Have you ever seen water sparkle like a million mini disco balls and glow with every movement?
Our group visited Mosquito Bay in Vieques for a nighttime kayaking tour in order to witness the bay’s naturally occurring bioluminescence. This phenomenon is an interesting reaction where light is produced by an organism, and common examples include fireflies, glow worms, fungi, squid, bacteria, protists and more.
We had a free day in Rincón and had scheduled a scuba diving trip to Desecheo Island. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the dive shop, the owner told us that the trip was canceled due to poor weather conditions and dangerous waters. Initially, we were doubtful that the waves were really that big, but upon approaching the marina, we saw three foot swells in an area that typically has none. We also saw dolphins swimming in tandem, their dorsal fins emerging cyclically despite the choppy water. We walked back to the dive shop to re-plan our day. Eduardo, another staff member mentioned that he was taking a group to go cave spelunking in the Tanama river in Utuado and invited us to join. We did not have transportation to Utuado, but thankfully Eduardo graciously offered to drive us. As we had some time before our adventure, we decided to quickly visit the decommissioned nuclear plant and the lighthouse nearby.
The Buena Vista coffee hacienda is a historical site managed by the Puerto Rican Conservation Trust located just outside of Ponce. Established in the mid-19th century by Salvador de Vives, operations at the hacienda were originally centered on fruit production to feed slaves forced to work within sugar cane plantations. Fruit production was later supplemented by corn growing and processing it. The primary commodity of the hacienda later shifted to coffee as the demand for coffee exploded in Europe during the 1880’s and 90’s. The operation was family owned for three generations until a sharp decline in the agriculture industry led the family to abandon the business. Walking through the buildings and landscapes helped us better understand a 19th century Puerto Rico then under the colonial influence of the Spanish Empire.
Casa Pueblo, a community in the town of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico acquired 150 acres of land which established “Bosque Escuela La Olimpia” (La Olimpia Forest School). With an initiative to preserve the sanctity of the forest and Río Grande de Arecibo, a river originating in the forest of Olimpia. This stream of water is essential to the citizens of Adjuntas, Arecibo and other metropolitan areas of San Juan as their primary source of potable water.
Our first full day in Mayagüez fell on a holiday: Día de Los Reyes (Three Kings Day), a holiday celebrated by many countries in Latin America. We learned the holiday is an important part of the holiday season here in Puerto Rico to be spent with family. The evening before, children gather grass to put into boxes under their beds for the three camels that will bring the three magi (kings) overnight with gifts. Being here for the holiday served an early opportunity for us to experience the unique culture of Puerto Rico that is born out of a complex blend of different cultural influences and colonization. Our group had the opportunity to spend much of the holiday with INESI leaders, Marla Pérez Lugo and Cecilio Ortiz Garcia, and a few of their family members.
Directly translated to English, Playa Sucia means “dirty beach”, which does not really sound like the type of place you would want to spend your afternoon. However, coming from a Minnesotan’s perspective who does not get to hang out by the ocean often, I was not phased by the bits of seaweed that lined the shoreline and deemed the beach “dirty” (although I did later hear that the beach was named to keep tourists away). Playa Sucia sits in Cabo Rojo on the Southwest corner of the island. It is nicely tucked in a cove surrounded by scenic bluffs and a lighthouse accessible by a short hike with panoramic views of the water. In addition to the beautiful scenery, this beach also seemed to be a common spot for families to spend time with each other. One big family in particular had brought a speaker to play music and everyone was doing choreographed dances together. The family’s dancing brought a strong cultural presence to the beach, as dancing is a big part of many Puerto Rican family cultures on the island. Everyone was friendly and relaxed, allowing me to forget my responsibilities for a moment and fully appreciate the experience.
We spent Three Kings Day at Salinas de Cabo Rojo in the southwest of the island. In English, Cabo Rojo means “Red Cape”. It gets this name because of the brine shrimp and halobacteria in the flats make the water look red, but the exact color of the flats depends on the weather, season, and organism profile, and is different every day. The Cabo Rojo Salt Flats Unit is one of the five US National Wildlife Refuges in Puerto Rico, and is home to numerous types of ecosystems including: hypersaline lagoons, salt marshes, subtropical dry forest, seagrass, marine lagoons, mangroves, and coral reefs. The hypersaline lagoons have a high concentration of salt, and have been used for salt mining since the Taíno people extracted salt in 700 AD.
January 5, 2019, a long day of a scenic drive with the explorations of El Yunque, ended with our arrival in the university town of Mayagüez. In Mayagüez, the University of Minnesota group and INESI team were reunited at Marla and Cecilio’s house, which would be our base camp for the next couple of weeks. After being welcomed with a warm smile and an open heart, hunger grew upon us. Thinking about a hearty meal, masterchefs from the group came to a collaborative decision of one dish in particular - LINGUINE PASTA!!!! Garrett took charge of the al dente spaghetti, and Jane prepared a lip smacking sauce while the others became sous chefs contributing to what the chefs in charge were making. This would be the first collaborative efforts of intercultural and interdisciplinary effort over the best thing in the world; food! Wait, I almost forgot to mention salsa, and tortilla chips with guacamole!
Before heading to our host family’s home, we took a quick trip to the nearby rain forest, El Yunque just southeast of San Juan. The park is situated on a mountain and the surrounding foothills and is accessed by a public road that leads to the top. As we drove up the mountain, there were dozens of overlooks and trail heads to stop at along the way. However, most of these were closed due to trail damage sustained by hurricane Maria over a year ago. Other amenities like shelters, information pavilions, and cafes were also closed and appeared unused for some time. Despite the closures, the park was stunning, boasting natural water slides, waterfalls, and vistas overlooking both the forest and the sea. We spent our morning scrambling over the dense rocks below the falls experiencing the area’s beauty up close, as you can see in the photo below. Sadly, we ran out of time before getting to explore all the area had to offer.
Prior to class starting, I was staying at a nearby hostel and had gone to La Placita, an open public square, with friends. During the day, La Placita is a quiet space for a local farmer’s market, but at night, it transforms into a vibrant community, and every time I went, it was a different place compared to the previous night. One night was an older crowd, and the next night was mainly students. I was excited to take my new classmates to La Placita and discover yet another flavor of it.
Friday evening brought us on a walking tour of the old streets of San Juan. The tour was led by professor Jorge Lizardi, a trained historian currently based in the School of Architecture at UPR San Juan. The peninsular city is a microcosm of many things, strongly influenced by the Spanish conquistadors who first arrived to the city in the early 16th century. Initially, the Spanish empire classified Puerto Rico from a military standpoint with retired officials resorting at this elevated island. Later with the decline of the Spanish empire, San Juan became a strategic location for fortification and protection for the island asset of the empire. These military influences are still highly prevalent, felt most notably while walking on the esplanade at El Morro or looking toward the Ballajá barracks from the center plaza. The city has since repurposed these places into community and social institutions. Progressing towards the sea, the esplanade revealed itself as a recreation space, extending itself to the sky with kites. The barracks have been converted to a multipurpose cultural space and several other military buildings which previously acted as places of asylum now serve as educational institutions.