No Pictures!!

I was planning on writing a funny hostel related story about timing your shower to avoid the rush or stealthily hiding food in a shared (with 15 to 20 other travelers) refrigerator. If you’re eagerly awaiting those posts, just wait, I’m sure they’ll be written in the future, but for now I think this is much more interesting!

About a week before writing this a friend picked me up at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport. He knew I’d be staying in San Juan later in the week so he kindly gave me a quick driving tour of Viejo San Juan. One thing that stuck out in his tour was this: ‘You shouldn’t go north of the wall’.

The wall in question was built by the Spanish after colonizing Puerto Rico hundreds of years ago. At one point it surrounded much of Viejo San Juan and, along with the two huge fortresses (El Morro and San Cristobal) helped fortify the island. By my estimation the wall is still about 50% intact.

On the north side of the wall, precariously perched on the slope going down toward the ocean is La Perla, a small but tight-knit community. Like many communities, the citizens of La Perla look out for each other. The town in which I grew up in rural Kansas is similar in that way. But there’s a difference. Outsiders aren’t welcome in La Perla. Not just the tourist kind of outsiders (of which there are many in Viejo San Juan), but I was told even other locals (from south of the wall) aren’t welcome.

As I was only about 27 minutes into day one of my travels abroad I agreed I wouldn’t be going there! But at the same time my interest was piqued. I was like a kid being told not to play with the dangerous fireworks (except I didn’t know the fireworks existed before I was told not to play with them). Now I just wanted to shoot off some roman candles!

Since La Perla is located on the side of the slope and the wall is above it, atop the wall is a great vantage point to peer into this interesting area. It’s not dissimilar in appearance to the slums of Rio de Janeiro, just not as massive. From the wall you’re able to gaze into the belly of the beast, so to speak. You can see the streets lined with small concrete buildings, some with metal or concrete roofs, some without. There are also some rather nice looking houses mixed in. You can see chickens, dogs and cats roaming streets alongside adults and children. You see people going about their lives. Above all, you’ll notice the graffiti. Paintings really. Artwork decorating walls, roofs. Some quite amazing, even from a distance.

Graffiti in La Perla
Graffiti in La Perla

As I walked along glaring down on La Perla with a friend from a nearby hostel, we wanted to go down but decided to heed the warnings and admire from a distance. And that was the end of my La Perla experience….or so I thought.

Wall art in La Perla
Wall art in La Perla

A couple days later I met another traveler, Jimmy, who invited me to join him and a friend, Susan, on a little field trip to La Perla. Susan wanted to take pictures of the wall art and Jimmy said he knew people in La Perla, that he was ‘cool down there’, and we wouldn’t have any problems. I was dying to light off some roman candles so I decided to tag along. As we walked below the wall, Jimmy suggested we avoid a certain street (the street that the drug deals happen), grab a beer at the bar and walk along the shore to take pictures. I thought this was a good plan, especially the avoiding the drug deals part. Walking along the shore with our Medalla’s (it’s like Bud Light in San Juan) in hand, we passed many buildings that were abandoned and falling down, a perfect place for locals to fill walls with their artwork. Jimmy, Susan and I walked and took pictures for nearly an hour until we found ourselves farther up the hill walking down a certain street. Yeah, THAT STREET! We were about half a block from any people and Susan tried to take one last picture of some artwork when her camera died. So I tried to take the picture and that’s when we heard two voices. ‘No pictures’…….. ‘NO PICTURES’!

As we turned to look in the direction of the voices we could see dozens of people in the next two blocks that had all stopped going about their lives and were now staring at us. We all agreed….no pictures (as if we had another choice). It was time to leave La Perla; unfortunately, the only way out was to walk through this crowd. As we did, we got nasty glares and some short comments that I didn’t need to know Spanish to understand. We got the hint. We three walked out of there without looking anyone in the eye and thankfully without anyone escalating the situation from their end. We made it out unscathed, with some great pictures, an awesome experience and interesting story.

As we were walking the road back to ‘safety’ Jimmy says one last thing to Susan and I. ‘They think I’m a cop down there and the guys I know said I should stop going’. ‘That information would have been helpful AN HOUR AGO!’ I exclaimed!! But if he had told me that, I may not have gone with them and you would’ve just finished a story about shared hostel bathrooms. So if you liked this post, thank Jimmy!

See the Spanish language version at lobu.do HERE!

El Yunque Peak – A Perfect Day Hike

My friend Taré (who had recently moved back to his native Puerto Rico) and I drove to El Yunque National Forest in eastern Puerto Rico.  From Levittown, a suburb just west of San Juan where Taré had moved to a few days earlier, it took about 40 minutes to drive to El Yunque and another 15 minutes or so to drive up the mountain via PR 191 to the Palo Colorado information center.  

Along the way we stopped at the replica Yokahu Observation Tower.  This is a replica of the Yokahu tower that is much farther up the mountain and a couple of hours hike away.  At this point, only half way up the mountain, the replica tower affords breathtaking views for those not willing or able to hike the nearly 1500 vertical feet to the original Yokahu Observation tower.  We continued to Palo Colorado and received a free map of nearby hikes from the park workers.  They were extremely helpful and the map had a Spanish side as well as an English one.

Taré and I wanted to hike to the tallest peak in El Yunque which, based on the information we received at Palo Colorado, should take about 2 hours.  So off we went – within three minutes we were in a different world.  The tourist crowd near Palo Colorado quickly dissipated and the sounds of car engines and tires on the sloped curves of the mountain road turned to the sounds of our shoes on the trail, the occasional coqui call and very soon some heavy breathing from my hiking partner and I.  The trail was rocky but well-defined and safe.  I say safe, but after a rain shower which occur often (it is a rain forest!), some of the sections get quite slippery.  We had more difficulty with slipping on the way down (partly because of the damp conditions, partly because it’s easier to slip on a steep trail on the way down and partly because we’re old and out of shape so were a little beat after the hike up!) but overall we didn’t have any major issues.  The trail weaves back and forth through the forest crossing the various streams several times affording many opportunities for postcard style pictures.

Spanish Tower at the Top of El Yunque Peak
Spanish Tower at the Top of El Yunque Peak

As we approached the top I realized all our hard work had paid off in spades with a vantage point at the peak unmatched in Puerto Rico (and most other places I’ve traveled).  There is a small, very old Spanish observation tower at the peak with a lot of graffiti on the interior walls but it’s quite interesting and seems a perfect fit atop this mountain….and it’s just plain cool to find at the top of a mountain.  The interior has two small benches, some red tile work around the edges and forming a cross in the middle, all surrounded by a white stone floor.  There’s a staircase that goes to the roof around the northern exterior wall where you get the best views and a much deserved Caribbean breeze in your face.  This small hexagon shaped observation deck sports a large stone altar-type structure that has the same Spanish cross carved in it.  From the observation deck you can see the north coast well past San Juan, the northeast coast and Fajardo area, the entire east coast, and in between other mountain peaks Tare and I thought we could see some parts of the south coast (hence the best vantage point in Puerto Rico). This little Spanish building was a welcome surprise and perfect way to rest a while before starting the hike down.

Unmapped Travels on top of El Yunque Peak
Unmapped Travels on top of El Yunque Peak

On the way down we, somewhat mistakenly, took a different trail and came across two other interesting areas that had old ruins.  I won’t give up the surprise of what they were and let you find them for yourself when you visit El Yunque National Forest, a perfect day trip when you need a break from the beaches on the coast and busyness of Viejo San Juan.

Big thanks to Taré for acting as my tour guide on this day!

Click HERE for Spanish version on lobu.do!

go where you want!