Two Views of Puerto Rico: The Indiana Jones - James Bond Tour
By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor
I could sense the apprehension from the decked-out couple as we entered the elevator in the Marriott on Condado Beach in Puerto Rico.
After a day of tough adventuring, we looked like we needed a meeting with Mr. Clean and a date with Tide.
After a hot shower and a few mojitos on the balcony of room 3156 we dressed appropriately for a few hands of blackjack in the sparkling casino off the lobby several floors below. The point of our trip to Puerto Rico was to examine two totally different modes of exploration, and both provided exhilaration.
To many visitors, a trip to Puerto Rico is a chance to sip some piña coladas while slathering on sunblock or perhaps swinging some clubs.
This trip we wanted to add in bat guano and rappel down some cliffs, a bit of cave exploration and some motorized thunder between the thighs (riding ATVs) would also fit in with our plans. After rough days we wanted nights of pleasure and pampering, a combination James Bond and Indiana Jones tour.
Take Mr. Bond’s Bags to Room 3156
I expected Condado Beach to be another smaller version of Miami Beach. M-5 surveillance had obviously slipped; the hotel was smaller and more intimate than imagined and the Condado neighborhood was colorful. After my adventures, I usually returned to the hotel beach for a little wave riding and then a small Cuban coffee in the neighborhood.
The charming Condado streets had restaurants and shops, yet was also lived-in and full of the PR vibrancy that is evident in even the local’s stride. What was unusual but wonderful was to have a complete resort setting and amenities located steps from a local scene. Add on the Marriott’s beach setting and the Bond side was completely covered, shaken or stirred.
Time Among the Taino’s
Six in the morning comes early no matter where in the world you are, perhaps a little harder with a busy casino located a few floors below. Still, it was time to explore the adventures PR offers that aren’t covered in the glossies.
Coffee in hand I met the rep from Acampa Adventures. Soon we were in a van heading to the Northeastern part of the Island to the Karst Region and filling out forms, intermixed with info about the day’s events, clearing the company of any responsibility for possible problems. Jaime, our guide, reminded us of a young Che in looks and political leanings. Separation from the US has long been a contentious issue on PR.
The best part of the 90-minute drive was learning about the native Tainos that inhabited Puerto Rico 2,500 years ago. These highly developed people had living on the island down pat, from ceremonial centers to hurricane shelters in the caves that we were to explore, in fact, the word hurricane was coined from the Tainos.
Indiana Jones on the Rio Tanama
Soon we arrived at a small plantation high in the Karst region and walked past land cultivated with coffee, plantains and various citrus fruits, armed with helmets and cave lanterns. Eventually, the cultivated turned to unruly, steep steps down through thick jungle foliage, each one tenuous and slippery.
Our reward for a few hours of hard trekking was reaching the cool Rio Tanama waters that flowed through limestone hills, both above and below the surface; the Tanama was to become our trail.
In true Indiana Jones spirit, we alternated between dark caves that echoed the chirp of hanging bats and fast-moving water that zipped through narrow gorges. This was a true adventure trip, not one dumbed down for tourists -- true exhilaration.
What Goes Down Must Go Up
Soon we began our climb out of the river valley which entailed a lot of effort in the heavy humid air.
We arrived at a small cave opening which Jaime let us know went through the mountain; all agreed that if it would save us climbing up and over we would rather go through. It was the toughest cave of the day with huge drops and skinny passageways, and each step took us closer to a special midday stop.
The Perez finca, or farm, was a rustic organic oasis set amidst the limestone hills, all the products sold in markets around PR. The products grown were served to us by Jorge Perez and family. It was a vegan meal worthy of a bushel of Michelin stars and provided energy for the rest of the adventure.
After our lunch it was time for some adrenaline and Jaime and Jorge had the plan, rappelling off a 100-foot cliff to a platform. To continue the rush we then zip-lined across the Rio Tanama before hiking up to the waiting van, a short hour trek uphill. This Jones was ready to Bond.
If ever we were in need of relief it was after that day, and the Marriott on Condado Beach provided it in spades. First stop was the ocean and some tumble in the waves followed by a soak in the outdoor hot tub. Then a hot shower followed with a bathrobed cocktail on the balcony overlooking the water.
A quick coffee in the nearby streets and Bond was ready to play, achy thighs be damned, we earned them. Dinner at the Tuscan Room and some Latin beats in the lobby bar set us up perfectly for double downtime in the casino.
As expected the multi-threaded cotton sheets and flat screen sang a siren’s song and we headed up to Room 3156 and headquarters to check out communiqués; wireless was seamless until sleep to the sounds of waves overtook us.
There is only one tropical rainforest in the national forest system and that is Yanque Park, Puerto Rico’s National Forest. In a rare move of the Spanish Crown, the park has been preserved since 1876 and today is 28,000 acres of wild wilderness.
From our position at the Hacienda Carabali the 3142-foot El Yanque Peak did peek at us occasionally. With an annual rainfall measured at an astounding 15 feet a year catching the Peak isn’t easy. It does, however, account for some amazing foliage (142 types of trees).
After a rough day of hoofing the day before we opted for some thunder between the thighs, better known as an ATV. Motorized vehicles are only allowed at the base trails and kept only in certain areas. The highlight of a visit for us was the chance to pack some swimming gear and utilize the rainfall from above to swim beneath waterfalls.
Cool waters and humid temps were a perfect mix. My favorite was La Mina Falls with a 35-foot plunge and paradise swimming hole at the bottom. If the sound of an engine isn’t to your liking the Park has 24 miles of trails that traverse up through various forest zones, each with its own particularities.
Though urban, old San Juan was an adventure in itself, the colorful buildings and authentic restaurants were the perfect way to end our adventures in Puerto Rico.
Sitting with our bags of bought bootie we feasted on dishes such yucca empanadas and carne mechada while sipping on Coco Frio sated. Some things must remain classified but I can divulge that nightlife in old San Juan was varied and plentiful.
After thirty years of flying through the airport on Puerto Rico, instead of landing there, we were amazed at just what we had missed over the years. With a strong coffee sipped on the balcony of 3156 while the sun rose, we pledged to not make that mistake again.
The Marriott San Juan Resort and Stellaris Casino was the perfect place to live out my James Bond fantasies at a price lesser mortals can afford. The resort was perfect in size and location.
With a sandy beach and a neighborhood like Condado, I couldn’t have asked for more. The rooms with balconies made returning back each night a pleasure, check for the numerous packages available and save some bucks for the casino.
If you want a company that pampers there are many on Puerto Rico. If you want one that really takes you to adventure check Acampa. While no walk in the park our Rio Tanama trip was thrilling and tough enough to really savor. I can almost guarantee that it will be just your small group alone in the thrilling and beautiful Karst Region.
So close to San Juan yet so far out away in spirit. No matter how you decide to explore the national park you will not regret it. Pristine and primitive yet accessible is hard to find these days, Yanque fits the bill. Exploring the park via ATV or horse can be done at the Hacienda Carabali, located at the base of the park.
Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.