David Whitley goes kayaking at night – and picks out four other options for travellers who wish to get out and explore Puerto Rico.
Kayaking on Bioluminescent Bay
Overhead, the wriggling mangroves form a knotted, slightly sinister archway. They have made a haggard tunnel for us, and the eerie Tim Burton-does-a nature-documentary vibe is unshakeable. The guidance comes from the small green lights on the front of the kayak and the small red lights on the back; although both are aided and abetted by the moon. The sky looks like a pincushion–the stars are bright and out in force. If I’d ever bothered to learn which constellation was which instead of turning my nose up and saying “that looks nothing like a bear”, I could run a fair way through the spotters’ book.
It’s been a thoroughly enchanting experience ever since we pulled out of the marina. There’s something inherently magical about night kayaking, the feeling that you’re sneaking around where no-one would even look for you let alone see you. There’s something of the secret Polynesian invasion party about it–creeping up on the enemy in the dark, moving behind the lines in conspiratorial silence.
But here, off the north-eastern tip of Puerto Rico, there’s something else. The whole place–every tree, every creeping branch, every drop of water seems alive. Between making jokes about alligators and deadly boa constrictors, the guide pops his torch on. He thinks he’s found something in the mangroves, and he’s right. It’s a large iguana, happily perched on the branch.
But it is what’s in the water that makes this place truly special. The channel through the mangroves leads to Laguna Grande. It’s allegedly one of only five bioluminescent bays in the world, and it is made special by the Pyrodinium Bahamense that inhabit it. These tiny, bacterium-sized micro-organisms are so insignificant in the food chain that only krill regard them as food. But when agitated they glow. And, guess what? Putting a paddle through the water agitates them. It doesn’t kill them–it just sends them dormant for a few hours–and it is estimated that there are around a million Pyrodinium Bahamense per gallon of water in Laguna Grande.
Moving through the water, the end of the paddle looks like it’s a magic wand. The water around it glows like fluorescent clothing in a nightclub. Every bit you touch bursts into light.
Try putting your hand in the lagoon and running the water down your arm, and it gets even weirder. Your hand sparkles into a shining, flickering glove, as if it’s being animated by fairy dust. It starts strong, but the millions of tiny bulbs quickly go out until only a few remain, flickering finally back to darkness. Imagine a computer screen image disappearing pixel by pixel, with a last couple of random squares having a last hurrah. If a movie ever needed to show someone gradually becoming invisible, they could do worse than come out here for special effects ideas.
Once out of the channel and into the lagoon itself, the currents and wind start to fight the kayaks, but the moon and stars seem even more entrancing. A playful swish of the paddle sends a streak of light across the saltwater, but it’s suddenly joined by jumping specks from all angles. It’s an aquatic laser show. Then we realise what it is–it’s the fish, darting near the surface. I’m capable of little more than sitting there open-mouthed – it’s a genuinely incredible experience.
Other activities in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is a fairly big island by Caribbean standards. It’s the smallest of the Greater Antilles, but far bigger than any of the Lesser Antilles which sprawl out to the east and then south. The relatively large size means that there’s a bit more to it than lying on the beach and chugging back rum punches.
The US influence is obvious from the strip malls full of fast food joints that line the main roads, but it’s not just an unofficial 51st state. It feels like a mix of US, Latin American and Caribbean, and not quite like anywhere else. It also has the advantage of a mountainous, lush green interior that feels far detached from the built-up coast. And visitors wanting a touch of the wild once they’ve left the kayak behind have a few interesting options.
You want a true rainforest within the confines of the US? Well the El Yunque National Forest is it. In the west of Puerto Rico, this slice of jungle is crossed with numerous hiking trails; although those wanting true wilderness hiking may find themselves a little disappointed. Trails tend to be short and paved whilst the area’s popularity at weekends means it’s hardly off the beaten track.
Rio Camuy Caves
A little way inland from the city of Arecibo on Puerto Rico’s north coast, the Rio Camuy Cave Park makes for a fabulous morning’s outing. Huge caverns, impressive stalactites and stalagmites, plus large sinkholes make for a visual spectacle. Unless it has been raining heavily–when they are often closed off–the caves are easily accessible.
Near the Rio Camuy Caves (and easily combined in a day trip with them), the Arecibo Observatory should really go down as one of the man-made wonders of the world. Built into a sinkhole in the karst system, this research facility plays host to the largest single dish radio telescope on earth. 305 metres in diameter, the dish has a genuine wow factor, especially whilst surrounded by mountainous jungle. The visitor centre contains displays on the work that goes on there– if we pick up signals from extra-terrestrial lifeforms it’s likely to be this observatory that spots them first–while movie fans may get a sense of déjà vu. Arecibo Observatory was featured in the Jodie Foster film Contact, and was the site of the climactic fight sequence in the Bond movie Goldeneye.
One of Puerto Rico’s trump cards is its beaches with the islands of Culebra and Vieques having some of the best in the Caribbean. But you don’t have to go that far out to find a great stretch of sand–San Juan has plenty. The beach at the popular resort strip of Isla Verde is pretty impressive, while on the San Juan islet, Balneario Escambrón is a gorgeous spot that’s relatively quiet and has a great mix of locals and tourists.
Where To Stay
Picking a place to stay depends on what you want. Old San Juan is where the character and nightlife is, while the Isla Verde strip has most of the best luxury options, casinos and chances to hole up and get away from the world. The Intercontinental (www.icsanjuanresort) is one of the options there–most notable for an excellent pool.