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Trip 34 -- Vieques Walk

Day 2: The Vieques National Wildlife Refuge (east side)
Thursday, November 17, 2022

Today: 36608 steps/29.61 km/18.40 mi/5h 25m
Total: 46000 steps/37.03 km/23.01 mi/6h 50m

For my first 45 minutes in the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, it felt like any other park. It had giant posted hours (an automatically closing gate would lock cars in at 6:30 p.m., although it looked easy enough to climb over), a sign specifying permitted activities (including horseback riding, fishing, hiking, and walking leashed pets), and a sign prohibiting others (such as flying drones, capturing crabs, hunting, and public nudity).

The visitor's center has been closed for some years, but farther along was a display of the island's wildlife, native and imported. I wondered whether I might find a Puerto Rican tarantula, a Puerto Rican racer, a red-tailed hawk, or the elusive coquí, a native frog named for its two-tone chirp.

Mostly what I found were more of the brown Paso Fino horses, who sometimes paused their munching and stared at me approaching from afar until they deemed me safe. There were zillions of butterflies, large monarchs and medium-sized and tiny white specimens that liked to frolic around the horse poop. There were a few noble birds, too fast for me to speculate on their species, and one leaping lizard that hopped into a plant and then curled its tail around and waited for me to go away.

It wasn't until I turned toward Playa La Chiva that I saw the first notices of possible unexploded ordnance ahead and stronger warnings not to leave the road or the obvious beach spots. Cone-shaped blocks indicated whether further progress was allowed. Red was off-limits. Yellow designated a former munitions area where I should practice the three R's if I found something unusual: Recognize, retreat, and report (or reconozca, retroceda, y reporte in Spanish). I never saw a red block and I wasn't even sure whether the disc-shaped yellow blocks were the ones I was looking for.

I followed the road to the boat-launching site at La Platita, as far as mere civilians can go, and then retreated to Bahia de la Chiva and down a little peninsula to Punta Conejo. An old open tower looked over this promontory, which I considered perhaps the most serene place in the park, with gentle waves splashing over the rock formations and fossils to be found. The water was particularly clear here.

Back around Chiva were at least 26 numbered places off the road where a person or group could enjoy the calm water in relative seclusion. Some had picnic tables, and I stopped for ham and cheese and a tin of baby sardines. Large shells adorned the shelter. I thought I might swim a bit -- the water was satisfyingly warm to my feet -- but the entry was rockier than I imagined and I couldn't quite tell what was ahead.

I returned to the park's entrance and turned left toward the Puerto Ferro lighthouse. I'd seen people along the main east-west road and at the beaches, but this was a lonely gravel road with signs bearing pictures of booming missiles and the words "Explosive Hazard! Stay on Road -- No Parking." I proceeded down the middle of the road, reassuring myself that the horses and cars were much heavier than I and managed not to trigger anything lurking underground. Still, the repetitive warnings and lack of activity -- I passed one car and one horse on the two-and-a-half-mile walk -- gave this stretch an eerie ambience.

After about 45 minutes I reached the deteriorating brick octagonal lighthouse atop its squat base, built by the Spanish in 1896 and operational for the following 30 years. The neoclassical structure contained a "5th order lens with a 12 miles light range that rotated every 6 minutes," according to the caption.

Down a short path was the Puerto Ferro beach, laden with fossils and crawling with little crabs. A soft bed of seaweed formed a wide strip along the sand. The hill I'd just descended formed a dramatic backdrop, against which I sat and rested, gazing back toward the east. It's no wonder that Vieques is considered to have some of the world's best beaches.

Retracing my steps was getting dull, so I caught up on Saturday's "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me," which was the perfect length to accompany me back to the exit. Among the things I learned is that digging with a shovel is good for relieving stress. But it's strongly forbidden in the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge.

Go on to day 3