Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fascinating Forts and Dino Magic

Greetings All,
We have spent the last few days exploring Puerto Rico.  Yesterday we visited Old San Juan.  There is a lot of history here including two forts that were built in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.  The first one we visited was Fort San Cristobal.  It was built by the Spanish from 1765 to 1783 to protect the city of San Juan from land-based attacks.  We entered the fort through a tunnel and stopped at the dungeon where prisoners drew ships on the wall while waiting to be released.


The impressive stone walls are as high as 150 feet and garitas or sentry boxes are built onto the outer walls.  On the eastern corner of the fort is the Garita del Diablo.

Legend has it that sentries would disappear from here presumably taken by the devil.  The living quarters were set up to show where the soldiers slept.  Wooden bunks lay side by side with woolen blankets and the soldiers' hats and other belongings set at the foot of each bed.  Uniforms hung from pegs on the wall behind the bunks.

From Fort San Cristobal we walked to Castillo San Filipe de Morro (El Morro).

This imposing citadel stands guard over San Juan Harbor.  The Spanish started construction in 1539 and many enlargements and modifications have been made over the years.   The lighthouse was rebuilt by the US in 1908 after being damaged during the Spanish-American war in 1898.  The war ended with the signing of Treaty of Paris. Spain ceded ownership of the islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam and the Philippines to the United States.  The lighthouse has recently been refurbished.

A unique triangular staircase was used by the soldiers to get from level to level.

We just happened to be visiting during the reenactment of the Battle of 1797.  The  British Navy, under orders given by Sir Ralph Abercrombie, attacked the Port of San Juan back in 1797. To commemorate that event, a reenactment is held each year in Old San Juan, usually on the last weekend of April.  Men and women were dressed in the uniforms and clothing of the period.  They marched in formation to the beat of drums and stopped in front of us.  

The reenactors demonstrated how they loaded and fired their muskets and canons.  I couldn't believe how loud they were.  I had to plug my ears.

The event really brought the fort to life and we learned a bit of history to boot.
Last night we visited one of Puerto Rico's bio-luminescent bays, Laguna Grande.  We opted to take an electric boat that holds up to 6 passengers rather than a kayak.  There are now 9 companies offering kayak tours in the bay.  They can take up to 30 kayaks each so it has created a major kayak jam.  You have to negotiate a narrow mangrove channel in the dark to get into the bay.  As we were going in, hundreds of kayaks were coming out.  It was a bit hectic with inexperienced kayakers hitting each other, running into the mangroves and even hitting us.  Once into the bay all the kayakers were gone and peace and quiet resumed.  We were given plastic wands to stick into the water.  As we swirled them around the boat, the water glowed!  Millions of single-celled organisms called dinoflagellates were emitting light in response to the friction we were creating.  I scooped up some water with my hand and it sparkled like glitter, Dino Magic!
It's difficult to photograph this phenomenon but Marc gave it his best shot.

Enough for now.  We're finishing up with some hiking in El Yunque National Forest and a visit to another bio-bay.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Friday, April 26, 2013

Champagne Beach and Boiling Lake

Greetings All,
Our trip to Dominica is coming to an end.  Heavy rain continued to plague us during most of our stay but we managed to get a few more activities in.  On Tuesday we visited Champagne Beach.

The draw here is the unique opportunity to swim through bubbles caused by gas escaping from underwater vents. We pretty much had the beach to ourselves and with a snorkel, fins and my trusty life jacket set off to explore the bay.  There were many colorful fish, yellow tube sponges, spiky sea urchins, fan corrals and an eel.  I wish we had an underwater camera to capture some of the beautiful creatures that live here.  Marc managed to photograph some of the bubbles with my point and shoot.

After snorkeling, we went whale watching out of Roseau.  We grabbed front row seats and pulled out our cameras and binoculars.  We were ready but where were the whales?  We searched for four hours cruising along the shore of Dominica, first south than north, but we didn't spot a whale or even a dolphin.  Marc had to settle for photographing flying fish.

We returned to the dock an hour late, just as the lights of Roseau flickered on.

A couple of days ago we took a short hike on the Glasse Trail.  The trail used to be a road that was used by fisherman to get their boats into the Atlantic.  After a few too many hurricanes, the village decided to abandon fishing.  The trail led down through rainforest to the coast.  The Atlantic Ocean crashed against the rugged cliffs.  There were a few pools carved out of volcanic rock.  

A small flock of White-tailed Tropicbirds soared around the cliffs where they were nesting.  Dr. Birdy tried to show us these birds when we were on our birding tour but they weren't around.

Since the chance of hiking to Victoria Falls was slim (there's still too much water in the river) we decided to try our luck at whale watching again.  With a 80% change of seeing whales we couldn't be unlucky two days in a row.  We grabbed our front row seats again and had high hopes but after several attempts to pick up the whale's clicks on the hydro phone we knew our chances were diminishing.  I had given up hope of seeing anything when a woman pointed out tiny brown fins in the water.  I caught a glimpse and Marc missed them entirely.  They dove down and we did not see them again.  According to the crew they were Pygmy Killer Whales.  Although not the sperm whales we were hoping to see, they were a new species for me.  We headed back to Roseau which was in the clear but the mountains remained cloaked in clouds

Yesterday was our last full day on Dominica.  We saved the best for last, a 6-hour hike to the Valley of Desolation and the Boiling Lake.  We set out at 7:30 and drove for a hour and a half.  It had rained during the night but appeared to be clearing up.  We had high hopes as we set out with our guide, a French couple and another couple from the US.  We climbed log stairs through rainforest then down again to cross a river.  We could hop across on rocks.  As we climbed higher, it started to rain in earnest.  We gave up trying to keep our boots dry and splashed on through water that now flowed down the trail.  We caught a glimpse of the steam rising from the Boiling Lake  below us.  The lake is a flooded volcanic fumarole heated by gas and molten magma beneath the Earth's crust.  Look closely between the rain drops.  The Valley of Desolation is the barren area on the right and you can just make out the steam from the Boiling Lake on the left.  

We started our decent into the Valley of Desolation and were met by another French couple and their guide that had passed us earlier.  Why were they returning?  With all this rain their guide felt it too dangerous to continue.  Carlos, our guide agreed that the threat of a landslide had become too great to risk.  I looked forlornly at The Valley of Desolation and knew it was the right call.

We headed back down and reached the river crossing.  The water had risen and the others in front of us were crossing on a tree that had fallen over the river!  I followed them, sitting on the tree and skooching across on my butt.  The vines snagged my shorts and scratched my legs but we made it across.

Trenches cut along the trail keep a lot of water off the trail but it was still slippery and you had to watch every step.

We finally returned to the truck and wrapped ourselves in yellow beach towels for the long drive back to the lodge in the open back of the truck.  Despite all the rain we had a good trip.  Dominica is a fascinating place to visit.  We'll return one day to give whale watching another try, to get to the Boiling Lake and to visit the tiny tree frogs that sang us to sleep every night. 

We're on our way to Puerto Rico now.  We hope it isn't as wet!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Monday, April 22, 2013

Dominica Deluge

Greetings All,
We are on the tiny island of Dominica in the eastern Caribbean.  We so much enjoyed whale watching in New Zealand that when we arrived home I did an Internet search on other places in the world you can see Sperm Whales.  Dominica popped up.  It's surprising how many similarities Dominica has to New Zealand.  Both have a deep water canyon off shore which attracts whales and dolphins, both have boiling lakes (New Zealand has the largest and Dominica has the second largest in the world) and both countries have tree ferns.

So here we are in Dominica for a week. We arrived Thurs. night and up until today it has been raining cats and dogs.   Not the brief showers you commonly get in the tropics but torrential downpours that wash out roads and hiking trails and swell rivers to the point of flooding.... and this is the dry season!  We have managed to do some short tours around the lodge.  Friday we went into the tiny town of Delices to visit a local home and family business.  Joseph along with his wife and six children grow and process a plant that is locally known as Torloma.  

Joseph's wife holding a Torloma Plant
The tubers are harvested, washed and ground into a pulp.  The pulp is suspended in water and the starch settles to the bottom of a large blue barrel.   It is dried then ground into a flour to make cereal or thickener for gravy.

Joseph's daughter next to the finished product

It's amazing how people living in the tropics all around the world use a similar process for extracting starch from plants such as cassava, manioc, false banana and palm.  The end result doesn't have much nutritional value but has lots of calories and fills you up.

Saturday we visited the capital city of Roseau to take in the market and to visit Trafalgar Falls.  With all the recent rain, these were the only falls that we could safely walk to.  Water thundered over the falls dropping 200 feet onto the rocks below.

Trafalgar Falls

Yesterday we were able to go birding in Morne Diablotin National Park with Bertrand Jno Baptiste aka Dr. Birdy.  He is Dominica's foremost ornithologist and has written a guide on the birds of Dominica. We were in search of Dominica's  two endemic parrots.  After much searching we spotted a Sisserou or Imperial Parrot from a viewpoint.  There are only 300 of these birds left in the wild.  She was across the valley, about 400 meters away, feeding on the fruits of a tree.  She was difficult to photograph as she bobbed up and down on the branch, a real test for Marc's new camera and zoom lens.

Sisserou or Imperial Parrot

The second endemic parrot, a Jaco or Red-necked Parrot, was much closer.  They are more common than the Sisserou with about 3500 Red-necked Parrots in the wild.  A small flock were feeding on spiky fruit in a tree next to the road.

 Spiky fruit that the Red-necked Parrots were Feeding On

Jaco or Red-necked Parrot

We saw a host of other birds (humming birds, thrushes, warblers, hawks and doves) and two Agouti, a large rodent introduced from Central America.


Today we were actually able to do a hike from the lodge without getting wet.  We got our first view of the surrounding rugged mountains.

We encountered some of the local critters along our route.  The first was a freshwater crab with just one claw.  The second is a little snake that we met on the path to our cabin.

We're hoping that the weather and water clarity will continue to improve and that we'll be able to go snorkeling at Champagne Beach tomorrow.  There is an underwater volcanic vent here and you can swim through the bubbles without getting boiled I hope.  There are also seahorses, octopus and turtles.  In the afternoon we hope to go whale watching.  If all else fails we can hang out in my lounge drinking local rum and beer!

We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc