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Knight Ridder News Service
Adventurers Find Fun As Easy As One, Two, Three
Kayaking, hiking, diving . . . there's no shortage of things to do in Puerto Rico
BY LAUREN CHAPIN
March 6, 2005
FAJARDO, Puerto Rico - The narrow canal of sea water slices a path through the forest of mangroves, whose branches close together overhead and create a tunnel of darkness. Zipped and buckled into life vests, two to a kayak, our group of 12 adventurers begins to dip paddles rhythmically into the black water.
''Left. Right. Left. Right,'' each lead paddler hollers to the bowman.
There's no moon overhead, which makes it all the better to see the glow-in-the dark creatures we're stalking. Soon we'll be in the midst of one of nature's more dazzling wonders: a bioluminescent bay in the still waters of Fajardo, about an hour east of San Juan.
New at this, we often fail to warn the folks behind us about the dangers hiding in the darkness. Veering from one bank to another, we take turns collapsing into convulsive fits of laughter. Some of us crash into the bow of a pleasure boat, unwisely docked just inside the entrance to the canal. Others collide with a half-submerged tree trunk smack in the middle of our watery path.
Finally, a mile into this late-night adventure, the canal opens onto a wide, glassy-topped bay.
Laguna Grande is home to hundreds of thousands of single-celled bioluminescent dinoflagellates -- tiny plantlike organisms that glow neon-blue when disturbed. We sluice our hands through the water. It sparkles, shimmers and glitters like a giant, watery Fourth of July sparkler.
We quickly lash the seven kayaks together and jump into the water, letting the phosphorescent microbes light up our bodies and transforming this clutch of adults into a gaggle of giggling jumbo-sized kids.
We lie on our backs in the bathtub-warm water and wave our arms and legs up and down, back and forth, creating images of sparkly angels as the glow surrounds us.
Finding adventure in Puerto Rico is as easy as finding a rum drink in Old San Juan. The island's relative smallness makes it easy to do three very different activities in as many days: Hike through a rain forest, snorkel off an island and frolic in the darkness in a bioluminescent bay.
THE RAIN FOREST
We huddle another day on to a pathway leading upward into El Yunque Rain Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System. Light drizzle stops and starts.
Our small group of about 10 climbs slippery stone steps leading to La Coca Falls, a waterfall tumultuously cascading into a muddied pool.
Everything seems bigger, wetter, louder and more pungent in the rain forest, from the iguana we spy lounging atop his favorite preening place to the quarter-sized snails inching along the foliage.
More than 100 billion gallons of rain fall each year on the 28,000 acres of El Yunque, feeding the streams that pour into waterfalls, including La Coca Falls. Thirteen hiking trails crisscross the terrain, which is home to more than 240 kinds of trees, as well as orchids, the tiny coqui (tree frog) and the cotorra, the endangered green parrot of Puerto Rico.
Despite our guide's best efforts on the two-hour walk, we scatter shotgun style from the falls to the gift shop before climbing over the guard rail to take a peek at Iggy the iguana, one of El Yunque's mascots.
One by one we climb the 1,575-foot Yokahu Tower, whose circular staircase opens up to an open-air viewing perch.
At the top, we have a 360-degree view of this section of the forest. Wisps of fog hover over and around the mountains 3,500 feet above sea level.
Off in the distance, we see the ocean breaking and the spires and cathedrals of Old San Juan.
One morning three of us catch the ferry out of Fajardo and take the 90-minute ride to Dewey, the only town on one of Puerto Rico's most popular snorkeling sites, Culebra island.
At Culebra Divers, a snorkel and dive shop just beyond the end of the dock, we pay $12.50 to rent fins and masks, then head out to where a small bus awaits. We pay the $2 fare, and the driver heads toward Playa Flamenco, a few miles away on a curving blacktop road.
The wide, white-sand beach curves from rocky point to mountain slope. A nesting area for sea turtles is taped off on one end; the rusting hulk of an American tank sits at the surf's edge on the other end, an angry reminder of the days when Culebra was used by the U.S. Navy.
In the reefs, the waves are easy to power through, and the snorkeling is easy, especially for the first-timer among us.
We snorkel near the tank but back away when the surf shoves us toward ugly jags of rusting metal. We gingerly crawl over and around oversized volcanic boulders, taking care to not slice our bare feet on the jagged edges. Littered with bleached bits of coral that seem to glow in the soft morning light, the beach looks like a prehistoric burial ground for bones.
On the other end of the beach, we snorkel near an abandoned pier. The surf is stronger here, and I hang on to pieces of dead coral. After I'm still for a few moments, all kinds of fish come out to play -- angelfish, spadefish, Spanish grunts, even a few that remind me of Dory and Nemo, from Finding Nemo.
VISITING PUERTO RICO
Best for: People who like outdoor activities.
Cost of a weekend for two: $1,350, including two nights at a moderate hotel and airfare.
Major airlines fly to San Juan from both Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
(Note: San Juan is one hour ahead of EDT.)
WHERE TO STAY
Courtyard by Marriott Isla Verde Beach Resort, 7012 Boca de Cangrejos Ave., 800-791-2553, 787-791-0404; www.sjcourtyard.com. Spring rates start at about $185.
Hotel Miramar, 606 Avenue Ponce de Leon, 787-977-1000; www.miramarhotelpr.com. Rooms $129 through April 30.
Wyndham Condado Plaza Hotel and Casino, 999 Avenue Ashford; 787-721-1000; www.wyndhamcondadoplaza.com. Rooms from $206, in March.
WHAT TO DO
Mosquito Bay: Most major hotels will arrange tours to Mosquito Bay, outside Fajardo. The guide will provide kayaks.
El Yunque Rain Forest, near Rio Grande; 787- 888-1880; www.fs.fed.us/r8/caribbean
Snorkeling in Culebra, www.culebradiveshop.com or www.culebradivers.com.
Old San Juan is a shopper's mecca. You'll find a mélange of the kitschy and the authentic in shops and galleries along Fortaleza Street.
Puerto Rico Convention Bureau, 800-875-4765; www.meetpuertorico.com.