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!

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!

The Birds of Lake Rescue, Vermont

We have been summering at Lake Rescue in Ludlow, Vermont, and the sheer magnitude of the wild birds that make their home on and around this 184-acre body of water in the Green Mountains is breathtaking. The secret to seeing the most avian activity is to rise early and get out on the lake, preferably in a kayak, to observe the birds’ early-morning fishing routines before the human population begins to intrude. Here are a few.

(If you click on the pictures, they will expand to full size.)

Duck Duck Goose

Ducks and geese are by far the most common bird we have found on the lake. They are bold and will swim right up to your boat or climb on your dock.

Loons

Common loons have been living on Lake Rescue for more than a decade.

Herons

I was fortunate to encounter Great Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets fishing early in the morning on Round Pond, at the north end of Lake Rescue. The grasses on the isthmus between the lake and the Black River, and the sand bar created by storms, provide and enticing place for birds to walk and fish.

Ospreys

We discovered ospreys, on the direction of a neighbor, in a cove near the Red Bridge.

Bald Eagle

A bald eagle family maintains a nest in a cove near Discovery Island, and returns year after year to hatch new eggs.

Frozen Pineapple Margarita

If you can’t be adventuring because of COVID-19, then it’s time to go on some journeys of the palate! So last night I created Frozen Pineapple Margaritas. I didn’t have Triple Sec but Simple Syrup did the trick. Here is the recipe:

Ingredients

frozen pineapple margarita
  • 1 cup ice
  • 1/2 cup frozen pineapples
  • 1 1/2 ounces tequila (White is recommended but reposado is also delicious)
  • 1 ounce triple sec (or Simple Syrup)
  • 1 ounce lime juice
  • Garnish: Slice of lime

Instructions:

  • In a blender chop ice and pineapples. You may need to add lime juice at this stage.
  • Add other ingredients.
  • Blend until smooth.
  • Poor into chilled class with lime garnish.
  • Enjoy!

Makes 1 margarita. Obviously multiply the recipe to make more. A blender will have enough room for three. Feel free to add extra ice depending on how thick you like your margaritas and how hot it is outside.

5 minutes

New Orleans, Part 2: The National World War II Museum

On our single full day in New Orleans, we opted for history instead of entertainment and headed to the National World War II Museum. It was, without a doubt, one of the most spectacular, illuminating museums I have ever experienced in my life. This museum, which started out as the D-Day Museum in 2001, and is located in New Orleans because most of the landing craft used on that turning-point day in history was manufactured here. The D-Day Museum was so well received that it was expanded a few years later to become the National WWII Museum.

Lisa’s dog tag

You start by getting a dog tag to represent a soldier you will be tracking all day at check-in stations, and board the same kind of train many soldiers took when they embarked on their journeys. It was a truly immersive experience as, with seats rocking, the train whistle blowing and the grainy black-and-white landscape flying by, the conductor welcomed you aboard.

Beyond Boundaries Film

After getting off the train, we started our explorations by watching the 48-minute film Beyond Boundaries, a 4D experience narrated by Tom Hanks that used film and other sensory effects, including a 1930s wooden-cabinet radio, falling snowflakes, a plane cockpit that lowered from the ceiling to punch out an air battle scene, and more to introduce us to the sheer magnitude of World War II. The mini-documentary stunningly put into perspective the global threat presented by German Furer Adolph Hitler, Italian Benito Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito of Japan, the Axis leaders who wanted nothing less than global domination. It ended at the climax, the bombing of Pearl Harbor that dragged the United States in the war and engaged every person in the country in the fight for the very survival of democracy.

We learned how the ill-equipped United States, previously hesitant to join in the war as Nazi forces took over country after country, stepped up when it came under attack. Men young and old rushed to join the war effort and defend their country against the invaders. Women, who were home raising children, took factory jobs and churned out an incredible volume of planes, jeeps, weapons, artillery and more.

The European Theater

The WWII Museum is comprised of five buildings, and we only had one day, so we chose to enter the Road to Berlin: European Theater gallery. I don’t even know how to describe the experience after this. We spent five awe-struck hours being assaulted from all sides by grainy black-and-white film, sound and lighting effects, real-life voices telling their stories, radio broadcasts, flashes and explosions, and much more.

This breathtaking exhibit took us through the major steps in the European campaign, starting with North Africa and moving across Italy, southern France, Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, D-Day, England, and  Germany, that culminated in the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. We experienced the shock that troops felt when they discovered the atrocity of the concentration camps and the slaughter of 6 million Jews, as well as millions of others deemed inferior to Hitler’s Aryan race. We met military leaders and foot soldiers, journalists (including Ernie Pyle’s life and death) and pilots. We saw airplanes and jeeps, nurses’ uniforms and bomber jackets. We shivered in the snowy woods in Germany and leaned away from incoming anti-aircraft fire from a small plane. I thought of my three Troisi uncles who flew many missions in Europe and for the first time had a concept of what their experience was like.

A plane goes down during an air battle

My dog tag soldier, John, was a 17-year-old who went to Canada to pursue becoming a pilot when the United States rejected him because of a previous broken neck. He ended up doing bomb runs for Canada, and then England, before the United States decided to let him join. He won a medal of honor and was a prisoner of war in Germany for more than a year.

Planes, Jeeps and Submarines

We also visited the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, where we saw a number of WWII planes and jeeps, as well as the Medal of Honor Exhibit.

Wartime aircraft
Medal of Honor recipients

We still need to go back to see the other Campaign of Courage: The Pacific Theater, especially since that’s where Bob’s dad was stationed on a Destroyer Escort in 1943-45. There’s a whole hall, the Arsenal of Democracy, that we didn’t have time for, and a doomed submarine experience I’m interested in. The outdoor area is under construction to create a Freedom Garden.

New Orleans is about a lot more than Jazz and Jambalaya. If you visit this city, definitely devote a day or two to the National WWII Museum. To get the full experience of the museum, watch Bob’s video on the Messy Suitcase YouTube channel.

By Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt

New Orleans, Part 1: Jazz and Jambalaya

We just spent a couple of nights in New Orleans to break up the road trip from Pennsylvania to Mexico City. We rented a lovely, pet-friendly cottage through AirBnB that had a kitchen, living room and two bedrooms, just a short Uber ride from the action.  It was pristine, affordable and super comfortable.

After working out and showering, we spent our first NOLA night on Bourbon Street, a place we barely got to explore last year when we came through because it was just too loud for Gavin. But this time, with Gavin off at college, we headed down there again. Mardi Gras is still a month away, so it wasn’t high season yet, and we headed out early to avoid crushing crowds and deafening noise.

Bourbon Street is the heart of the touristy French Quarter, and we were planning to go to historic Preservation Hall to see classic New Orleans jazz. For $20 seats on the floor, we would need to stand in line outside to get day-of-show tickets. After a day spent driving, we weren’t in the mood.

Bourbon Street

So we instead opted to get a more local experience recommended by our Uber driver, Joe. First we shared a mouthwatering dinner of blackened redfish and jambalaya at an oyster bar on Bourbon called Le Bayou. Jambalaya is a kind of dirty rice with spicy tomato sauce and andouille sausage. We also enjoyed hurricanes, a classic New Orleans drink with rum and fruity juices. Our waiter kept calling us “y’all,” so we couldn’t forget we were truly in the south. After filling our stomachs, we strolled along Bourbon, taking in the crowd scene, and even saw a school band marching up the road, followed by a small parade of what I assume was a krewe, a social organization that helps put on a parade or ball during the carnival season, which runs January and February.  

Bourbon Street is amazingly loud, even in the off-season, and the road is closed to traffic so people can just wander at their leisure. Musicians with saxophones, guitars or even just spoons and plastic buckets, entertain for tips on street corners. The shops are filled with colorful art, with candy skulls, masks, voodoo paraphernalia, and jazz accouterments.

We walked about a mile to Frenchmen’s Street, a locals’ favorite area. Frenchmen’s is lined on both sides with lively bars and restaurants. As you wander along the sidewalk, you can listen to the music blasting out the open doors and choose your poison. Most have no cover and a local clientele. We chose Marigny Brasserie, and enjoyed an hour of music by a sweet jazz duo. A drunken regular celebrating her 71st birthday alone plopped down next to me at the bar and I was friendly to her. That turned out to be a mistake as she subsequently kept hitting me to get my attention, then ranting in a slurred voice about the injustices of her life and why it was horrible that the bar was showing The Waterboy and Captain Phillips on the big screen when people should be getting to know each other instead. Since she sitting on a stool between me and the band, it was impossible for me to watch the band. I guess if you want to be where the locals are, sometimes you have to put up with a local!

But we ducked out and wandered, encountering an Art Market where local artisans sold jewelry, paintings, even hand-made three-string guitars.

The band at Bamboulia’s

On the second evening, we ate at Bamboulina’s, a cozy bar with exposed brick walls, and enjoyed incredible pulled pork and a wonderful blues band. If I lived in NOLA, I think I would go to Frenchmen’s every weekend and try a different bar each time! Our last Uber driver encouraged us to try Magazine Street in Uptown New Orleans next time, so watch for that blog in the spring when we pass through again on our way back north!

Up next … The National World War II Museum