next thing we were being whisked off in air-conditioned comfort – excellent.  Just a shame we never managed a ride back in the heat with the groceries!

Going Out With a Bang

We had one more stop on Puerto Rico, tucked behind the reef at Puerto Patillas.  The charts were a little vague so we slowly entered the anchorage and found a spot to anchor in sand.  There was an uncharted patch over to our right that looked a little reefy but far enough away not to be a problem.  The wind changed direction just on dark and we were treated to rather a rolly night, so when we were both awake at 5am we decided we may as well leave as we had 50 miles to cover to Culebra.

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It was still very dark so with skipper lifting the anchor the admiral was on the helm (yep, that’s me), with anchor up I turned left away from that previously spotted dodgey looking spot and headed out.  But something went wrong with my navigation or maybe we found another crunchy spot – either way we came to a rather abrupt halt in the dark, whoops!  Luckily we were going very slow, skipper immediately relieved me of my steering duties and we escaped mother earths clutches without further mishaps.  Not a good start to the day, and all before daybreak!! 

Off To The Spanish Virgin Islands