Highs and lows [part II]

We turned around to face the tree that would belay us.  I was somewhat hesitant to lean all my weight against the medium-sized tree perched on a steep slope.  Yet, we lowered ourselves together – Gammiel on a separate line to my right.  He verbally helped me correct my body position within the initial 15 feet, as it was a bit of an awkward position for a beginner like me.  It was obvious Gammiel could rappel in his sleep, but he suggested I take it slow and enjoy everything. I was grateful for his empathy!
The rappelling rope was bouncier than I anticipated, and my left forearm was spared from having to do hardly any of the work. I stopped midway down the cliffside & took in all the scenery.  I could see the waterfall – from top to bottom – to my left.  Eventually I dropped onto the little, dirt platform 5 feet from the Charco Azul a.k.a. Blue Pool. On the grand scale of El Cañon de San Cristobal, we humans & the platform were the only small things I encountered all day.  In fact, a flower-shaped leaf, quadruple the size of my open hand laid on the compacted soil.  The enormity of the leaf caused me to search for its source.
Gammiel pointed to the same cascade & revealed that it was our ladder.  Donning a life vest, he leapt into the water & began breaststroking toward the waterfall.  I plunged in after him, but the chilly water instantly knocked the air out of my lungs.  My floatation device popped my head out of the water and I gasped for air. I swam after Gammiel but without a graceful breaststroke.  My raincoat repeatedly ballooned with water, the oversized lifevest limited my mobility and the creek – that originally looked like slow-moving water – belied a swift current that resisted my every effort.

Gradually, but with difficulty, I crept my way upstream.  Honestly, it felt like swimming against a tsunami so I floated on my back – all the while backstroking – to rejuvenate myself.  Still on my back, eyes fixed skyward, I could see in my peripheral I was nearing the area where the cascade’s water [from above] crashed into the river [that I was swimming in].  Staring at downpouring water was certainly not smart, but I was focused so intensely on my rhythm, I inhaled not only droplets from the splash, but also drank some water plunging from the cascade.  Choking, I jolted upright and realized the quickest way to avoid the barrage of water was to swim through it.  The massive rock that supported the “upper” part of el cañon & created the dropoff for the river, revealed a grotto underneath.

Similar to being in the shower, I tried to exhale from my mouth while keeping my eyes closed as I passed through the cascade’s wall of water, but it was more difficult due the ceaseless spray.  I was blinded by the hundreds of gallons of water that pummeled against the top of my head… and I was getting tired from the swim (about 40 yards) upstream… and I was exhausted from fighting against the long pants & raincoat I wore.  A tiny piece of me wanted to give up.  Yet something grabbed my lifevest by the nap of my neck and yanked me into the protected area of the grotto.  It was Gammiel & I must have looked completely pathetic because he yelled “Are you okay?” in a concerned tone.  I opened my eyes but still could not see because my contacts were water-logged and shifted all over my eye.  I could barely hear him too because of the roar of the rushing waterfall behind me.  Finally focusing, I told Gammiel “I’m fine, I just couldn’t see because of my contacts.”  That was a lie.  I normally considered myself a decent swimmer, but I thought for a millisecond I was about to die by way of drowning.

Gammiel pulled himself out of the frio a.k.a. cold creek, onto a flat rock platform. I was eager to get out of the frio water too, and surveyed the rocks for a grip.  There was nothing to hold, so I – like Gammiel – tried to climb out of the water. I knew I wasn’t in the best physical shape, but in my defense the slippery conditions, bulky life vest & my short arms made this task utterly impossible for me.  For the third time (I imagine) I probably looked inadequate in Gammiel’s eyes because he crouched down & offered me his hand from above.

Finally on solid earth, I tried to catch my breath & let my muscles recover. Inside, the grotto was even darker than the depths of el cañon that Gammiel and I traversed earlier.  However, the midday sunlight shined through a natural oculus formed by an opening between the rocks some 20 feet above through which water gushed.  There was also another cascade.  Waterfalls within waterfalls, wholly camouflaged by the façade of the singular, tall cascade from the lower part of el cañon.

Now I truly saw our “ladder.”  It was a rope ladder – much like a cargo net – that led up & through the opening.  A second cascade incessantly drenched the large rocks & the rope ladder that laid against them. I did not feel like I was having hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) symptoms yet, but I was exhausted.  I stalled for time by asking Gammiel about the rope system.  Despite looking like a human-sized spider web sprawling in all directions, I noticed different kinds & colors of rope. Gammiel explained that he & his uncle had built the network over several trips & it was the only way to ascend in this area since the sides of el cañon were almost vertical.

As usual, Gammiel went first and made the ascent look effortless.  Anyone who has climbed a cargo net knows it can be challenging because the rope sags under the climber’s weight.  It was tricky to maneuver up the first few rungs because the shape of the smooth boulder meant I also had to move sideways along the rope ladder.  Occasionally slipping made my progress cumbersome.  My deathgrip on the cargo net saved me, but I still smacked my knees a few times against the rock face.  Additionally I had another, constant problem: water from the creek above – though not as powerful as the first cascade – still blitzed my head and made seeing/breathing tough.  I turned my head as far away from the blasting creek in an effort to breath dry air [not tainted with water] & caught a glimpse of Gammiel as he disappeared through the opening above me.  My forearms were beginning to fatigue from the rappelling and climbing, but I reached the summit of the cargo net.

I pulled myself to my knees and momentarily rested on this tiny top of the boulder.  The creek above was unphased by my presence and still freely flowed over my head, down to the grotto.  In order to ascend, I had to contort my body into an uncomfortable position and crawl around the mishmash of boulders that jutted outward.  My face had nowhere to turn to breathe since there was only a six inch gap that separated me from inhaling the creek.  To continue upward but keep my already busted body unscathed, I had to arch my back and slither underneath another boulder. I felt the top of my head grate along the rock & was thankful for the cheap, white helmet Gammiel supplied me with at the start of our excursion. 

As I birthed myself through the opening, I felt a wave of relief!  I thanked Gammiel profusely for his assistance which he brushed off as no big deal.  He asked “Since it is only us, do you want to do it again or keep hiking?  It’s your trip! If you want to jump off ten more times we can.”  Did I want to complete that part of the excursion again?  Did I want to redo the gnarliest section of El Cañon de San Cristobal?  I thought my struggle was evident to Gammiel so you can imagine my shock that he even asked this question!  While thrilling and a testament to the power of motivation, I was grateful to be out of the inexorable waterfalls.
To mask my atrophic physical state, I passed on diving into Charco Azul again on account of my diabetes.  Not a total lie.  I really should not have even gone rappelling/climbing without #1 my insulin pump and #2 emergency sugar pills.  Gammiel accepted without judgment.  I reconnected my pump, thus giving me a steady flow of medicine, and anxiously waited to see how my blood would react to the last intense 45 minutes. We returned to our original departure point and retrieved our belongings.
Mis piernas a.k.a. my legs felt like lead and my arms hung limply as we retraced our steps.  Eventually I recuperated enough to converse with Gammiel again.  Still reeling with appreciation for nature’s beauty here in the depths of El Cañon de San Cristobal, Gammiel chimed in with reasons why Puerto Rico had an ideal environment for jungle excursions.  Unlike some of Central/South America, the country had:  no poisonous frogs (only choirs of coquis!);  solely non-venomous spiders; no poison ivy, oak or sumac; and no venomous snakes (only slow-moving boa constrictors).  Plus, the only native, undomesticated mammal on the island was the bat. He certainly had a good argument!  Where else on the planet could I be more safe from wildlife?  Case in point: Australia – also an island – housed the two most feared jellyfish, 6/10 venomous spiders, 8/10 deadly snakes  & heaps of other animals to be reckoned with.

Gammiel mentioned he had an ace in the hole – a metaphorical gem still to be seen in el cañon.  We retraced our steps back to the space where the creek dwindled to trickling & stagnant pools of water.  Since I considered locals, like Gammiel, experts I inquired about one of his favorite adventures on the island.  Other than El Yunque (which is apparently a more intense hike), he identified “Cueva Ventana near Utuado.”  From the planning phase of my trip in early March, I vaguely recalled reading – briefly – about Utuado (pronounced “ooh-too-ahh-doe”).
Shortly thereafter we reached the invisible aperture that disguised our entrance – and exit – trail.  When we first arrived on the floor of el cañon, Gammiel & I veered right.  I was so excited at the time I focused ahead -- more than behind me – and totally failed to notice that we could have veered left too.  Ahead was a lone, lush tree in the foreground.
Carefully we crossed over the insanely uneven ground.  To my right, more of el cañon became exposed and I discovered the dense landscape with the same color pallet hid a much taller, wider, and more magnificent waterfall than the lower canyon area!  Here, on a comparatively flat boulder, Gammiel and I sat down for the final time.  As we snacked Gammiel confided that this was not even the best cascade in el cañon!  In his opinion, that one was deeper within el cañon (further along from where we stopped to rappel) and experienced only by those bold enough to attempt the all-day trek from Barranquitas through Aibonito.
Though the dip into Charco Azul had been almost frigid, I was hot again as I relaxed my weary body in the waxing sun.  For the first time I fully observed the earth.  I was stunned because throughout this trip I assumed the soil was a reddish-orange color from the numerous minerals.  It turned out I was not viewing dirt!  Practically the entire floor of El Cañon de San Cristobal was misshapen, rusted metal. Part of a motor here, drills there, railroad ties everywhere.  It was so unexpected – until I remembered what I read about el cañon beforehand.  In the 1960’s it was Puerto Rico’s token dumping ground.  The United States’ hippie, eco-friendly vibe of the sixties never extended to Puerto Rico. Now 2012, the decaying, non-degradable floor was a painful reminder of humanity’s excess and laziness. The damage had long been done & was never cleaned up. Luckily & eventually, the Conservation Trust intervened to protect El Cañon de San Cristobal.
I was so worn out but I couldn’t stall anymore.  Putting off the final ascent would only prolong the inevitable anguish. I begrudgingly peeled myself off the boulder that doubled as a bench.  Two hundred yards back, Gammiel easily found the path to the high plateaus that surrounded el cañon.  The sheer hike upward made the [demanding] hike down seem like a walk in the park.  Though Gammiel & I fleetingly rested every 40 feet, it was never enough.  Within ten minutes I was panting & my clothes were resaturated – this time from sweat. Imagine being on a stair-stepper, on the highest resistance, for an hour, after running a 5K.  Halfway there, Gammiel plucked a prickly strawberry that more resembled a raspberry.  Two years ago I was wary of eating two green fruit from a taxi cab driver in Elba [Italy]. 
However, Gammiel had proven to be worth his weight in gold as my guide.  I fully trusted him now so I tossed the almost-ripe berry in my mouth.  In a trance, I lumbered on.  After what felt like eons, the compressed jungle trees gave way to open air and tall weeds. Closer. Gammiel abruptly stopped and squatted down to examine a sprawling, off-white, thick plant growing out of the ochre-colored soil. We had stumbled upon a large yucca/cassava. Whooped and already loaded down (with gear) Gammiel said he would come back for the succulent, as he could sell it for a decent profit – a prime example of a nomad’s ever creative ways of generating income.
Gratefully the terrain leveled out & again, I saw the deep rift laid out before us. The vista was still astounding.  Through the private backyard & driveway gate of a complete stranger, we reached the vivid, blue Toyota. It showed no signs of a break in.  Gammiel and I both stripped off our outer layers of clothes. He reused the car mats as seat covers so we would not soak the upholstery, for which I was grateful because his seat was also my bed for the next week.

Gammiel directed me to Ricky Lopez’s house again, where we parted.  Gammiel asked where I was headed. “Probably into town to get something to eat” I replied. A bit unsure of the way (because Ricky’s house was tucked in a residential neighborhood), Ricky instructed me to follow his truck – he would show me the way.  Ten minutes later I waved my arm out of the window in gratitude as I pulled away from Ricky’s truck and into a tight estacionamiento a.k.a. parking lot.  There did not seem to be much around as far as restaurants go & I definitely wanted a wholesome meal – not fast food.

Though the outside of el restaurant looked unsightly, the inside wasn’t terrible. Devoid of any customers, I cleverly sat next to an electrical outlet & recharged my mobile phone.  I also stole away to el bano a.k.a. the bathroom to change into dry clothes & wash some of the mud off.  I emerged feeling cleaner & the amicable owner/father of the guy running the register brought me my sandwich.  That’s when it hit me.  Like smacking into a brick wall I instantly felt funny.  It’s an impossible feeling to describe: somewhat on edge; like your nerves are hypersensitive; shaky; hot; weak; starving; fuzzy in the head.  These are the symptoms – at least for me – of a low blood sugar attack.  I was glad that hypogleycemia didn’t occur until I was out of el cañon, but I knew this was directly related to the last grueling two hours. 

I paid for & chugged a Fanta.  I barely chewed my sandwich, mostly because I was so famished.  Plus, ravenous hunger is a side-effect of being low.  After my blood sugar came back up to a normal range (I can always feel the change happening) it was time to get the show on the road. I unfolded the complimentary road mapa from Thrifty.  My original plan was to backtrack east to Bosque Estatal de Carite a.k.a. Carite State Forest & take advantage of cheap camping.  Tomorrow (Saturday) I wanted to stop by Guavate & immerse myself in authentic Puerto Rican life.

At Guavate (supposedly only a happening place on the weekends), I wanted to basically gorge myself on delicious cuisine cooked at streetside kiosks: lechon asado a.k.a. a whole, roasted pig, cassava, breadfruit, arroz con grandules a.k.a. rice with pigeon peas, pastels a.k.a. mashed plantain with pork, and even blood sausage!  Stuffing my face, relaxing at a picnic table, listening to live salsa music, watching the locals dance & taking in the event sounded like so much fun & the best of Puerto Rican culture.

Yet as I gauged the distance on la mapa (about 35 miles) I remembered how twisting the roads to Barranquitas had been. I remembered how easily I got lost. I remembered the nausea from all the bends.  I remembered my ears popping.  I remembered that just last night las calles seemed to never end. Impulsively, 35 miles in the wrong direction seemed painstaking. So, I changed my itinerary right then & there!  I still had hours of daylight so I opted to press westward along La Ruta Panoramica to camp at another park: La Reserva Forestal Toro Negro a.k.a. Black Bull Forest Reserve.

From the highest city (Aibonito), to the lowest point (El Cañon de San Cristobal), and to the highest point (Cerro de Punta a.k.a. Hill Point) in the nation, I wanted to admire the view from 5,000 feet and perhaps go on a hike in the morning.  When I questioned the owner/father behind the counter on how to find 143 – La Ruta Panoramica – from el restaurant, the gregarious postman in line interjected with simple directions & handed me a red and white striped sucker for the journey.

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Puerto Rico Day Trips' website.   This particular article has great photos of ascending the waterfall & other angles of El Cañon de San Cristobal. A handy resource for the entire country (including Vieques and Culebra).

Comments

  1. Hi! I ran across your blog while doing research on San Cristobal Canyon tours. I ended up reading all your entries of PR. I wanted to let you know I enjoyed your writing. I am going to PR next month and will be taking the Cordillera Central/Ruta Panoramica for 7 days. I will be visiting a lot of the same places you did, or attempted to. Although I will also be going alone like you, I am not roughing it as I was already warned of the process of obtaining a permit to camp in PR. Thanks for your blog. I am so looking forward to visiting the mountains of PR for a change. Puerto is my native land and I've visited many times, but I never run out of new and exciting things to do there. Happy traveling!

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    1. Oh my goodness, hello! I am so sorry that I am just now reading this, as I was never notified =(

      So how was your trip??? If you're going to write about it I would very much love to read about your experience. Mad respect for going solo -- I'm so tickled that the blog helped. Puerto Rico is a hidden gem (in my opinion). Where did you make it to along La Ruta?

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    2. I'd like to return within a few years & take my mother as well. Is there anywhere you'd recommend? Obviously don't want to repeat my last trip. Thanks for your help!

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