No passport required
Foggy forests, ancient spirits, glowing bays and no passport required: PuertoRico's Taíno culture
Puerto Rico has long been known for its pristine beaches, laid back Caribbean culture, music and small beautiful islands bathed in warm turquoise waters. Over the past decades, rapid development and urban sprawl has turned Puerto Rico into a modern and fast-paced society.
But much of the culture and history of its original inhabitants, the Taíno, are still evident today in the country’s cuisine, customs, and primitive petroglyphs.
A cheap rental car, a decent map, and the willingness to get lost, turn around and try again will lead the traveler to some amazing places, where an ancient culture left its distinct — sometimes enigmatic — footprints.
Forest of clouds
We started right around 6 a.m., just as San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital of four million, began to heave with the noise of exhausts and heavy traffic.
Heading east on Highway 3, the suburbs grew thinner as we left the city behind, and soon a right turn led into thick forest along snaking pavement.
The Caribbean National Forest, or El Yunque as it is locally known, protects 28,000 acres of tropical forest, thrown like a wet green blanket over the rugged Sierra de Luquillo. It is the only tropical rainforest within the United States National Forest System, and harbors an immense diversity of plants and animals.
To the Taíno, it was Yuquiyu ("forest of clouds"), revered for its spirits of life-giving water and high peaks.
To say El Yunque is a wet place might be an understatement. Thick mist enshrouds the highest peaks, condensation drips off leaves and the air is heavy with moisture.
Up, up and away
Driving higher into the mountains, windshield wipers on, we passed El Portal, the official visitor center that offers interpretive exhibitions and general information. We stopped at one of the higher parking lots at the Palo Colorado Visitor Center, slung backpacks over our shoulders and headed up the muddy Baño de Oro Trail towards El Yunque Peak.
The trail wound through vine-tangled trees and stretches of pure palm forest covering. The terrain was steep and the views brief within the primordial forest.
Halfway up the mountain, it got even wetter, and we found ourselves standing under a primitive shelter listening to a brouhaha of coqui frogs giving the namesake calls, happy in the downpour.
We reached the top an hour later, climbing through drenched elfin forest along a narrow ridge that eventually opened onto a promontory with 180 degree views of the mountains.
From here, it was easy to see why the Taíno believed this place to be imbued with spirits. Far below in the valleys, with petroglyphs carved in riverside boulders, some were still waiting to be discovered to testify to the Taínos' passing.
It was hard to fathom that a large city, toll roads and hotel chains existed less than an hour away. Dense white clouds crawled over the nearby peaks, sank into the valleys below, and rose again toward us.
When we finally descended, we were totally drenched by another one of El Yunque's downpours. We tried to escape the weather further down the mountain, but when we exited the El Portal Visitor Center, water began pouring out of the sky.
Not in drops, but in streams.
The legends of the caves
La Cueva del Indio, a limestone chasm right on the north-central coast near the town of Arecibo, contains several petroglyphs of masks and animals shapes, depicting cemis — Taíno gods, spirits or ancestors. The most important deities, Yucahu and Atabey, reflected the agricultural society of the Taínos, as they were the gods of cassava (the main staple), the ocean, fresh water and fertility.
We pulled off the coastal road into a grassy parking lot sporting a sign, Cueva del Indio — Indian caves. A Puerto Rican woman, who had been living in the states most of her life, had inherited the land adjacent to the caves. She continued the tradition of providing safe parking and local knowledge started by her father for $2 a car.
Legend says Taínos had been carving rock art into the soft limestone for hundreds of years. A rebellious band had been hiding from Spanish slavery, diseases and violence in the cave, using an underground passage that led to the ocean to escape approaching enemies.
We walked out onto the headland through low coastal vegetation. Rain and surf had carved the limestone into razor-sharp formations of arches, natural bridges and overhangs.
Below, the roiling Atlantic, gnawing at the cliffs, sent up spouts of white water. To the east and west lay small coves of pure palm-fringed sand. The beautiful area had been used as the setting for at least one major Hollywood movie, with two more coming.
The landowner had informed us of this with a big smile on her face, as she had apparently been able to put “some” money in the bank after the last film crew came through.
Into the mystic
The cave was more like a chasm going right down to the water. Several large entrances let in enough light so that no flashlight was required to see the intricate figures edged deeply into the rock — animal shapes, masks, geometric patterns, their meanings lost.
In the late afternoon light, the sun oozed in large orange blotches through the crack above, and threw a particular labyrinthine pattern into sharp relief.
With the waves breaking noisily in underground passages a few feet away, I wondered what we were missing as I snapped a picture. Our trained lenses didn't permit us to see what was beyond our view.
Moving a bit further inland (though not much), gnarled ceibas granted generous shade to the close cropped lawns surrounding several rectangular ball courts framed by stones, some of which were decorated with petroglyphs. These are the hallowed Caguana Ceremonial Ball Courts.
The ceremonial ball courts lay at the center of Taíno villages, comprising one of the most important archeological sites in all of the West Indies.
They also served as the site for a traditional ball game called batey. Teams ranging from 10 to 30 players used their hips, shoulders, and elbows to manipulate a rubber or resin ball.
But the exact rules, origin and function of the game are unknown. Although I like the idea that it was used to resolve conflicts between neighboring tribes without resorting to warfare.
We walked among the 700-year-old restored courtyards, monoliths and reconstructed Taíno houses with the distinct triple humps of the Cemi Mountains rising green into a blue sky.
Pictures of the past
The museum itself exhibited several artifacts, and many questions later, a picture of the past began to form.
Several centuries ago, this village would have been a thriving ceremonial center, with fields of cassava, sweet potato, corn and other vegetables surrounding the houses.
Along with an abundance of wildlife in the forests nearby, there would have been hutia — rodents reminiscent of oversized guinea pigs but with long tails, now unfortunately extinct.
The Taíno also relied on fish, birds, and even hunted manatees to round out their meals.
After all this talk of food, we were hungry. But no fish, birds, or manatees for us. Instead, we drove down the main road, a narrow winding strip of potholed asphalt, and stopped at the first eatery, settling on empanadillas filled with crab, and surutillos made of sweet cornmeal.
La isla bonita
When in Puerto Rico, one cannot simply stay on the mainland — one must venture further.
Isla de Vieques is just that — a tiny island eight miles offshore. Due to its drier climate, its hilly terrain is covered in shrubs and cacti, but the shoreline offers many perfect sand crescents and plenty of secluded coves.
While there are no visible remains of Taíno culture on the island, it was the center of a major uprising against the Spanish in the 16th century.
Today, large portions of Vieques are designated wildlife refuges, and many expats have settled into either of the two small villages to enjoy island life.
We spent two blissful days exploring lonely stretches of sand, cruising miles of dirt road in a 4x4 with questionable brakes, and searched the coast for manatees — which apparently had checked out for the season.
Where the waters glow
On the last night, we booked a tour to a bioluminescent bay, and believe it or not, this was not a tourist trap. It is an actual cove, officially known as Mosquito Bay, that glows blue-green at night.
There are only six similar spots in the world — three of those are in Puerto Rico, and Mosquito Bay is rumored to be the most spectacular of them.
The glow is caused by microscopic dinoflagellates (marine plankton) that collect in massive numbers in the bay due to ideal living conditions.
With high hopes, we set out at sundown to meet up with our tour operator in Esperanza. When we arrived, it started to rain, then pour and then rain again. I was reminded of El Yunque.
Several other hopefuls collected, but the weather looked grim. But business is business, and the guide said it was a go.
A confusing 20 minutes followed when the rickety school bus we had boarded headed through sheets of black rain without functioning headlights. Then a family disagreement started, involving a chipper old man who had told us his life's work five minutes prior, his foreign wife who wore a flower print dress 30 years old and a brooding teenage son clearly disapproving of the trip.
When the disagreement escalated into shouts in Polish and English and lightning scrawled across the sky, illuminating the dark bus and its 10 bewildered passengers, the guide decided to cancel the trip after all.
If at first you don't succeed
Being stubborn, we squeezed directions out of one of the locals, and followed sandy roads through dense mangroves and deep puddles until we reached Mosquito Bay ourselves.
It was still raining heavily when I got out of the car to look at a black body of water. The bottom was muddy, the rain and dark water cool.
I moved my foot just below the surface and noticed a small flash of blue-green light. Bending down, I swept my hand quickly through the water — my fingers and palm glowed.
A few seconds later, I swam — seemingly aflame — out into the bay. The raindrops made the surface twinkle, and jumping fish left two glowing circles a foot apart.
Above, scattered lightning set the sky on fire. And I felt like I began to understand why the Taíno believed the island to be filled with spirit.