We woke up sunburned and happy from a long, hard sleep. I may have poured aloe over the length of my body before we fell asleep so the whole room smelled like a pharmacy, and I had to peel my shoulder-blade off the bed. It’ll be a tan tomorrow!, I kept saying, because that’s my mantra when I get sunburned once a year. I gingerly pulled on my bathing suit while Stuart made some coffee, and then we jumped in the car and headed down to Belly Button’s, on the malecon.
We met Abe Jr. and his girlfriend, and the other couple that was kayaking out with us; everyone winced at our spectacular sunburns and the other couple loaned us their SPF60 sunscreen. I don’t really believe anything over 45 works, but I slathered it on anyway. We all jumped into our cars and drove two minutes down the malecon to the little kayak beach. I asked how far away the cayo was by kayak. Abe Jr., a wiry little guy who had obviously been born on the beach, grinned and said, “three minutes?”
It wasn’t quite that fast, but we were out there, alongside the little island, in about seven. Stuart, again, was the powerhouse paddler and I’ll admit, I mostly guided us with a few shallow splashes. Let’s take up kayaking! I’ll navigate!
We slipped out of our lifevests and tested the snorkels, cleaning them with some spray solution that kept them from fogging up. Everyone slid in, and Abe Jr. explained how we were going to swim pretty forcefully against the current alongside the east side of the island, and then let the current drift us backwards towards the kayaks as he pointed out different things. He was quite the environmentalist and gave us a good sense of how delicate life in the reef can be, and what sorts of damages were already being done.
We swam, pointing things out to each other, until almost 11am, when Stuart and I realized we had to head back and get checked out of Mi Pana pretty quickly; since the other couple in our group had a tough time getting into their kayak from the water (we were pros by now!), Abe Jr. gave us the go-ahead to power back to shore and leave the kayak on the beach. Boy did we! We were so limber from all that swimming, and all the swimming the day before, that we probably did it in Abe’s three-minute estimate. Maybe the current was with us, okay.
Racing back to Mi Pana, we threw ourselves in and out of showers, grabbed our stuff, and were back in the car in less than 20 minutes. We took one last drive along the malecon, beeping a goodbye to Abe Jr. and off we went, winding our way back northward on the island towards Isabella Segunda. We filled up the tank (fifty bucks!) and then wandered along the main drag to find some lunch for our hungry tummies.
Once again, our trusty little guidebook (tourism without an iPhone!) pointed us to exactly what we were looking for – comida criolla, good and fast. Once again, I marveled that everyone I met assumed I was also Puerto Rican, and started speaking to me in Spanish – reminding me once again, damn, I should just learn Spanish already! At Shawnaa’s, I ate rice and beans and Stuart addressed postcards so that we could get them stamped in Vieques.
Once on the ferry (muy frio! too much A/C!) we settled in with books and magazines; I poked around on Petunia, the GPS, to see if I could get a signal to figure out our route to Naguabo and Casa Cubuy. When I couldn’t stand the cold anymore, I went and sat on the rear deck and watched the approaching mainland, with its high fluffy clouds rolling over the mountains in the center of the island. That’s where we were headed! I loved Vieques, but I was looking forward to some cool, exciting rainforest.
Once back on land and in our OTHER rental car (only slightly scratched after two days in the ferry carpark! Ooops!), we sped off towards the south of the island and Casa Cubuy, where we’d spend the last two nights on the edge of the El Yunque rainforest (and U.S. National Forest!). On our way out of Fajardo, we saw a sign on someone’s driveway gate that said “NO PARQUIN”. Let me tell you, we got a kick out of that.
The drive from ferry point to Naguabo was less than 30 minutes (Petunia getting confused and “recaculating” the entire way), and once there, we began our climb into the mountain on Route 191, which once traversed the entire El Yunque National Forest and got washed out by a landslide back in ’89 or something.
We climbed the road slowly, me trying not to panic at the tiny, tight corners and the prevalence of chickens, dogs, and children on the one-car-wide road. Adventure!, Stuart told me. Life insurance!, I thought. We arrived without incident at Casa Cubuy and we were immediately charmed by the happy shabbiness of the place. The entire inn was rather open-planned, with a half-dozen rooms scattered about an open-air courtyard.
The hosts, Matt and his mother Madeleine, had been in Puerto Rico since Maddy’s first marriage to a U.S. Navy officer had brought her to PR; she’d taught elementary school here, and Matt had grown up here, before traveling around the world as a journalist and then marrying a woman from the Dominican Republic and then settling down at Cubuy to help run the place. The washout on 191 is about a mile north of Casa Cubuy, making the road up to Cubuy a dead end. The lodge isn’t exactly in the National Forest Service area; it’s private land right on the edge. Our room was clean, with tiled floors and a breathtaking view of the mountainside. What more could you ask for?
That night, we hitched a ride with another guests about half a mile back down the mountain road to Noelia’s, the little restaurant that Matt suggested for dinner. Our dinner companion was Susie, a Vieques resident originally from Maine, who’d known Matt for many years and was happy to tell us all about life on Vieques. Dinner was delicious – simple food that Noelia prepared in her kitchen and brought out to the patio of her house, for us to eat. Mofongo, habichuelas, sangria and Medallas. I think our whole dinner was thirty bucks; Noelia let us take the receipt since we didn’t have any cash with us, and we promised to return for dinner the next night and pay for both meals then.
We rode back up the mountainside with Susie, happily praising Noelia’s food the whole way home, and settled into our patio with a glass of wine to listen to the cacophonous symphony of coquis, and birds, and frogs, and insects, and we talked about our day, about Vieques, about life. We were deeply asleep by 11pm.