Sunday, April 24, 2011

Puerto Rico - Two Weeks in Ponce & Ceiba

April 24, 2011 Easter Sunday

 Pulling anchor early, we cruised along the western coast to Ponce Yacht & Fishing Club on the southern coast.   The marina is nice, but we think way overpriced!  Many of the facilities are closed, including the restaurant and it is a long way from anywhere.
However, we have no options as we must be in San Juan tomorrow for Andy’s doctor appointment.  The next marina is a day’s travel up to Fajardo from here and we've run out of time!    We shall drive to San Juan with friends who live here and are helping us out.

Olga Lebron Colon  & Sam Colon
My friend from my days at Novartis, Olga Lebron and her husband, Sam Colon, met us at the Ponce Yacht Club, spending the night on board.  It is so wonderful to catch up with friends!
Our visit, however, had a bit of an ominous  overtone.  Andy’s heart has been giving me concern -- remember my comments about him having a heart attack after walking to Customs/Immigration on Turks & Caicos?  Well, a couple more of those episodes upon milder exertion worried me.

At my request, Olga had made arrangements for him to see a Cardiologist in San Juan on Monday.  She and Sam took us there, translated everything for us and helped us navigate the medical system.

Yup, four days of medical tests, including echo cardiograms, nuclear stress tests, etc. and a cardiac catherization on Friday turned up an electrical problem with the heart but no blockages and no damage to the heart.  We hope the meds prescribed for this will do the trick, with no further interventions needed. 

Statutes in the park next to our Hotel in  San Juan
A group of really great statutes

Don't know what they depict but like the statutes in the Park

We stayed at a wonderful first class, but pricy, old hotel in Old San Juan (the Convento Hotel - a former convent) and walked around a bit on Monday night and Tuesday afternoon after tests.

Old San Juan
The Old San Juan 'Castillo El Moro'

Cemetery at edge of Old San Juan Fort

Same cemetery Note how different these are from the USA ones

We then moved into Olga’s house for the remainder of the week and to complete all the medical tests scheduled every day for the remainder of the week.  She and Sam were over the top wonderful, staying with us the entire week, driving us around, translating everything, feeding us and keeping us.  What friends!  We would have been crazed without them. 

Cardiovascular Center, Puerto Rico

I could not even fill out the paperwork as it was all Spanish!   Long story short, the physicians were first class & speak English extremely well; the treatment received excellent; everyone more than helpful in spite of the language difficulty and Medicare and Tricare are accepted here as PR is considered USA.

A couple of the differences in culture and medical practice, however, made us pause and ultimately giggle.  When one checks into the hospital we had to bring our own pillow, our own blanket and a urinal for Andy.  Too funny........  Also, there are no appointments to see the doctor.  You have an appointment for the specific day (I think) but no time.  Just show up whenever and WAIT... sometimes for hours.  Also, when one enters the waiting room, each person loudly and thoroughly greets the other patients sitting there... Good Day!  Each patient answers back, Good day.   Elevators are the same way - friendly greetings abound.  We should be so friendly in the USA!

We will now stay in Puerto Rico until after a checkup on May 11 with the Cardiologist who did the heart cath.  This puts a squeeze on our travel to Grenada, with a June 1 date looming for our arrival there due to insurance requirements to get us below the hurricane belt.    I am attempting to work out a mutual agreement with our boat insurance company to get the proper coverage.  If we are not where we are supposed to be, we are in breach of warranty and have NO insurance for anything that goes wrong...not just no insurance if hit by a hurricane.

May 1, 2011 Sunday

Departing San Juan a day after his cardiac catherization and back on Finally Fun a week after we left Ponce, Andy slept for hours and then on through the night.
 Andy departing Cardiovascular Center

All is well, he feels fine expect for pain in the groin from the incision.

We are hanging out, resting and catching up with family via our new GO PHONE we just bought.  Communication is still difficult.  We can’t purchase a SIM card here for our new unlocked phone as this area has coverage by ATT and they don’t allow such things.    It is all about the money - they want everyone to sign up for their annual contracts.  So, finally, with the help of Olga’s technowiz daughters, we learned that there is a GO Phone.  For $25 we bought the phone, filled it with minutes purchased separately and no plan required.  It is $2 a day IF you use the phone (incoming or outgoing data or call).  If not used, no $2 fee for that day.  This is a pretty good deal for us as it will only work here in PR and in the US Virgin Islands  and of course, in the States-- all USA. Once we are out of USVI, we will again be without phone till we get to Grenada and can purchase a SIM card and minutes.  We cannot figure out any other international system....and a Satellite Phone at $1,000 plus about $2 a minute is more than we want to pay.  In the interim, we will certainly get our $2 a day worth of phone calls!

May 10, 2011 - Catching Up

In spite of the anxiety surrounding Andy’s newly developed irregular heart beats, which the medication is now controlling,  we’ve had the opportunity to explore more of Puerto Rico, while we waited for the ‘release’ from the doctor, so all has been good.

Ponce's finest Police Force

The Yacht Club had a family festival, complete with slides and jumping booths for the kids and food booths.  We wandered about, enjoying the show and meeting locals and eating the local food.

 Andy made a lot of new friends at Ponce Yacht Club festival!  I liked their uniforms!!

Sharon loves their uniforms!

Andy conversing with a statute in Ponce.  Maybe it is his new medication!! 
We ultimately moved the boat closer to San Juan, to Fajardo at the Marina del Rey, a full day of cruising for us.  A great place, cited as ‘the largest marina in the Caribbean’.  Prices were much more reasonable than at Ponce.

We will not take the boat to San Juan, yet another full day of cruising.  To get there would put us north of the route we wish to take to the USVI and also place us back in the Atlantic Ocean on the northern side of PR with too much big wave action,  and too many rocks and reefs to dance among.  Most boaters avoid that northern coast altogether.

Renting a car for a few days, we packed a bag, planning to drive 165 miles east to west along the central mountain (Cordillera Central) range, spending the night along the road somewhere.  Five hours later and not that many miles from the marina, high up the mountains, we twisted, turned  and went up/down at 25 MPH along the scenic rural roads, reversing ourselves more than once -- lost over and over.
Up in the mountains
Our map is poor, no GPS and  with limited ability to understand any of the road signs, we wandered about.  Ah well, we really did not care, for we were seeing the interior of PR and certainly not the tourist traps.

Guavate Traffic Jam
We rounded a corner on the highway and found ourselves in a huge traffic jam in what we thought was the middle of nowhere.

Ahhhh, we had stumbled into Guavate!  As luck would have it, we were in Guavate ON A SUNDAY.  Even better, it was Mother’s Day.  The little town was packed with people, cars lining both sides of the road for a mile in both directions and with little kiosks lining the streets selling all kinds of ‘stuff’, including trinkets and drinks.

The rest of him must have been an earlier dinner 


This town is noted for the pigs that are marinated for 3 days and then slowly roasted on a spit over an open fire.
Note even the head is cooked on the spit

Dancing in the street
Sunday is the day families gather here.  There are at least 5-6 restaurants, very casual with open air seating and all roasting pigs.  Each also had a live band, blasting away with local singers blasting in song.  People of all ages were packed inside and out - dancing away.  We LOVED it!

Some kind of gambling game

Betting on the horses
We wandered about, taking in the sights, noises and smells.  This was people watching times ten!

So much to see


More shoes

Love their shoes

How does one walk?

Everyone under age 30 LOVES these big shoes!

Even more shoes!

We got into the longest line, figuring that the locals would know which was the best restaurant to get the pig meat from.  Over 30 minutes later, we placed our order by pointing and hoping for the best. Plopping down at a table that had some space, we ate another absolutely tasty meal of roasted pork on a spit; rice, beans, with some kind of tomala that was sweeter than a Mexican one.  Andy got a milkshake that was made with, I swear, an entire can of Coco Lopez (even buy that?  It is sweeter than Sweet & Condensed Milk and is used as the basis for many of the sweet island type drinks)  with fresh pineapple and pineapple juice.  He loved it.  All 10,000 calories of it.

Spectacular scenery from atop the mountains

After a couple of hours, we reluctantly left, knowing we still had a long way to go across the length of the mountain chain.  Not wanting to be driving in the mountains after dark, and some hours from anything remotely resembling a motel, we reluctantly turned around and went back to the boat, taking a different route.

  No matter where we looked on either route, the vistas were breathtaking.  Often one could see the Caribbean Sea from high atop the mountain and the little villages along the shore. 
In the Central Cordillera Mountains

 This is rain forest territory and lush with the trees often forming a canopy over the road.  Air plants grow all over many of the trees in sizes that made my jaw drop.

Coffee is grown along these mountains, as are root vegetables and other crops.  The villages and small homes are built along the road, with the building sticking off the side of the mountain.  I would be uncomfortable being in one - they looked scary just hanging off the mountain into space.

So beautiful.  The sea or ocean is never far away

Gorgeous scenery from atop the mountains

After spending the night on board and not in a hotel as planned, we got up the next morning, heading out again.  We gave up our idea of traversing the  Cordillera Central,  instead taking the twisting little road (#3) that parallels the shoreline from Fajardo to Ponce.

Passing through one tiny town after the other, each with a town plaza and church in the center, we again thoroughly enjoyed the excursion.

Iguana sitting on the broken palm tree at Salinas Beach

Salinas, one of the larger towns along the way, was delightful - reminding me of a NJ town on the Jersey shore.

Colorful tiny houses, packed one against the other down to the beach  with spectacular views of the Sea, a tiny marina and small ‘mountains’ off in the distance made this the perfect place to stop for lunch.

  Eating at one of the local places perched on the beach, we enjoyed the sea breeze and the view.

Several locals stopped to chat with us, practicing their English.  We learned about the taxation system in PR; why it is great to retire here, etc.  Another delightful day among friendly folks in a beautiful setting!

This is an Auto Body Parts Store

We get a kick out of the challenges a foreign language can present!

   Body parts for sale?  No - auto body parts........grin

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Mona Passage to Boqueron, Puerto Rico

April 23, 2011  Saturday
Departing this morning was a slow process.  No matter how we tried yesterday to make prior arrangements to check out of the DR (can’t do - not allowed -- ahead of time), we asked for the earliest check out.  Promised that arrangements would begin at 6:30 for us, we were pacing the deck by 6:15 am.  After numerous VHF calls and one trip to the Office, FIVE officials arrived to check us out.  Navy, Customs, Immigration and who knows who else.....and 30+ minutes later, after a required, but cursory search of our boat , we pulled out at 7:30 am.  I’m the Type A, but Type C- Andy can’t get used to this ‘island mentality’.   He was frothing....we have a very long day ahead of us through the Mona Passage to Boqueron, Puerto Rico and he is very nervous, dreading the final portion through the Mona.

April 23, 2011 Saturday afternoon
The smiling Gods were with uneventful calm cruise through the rest of the Mona Passage, passing the Island of Mona to our starboard.  So much anxiety for a nothing cruise!

Dropping the anchor in Boqueron bay along the western shore of Puerto Rico, about 3:30 PM, we settled in to relax, listening to the Puerto Rican music blasting out our way from shore.

Rounding the bend near Boqueron

A simple phone call to Custom/Immigration using our Frequent Boater Option cards cleared us - no need to go traipsing off for a long taxi ride to Mayaguez to clear (Boqueron is NOT an official port of entry - be careful if you do not have the US Frequent Boater Card - officials might get angry at you.)

Boqueron is cited as one of the most popular anchorages and places for locals to visit.  The beach was packed with people and the music blared into well after 3:00 AM!!  Ah, well, we love the local culture.  My friend who lives on the Island told me that as this has been Holy Week before Easter Sunday, Puerto Ricans spend the week going to Church, especially on Good Friday.  They are ready to party by Saturday night, before going back to Church on Sunday.  Party they DID!  Too bad we were too tired to dingy in to join them!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Mona Passage to Cap Cana, Dominican Republic

April 22, 2011
Silently pulling out at 6:00 AM, we headed out Samana Bay into the Atlantic and across part of the dreaded Mona Passage.   Andy hasn’t slept well for days, dreading this portion of the trip.  The Mona Passage has a terrible reputation as a potentially very dangerous crossing, with unpredictable currents everywhere and rough shoals, with severe thunderstorms often popping up in spite of an excellent weather forecast.  Van Sant’s guide speaks of ‘boaters getting the stuffing knocked out of them’ along with mentions of demastings.  These waters are coming from the Equatorial Current spilling into the Puerto Rican Trench, which is the second deepest trench in the world.  That deep water come into the much more shallow shoals creates all the weird currents, waves, etc.

Given that the weather forecasts are getting worst, today is DO IT or don’t go for at least another week as a huge storm system is building, coming this way.  Unflappable Andy is grumpy - very anxious about the trip.  He would prefer to stay at the marina for another week or more and I want to get to Puerto Rico.  We are now caught in the boater dilemma -- we are stuck with a schedule that forces decisions one might not otherwise make.  We need to be in Grenada by June 1 -- some 800 miles away.   Andy also has a doctor’s appointment in Puerto Rico in a few days.  With 6-9 foot seas expected at 9 second intervals and winds 15 knots or so, it is ‘marginal’.  We decide to go.

Once out, the seas were rolling high on somewhat of a quarter beam and the trip was smooth, given the circumstances.  We went up/down all day, but never slamming...a piece of cake.   The often crazed currents were WITH us, pushing us along at 9.2 + knots - very fast for us.   We crossed the Hourglass Shoals between the shoal and the shore based on Van Sant’s advice and had none of the scary wave action so often cited in the guidebooks.  We did, however, see wave action out toward the middle of the shoal, but there was no impact on us.  However, we still have to cross the remainder of the Mona - straight across to Puerto Rico tomorrow.  So far, so good, but not done yet~

Following the Cap Cana pilot boat

 After hailing Cap Cana Marina on the southeastern side of the DR,  we were met a couple miles out by their guide boat, who brought us through the straightforward channel into the marina. 
Pilot boat leading us into Cap Cana Marina & Resort
WOW.  Another world class resort! It is not finished yet either but with at least half of it is completed and active.  The marina is fully completed and in the middle of the resort.

Passing thru the channel into the Marina Resort
 There are at least 3-4 restaurants of all types, shops, condos, pools and a fabulous beach, all so beautifully landscaped it takes your breath away.
Pool side @ Cap Cana

Beach as viewed from the pool
All this for approximately $85 a day also.  I noticed the off season rates (Nov - April) for monthly rate is 34 cents a foot!  Very inexpensive!  Check in was professional and easy with Andy, the Marina Supervisor - an American from Florida - assisting us.  After wandering about for an hour or so and tired from our long day, we settled into chairs at the restaurant by the marina.  The food was NOT Dominican style - lots of Japanese and other foods - all very sophisticated.  After an appetizer of thinly sliced grilled octopus with cilantro, a salad and a chicken curry wrap, we headed back to Finally Fun to crash, very very tired.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

To Samana Bay, Dominican Republic

April 15, 2011
Returning to Ocean World from Santo Domingo, the winds and seas were still not favorable for the long overnight crossing to Samana Bay.  No matter - one of the things I love best about this lifestyle is the diversity of the people one meets along the way.

We first met Galen, a large Siberian husky, when he hopped aboard, licked our hands and promptly settled in, taking a nap on our aft deck in the shade.   We later met Galen’s owners,  Hazel & Bill, from Scotland.   Hazel regaled us all night, playing her guitar , explaining Scottish history and singing Scottish ballad after ballad, many of which she wrote.   She was kind enough to allow us to download a CD of her music which I love listening to.  The song she is singing was written in the late 18th century by Lady Caroline Naira - "the News fae Moidant'.  Enjoy the lilting lyrics with your eyes closed!  It is wonderful! 

NOTE to Readers:  I am having trouble loading this video.  Check later.

Departing Ocean World on Sunday afternoon (April 17)  about 5:00 PM, we headed out in the Atlantic Ocean to Samana Bay, along the eastern coast of the Dominican Republic, some 14 hours away.

Moon coming up over Atlantic Ocean off DR coast
Our first overnight - yes - all night long -- passage.  For the non-boater reading this, for safety sake, one must always ARRIVE where you are going in daylight in these waters as reefs are everywhere.  Coming into a place you’ve never been before in the DARK is simply not safe, so one does the math and figures out how many hours it takes to get to your destination and what hour of the morning it would be safe to get near shore at your destination point.  Then back that up and figure out what time you must DEPART the day before so you arrive in daylight, with the sun high enough in the sky to allow you to see reefs, etc.

Our cruise was calm, smooth, uneventful with a full moon lighting our path.  Visibility was excellent!  Andy & I took turns napping and resting nearby on the fly bridge couches  (no real sound sleep for either of us) throughout the night while the other maintained watch over our instruments and our course.

Following the moonbeam late at night

  Given the long distances around the country of Hispaniola, one must spend a couple of days and nights at sea to get to Puerto Rico OR work your way around the coast like we are doing.  There are very few anchorages along the way in this rough coastline- and those few are safe only in specific winds & wave direction.
                                                              Dark is Dark is Dark!
Cruising into Puerto Bahia Marina after all night at sea

Now, however, there are a few new marinas being developed along the way, allowing one to break up the trip by utilizing the new marinas, which is safer for us.

Cruising past the town of Samana, with it’s reputation as a ‘den of thieves’, ‘corrupt officials’, ‘worst than 3rd world’, ‘don’t go there’, we arrived at the new, first class marina, Puerto Bahia, 15 minutes further down Samana Bay.  We figured we’d be spending the same amount of money either way - pay the corrupt officials their ‘bribes’ or ‘thank you’ or simply their shake down fees or spend the same money at the marina that keeps those types of folks AWAY.  Ah, great choice.  Puerto Bahia is world class - beautiful with a hotel, condos, pools, restaurants and very friendly people.  At $85 total a day for us, we were thrilled.

After napping for a few hours, we checked out the sightseeing options.  A French couple, Veronique & Fabrice Lambert, of FABRICE Travel located at the Marina were more than wonderful and helpful.  For you boaters reading this:  They are a wealth of information and will arrange trips and tours all over the country for you.  They can be reached at 849-206-9262 or at

They arranged for a cab to take us into the ‘den of thieves’ town of Samana just to see it all.  Hiring our cab for a flat rate of $25 (vs $35 one way - go figure?!) our driver gave us an overview of the town and then dropped us off to wander about while he waited for us.  Checking out the harbor, we saw no large trawlers like ours, only sailboats.  We were hassled a bit by folks wanting to show us around but there were easily turned away.  The houses and stores along the way between the Marina and the town are very poor and it appears that very few are employed.....hence, the hassling to make a buck I guess.

Returning to the marina, Veronique got creative, finally locating a small boat and a very professional guide that spoke English to take us to Los Haitises, a DR National Park, 19 miles across Samana Bay.
Our guide & boat captain

Our choices had been to (a) take our own boat over there, anchoring off the Park and dingy around.  We would need to pay someone to remain ON the boat for security. Given the reefs and rocks and the fact we had no idea of where to go once in the Park, we did not want to do this.  (b) take a normal cruise boat for $115 each to the Park, departing from Samana.  The cruise boat, however, spends only 2 hours in the Park and then takes everyone to another island with buffet lunch and then sit on the beach with your crowd of people for the next bunch of hours -- something I rather never ever do. 

Heading out for the Natl Park

So, for $300, we got our own boat with driver and helper plus an English speaking VERY knowledgeable guide.    Departing at 9:00 AM Monday morning, in and out of rain but flat seas, we crossed Samana Bay to the Park in 45 minutes in our little boat.
The Captain's son & helper

As folks say now - OMG.... Oh, my God.  What a beautiful place so untouched.  You think you are back in time during the era of Jurassic Park.   It is breathtakingly beautiful.

One of thousands of tiny limestone islands

Beautiful water, limestone outcroppings

One of many beautiful tucked away beaches

There are hundreds of tiny lush 
islands poking out of the water in this subtropical rainforest, many very close together.  Made of limestone for the most part, there are numerous caves tucked in these islands, many with drawings by the Taino Indians centuries ago.

Tucking inside a cave in our boat

Stalagtites & Stalgmites

Early drawings by the Taino Indians found inside the larger caves

Examples of the cave drawings

Looking outside a cave we hiked in & about

Wildlife abounds and cedar and mahogany trees are everywhere.  We wound our way around these islands for several hours, getting out occasionally to walk through the caves and admire the ancient drawings.
 I’m from Florida and thought I knew mangroves, even in the Everglades.  Believe me, these mangrove swamps are HUGE, with the mangrove trees forming a canopy above the watery trails that wind thru the swamp.  Many of the roots of the mangroves are well above our heads in the boat. 

Our watery path thru the mangroves

Our captain slowly getting us thru the narrow trails

Mangroves are the 'nursery' for plants, fish, insects

KIDS:  Look up more information surrounding the mangroves & why they are so important to LIFE!  We used to destroy them in Florida, but finally learned that they are the 'nursery' for many plants, animals, fish and insects AND they protect land from the income sea, especially during a hurricane.
Red crab - we are used to BLUE crabs

Beautiful, lush countryside

This appears to be a old old hand carved wooden boat

Lunch at the Eco Lodge deep within the mangroves was wonderful.  After tying up the boat and walking a short distance, we were met by someone from the Lodge in a truck and off we went, deeper into the rainforest.

Passing horses and cows and fields along the way, we suddenly turned into the lodge, very much hidden in the foliage.  Built by hand I assume, this place is something to see.  There is a system that catches the rainwater, funneling it into pools & waterfalls that meander all around the lodge and restaurant. Unfortunately for us, it is the dry season, so no water at the moment.  How fun it would be to swim in this place!

Waterfalls flow down here in the rainy season, making a swimming pool

What would be the pool area in the rainy season

The main eating area is up above this table and chairs

A huge black bird swooped in, attempting to steal a bite!
We liked this entire area so much we want to come back to with our families, spending a least one night here.  The rooms in the Lodge are simple, very clean and at about $50 per person per night (which included breakfast & dinner) and half that if one is under age 11, is a deal.  The food we ate for lunch was wonderfully tasty, well presented and served by friendly folks.  An appetizer of tiny fried fish and fried plantains was waiting for us as we sat down.

Those fruit looking things in the basket are actually cocoa beans - chocolate is made from them
The cocoa bean cut.  Those pods inside are the cocoa beans.  They taste slimy & somewhat bittersweet.  Those beans are cleaned & roasted somehow before becoming the cocoa that we know.

Back at the Marina, we had a great time at a Rum Tasting at the hotel bar.  Sipping various rums & chatting with the marina owners, architects and operators, and other boaters from Australia and France,  we learned more about their countries, about this country and about Samana Bay as Dominican music played in the background.  I just love the diversity of the people we are meeting from all over the world.

With some help from Veronique and Fabrice, with their ‘move it up stick’ in hand, we finally got our DESCHAPO (clearance papers) from the officials so we could depart in the morning for Cap Cana Marina, 10 hours further down the coast and on our route toward Puerto Rico.