The night deskman at Casablanca is incredibly friendly and helpful. He convinced us to rent a car and explore Puerto Rico on our own, which is exactly what we did today. This was an especially advantageous decision since our trip originated with Michal emailing me, “I’m turning 25, want to go to Puerto Rico?” and me responding, “YESSSS.” At 25, Michal is now old enough to rent a car, and what better way to inaugurate the privilege than in a foreign country?
Driving in Puerto Rico is surprisingly easy. The road rules are the same as the United States, so the only real danger is the lack of turn signals used on the freeway. There were a couple times that our hearts leaped into our throats as cars swerved into our lane, but we found solace in repurposing Aragorn’s war speech, “There may come a day when we need car insurance, BUT IT IS NOT THIS DAY.” And thankfully, it was not this day. We survived unscathed.
Yesterday’s trip to the bio bay took us east, so today we drove west along the northern coast. Since Michal was such a great driver, I convinced her to let me test my navigational skills by turning off the GPS and using only the map. We only got turned around a couple times, but quickly recalibrated. “I’m like Magellan!” I cried, “If he had…explored only a few roads with an extremely detailed map.”
We went first to the Rio Camuy Cave Park, where the ticket booth had a sign telling us nothing would happen until 12:30. We bought ice cream to eat and watched stray cats show off by falling asleep amongst the crowded benches. An hour later we had boarded a tram that drove us and 40 other people down steep crossbacks to the cave entrance. The whole area was vaguely rainforesty, which alleviated some of my disappointment from yesterday’s cancellation.
The caves were absolutely gorgeous, massive and imposing and awe-inspiring. “Do you think we’ll see a balrog?” I asked Michal. Her face lit up, then fell. “I don’t know if I would be excited or terrified…”
The best part, however, were the entrances where light and plants tumbled into the darkness. “How crazy is it,” I told Michal, “that this has been around for millions of years, and no one knew about it? Just this astoundingly beautiful thing being beautiful and no one around to see it. Now there are guardrails and tour guides! We can see everything with minimal difficulty. I am so glad I live in this era. We are so lucky.”
When the guide ended, we ran to our rental car and drove to the Aricebo Observatory. The map and roadsigns took us through neighborhoods and cow pastures on roads that barely fit two cars. Every time we doubted our location, another sign appeared beckoning us onward. Out of nowhere, a massive “Bienvenidos!” sign welcomed us to the Observatory. We parked quickly and ran toward the stairs that led up a mountain. The site closed at 4:00, and it was 3:05. A guard sitting in a tent at the bottom of the stairs smiled at our desperate faces and said, “You don’t have to run. You have plenty of time.”
We couldn’t have run much further even if we’d wanted. The stairs kept going and going. When they stopped, we simply climbed a steep hill, and I discovered muscles I’d forgotten existed. Panting loudly, we finally reached the top. We ignored the nicely designed museum talking about science and astronomy and slipped into the back of a video presentation in the auditorium. There we learned that scientists use the observatory for sciencey things for the sake of science. Nearly all of it went over my head because I was distracted by the retro 90s people being interviewed. The one fact I did catch was that this observatory keeps track of asteroids and can use radar to figure out their size, shape, and velocity.
I didn’t really care about all that, because at the end of the presentation I scurried over to the wall where a poster of Goldeneye hung to take a selfie. Then we followed the guide outside to look out at the world’s largest telescope. She explained the significance and the reasons for its location in the jungles of Puerto Rico, but I mostly imagined Pierce Brosnan and Sean Bean fighting to the death along its precariously high structures.
Our interest satiated, Michal and I headed north to the coast. Our friend at Casablanca had told us of a beach we ought to check out, and the sun was on its way out. Unfortunately, we hit traffic. The drive took 40 minutes longer than we anticipated, but finally we saw a sign pointing us to [that beach]. We turned, drove to a T in the road, and turn left. We passed a restaurant called El Horno de la Abuela that had been advertised often on the road. But…no beach. Having given up hope, and desperately hungry, we made our way back to the restaurant and parked. Determined to have at least a tiny beach experience, we hopped the guardrail and stood in someone’s backyard of sand, staring at the waves in disappointment.
The food at El Horno de la Abuela was delicious, which brightened our spirits. Plus, we sat outside looking over the ocean as it grew pink in the sunset and discussed interpretations of Song of Solomon, so it was hard to stay mad. Filled with fattening vacation food, we got back in our car for the last time. Just for kicks, we decided to drive to the right of the T instead of left, just to see if perhaps we had taken a wrong turn. Literally thirty seconds down the road, a large sprawling beach with a friendly sign appeared.
I read @ghettohikes aloud to Michal as she drove us east. I cried with laughter, which made Michal crack up. In hindsight, this was probably a little dangerous. Regardless, we made it back to San Juan in a little over an hour, returned the car, and rode back to our hotel. To celebrate our last night on the island, we went out for dessert and discussed World War II and racial discrimination. Our conversations over food are hella intelligent.
After checking in with our Casablanca night deskman, we trudged up the five flights of stairs for the last time. This trip has been phenomenal. My first time traveling with Michal was a total success, as we share similar interests and passions, but more importantly in a traveling buddy, similar levels of adventure and caution. Puerto Rico is beautiful and interesting, a great place for lazy beach outings and shopping, but also full of fascinating day trips to bioluminescent bays and gorgeous caverns. If next week weren’t Christmas, I would be seriously upset about leaving this island behind.