As the plane thumps onto the runway in San Juan, Puerto Rico and shudders to a stop at the terminal, passengers break into relieved applause. I sense the anticipation of far-flung family members arriving home to celebrate the upcoming holiday of Día De Los Reyes (Three Kings Day). In much of the Caribbean and Latin America, the Feast of the Epiphany marks the tradition of the three wise men bringing gifts to the Christ Child on the twelve day after his birth. Children put shoeboxes under their beds, stuffed with straw for the kings’ camels, and pull them out in the morning to find three gifts. Families and friends gather for a festive day of music, singing and dancing. A popular traditional food is Rosca de Reyes, a sweet bread formed into the shape of crown, adorned with dried fruits, and a small figure of baby Jesus baked inside. According to custom, whoever finds the figurine enjoys good luck.
Leaving the airport, my husband and I navigate the rental car through a maze of San Juan traffic, heading 150-km to the western edge of the island. Caught in a clot of cars, we jockey for position alongside energetic drivers darting into any open space with little heed to the lane lines.
Arriving in the small surfing town of Rincón, our hotel is surrounded by swaying palm trees and fuchsia bougainvillea, overlooking a sprawling hill of tropical vegetation and the lone silhouette of the Punta Higüero Lighthouse. On the horizon, Desecheo Island is a deep-violet mound looming against the blaze of the setting sun.
The next day, I cling to the bow of a Taino Divers scuba boat as Captain Carson plows twelve miles across the Mona Passage towards the island. Huge cresting swells form from variable tidal currents caught in the strait between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. My body levitates briefly each time the boat heaves up a wave and crashes down the backside with a sickening thud. Far below the surface the seafloor plummets into the yawning depths of the Puerto Rico Trench, stretching 170-miles along the tectonic plate, and reaching 27,600-feet at the Milwaukee Deep. After thirty minutes of riding the roller-coaster surf, the boat anchors in the calm leeward side of Desecheo Island and I plunge into the shimmering aqua waters. The 1.5-km island has no natural water source and limited vegetation. With little soil run-off, the visibility of the water reliability reaches a translucent 150-feet. Suspended in liquid glass, I feel like I am flying.
Dive master Jari leads the way across a garden seascape bursting with color and texture. Sprays of lavender fans and mossy sea-grasses sway in the gentle currents. Crooked cactus fingers branch skywards and the white corrugated grooves of brain-coral glisten in the filtered rays of light. Burnt-orange vessels hold tiny fish sporting luminescent cobalt spots. The pinched planes of puffer fish peek out from craggy ledges, and caverns, undercut by the ceaseless tides, shelter schools of rainbow-stripped parrotfish.
Thin, silvery barracuda hover with a menacing glint of sharp teeth. Languid turtles glide by on mottled fins. I revel in the beauty of this pristine, off-the-beaten-path, dive spot.
The following day, we drive inland through karst country, weaving around a maze of small vegetation-covered mounds called mogotes. The undulating shape of the karstic hillocks are formed when water pools into the limestone, eroding the rock into ever-larger basins, eventually leaving a small crest of rock in between the sinkholes. Our destination is Parque de las Cavernas del Río Camuy (Camuy River Cave Park), one of the largest cave systems in the world. The underground river has carved away the limestone to form a network of caverns, grottos and subterranean waterways. Archaeological evidence suggests the Taíno Indians, Puerto Rico’s indigenous people, explored many of the caves. Today the 268-acre park caters to 1,500 daily visitors and provides tram-accessed tours featuring the larger caves and sinkholes.
Our guide is a dapper Puerto Rican gentleman named Jesus Peñas. Switching fluently between Spanish and English, he shares the mantra of the tour, “Take nothing but photos. Leave nothing but footprints. Waste nothing but time”. Pretty sound philosophy for travel, really.
Walking gingerly through the cool, damp caverns, I listen to the drip of the stalactites echo against the glistening walls. The network of caves and passageways open up into the yawning Cueva Clara, stretching 695-ft (210-meter) long and 170-ft (52-meter) high . Further along the passageway, foliage-encircled sinkholes, formed when the limestone roof collapsed, create skylights into the underground network. Back on the surface, I peer down from towering limestone cliffs into crater-like sinkholes, now overgrown with trees, and ponder the power of moving water.
Our final destination is the Arecibo Observatory; the largest radio telescope on earth with a special Hollywood bond with, well… James Bond. The 1995 Bond movie, “Golden Eye”, starring Pierce Brosnan, was filmed using the observatory’s 305 m (1,000 ft) dish as a backdrop. The single-aperture telescope is so sensitive, it can listen to emissions from 13 billion light years away. Arecibo claims numerous astronomical breakthroughs, including Alexander Wolszcan’s 1992 discovery of planets outside earth’s solar system. Guests stagger up a steep incline to reach the entrance and climb clanging metal stairs to a viewing platform. The giant dish is completely surrounded by a rolling jungle of karst hills for as far as the eye can see. Inside, the Cornell University-funded visitors center offers scientific exhibits, a museum and gift-shop to fascinate, educate and amuse.
That night, we dine alfresco on lechón asado with a zesty sofrito sauce, listening to the surf lapping the beach below the restaurant and relaxing in the warm, tropical breeze. During our Día De Los Reyes visit, Puerto Rico has gifted us with three unforgettable travel experiences, each representing the farthest reaches – underwater, underground and outer space – of this unique, multi-faceted jewel of an island.