A Tropical Independence Day: Giant Ferns, Aliens and City Folks
El Yunque, Puerto Rico
It was the weekend of the 4th of July and, as it happens every time Puerto Ricans get a chance to enjoy a long weekend, there was a huge traffic jam going from San Juan to Fajardo and Luquillo: two towns in the northeastern part of the island. In my group alone, there were seventeen of us: four kids under the age of ten, three teenage girls, four couples under 40, my mom and I (I’m 27 and she swears she’s 28). We were heading to a country house in the vicinity of El Yunque, the third tallest mountain in the island (3496 ft) which is home to a tropical rainforest, a favorite destination among tourists and locals alike.
People visit El Yunque during the day to enjoy its amazing vegetation (there are 240 native tree species, 23 of them found only in El Yunque; 88 rare tree species; 50 native orchids and 150 types of ferns), its paved trails, awesome waterfalls and its great views of the city. During the night, El Yunque is visited for completely different reasons. Many have been known to camp there in hopes of seeing alien life or getting abducted. Sounds crazy? Well, the fact is that Puerto Rico does sit in one of the corners of the Bermuda Triangle and the largest Observatory in the whole world (see the movie Contact with Jodie Foster) is located in Puerto Rico. If aliens were to ever communicate with the Earth, scientists in the island (or campers at El Yunque, for that matter) should be the first ones to get the signal. For three nights all 17 of us would stay at this extremely beautiful and possibly enchanted place. I couldn’t wait!
The house sits all by itself deep down in the forest. It has been passed down for generations as the family treasure that it is. Two minutes after arriving at the property we were blessed with our first group challenge: pulling one of our cars out of the mud. Although the grass is green, the land was very damp. After all, it is a rainforest! While the adults were bringing big pieces of wood and trying to figure out a way to get the car out to a drier area, I went to the back of the house with the kids. They too were working to figure out a strategy: catching “coquís” (a very small frog native to Puerto Rico) with their bare hands. They just wanted to touch the little creatures, see them up close, and then let them go. They learned that if there was a coquí on the ground where they were about to walk on, the coquí would jump, giving them the general area where the coquí was. I helped them catch around five coquís this way and we were entertained with this for about an hour. I couldn’t help but think about all the toys that these kids have back home. I bet none of them holds their attention for this long.
After the car finally came out, two of the men picked their machetes and the entire group headed to the river. It took us about thirty minutes to cut through the seemingly virgin rainforest. At some point it rained, but the forest was so dense that we did not get wet. The vegetation was amazing: huge red flowers, giant ferns, very tall trees and at the end of the path… the river.
Oh, it is such a gorgeous river! After only walking on river rocks for about five minutes, we reached a deep, tranquil part of it with what turned out to be two natural adventure slides that divided the area into huge pools. We each took turns letting the rapid waters push us through a section of rocks so that we could get to one pool and then the other. Although some of us complained about our butts hurting a bit when we were hit by the rocks in the wrong way while going down, we all agreed that it was worth the ride and kept doing it again and again.
The water was warm and the river was protected by many trees that formed arches that covered most of it. We swam, played, threw the kids around and thanked God for allowing us to enjoy such a wonderful creation. After a while, we headed back fearing that it would rain on the top of El Yunque and this utopic scene could turn into a nightmare, when the rain water rushed down suddenly. On our way out, a friend pointed out some gold dust on the river rocks. While getting some gold (hopefully around $.10 worth) I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to be a Spanish conquistador, one of the many who came to the island over 500 years ago searching for gold. I could imagine myself thinking that this warm, gorgeous river would be worth more than all the gold it carried. I could imagine settling there, inventing all kinds of stories about ghosts and superstitions, so that no one would try to exploit the river and it would remain virgin, all for myself.
That night, two of us were watching the sky full of stars in the middle of the very dark night, while listening to the sounds of the forest, when we felt something moving in the bushes. There are no large or dangerous creatures in this forest, so we dismissed it for a few minutes. “Maybe they are just iguanas,” we thought and kept enjoying the stars and the lightning bugs, which we kept thinking were shooting stars whenever they flew from one branch to the other. But the sound was persistent. With no flashlight in hand, there was nothing we could do but ignore it. After a few minutes, we looked behind us, as if obeying the same signal. Right before our own eyes there was a full sized alien looking creature. I just stared. She yelled. When it walked towards us slowly and grabbed our hands, we heard a familiar sound: our friend’s laughter from within the costume. That bastard! He scared the living daylights out of us!
That night, the kids took turns using the costume and played until one of them fell asleep wearing it. As I watched them running around dressed as if they were creatures from another planet, I thought about all of those who throughout history fought to take possession of the island. They somehow made themselves look scarier or more powerful than the others: the British used their pirates, the Spanish their Armada and the Americans their powerful military. A crooked thought occurred to me. Maybe, behind all the political maneuvers, the stories of aliens, the attacks by pirates, the mobilization of armies and navies that have taken place throughout the last few centuries, just maybe; there is someone who, like me, spent an afternoon near one of our rivers and had a crazy idea… What if I could have it all to myself, the entire island paradise, without ever having to be in a traffic jam so that I can come and enjoy its secret hideaways for just a weekend? If I had the means to do do something about it, would I?