The Great Guanica Accidental Off-Trail Trek of 2008
So, OK, this happened on December 22, 2008, just four days ago as I write this; not long enough for the scratches to have healed or the ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

My family and I live in Ponce, Puerto Rico. We're not the most active people in the world, but we like to hike. And for some reason, even though it's pretty close to Ponce, we just hadn't been over to the Dry Forest of Guanica since a short visit just after we moved here. So this winter (ha, ha, "winter", but I digress) we decided to correct that.

Our first foray was quite short, just a brief walk around close to the parking lot. So on our second trip, we decided to go a little further. Little did we know that this innocent decision would be our downfall. Here. Look at this trail map:

On our first brief walk, which was fantastic -- lots of butterflies, fascinating plants, and so on -- we started at the little house icon roughly in the center of the map, which is the parking lot, and just went up the unnamed trail towards La Vigia (the lookout), then returned on Granados. We didn't have time to go up to La Vigia, because we'd arrived too late; the park closes at 4:00 PM. So on our second trip, we definitely wanted to check out the lookout, but we wanted to get a little more of an actual hike in, too.

So we decided, on the basis of its romantic name, to go down Dinamita (our nine-year-old thought that sounded pretty cool), then back up Cueva, visit La Vigia, then come back to the parking lot and head home.

Later, when the rangers asked us which trail we took, they said, "But Dinamita doesn't go anywhere -- it's a dead end." I showed them the map. They had no real answer to that, but it got some good laughs. But I'm getting ahead of myself again.

We set off in high spirits shortly before 2:00 in the afternoon, with one bottle of water for the nine-year-old, expecting an hour, maybe an hour and a half of hike. The dog, as always, was excited to be participating, and the "secondary road" trails are excellent in the Bosque Seco.

When we got to the "trail" section, as expected, the trail narrowed, but was still quite clear. Our daughter went out ahead, and my wife and I trailed a bit behind, talking about nothing in particular. We admired the 500 different species of plants, saw some new colors of butterfly, were astounded at the most peculiar spiderweb we'd ever seen (basket-shaped, with a regular grid on the floor, and a huge foot-wide cloud of webbing above it).

And at some point, maybe a quarter after two, our daughter said, "Hey, I'm not sure where the trail goes from here."

Now, let me explain a little bit about the Dry Forest. It's a UN Biosphere Preserve, and it has a vast number of different kinds of plant. I'm talking new-PhD levels of vastness here. It's like walking through a different biome every ten feet. And it's patchy: most of the soil is rock, and where it's not rock, it's about half an inch thick before hitting rock. So there are clearings, more or less, separated by little corridors of plants, and each corridor of plants is a different species.

Oh, there are repeats, of course. But I want you to get a feel for the fact that once the trail gets to be an unmaintained two feet wide, the whole damn forest looks like trails. So we assumed we'd just strayed to the side of the actual trail -- which was, after all, marked on the map, thus had to be there -- and if we tended in that same general direction, how hard could it be? We were halfway to Cueva, which would be a "secondary road" again.


So off we set, navigating by the sun, in a general easterly direction. We climbed onto a small bluff, but couldn't see much. So we decided to trend uphill while still maintaining our easterly direction, to see if we could see the trail anywhere. (This turned out to be naive.) Passing from a rocky outcrop with cactus under a large tree with no underbrush, we walked up a gentle slope to a local peak, which was ... let me digress a little again.

The rock of the ground had been flat, slab-like limestone. Now, down at the beach, where we have been several times (very nice beaches off 333 east of Guanica), the rock is pitted, rising to knife-like edges, and I had always assumed that the sea had done that, making the rounded hollows in some way, and leaving thin, very sharp walls between them. This may actually be the case, but if so, the sea level in Puerto Rico has been much higher in the past. I don't know. I don't think it was the sea, but I haven't seen limestone do this elsewhere.

So on this little local peak, which was relatively vegetation-free save for some healthy-looking large cactus, we were walking on knives. If you fall, you're going to regret it. (I'll alleviate a little tension at this point by saying that none of us fell, all day long -- but knowing that you couldn't made things more stressful.)

From the top, we could see ... the Caribbean, to our south, including Punta Ballena, and another ridge to our east. And no trail at all. And the other side of our ridge was utterly impassible, a dense thicket of vines and thornbushes that would be difficult in armor, but the boy and I were wearing shorts and short sleeves.

So that was out. We decided to move southeast along the ridge, and work our way eastwards; this way, according to the map, either we'd regain Dinamita to our south, or at worst we'd find Cueva to our east.

It sounds good, right? It's about 2:30 at this point. No real worries.

So we moved down the ridge. And moved, and moved. And there was no trail. At all. There were several thorny bushes we were learning to avoid, though. The one that really got my attention is this one:

The picture links to the Flickr page where I found it. Don't follow the link if you don't want a spoiler, but I don't want to appropriate it without due credit. It's a lovely bush. They call it "Christmas Bush" in the Virgin Islands. I just called it "those weird leaves with the spines on the corners that keep sticking me in the hands," and we learned to hate it. Those spines hurt!

But aside from that, the ridge was rocky and pretty easy to get down, so we did. And then we came to a point where we could see over the valley we were moving along, and it opened towards the south, with a perfect view of the public beach maintained by the park. Now, Cueva starts at that beach and leads north, so we knew where we were. But we couldn't see Cueva anywhere. (Yes, I wish I'd taken the camera, since I'll never see this vista again, God willing.)

Striking across to Cueva no longer seemed as easy as we'd thought, and we could see the beach, and by extension, the beach road (333) which goes along the entire beach. It was obvious that as soon as we got down into the thicker vegetation, we wouldn't be able to see the beach anymore, so logic told us that heading downhill towards a long horizontal line with pavement was probably our best strategy, given that it was equally obvious that we were never going to be able to retrace our steps back to where we'd started. And we should pick up Dinamita again. Although I was starting to think that we'd somehow gotten south of Dinamita, and I was starting to wish that the trail map had topographical markings.

But it continued not to. So we struck off south. I was getting pretty stressed at this point. The park closes at 4:00, although it was a Monday and I could at least hope that the hours were different, that they might not close until 6:00 (a vain hope, as it turned out). But what choice did we have?

Well. Downhill would be easy, at least. (Don't laugh.) So we set out.

And immediately came to a six-foot dropoff made of knives. South of us was impenetrable thorny vines, uphill was worse. So down the knives it was, carefully keeping weight only on our feet. The dog was a little worried, but still, as always, happy to be invited to join us. And we were down.

At this point, I will gloss over the next hour. Suffice it to say that we descended maybe a hundred feet, some of it along a dry ravine under large trees, and that the rock was made of knives the entire way. The dry ravine was a godsend. It was easy and free of underbrush. And at the end of it, we were more or less on the flats. The descent itself was hairy enough that later that evening, asleep in my own bed, I kept waking up from dreams of branches flying into my face and poking into my chest.

The worst part of the descent, though, was knowing that we were at least two hours from the beach, and that the sun was setting. In the darkness, there would be no way of proceeding, and twilight comes basically at 6:30 here year round, with full darkness by 7:00. So if we didn't make it on time, we were probably going to have a long, cold night. Sitting on knives. With a nine-year-old boy. And one bottle of water for the four of us, and not much chance of making a fire without setting fire to the entire park, killing us all. They don't call it the Dry Forest for nothing.

Oh, the other worst part is that the Dry Forest is on the south side of a nice tall ridge across the south side of the island, and all the cities in the vicinity are on the other side of that ridge. And the mobile cell towers are along the Expressway and in the Cordillera Central. On the other side of the ridge. So there is no signal anywhere along there.

So. By 5:00 or so, we were on the flats, and much more relaxed. We figured the rangers had locked our car in for the night, but at least we were likely to survive without spending the night sitting on knives. I harbored the private worry that the rangers were concerned, but my wife said, "Don't be ridiculous; they've gone home." Sigh. That would indeed have been less embarrassing. We could have stayed the night at the Copacabana Beach Resort, called the park, and hiked up to the parking lot in the morning. But that was not to be, as we shall see.

The flats are basically thickets of cactus bound together by vines and thornbushes. So it was more twisty passages all alike, but we were close enough to hear surf now, and we knew we weren't going the wrong way.

At 6:02, scratched and covered with dry bits of leaf and three species of burr, we staggered out onto the beach road, put the dog on her leash, and felt connected to civilization again. We found three guys who'd been working in Guayama and had headed to the beach for their last day on island, and they consented to take us back up to see if our car was locked in for the night. By 6:30 we'd gotten loaded up, they'd given us the best damn cold water I've ever tasted, and the seven of us (to say nothing of the dog) were in their car heading up the hill.

It was full dark, about 7:00, when we got to the parking lot. A single pair of headlights had followed us through the park, and the parking lot attendant ranger was none too happy when we got out of the car. "We close at 4:00! Don't you know that? It's too late! I've been up and down every trail looking for you!" And his boss, who was the pair of headlights behind us, having just been called that some damn yanquis had gotten lost in the park, asked us, "Just what trail did you take?"

So we showed him the twenty-six 8x10 glossy color photographs with circles and arrows on each one and started telling him the whole lost off-trail trek massacree in four-part harmony, and he stopped us right there and said, "But that trail doesn't go anywhere, it dead ends."

That's when I pulled out the map, which was ragged and sweaty (the scan you see above was taken the day before this story), and showed him the single-line trail that meets up with Cueva. And that's when they all laughed in relief, and we thanked our benefactors with the car, and went down and got some food at Burger King and laughed at my impressive collection of scratches from bulling through the underbrush in shorts, holding branches down or to the side for the kids. And a fine time was had by all! Except the rangers, who spent many hours looking for us on trails we had long since lost. Our dog, a Jack Russell terrier, is hard to tire out, but she slept through the next day, getting up only to hobble around a little and eat.

Not quite the end of the story, though. Two days later, I figured the itch behind my ear must be a spider bite, because it was flatter than a mosquito bite. The following day, though, I had a sinking feeling of epiphany, and did some Googling.

I'm sensitive to poison ivy, and in Indiana, I steer well clear of it (yes, I'm good at recognizing the plants of Indiana, skills which help me not one bit in the Caribbean). There is no poison ivy in Puerto Rico. But that bush I have a picture of, up above? With the thorns? It's Comocladia dodonaea, Christmas Bush, or sometimes, "poison ash". It's not the same genus, but it still has urushiol in it. Today, December 26, I'm a walking case study of plant contact dermatitis.

So as far as I'm concerned, the UN can damn well keep that place. But we're still going back to find La Vigia sometime soon. It's a lovely park.

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