As the airplane descends towards the San Juan runway I see trees full of birds, a dark thin crust of humid mildew on the cement and Iguana lizards scurrying across the tarmac. Just as I point to a giant green lizard the plane erupts in clapping and cheers.
Why are these people clapping? Did I miss something? Did we almost crash?
Totally confused I ask the guy next to me what?s going on.
With a giant smile he says: ?that?s how we do it in Puerto Rico.?
I?m in for an amazing vacation.
It was January 2006 and the whole trip came together last minute and completely unplanned. Arguably those are some of the best trips because you leave it up to chance. The only planning we made was to invite my brother and his girlfriend to come along. Since we both lived on opposite sides of the country our plan was to meetup in the Dulles airport outside of Washington D.C. then head south to the island.
We are off to a success as we find each other in the airport and then hop on the plane to San Juan. I didn?t do much research and only had one goal in mind which was to hike in the El Yunque rainforest. I didn?t know where the rainforest was located and without a map, a car reservation or a guidebook that wouldn?t stop us.
My travel theme for this trip is see where opportunity takes us.
Once we touch down we head out of the airport and grab a shuttle bus for a rental car. The first shuttle bus that passes by is the one we take.
Within 15 minutes paperwork is filled out and car keys are in hand. In Spanish I asked the rental car employee how to get to El Yunque. He?s mildly impressed with my gringo Spanish so I get some local suggestions and a map pointing me towards the mountains.
Let?s do this!
We head southeast out of town towards the mountains. Salsa music bumping in the car and air conditioning full blast we?re ready for an adventure. Within an hour we are at the rainforest and hitting the trails.
This place is unbelievable. Lush forests, waterfalls, flowers and the sound of frogs, birds and water fill the air.
We pull off to climb up the cement observation towers perched in the jungle and notice the perfect panoramic views of the ocean with dark rain clouds rolling up the mountainside.
We spent hours hiking trails, looking at the plant and animal life and cooling off in the cold water from the waterfalls.
I think we have found paradise.
While on the trail I ask a local where we should go to get food and he say?s Fajardo is the place. So we hop in our car and head to Fajardo which is a short drive nearby.
As we get into town I see grocery store which looks like a great fueling up point for some water and fruit. While standing in line I speak Spanish with a local man and ask him where do the locals eat?
Hoping my Spanish gets us the insider scoop to a locals favorite I get an unexpected answer.
He says ?go to Cantooky.?
At least that what it sounded like. I think to myself, did he just say Kentucky?
I ask again and he said Kentucky Fried Chicken was a local favorite.
No, this can?t be. I didn?t come to Puerto Rico for American food.
Refusing to eat fried chicken we leave it to chance and drive around to find a local restaurant with a long line. Within 5 minutes we find a small place that had arroz con habichuelas and tostones. So glad we held out for local food.
After too many tostones we hop back in the car and explore.
The narrow roads lead us to the marina in Fajardo full of boats, kiosks and people so we park and walk around.
While watching the sailboats in the harbor a guy comes over and asks if we want to do the bioluminescent bay tour. We?re all thinking ?what?s this bio bay he?s talking about??
He explains that at night we gather at the beach and get into small kayaks and paddle through the boat harbor towards a mangrove forest. Once we get to the forest entrance we continue paddling through a small channel of water until we enter a large bay that has magical waters that light up at night.
We book our adventure for that night without fully knowing what to expect.
Since we would be in Fajardo at night we needed to get a hotel nearby. Yes, planning at it?s finest.
That leads us to more exploring and driving around looking for hotels. At the top of a big hill we see a giant building completely lit up with a sign saying ?Fajardo Inn?.
Seeing the Fajardo Inn at night with lights shining on the exterior and manicured landscaping caught my attention. But that?s not what made it irresistible.
As I walk up to the entrance I see a large outdoor patio and decide to explore for a minute. I lean over a balcony and see an enormous pool lit up with bright lights surrounded by tropical plants.
I can?t resist how amazing the pool looks so we quickly make our reservations.
We toss our bags in the room and walk the grounds. It?s so peaceful that we take a few moments to relax on the balcony.
After taking it all in for 30 minutes we get back in the car and head to the marina for the kayak tour.
Our guide explains the safety tips of kayaking and explains he will give us a lesson in biology throughout the night.
We paddle through the boat harbor and then enter the canal that is covered by a mangrove forest. It?s completely pitch black outside (which is best for a bio bay experience) so the mangrove branches overhead add to the mystery and drama making us feel like we are in a cave. As we move through the canal I can hear animals moving along the water bank. I?m curious what the sounds are as some sounds are small movements while others make branches snap. Because it?s so dark I can?t tell if it?s crabs, iguanas, snakes or something more ferocious that my mind has thought up. However I don?t see a thing so the mystery leads to more excitement.
Finally after paddling for several minutes we enter a bay where we can see the stars and see their reflections on the water. Our guide begins to tell us about the animal diversity, the local environment and biology. As he talks I put my hand in the water and notice that my fingers would glow as I moved them around.
This is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen!
I quickly whispered in my wifes ear and say, ?do you see this?? We were shocked that the water would light up by us running our fingers through it. I didn?t hear anything else the guide was saying as I was too busy looking at this magical water.
He then says, ?ok guys you can now go for a swim.?
This is what I had been waiting for.
We jump in the water and swim around. Our entire bodies looked like they have flashlights covering us. I take the water and splash it on my arm, and then rub my hand across my arm to see it glow like glitter.
Everyone in the group is stunned that we can experience this in real life.
After several minutes of swimming and playing our guide tells us to hop back in our kayaks and paddle home. On the way back to shore the mangrove forest had a more friendly sound. The air didn?t seem as humid. The enchantment of the island was in full force. All of us are stunned and amazed by what we just experienced.
The entire day happened by chance and we were not disappointed. Let?s see what other surprises Puerto Rico has for us the next day.