Thursday, July 11, 2013

10 Things I LOVE about Puerto Rico!

While there were a couple of things that disappointed me about our recent vacation (Note: It really does rain quite a bit during the rainy season, despite my wishful thinking that this would not actually be the case.), it was overwhelmingly awesome! Since it is difficult to even know where to begin describing the trip, I thought I would break it down into a list of my favorites (and even this is difficult to rank according to my preferences):

10) Wrought iron details on windows, doors, fences, gates, etc.
Okay, I know that some of the family (we went with Brett's folks, his two brothers, and my sister-in-law) felt that this was disturbing, wondering why they needed to be so protected, but I really believed (and again, this may be wishful thinking) that this was at least somewhat used for purely aesthetic reasons. If they needed chains and gates, they could surely put them up without delicate scrollwork and other lovely details, is all I'm saying. I really want to insist that this is the Spanish influence on the architectural design of the area. There really was a lot of beauty to it, even in areas where things looked a bit run-down, otherwise.

{Cathedral door in downtown Humacao}

9) Little lizards
We saw many anoles in the backyard of the rental house we stayed at in Humacao. They mostly hung out and sunbathed and didn't mind us too much. They were slightly territorial, however, if another lizard ventured too closely and we could see them puff out their chests and do some interesting dance that I just called push-ups, presumably to look larger and intimidate the other lizards who were encroaching on their turf. These guys made me smile every time I saw them. We had one who hung out on the curtain rod in the dining room for a couple of days and then disappeared, I am guessing through whatever hole in the wall that he entered by. The last night, someone discovered a baby iguana hanging out on a leaf in the yard, where it stayed until we had to leave. That was very cool because I got some up-close photos with no trouble at all.

{One of our many backyard friends}

{Hola, baby iguana!}

The only time a lizard gave me a start was one morning when I went to grab my Flonase off of a shelf in the bathroom, and when I pulled my hand out, there was more than Flonase there. A baby anole was on my finger! The only thing was, I didn't realize what it was at first, so I gave a startled "Ah!" (I did not scream, mind you, since I knew it wasn't anything huge or heavy, just unusual to feel something there.) Once I realized what it was, I was truly amazed because it was on my pointer finger, and it couldn't have been more than 1 to 1 1/2" long from tip to tail and it was maybe a third of the width of my finger. I only wished that I could have gotten a picture, but it quickly sprung off my finger, onto the bathroom counter, and vanished just like that. I guess I can't blame him. I would run away from whoever was trying to shake me off, too.

8) Little crabs on the beaches (which I think are these)
Another animal that we saw frequently that made me smile each time was the little sand crabs at the beach. They were, for obvious reasons, quite skittish around people and would quickly dart into their holes in the sand. However, if they weren't nearby their hole, they would often freeze, which allowed me to get good photos of the scared-stiff creatures. A couple of my favorites included one frozen next to a foot print in the sand, and another that stopped to hide next to a coconut, which were all over the beach.

{I loved that he tried to hide by this coconut.}

Some other crab behavior that we observed was what I think of as "surfing." We weren't sure if they were running away from us or what, but I started to think that they were playing after watching for a while. Most of the time, the crabs scuttled sideways, low to the sand when they were headed for their holes, but not when they were headed for the water. Then, they got way up on their legs, as far as they could reach and they dashed -- really, really fast -- into the surf. Then -- I swear this is what they were doing -- they rode a wave into the shore, picked themselves back up again and dashed back into the water to ride another wave. It was immensely entertaining, and I enjoyed it several mornings while we walked the beach in solitude.

7) Brett let me shop as much as I desired.
This was good when it was raining. Of course, it was good when it wasn't raining, too. Most of the souvenirs we brought home were very reasonably priced, and the things that we spent a little bit more on, we had decided were worth it. The tricky part was finding authentic items that were not just tourist traps. It took some work to find things that were actually made in Puerto Rico. One thing we always like to get if we are traveling is a Christmas ornament. I can't tell you how many of these I passed up because they were cheap-looking and said "Made in China" on them. Finally, I found a hand-painted shard of gourd with the beautiful fort painted on it while we were in a cool shop called Ole! in Old San Juan. This was where Brett found his Panama hat, one of those hand-made items we felt was worth paying a bit more for. In Old San Juan, I found a really great dress, in one of my favorite colors: cobalt blue. It looked great with those cobalt sandals that had somehow made their way into my suitcase, when even I hadn't realized that I had packed them. (True story. I must have been sleep-packing or something.)

{Pretty new dress and a BRIGHT building!}

On a later day, in downtown Humacao, I found a nice little pottery shop that made me very happy, too. It had fun little trinkets in bright colors. Also, we just happened to find a very inexpensive women's clothing shop there so I picked up a fun skirt, and a practical tank top and shorts to wear to the rainforest, because for whatever reason all I had packed were dressier things. The shorts also happened to be cobalt blue, so that was a bonus. I wore that outfit with my new green head scarf from another nice artisan shop in Old San Juan called Artesanias Sarobey.

And earlier tonight, I took my inexpensive little art print to Michaels to get it framed with more bright colors to go with the city scene which includes, what else? Bright colors! I can't wait to see how it turns out...

6) Bacardi 
Okay, let me preface this by saying that I rarely drink. I have never been much of a drinker. I didn't handle alcohol well when I was younger and then, well, I spent years being pregnant, breastfeeding, being pregnant again, and breastfeeding some more (I logged over 4 years total just breastfeeding my two kids), so this was not something that ever mattered. Now, I am re-thinking that mindset ever so slightly. Not that I plan to drink huge amounts, or even that often, but this is good stuff, and it's worth it!

Poor Brett and everyone else had to deal with my craziness for the first couple of days. See, at home, I am basically the "activity director" and everyone, for the most part, does the big things that I want to do, and usually when I want to do them (obviously not all the time; kids are unpredictable, but you get the idea.) My in-laws are the nicest people you will ever meet, but they are NOT good at making decisions about what to do and when to do it. This drove me batty for two days, during which I frequently brought up the topic of rum and how much I would like to go on the Bacardi Distillery tour (which, for reasons noted above, must have come as a SHOCK to everyone). I was told to "relax" and "go with the flow" which if you can't tell, are not my specialty. Yes, I wanted to relax, but I wanted to do it on my terms, darn it!

{Good times!}

By the time we finally got to the factory tour, I was keyed up again. (Driving around San Juan did not help. Those people are C-R-A-Z-Y. They make Detroit drivers seem slow and laid back.) It was probably a good thing that we were told it would take about 30 minutes for the next tour to begin because that meant that we could go ahead and have our first complimentary beverage. Brett and I both chose one of the two options from their "classic" menu. I had the rum punch. He had a Cuba Libre. Y-U-M! And, it's worth noting that my brother-in-law was quick to point out that I immediately seemed much more relaxed. Finally. It only took two days of asking for rum for that to happen. I decided to be more proactive from then on, and I had 3 different daiquiris throughout the week at various restaurants. Plus, we came home with a bottle of Dragonberry, their strawberry rum, after I had it as my second complimentary drink after we took the tour.

5) Swimming under a waterfall in the rainforest
This is one of those things that we will look back on, I am sure, and continue to say "Wow! What a cool experience!" I am so glad we were able to do it. Hiking down there was about 30 minutes of very challenging work-out. The paths were very well-maintained, either with concrete or with rocks, for example, but it was quite steep and I could feel all of my leg muscles straining with the exertion. Other parts of the rainforest were mildly disappointing, but this was so, so worth the hike.

(I was under the mistaken notion that we would see lots of wildlife and beautiful, brightly colored plants. In actuality, we heard the coqui -- the native frog -- perhaps, once the entire time because there were So. Many. People. We went on Saturday, so that may have been our first mistake, but then again, it might always be that busy. Who doesn't want to hike in the only rainforest that is part of the US National Park system?! We saw very few bright flowers except near the visitor center, and as for wildlife, we saw a rooster and a feral dog, not exactly animals that we hadn't already seen all over Puerto Rico.)

I should not complain, though, because as we were nearly back to the van, I saw a mongoose dart across the path. Brett was the only other one to see it because I screamed, "Look! A mongoose!!!" loudly enough that he turned and noticed it before it ran away, presumably trying to get very, very far away from the screeching lady who kept yelling for everyone to "LOOK!" In case you are wondering, the only reason that I even knew what this animal was is that approximately 60 seconds prior to the sighting I had made a stop to read a sign by a picnic pavilion which said something to the effect of: "Mongooses are the most rabid animal in all of Puerto Rico. Please do NOT feed them or release them from cages if you come across one in a cage." Um, no problem. Who does that?! Aside from having to worry about contracting rabies, they're quite speedy and have no desire to be around humans. Do you suppose that is because they've heard one too many ladies screaming for others to look?

Anyway, back to the main highlight of the rainforest (other than the really, really nice gift shop at the visitor center, which obviously cried out to be shopped at -- try the dried bread fruit chips. So good!): the waterfall. It goes without saying, that this water was icy cold, but after hiking for that long, it was refreshing. The main problems were all of the people (photobombs, anyone?) and the fact that we had to climb over, down, and around, several large and quite slippery rocks just to get into the water. Eventually, we made it into the water and even managed a few pictures. This will definitely be one of our best memories of the trip.

{How cool is this?!}

4) Beaches! 
All of the beaches we went to were different. My brother-in-law seemed to think it was strange that I was compelled to beach comb every single time, and I tried to explain to him that there were always different shells to find, but I am not sure he understood. Fortunately, Brett is patient and he has spent enough time Up North with me to know that I do this. Every. Single. Time. I'm a treasure hunter. It's what I do. (If you read about the shopping, then maybe you can relate.) And, I don't do it the whole time. I reach a point when I know I can stop. I only collected sand from two of the beaches we went to, for example, so that shows some restraint, don't you think? (You're probably wondering why... I have a craft or two in mind, don't worry!)

The first beach, I just think of as "Our Beach" because it was a few step away from the rental house, and because Brett and I walked it several mornings and we were almost always the only ones around. One morning there was a many on a horse and another morning there was a lady sitting on the sand (she did not look like a local), and then one morning there was a jogger who had a hard time staying on the path while Brett took photos of me in my bikini leaning against the palm tree. That was part of the fun of our beach. We got to take silly "model" pictures that were fun for both of us. I felt pretty and he enjoyed it, plus I figured he deserved it for all the beach combing, all the shopping, and all of the two days worth of crazy Meg that he endured before I finally got my Bacardi! We also saw lots of crabs, some shore birds like herons, and some of my favorites: pelicans.

{"Our Beach" is adjacent to a nature preserve.}

{A favorite "model" photo of mine. LOVE the feeling of escape to paradise!}

One morning there was a pack of three feral dogs that joined us briefly. I honestly think they were organized about it, too. The two large dogs poked their noses into our beach bag, and finding no food there, decided to roll on our beach towels, before running off. Meanwhile, the short dog, who may have had some chihuahua in his lineage, came right up to us and started licking my legs. I didn't even realize he was there until he did this. He was so friendly, I almost bent down to pet him, before realizing what I was about the do. He licked me a few more times before deciding that I wasn't going to give him any food, and then he trotted off to join the others. These were the most forward of all the feral dogs that we encountered during the week.

We never actually went in the water on "Our Beach" other than walking along the shore and getting our legs wet. Others in the family went at some point and claimed it wasn't that bad, but it always looked murky to me. This was the most debris-strewn of any beaches we went to and walking along we would see all sorts of garbage: baby bottle nipples, pacifiers, a Lego brick, OJ containers, Dawn dish soap bottles, many plastic bottles and cups, and tons of shoes, mostly flip flops, although there was one bright colored dressy wedge sandal that seemed to sad to me to be washed ashore. There was even a rusted, broken cage from a shopping cart, of all things!

The next beach that we visited was Lucia Beach, which I think was about a 10-15 minute drive. It was raining that day and there were large waves, which I found LOTS of fun to play in (but I've spent enough time at Lake Michigan, I suppose, that this didn't seem frightening to me). However, most everyone else was put off by the undertow and they didn't really want to spend much time there. The most interesting thing was driving to the beach, which required us to go through a palm grove. When leaving, there was a herd of cows passing through the palm grove, followed by these white birds (some sort of heron, I think). We saw cows everywhere in the Puerto Rico countryside whenever we drove someplace, and they were always trailed by these birds, however, it still surprised me to see them at the beach. It should not have, since they were obviously "free range," but it did, nonetheless.

On another day, we went to one of my favorite beaches: Seven Seas Beach in Fajardo, which was about a half hour drive through the mountains. The water was very calm with no surf at all. There wasn't too much sun that day, but the rain held off at least. We just floated on top of the water, which was nice and relaxing. This was a super beach for beach combing, with many unusual shells and lots of nice beach glass (a favorite of mine from all my time spent Up North). The most memorable thing about this beach was the school of fish that swam up to us in the shallows and went in and out of our legs. I was curious to see them because the others said they were there, and I wasn't even believing them until I saw them myself. Unfortunately, once I saw them, I had to get away because they kept touching my legs, which freaked me out! Jill was the only one who didn't seem to mind, or at least she didn't mind until they started nibbling at her knees. Josh thought they were coral cleaning fish. They were up to 8 inches long and kind of silver-ish from the side view. There was also a pack of wild dogs here, who entertained us by running around and playing together. Two could swim, but the other two could not, apparently. And one pregnant girl just lazed in the sand nearby us. This was the first time I was able to actually sit on the beach and read a book!

One afternoon, everyone did their own thing, and Brett and I drove the the nearby Palmas Del Mar Resort to check out the beach there. It was a beautiful, sunny day! However, the surf was quite rough, and while I enjoyed it at first, it became too much and we had to get out of the water. The good news was that they had beach chairs here so I had a comfy place to do more reading. The beach was obviously groomed, so it was clean, and in retrospect, we should have brought money since they had a little place that we could have gotten drinks, if for no other reason than I could have had that drink on the beach that I thought was in store for me. (It didn't happen, but I'm not complaining.)

On our last full day in Puerto Rico, we stumbled upon (there is no other way to describe how we found this one) a place called Escondida Beach near Guardarraya, while we were driving along the southeast coastline (amazing views!). This was a Sunday, the only weekend day that we were at a public beach, and it was quite busy. The sand was nice and the water was clear and the absolute warmest that we had experienced. Literally, it was like bath water. It was very calm, however, we didn't float quite as well as we did at Seven Seas Beach, for whatever reason. There were some very pretty flowered trees all along the shoreline, and we learned how handy they can be. We just used them as a place to drape towels and shirts, but after the rains quickly blew in, we suddenly understood by the local people had hung tarps between the trees. They just sought shelter while we were scooping up our things and dashing to the van, which we ended up doing again later, when another rainstorm blew in off the water. These things came and went quickly, so it made sense for people to come prepared to sit them out, before going about their beach days.

3) Food
I ate so many delicious things on this trip! I know that Brett was very concerned that I would NOT like the food because I really don't like spicy things, but I had read two guidebooks and I tried to convince him (and myself) that it wouldn't be spicy, but savory and sometimes sweet. The food of the Caribbean, I thankfully confirmed, is not at all spicy. It's delicious! I think I may have gained a couple of pounds there (and that is saying a log because my metabolism generally makes it so that I don't lose or gain, I just maintain). It probably did not help that so many things were fried, or that they seem to eat a lot of meat, which was no problem to my way of thinking, since it wasn't spicy. One of my favorite foods, other than those dried bread fruit chips, was something called pastalillo, which was a pouch of fried bread stuffed with meat. I chose the pollo (chicken). We bought this from the kiosk on the beach that last day. Also, on the beach there, a vendor came along and sold me passionfruit ice cream, which was delicious. Other goodies that I enjoyed were arepas (more fried bread) made with coconut, which was surprisingly yummy considering I typically don't like the taste of coconut and mofongo (a local specialty, sort of like a "cake" of fried plaintains -- which taste nothing like bananas, as I assumed they would, by the way -- made with oil and garlic, and sometimes including meat). Some mofongo that I tried was better than others, but the place to get them that made the best was La Palmira "Casa del Mofongo" which was right outside of the neighborhood where we were staying.

{Beach food!}

2) Bright colors
I am sure you have already picked up on the fact that I LOVE bright colors. Our house has walls painted in every color of the rainbow and I pretty much always wear bright colors. It was so nice to shop somewhere that had clothing in bright colors because that can often be tricky to find here in Michigan. I was so happy to see buildings painting in bright colors, everything from pink to blue to purple to lime green and vivid orange. I took tons of pictures just of houses and other building in bright colors, just because. Even the roadways were covered with bright colors on the concrete barriers and overpasses! It made me so HAPPY to look at them all! Old San Juan was especially brilliant for this, but we saw tons of other colorful places all around where ever we happened to be. Our rental house was a brilliant shade of yellow, for example. And all of the interior walls were painted in bright colors, too. It was extremely cheerful, and I could not get enough of the bright colors. While there were not too many colorful flowers to see in the rainforest itself, they were everywhere else: at the beach, along the roadside, in front of houses and restaurants and other businesses. Everywhere we looked, there was brilliant colors and I never tired of them!

{A BRIGHT building in Old San Juan. LOVE the door!}

1) Spending time with my hubby without kids!
This was our first-ever vacation without our kids, and for that matter, the longest (a whole week!) vacation we have ever taken. Before leaving, we were asked if this was our second honeymoon, since we flying out on the morning after our 12th anniversary. I remember laughing in response, "No, in order to take a second honeymoon, we would have to have GONE on one the first time around!" I don't think I have to tell you how remarkably relaxing that is to spend that much time together without children clamoring for our attention. Now, if we can just figure out how to get away on a regular basis, we will be all set. (And even though they are great people, I would love to do this without all the relatives!) Yep, Mommy got a taste of the tropics, and she could get used to it! We decided there are lots more islands that are begging for us to come visit them someday...

{Our "fancy" dinner night}

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