Kayaking the Sabana River: Ecotourism in Puerto Rico

I adore kayaking, so I booked a Kayak Tour of the Sabana River, which is at the other end of the playa from our condo in Luquillo. We got so much more than we bargained for! For just $30 apiece, Bob and I found ourselves on a fascinating eco and historical tour offered by Ramon of Sun Capital Paddlesports. Ramon introduced us to the Sabana River Estuary of the Northeast Ecological Corridor, a breathlessly beautiful a protected natural area.

This is Ramon of Sun Capital Paddlesports

After a short but very thorough lesson on how to kayak, Ramon led us and just three other people, he on a stand-up paddleboard and us in two-person kayaks, as we navigated several branches of the river. He pulled out a map before we started and explained the history of the area, what used to be here, what had happened to it.

We learned that Luquillo was the spot where Christopher Columbus first set foot on the island of Puerto Rice in the 1400s. The Taino Indians were living here at the time, and he has discovered their petroglyphs upriver, toward El Yunque peak and the rain forest, evidence that they traveled in that direction to avoid the invading Spaniards.

Roman told us about a past sugar cane plantation, a cow farm, and then how this area because a protected corridor in 2013, after the community rose up against developers who wanted to build more resorts on Puerto Rico.

Northeast Ecological Corridor

The Northeast Ecological Corridor consists of almost 3,000 lush acres of land along the Atlantic Coast in the northeast corner of Puerto Rico. It is home to native red bats, which we saw flying around over our heads as we passed under a bridge.

I did a little digging into this protected area, and found this from Sierra Club Puerto Rico:

The Northeast Ecological Corridor is an incredibly biodiverse tract of land covering nearly 3,000 acres of lowland tropical forest, mangroves, wetlands, sandy beaches, seagrass beds, and coral reefs. The Corridor stretches over five miles of undeveloped beach, from Luquillo to Fajardo, and not only serves as a beloved “backyard” for thousands of locals, but also is one of only two sites in the Caribbean where endangered leatherback sea turtles come on land to nest. The largest of all turtles, leatherbacks lay their eggs on the Corridor’s beaches from March until July. A few months later, the babies hatch and crawl back to the sea.

Only a few years ago, the Northeast Ecological Corridor’s status as one of the last remaining tracts of undeveloped coastline in Puerto Rico was under threat. Resort developers wanted to buy up the land and build hotels, a plan that would have both social and environmental consequences.

Here’s a map of the corridor:

Endangered Leatherback Turtles

Perhaps its most important function is to host the nesting grounds of endangered leatherback turtles (tinglars, in Spanish), which grow to be up to seven feet long.

Photo provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region

Ramon explained why the street lights along the coast in Luquillo are red – not just to reduce ambient light, as we had suspected, but to keep the turtles from going in the wrong direction after they lay their eggs. They look for the light of the moon reflected in the ocean, and white streetlights can confuse them. Isn’t that interesting?

The Sierra Club puts on a Leatherback Turtle Festival every spring to promote awareness of the gentle giants, attracting 25,000 people to Luquillo Beach with music, food trucks, activities, and turtle-themed crafts.

There’s also a local nonprofit called Tortugas del Sur that dedicates itself to helping these endangered creatures breed successfully during nesting season.

Other Creatures Along the River

We also passed this humongous iguana on the eco-tour, as well as the largest termite nest I have ever seen.

We also saw an osprey and a great blue heron, two majestic sea birds that I love, Unfortunately, they were in flight and my hands were occupied with paddles, so I couldn’t get their pictures.

Ramon made sure to take plenty of pictures of participants in the tour, the best souvenir imaginable.

Hats off to Ramon, who dedicates his life to taking care of this delicate region, taking groups on these tours to give them a fascinating experience and cultivate carrying about the Corridor and the turtles! Five Stars!

Beautiful, Isolated Playa San Miguel

Here’s an important Spanish word for you to learn if you’re going to read our blog while we’re in Puerto Rico: Playa. It means beach. Puerto Rico is covered with gorgeous beaches — the northern ones facing the Atlantic Ocean and the southern ones the calmer Caribbean Sea — and we want to visit as many as we can while we’re here! There are endless varieties of sand-and-sea to be found on the Isla Encanta, each one more beautiful than the last.

We pulled out Google Maps and saw that Playa San Miguel was just one exit or so east from our condo in Luquillo on Rte. 3. We packed up a cooler with drinks and snacks, grabbed our beach chairs, towels, and sunscreen, and headed out.

irst look at Playa San Miguel. Guau! (That’s “wow,” in Spanish

Rough Road

To get there we had to drive our low-hanging rental five miles down a dirt road that seemed fine at first … until we hit the puddles. Small ponds might better describe them. Then they became lakes. I help my breath as Bob slowly navigated the Corolla along the edge of each, praying we wouldn’t get stuck in the muck in the middle of nowhere. Where was Bob’s Toyota Tacoma when we needed it? (Back in a parking lot in Manchester, NH.)

Bob commented that when we lived in PR in the 90s, he bought his guagua (truck, specifically a Jeep Cherokee with a cow-catcher grill on the front that Puerto Ricans call a “rompamonte”) so we could easily navigate these types of roads, but back then, I was working so much that we never did. This is part of the reason we have returned. Same adventurous spirit, more time — but sadly, no guagua.

The long road traversed the La Reserva Natural Corredor Ecológico del Noreste, a nature reserve and a prime eco­tourism destination.

Somehow we made it to an entrance to a beach, where we saw a sign that told us, essentially — don’t drive on the sand, pack our your litter and don’t mess with the sea turtles that nest here.

Learn about this nature reserve at http://www.corredorecologicodelnoreste.org/visiting-the-corridor

We parked at the edge of the road, walked through a break in the trees, and found … paradise.

An Empty Beach

The sand was golden, stretching for miles in both directions, and the beach was completely empty of humanity. Three pelicans flew over, followed by a snowy egret. Little birds scuttled along the sand. To our right, a large, low-hanging tree with fat round leaves provided the perfect shady spot for setting up our base camp, which we did.

View toward Luquillo

Keeping It Clean

As I walked down to the ocean, I found a bit of litter wrapped up in the brown seaweed that had washed onto the sand with high tides. I picked up a paint can from the debris and began filling it with plastic cups, a mask, food wrappers, plastic forks, and more evidence of mankind. The disadvantage of an unmaintained beach is that it’s not cleaned regularly, and this debris was clear evidence of the litter that’s filling our oceans. I decided that one way to leave my mark on this island is to leave it cleaner than I found it. I filled another plastic bucket found with trash as well, and will bring trash bags next time.

Glorious Beach

But despite the litter, San Miguel Beach was perfect. The tide was rougher than in the bay where we are staying, waves crashing loudly onto the sand. I was wearing a bikini, which normally makes me nervous about bodysurfing, but no one was around, so who cared if the top or bottom got pushed down? We bodysurfed for a long time, laughing. It was amazing! I felt like a kid again. We were aware of a slight rip current, so we kept an eye on each other and made sure we didn’t go too deep.

San Miguel Beach Panarama

Alas, lunchtime came too soon, and it was time to go hunting for food. Next time we will pack a lunch, because it’s not very appealing to drive this long, wet road twice.

We definitely plan to return to Playa San Miguel, many times. But not today. It poured last night, and our car would likely sink into one of the lakes on the dirt road and disappear.

We also need to learn more about this Ecological Reserve. We’ll keep you posted!

Full-Circle Moment in San Juan

The first time I set foot on the island of Puerto Rico was Jan. 6, 1994, when I moved there from Manhattan to become Caribbean Correspondent for The Associated Press. The AP flew me down and put me up in a beautiful hotel right on the ocean. When I arrived, I surveyed the pristine golden beach and the clear turquoise sea from my hotel room window, feeling so lucky to have landed in such a wonderful place. Before I went to bed my first night, I stood on my balcony looking out at the moon and stars and listening to the distinctive chirping of the coquis, Puerto Rican tree frogs, and the roar of the ocean crashing onto the beach.

Paradise, I thought.

I woke up with a splitting headache and an acrid stench filling my nostrils. I stumbled to the window, opened the shades, and all I could see out to the horizon was black tar. No turquoise sea. No golden sand. Black water and a filthy beach. What the hell had happened while I was sleeping?

By https://www.flickr.com/people/jamidwyer/ – https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamidwyer/2127856702/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22654928

I called the AP San Juan Bureau from my hotel and dictated a quick story, and then–since I didn’t even have a rental car yet–grabbed a notebook and pen, threw on running clothes and shoes, and set out on foot down the road closest to the ocean, Avenida Ashford, trying to make sense of it. Miraculously, when I got to the end of the Condado area, right before the Dos Hermanos Bridge that crosses Condado Lagoon, a helicopter landed right in front of me and Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro J. Rosselló stepped out, there to survey the damage.

 I was able to interview him, and broke a huge story before my first day on the job. It turns out that during the night, the Morris J. Berman, a barge carrying 1.5 million gallons of oil, had drifted toward shore and collided with a coral reef, which ripped a hole in its hull and allowed 750,000 gallons of heavy black oil to spill into the Atlantic Ocean.

I learned later, after crossing telephone wires and finding myself talking to the officer in charge of the investigation, that the man who was at the helm of the barge that night drank too much and fell asleep at the wheel, which was why the barge was just drifting and was able to hit the reef.

By NOAA – https://photos.orr.noaa.gov/gallery_4/incidents-11.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53401938

The spill sullied 100 miles of shoreline and had a huge impact on the health of shore and sea birds, ocean life, vegetation, and of course tourism. You can read all about it here. (Unfortunately, I can’t find my original story online, as this was pre-Internet.)

Two days ago and 27 years later, I was walking through Condado, again on my first day in San Juan, and found some signs put up by the San Juan Estuary Program that mentioned the grounding of the Berman and subsequent environmental impact.

This poster is very weathered but perhaps you can read it. It talks about the environmental impact, clean-up efforts, and promotes the maintenance of this region.

This poster certainly brought back dramatic memories of that incident, which affected my life in many ways. It gave me the opportunity to come flying out of the gates as a foreign correspondent, breaking a huge story the morning after I arrived on the island. It shaped my reporting for the next year as the government focused on the investigation of the spill and clean-up challenges.

Twenty-seven years later, I’m back in San Juan, this time to live for two months. The beach is pristine and the ocean is glorious. There’s no evidence of the environmental damage the Morris Berman wrought.

Still, I am reminded to never take for granted nature’s beauty, and that we all have a responsibility to keep our world clean.

Vacation in England, Part 2: London

London was a whirlwind of walking (averaging six miles a day), taking boat rides (on the Regent’s Canal, the Thames twice, and even a paddleboat on the Serpentine), running in Hyde Park, exploring markets (Camden Town was our favorite), and more.

Lisa enjoyed the theater on four occasions: Hamilton (excellent, again), Pretty Woman (okay but needing a little work), Back to the Future (surprisingly clever), and SIX (phenomenal).

We visited Greenwich and straddled the Prime Meridien.

We toured Tower Bridge.

We went to the top of the Walkie Talkie Building at sunset.

We embraced the iconic Madame Tussaud’s.

We climbed the Marble Arch Mound, and discovered a laser structure museum inside.

Lisa visited Kensington Palace.

We took a narrowboat ride on the Regent’s Canal.

We visited Camden Market.

We looked at art in the National Gallery.

We visited the Natural History Museum.

When we got back to Vermont, we literally collapsed from exhaustion.

We’ll be going back in April when we attend Aryk’s COVID-delayed graduation from Keele University. There’s still a lot left to see!

Vacation in England, Part 1: Bath

In September, we giddily embarked upon our first international trip since COVID brought us back from Mexico City, the latest destination in our traveling retirement, quite abruptly in March 2020. We took advantage of our oldest child, Aryk, restarting their education to carve out two weeks in England!

Aryk had deferred graduate school for a year due to the pandemic, but with two vaccines in their arm and a trove of masks in their suitcase, they were eager to begin pursuing their master’s degree in Creative Writing/Poetry at Bath Spa University in Bath, England.

So the three of us flew to the UK in mid-September. Lisa and Aryk headed to Bath, Lisa driving white-knuckled on the left side of the road to Aryk’s uni lodging, while Bob settled into a condo in London to explore for a few days on his own.

Beautiful Bath

Bath is a stunning World Heritage City about two hours west of London. It has a lovely old center of town and a lively culture. While we were there, the city was hosting a major Children’s Literature Festival. We movedAryk into Student Castle, and did the shopping and exploring they needed, with little time left for sightseeing.

Aryk’s studio flat, still being unpacked, obviously. But the bed is made!

Bath is named after its Roman-built baths, and is renowned as a well-being destination. It’s located in the valley of the River Avon, a scenic, winding river with a path that I enjoyed during an early morning run.

The River Avon

Bath also hosts a scenic stretch of the 87-mile-long Kennet and Avon Canal, which runs from London to the Bristol Channel on the coast. I ran or walked on its dirt towpath several mornings. One day, Aryk and I happened upon it after shopping at Tesco Express just before sunset. The light on the buildings made from golden Bath stone was truly captivating.

Just as interesting to me was the narrowboats tethered along the canal, in which people lived. (Note the bikes lashed on top.)

These are working canals, albeit an incredibly slow mode of transportation, and I was fortunate to witness a narrowboat navigating an 18-foot-deep lock called the Bath Deep Lock, the second-deepest lock in the country. Watch my video on the Messy Suitcase YouTube channel! (And please subscribe while you’re there.)

This narrowboat, captained by two women you can see up at the loch, had a canoe lashed to the top!

I definitely plan to return to Bath for a tourism visit someday!

On to the Next Phase

We’re finishing up our Vermont maple liqueur in a symbolic transition as we prepare to depart next week for the next stop on the Messy Suitcase tour, the birthplace of piña coladas: Puerto Rico! 

Our September vacation in England (taking our oldest child, Aryk, who is pursuing their master’s at Bath Spa University, to school) was great preparation for re-entry to our traveling lifestyle, post-COVID version. We are double-vaxxed, indoor-masked, and ready to launch our lives again as traveling retirees.

Before we set off, we’re spending a long weekend in Colchester, VT, north of Burlington, with our son, Gavin, who was also with us when we launched the traveling life in 2018.

On Tuesday, Gavin returns to Champlain College after this break, and Bob and I head to Manchester, NH, to park our car at a park/sleep/fly lot and board a plane the next morning for Puerto Rico!

A Few Changes

This time we will be renting a car instead of driving our own. We’ll have just one cat, Kaylee, instead of the three we started with — Equinox passed away in Mexico City last year, and Ellie lives with Gavin at Champlain College. We are heading to Puerto Rico, a US territory, instead of back to Mexico for COVID safety and COVID convenience — less testing hassle.

Kaylee helps pack

But life is too short to spend any more time waiting for the pandemic to end. It’s time to live again. We have to learn to navigate COVID while staying safe and enjoying life. We plan to spend a month in Luquillo in an oceanfront condo, and a month in San Juan.

Wish us luck, and subscribe to our blog!

Hasta la vista!


Eagles Are on the Nest

I had a fascinating encounter with the bald eagle family of Lake Rescue this morning. They live there year-round, and have been residents for years, entrancing the human residents of this lovely lake in southern Vermont.

When I came around the bend in my kayak at 6:45 AM, the mother eagle was waiting for me in a tall tree nearby. Can you spot her?

Mother eagle, perched on a branch on the north end of Discovery Island. The nest is in a cove just beyond the south end of the small island.

I checked the nest: empty.

Then the baby popped up.

Mom immediately flew over to him.

She landed on a nearby branch and the two interacted for a long time.

It’s so awesome to start the day with this!

We Are Back, Baby! … Well, Almost

We are back in Vermont, we are vaccinated—twice—and May 18 is the official date that we are emancipated from the threat of COVID-19!

We have spent the last six months in Pennsylvania closing down Bob’s late mother’s condo while the kids finished their semesters of school. In the meantime Lisa has been working on the final edit of the Young Adult novel she began in late 2019, and both of us have been studying Spanish ardently.

We moved back up to our second home in Ludlow, VT, this past Sunday, and after months of cleaning out a lifetime’s worth of stuff, then packing up, moving out of one home, and moving back into another, we are frankly exhausted, physically and emotionally.

The trees are still brown on the mountains in Vermont and the weather is cool.

So of course, the first thing we did was relax in the hot tub with mimosas to celebrate the moment and toast the future.

Its good to be back. Bob really missed the hot tub.

There is so much to do here in Vermont—kayaking, hiking, birdwatching, visiting breweries, exploring New England towns, enjoying outdoor concerts, going to farmers markets, shopping, enjoying so much that Vermont has to offer. And we have started planning our next travels. Watch for that in the next Messy Suitcase blog!

Hasta La Vista!

Gimme Shelter! (AT Style)

We found the Tucker Johnson Shelter at the cold halfway point of a recent hike on the Appalachian/Long Trail south of Pico Mountain, just when we needed it. We had hiked a mile and a half up the mountain, to a point where the wind was becoming quite biting on a crisp November afternoon, so we were happy to take refuge in this three-sided building.

The Tucker Johnson Shelter

The trail guide that I use said that a shelter was going to be built sometime “after 2012,” and the building was a welcome sight. The shelter looked brand new, its blond wood barely weathered.

I did a little digging and discovered that the shelter was constructed by Green Mountain Club volunteers in fall 2018. (Read the story here.)

The shelter was open on one side, and had four bunk beds. A sign on the wall instructed hikers on how to hang their food so they wouldn’t attract unwelcome bear scavengers. There was even a privy (outdoor toilet) nearby, the lap of luxury for through-hikers.

I imagine a night of shelter can be a welcome respite in the middle of a long hike.

Graffiti Storytelling

There was very little graffiti on the inside, attesting to the youth of the structure, but we enjoyed the stories the etchings told.

Trail Book Storytelling

Inside, we found a sign-in book inside a sealed plastic bag, with lots of travelers’ comments as they stopped for shelter along the trail.

I enjoyed flipping through the book, where travelers with nicknames like V for Vendetta, Missing Person, andEarly Bird shared snippets of their lives on the trail. The first entry was in July 2109. The last was the one I left, signed by “The Hammster,” my new trail name.

Here are a few of the entries. If you click on individual pictures, they will expand so that you can read them better.

Choose Love

The last thing I noticed was a heart-shaped, painted stone that someone had left in the shelter. Choose love, my friends.

Migrating Loons at First Snow

I kayaked Lake Rescue in 29 degrees this morning to see how it looked with its trees, some still fall-tinged, cloaked in soft early snow, and encountered an astonishing 25 loons swimming together back and forth in the south end.

I assume they were a migrating group that came from the Adirondack lakes and were gathering up others on their way migrating to the Atlantic coast. They made no sound, just swam together, occasionally craning their necks or ruffling their wings.

In the end, they took to the air, flying together in three or four glorious circles around the lake, sometimes, right over my head, before heading off to parts unknown.

Goodbye, loons. Safe travels. Thanks for the memories. See you next year!

Addendum: I have since learned that these birds are in fact not loons but white-winged scoters. Still stunning.