Drive

“Road trippin’ with my two favorite allies,
fully loaded we got snacks & supplies
it’s time to leave this town it’s time to steal away
Let’s go get lost anywhere in the USA
Let’s go get lost, let’s go get lost
Blue you sit so pretty west of the one,
Sparkle light with yellow icing just a mirror for the sun…
These shining eyes are just a mirror for the sun”
-- Red Hot Chili Peppers  [Road Trippin’]

I followed the helpful postman’s directions to find route 143 oeste – one & the same as La Ruta Panoramica.  I admit I flew by the sign, but I was 90% sure it read este, instead of oeste.  Perplexed, I back-tracked to a petrol station and asked [in Spanish] how to get to 143 oeste.  In watered down Spanish (for my sake) the woman behind the counter repeated the same directions the postman gave me.  I told her that was 143 este.  She shrugged & admitted that was the only way she knew to 143 & the male employee next to her butted into the conversation in agreement.  He identified that carreterra as La Ruta Panoramica headed toward La Reserva Forestal Toro Negro a.k.a. Black Bull Forest Reserve.  So, I trusted the locals & returned to that same road outside of Barranquitas.  I had a few doubts, but within four miles I saw another sign stating I was heading the correct direction on the correct road.  Yet, I still could not figure out how 143 este eventually became 143 oeste. Just like when I navigated the previous night & easily found 1 oeste but never located 1 oeste.   On la mapa, La Reserva Forestal Toro Negro – the most isolated of all Puerto Rican parks – looked like a half hour drive.  As I had also learned the previous night, though the map was drawn to scale, the indirect calles turned a pleasant day-trip into an infinitely long voyage.

La Ruta Panoramica stretched on, but it was much different in the daytime – it was exciting! Unlike last night, I could see much more than what my two, small headlights highlighted: rolling montañas, treetops galore, houses steeped on the hillside and – for the first time – the ocean!  Approaching Cerro Punta a.k.a. Hill Point – the zenith of the entire country – became the perfect vantage point.  Looking out was like staring at a Bob Ross painting.  The foreground was a vibrant green, the middle-ground was a murky brown (since overhead clouds blocked the sunlight), and the further rows of montañas were illuminated bright brown.  Last, there was a sliver of ocean blue near the low, hovering clouds.
 

According to Lonely Planet the turn-off to Cerro Punta would be well-marked and on my right.  However, nothing about the highways & byways of Puerto Rico had been straight forward thus far.  Therefore, when I arrived at Area Recreativa Doña Juana at 16:15.  I was saddened to have missed the sight, but not so sad that I wanted to circle back & attempt to find it.  Here at Toro Negro the open air and unobstructed views had been replaced by encroaching flora.

The entrance to Area Recreativa Doña Juana was already gated. The guest estacionamiento was empty, save for one SUV, and the DRNA office was closed (according to the internet, since 16:00).  The DRNA was where I intended to purchase an overnight permit (cost: $4 USD). Yet, my research declared visitors could receive assistance at the police office adjacent to the DRNA office.  I pulled slightly off La Ruta Panoramica & parked next to the creamy yellow building.  Despite the lack of cars – even police vehicles – I knocked on the door.  Barely surprised that no one answered, I took stock of my location.  Since my car doubled as my tent, I had no need to hike the short distance to Los Viveros campground.  Yet, I was unsure of the whereabouts of Los Viveros and certainly didn’t feel like venturing out with absolutely no one around.  Plus, the darkness of the impending jungle sort of unnerved me & though camping in el estacionimiento would be free, I was a bit unnerved about sleeping just a few feet from 143 oeste in this desolate area. El Cañon de San Cristobal had satisfied my desire to hike here, so I did not feel like I was missing out.  My gut told me to forget the disappointments & settle somewhere I felt safe.
I made the decision to leave Toro Negro quickly, since the sun was sinking toward the horizon & I still had miles to go. But to where? Oeste – en route to Arecibo (a definite stop on my journey) – was a ciudad a.k.a. city that intrigued me: Utuado.

West of el parque a.k.a. the park, clouds crept in.  They were actually high in the sky, but it just so happened I was too. I read this phenomenon was common around Toro Negro, but for the first time, I questioned my judgment. Now I really felt the urge to get to Utuado. According to la mapa, I had two options: veer off of La Ruta Panoramica & cut through Jayuya, or stay on La Ruta Panoramica, go a bit out of my way, then head north to Utuado.  I scrutinized the roads & made my decision based solely on the straightness of las calles.
Along the way, I scoured for haciendas a.k.a (coffee) ranches that littered Puerto Rico’s central montañas. My guidebook labeled many along La Ruta Panoramica & I saw the hand-written signs posted on trees, but every one I passed had a vacant estacionamiento, or boarded up windows, or both.  I was not terribly upset because coffee was not my vice; I merely wanted to learn about the process.  Perhaps it wasn’t coffee-brewing season in March.

La Ruta Panoramica’s intersection with 140 was easy to find (thank goodness), but the road had a lot more curves than la mapa indicated.  The second I came out of a left turn, I was forced to jerk the wheel right… and this was how la calle continued. When I took the split to 605 norte, I was hoping for a more direct path to Utuado. So when I descended a hillside & caught a glimpse of the hairpin turns below, I reassured myself this was just to get around la montaña. I was optimistic about the remainder of the journey, if I could just push through this zig-zagging section.

As irony would have it, I never caught a break.  605 norte incessantly changed direction and altitude.  The roadtrip became a dreadful rollercoaster ride, consisting of ups, downs, all-arounds, and violent bends.  Deeper in the jungle, the sun resurfaced making driving through villages less menacing.  The villages were not scary, just dilapidated & forgettable.  They were authentic, bucolic karst country.  Homes on one side of la calle were usually elevated & majorly lacked curb appeal.
Now & then I had to slow down to avoid vehicular manslaughter.  Locals parked their vans on la carreterra.  Left car doors were left hanging open & people even worked underneath of them alongside the traffic!  To make matters worse, the pavement was riddled with potholes. Car-engulfing, tire-eating, broad ones concealed by blind turns.  They too retarded my progress.  Still far from my destination, I wanted to be done with 605, but every quarter of a mile (if not less) I would decelerate to cautiously cross another pothole. Thankfully, la carreterra was not a frequented road.  I often drove on the wrong side of the road to maneuver around all the punctured pavement.

The sun was already below las montañas, shadowing 111 as it snaked through Utuado. My legs were cramped & a tad damp from El Cañon de San Cristobal so I pulled into the first business I saw to stretch.  It happened to be an Econo grocery store so I bought some fruit (which was safe to eat unpeeled in Puerto Rico), bottled water and make-your-own-Tuna-salad kits.

When I emerged, it was night time.  I considered sleeping in the well-lit estacionimiento of Econo but felt too vulnerable here, since there were other jalopies in the back of the lot that looked like they would also be staying put for the night. Plus, there was only one entrance/exit into the estacionimiento & it was on the outskirts of Utuado. Regularly, these disadvantages would never have crossed my mind, but traveling solo – and camping – reminded me to be more aware of my surroundings.

Therefore, I cruised through la ciudad, still on 111 oeste.  I passed a small apartment complex that was a possibility, but it was situated ten feet from la carreterra. Unexpectedly, la calle T-ed. Not wanting to stray too far from the main artery of Utuado, I swerved right, then left into a McDonald’s.  Stepping inside, I examined my legs for the first time since yesterday (I was in pants all day at el  cañon). I counted more than ten bruises ranging in size and color – the epitome was a misshaped, indigo + black contusion on my left thigh, larger than a tennis ball.
I planned to kill time in el restaurante by writing in my journal (I needed McDonald’s electricity). I drank a soda (I needed their carbonation), and prepared for bed (I needed their restroom facilities).  I did not want to explore Utuado – interrogated its citizens about the cave Gammiel mentioned – at this hour. Plus, something odd was occurring in la ciudad. In the distance I heard latin music… but it grew louder every minute.  When the boom had increased to the point that it must have been right outside, I recognized a shiny, black, tour bus, the ones with exposed roof decks, through the glare of McDonald’s windows.  The party bus pumped out the jams, displayed a rave-like light show for the shapes of people on the deck & was stopped at the traffic light.  When the tunes momentarily ceased, a man holding a megaphone yelled rapidly in Spanish (I could not make out what he was saying).  Was it a political campaign?  The event seemed too upbeat and entertaining to be that.

When the light changed green, the bus drove on.  Yet, soon thereafter, more music blasted from the same area.  I continued to log my day and assumed there was an accident on la calle because sirens repeatedly blared.  Then a red camion a.k.a. truck, on excessively large tires, crept by & the lively music restarted.  I realized the truck also wielded the sirens.  Was this una ciudad being taken over by a renegade political party?

That noise faded as well & I finished my journal entry with “It took forever to go about 8 miles. I’ve never been so glad to get off a road [605] in my life.”  I fully understood that trying to locate Cueva Ventana a.k.a. Window Cave might be unsuccessful.  As I sat in the white, plastic booth, I decided to follow a hunch, as I was determined to find the mysterious cave.  My Verizon Wireless mobile phone powered up & I immediately keyed “Google.com” into the address bar. I felt like I was hunting “River Monsters” or “Finding Bigfoot” or verifying other myths when I typed “Cueva Ventana Puerto Rico” into the search engine.

There were scarce results but the first bore a name that triggered my memory. The identical name that taught me about El Cañon de San Cristobal [a month ago] described Cueva Ventana.  I covered up the tiny picture of the cave (I did not want to ruin the surprise) on the website and scrolled to find its whereabouts.  Cueva Ventana was not on any of mi mapas nor discussed in travel guides. Puerto Rico Day Trips was the only source of information, other than the locals.

In a country with a rather tricky highway system, the directions given on Puerto Rico Day Trips’ website were terse & exact.  Delighted at finding Cueva Ventana quickly & with little legwork, I focused – again – on settling down.  McDonald’s estacionamiento was too busy for me to linger overnight so I braved la ciudad in, what I assumed was, the middle of the riotous night.

I stalked a handful of calles, all of which were well-lit, but did not come across an ideal spot to inhabit until, on a whim, I passed el hospital (pronounced “oh-spee-tall”).  It was very secure: emergency vehicles revolving, plenty of people nearby, maybe video cameras, and who starts trouble at a hospital?

I reclined the driver’s seat and reused one of the two Delta Airlines blankets, although it was noticeably warmer in the valley of Utuado compared to the mountaintop in Barranquitas. As soon as I leaned back I heard the familiar sirens & sassy songs.  Flashing lights reflected off the buildings in the dark.  The vehicles must have been endlessly circling la ciudad.  As 23:00 approached, the repetitions lessened and my drowsiness heightened.  Tonight I would not being soothed to sleep by the coquis’ lilt.

 
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Puerto Rico Day Trips’ website.  SPOILER ALERT: The website instantly shows the end product!

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