Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Waiting Is Over ~ Las Cabezas de San Juan

Very organized parking and checkin area
I have been watching and waiting for an opportunity to visit Las Cabezas de San Juan for more than two years!  Of course when the emailed invitation appeared in my inbox, I signed up immediately!!!  Bruce and I help support Island education and conservation through the Amigo program at Para la Naturaleza. We have attended several tours, a couple of beach cleanups, and had been signed up for one of their Dia del Amigos when the world ground to a halt due to the Covid 19 pandemic. Since then, all of the events offered by the group have been cancelled... until now!

Is this a baby Ceiba???
This is a new beginning!  Things seem to be getting better here in Puerto Rico, and what better way to kick off the new normal, than to offer a "members only" event here at one of the most amazing and beautiful places in Puerto Rico... Las Cabezas de San Juan!? I can think of no other.  So without further ado, let's take a look!

Things are different now in a post-Covid world.  Instead of offering guided educational tours, the organization has had to come up with a more safe way to allow people to visit the site.  The number of people allowed in was limited, and staggered by arrival time.  And to take the place of a tour guide, they set up a self-guided tour using an app that has GPS tracking, and marked areas of interest, complete with an educational description of each site, and an interactive test!  Fun stuff! Today's hike consisted of 10 stops, and I learned a lot through the app, because I can now go back and view the information again for a more in-depth study.  While I did miss the personal interaction with the group's awesome people, we did get to chat with some of them along the way.  

Definitely a Ceiba!

The Pavilion

Let me begin by saying that this whole event was organized flawlessly.  There were people at every stage to answer questions and to provide hydration and assistance to keep us safe and happy.  We checked in and continued on the trail that led to the Pavilion, where we found a nice offering of local juices and fruits. I even used my Amigo's discount to purchase a guide book to help me identify the many species of flora and fauna we encounter on our walks. 

After the pavilion, we followed the paved walkway to the first station, which led off the trail, through the brush and onto the beach.  Bahia las Cabezas stretched out before us in all her glory.  The waters were characteristically calm, with families beginning to arrive for a day of bliss in the tropical sunshine.

Along the paved trail, there were several sandy paths leading to the bay.
Las Cabezas - the heads, are in reference to the headlands seen in this photo at the horizon line.

Note:  The italicized inserts were taken from the App created by Para La Naturaleza

Station 1: The Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve has several chapters in its history from the geological origin of its most notable features around 90 million years ago.  The 'heads', or rocky headlands visible in the distance, have welcomed numerous storms and hurricanes, but have also been an important navigation icon since ancient times.The "Cabezas de San Juan" their name is due to the headlands or headlands that can be seen from the sea towards the coast.  Today, from the highest point of the reserve, the oldest lighthouse in Puerto Rico continues to give light to boaters.In this space, Nature has built one of the most diverse resources in our archipelago.  The 11 coastal ecosystems represented in the Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve allow us to learn about biodiversity, interdependence, ecological services, resilience and the need to conserve these spaces for the well-being of our society.

Just beyond the first station, we had the choice to divert off the pavement to see more of the app stops, or to continue walking on the paved road.  It seems like there were more people NOT using the educational app, and I can truly say that they were not maximizing this experience!  

We happily took off through the brushy forest, where the effects of the hurricanes could still be seen.  So many fallen trees!  But, the workers and volunteers who have been cleaning so diligently these past two years, have done a wonderful job in clearing the pathways for us to enjoy. 

Walking through the wild area, we were far enough away from others that we lowered our masks so that we could breathe in the changing scents that enveloped us as we walked along. Soon we came to station #2.

La Vereda de los Almácigos runs through an old coconut palm plantation that has been recovering its structure as a sub-tropical coastal forest.  Among the plant species, the tamarindillo (Leucaena leucocephala) stands out, an invasive species that negatively affects the growth of native species.  Its accelerated spread began when cattle were removed from the land when it was acquired by the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust in 1975. The green pod was used to feed cattle, its wood to build fences and make charcoal;  it is considered very useful in nitrogen fixation.During the journey, you can also see the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) native to the Asian tropics, and the almácigo (Bursera simaruba) species native to the Caribbean.  Common birds such as the common warbler (Coereba flaveola) and the white-winged turtle dove (Zenaida asiatica) can be heard.  So the Coconut Palm is not native to the Caribbean or Puerto Rico;  was introduced.

Many times during recent hikes, I have wondered about this tree.  It is so easily recognizable with the reddish bark sloughing off in sheets... Today I found out more about it at Station #3.

In the landscape of the Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve, a tall, upright tree whose reddish or silver bark falls in sheets like paper is striking, that is the almácigo (Bursera simaruba), a native tree of the Caribbean.  It is a very versatile species, although it is considered a dry climate, it grows very well in humid climates.  It thrives on sandy, salty, clayey, flat or sloping soils.  It is resistant to hurricane winds so it has been recommended as an alternative to reforest.In Puerto Rico many people know it as the soup tree because when there was no food to eat, its bark was scraped and boiled to make broth, it was used as a home remedy for stomach ailments and a substitute for breast milk.

It is very tall...

Random:  Just thought this looked like a chicken foot!
Station 4 was the coconut palm and for whatever reason, I only got a photo of this little guy, posing on the coconut palm!

The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera), although native to the Indo-Pacific area, was introduced to Puerto Rico from the western coasts of Africa in 1549. This species has a wide variety of uses, but the best known is water  coconut.  In ancient times its leaves were used to roof the huts and from the trunk they took out the “palm board”.  Curiously, the most extensive coconut trees were planted in the eastern and southeastern areas of Puerto Rico.At the beginning of the 1930s the Veve family, owners of the lands that today are the Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve, had coconut palm crops which were destroyed by Hurricane San Ciprián in 1932. Since then, until it was  acquired by the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust in 1975, the land was used for cattle ranching.

As we walked along the trail, Bruce though something buzzed past his head!  Two minutes later, he let out a YELP! (Bruce doesn't yelp...) I turned around to find him swatting at his neck, and then this huge bug scrambled to upright himself on the ground.  He scuttled away, but not before I got this!  Bruce and I BOTH were glad this happened to him, instead of to me! There would have been a whole lot of screaming!

A little bird's nest, low enough for us to peer inside.
The butterflies were LOVING these, and I stopped to try to get a good photo of them...

But they moved so quickly, this is the only in focus pic I got... with BRUCE!

The next stop was pretty cool.  Back in early 2020, Bruce and I stayed in a B&B here in Las Croabas, and we took the night tour of the Bioluminescent bay.  Now here we stand on the shores of that very same bay! Station #5 is the most narrow bit of land between the BioBay and Bahia Las Cabezas. Lots of history here!

This place arose a little more than 500 years ago and, from this side of the Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve, this strip of sediment is the closest point between Laguna Grande and Ensenada Yegua.To avoid the inclemencies of the Atlantic Ocean, and shorten the trip from Las Croabas to the reefs of Ensenada Yeguas, many local fishermen and sailors crossed the lagoon.  Once they reached the so-called Fisherman's Walk, they passed their yola rolling it on logs until they reached the other side and continued their journey.Even with a maximum depth of 5m (15 ') and a mud bottom, the Laguna Grande is the most transparent in Puerto Rico.  It is famous for being one of the bioluminescent bodies of water that we have on our islands.  The channel that connects it to the sea is what gives life to this natural wonder.  Dozens of fish and invertebrates, many of commercial interest, live there permanently, others only come to visit during specific stages of their life cycle

The Bioluminescent Bay, up close and personal, and the lighthouse beyond!

Station #6

It is said that in the lands surrounding this cove there were many horses, hence its name Ensenada Yeguas.  A bit of sand from its extensive beach tells us about the diversity of soils present in the Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve;  from sediments of marine origin such as pieces of coral and algae to gray and tiny rocks that remind us of the volcanic origin of our islands 100 million years ago.  Submerged in its waters we find a great metropolis, called a coral reef, where dozens of fish species such as damsels, doctors and butterflies and invertebrates such as sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sponges, among others, live.The coral reef is the most diverse marine ecosystem on the planet and they only develop in tropical areas.  Among its incalculable functions, it deals with calming the waves that come from open waters, creating ideal conditions for the development of seagrasses, which are flowering plants that have adapted to the marine environment.

Aid tent up ahead, but we're good!
Rounding a curve, we could see the next station up ahead.  Also there, was water and a medical attendant, just in case the heat was becoming too much for anyone.  But we had our camelbacks on, and still had the benefit of ice inside, which cooled our backs.  We also had long sleeved sun shirts, and wide brimmed hats.  We came well prepared for anything!

Termite trails everywhere!
Just off to the left of the comfort station we found the next item on our educational tour: #7 TERMITES! I have wondered if the termites had as much work to do before the hurricanes of 2017.  Now, we see so much dead wood, but the termites are busy doing their job!

Termites are social insects that live in colonies and are organized in a caste system, they are different social classes according to their roles and responsibilities;  similar to bees and other insects.Did you know that termite nests are the largest than those of any other insect in Puerto Rico.  This refuge, also known as termites, are consoles with a warm, controlled temperature and a relatively high interior humidity to avoid the desiccation of termites.This structure provides its inhabitants with a type of micro-climate appropriate for them.  Termites have the appearance of a large, round ball, appear to have a rough texture, and are dark brown in color.Termites are made of soil, wood and their own feces that stick with their saliva.  Termites are a fundamental part of our forests since they are one of the insects responsible for the decomposition of organic matter such as the bark of trees, trunks and branches.

Termite nest

By this time, it was beginning to get warm.  The sun was higher overhead and there was less shade to be had on the paved trail.  We walked along the edge, so that we could take advantage of the scanty shade from the brush.  The distance between the termite station and the next seemed long, as we turned away from the coast. Somewhere along this way, I missed app station #8, but we would go back through it. Bruce was beginning to make noises like he might be done with this activity... But we hadn't reached the boardwalk!

Station #8 Ecology designates an ecotone to a transition zone between one ecosystem to another, this definition also applies to ecological communities.  This imaginary line between two ecosystems or communities facilitates the exchange of diversity and provides a route or highway for the movements of organisms from one place to another.  These zones tend to be extremely active and dynamic.You can take a photo in this place to show the world that you can be in two ecosystems at the same time.  If they do it with the states, why not do it with nature?  At the moment you are walking a dividing line, a transition zone between a dry forest and a mangrove forest;  two different ecological elements.But what is a subtropical dry forest?  It is a type of forest that is established in places where the amount of rain that is received in the year generally does not exceed 44 inches (20-40 cm) and occurs in very limited periods.  The predominant vegetation in the place is adapted to living here.

I pressed on, and Bruce followed, if somewhat reluctantly.  Soon we saw the next comfort station up ahead.  The welcome shade, and seating lured us in, and we even had a nice chat with the young woman who created the educational material in the app we were following.  Para La Naturaleza has done a wonderful job of hiring people who are knowledgeable, and better yet, CARE deeply about this island.  And they are all very happy to share their knowledge with those of us who show a genuine interest!

Photo credit: Para La Naturaleza

Ildamaris, the woman who created the educational app material. Sweet girl!

After a short break in the shade, Bruce seemed more willing to continue on, so we headed out into the marshy mangroves on the lovely boardwalk!

Tiny cluster of flowers on the mangrove tree!

Station #9, somewhere in the mangroves!

Suddenly, surrounded by strange trees with extensive roots in reddish water, you smell a rotten egg smell.  That is the sign that the forest is working.  The tree that produces this effect is the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle), its name is for a dye that it has just under its bark, the same tannin that grapes have.  To live in an unstable soil, and without oxygen, it has developed an anchoring system so strong that it is able to withstand strong hurricanes, those roots also allow it to do its gas exchange.  It is also the habitat for countless species that find in their roots a space to rest, feed and, for some, a place to live.  We cannot forget that we are in a salty water environment, sometimes more salty than the sea.  Many times we see something swimming that looks like tadpoles, they are actually larval or juvenile stages of fish.  More than 70% of the marine species that end up on our plate spend some stage of their life in the mangrove.

Station #10 is in the movie: This platform presents the mangrove forest from a different dimension than the one our ancestors knew.In Puerto Rico there is only a quarter of the mangroves that existed almost 100 years ago.  In those days it was a source of firewood and charcoal, wood to build fishing gear and repair boats, and a refuge for boats in times of storms and hurricanes.Their most precious value is not seen with the naked eye, these tropical trees, adapted to living submerged in salt water, are one of the best carbon dioxide traps on the planet, which is one of the gases that accelerates climate change.  In the mangrove forest of the Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve there are the four species of mangroves present on our islands, the red mangrove, black mangrove, white mangrove and button mangrove.

At the end of the boardwalk, I could tell that Bruce was becoming less interested in seeing the lighthouse.  We could see the steep walkway leading up to it, and I wasn't even sure that we would be able to go inside.  But I just couldn't come all this way and NOT get as close to it as possible... I had waited far too long to let this opportunity slip away.  Bruce agreed to sit in the shade at the mangrove station while I made the steep climb on my own. 

You can see the top of the lighthouse over the trees.  Getting closer!

So, off I went!  It took me about 15 minutes to get to the top, with a couple of short breathers when I found shade.  This part of the path was very sunny! But as I stopped, I turned around and could see the improving view!

And up...
And up... ! Almost there!
And THERE it is!

To be honest, I thought that this would be about as close as we were allowed to get.  I swear, somewhere on the invitation, I read that the lighthouse was still closed for reconstruction, and we would not be able to go inside. Imagine my delight as I approached, and realized that I WOULD be able to go inside.  Prolonging the pleasure, I first went over to take in the amazing view of Cayo Icacos and Isla Palomino.  

I am here!

Cayo Icacos, where many boats lie at anchor.  (sigh...)

Isla Palominos.  We'll take a tour there some day soon...

See those boats?  That could have been us!

Looking to the west, you see the BioBay, Bahia las Cabezas and the mountains of El Yunque!    

I spent some time marveling at the view, savoring the suspense of going INSIDE of Faro Las Cabezas de San Juan... I paused only a moment while waiting for another couple to come back out of the lighthouse.  Then, all by myself, I had the extreme pleasure of taking a long look inside.  I have to say that I was very surprised at how GOOD it all looks.  I had heard for some time, that it was being restored, but it looks to me like it's just about done!  This is going to be an amazing educational facility when they're done!

Gotta document this with the selfies!!
Looks ready to me!

These old floors are amazing!

OMG!! There it is!!
Eventually, I had to go back outside so that the next lucky people had their chance.  I continued my circuit of the outside, where I found the best view of the tower.

Very happy face!
Remembering that my husband was patiently waiting for me down below... I finally tore myself away from this amazing moment.  After more than two years... FINALLY I had my chance to see this treasure.  I can't thank the fine folks at Para La Naturaleza enough for making this the first post covid experience for their AMIGOS!  

The hike up that took me 15 minutes, only took about half that time on the way down.  I found Bruce reading something on his phone, perfectly happy to wait in the cool shade. 

I sat with him and we ate one of our energy bars, and took some deep draws from the cool water in our camelbacks.  The cool breeze and the food re-energized us and very soon we were ready for the trek back to the car.  On the way down, we met a young couple who we had passed earlier, and they told us that they had not been able to go inside the lighthouse.  Evidently, I was one of the last few allowed inside.  The day was becoming more warm, and the organization had made the decision to close it so that visitors did not become overheated going up that last bit.  I can't express how fortunate I feel having been granted the opportunity to experience this today.  Sometimes I wonder if my guardian angle is working overtime!  She's certainly up there pulling strings for me, that's for sure!

The end of the trail had us diverting to the beach for the last distance to the car.  WOW!  So many people out here now!  For sure, the morning is the best time to come here if you don't want to be in a crowd! We felt a little out of place, tromping through the sand, fully clothed, and in hiking boots!  But I had the secret knowledge that we had just had quite a unique experience that many of these others knew nothing about... And that will keep me smiling for some time to come!  Thank you AGAIN, Para La Naturaleza!  We are looking forward eagerly for many more experiences with you to come! Photo Gallery

Note: Wearing of masks and social distancing is required at all times when you're in public here in Puerto Rico.  The photos shown here not wearing masks, or with them down, were solely for the photos.  We have honored the requirements of our government so that we can put this pandemic behind us as quickly as possible.  Also, Bruce has had his vaccination, and I'm in the middle of mine.  

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