Sunday, September 28, 2014

Bahia Bioluminiscente-Isla de Vieques: Round the World Leg 1

I cant even put into words to explain the excitement felt on our journey to Puerto Rico.  To see Mosquito Bay and those beautiful sparkling waters Id thought about for years was literally a dream come true!

Our itinerary was as follows:

Depart Philadelphia in evening. Stay night in San Juan.  Take morning flight to Vieques. There is a ferry option which is far less expensive but far less convenient.

Pertinent points re flight to San Juan: All Puerto Rican passengers*; instructions given in English and Spanish; full flight; solo guy next to us, broken leg, travelling with a crutch and a chihuahua, farted and when our eyes met he blamed the dog (: and most importantly: I wasn't super afraid. Even during take-off when I usually crush Chris's hand I felt ok. Something about making a dream come true....
RTW Off to Vieques!
*I love love love to think about the people on the flight-how many of them are heading home, what is the purpose of their travel, are they returning from a visit with their family.  Could anyone on that plane be as happy as I am right now?  Certainly some people must be travelling for sad reasons (says prayer for them, pushes to back of mind). This particular flight was quite lively: Crutch, who was in our row window seat, struck up conversations with passengers behind us, next to us, and in front of us and somehow even ended up with an in-flight "snack box" from one of them.

During beverage service Crutch motions for Chris (center seat) to lower his tray so he can use it for his cup of agua since he can't access his own tray b/c tacobell is on his lap.

My world freezes.  The voices on board fade.  My body tenses.  This is like Dave Chappelle "keeping it real."

when keeping it real goes wrong

Lets just say things usually "go wrong" so I was beyond surprised, to put it lightly, when Chris smiled and said oh sure and lowered his tray, patting the circular divot for Crutch to place his cup. He turns to me, I squeeze his arm and smile, and he says "I'm trying to be a better traveler."  I melt!

Upon descent, Crutch refuses to put dog under seat.  Commotion.  Flight Attendant speaks in English and Spanish.  "He will not be able to bring dog on any future flights because it will be 'noted'.  And security will be at gate.  Crutch, nonplussed, bums a cigarette off a guy in another row and tucks it between his lips as he exits.  We notice him later at baggage claim-no security.

When the plane landed in San Juan that night the cabin erupted in cheers and applause. Looking at each other, we shrug, smile, and join in.

Because we arrived late and would be departing early our night in San Juan wasn't one of exploration; basically we needed a place to sleep.  Research revealed a very interesting fact: hotels do not offer shuttles from the airport because it is reserved as a "taxi-only" service.  So a cab ride to a hotel would cost about $15, unless you stay at San Juan Airport Hotel!  This hotel is connected to the airport.  You get off your flight, collect your bags, and walk to the reception desk. Don't mind if I do!

Reviews of SJAH were eh-mixed.  Something about rude people and cold water.  Sort of unlike us, we rolled the dice.  "How bad could it be-and it is only for a few hours."  You prob think you know where this is going to lead.  I am happy to report it wasn't bad at all.  It was even "good!"  One of the biggest factors for me is cleanliness and this room was (sings) SPOTLESS!  Sure there is no room service and the vending machine is lame and the lady in the room next to us was loud on her cell phone for literally hours-pitied the person on the other end of that call, but clean cute-enough room, comp breakfast, and such convenience far out-weighed.

Speaking of the breakfast: The lady who was overseeing the breakfast buffet the next morning was awesome.  After a friendly greeting she confirms diners are guests of the hotel and restocks foods as they dwindle, keeps the area tidy, and is available to answer any questions about the items on offer.  I was particularly impressed when I asked whether she knew if the oatmeal was made with water or milk she responded immediately "with milk." Too bad for me but the fact she was able to answer me on the spot and not have to "go check" like 99% of times outshined the fact I wouldn't be enjoying those creamy oats. Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me if she had been the one that made them.  And made everything else there.  I hope the hotel realizes what an excellent employee they have!

Switch gears.  We fill out our in-room comment card leaving high marks all around but once we go to reception to check-out we both later divulge we had both considered retrieving said card and changing some answers.  Check-out was horrendous.  One employee working the desk, others milling about.  And just when you thought one was going to jump in and assist one of us standing in line, they walked away.  Fine-one person, line of guests.  If she had worked with even a tiny sense of urgency it would've been maybe acceptable.  But it was def "island time" and people were annoyed as sighs and eye rolls were exchanged.  On top of that, a steady stream of elderly passengers in wheel chairs kept being brought to the desk.  And for whatever reason, they were assisted before all of us in line.  Which, fine: they are old and have to spend their life in a freaking chair, I can wait a little longer to check out and continue my dream trip around the world.  But just saying-that was annoying people also.  Finally we walk up to the desk and things go so quickly and smoothly that my anger melts and we are on our way.

Reception literally opens into the airport terminals which is almost unbelievably convenient. We look for signs for Cape Air (I say: Hmm, also a Cape Air that flies to Nantucket. He says: Yeah just like it's the "same" Street Road throughout Pennsylvania, and rolls eyes in jest. Fast forward to flight home Chris reading magazine in seat-back: "Hmm, you were right-it is the same!"  Mm hmm.  Just sayin...).  Naturally we had weighed our bags for flight to San Juan and it was about .4 under.  So the fact we had dif clothes/shoes on/in the suitcase we were a little unsure how things would pan out this morning.  Hmm 50.1.  Guy smiles and places on belt.  "That's ok?" we ask? "Oh sure" he says.  Next: How much do you weigh? Yee.  And this is no time for vanity-glad they are being so exact b/c don't want another Aaliyah but a tad scary.

We walked to what seemed the most remote corner of the airport for our terminal which was near huge windows overlooking a fleet of tiny passenger planes.

When it was about 15 minutes until take off and we hadn't heard anything we went to the desk who directed us down a flight of stairs into an even more remote corner of the airport.  At about 5 minutes until departure, according to our ticket, an uncorporate-looking fellow in cargos/tee/baseball hat with only a nametag to identify he is an employee, calls all passengers and we walk like ducklings out to one of the tiny planes.  I should say here I was not really scared at all as, again, I was in the process of making a dream come true!

It was a "full flight" so all "8 seats" were taken.  The ground crewman eyed us up and placed us in seats based on his summation of each to best distribute weight.  And what is cool about these planes is the pilot himself gives the safety briefing from his seat-this is neat b/c it isn't every day we get to interact with the pilots that deliver us safely to destinations all over the world (official shout out)!  The flight takes about 25 minutes and most of it is over Puerto Rico proper, which, based on the lush rolling rolls and towering green mountains, deserves a return trip of its own, but Id have to say the prettiest part was the water below and just the different colors and shades within.

Landing on Vieques was extremely exciting as I knew I was mere miles, and mere hours, from the waters I had come so far to experience!!

We had researched (at length of course) car rental companies and based on a myriad of things we chose Maritza.  When we landed I realized, as I suspected, I did not have cell service so I was appreciative that the lady at the tourist desk allowed me to use her landline to call Maritza's.  A giant oscillating/loud fan, a bad connection, and my personal trouble with accents rendered me helpless as I did my best to communicate our request for the comp shuttle.

We had some time to explore the airport and check in to send some pictures to friends and family via the free airport wifi before the driver arrived.

Vieques supporting local artists!
Vieques airport baggage claim (:
The drive from the airport to Maritza is a short one (and I laugh now as write this b/c we learned that island pretty well in the end) but we were able to squeeze in a few cultural opportunities for education as we asked the driver what he was eating and he happily explained and shared his quenepas.  Which, I learned after chewing over the rough leathery skin in my mouth for several minutes with no luck, you peel.

The folks at Maritza's were great and they hooked us up with a decent jeep-nothing like our previous beady-lighted tiny-tired jeep rental (see Joshua Tree-Berdoo Canyon).  After we were packed in and ready to go we asked for directions to Hix House.  "Two rights," they say: A right at the end of the road, then the first right and you will see signs for it.  And so we did. That second right was one we made over and over and over and over again throughout our stay. Imaginatively we called it "the blue house" due to the blue house sitting on the corner of the turn. It guided us home many a time (holds up glass in homage).

Hix Island House
Check-in at Hix House was easy peasy as Liz welcomed us and showed us the lay of the land. We have stayed in open-air rooms before (see Sri Lanka) and based on pictures Id seen and reviews Id read everything was as expected.

Our kitchen opened to a grouping of trees which housed a plethera of birds who sang to us daily!

Stocking up our Hix kitchen: We had seen a produce stand near Maritza's and Liz confirmed, in addition to offering a large grocery store, a health food store, and a gourmet shop in town.  On the hunt for things like soy milk and hummus and olives and nice breads-large grocery store in town won out hands-down.  The gourmet shop and health food store had nothing of interest. We picked our produce up for the week in a single visit to the produce stand.

The start of our stay brought us lots of termites which were the most gross as their little yellowy clearish wings were everywhere but generally speaking bugs weren't an issue at all. We didn't use our net at nights or spray repellent on us, our clothes, or the bedding and still were fine.

Some weird giant men's dressshirts were available to us....

No air-conditioning was usually ok.  The only legit breeze we felt was from the fans and I, who rarely perspires, was def sporting a sweatstache if I exerted myself mid-day anything beyond walking around the room.  That said, we werent often in the room at the hottest part of the day and with mornings and evening being certainly bearable this wasnt really an issue.

The first few days the property was at 75% capacity but after the weekend the crowd thinned. And even though our particular building had other guests we rarely heard or saw them.  Which brings me to a very important point-take note Ventana and Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru: Hix House room material kindly reminds guests to be respectful of others' serenity.

Horses can be found moseying around in the field across from reception but, especially at night, when they think no one is looking, they also cross the grated threshold and enter into the rest of the property.  We got a kick out of hearing them neigh and whinny and sigh in the darkness around us-and making the noises back to them!

The stars are plentiful here so at nights it was really awesome to shower outdoors underneath the sparkling sky.  One night I bundled up afterwards and climbed onto the large cement shelf at the open end of our room (scraping my leg in the process) and just watched for shooting stars.  Within a minute a long brilliant streak crossed the sky!

Coquies, endemic to Puerto Rico, are tiny frogs with big voices!  You can hear them sing throughout the night from your room but if you want to see them take a look (at night) inside the large pot right outside reception.

The pool is open 24 hours so even though it was late we visited it on our last night.  We trekked over in our suits and towels and I wore my glasses so I could watch the stars as we floated about. We had been there maybe 20 minutes, being quiet to respect the peace of those in the structures around us, when, backed against the tall stone wall at one edge of the pool, something started swooping at us-like, within a foot of us! Once! Twice! Then, glasses and all, I dunked for cover as it came back a third time!  And a fourth!  A giant bat!  I am trying so hard to be quiet but physically unable to stymie some sort of outburst.  "I wanna get out I wanna get out," eyes frantically darting about for signs of the webbed-wing terror. Chris laughs as we walk back to our room explaining how my breathy and passion-filled "oh, oh, ohs" during the attack prob made it seem to anyone that heard like we had sex at the pool and left.  That night instead of feeling like I was "showering under the stars" I felt I was "showering among the bats." 

Hix House provides in your room beach chairs and cooler which is a nice touch.  At reception you can also pick up snorkel gear (masks/snorkel/fins), noodles, and a beach umbrella, the latter of which they seemed to have only one and which was in use by another guest until the morning we checked out.

Mosquito Bay
Tonight we have our first bio bay tour.  The waters had "gone dark" a few months earlier and though had since recovered and tours were slowly, starting with weekends only, but surely starting up again we didn't want to take a chance missing our sole reason for being there.  So we booked two tours, two nights, with two dif operators-the first one being Black Beard Sports.

We met Black Beard at the Green Store (or la Tienda Verde) which is the colmado, or convenience store, closest to Hix Island House.  They had told me in advance to expect another party of 3 to be waiting as well so it was no surprise when we met up and struck a friendly conversation!  BB soon arrived and we were on our way!

The van dropped us directly at the water's edge and their process was like a well-oiled machine. New arrivals (us) were to leave bags, towels, shoes (unless water shoes with straps), and all other belongings in the foot well of the front passenger seat after those departing the just-completed tour removed theirs.

We circle round Jay and Arnold our awesome guides for some introductory info (no flash photography, two to a kayak, stronger paddlers in back) then our small group slowly glides into the dark waters.

I am in front, Chris is in back.  Despite having viewed hundreds of pictures online I am completely unsure what to expect.  Eyes focused intently on the waters around us.  Anticipation builds with each stroke.

Moments later, it happened.  What is now forever imaged in my mind's eye as that electric-white, silvery unmistakable glow of Mosquito Bay.  Stars above, water sparkling below-big inhale, look around taking all this in, exhale in contentment; Pure. Magic.  Dream come true!

Jay rounded us up and gave an excellent history and biological background on the bay which, despite all the research I had done, offered new points of interest and was just really fascinating. Further, his delivery did not seem "scripted."  He was able to fully and intelligently field each question posed by the group.  My single favorite fact was: Nope, I am not going to ruin it for you-you will go and you will learn and you will come away with your own favorite fact (: As he spoke I slowly, quietly moved my hand through the water again and again and again let the droplets run down my arm like a rainfall of diamonds.

After a laser-guided astronomy tour of the night sky we were freed to paddle and wander at will.  It wasn't just a paddle stroke or your hands that illuminated the waters, we discovered; sea life below left in its wake a brief but amazing stream of light! (Tip: paddle near the mangroves as this is where youll see a decent amount of sea life.)  This solo exploration was, though brief, perhaps what I enjoyed most as it seemed Chris and I had the bay, and the world, to ourselves.

The next night our tour was with Abe's Snorkeling.  We met at the parking lot in Sun Bay...along with about 40 others.  First impressions were this seemed less organized, less "professional" than BB.  And the huge group of people (some pretty annoying) didnt help.  This bothered Chris more than I b/c to me the bay was the bay and Abe's was just a means to an end.

After a bumpy van ride down to the entry point of the bay we gathered for intro info.  There was no removal of shoes or discussion of flash photography-just the general kayak lesson.

The Abe's guide also gave decent info about the bay.  A few pieces overlapped (and matched) what BB had relayed but we learned some new facts too so that was nice.  While his delivery didnt sound like a script either he did "forget" his facts a few times as he stood in his kayak scratching his head.

Afterwards we were again set free to explore on our own.  This is when something *did* bother me: two kids (prob 8-10 in age) that were part of the large annoying drinking loud family had headlamps on.  When we were anywhere near them, even if they werent pointing their dumb heads in our direction, the phenomenon of the bay was completely lost.  *Idiots* all around.

Luckily we had plenty of other water to explore so we paddled off to another portion of the bay away from the headlamps and the hoots and the circus where we had plenty of solo play time, which I LOVED.  As everyone else was yelling and carrying on we dont even think they noticed what was happening around them. Around us.  For less than 60 seconds the clouds opened.  We stopped paddling and silently took it in as the rain created a sea of diamonds.  I feel like those raindrops were sent just for me <3

Black Beard v. Abe's

Key differences that mattered to *me* are as follows
  • I liked the intimacy of a smaller group with BB
  • I felt BB was more "professional"
  • I didnt feel I had enough solo play time with BB
  • Kayaks for both tours have a small light at the front tip.  Grouped out on the water with Abe's to receive the history of the bay, because there were so many kayaks (thus much more light) one is unable to play in the sparkle
  • I felt we were given a decent amount of solo play time with Abe's
The way things worked out for us, for me, was perfect.  I value that my initial exposure to the bay was an intimate one-it was a dream come true in every sense and a very positive experience.  I'm not sure I could say the same if I had taken the Abe's tour first.

Knowing it would 99.9% not produce any worthwhile photos we did bring our camera.  We had to try! If you google images of bioluminscent bay the pictures you will see are wholly inaccurate-they look *nothing* like what we saw.  The closest thing I have seen is below which isnt bioluminescence at all-it is white water on a black sand beach.  But if you can imagine that black sand is the black water of the bay and the white water is its glowing effect (which is obv much more in this picture than you actually see in the bay) you will create a more accurate image of what we experienced.

The rest of our time on Vieques was icing.  Days were largely the same-leisurely with no expectations or obligations.

The roaming horses, obviously an anomaly for us, were of course fascinating and, after checking with Hix House to make sure it was acceptable, we fed them every chance we got.

Horsies nosin around in the trash they knocked over

Laying on my nuts
Horse and giant pile of horsepoop on porch awaits return of homeowner...

Same with the dogs.  Travelling in packs, canines of all sizes and colors trotted happily down the street like a scene from The Incredible Journey!

Kitty checking us out

Cheep cheep cheep cheep cheep!

While admittedly animals occupy more of our camera roll than they probably should we did see other sites.

We brought deet and, for bay nights, deet-free.  Hix House has "Buzz Away" in rooms for your use and because upon check-in Liz really touted it we decided to opt for it over our own spray our first night on the bay.  No sign of a single mosquito.  Because we seemed to have such a great experience we also used Buzz Away the second bay night.  I have no idea what happened but as soon as we arrived at Sun Bay to meet Abe's mosquitoes were ALL OVER us. We kept going back to the car to apply more but it made no difference as my body was *covered* in bites.  Buzz Away sucks.  I dont know what works but that sure doesnt.  It must be that Sun Bay parking area b/c once we arrived at the bay afterward we werent affected.  Which was interesting b/c I had indeed seen previous reviews saying, "The bay definitely lives up to its name (har har) there are tons of mosquitoes."

Bunkers and Radar
There's a part of the Vieques landscape that could be described as Mad Max meets the Caribbean. It's a densely verdant and untamed part of the island with undulating hills stretching for miles ... only those aren't hills. They're military bunkers left over by the U.S. Navy. A drive through this section of Vieques is an unusual, almost eerie experience. It's completely silent, and the camouflaged bunkers feel like the remnants of an old war. Some of them are even open, and if you're in a daring mood, you can walk in and check them out. And close by is another remnant of the military: the Relocatable Over the Horizon Radar. (GoPuertoRico)

It was on our search for and exploration of the bunker area that made me feel like we were in a scene from Lost as Chris navigated our jeep through thick lush canopies of dense green vegetation.

Mushies growing in horse poop

There was one horsey that stuck to himself and could always be found by the bunkers.  Both of his front "ankles" appeared to be broken as his hooves curled under and he walked on his "shins." This made me very sad.  That he had somehow gotten so injured.  That  he spent his days limping along, lonely.  In my mind, as I watched him through teary eyes from the jeep window, I had a whole scenario playing out where I would post a message about this guy that would go viral and the world would respond with an outcry of support and a Dr would perform surgery and mend his legs and he would run through meadows and have endless supplies of oats and apples and neigh in happiness at the blue sky.  Then I thought about how I have approx 8 "followers" on twitter. Chris did point out the injury did not look new.  And that he, as all the other horses and dogs we'd seen on the island, didnt look skinny or malnourished.  Perhaps he had adapted to his injury and is as happy as any other horsey.  Perhaps he chooses to roam the land of the bunkers solo.  I dont have the answer but if love alone could have cured him, he would have been fixed that day by me.

Sugar Plantation Ruins (Playa Grande)
Finding the ruins of the Playa Grande Sugar Plantation on the western coast of Vieques is no easy feat. There are no roads or trails, and the markers are hard to spot. And to be honest, there isn't much to look at. From the early 1800’s to the early 1900’s, Vieques Island’s main source of industry was sugar.  Playa Grande was once one of five (Arcadia, Esperanza, Playa Grande, Santa Elena and Santa MarĂ­alarge estates that fueled agricultural production, all of which began to close during the decline of sugar exportation in the 20’s and 30’s. The last mill, Playa Grande, was closed in 1941.  The sugar industry in Vieques has a sad history, one of exploitation and abuse. When the Navy came in during the 1930s, they expropriated the Playa Grande estate, along with much of Vieques, and the building fell into a state of decay. (GoPuertoRico,

Ceiba Tree
The national tree of Puerto Rico has an elder on the island of Vieques suspected to be nearly 400 years old.  Ceiba (SAY-ba).

Kiani Lagoon
While not a lengthy activity this was one I really enjoyed.  After parking we were welcomed by tens of fiddler crabs!  I'd never seen these guys before so it was pretty exciting!  Fun fact: Vieques was informally named Crab Island by the British when they first landed.  There is an informative display at the start of the boardwalk which explains the flora and fauna of this ecosystem.  We had the place to ourselves and took the leisurely stroll to the end where you have a view of the lagoon nicely framed by surrounding vegetation.  It is said these waters are alive with bioluminescence, however, the area closes at dark.

Ylang Ylang Tree
We learned from Vieques' "Insider" Magazine: Stand in front of the ATM at Banco Popular in Isabell II.  Inhale deeply.  To your left is a Ylang Ylang tree-valued for its fragrant flowers.

Using the cartoon  map widely available island-wide we visited nearly every beach legally accessible (could not find Sea Glass Beach).  It was quite an adventure to spend our days exploring the island and making our way to these often inaccessible and secluded beaches.  As if inaccessible or secluded alone isnt enough, most of these are both (:  Though perhaps a more accurate way to phrase it is "not easily accessed" as one most definitely needs 4x4...and some guts!

Most beaches in Vieques have a Spanish and an English name. Before the the land became a protected National Park Preserve the US Navy used color codes to designate landing zones on the beaches. Locals will know either but note that all beach signage is displayed with the Spanish name.  Beaches we visited are listed below, details given when pertinent.
  • Playa Negra: This was a neat experience.  There isnt much parking and the "sign" is blue spray paint on a guard rail (not that Im complaining-we appreciated the sign)! Walk for about fifteen minutes through an arroyo (wash, our favorite: See Joshua Tree) which itself is an interesting experience, to access the black sand beach.  The beach is small and not a place Id spend the day but the black sand was def a neat sight to see and I would recommend.

Giant hermie

  • Media Luna
  • Navio
  • Playa Grande
  • Playuela
  • Caracas/Red Beach
  • Pata Prieta/Secret Beach

  • Punta Arenas/Green Beach: This beach I felt was really pretty.  As I walked towards the water I was immediately moved at how beautiful and secluded this area was-it just really really visually impressed me. And then...ouch!  Ouch ouch ouch ouch ouch! Sand flies! All over me-and tons of them flocking on top of that small scrape Id gotten on the cement shelf in the room-pretty fascinated but also pretty grossed out by this. Back to the car, apply some spray, return to beach, perfection.  I remember reading one of the beaches you have to visit in the morning otherwise youll encounter those bites in the afternoon.

  • Mosquito Pier: Not a beach per se but yes a long seawall often referred to as the Rompeolas, meaning "wave breaker" or "breakwater."  It has some areas where you can access the water on the left to snorkel or dive-water on the right/east is too choppy (due to the trade wind).  Right at the entrance to the pier to the left is a tiny beach area where we had planned to snorkel, however, we saw a guy that had been fishing from the pier earlier cleaning his fish here now and when we pulled our jeep in his wife came over and communicated to us (her in broken english, us in broken spanish) essentially mal pescada (makes biting motion on her arm).  We didnt snorkel there that day b/c yeah the chum prob would cause some unwelcomed visitors (braracuda) and while we thought maybe wed come back later in our stay we didnt. Snorkeling had been a fail in previous attempts and the chances it would be decent here but nowhere else seemed slim.  Chris put it best: for snorkeling you need good sea life and good visibility.  These beaches had good neither, during our stay at least. Perhaps it's relative?  Not everyplace can be the Maldives where the cast of The Little Mermaid is mere steps into the crystal clear water.
  • Sun Bay/Balneario Sombe: We asked many locals for their fav beach and we heard this one over and over again.  So we avoided it.  We checked out every other beach before this one.  Right?  Because this one had picnic tables and it had bathrooms and it had food stalls.  This was going to be the Disney of beaches packed with a billion people and in no way appealed to us the way "inaccessible" and "secluded" did.  So funny how that turned out.  This beach was so so pretty.  We had set aside a day for "beach time" and so glad we hadnt settled for any of the earlier locations b/c this one was perfect.  Trees of all sizes dotted the shoreline and we drove up and down two or three times picking "the one" and it was under the shade of his swaying palms that we set up camp.

  • Gallito: Holds a special place for us.  The first vision pretty enough to exit our jeep and take pictures on day of arrival.  And, rightly so, where we watched the sunset our final night.

We had a lovely stay on la isla del encanto and a perfect start to our RTW!  Thanks to the bay for fulfilling a dream by sharing its bursts of glittery shine!!

La vida es hermosa!

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