Thursday, February 19, 2015

We love Puerto Rico!

We flew out of  Rochester on a very cold, snowy  morning, and as if by magic, stepped out that afternoon in San Juan to warm sunshine and welcoming people. That evening, we sat on a patio overlooking the Atlantic with mojitos. This was a birding trip for us and for once, photography took a back seat.  That makes a nice reason to go back, though there are a lot of other equally good excuses for a trip there next winter.

One highpoint of our trip was seeing  the rare Puerto Rican Parrot.  We walked about a mile to a research station and listened. For about 1-1/2 hours we heard them come close, then drift away and finally come into view in a tall tree where they fed on ripe seed pods.  The bird is the focus of intense efforts to save its habitat.  It is so revered we came upon a statue of them near El Junque National Forrest. They're not that big for sure.

In a week we tallied 104 birds including all but one Puerto Rican endemic.  The variety was incredible. We saw hummingbirds like the Antillean and Green Mango, Green-throated Carib, and Puerto Rican Emerald. There was the colorful Antillean Euphonia. There were too many beautiful birds to have a single favorite. The Puerto Rican Spindalis  below is my only bird photo of the trip.

We had a wonderful guide, Gabriel Lugo.  We went westward from San Juan stopping at nature reserves, marinas and beaches. Gabriel's hearing is very acute, and he's extremely quick to recognize the birds' unique calls.  He was often aware of what to look for before it revealed itself. Gabriel also knew where to introduce us to the many tasty Puerto Rican foods.  The food is flavorful but not hot spicy.  Plantains are prepared many ways; all are delicious.  Mofongo is a plantain mash with a topping of rice, beans and shrimp/chicken or such. Asopao is a chicken and rice soup like gumbo. Arroz con Gangules is rice with pigeon peas. Very good. Sancocho is a wonderful stew. Lechón is a roast suckling pig and absolutely not to be missed.  Try all of these.
Our first day took us near Arecibo where the famous radio telescope is located. Conceived by Cornell Professor William E. Gordon, the 1001 foot diameter reflecting dish has a large receiver suspended high above the dish. Gabriel took us there.  There were also birds there. I hiked up the steep grade to the visitor center to  get a look at this massive device that has led to so many scientific discoveries.

We continued our travel around the island with a stop at a remote ranch where we awoke in our cabin to the sound of multiple (endemic) Puerto Rican Screech Owls. We would never have found our way to this location alone. Afterwards, we stayed two days in Parguera where our room looked out on the blue Caribbean Sea with moored sailboats. From there we ranged into high mountains for some birds and then into seaside salt marshes and fresh water ponds.  We did see some familiar birds that escape the cold northern winters such as teal, Northern Shovelers, coot,  grebe and American Redstart.  It was somewhat surprising that we saw very few gulls, only a Laughing Gull.  The only endemic that we missed was the Puerto Rican Nightjar due to the only rain of the entire week.

All trips must come to an end.  Gabriel returned us to the hotel at the San Juan airport on a Sunday after five days discovering both the birds and the island of Puerto Rico. We consistently met friendly, helpful people.  We cannot praise Gabriel enough.

We had hoped to go into the old town of San Juan Sunday afternoon, but it was so crowded that the cabs could not get into the city.  We rested up and planned what to do on our last full day.  Our first stop was Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, or El Morro. It guards the harbor entrance.

Seen from the fort, it is separated from the old town by an expansive green field.

One iconic view of El Morro includes the lonely sentry tower overlooking the blue Atlantic to the left and the Bahia de San Juan to the right. This massive fort was a progression of additions rising  higher and more prominent each time.

Walking toward the old town one finds narrow streets of blue cobble stone.  The narrowness has one benefit in that one side is usually in the shade.  The sun can be very intense.  Most of the buildings are painted in pleasing earth tones. Our route from El Morro was in the direction of the Cathedral de San Juan Batista.  Along the way we discovered small shops and an art institute on Del Cristo Street. As we neared the cathedral, the hour approached noon; it had been a long time since breakfast. We were about to make a delightful discovery.

Nearly opposite the cathedral was el Picotea in the open air courtyard of the hotel El Convento. Formerly the Carmelite convent begun in 1646, this is now one of the premier hotels in the Americas.  The food reflected the  prestige of El Convento.

As we lunched, we concluded that we had to stay in this hotel on our next visit to San Juan.  A brief exploration on our way outside found this graceful archway with a view towards the courtyard. How could anyone pass a chance to stay in this hotel? But the rest of the old town called us, and we stepped outside to visit the cathedral (below).

The Cathedral de San Juan Batista is a rather simple architecture.  Construction on this location was begun in 1521, but war and hurricanes took a toll such that the current facade dates from the 1800s. The body of Ponce de León resides in the transept.

We continued our exploration passing through the last remaining city gate of the old town's wall to find a  view on the Paseo de la Princesa seaward towards El Morro. It was nice to find a shady walkway with welcoming benches for brief pauses. If you look closely in the distance you can see the lonely sentinel tower on the fort.  The old town is really a very compact district.  We hopped on one of the trolley cars to ride to our last destination, the capitol building.  El Capitolio's design is a neo-classical revival style with breathtaking Italian marble in the main floor.  The rotunda has a facade tracing the history of the island plus a dome decorated in mosaics that is aglow in natural sunlight.  See below:

 Leaving the capitol, our time in San Juan was nearing an end.  The next morning at a little after 8 am, I looked out the left window of the aircraft and had a last view of San Juan.

...or rather the last view 'til next time.