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Tainos, Kayaks And Other Sights From Utuado

By J.A. del Rosario

February 6, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Ask any traveler what they associate with Puerto Rico and they will likely describe images of hot skin basking under the hot sun, and a rushing, salty tide covering them in a cool blanket of white foam.

Far more rare is finding someone who describes a  quiet countryside scene by a lake, where the violent tide is replaced by the whispers of oars making contact with the almost-still water as canoes glide by. One reason why this image is rare is that there are no lakes in Puerto Rico -- at at least not natural ones.

But that doesn't mean you can't have a nice quiet weekend by the lake -- all you need to do is drive west.

If you are in San Juan, there are two roads you can take to head west. The first is Highway 22, a smooth, toll-filled expressway that cuts through rocky hills all the way to Arecibo -- where the highway overlooks the blue Atlantic Ocean on the north coast.

Before Highway 22, the westward commute happened on Road 2, a narrower road where traffic seems to stop every 400 yards in due to the high number of traffic light and confusing intersections. Unlike Highway 22, where motorists only have nicely labeled exits by the side of the road, Road 2 is a roadside show of a Puerto Rico in transition. Out here strip malls with mega stores share the road with pharmaceutical companies and  roadside merchants that sell anything from fruits and vegetables to lottery tickets and Puerto Rican flags.

Not far from the confusing disarray of Road 2 are the rolling mountains of Utuado, and the Caonillas Lake, one of several man-made lakes created during Puerto Rico's hydroelectric past.

Whether you headed west on Highway 22 or Road 2, in Arecibo you will encounter the intersection for Road 10, which will take you straight south into the mountains of the Cordillera Central.

As the altitude rises, and the vegetation thickens, the roads also get narrower and before you know it you are in Utuado, which means  "between mountains" in the native Taino Indian language.

One obligatory stop in the town is the Caguana Indian Ceremonial Park, an ancient Taino gathering ground that has been restored by the local government.

The park is decorated with monoliths carved with Taino petroglyphs -- presumably, most of these are drawings of Taino deities.

The colonization of Puerto Rico was a quick and brutal affair. The native Tainos were not known for their fighting skills, and they were quickly subdued into slavery by the Spaniards.

The park offers a glimpose into this simple culture. To be fair, when it comes to Pre-Columbine civilizations, the Tainos were not exactly at the head of the class. In fact, while the Aztecs were busy building an empire, and the Incas were defying the common laws of construction by building stone cities without mortar, the Tainos were...well, as far as we know they were keeping busy playing a primitive version of hacky-sac called Batey.

All the playing might have gotten in the way of developing a complex language. As far as historians have been able to surmise, Batey was the name of the game, the ball used in the game, the place where the game was played and the communal area in a village.

After stepping back in time in Caguana, continue through the mountains up Road 140, toward the Caonillas Lake, and get a room at Hostal Villas del Lago Caonillas -- hands down the best place to stay in the area.

These 17 villas have a living room, a nice clean kitchen, one bedroom and a balcony with an amazing view of the lake. Sorry, no TV or air-conditioner out here, but the cool mountain air make it unnecessary.

What's best is the price, which ranges between $85 and $115 per night.

Further up the road is Casa Grande Mountain Retreat, a string of more than 20 cabins built on the side of a mountain and connected by a maze of wooden pedestrian bridges. Accommodations here are sparse, but the ambience makes up for it. During the day the guests lounge by the small pool, surrounded by green mountains and a thin fog that seems to never dissipate along these hills.

For the new age crowd looking for a special nature commute, Casa Grande offers free yoga classes every morning

Still further up the road there is another reservoir, Dos Bocas Lake.

Although there are some cabins for rent right by this lake, they rent for the same rate as the other inns in the area, and the quality is dismal. A word of advice is to steer clear of these places until they fall on better management.

Backpackers beware, the poor condition of these cabins does not mean they are cheaper, so this word of advice goes for you too.

The upside of this lake is that there are kayaks for rent. To reach the kayak rental places you must take a ferry that will take you across the lake. To do this all you have to do is walk down several pathways that lead you to stations by the side of the lake where the ferry makes its stops.

The kayak rental is done by a couple of independent operators, and your best way to reach them and make arrangements is through any of the hotels in the area.

When it comes to eating, both the Hostal and Casa Grande have in-house restaurants, the offer good seafood and international cuisine for under $20 a plate.  But there is also good eating by the side of the mountain road. True to Puerto Rican priorities, most of the small businesses by the side of the road concentrate on alcoholic beverages, and serve food as an afterthought, but that does not reflect the quality of the latter. No reheated tostones up in these mountains.

For less than $10, you can get (in any one of these places) an order for two of carne frita with tostones (fried pork with fried plantains) and some sodas. Unfortunately, what these places offer in food quality, they lack in ambience -- which makes them ideal to order food after a day kayaking before heading to the hotel to shower and eat.

Take a shower, put on some clean clothes, lay out some food on your balcony and eat while the sun sinks behind the mountains and casts a reflective orange glow on Caonillas Lake.

And as a local Italian resident likes to say: "If it is pork, and it is fried; it can't be bad."

Casa Grande Mountain Retreat
Road 140

Hostal Villas del Lago Caonillas
Road 140

Caguana Taino Ceremonial Park

J.A. del Rosario, a business reporter for The San Juan Star, is a remedial guitar player and an incorrigible nightcrawler. He can be contacted at: :

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