Our private hike "the lost machete trail" needed to be cleared of felled trees and brush after hurricane Maria.
We are lucky to have a couple of papaya plants that we grew from a Hawaiian papay seed. It is a delicious tasting papaya that has hints of floral and none of the strong smell of ordinary papayas.
The best way to pick papayas is with a tall ladder. If you use a fruit picker pole you risk damaging the soft ripe fruit.
We at the Rainforest Inn have been working very hard to be sustainable and to respect the rainforest environment that our inn shares. Tripadvisor has recognised us as a "Platinum" level green bed and breakfast. The Tourism Department of Puerto Rico has certified us as a "Sustainable Tourism Facility". And now the Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association honoured us with the small green hotel of the year award.
We are so proud and we will never stop doing everything it takes to be sustainable in the El Yunque rainforest of Puerto Rico.
Six young scientists showed up at our door, sweaty but cheery, after running down 2.5 kilometers from the nearby El Verde Field Station and then up our steep driveway that climbs over 172 meters in just 1.5 kilometers. The group, lead by the Luquillo Forest Dynamics Plot (LFDP) Project Manager Seth Rifkin, came to trek a few miles further into the rainforest to bestow their knowledge upon our private Lost Machete Trail hike. The researchers had been working at El Verde for sometime between a few weeks to a few months, and Rifkin has been there for eight years, so they know more about the trees in El Yunque than the average person knows about the far fewer species found in our North American forests.
Rifkin manages a 16-hectare study plot next to El Verde Field Station, which lies at about 350 meters elevation. The plot spans out over both forest that was never selectively cut as well as forest that had been used for agriculture until the mid-20th century, Rifkin said. The LFDP was established in 1990 to observe how the rainforest recovers from hurricane damage, specifically in the aftermath of hurricane Hugo in 1989. Every five years around 25 researchers, most commonly recent college graduates, live at the field station for anywhere from a few months to a year, working to collect data for the tree census. Their work entails hiking to various quadrants, through mud and streams and over steep hills, and measuring every tree stem at 130 centimeters from the ground that is more that one centimeter in diameter at that point and record the species and physical damage to the crown or trunk.
The data collected at the LFDP contributes to the Smithsonian’s Center for Tropical Forest Science - Forest Global Earth Observatory (CTFS - ForestGEO)—a global network of over 60 forest research plots across the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe reserved for the study of tropical and temperate forest function and diversity. CTFS-ForestGEO monitors the growth and survival of approximately 6 million trees and 10,000 species, in plots around the world that are varying sizes but use the same research methodology. The LFDP is affiliated with the University of Puerto Rico and funded by the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research Program. The data collected by the El Verde crew goes into the ForestGEO database and is analyzed for factors that contribute to tree species community dynamics, how anthropogenic climate change is changing those dynamics, and other threats to species diversity.
“As the project was developing, they came to the realization that there was more of an effect of past human land-use patterns on the tree species composition then even the hurricane damage,” Rifkin said. “There is also an additive effect of those two types of disturbance to the tree species composition.”
The ForestGEO timeline is essentially indefinite, Rifkin said, as long as there are still forests to monitor. Luckily there are scientists who remain excited about measuring trees year after year, and were more than happy to explore the forests outside of their study plot.
The El Verde crew eagerly set off on our hike and returned a few hours later having only made it halfway to the natural pool at the summit because they ran out of sunlight. If you have ever hiked (or even stepped outside of your front door) with a biologist, you are privy to the fact that it takes significantly longer to go from point A to point B than it would with someone lacking training in ecology because a biologist will stop and gawk all eye-catching flora and fauna they pass. Given the biodiversity of El Yunque rainforest, our hike must have been a field day for the El Verde crew.
We sat down with Rifkin after the hike and he shared with us the knowledge that he and his colleagues noted about the trail; and it was a lot, because the tree species composition here is pretty similar to what the El Verde crew studies at the LFDP, Rifkin said. We also added some insight of our own and compiled a hike guidebook for our guests; here is a sneak peek...
Cecropia, known locally as Yagrumo hembra, is a genus consisting of 61 species; most common in El Yunque are Cecropia schreberiana (Pumpwood) and Cecropia peltata (Trumpet Tree or Snakewood). Cecropia are common in El Yunque because they are pioneer trees that establish abundantly after recurrent hurricane damage opens up the forest canopy and provides sun for the light-demanding tree. They are fast-growing, opportunistic trees that are one of the world's 100 most invasive alien species off the island, luckily they are native to Puerto Rico and are part of the rainforests’ strategy for hurricane recovery. Cecropia are easily distinguished by their large, deeply lobed leaf that looks like a hand and their white underbelly that shows when storm winds blow through the forest. The Taino word yagrumo means "two faced," which refers to the leaf faces’ mismatching colors. The leaves are steeped as tea used to treat kidney ailments and asthma, reduce pain and inflammation and kill bacteria and fungi.
Carrasco (Comocladia glabra) is a poisonous evergreen shrub in the same plant family as poison ivy, thus causing a similar skin reaction—and sometimes even more severe. It has a slender, unbranched trunk with large, lance-shaped spreading leaves, clusters of tiny dark red flowers and small reddish-black fruits. Its white sap turns black when exposed to air and is caustic, creating a painfully itchy rash that lasts several hours, sometimes days.
The Tree fern (Cyathea arborea) or Helecho arboreo in Spanish, has thrived since the era when dinosaurs roamed the earth. This perennial fern is successful in high-moisture environments and in colonizing landslides. Its crown has 10 or more fronds in the form of a fan, which each live for only 3 months but hold 3-5 billion spores for germination. When the tree fern is young, its fronds are rolled up. As they grow, each frond unrolls until it reaches its horizontal position.
Ficus Citrifolia, the Shortleaf or Strangler fig, is called Jagüey blanco in Spanish. The fig tree is an abundant tropical keystone species because figs are a major component of the diets of more species of animals than any other tropical perennial fruit, and because the hollow, lattice-like trunk provides a home for thousands of invertebrates, rodents, bats, birds and reptiles. Fig fruit turn from yellow to dark red when ripe, and are sweet and safe for human consumption. Fig begin their life as an epiphyte, a strategy which allows them to avoid competition for light by attacking palms and other trees, strangling them as it grows. The tiny epiphyte grows to an impressive height of 15 meters and covers a wide area due to their ability to drop aerial roots from branches and spread horizontally among the strangled parent tree. Ficus citrifolia is under strong selective pressure to flower and continuously produce fruit due to its mutualistic relationship with its specific species of pollinating fig wasp, which lays eggs in the fruit and acts as a pollinator for a specific species of fig. The fruit has a purgative effect on the digestive systems of animals that dine on it so its seeds are spread far and wide through dung.
Manilkara bidentata, Bulletwood or Ausubo, as it is most commonly called, is a large evergreen tree that was once one of the most important timber trees of Puerto Rico. In the Spanish colonial days it was cut down on the coast and its strong, highly valued wood was floated over to San Juan, where it was used as ceiling beams in many buildings still standing today in Old San Juan. Oxen also pulled carts laden with Ausubo beams over land to San Juan from El Yunque. Because it is extremely tolerant of shade, Ausubo is common in the lower elevations of El Yunque, where it can live up to 400 years. The tree is also tapped for its milky latex sap, the source of balata gum, which is sometimes used in products such as golf balls.
Prestoea acuminata var. Montana is the Sierra Palm, or Palma sierra. It is the most common tree in this elevation of El Yunque, succeeding where most trees cannot. Its distinguishing above-ground roots capture enough oxygen so that it can grow well in waterlogged soils. Thus, Sierra palms blanket steep slopes, unstable soils and high elevation streambeds. Very few other species of palm are found in the rainforest. Importantly, its fruit is the beloved Puerto Rican Parrot’s favorite food.
Pterocarpus officinalis is called either Palo de pollo or Sangre de drago. The most distinguishing feature of this impressive tree is its narrow, long buttresses (above-ground roots) that make the tree reminiscent of a palo de pollo—translated as “chicken stick” or “chicken foot.” The Palo de pollo buttresses, up to 4.5 meters tall, absorb oxygen in oxygen-poor soils such as in swamps and along streams. This evergreen tree grows, often twisted and fluted, to about 20-30 meters tall. When the bark is wounded it yields a copious amount of red sap that hardens into crimson “tears.” This is collected as sangre de drago, “dragon’s blood.” The sap is astringent and haemostatic—having the capability to close wounds and stop blood flow—and is used in the treatment of diarrhea, mouth sores and thrush. The tree has a large nitrogen-fixing capacity and provides vast shade for other flora such as coffee plants—both reasons that it survived subsistence coffee farmers years ago that cut down neighboring tropical hardwood trees to use as charcoal for the sugar cane refineries.
Swietenia macrophylla is called either Honduran or Big-leaf mahogany (Caoba de Honduras or de Hoja grande). Our mahogany trees were planted over 30 years ago to test a new design for mahogany plantations. Instead of initially clear cutting the forest plot with traditional slash and burn procedures, forestry scientists planted many rows of mahogany and applied defoliant spray during their early growth to discourage competition for sunlight from nearby trees. This species of mahogany is fast growing but not as dense or elegantly figured as the native mahogany, Swietenia mahagoni. Once mature, the seed of mahogany splits and falls to the ground as a beautiful flower-shaped woody structure.
Syzygium jambos is the Rose Apple. This tree is native to Southeast Asia and moderately invasive in Puerto Rico. The fruit is edible and has a strong floral aroma, earning its name of "rose apple" or pomarrosa. At the Rainforest Inn, we occasionally serve freshly picked pomarrosas from our trees with our breakfasts. The fruit is rich in vitamin C and can be eaten raw or used in various regional recipes. The wood is dense and is therefore a source of charcoal. Additionally, the tree contains various tannins that may have antimicrobial applications and some parts of the tree are used in regional traditional medicine.
These trees are tagged along the Lost Machete Trail to help our guests better understand and appreciate the rainforest in which they are vacationing. Our new hike guidebook is a part of our ecological signage around the inn that has helped us earn accreditation by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company’s Sustainable Tourism Facilities Program. We are excited to share the secrets of the Lost Machete Trail...and there are even more to come once the El Verde scientists return for part two of their quest to the beautiful private pool above the 70-foot waterfall at the trail’s end!
La Pared beach, named for its colorful mosaic pared (wall) along the boardwalk, is a soft-sand inlet that Luquillo boasts as the surf and skate central of East Island Puerto Rico. When standing in front of el Monumento—the monument built in honor of the tiger shark that supposedly protects the beach—you have a flawless view to the east of the sunrise in the morning or the lighthouse and the distant haze of the Fajardo city lights at night. Straight ahead is the open Atlantic Ocean, and to the west lies the deepest point of the Atlantic— the Puerto Rico Trench. Following west along the coast, you pass the fortress-lined shores of San Juan and eventually arrive at Puerto Rico's famous surf destination, Rincon. But as Bob Roberts of Bob’s East Island Surfing Adventures said, Luquillo has everything a local or tourist needs to spend a day—or lifetime—at the beach.
Bob owned and operated a surf shop in Luquillo in the 1980s with his wife Suzy and has stayed at the beach ever since. Within the past ten years he has shifted his business to instructing surfing adventures. His adventure starts out on la orilla (the shore) with 30 minutes of instruction on safety and surfing techniques. His instructors, Justo, Brad and Jeremy, help each student perfect their “ready position” and stance on the board and teach them how to paddle, stand up on the board and even the best way to fall off the board in a "wipe out" and how to escape a riptide. Then it is time to dive into el mar (the ocean) for 90 minutes of riding las ondas (the waves). The comfortably warm Caribbean sea at La Pared is perfect for low-intensity surfing because it only reaches a few feet deep by 100 meters out, so beginner surfers can catch the white waves, which indicate shallow water, or the intermediate-level green waves as the tide rises.
Bob reassures his students that although surfing is a difficult sport that takes years to master, the success rate of his beginner-to-intermediate level course is surprisingly high. Virtually all students catch at least a few waves and remain standing all the way to shore, as many of our guests have told us. Since some people need help just getting onto the board, while others are quickly ready to ride more challenging waves, Bob and his crew pride themselves on their personal approach to teaching that caters to all levels of surfers. Bob lectures and demonstrates the techniques excellently, even bilingually when necessary. All the instructors are genuinely encouraging and high-spirited; their love for the sport and Luquillo is apparent in their upbeat but laid-back instruction and bright expressions.
Because friends and family may have a hard time believing that you actually managed to ride a wave, Bob’s crew takes plenty of pictures of every student. They post on Facebook only the photos that make even the short bursts of beginner’s luck look like longer rides that come from years of experience.
With the perfect location and exceptional instruction, Bob’s East Island Surfing Adventures deserves the overwhelming praise it receives online from its customers. To reserve your lesson, call (or better yet, text since his phone is often just at the fringe of cell service) Bob at (787) 435-1760
Héctor Muñoz, the co-founder of Hacienda Muñoz in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico, intently watched the timer on a handsome red stainless steel Bendig coffee roaster in Hacienda Muñoz’s Doppio Cafe. Because he roasts the coffee so dark, the beans must be released from the roaster at exactly the right instant or else the whole batch will burn, Muñoz explained. At that pivotal moment, he opened the roaster to release a waft of rich aroma into the roasting hut and a wave of perfectly toasted 100% arabica beans into the cooling mixer. He smiled as he scooped out a handful of beans for onlookers to taste. The bean, still warm, had a satisfying crunch and a toasted bitterness that left us craving an entire cup.
Hacienda Muñoz roasts have the mouthwatering piquant fragrance and sharp flavor that distinguishes traditional Puerto Rican coffee. Muñoz roasts and packs four varieties on property; House, Dark and Premium Dark as well as Traditional Puerto Rican coffee selected from beans grown in Yauco, Puerto Rico.
Coffee production is one of the newest additions to the original catering business that Muñoz and his mother Yiya began in 1999. Their hacienda has since grown to include Yiya’s Restaurant, Amanda’s Wood sports bar, Doppio Cafe, an event venue with a large patio and a guest villa all bordering the plantation. They established the plantation, which now boasts 74,000 coffee trees, in 2005 with the intention of creating jobs and empowering local farmers to help reinvigorate coffee cultivation in the area. Peacocks and chickens roam the property and the open architecture of the patio and buildings allows a 360 degree view of the lush rolling countryside dotted with rows of coffee trees.
Hacienda Muñoz is the closest coffee plantation and roasting house to the Rainforest Inn and provides a good reason to go on a picturesque hour-long drive through the El Yunque mountains. We made the trip on a Sunday intending to take their public coffee tour—which we later discovered only runs Wednesday through Saturday 10 am and 2 pm and by appointment only. Upon our arrival, we were graciously greeted by Joseph, the manager who, despite having a lot on his plate that afternoon, gave us a brief tour of the roasting house and restaurant. Since our initial plan was foiled, we could not pass up dinner at Yiya’s. As he did with many of his guests, Joseph checked in on us periodically to make sure everything was to our liking.
Yiya’s Restaurant provides an extensive and varied menu that features house specialties with a subtle spin on traditional Puerto Rican cuisine. We ordered the Filete de Salmón a la Parilla and the island’s esteemed dish mofongo, which surprised us with its smoked flavor and unique incorporation of ham in the plantain dough. The amiable waitress obliged to Bill’s request for a vegetarian version without blinking an eye and Renée concluded that the fried plantain tostones were the highlight of her meal. One of our interns, Chelsea, experienced her first ever monfongo since arriving in Puerto Rico. She ordered the chicken version and especially enjoyed its smoky ham flavor and the salsa criolla; the mofongo is topped with either this tomato-based sauce or a garlic sauce called salsa al ajillo. Another one of our interns, Mel, ordered the Lover’s Drink; a strawberry, piña colada and mango-layered frapé. Though she was reluctant at first to take a sip and disturb the artful layers, Mel slurped down the frapé in a matter of minutes once she dared a taste.
Our after-dinner coffee was a perfect finale to the outing. Bill ordered a cappuccino which, because of the generous portion of milk in the espresso, made for a satisfying drink closer to the traditional Puerto Rican café con leche. Mel ordered an americano and was pleased that she could recognize the distinct Puerto Rican flavor of the fresh dark roasted coffee beans. After tasting the final product, we cannot wait to get a look behind the scenes of Hacienda Muñoz coffee on their tour, and we will be sure to recommend our guests take the scenic trip and plan to spend an entire day at Hacienda Muñoz.
This June, we crossed the fifteenth name off the list of Rainforest Inn reservations. Despite the nearly 100% success of our natural mosquito abatement program, the main culprit behind this unusually large number of cancellations is the fear of Zika and the idea that there must be a lot of mosquitoes at the Rainforest Inn since, after all, it is the El Yunque National Forest jungle. But that same jungle is also home to many small creatures that eat every mosquito they can find.
Travel to Puerto Rico has decreased significantly in the last few months due to the mosquito-borne “Zika virus epidemic.” This trend frustrates us and our peers in Puerto Rico’s tourism sector because it is based on rumors, speculation and hyperbole. We value the health and comfort of our guests, and we are in agreement with the majority of our sector that the Zika virus does not pose a significant threat to travelers.
It is important to be educated on the virus, to put it in perspective with other well-known mosquito-borne health threats for which travelers are accustomed to taking precautions—such as dengue fever and malaria—and to take comfort in the measures implemented by the tourism sector to combat Zika.
As for the relative danger of Zika, malaria proves to be a more serious threat to travelers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports upwards of 2,000 cases of malaria every year in the U.S., almost all in recent travelers, and the World Health Organization estimates that malaria caused 214 million clinical episodes and 438,000 deaths worldwide in 2015. The CDC reported 1,075 cases of Zika, including one death and one microcephaly case this year in Puerto Rico, and 1,732 total cases in U.S. states and territories.
At first Zika was considered a mild mosquito-borne illness—merely causing a typical headache, fever, rash and red eyes—but has recently caused a scare due to its link to microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome. The CDC projected that more than 20 percent of Puerto Rico's population could be infected with Zika in an outbreak expected to peak this summer, according to the Associated Press (AP) article “Puerto Rico's tourist industry feels economic sting of Zika” in May. The article also states that this alarming prediction has been criticized by some Puerto Rican officials, such as Puerto Rico’s Health Secretary Ana Rius who told the AP that those numbers are exaggerated and improbable. According to the Baltimore Sun article, “Feds are scaring visitors away from Puerto Rico,” Clarisa Jiménez, president and CEO of the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association, said that the CDC is irresponsibly embellishing health information reports, which have developed into fear mongering that has spurred detrimental consequences for the Puerto Rican economy.
The Rainforest Inn was sucked into the downward spiral of the island’s tourism industry—previously one of the few sectors that stayed afloat in the otherwise drowning economy—by the “Zika epidemic.” Tourism once represented about seven percent of Puerto Rico's economy, but its recent decline due to the Zika scare will provide less help in alleviating Puerto Rico’s ten-year recession and growing public debt.
In an attempt to decrease the fear-mongered Zika scare created by desperate news media, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company has launched PuertoRicoNow.SeePuertoRico.com to provide potential travelers with current information about the virus on the island, such as the article “Perception vs. Reality: Setting the Record Straight on Zika In Puerto Rico.” Additionally, hotels and tourist destinations have been providing welcome packets with bug repellent and safety information as well as training staff on mosquito abatement.
While many hotels rely on chemical pesticides, the Rainforest Inn stands apart with our use of safe and sustainable biowarfare to fend off mosquitoes. Our program integrates a variety of natural predators of mosquitoes: our koi pond attracts dragonflies and houses fish that eat the mosquitoes that make it through the dragonfly barrier and attempt to lay eggs on the water. With the abundant spider population and the bat homes we constructed in the forest, in combination with cane toads, anoles, a variety of lizards, seven species of coquís and one native iguana on the property, the Rainforest Inn is a death trap for any mosquito that ventures near. Bats, amphibians and reptiles are abundant throughout El Yunque and provide their ecosystem services around many other tourist destinations in the jungle.
Our biowarfare program also coincides with our mission of environmental responsibility because avoiding the use of pesticides allows the natural rainforest wildlife to thrive and continue to protect us and our visitors.
Disproving the common misconception that a bed and breakfast enveloped in the jungle is a mosquito hotspot, our guests are regularly surprised by the almost non-existent mosquito population around the Rainforest Inn.
So, despite the escalating Zika scare, the Rainforest Inn is still the same safe paradise it has always been.
Bill & Renée
Many of our guests have commented on the music we play during breakfast. It is a special list of songs that René has put together over the years in iTunes. The following link will download a PDF list of those songs. Music is a very particular thing, everyone has different tastes and different favorites. This list is from many cultures and has some eclectic choices.
I hope that listening to some of these choices will remind you of your stay at the rainforest inn.
The kioskos of Luquillo Beach serve as a mecca for Puerto Rican culture, a cornucopia of colmados and cuisines. This stretch of fried food shanties to 5-star dining has given the Northeastern side of the island a great hangout. A place for visiting tourists and locals to merge in a must see flair that you won't find anywhere else.
Resting on the shores of Luquillo Beach, on one of the last beaches free from any high rise condominiums and development, the Kioskos have a deep-bedded history and a growing future. In this edition of the Rainforest Inn blog I'm going to bring you a multi-part special of the history, ever changing present, and talk with the new mayor of Luquillo about his plans for the kiosko's future.
Right now there are about 60 plus operating restaurants and stores, with the first half (coming from San Juan east) a little newer, updated and a tad bit fancier, with the last half being…well think "static food truck". There are actual food trucks and carts set up in the parking lot, as well.
The variety, food and style, of this strip is unparalleled. Choices ranging from rice and beans, burgers, seafood, traditional Puerto Rican food, Philly cheese steaks, ceviche, Italian, German etc. etc. to a plethora of different frozen coconut cup concoctions that are perfect after a warm day sun bathing on the calm shores! Names and numbers are used interchangeably, but some vacant lots and sometimes closed options keep the numbers a little sporadic or out of order. New places are always under construction as well, so something different might have popped up since your last visit.
Many of the kioskos have glass cases in the front of their shop--this is tropical island fast food! Grab something quick like a delicious and crispy bacalaito, arepa or a sweet and cheesy pionono.
But if you're looking for a great sit down dining experience before or after you walk in from the beach, just in the backyard, there's a few great current places you can't pass up on your visit to the Luquillo Kioskos.
Some places we love
El Jefe Burger #13 is always highly recommended to our guests, great burgers stuffed with jalapeño, chorizo and even rib-topped with their house made Jefe queso sauce is something you'll be dreaming about when you return back in the states, or even if you're local. Washed down with a pitcher of Lemon Ginger Mojitos, this always hits the spot. An excellent family friendly environment, and drawing on the walls is even encouraged!
La Parilla #2 is excellent for a romantic night over a delicious lobster dinner, in which case this "glass case" couldn't be fresher.
Not only can you have a great meal, some of the kioskos are a great place to kick back, chill on a drink, play darts, karaoke or dance Congas by the Sea #9 and Terruno #20 serve up great authentic Puerto Rican fare with smooth jazz and other live music a few times a week.
Ely's place #10 is LGBT friendly with great events planned throughout the month, and delicious made to order Puerto Rican delights.
El Revelu #25 is a brand new joint with a huge selection of Microbrews, which is hard to find around this side of the island.
Tattoo Tavern #17 cater to your alternative crowd, with luxurious gothic décor, open late, and if you have enough $1 Chichaito shots you can make your trip to the kioskos a truly unforgettable permanent stamp on your body!
Vejigante #31 has a great seafood paella and the décor of masks adorning the walls and colorful paint are paired with excellent service.
La Roca Taino #60 is the oldest of the bunch, here you can grab a great plate of rice and beans for just a few bucks, and on Sunday nights check out hot rod motorcycles and tricked out motor bicycles, along side caravans of horse back riders.
Almost all the kioskos have open-air seating or back patios with a view of the beach. Given all the choices you can rest assured that you really can't go wrong, and if you are on this side of the island for a few days why not try a few? Some are closed Mondays and Tuesday, some only open for dinner…as the Puerto Rican way goes “open sometimes, closed sometimes”
Variety spans every aspect of the Luqillo kioskos, there is truly something for everyone and culturally cannot be missed.
I've always hated gardening, the constant weeding in the hot sun, all the squatting down and bending over, hauling mulch and manure- all of this is disagreeable work to me! But of course, I love the results, who wouldn't love a whole meal produced right from your own backyard? I have friends and relatives that absolutely love the process of gardening, a good example would be my niece-in-law's garden and you can read about the happiness she finds, in what I regard as onerous toil. Her blog is even called, Backyard Happiness.
Planting a water garden is so much easier, and you can truly find zen and peace in the simple upkeep of this little water community. There is no stooping down and weeding, no mulching, and no tiling, look at the photos of our watercress. It grows so densely packed that pesky weeds can't find their way through.
The lotus, lilies and water lettuce are low upkeep and actually serve to feed the fish too. These plants are very prolific, you don't have to fertilise them often and even have to toss out some when they grow too fast. The koi fish also help with their natural fertilisers. To me, having a water garden you can enjoy your fruits of labor in a different sense by the zen calmness in getting to enjoy a relaxing seat by the pond. Also none of my pond plants have died because I forgot to water them.
Everyone was working hard yesterday getting the Rainforestinn ready for our winter season. Laurie was pressure washing the big porch by the pond. Thomas (our volunteer from New Zealand) was grinding down the cement floor for the new gym. Jon and Caitlin were putting in the electric and water lines for our new aqua-ponics greenhouse which will use water pumped from the pond for the hydroponics. Anna (our volunteer from Maine who was returning for a visit) was in the new yoga room working on a photoshoot so that we can post some pictures on our website.
The lawn in front of the rainforest inn villa overlooks the Caribbean sea. Because it's often too muddy to walk on Curtis Humphrey, who volunteered with us a couple of years back, built some amazing brick paths. He designed them to spiral out from the center. This design, like the rays of the sun, called for something interesting for the focus. We found an old stone carved bird bath at an importers and installed it in the center.
Normally that would be the end of it. Beautiful bird bath and lots of birds in the rainforest. But the birds never visited our welcoming bath. And we are lucky to have plenty of birds. Lizard cuckoos in the tree by the driveway, the monkey call of the Puerto Rican screech owl, Guaraguas high overhead, humming birds, vireos, Puerto Rican todies visiting every tree and bush, hovering over the pond, everywhere you look except the bird bath. Our rainforest birds weren't the least interested in our bird bath. It rains here constantly, there's water everywhere, so a bird bath in the rainforest is completely useless.
It's pretty sunny on the villa front lawn (when it's not raining) and it seemed ideal for a sundial. They're not available in Puerto Rico (I didn't consider that there might be a reason you don't see sundials here) so I started searching eBay for sundials. They are plentiful on eBay. Lots of choices, different materials, brass, ceramic, cast iron, and different styles: horizontal dials, vertical dials, equatorial dials, polar dials, analemmatic dials. We settled on horizontal dials as thats the one you most commonly see in a garden with the wedge shaped gnomon pointing north. You see I was learning the nomenclature. Sundials aren't that simple. Ebay had lots of horizontal sundials for sale and I measured the birdbath to see what size it should be.
Next I filled in the birdbath with concrete and tiled it with a nice compass dial pattern of Travertine (limestone) tiles. I cut them to size around the edges and glued the vertical ones on with epoxy and later set the surface ones in thin set. Then I grouted it with a nice bronze colored sanded grout. It looked great, ready for the sundial.
Luckily I didn't buy one of the factory made sundials on eBay. They would have looked good but they wouldn't have told time. It turns out that bird baths aren't the only thing that doesn't work in the rainforest. Sundials, the factory made variety, are setup with a gnomon and face markings for the northern latitudes. Down here in Puerto Rico, near the equator, they have to be custom designed. So now the whole sundial project was in question. As you can see in the photo though the bird bath did look good with a tiled face and it certainly wasn't a bird bath anymore.
I kept looking at sundials on eBay and then I saw the perfect one. The eBay listing said: "Working sundial custom made for your location." email@example.com would design the sundial based on my latitude and cut it out of steel using a plasma torch. He had an example of his work shown (held by a goat) and it looked like exactly what we wanted. I sent Jamison the PayPal purchase and a couple of phone calls later (turns out he's from Maine like my wife) he built our new sundial and mailed it down to us in Puerto Rico. He powder coated it with bronze paint baked in an oven so it wouldn't rust in the constant rains and I mounted it slightly raised so it would drain off and stay as dry as possible. And it tells time.
Sometimes our adventurous guests (and nearly all of them are) arrive at our inn without the preferred clothes and shoes to wear on the untamed trails which we recommend. Sometimes they call or email first but too often they show us their Tevas or trail running shoes after they get here and ask (looking down at their feet) if they would be ok. Packing for traveling is tricky. You need footwear that can do double-time. Most people bring Tevas and sneakers because they know they will be walking in the city, on the beach, or at the airport. Of course you can wear anything on the approved "Disney" trails in the center of the rainforest where the visitor center is and where the hordes of tourists flock together. On those manicured and paved trails with the rest stops around each turn (to duck out of the rain) and the informative signs, you can wear flip-flops (called chancletas here) and shorts and have no problem. But on the Indiana Jones style trails we recommend at the rainforest inn (when asked by our guests for something adventurous) you would be in trouble. You have to wear long pants, consider a long-sleeved shirt and leather gloves. I also like to wear a good stout hat because I don't like how the spider webs feel in my face nor denizens crawling in my hair. Also the hat is good for the constant rain (no little trail huts to duck into on the real jungle trails).
A poncho is really not necessary because they are hot and the hat takes care of most of the bother from our warm tropical showers. You might want to carry a small poncho or windbreaker for the high cool mountain rains. I recommend Tilly hat's as they wash easily, pack well, and are comfortable. They are versatile hats that you can wear on the beach and sight seeing as well. For eyewear, you don't need sunglasses in the jungle. You're under the canopy and you want to be able to see trail markers and cool creatures (boas are very hard to spot with their camouflage). Pants that are the kind you zip off the bottom legs are great especially for swimming if you don't want to go natural (the swimming holes we send you to are way off the beaten path and it's very unlikely there will be anyone seeing you). Shirts can be any of the new travel shirts. Long sleeves are best (you can roll them up). You have to protect your arms and legs because of the combination of razor grass and the "Christmas bush" which is in a few areas of some of the deep jungle trails. The Christmas bush has an intense poison ivy effect which in combination with the razor grass cuts could spoil your vacation. Please remember that we are talking about intense jungle treks not the manicured hikes that are also offered in the El Yunque rainforest. We can also recommend some easy hikes with open improved trails which are not in dense jungle but are under the canopy and are also only hiked by our guests (hopefully no former guests will post a blog saying how to get to some of these places).
The most important thing is to bring the right shoes. I wear a New Balance Minamus and absolutely love them. The sole has some little lugs which help keep you from slipping but the big advantage is how thin it is so the flexing action of your foot knocks the mud off and your foot can hug the elevations and textures of the trail. Hiking boots or trail running shoes just become caked mud ice skates. Laurie wears bright lime green and black inov-8 bare-grip 200 with the larger lugs that offers more thickness in the sole than my Minamus shoes. She says (of my shoes) that if she wanted to go barefoot she would "go barefoot". These shoes are pricy but worth it but less expensive than a good hiking boot. Laurie's shoe is popular with rough terrain trail runners. The important thing is to find a shoe with a thin flexible sole that has widely spaced lugs. The inov-8 also has plenty of comfortable toe room. Both shoes hose off the mud easily and dry out with no damage. We stand them up on a small table with a fan on them overnight ready for our next early morning jungle escape. In the photo of the shoes the black shoes with the "N" are my New Balance Minamus, the lime green ones are Laurie's Inov-8 bare grip 200. There are newer models of these shoes out now but just be sure the sole is thin and has some wide spaced lugs. Field hockey shoes (one of our guests wore those on a hike) work well too.
Most any adventure is found because of the perceptions you bring with you. This blog is not for the person who can’t leave "home" behind or thinks even the color of the coffee is a problem. It is for the fearless at heart and the romantic of mind. Nothing kills a great vacation like inflexibility and rigidness. You could have a much nicer vacation if you don't sweat the small details. Oh and don't forget to leave your huge expectations at home. Sure we all like that familiar schedule of our daily life but accepting the challenges of traveling often changes your life in unforeseen ways, sometimes even dramatically. How often do you walk down a 200 year old cobblestone street hand in hand and then dine at a sidewalk cafe or do you take a hike deep into the rainforest and get lost to find yourself sleeping there for the night? It's romantic to have couple time and to commune with nature, being in an unfamiliar place adds the spice. We recently had a couple staying with us who turned what could have been a hiking disaster into an adventure and a remarkable memory. More on that a little later. Our tiny bed and breakfast has all kinds of guests from all walks of life and all age groups. The best traveling guests can not be anticipated ahead of time, unless of course they are the guests that should have been recommended to another more commodious (read "stuffy resort") place in the beginning.
Here at the Rainforest Inn we are urban pioneers of a sort. We have gotten used to going with plan B from the first days of our repairs of a hurricane-ravaged family estate. Before we opened our bed and breakfast we didn’t have electricity or running water. Now that calls for a lot of flexibility. I won’t say we didn’t want to kill each other once in a while, then that same evening we would have a candle light dinner on the roof of one of the unfinished buildings on the property. Don’t think for a minute that we didn’t sometimes say W.T.H. did we get ourselves into, but that's another whole blog.
Nick and Ena's hiking disaster happened after they made it to a secret waterfall deep in the El Yunque Rainforest on the Mameyes river that we had talked about as a potential hiking destination. This is a spot reserved for only the adventurous and not easy to find. It's off a trail that is not one of the paved easy trails that everyone else takes. It's located past the end of a steep muddy trail up a ways deeper in the rainforest and even more secluded.
In the photo: Behind the large rock in the center of the pool in front of the waterfall is deeper water where you can swim in and out under the full force of the falls. This secret waterfall is one of the nicest in El Yunque tropical rainforest. As an aside, an important aside, please don't send me an email asking for directions to this waterfall. It's not that we don't want people going there (or maybe that's part of it because it is a really unspoiled location) but it's the danger of hiking there that must be made very clear first. We also talk with our guests at breakfast about other easier hikes and about what you can do to avoid getting lost and what you should do once you know you're lost, then they make their decision on which hikes are for them.
Because this is not the first time I've been involved in rescue process of someone lost in the rainforest I've learned some things, many of which are counter-intuitive and surprising. There are great differences between our El Yunque rainforest of Puerto Rico and the northern deciduous forest where most of our visitors have gotten their hiking experience.
The rainforest is a "jungle". It's very dense and everywhere confusing green growth blocks your view. I guess most people realize this as it's what jungle means. Once a hiker goes off the trail he won't be able to see far enough to find the trail again and it will be very difficult to make your way through the dense growth and even more difficult to plan your route as cliffs and other obstacles won't be visible until you're right on top of them.
The usual boy scout rules for what to do when you're lost don't apply here. Don't stay where you are (unless you're injured and still on the trail -- if you're injured and lost then you're really screwed which I will explain soon too).
Please understand two important differences about the process of searching for lost hikers in the El Yunque rainforest of Puerto Rico and how it would be done in a vast northern forest like the Appalachians or the Sierra Nevada.
1. Puerto Rico is a small island. It is only thirty miles by one hundred miles. You could walk from one side to the other (from the Caribbean to the Atlantic) in less than two days.
2. We don't have search planes (or at least we don't use them in the rescue process) and we certainly don't have helicopters with advanced infrared devices that will find you in the jungle (that would be nice but it is only happens in the movies).
When someone is lost in the rainforest we find out because the hikers told us or told someone else where they were going that day and they haven't returned by the next morning. For our guests we always strongly suggest they give us an itinerary of the hikes they plan to do and when. The first step after that is to look and see if their car is parked at the trail head where they said they were going. Then we hike down the trail to see if we find them down there still because they may be injured. This time I was in San Juan working so my nephew Jimmy volunteered to hike down the trail. In the worse case we look for evidence that there was a flash flood in the nearby swimming areas. We also take a very loud air horn which can be heard like from my bed and breakfast to the peak of El Yunque and back. But everytime I've done this first step I've never found anyone and luckily never found evidence of someone being injured.
The next step is to report the missing hikers to the El Yunque security patrol officers (or often done as part of the first step). In this case we called Jose Ayala the law enforcement patrol captain of the U.S. forest service enforcement and investigative branch. They have arrangements with the local Department of Natural Resources and the Rio Grande rescue volunteers and they will organize and mobilize the vast effort to find someone who is lost. It is important to realize that this next step is costly and will likely involve many days of fruitless searching because as I explained earlier the rainforest is dense and visibility is poor so our searchers will practically have to step on you before they find you. This is why if you get lost in the rainforest and then get injured you are in such deep trouble. It will likely be several days or more before you are found. So please if you find yourself lost and you don't have a map, or a compass, or a GPS or a cell phone then avoid panic. Realize that all is not lost. It will be fairly straight forward to walk out of there. If you have no idea which direction to walk then go down hill. Follow a stream. Be careful with the slippery rocks and go around impassible brush while you walk beside the stream following it down hill. Eventually that stream will hit the ocean and well before that you will encounter a road and civilization. Puerto Rico is a small densely populated island and there are houses everywhere.
Our guests Nick and Ena got lost when it started raining on their way out. In their hurry to get out of the rain and because of poor visibility they got off the trail. They knew that they could find their way out and didn't give up even when the straight line route (you can catch glimpses of the sun or go by elevation changes to be sure you're not walking in circles) ended at a cliff and several patches of nearly impassible brush. As darkness was descending upon them they realized they were spending the night in the rainforest. They had drinking water (never hike anywhere without enough drinking water) and it doesn't get so cold at night here but you will spend an uncomfortable hungry night. They spent the night, watched the sunset and the darkness close in while listening to the raucous jungle sounds. Ena discovered some insect life she would have rather not have known so intimately while she tried to sleep.
The following morning Nick spotted a coke can up the hill and later a discarded tire (they were happy to see the litter of civilization) and walked up past that to find the road. We hadn't yet mobilized the search and rescue crew and everyone went back to the Rainforest Inn. Ena mentioned they were disappointed that they would miss the ginger pancakes breakfast. We were very happy to see them when they returned at around noon or so and made them their ginger pancakes for lunch. They are now looking forward to their next visit to Puerto Rico and some more hikes, possibly shorter hikes.
Nick and Ena are the perfect example of your fearless and romantic travelers who learned first hand that life is what it is and so is traveling!
We're nearly finished now. Laurie has moved all the rocks around the edge so that you can't see the pond liner.
This illustration shows how the bottom rock is inset and the water level comes up halfway on that rock. We did it like this except we ran the pond liner up higher behind the second rock so that the level of the water comes up to nearly the same height as the surrounding dirt. In fact on the patio side of the pond we put the liner across a shelf and up high behind the rocks which border the patio. This is now filled with dirt contained with plastic ground cloth so that we can plant bog loving water plants there. The papyrus and the sealing wax palms are two of the bog-loving plants.
I hope everyone isn't completely bored with these updates of our pond project. I took a picture of Laurie right after she finished hiding the liner edge with rocks.
Now the only thing left to do is for me to fix the leak in the bio-filter tank and fill it with stones so we can turn our waterfall on and start the filtration process. I'm also getting a little excited about planting water lilies and lotus flowers. They are really pretty flowers. They open every morning and close at night. I'm not really a gardener. Laurie does all the planting. I usually just build the infra-structure and maybe plant an occasional useful plant like a fruit tree or a papaya. But these water lilies are really fun to watch bloom. You also don't have to do any weeding. Having a lot of lilies and lotus flowers will limit the type of fish that we can put in the pond though. Koi will eat the lilies and root around in your underwater pots damaging them. I think we may just stick with some of the amazing varieties of gold fish. Large orange gold fish and black moor gold fish swimming around will be beautiful and the just eat dog food like our other small fish that we put in to make sure there would be no mosquito larvae.
I took a couple of pictures of Laurie and Joss moving the big rocks away from the pond edge. It illustrates how strong a woman and a boy team can be.
If I was an artist I would also insert a nice drawing showing what we are trying to accomplish here but instead we will make do with words. The pond is lined with black plastic but the pond is supposed to look like a natural jungle pond (ideally a peaceful zen-like pond) which you might stumble upon while hiking in the jungle so the black plastic needs to be hidden. We found out after we had all the rocks in place that one side of the pond was a little high so it was difficult to hide the black plastic on that side with rocks. We also realized that the best way to hide the plastic is to have a shelf of rocks a little way below the top level of the pond. We are achieving this by pulling out one layer of sand bags on the high side. It is also necessary to back fill dirt very close to the edge so that we can root plants that will drape over in places and also look natural. The plastic will loop up a little behind the low level of rocks before we back fill with more rocks and dirt. This will contain the water when we bring the level of the pond up again.
It sounds so easy when I describe it like that. For those of you who are reading this with the intent to build your own pond I suggest that you plan having that small shelf about a foot below the final level all around your pond. Then below that you should have another wider shelf of about 18 inches deep to place low beds of contained soil for your lilies. The shelf we put in was a little deep so we had to raise our soil beds with concrete blocks.
It seems like every year there's a new buzz-word for the way we do things at the rainforest inn.
- Appropriate Technology
We do them all. We collect rainwater in cisterns. We compost. We built the high post-and-beam ceilings out of old cedar recycled from the large old multi-family home that was here before and destroyed by two hurricanes. We grow lettuce in old gutters. We're just finishing an aqua-culture pool, recycled from a big old cracked swimming pool, that will grow tilapia for our dinner from the many decorative plants that thrive in the pond water (actually pond scum). We save electricity every chance we get and are moving on to the installation of a large windmill (when the technology is there with enough reliability and absolute quietness like we're used to here). Our septic system is split with gray water for the gardens. The aqua-culture filtration tank will have lettuce and tomatoes growing in it (and big beef steak tomatoes are impossible to grow in the heavy rains up here any other way).
But why do we happen to be running a bed and breakfast that fits in with all the new eco-lodge projects and incorporates so many buzz-words? Do we study on the internet all the coolest things and copy them or is it a coincidence? I think there is an explanation for the coincidence. We built our finest "wedding suite" from recycled cedar because it was beautiful wood but mainly because re-cycled wood was free. We collect rain water in cisterns because, at the time, there was no other water source. We conserve electricity, have green hot water heaters, high ceilings with large breezy windows and many fansbecause electricity here is so expensive. We orient the houses and the windows to catch the constant cool trade winds. All the power on the island is from imported oil burned in inefficient power plants and very costly. We grow spices, papaya and bananas and everything else we can because it makes the best yummy fresh breakfasts for our guests and (similar theme here?) it saves us money.
I think the same thing is happening with a lot of other small businesses and households like ours. The solutions seems to be to try and supplement your power with solar and wind resources. Grow your own. Enjoy what you have and be creative with your new projects.
Don't feel bad if someone asks you why your latest project is taking so long to finish. It turns out that doing everything yourself slowly and buying each of the components as you can makes for far more interesting results. It isa lot more fun and rewarding to know that most of that construction was done with your own hands. And it is sure a lot of fun showing guests around our completed projects and basking in the admiration.