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!

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!

Back in the Saddle Again

It’s hard to believe it has been seven months since we left Mexico. A brief summer interlude in Vermont getting one of our vacation homes ready to sell and settling our youngest child, Gavin, into Champlain College in Burlington turned into a much longer stretch in the USA when Bob’s mother, Jane, called us in August to say she had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Enjoying a boat ride in Montreal during a weekend off working on the Vermont houses

So after spending the summer painting a house, tiling a kitchen, planting two gardens, refinishing a floor, staining two decks, replacing windows, and doing more tasks than I care to remember on both houses – punctuated, thank God, by a couple of long weekends in Montreal and Burlington and many visits to local craft breweries – we moved into Jane’s house in Mechanicsburg, PA, in October to care for her in her last months.

While living here, we kept busy. Lisa signed up for National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) in November and wrote a long-postponed book. Bob threw himself into the editing of his many videos from our time in Mexico for the Messy Suitcase YouTube channel. We both spent countless hours studying Spanish and practicing our instruments (Bob saxophone, Lisa guitar). We spent 9 days in Cancun in November, during a period when Jane was doing better and we needed a break.

The official winner’s certificate for Nanowrimo. Lisa wrote a YA fantasy novel called Elephant Rock.

We also spent time with some of Lisa’s family members around the winter holidays, and got to know Jane’s neighbors in her over-55 community. As her health deteriorated, we became quite attached to her regular visitors from Homeland Hospice, who became our family’s lifeline: her CNA (certified nursing assistant) Sherry, who came every day to bathe and dress her; her hospice nurse Hannah, who visited weekly; and our social worker Pam, who supported us all in too many ways to count.

Jane was able to lift a glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve. She passed away a week later.

Meanwhile, we cared for Jane and tried to keep her comfortable. We watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy with her. The kids came home for Christmas break and got to spend time with their grandmother. Bob’s sister Beth came to visit regularly.

And on Jan. 7, 2020, at the age of 89, Jane Greenawalt left us.

Now the funeral is over, the spawn are back at college, and we are officially empty nesters. Although Jane’s stuff still needs to be sorted and dispersed, and her condo needs to be fixed up to sell, we are deferring that till the summer.

It’s time for us to get back to our lives, at least for a while. So we are planning to return to Mexico later this month and spend the rest of winter and half of spring there. We’ll come back in late April, before Gavin’s school lets out for the summer, and spend some time in Vermont before returning to PA for the next round of heavy lifting.

This time we are headed for Mexico City! We are excited at the prospect of living in a big city, after spending the summer in rural Vermont and the fall in this Harrisburg suburb.  We are currently deciding between several condos in a safe neighborhood – Condesa, Roma Norte or Polanco – near a huge park (a requirement for us as runners). We are also looking at language schools, because we plan to study Spanish every day, at least for the first month, the way we did in Tlaquepaque last year. It will only be for two hours a day this time, because Lisa is editing her book and we want time to enjoy the city.

We’ll keep you posted as things develop! Right now the plan is to leave Jan. 28 and drive our trusty Toyota Tacoma (with two cats on board; the third now lives with Gavin at school) slowly south, stopping in Cincinnati, Memphis and Austin on the way so we can see some friends and take some breaks from the road. We should arrive in CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico, Spanish for Mexico City) on Super Bowl Sunday.

Wish us luck! Hasta luego!

Mexico City, here we come!

Messy Suitcase Video: Why Guadalajara?

Beto (Bob) is developing his video editing skills, and working on putting the many videos he has made over the past year of traveling in Europe and then Mexico up onto the Messy Suitcase YouTube Channel! 

After toting his GoPro all over Mexico, and now Vermont, plus the drives back and forth, he’s just learning how to edit the footage, so please be patient, and feel to comment with words of encouragement.  Each video will get better, and they will be packed with fascinating info and our illuminating comments and observations.

We’ll hope you’ll follow our the Messy Suitcase YouTube Channel,  and ring the bell to be notified as we put more videos up. We are also open to new ideas!

Enjoy the video Why Guadalajara? 

Why Guadalajara? video

 

Hike up Mount Philo

Bob and I just did our first almost 1-er in Burlington! (As opposed to the multiple 14ers Bob did back in Colorado.)

We hiked up Mt. Philo on a recent Sunday while visiting Burlington for Champlain College Family Weekend. Mt. Philo State Park, which sits atop 968-foot Mt. Philo about 13 miles south of Burlington, was created as Vermont’s first Vermont State Park in 1924. With 237 acres offering breathtaking views of the Lake Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondack Mountains, the park is a favorite of local hikers, picnickers, and even college students.

The hike was short but steep and challenging. The view of the Vermont countryside and Lake Champlain from the top was spectacular. We also found inspirational poetry at the top …

… and we loved the message in the field below.

 

There are several camping sites at the top, as well as a group cabin, and we were surprised to see they were not in use. The best part was the Adirondack chairs that beckoned us to sit and enjoy the beautiful day and the view.

We met a couple of artists on our way down painting the view with watercolors.

Selfie of the day!

 
 

By Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt

All Aboard the Green Mountain Flyer

Beto and I recently had the lucky opportunity to take a lovely, relaxing fall foliage ride on the Green Mountain Flyer, a scenic ride on a vintage train from Chester to Rockingham in southern Vermont. The train whistle blasted our eardrums to oblivion as the ancient train noisily announced its arrival at Chester Depot. The bright red engine was pulling about five dark green cars, each labeled Green Mountain Railroad.  

Inside the Train

The fall foliage expedition on the Green Mountain Railroad was a free event sponsored by the OkemoValley Regional Chamber of Commerce, based in Ludlow, of which I am a
new member. We checked in with Diane, the organizer, and got into line while waiting for the refreshments to be loaded on the train. Finally, a young woman from the Chamber climbed up on the stairs and called out, “All Aboard!” and we boarded the train. 
 

 
Bob and I grabbed a forward-facing seat in the first car, in an open booth with an enormous wood table and another double seat across from us. The windows were huge and the view was great, but after 20 minutes or so I got a hankering for some refreshment and set out to explore the train.

Discovering the Bar Car

I wobbled back on the jerkily moving train, holding on to seats for dear life to keep my feet under me, through three cars that featured plush leatherette high-backed bench seats facing each other. Just when I thought I was at the end, I found a car with a table covered with white paper bags, and a narrow hallway ahead on the right. I inched through, and discovered a sweet little bar car with about 20 seats (some occupied by Chamber staff) and a musician, Bill Brink, singing and playing guitar and kazoo. I hustled back get Beto, ordered us up a couple of surprisingly good glasses of Chardonnay, and we settled in to enjoy the rest of the ride in the Bar Car.
 
 
Directly in front of us was the bright red engine chugging away. The engineer would occasionally walk jauntily along the jerking engine and enter our car from the front. ()
 
I tried to digitally capture the roaming engineer and
musician Bill Brink, but you can see the jerking motion
of the train did not allow for quality pictures.
We relaxed with our wine, bag dinners provided by the Chamber (courtesy of Mr.
Darcy’s Restaurant) and enjoyed the ride.

What We Saw

We rode alongside a scenic, winding river, passing a stunning river gorge that was almost past before we could get the cameras out, and crossing a heavy red iron bridge.
 
River gorge photo taken from a moving train
Vermont is famous for its spectacular autumn foliage, but we are still about three weeks before peak colors, so the ride featured mostly green foliage, with occasional bursts of bright yellow, fiery orange or deep red in sections of trees that acted as a precursor of things to come. The shrubs along riverbeds seem to have gotten the memo early, though, and preened with deep burgundy and crusty golden leaves.
 
We passed a couple of covered bridges, a signature sight in Vermont that never loses its appeal. One’s identifying sign read, “Built in 2012,” a melancholy reminder of the devastating floods caused by Hurricane Irene that September that washed away or severely damaged many of these classic structures throughout the Green Mountain State.
 
 
We saw (and smelled) cows grazing in fields, and admired field after field of corn stalks.  Lisa, a fellow CHamber member with a cow farm, told us those fields would be turned into mash for its farms to eat, but hers are grass-fed. (Beto plans to visit her farm this fall to serenade her cows on saxophone.)

Take a Ride Yourself!

If you‘re interested in taking a ride on the Green Mountain Flyer, you can learn more here. To learn more about the Okemo Valley, which offers so much more than its world-class ski mountain Okemo Mountain Resort, visit the Chamber’s website, yourplaceinvermont.com.
 
 
By Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt

Two Days in Montreal – A Couple of Foodies Drinking Tequila – Part 2

Old Montreal and the Port

We enjoyed walking around Old Montreal, with its parks, old building, art galleries, shops with Canada-made items and Native American crafts, ice creameries, outdoor restaurants and friendly Canadians. At the bottom of the hill is a waterfront park with a busy bike trail, which we crossed to get to the bustling old port. There we boarded a Bateau Mouche (fly boat) for a 1½ hour tour of the Saint Lawrence River. Unfortunately, the acoustics were bad inside the boat and we couldn’t hear the bilingual tour guides information about Montreal. But the wine was decent and the views were excellent. Some of it was very industrial and reminded me of the Port of Hamburg. 

Bateau Mouche selfie
View of the Montreal skyline from the boat
We embraced the tourism and spent a lot of time at the Old Port of Montreal, taking a 1.5-hour river tour on a Bateau Mouche (flyboat), and then taking a few turns in the Grand Roue (big ferris wheel).
 
 
 

Notre Dame Basilica

Of course, we had to visit the Roman Catholic Basilica of Notre Dame on the Old City, Montreal’s premier attraction, and it did not disappoint – except that Bob was annoyed that they charged an entrance fee, unlike any other of the more than 100 churches we have visited around Europe and Mexico. Still, the majestic space was amazing, and the free brochure explained what we were seeing. Around the central alter were four scenes from the Old Testament that foretold the birth of Christ. 
 
Above the cross was a scene of God crowning Mary the Queen of the Heavens. The Priests lectern rose above the congregation on the left side, and the organ in the rear was enormous. We could have taken an earlier tour and touched the organ, or a later tour for a light show. It felt more like a tourist attraction than a church.
 

That’s the giant organ behind me

The plaza out front, with its buskers changing shifts every half-hour, offered a welcome surprise when we emerged from what felt like Rome to a woman singing a glorious Italian aria.

More Booze

We finished our visit at a liquor store, where we purchased a bottle of Wayne Gretzky Reisling (in case you’ve been wondering what Canada’s favorite son has been doing since he retired from hockey) and a Maple Cream Liquor.

Wayne Gretzky Reisling

We’ll Be Back

In the end, we only had time to partially explore a couple of neighborhoods in Montreal over less than 48 hours. We didn’t have time to go for a run, or a hike, or to ride a bike. We didn’t get to experience the subway system. So we plan to return for a longer visit next month with Aryk after we drop Lex off at college in Burlington. 
 
Next time we will visit the Olympic Museum, the Science Museum, the neighborhoods of Le Plateau and Gay City, Mont Royal, and so much more.
 
So watch for more from Montreal!
 
 
By Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt

Two Days in Montreal – A Couple of Foodies Drinking Tequila – Part 1

We just spent a whirlwind two days in Montreal, a visit that was barely long enough to get a taste of this fascinating, bilingual city and want to come back for more. We loved it!

Montreal is just a two-hour drive from Burlington VT, where we dropped our youngest, Lex, off for a college orientation weekend and then headed north. We met a surly Canadian at the border crossing, who ordered Bob to turn off the video camera and unsmilingly peppered us with questions.
 
And then we were off, driving north through cornfields and flat farmland that presented a striking contrast to the lush green mountains we had just passed through in Vermont. After an hour or so, Montreal swallowed us up rather suddenly as we entered the city, which is actually an island. We crossed a long bridge that seems to still be under construction. (In fact, much of Montreal seems to be under construction – the city is clearly experiencing a building boom.)
 
 

A European-Feeling Capital

Despite a large crop of green glass apartment buildings at one end of the downtown, there were enough majestic old buildings to make us feel we were visiting a European capital. All the signs are in French, the official language of the province of Quebec, and everyone in Montreal speaks both French and English. 
 
Montreal, Canada’s second-most populous city and host to the Summer Olympics in 1976, is clearly a growing city with a kinetic energy. A lot of the architecture was interesting and cutting-edge and construction was going on everywhere. 
 
We used a few credit card miles Bob had accumulated to treat ourselves to two nights at the Marriott Chateau Champlain, a luxury hotel with breathtaking views of the downtown and Mont Royal from our arched 28th-floor window.

Night view

Alas, all the walking we did made our legs too tired to run, or even
walk, to the mountain, so we had to be satisfied with the view.

Ideal Weather

 
The weather was perfect, warm and summery each day with just enough clouds to keep it from feeling oppressive. (Bob kept reminding me that winter would be a far different story.)

First-Class Food

 
The reason I started with the weather is because I want to talk about the food, and to us, the two were intertwined: we ate almost every meal outdoors while enjoying perfect weather. I had read that Montreal is a true foodies’ city, and we definitely found that to be true.
 
We found genuine Mexican food at Escondite in the Old City, where we sat at a corner table of the fenced in sidewalk dining room. I had tacos with crisp fried cauliflower, black bean paste and chipotle cream, so tasty! The guacamole was genuine Mexican, which meant no tomatoes or onions but lots of lime and cilantro. Que rico! The chips were fresh-made, light, crunchy and perfect. Bob enjoyed tacos al pastor, lots of meat the way he likes it with pieces of pineapple.

I had cauliflower tacos with chipotle cream and spicy black bean
Bob had tacos al pastor
We wanted to enjoy jazz music at Mondavi, across the street, but the weather was just too glorious to go inside. (That was OK, though; we enjoyed wonderful buskers in the parks – a cellist, a singing guitar player, a violinist and even an opera singer.)
 
We had a mouthwatering French breakfast at Maggie Oakes on Place Jacques Cartier, where I had Le Santé (the healthy one; maple oatmeal, fresh berries and organic yogurt) with perfect café au lait and Bob chowed down on eggs benedict with fresh fruit and perfect fried potatoes. That experience was made even more delightful because we sat at a corner of the outdoor patio and watched the artisans and vendors in this popular pedestrian square set up for the day. The highlight was the bagpiper and a mini-squad of men in Revolutionary War-era costumes who marched down the street with rifles and a drum.
 


Our last dinner was a Paradiso in the Old City, where we
enjoyed lasagna and pesto while watching the world go by.

In the morning we set out from our hotel in search of breakfast and found it to be mostly a shopping and business area. But a few blocks away, we stumbled into an underground mall and food court with a spectacular array of reasonable prices, delectable choices. Bob enjoyed a coffee-flavored muffin and I had one of the best chocolate croissants I have ever had the privilege to experience, as well as coffee from a coffee bar that offered about 20 flavor choices and an additional four cream choices. The bagel place across the way also beckoned tantalizingly, but a girl has to make
choices sometimes: I took the French option. Oh, la la!
 

Gifted Bartenders

 
We discovered a couple of choice rooftops for imbibing in alcoholic beverages while enjoying the view. At the Observatoire, we took the elevator to the 44th floor, sunk into a couch and indulged ourselves while looking at the downtown in all directions. (We declined to pay for entry to the actual viewing observatory, two floors up, and instead invested our money in a couple of well-made drinks.)

Rum and coke at the Observatoire, 44th floor
View from the rooftop bar
Afterward, we wandered toward Vieux Montreal and stumbled upon a tequila bar. Realizing it was actually July 24, International Tequila Day, we went in and ordered a couple of reposados. Mine was white when it should have been light gold from aging 18 months in oak barrels, but I drank it anyway. Salud!
We also enjoyed at a rooftop bar over the St. Lawrence River, where Bob and I enjoyed palomas while visiting with a friendly Canadian couple, Luc and Patsy.

Drinking palomas, overlooking the Old Port
 
Recipe for palomas
Luc and Patsy
Coming next: Part 2, The Old Port and Notre Dame
 
 

By Lisa Hamm-Greenawalt