One of the aspects of our former Cruising life that took a bit of getting used to was that every morning we would get up, make a plan... live our day... then go to bed marveling at how our day turned out to be NOTHING like we planned it! Once we got used to the randomness of it, I kind of became addicted to it! Well today... that addiction was fully satisfied! In Puerto Rico, you just never know what's going to happen to you today... and if you just "go with it", you'll never be disappointed!
So... what was our actual plan for today?
We set out in the morning to find the trailhead for Monte Guilarte. Our AventureoPR guide listed this on his local recommendations. It's about a 45 minute hike, each way, to what is reportedly one of the best views on the island! Doing a little online research beforehand, I found that there is actually a small State Forest Facility up here in the cool mountains, that has a very easy trail and a nice lookout over a vast canyon. We set our Google Map on that, and set out happily unaware of just how amazing our day would be.
My Google Map is littered with markers of the many places I want to visit here in Puerto Rico. So many places, so little time. I was delighted to see that we were rapidly approaching one of those spots as we wound through the steep and narrow mountain roads in the island's interior. Note: If you're ever driving in Puerto Rico and you see a well worn spot to pull off the road... DO IT!
Doesn't look like much... yet!
This spot just happens to be the trailhead down to Las Garzas Waterfall! We followed June down the plunging pathway, that was surprisingly well kept, to the top of this series of gentle falls. There are several pools leading down to a larger pool at the bottom. Once we reached the top of the falls, the climb down wasn't obvious, and we were wearing flip-flops... so we just enjoyed the view from the top for today, mentally marking this as a place to return with more time and maybe a picnic!
First Glimpse of the falls
Calm above the falls
The first little fall
The top of the largest fall, leading down to the lower pools
After checking out the falls, we continued on the short distance to the place we actually came here to see! Turns out, it's a nice little state park that has been mostly repaired after hurricane Maria. We didn't find any park rangers around, but the gate was unlocked, so in we went!
June took off down the path while we fiddled with our gear!
Shady spot to sit beside a babbling stream.
The park has some very nice places to sit and enjoy the sounds of nature. Even the most sedentary person could do this short hike, and the forest here is every bit as good as El Yunque, with FAR fewer people around.
There is no place to swim here, but there are a couple of really neat spots to drink from the mountain, so bring your empty containers!
See the white pipe coming down with the trickle of water?
I love that this is a part of my life!
With the going being so easy, I was able to turn my attention to more pleasant pursuits... Taking photos of the beauty around us. I followed this butterfly around for quite some time before he gave up and posed for me.
Bruce getting some mountain water from the "tap"!
The path turns sharply toward the canyon and we find the lookout point.
When we arrived at the lookout point, we found a family that we had spoken to previously, and they were happy to share some of the many hidden spots to be found in this area.
June listened to the driving instructions, while I tried desperately to get these new treasures marked on my Google Map! What a nice guy!
We said our goodbyes and backtracked to the trailhead for the mountain climb, but when we got there, my poor tortured thighs pretty much told me no. Besides, our new friend had just told us that we really need to be on the mountain trail early, to avoid the afternoon rains. A climb of 45 minutes both ways, would take us to well after his safe zone of 1pm. So this place got marked on the Google Map for a future visit!
These flowers, I've seen before, but I didn't make the connection... The Rose-leaf Bramble, is a beautiful white flower with a fuzzy green ball in the center. Imagine my delight when I did some digging, and realized that the flower produces a berry, that the Locals call simply "wild berries".... When they are in actuality the Rose-leaf Raspberry (among other names)
We even found one - yes... just ONE - growing along the trail later on in the day, and we ATE IT! Very nice, slightly sweet, tangy and fresh.
We even found some Watercress growing naturally in a boggy spot! The Puerto Ricans call it Berró!
This is the trailhead to Mount Guilarte.
After starting up the trail and realizing that this was not such a great idea... we turned and retreated just as our new friend Leo, and the kids, were driving out of the parking area. They stopped and we told him we were bailing on this... He mentioned that he was on his way to visit some of the places he told us about, and he would be happy to lead the way if we wanted to follow.
This was the moment our day changed. This was the moment that our path went from regularly planned awesomeness... to completely-unforeseeable-in-our-wildest-dreams awesomeness! "Sure we'll follow you!"
We flew through the winding and narrow roads, happy to have someone to run interference for us! But there were few other vehicles on this road anyway. We began a turn, then Leo stopped and got out to consult. He said that there was one place he hadn't mentioned, that was just about 10 minutes the other way. "YES PLEASE!"
Turned out to be "Puerto Rican 10 minutes", but who cares!
We drove past a field of budding coffee plants! So. Many. Little white flowers!
Just as the road seemed to be less and less of an actual road... Leo pulled over and invited Bruce and I to leave our car and ride with him. The road from here on would be muddy. So, we joined June and the kids for a bumpy, bone-jarring ride, that would have been much worse in our car! Not to mention the red mud we would have been wearing!
It wasn't far before we stopped once again in a spot where we could just barely see a blue-green glow from the bottom of a ravine. I swear it was glowing!!! What a magical place this is, tucked in amongst the tall trees in the cool mountain air.
Just WOW! Turns out, this was actually on my Google Maps, but I'm SO glad to have had someone to follow in the first time. I might have been lost when we left the road... on the way to Charco el Mango! Leo told us that the pool is named after the Mango trees that grow here, but due to the altitude, do not produce fruit. Leo and J were as agile as mountain goats as they lithely bounded down the rocky, muddy trail. Once again, we were on the steep side of the interior mountains... the same type that my abused thighs previously vetoed... But for whatever reason, my body seemed to get over itself and kick back into exploration mode! June seemed unfazed!
We marveled while Leo took a swim and jumped off the rocks on the far side.
I found this snail hiding in the rocks.
Leo asked us if we were ok with going a little further up the road to see what was upstream. How can we refuse! We scrambled back up the path to the muddy road and walked on with Leo bounding into the forest to take a look at several spots, then waving us to come on down.
On our way back down the road to the car, Leo told us about how it was to grow up in this area. They used to run these hills all the time, which explains his uncommon agility, and that of his daughter. He told us the names of the plants that he knew, and of course, I looked up the others that he didn't know. Naturally, the names he told us were what the Puerto Rican People called them, so this was a cultural lesson as well!
SO. MANY Random types of lichen grow in these forrests!
Bamboo grows to soaring heights!
And do you remember those berries I mentioned previously? Well, here's the one we got to eat!
One more look at those flowering coffee plants on the way out...
With grumbling tummies, we loaded up the truck for the ride back to our car. We all transferred over and began the once again, screaming drive through the hills! Leo brought us to a local favorite, La Bellota, for some lunch. It's truly a "Locals" place, and for that reason I started out taking no photos out of respect for the patrons. But after a while, Leo encouraged us to take as many as we liked!
Our SECOND sip!
Leo helped us all order food, but honestly, June was off on a culinary journey of her own, tasting a little bit of everything on the menu that she didn't recognize! Gotta love her adventurous spirit! Some things she liked, others, like the soup with animal parts we do not recognize, she took a hard pass... But we ALL loved the Pitorro! This uniquely, individual recipe that the mountain people all seem to have for their moonshine, is always different, wherever you go! After our first sip, I pronounced this to be the BEST I've had! Sounds like a challenge, doesn't it?
After this, we were all declared "FAMILY"!
The view from the patio
While we waited for our food, we wandered around and chatted with the other patrons. Most spoke only Spanish, but June's Spanish is VERY good. This made her the darling of all present. They were pleasantly curious about the fact that we live in Arroyo... but they were thrilled by the fact that she came all the way from CANADA, to end up here, drinking Pitorro with THEM!
All of this was just for the three of us. Of course there were leftovers!
The plain boiled and the marinated.
We sat in the patio as plate after plate of food arrived! It's all served family style, and I think we could have all eaten on just what WE ordered! But Leo ordered for his family too! Leo once again, helped us order some extra things NOT on the menu, that we've never tried. The little guineos, or cooking bananas are prepared in many ways. Today we tried them simply boiled, and then... the best... was the marinated with garlic and olives. Very tangy and nice.
Frank trying to talk June into...something...
We ate all we could, careful not to overfill... because there was still more to come. June was a huge hit with the locals, and there was this ONE guy... he was completely smitten! He kept asking her if she could move to Puerto Rico, and I think he wanted to make some moves of his own... but she diplomatically extricated herself without ever actually telling him NO!
Bruce worried about getting out!
We left our cars in the lot, completely blocked in I might add... and walked a short distance over to a locked fence with a very clear sign as to how welcome we are.
The sign had me thinking that the fun was over... but only momentarily, as Leo explained that this area has been a much-visited favorite of many of the local residents, and the only reason the sign is there is so that the owner of the property can deny responsibility if something happens to someone on this land. (This sheds light on many things we've questioned here in Puerto Rico) But what could possibly happen? Right?
We followed our trusted leader on a long, downward sloping road that was well-travelled, but unpaved and muddy. There was one washed out spot, but otherwise, it was easy going. We met several other small groups along the way, which dispelled the "clandestine" feel of the expedition for me.
One little washout!
The water was low, but this is actually part of Largo Garzas!
There we go again... disobeying the rules!
It didn't take long for us to reach our destination ~ Puente La Hamaca ~ another of my Google Map spots that I would NEVER have reached if it weren't for Leo!!! I was enjoying the walk in the fresh mountain air, excitement from the feeling of careening through life with no control over my destiny, when I was suddenly confronted with that destiny... in the form of a choice, that could easily go very badly should I choose incorrectly! Maybe I'm being a bit dramatic here (for effect) but truly, this bridge has seen better days!
As you can see, we did cross the bridge. It is in a terrible state of disrepair, with missing floor pieces, and structural wires gone, or replaced in some substandard way... After watching Bruce and June go, and several other people not in our group, my confidence was enough that, as long as I got to cross alone, I could do it! I walked cautiously, placing each foot slowly and checking for stability before shifting my weight. Each hand-hold placed purposefully with a forward glance as I planned for what would happen should the whole thing collapse around me. My fear of heights was dwarfed by my fear of falling in a mangled heap of steel!
Looking back after facing my fears!
But LOOK! We made it! And once we were all safely on the opposite shore, we took off again behind our fearless leader! The path was no longer a road, but now a scramble along the muddy bank of the lake.
One of the branches of Lago Garzas
Our next destination!
It didn't take long for our final destination to materialize through the bamboo branches. I think it's part of the hydroelectric plant on Lago Garzas, and the reason for our visit was to see the lovely Puerto Rican flag painted on the door by our host. But sadly, the flag has been disfigured with dozens of names of others who have made this trek. We looked around, and then left the way we had come, this time with much less angst on my part!
I even went FIRST!
SEE how awful the structural cables are!?
A little WONKY!!!
I still can't believe I did that, although I'm secretly kind of glad I did... and that it all worked out! What an adventure this day has turned out to be! We returned to our car to find that the parking lot had cleared out. No trouble getting back on the road as we followed Leo to one more place. It was getting late in the day, but since there was no sign of rain, we kept riding this wave of luck!
Not a great photo, but this is the spillway dam as we crossed it.
We crossed the spillway dam on Lago Garzas, and zoomed along roads even more narrow than before. The last place for today is one that only the Locals know about. There is no marked trailhead, but the trail has been maintained with cut brush and even stair steps!
The trail leads immediately down, down and DOWN! Looking out across the lush, forested canyon, I felt a wash of dread come over me. After all of the recent, physically demanding treks we've taken, I wasn't sure my legs would continue to support me if we had to go all the way down to the bottom of this giant ravine!
Going down is much harder than up!
This was my turning point!
Thinking about all of the distance we had come already that would have to be made up in reverse... I just knew I was finished. Leo was scouting the trail ahead to make sure that it was passable, while I was deciding to throw in the towel. Bruce and I would just sit here and wait for the rest of the group to go to the tunnel. Yes, we were heading for a tunnel!
But when I told Leo we would hang back, he assured me that we were almost there! It was just around this bend in the trail! Buoyed with the knowledge that we would NOT be required to go all the way to the valley floor... we continued on with renewed vigor!
Stair steps were a little "rustic" but doable!
Seriously... almost there!
There it is! We made it!
As I rounded the final bend, June was already far ahead! I think she must have been Puerto Rican in a former life, because she took these trails like she was born to it! I paused for a moment to catch my breath, then a new wave of excitement took over!
I scrambled the rest of the way down to the end of the trail and just stared at this huge tunnel and the deep crevasse that stretched out far below. The opposite wall of the canyon was a sheer rock wall and the thought that falling down from here would be the end, was clamoring to the forefront of my mind. But the thrill of it all was keeping me going! The feeling of accomplishment was a high, every bit as good as arrival to a new anchorage. I need this! It's what keeps me going! Leo kept apologizing for the level of difficulty, but we are forever in his debt for showing us this amazing place!!!
Take a look at the "path" between where I am and the tunnel mouth! How we going to get over there???
The last bit of the scramble into the tunnel was the worst. There is a very steep distance of about ten feet that has absolutely no hand holds and very loose gravelly rock. I'm still not sure how I made it across... maybe lifted by angels? Somehow I got my body to move magically from here to there, and the wonders just kept on coming!
The tunnel was dark, but you could see the light at the end. A steady trickle of seeping water emptied out at the mouth, so we walked on a bit of an incline. It wasn't really slippery, but it could be! Bruce decided to hang back for a little break while the rest of our group entered the tunnel. I was OK with that, as I'm sure he needed some rest. He is 76 years old, and has been hanging with this group far better than I could have anticipated! Go BRUCE! Besides, if we never return, he can be the one to tell my children what happened to me!
Go toward the light...
At some point in the distance from mouth to end, I remembered that Leo had told us that this tunnel was below the lake. It does not run beneath the lake, but just beyond the spillway that, if it were to rain a LOT, could fill this tunnel with water! And it DOES actually run beneath so many tons of mountain! The dripping water seeping in from the mountain, through breaks in the cement, WAS cause for momentary concern. But other than again, thinking how mad my daughters would be if I got myself crushed beneath a cave-in, or drowned and beaten by a rush of flash flood... I was able to push these dire thoughts from the forefront of my mind, and enjoy the magic of this once-in-a-lifetime adventure! I think by this time, poor Leo was worrying that he had brought us to certain peril and feeling the weight of responsibility... But Leo, we came here willingly and joyously and again, thank you for the rare opportunity of it!
See that FACE???
When we reached the end of the spillway, it was impossible to climb up into the down-pipe to be able to see the top. Leo told us that there was a grate up there to keep big things from getting down here, and that he had hoped to be able to take us up there as an end to our day. But by the time we returned to the tunnel's mouth, rain was threatening.
Back to the relative safety of the tunnel mouth.
We exited the tunnel, and made the scramble back to Bruce. Leo went first and then placed himself in position to help us if we should need assistance making the treacherous last few steps... I made it across, and just as I reached the end of the worst part, I heard June slip behind me. I couldn't even turn around to see if she was alright because there was nothing to hang onto.
Leo caught her, and kept her from tumbling to certain death, but as I struggled to find a hand hold so that I could turn and offer my arm, June calmly asked to be left alone. She was able to flatten herself against the mountainside and regain her balance and footing, and then bring herself back to solid ground. WOW, what a moment of panic that was!
Once we were all safely back to the trail, we sat and rested while Leo took his drone out for a spin. This was the purpose of his visit here today! What a lot of work for a bit of footage! But then, I guess that could be said of me as well!
The hike back up to the road was MUCH more easy than the hike down. On the way up, if you slip, you fall forward onto the mountainside, which is much closer to your face than if you were to fall going down! I gave up and just scrambled on all fours in quite a few spots. Now that we're almost done, is NOT the time to take unnecessary chances! (haha)
Back at the road, it was beginning to rain. The skies had held back all day so that we could experience this amazing adventure. We thanked Leo and his family again for their extraordinary kindness and generosity! Hopefully we can reciprocate, in some small way, for the experience they have given us today. We would NEVER have been able to do these things without their guidance!
Driving back home, we marveled at how differently our day actually unfolded, from our initial plan. The luck of a moment changed our day from fun, to over-the-top! This has to be the highlight of June's vacation with us... The bar is set! I can't even take credit for the awesomeness as it was Leo who orchestrated all of it, and there was no way I could have made this happen! What a boost for June, to have been named the only Canadian to have ever visited this place! Wonder what we'll get up to in her remaining days!
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