South America is waiting. I’ve spent the last two years of my life finishing the reconstruction of an old farmhouse. It was always clear that I wanted to travel to the South American continent after that project. I want to be on the road for at least six months, I bought health insurance for eight, I might stay longer if I like it. I learned a bit of Spanish to communicate. I will enter South America in Venezuela, and then travel around the continent in a clockwise direction until I reach Colombia. From there, I have dreams of moving on, head north through Central America, to the US, cross California, enter Canada, turn around and maybe come back to the eastern coast of the United States. Will time allow me to do that? Probably not. South America alone has 13 countries, if I spend two weeks in each (less in the small ones, more in the big ones) that would be six months already. And it will be a month until I reach Venezuela, I couldn’t withstand the temptation to visit some Caribbean islands on the way, it will be a whirlwind trip of nine countries/territories. My first stop, in late September 2013, is the US territory of Puerto Rico.
There is a bus stop at San Juan airport but there seem to be no buses. Surprisingly few people speak English. A friendly couple, she had been on the plane with me, takes me into town. I have a short evening walk around San Juan.
La Perla is a shanty town squeezed between the sea and the historical city walls. It has a dodgy reputation, my answer to that is to get up a seven in the morning, no one is around for my walk through the neighbourhood. San Juan is one of the oldest European founded cities in the Americas, the Caribbean islands were in fact the first places the Europeans reached. The islands remained important colonial centres and San Juan Bay is an excellent harbour. I visit the beautiful Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery. The old town has long rows of colonial houses and fortifications on all corners. I take a long walk to the Casa Bacardi for a factory tour and a free drink at the end. I would come again for the free drink. After that, I rent a bicycle and explore some beaches a bit away from San Juan.
I hesitated long about my plans for Puerto Rico, in the morning I make a quick decision, I am off to the airport (the smaller one close to town). It is a small plane to Vieques and I didn’t check the baggage limits, I have ten kilograms more than the 15kg allowed, I am equipped for everything I might encounter in South America, it’s 1$ per every 500g extra. Rain is pouring down as I try to leave the airport on Vieques. I make my way to Esperanza and beautiful Sun Bay Beach, golden sand interspersed with palm trees. The campsite right behind it makes the beach even better. In the evening, I take a tour to a bioluminescent bay. The bay is nearly cut off from the ocean and has a high concentration of Dinoflagellates, microorganisms that emit flashes of light when disturbed. It is an amazing spectacle. Our canoes, I am sharing mine with Maria from Miami, glide through the water and we are surrounded by a greenish-bluish glow. Pushing the paddle in, you clearly see the outlines of it glowing. It is forbidden to swim in the bay, people and the various substances they put on their skin have proved harmful to the dinoflagellates.
Another swim in the morning. I take the boat back to the mainland. Public transportation is weak, many places are impossible to reach without a car. Accommodation is expensive so I have cut a deal with myself, I’m going to rent a car to get myself across the island but I have to camp again somewhere to recover the costs. Not such an easy task I should find out. I drive all day through beautiful landscapes. I underestimated the distances and as I arrive late, already after dark, at a national park with possible camping options everything is already closed. I keep following that road deeper into the park to a parking area close to the sea. From the car I can hear the waves, there should be some space for my tent here somewhere. In that moment a white pick-up enters the parking lot, slowly turns, rests its headlights on my car for a moment and keeps on turning. Seems like they are patrolling the park area, maybe not such a good idea to stay here after all. I keep on driving but I can’t find a good spot just to park the car and sleep inside. I settle on a bigger road with a broad shoulder, this will be my place for the night. A minute after I stop there, a police car approaches, slows down and drives past very slowly. Ok, I’m leaving. I find the perfect spot, a small country road, a good place to park the car, that should be perfect. I recline the seat and am getting myself ready to sleep. That same moment again a police car approaches, switches on bright white lights to the side and slowly passes my car. What the hell is going on? Are they pursuing me or is this place just full of police? The police car doesn’t stop and decide that I do not care anymore. I’m tired, I’ve been driving around for nearly two hours looking for a place to spend the night and I am just going to stay. Let them do whatever they want to do. Until morning, I am being woken up five times by various US law enforcement agencies (police, military police, navy) patrolling this tiny road in the middle of nowhere. Some of them speak incredibly bad English for being on the payroll of Uncle Sam, all are friendly but also annoying. After the second time I ask them if I do something illegal, “no, but we found you and so might the bad guys”. Holy crap.
Early morning, I leave, the dry forest of Guanica Nature Reserve is waiting. I have never been to a dry forest before. It is a forest that sheds its leaves not because of winter but because of the dry season. Unfortunately, the promised birds do not materialize. On to Mayagüez, I buy the ticket for the ferry, give the car back and explore the town. While planning this trip, I thought I might take a lot of ferries. Plenty of Islands close together, arranged in a bow running from Florida to Venezuela, often the next island is visible across the ocean. The reality is far from that, the plane is the preferred mode of transportation, ferries only exist in a few places, the overnight link between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic being one of them. I only have a seat but there is enough space to put my mattress on the floor and get some good sleep.