Snorkeling, Skeeters, and Paso Finos on Vieques

Eighth in a series on Puerto Rico.

The plus side of a mostly risk-adverse upbringing is that as an adult there are still a lot of experiences for me to try for the first time.  But I’m still not going skydiving anytime soon.  Vieques provided me with a few adventures.

Fish on the west side of Mosquito Pier, Vieques.  Lowell Silverman photography
Fish on the west side of Mosquito Pier, Vieques. Lowell Silverman photography

Snorkeling at Mosquito Pier

It’s a little embarrassing, but I didn’t become a comfortable swimmer until college.  I still die a little every time I’m swimming laps and some chubby woman zooms past me like I’m treading water.  I have to admit I wasn’t particularly enamored with the idea of snorkeling.  It’s a kind of leap of faith to accept that the mouthpiece provides a tight enough seal that your first breath underwater won’t fill your lungs with seawater.

Rachel and I signed up for a half day tour for Wednesday through Abe’s Snorkeling & Bio-Bay Tours.  The usual Caribbean itinerary had to be altered because of strong currents.  After kayaking in Kiani Lagoon, we headed to Mosquito Pier, known to the islands’ Spanish-speaking residents as the Rompeolas.  The Spanish name, meaning breakwater, is actually more correct.  As I understand engineering terminology, Mosquito Pier is a breakwater as “pier” implies a platform elevated on pillars.  Whatever its proper designation, Mosquito Pier juts a mile north straight out of Vieques. The name comes from a now-gone settlement; it’s on the other side of the island from Mosquito Bay, the “Bio-Bay”.  At first glance it seems to be oversized for such a small island.  The history is surprising: it was actually the first stage in an ambitious project started just prior to America’s entry into World War II.  According to Gerald Singer’s book on Vieques, The idea was to connect Vieques with Roosevelt Roads on the main island of Puerto Rico, creating a massive harbor, a Pearl Harbor of the Atlantic.  For a brief time Vieques was a boom town of sorts.  Rents went through the roof.  Workers got good wages and spent frivolously in the expectation that there would be more to come.  After Pearl Harbor was attacked, the US Navy apparently thought better of building a similarly vulnerable facility on the other side of the world and the project was abandoned.

Puerto Rico’s trade winds blow from the east, so the west side of Mosquito Pier is quite calm.  Our guide, Kelena, parked at a spot with steps leading down to the water.  She applied Johnson’s Baby Shampoo to the inside of the facepiece, which is an effective anti-fogging agent.   Having my nose closed off by the facepiece took some getting used to, but I am pleased to report that the snorkel does indeed keep you from breathing water.  Also, I have to say, those cetaceans are actually on to something; fins make swimming a breeze and treading water effortless.  Mosquito Pier has a lot of colorful fish and some coral, sea urchins, and sea stars.  Kelena led us under a small pier (an actual pier) jutting to the northwest off the breakwater.  The barnacle-covered pillars were rich with fish and as it turned out, frequented by one or two sea turtles.

Sea turtle at Mosquito Pier...don't mind the noise from the contrast boost...
Sea turtle at Mosquito Pier…don’t mind the noise from the contrast boost…

I’ve had a waterproof Canon D10 compact digital camera for a few years now, but had never attempted to use it outside a swimming pool before.  It’s rated to 33’.  Actually, it’s just as well that I tried it in a swimming pool first.  The last time I used it, the camera shut down after about 15 minutes underwater when water began to leak through the “waterproof” cover over the AV port.  Fortunately after a day drying in a bowl of rice the camera was good as new.  Since the cover mostly functioned, I decided to try covering it with electrical tape, reasoning that it might keep the cover in place and act as a second seal.  The tape held in extended use in the pool and I am pleased to report that there were no problems with prolonged use in the Atlantic Ocean either.

The camera has an underwater scene mode that changes the white balance to a very warm setting.  That provides a somewhat more natural look to photos that would otherwise be subdued blues and greens with low contrast.  Still, I found that most images taken in all but the shallowest water needed some processing in Photoshop.  It’s a shame the camera doesn’t shoot RAW, but tweaking the Levels in Photoshop Elements improved most of the images without significant degradation.  Unfortunately, the sea turtles we saw were relatively far away and processing the low contrast images enough to see much detail made for a really noisy and low quality shot.

Ruins at the bend in the road just west of the restricted ROTHR facility
Ruins at the bend in the road just west of the restricted ROTHR facility

Becoming a Mosquito Buffet

The cartoony, not-to-scale tourist map showed the ruins of the sugar mill near Playa Grande on a road just off PR-200.  Thursday morning I set out to find it.  I found one building which may have been part of the complex next to the road near the gate to the ROTHR facility.  I set out to find others by taking a brief hike down a road so rutted I had to back off an attempt to drive it in my Jeep.  I then had an “Idiot Ball” moment when I decided that since I was only going to walk a few minutes, I didn’t apply the bug repellent or take the jacket I had in the car.  I was soon constantly swatting off mosquitos that were going for the exposed skin on my arms.  I thought I was doing a pretty good job but the thirty-some bites that appeared later that evening would tend to suggest otherwise.  The worst part is, I didn’t find any other ruins and the only interesting thing about the hike was that it provided a pretty good view of Mt. Pirata- not that it isn’t visible from virtually everywhere else on the west side of the island.  If I come back, I’ll have to try to take a guided tour…and bring plenty of DEET.

Horseback riding in the hills northwest of Esperanza
Horseback riding in the hills northwest of Esperanza

Horseback Riding with Esperanza Riding Company

On Thursday afternoon we went on a tour by horseback at Esperanza Riding Company ($80 cash/person group tour, $110 cash/person private tour, 2 hours).  We’d signed up for the private tour because the afternoon group lesson was already full, but I think the individual attention was really worth the extra $30 a person, especially considering I was a first time rider.  ERC has Pano Fino horses, which I’m told have a unique gait.  My horse Pepé is described on ERC’s website as:

“A gentleman in all aspects. Pepe’ is a blast to ride with his high head-set, smooth paso and beautiful, snappy knee action. You won’t be left behind!”

The last part was prophetic, as it seems that Pepé does not like to be left behind.  He has other dislikes as well, including but not limited to foals and waves, but that’s another story.  Maybe five minutes into the ride, Pepé broke into a run down into a gully when the other horses got too far in front.  I started to tilt to one side and almost fell off!  Now, the ERC ladies had briefed us about staying secure in the saddle by keeping your heels down in the stirrups.  I also could have regained control by pulling back on the reins to slow him down.  At that time, however, those techniques were not yet instinctive.

Crossing a road, we headed toward a beach when we came across a family of free-range horses with a newborn foal.  Our guide thought it had probably been born that same day based on how wet it was.  She dismounted to shoo the happy family away.  I was worried Mama Horse might take offense and charge, but she was mellow.  Pepé, on the other hand, seemed creeped out by this unnaturally small horse-thing on the trail in front of him.  He started snorting and I swear he almost reared up (Rachel claims I exaggerate about that).  Pepé may be a gentleman but it seems he plans to be a bachelor all his life.  The devilish creature removed from his path, Pepé calmed down and we continued on to a beach with a view west to the Playa Grande area and east to Esperanza and the two Cayos offshore.  Our guide pointed out some cotton plants that remained, sprouting a few pitiful white fibers, even though the crop hadn’t been cultivated on Vieques in decades.

Horse at the Esperanza Riding Company pasture
Horse at the Esperanza Riding Company pasture

We headed through an Esperanza neighborhood and up into the hills.  Once I got the hang of it, it was quite a lot of fun when the horses increased speed to that “smooth paso”.  As our guide said, keep those heels down and you stay secure in the saddle.  We descended to Playa Negra- our guide said its black sand is actually magnetic.  My third scare of the day occurred when we crossed a rocky area where the horses couldn’t get too far inland.  Pepé did not like the waves washing over his legs and when he took evasive maneuvers my feet slipped somewhat in the stirrups even as I tried to keep my heels down.  After a few long moments, we cleared the waves and headed uphill again into ERC’s expansive pasture and back to the lot.  The ride lasted about two hours and was about a five mile loop.

Series about Puerto Rico

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