Puerto Rico

With its warm tropical waters, Caribbean vibes, and ample sunlight, La Isla del Encanto, or Puerto Rico as we mainlanders call it, plays host to thousands of Spring Breakers every April. This year, a group of eight Parkmont upper schoolers and three chaperones headed over to see what all the fuss was about. The “island of enchantment” lived up to its local name as we encountered beautiful natural and cultural surprises at every twisty, single-laned, steeply-graded turn.

We started the trip in San Juan, the island’s biggest city and one of the oldest settlements in the Americas. As the students wandered through the narrow maze-like streets of the historic neighborhood it was hard not to get lost in a place that, despite the cruise ships blocks away, had somehow managed to preserve its place in time. Unfortunately, we only had an afternoon to sightsee before cruising over to our homebase of Rincon on the island’s west coast

Friday was a day to explore Rincon and its surroundings. Literally translated to “corner” in Spanish, Rincon is a quiet little surf town that juts out between two bays on the Northwest coast of the island. Along the coast, the current produces strong waves that crash along a mix of rock and reef while inland, jagged mountains rise like sawtooths, forming surreal landscapes that offer hidden natural gems at every turn. We were in search of one of these beauties, a series of waterfalls that tumble out of the limestone hills about an hour inland. We arrived at the park and took off for the upper falls, a beautiful, 50 ft. cascade that emptied into a perfectly clear pool for swimming. After splashing around for what seemed like hours we took a quick pit stop at an even bigger waterfall downstream before heading back to the vans.

Saturday was one of our busiest days of the trip. We had scheduled a morning tour with a local outfitter to take us paddleboarding and snorkeling in one of the protected inlets outside Rincon. This was a first for the majority of our group, but apprehension soon turned into nervous excitement as we hit the water and realized how fun, and challenging, stand-up-paddleboarding in the ocean can be.

As the heat of the midday sun threatened to burn us all to a crisp, we headed inland to check out the Guajataca reserve and its Cave of the Wind. Equipped with headlamps and led by veteran spelunker Alex, our team descended into the cave where we were greeted with a majestic pipe-organ of stalagmites and stalactites rising and falling from floor to ceiling of the cathedral-like entrance. We reached the back of the cave and turned off our lights. Silent and blind we meditated for a minute in what had to be the most ethereal moment of the trip. It was high fives all around as we blinked our way back into the brightness of the mid-afternoon sun and came to our senses.   

Sunday was our last day in Rincon before travelling to the east coast and then Vieques. In the morning we set out for Cayo Aurora, a mythical travel destination on the island’s south-central coast.  As we crossed the narrow inlet to the island, a dolphin zigzagged around our kayaks, rising every so often as if to lead the way. We arrived on a secluded beach and had a picnic lunch, then took off to explore. We spent the afternoon meandering through the island’s channels in kayaks, chasing schools of snapper and barracuda through the mangroves and lounging around in our flamenco and banana floats. If three prior days had felt like a whirlwind of non-stop action, this was truly a time to unwind and chill-out.

Once in Vieques, our group headed across the island to check out the town of Esperanza and its local beach. We had reserved some kayaks and spent the morning cruising around a nearby smaller island off the coast. Back home for lunch, everyone pitched in to prepare a big barbecue parrillada of burgers and dogs, which inevitably led to a post-meal siesta. We had to be ready to roll by early evening, though, as we had booked a kayak tour at the famous bioluminescent bay. By the time we got to the access point, it was pitch black. We paired up and entered the inky black water in glass-bottom kayaks under nearly cloudless skies. As our eyes adjusted to the starlight reflecting off the water we noticed an eerie glow coming off the paddles each time we dipped them in the water. It was the bioluminescence. As the boats glided through the water, looking down through the glass-bottom was like staring into space; millions of bioluminescent plankton lit up and then disappeared. Bright constellations peered down at us, mimicking the bioluminescent glow below. We drifted in the circle, mesmerized by the beauty of the light. Before we knew it, however, it was time to head back. We paddled in, thanked our guides and got back on the transport to Esperanza.

Wednesday was our last full day in Vieques and we had a jam-packed itinerary. After waking up early for breakfast and a trip to a local beach, we checked-in for a surprise horseback riding trip we had scheduled the day before. Our two guides set us up with a gang of island ponies, beautifully patterned and with names like Rayo (Lightning) Luna (Moon) and Duquesa (Duchess). As soon as we emerged onto the sand, we could tell the horses were at home. The guides led us along a beautiful coastline, with shallow water, that the horses had no problem wading through.

The next morning was an early one, with a 4am wake-up call. We wanted to have time to explore El Yunque, the United States’ only protected tropical rainforest, so after the 6am ferry ride and a quick bakery breakfast, we headed for the hills. This gave ourselves enough time to take an hour and a half walk to a lookout tower near the peak of the reserve’s namesake mountain. As the group reached the top and scaled the tower, banks of fog rolled in and out, creating patches of visibility that would briefly open to reveal a gorgeous view of palm-forested mountains that stretched to the emerald green coast. The view was a reward for a tough hike that left everyone beat. Fortunately, our hotel in San Juan was a short hop away and a well-deserved siesta awaited.

We had time for one more authentic experience the next morning before our flight and took advantage of the small window before our departure to have breakfast at La Bombonera cafeteria, an upscale spot where the waiters wear red suits and serve piping hot cups of espressos and dainty pastries. It was the perfect way to end our trip. Bellies full, we took off for the airport, arriving in plenty of time to get through security and to our gate. As they say, the rest is history.

On a personal note, I had been to Puerto Rico earlier in the year and recommended the location as a destination for Parkmont students because of its accessibility and the cultural, historical and natural wonders that Puerto Ricans were so eager to share. Seeing our students grow both as a collective and as independent young adults was an opportunity that I am grateful for and which I was amazed to watch happen organically right before my eyes. From day one, students were reflective, resourceful, insightful and inquisitive; traits that took me years to develop, and which I’m still working on. Watching the kids (I’m not sure I can even call them that anymore!) face their fears,  take responsibility and help each other overcome difficulties was special for all of us.

Check out the photo scrapbook on our website here.

—Ethan Kuhnhenn