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Trip 34 -- Vieques Walk

Day 1: Isabel II to Destino
Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Today: 9392 steps/7.42 km/4.61 mi/1h 25m

I reached Vieques via three transportation modes -- four if you count the T5 bus back to the Santurce district of San Juan after I accompanied Wabi to the airport. We covered a lot in five days without rushing: the gentle Angelito Trail down to the Río Mameyes in El Yunque National Forest; a strenuous guided hike through the muddy forest that involved rock scrambles and sliding down a water chute; the dozens of food kiosks by Luquillo Beach; and a kayak trip through mangroves to the bioluminescent lagoon near Fajardo, one of five places in the world where dinoflagellates, a kind of plankton, exist in great enough numbers to light up agitated water due to a chemical reaction.

In the capital, we strolled around Condado Beach; found ourselves at the back of a wedding ceremony in the gardens of the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico; and partook of the food and drink around La Placita in Santurce. The municipal market itself didn't have much to command our attention apart from some glistening pineapples, but the area was serene for lunch and surprisingly active at night, with salsa dancing spilling into the streets and bars connected via interior passageways that begged to be explored.

For our last night, Wabi found us a delightful place to stay in Old San Juan. The Gallery Inn takes up six buildings dating back more than 300 years, and it contains a music room and several pianos that I was able to try. The hotel is crammed with statues and paintings in a rambling network of hallways and courtyards. Reaching our room involved going up, down, up again, and eventually up a narrow spiral staircase. Shutting the terrace doors required lifting two large planks and depositing them in their sockets, much as might have been done in the old merchant days. Cockatoos and macaws outnumbered staff, it seemed. We never waded in the pool but observed the bust of Michelle Obama that looks into it -- she and the president were guests.

It was easy to love Puerto Rico for its natural beauty, history, pace, architecture, food and drink, and variety of neighborhoods. The territory has only one major problem for the visitor, as far as I can tell so far: the lack of public transportation. Between towns, it's virtually nonexistent.

There are no buses outside the capital. There are, in theory, shared vans called públicos that depart when full and take people from town to town. (In "Tourism and Language in Vieques," Prof. Galanes notes that this is the only industry on Vieques in which arrivals from the north haven't made inroads. Públicos remain under the control of the Viequenses.)

I spent my last night in the southeastern part of Santurce for two reasons: There was a laundry shop nearby and I could easily walk to the Tren Urbano, San Juan's subway line. A few stops away and a walk of a few blocks would bring me to the Terminal de Carros Públicos del Este, the centralized departure point for públicos.

The laundry shop closed earlier than I thought, so I had to visit this morning, skipping the dryer in order to get under way sooner. My ferry departure was at 1 p.m. and I was instructed to arrive an hour early. From the público terminal to the ferry at Ceiba was a straight shot of just over an hour, but a público stopping along the way might take twice or thrice that.

The público terminal, however, was practically deserted. There was just one vehicle, loading passengers bound for Carolina, just outside the capital. The driver offered to take me all the way to the ferry for $80, presumably after making the slow run to Carolina. An Uber would be faster and cheaper.

Another passenger pointed to where I might find a público to Fajardo, which was most of the way to Ceiba. Just down another block, he said. But I didn't find it.

I resigned myself to using Uber, which, considering the distance -- about 40 miles -- was inexpensive at about $55. Heck, I had expected to pay at least $20 for the público. And while I waited for my ride, I joined the considerable line at Antojito Sabroso, a little counter selling excellent filled pastries and fruit shakes.

As far as I can tell, arriving a half-hour early would have been sufficient. That's about when they checked tickets and let people into the waiting area. Viequenses boarded before others; the process was orderly, and there was plenty of room for all, though the windows on both levels were too high to afford views from a seated position.

The crossing time was just under an hour, and I climbed up the road heading north from the Vieques terminal. I roughly followed the northern coast, passing hotels and guesthouses. Most surprising was the presence of unfenced horses roaming the streets. According to a Vieques Insider article, the horses, of the Paso Fino ("fine step") breed from Spain, are mostly owned but allowed to walk freely. They can be easily found by their owners, based on their wandering habits and the fact that people know each other and can pass along information regarding the branded horses' whereabouts.

After about a half-hour, I reached the point where, according to Google Maps, the roads ahead entered the restricted area of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. The road to the left became unpaved and seemed to fizzle out toward the beach. To the right, Highway 200 continued along the park's border before entering the park's restricted area about a kilometer ahead. No signage warned me that I'd be forced to turn back, but I didn't want to risk it, so I retreated into the residential hills of the Puerto Diablo barrio.

There were no straight roads around here. The map was easy to follow, but I was turning every few minutes, going up and down hills with no regularity. Houses were set back behind large lawns. There were more horses, lots of chickens...and dogs.

Every plot of land was fenced off, but sometimes the fence was a few widely spaced strips of barbed wire, and sometimes a gate was open. Most of the dogs couldn't escape, but almost all of them gave me an intruder's welcome, and in two cases they approached me on the street vociferously. In each instance, a car was coming by at the time, and the driver escorted me past what I perceived as a danger zone.

The dogs don't attack people, one of them said. But did the dogs know that? They didn't snarl nearly as viciously, or approach as closely, as the ones in Aruba, but I still carried rocks. This area was the most residential I expect to traverse on the island, but it contained a lot of guesthouses. Surely I can't have been the only visitor to attempt to walk here, even though a couple of people asked whether I was all right and knew where I was going.

Today's walk was short, and less than 90 walking minutes after leaving the ferry, I arrived at the Isla Hermosa Guesthouse. I was welcomed by a peacock, a cat named Batman, a pair of horses, and then Nick, who showed me the guest kitchen, walked me up to my room, and confirmed that the dogs of Vieques aren't dangerous.

There's no restaurant nearby, so I walked a few minutes back to the Colmado Mambo grocery store, where things were crammed so closely together I sometimes had to walk with my arms in front of me to get through the aisles. There seemed to be little organization to the place; freezers appeared out of nowhere, making the place even more appealing but leading me no closer to a dinner commitment. I kept wandering and running into the staff, who became more and more amused by my inadvertent treatment of their store as a maze.

I settled on a microwavable Stouffer's lasagna ("These are good," the cashier said) and a couple of beers, plus ham, cheese, water, and a tin of sardines for tomorrow's walk through the park. The display of chips and salsa exercised its power of suggestion.

What the store was missing was fresh fruits and vegetables. Other than a few shriveled tomatoes, heads of lettuce, raw squash, and apples stuffed into the refrigerator, there wasn't much in the way of produce. There was a box of giant avocados, but they had just arrived and wouldn't be edible for a couple of days.

Well, there's tomato in the salsa and fruit in the fruit punch, I rationalized. I settled in on the couch in the Isla Hermosa's common area and put on the news. After finding a reassuring poll showing 84-percent approval of the legality of abortion in Puerto Rico, it was the ABC national news. Buffalo is about to get four feet of snow. It crossed my mind that I have yet to walk a cold island. Someday it will be a good addition to the Abecedarian Walks, but for now I'm happy to keep it tropical.

Go on to day 2