Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Trip to Puerto Rico - the Caves and Arecibo

When we awakened Wednesday morning, we learned that the fate of the Senate was still undecided.  No matter, as the Democratic sweep of the House and Governors races was enough to cheer us. 

Wednesday was the day I was looking forward to since we began planning the trip.  After a quick breakfast at El Meson, we were heading East on Route 2.  We went through Isabela and Aricebo on our way to the Rio Camuy Caverns.  Unlike the previous day, the routes were well marked with plenty of signage.  The towns we passed through left the impression of being solidly middle class.  With the exception of the Spanish signage, one could have easily thought one was in Florida. 

On entering the park, I spotted a family we had seen Tuesday at the Castillo Serrallés.  After buying our tickets, there was a brief video presentation before we were all herded to a tram.  We then headed down a seemingly treacherous pathway toward the entrance to the caverns. 

Puerto Rico has the third largest underground cave system on Earth.  The park service has created a narrow path running the perimeter of the cave, with two outlets at either end.  Entering the cave, we quickly lost all sense of space and direction.  The temperature was cool in contrast to the heat outside.  Lights were discreetly placed at strategic points, but it was still dim inside.  Our eyes began playing tricks on us.  On the ceiling we saw a Native American face in profile:  He was scowling at us.  As we moved toward the center of the cave, the scowl turned into a grin.  To our right was a network of stalagmites and stalactites.

 Straining to get a better look at them, I slipped and nearly fell before grabbing a railing for support.  The exit at the opposite end of the cave beckoned to us, and we heard running water.  An underground spring delicately flowed with water suitable for drinking.  We all took a sip. 

By now, we were in bright sunlight. 

Looking down, we saw the Camuy River running into another cave mouth 150 feet below us.  Reentering the cave, our tour guide informed us that the local bat population was sleeping just around the corner.  There was no need to worry ourselves about bat guano, he said.  It was covering the railings we were holding. 

Exiting the cave, we waited a few moments for a tram which took us to a hilltop lookout where we saw the gigantic sinkhole which created the caves thousands of years ago.  We were some 400 feet above the river, and 250 feet above the cave entrance.  After taking the tram back to the center, we immediately washed the bat guano off our hands.

By now we were hungry, so we ordered hot dogs at the small concession there.  Hanging around there was a real dog, very skinny with visible ribs.  One of the things about Puerto Rico that really bothers me is the huge number of stray dogs there.  There is virtually no animal control set up there, and I get the impression many citizens don’t spay/neuter their pets.  Danny says that work is being done to improve the situation, but I saw little evidence of it.  I felt sorry for the dog.  He seemed very sweet natured, and I gave him some of my hot dog.  He was timid, but willing to sit still for a photo.  Part of my heart broke.

Danny and I then headed to the Arecibo Radio Observatory, getting briefly lost on the way.  I’ve been aware of the Arecibo Telescope since I was a boy of 13, having seen it on Cosmos.  This was the part of the trip I was anticipating most.  The dish is set into a sinkhole at the top of a mountain.  Getting to the mountain involves a number of steeply winding roads, and getting to the facility means a very challenging uphill walk.  Both Danny and I had to catch our breath afterward.   
For those impressed by size, the Arecibo dish measures 305 meters across, the largest in the world.  Built in 1963, it is scheduled to be shut down in 2011.  It has mostly been used for ionospheric and stellar observation, but it probably best known for SETI work. 

The Arecibo facility was most famously featured in the movie Contact.  But I was surprised to learn how broadly the film misrepresented Puerto Rico in general and Arecibo in particular.  It’s not in the jungle.  The people don’t live in shacks.  It’s near an upper middle class suburb and visiting researchers live right at the facility, dormitory style.  The young workers in the “touristy” parts of the facility are local high school students. 

The Arecibo Telescope from the air...

Seeing the telescope up close was a thrilling experience.  I recommend it for anyone who visits Puerto Rico.  Photos don’t do it justice, but I’m posting a few.  There was also a scientist with a real telescope through which we were able to view the sun and a large sunspot (using a filter, of course).  We again saw several tourists from the Castillo Serallés and the Camuy Caves, and they took the picture of Danny with me above.  

After resting for a while at the hotel, we went to Danny’s father’s home for dinner.  His stepmom cooked a lasagna which was quite good.  

After heading home, we watched a bit of the news before going to sleep.  I dreamed of taking the Camuy dog home with me.

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