Island of Opportunity: Exploring the Potential of Puerto Rico
Jorge Colon took numerous wrong turns but eventually we arrived at the largest slaughterhouse on the island of Puerto Rico. Jorge, a local climber and a dog lover who runs a kennel, had come here so he could purchase an industrial-sized bone cutter and a large bag of bovine tripe to be used for dog food.
The plant manager, who is friendly with Jorge, asked if we wanted to come in. We were hesitant about seeing the horror show inside, but replied, “Sure, why not?”
A heavyset man with a thick white mustache guided Jorge and me up a set of creaky stairs. He noticed my camera and, fearing bad publicity, asked that I not photograph anything. I nodded. We entered a blood-splattered room.
A door in a cramped metal corral opened and a hefty Angus bull wandered into the pen.
“Do you ever feel bad killing so many cows?” I asked the mustached man.
“What? Feel bad? Ha. No. Never,” he replied. “It’s just a job. This is food. It’s tough finding work on this island and I have a family to feed.”
He proceeded to kill five cows and then showed us out. The sunlight felt blinding and I was queasy. Three huge men were just hoisting the 300-pound bone cutter onto the bed of Jorge’s pick-up. The truck slumped under the weight, and I wondered how the two of us would ever get it down by ourselves. The manager handed Jorge two plastic bags, one filled with tripe for the dog food, and the other filled with bull testicles, apparently for our own consumption.
The ride back to Jorge’s home in Vega Baja seemed especially long and dreary.
“I think I’m scarred for life, man,” I said.
“I think I am too, man,” he said after a long pause.
We arrived at Jorge’s home, where his 13 dogs frantically barked and pawed at their cages. Jorge ground up the tripe in a hand-powered blender and fed it to the hungry canines.
Just then my phone vibrated with a text from Chris Sierzant, an Atlanta-based climber who, with Kara Freeman, had just arrived at the San Juan airport. I’d met Chris over a year ago while working on a photo essay in Little River Canyon, Alabama, and was immediately impressed by his fearless and nonchalant approach to climbing. He humorously referred to himself as an “extreme sports model” and proceeded to climb and re-climb everything for the camera regardless of difficulty and danger, including a 40-foot 5.12c above rocky waters no deeper than three feet.
I remembered him brandishing a machete and jumping from boulder to boulder, closely followed by Lucifer, his fierce-looking Doberman Pinscher. His distinctive tattoo sleeve of a cyborg-medusa gave him an edge when he spoke about topics like knife fighting and hunting. I had been warned to be careful traveling with him because of his tendency to attract trouble, but after spending an afternoon at the slaughterhouse, I figured his antics would be tame in comparison.
Chris and Kara arrived at Jorge’s house in high spirits. Soon Chris was clambering up a palm tree to get coconuts. He jumped back to the ground, grabbed a nearby machete, split a coconut open with a few hacks, and drank the water.
“I should have brought my machete,” he said, inspecting the blade. “This one is kind of dull.”
This was Chris’s second trip to Puerto Rico in a year and he was looking for redemption. Severely injured by rock fall to his left knee two days into his first visit, he had been sidelined while his traveling companions enjoyed some of the most scenic seaside climbing in the Caribbean. He had spent the last year rehabilitating his knee and hoping to return to the island and experience its climbing potential to the fullest.
Chris was excited to return to Bayamon, an urban sport crag near San Juan with hundreds of well-bolted routes on walls that resembled melted wax. He told us about the radically overhanging white limestone walls dripping with bulbous tufas in San German and the psychedelic splotched beach boulders in Aguadilla. Most of all, he wanted to experience the deep-water soloing in Barceloneta and to find virgin walls.
“There’s a rad arch at Cueva Del Taíno. It looks like Sharma’s Es Pontas in Mallorca,” Chris explained. “There’s also a slightly overhanging wall right next to it with some fun moderates. If the sea isn’t too crazy we should climb there.”
“Have you seen those huge caves high up in the mountains right off Highway 22?” I asked. “Those stalactites have to be at least 5 feet long. Is anyone developing that stuff?”
“I doubt it,” Chris said. “If reaching them is somewhat difficult, chances are the wall is untouched.” His eyes gleamed.
His enthusiasm was contagious and we could not wait to tour the island. Puerto Rico, also known as Boriquén by the native Taíno, is a small unincorporated territory of the United States. Approximately 110 miles long and 35 miles wide, it can be crossed by car in three hours. The island was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus on his second trip to the New World and became an important military outpost for the Spanish. The Taíno Indians were forced into slavery and decimated within five decades.
After losing the Spanish-American War, Spain renounced Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898. Soon after, Puerto Ricans were forced to become U.S. citizens with limited civil and political rights. Even today, Puerto Ricans cannot vote for the President of the United States and are granted one non-voting representative in Congress; however, they have to serve in the U.S. military if drafted.
The official languages are Spanish and English, but Spanish dominates. With a non-representative government that does not affirm its people’s nationality and language, close to 2 million Puerto Ricans, almost half the population, live below the poverty line. However, though Puerto Ricans lack many economic and political opportunities, they are wealthy in beautiful natural resources that attract outdoor recreation enthusiasts like rock climbers.
We packed Jorge’s tiny white sedan with climbing gear and headed to Piñones. The car’s worn-out shocks repeatedly bottomed out on the rough back roads. When we arrived, it was late in the afternoon and the tide was high. We watched in disappointment as waves pummeled the orange volcanic bluff, making the best lines inaccessible.
“Let’s just go swimming in the bay and relax,” I suggested. “Maybe we could go to Bayamon later?”
Kara and Chris began doing water acrobatics while I swam. When I returned they were talking to a manatee-shaped man with raised skin tattoos and gold teeth, wearing a gold chain and a tiny black Speedo. Antonio had just moved back to Puerto Rico from Bridgeport, Connecticut, and was eager to share his knowledge of the island. He gave Chris his phone number, saying kindly, “Whatever you need, just give me a call.”
We clambered again into Jorge’s beater and drove 45 minutes to the Julio Enrique Monagas Park in Bayamon. By the time we made it to the park the sun had almost set. Chris beelined to a radically overhanging cave full of white tufas, but it was too dark and mosquito-ridden to climb. A bit frustrated, we hopped back in the car and headed to Vega Baja, with Jorge grumbling every time we hit a pothole.
A few miles down the road, a tire popped. We got out of the car and began the trek home in the humid night air. When we finally arrived at Jorge’s house, we discovered his water and electricity had been turned off. The utility companies couldn’t care less about this neglected part of the island. There would be no showers. No bathroom. No cooking. All of a sudden the smell of dog poo and piss seemed all too pervasive and nauseating.
While we replaced the sedan’s back tire with a spare, Jorge informed us that he needed his truck for work tomorrow and would not be able to tour us around. We were stranded. Chris was revved up higher than a Chevy SS engine at full throttle and was prepared to smash any obstacles getting in the way of him and rock. Though we wanted to climb, we could see Jorge was in a tight spot and did not want to pressure him into skipping a day of work.
“Why don’t we call the guy we met today?” asked Chris.
“You think he’ll drive 45 minutes to pick us up?”
“We should at least try,” Kara said.
“Do you know anyone else we could call?” I asked, hesitant to be indebted to anyone in a gold chain and Speedo.
“Yeah, but one guy I know is working in the morning and the other dude lives on the other end of the island,” explained Chris.
We asked Jorge and his girlfriend, Jessica, for their address, but they were stumped. Apparently they don’t place importance on addresses on an island that is only a little larger than Rhode Island. I found a piece of mail with an address and called up Antonio.
He wasn’t psyched about driving 45 minutes to pick us up, but after we offered to pay for gas and buy him lunch, he was in. “I knew we all met for a reason,” he said. “I believe the Lord has a plan for me. I’ll see you in the morning.”
I hung up and smiled.
“I think the dude is kind of religious,” I said.
“Not good,” said Chris. “We probably can’t trust him. We’ll rent a car as soon as we can.”
The following morning, we lugged our belongings to a nearby intersection and waited to meet Antonio. When he arrived, we hopped into his red sedan and I directed him toward Piñones. The car reeked of cologne and a bobble-head Hula dancer swayed with every turn. Along the way we filled up his tank and picked up Chris’s attractive friend Brooks, a climber who was vacationing on the island. As promised, we took Antonio out for lunch, where we ordered mofongo, a fried-plantain dish. Antonio ordered some strange fish. Chris started flirting with Brooks and I could not comprehend how Kara could remain so calm and collected. I had assumed they were a couple.
“Kara is my favorite girlfriend,” said Chris. “I don’t believe in monogamy.”
“Chris is my number-one boyfriend,” Kara responded. “You know what I miss most about the States? My girlfriend.” She flashed a coquettish smile.
Antonio and I were clearly out of our element. We remained quiet but attentive throughout the meal as Chris and Kara explained how an open relationship works.
They are the most sexually open people I have ever known and Antonio quickly warmed up to these qualities. When we finally got the check, the amount seemed too high. I checked the receipt and noticed Antonio helped himself to the most expensive dish on the menu. Though a little pissed, we paid for the meal as promised.
“Where do you want to go now?” Antonio asked.
“Can you take us to a secluded beach?” asked Kara. The day had turned out to be unseasonably hot and we didn’t want to climb midday.
“I know exactly where you want to go,” he said, his gold teeth sparkling in the sun.
We arrived at a delaminated shack off PR-186 and Antonio led us down a concrete path to a faint beach trail covered in tiny burrs that dug painfully into our feet. After a short walk, we reached a spectacular vista that opened up to miles and miles of undisturbed coastline.
As the girls stripped off their clothes and ran toward the ocean, Antonio turned to me and asked, “Are the girls, um, loose?”
“Nah, free spirits,” I told him.
“This is a screw spot, you know,” he explained.
“Uh, OK,” I said, feeling a little weirded out.
“Come on, Tomás! Come skinny-dipping!” yelled Kara.
I jogged closer to the shore, scanned for lurkers, took off my trunks and ran in. The water was warm and embracing. The strength of the ocean felt intimidating as I bobbed up and down in the large swell. While we swam, Antonio disappeared into the woods and returned with a large tree trunk to sit on. Discreetly I stepped out of the ocean and dressed. I grabbed my camera and started shooting the pristine landscape. Meanwhile, Antonio grabbed his iPhone and began snapping photos of Kara and Brooks, sunbathing in the nude.
“This dude is super creepy,” I said to Chris. “He’s the size of a WWE wrestler. We have to get away from this guy.”
Antonio looked back at us, and caught us watching him watch the girls. He stood up with the dexterity of a bull walrus and jogged over to the ocean.
Soon we departed for Punta Vacia Talega, where Bryant Huffman, one of the most active climbers on the island and a movie-set designer by trade, was waiting for us. Leaning on the hood of his X-Terra he seemed perplexed, wondering what we were doing with a stranger who looked straight out of the prison show Oz. Bryant’s scruffy facial hair and thick black-rimmed glasses gave him the look of an intellectual revolutionary. He was not impressed with our new friend and seemed guarded.
A short hike through thorn bushes deposited us at the top of the orange seaside bluffs. I stood in rapt silence, admiring the unrelenting strength of the turquoise sea as it pounded an arching cliff in the distance. The hardened lava below our feet rose up into millions of small sharp spikes whose outlines resembled electrocardiogram readouts. We clambered down to the sandy beach below and looked up at a slightly overhanging 20-foot wall that stretched out for 80 feet. Bryant pointed out the best lines while we inspected the razor-sharp holds.
“It seems like every time I come out here the problems change,” Bryant said. “Last time the wall seemed a lot taller. See that small cave over there?” Bryant pointed at a shallow cave carved out by the sea. “You could start the problem inside it last time. The best part about this spot, though, is that you don’t need any gear. The sand is super soft and you can fall from up high without fear.”
The top outs resembled the incisors of a dragon and the wall was covered in a light dusting of sea salt. I quickly tested Bryant’s statement by pitching off near the top of a problem. As promised, the sand below swallowed up my feet and cushioned my fall. A surging breaker immediately wiped away any traces of my impact crater and I felt like the sea had given me a clean slate.
Kara and Brooks undressed and began climbing nude. Antonio quickly discovered the joys of spotting women. He whipped out his trusty iPhone again and began snapping pictures. The girls just laughed and teased. But after a few minutes of laughing, they clearly became uncomfortable in his presence.
“Don’t you have to see your niece in the hospital?” I asked Antonio.
“Sounds like you want me to go, huh?” he said, sounding hurt.
“Yeah, we’d like you to leave,” said Chris bluntly.
“Oh, so you want me to leave, too?” Antonio said, puffing his elbows out.
I reluctantly prepared for a fight and glanced over at Chris, who was ready to pounce. Then Antonio saw Bryant coming over and quickly reconsidered his options. He walked back toward the thorn bushes and disappeared. As night descended on the landscape, Bryant suggested we drive into Old San Juan and grab a drink at his friend’s tapas bar. Bryant seemed like a solid person and we were thankful to be under his guidance.
We arrived at a dimly lit dive bar and sat at a long oak table. Two of Brooks’s friends joined us and the waiter brought a round of mojitos. As everyone loosened up, we started dancing.
“Take a picture!” yelled Chris as he handed me a point-and-shoot camera. He was being mauled by six beautiful women on the dance floor and wanted a memento.
Soon, we left the bar and Chris scaled the side of an old building. It looked fun so I followed. We campused the balconies and one of the girls from the bar spotted us from below. She popped back into the bar, and we heard her talking about what she had just seen.
We slid down a pipe and decided to check out the Nuyorican Café for salsa dancing. When we arrived at the club, a massive crowd of people stood smoking and drinking at the entrance. The alleyway was lined with yellow walls full of sloping ledges. Brooks walked up to a wall, climbed up a few feet and jumped down. Chris joined her and quickly climbed up 35 feet to a balcony, campused across the balcony and down climbed.
A drunken reveler inspired by Chris’s performance began to struggle up the wall, too. His deck shoes slipped and slid on the slick painted surface, but he persevered. At 10 feet he lunged for a semi-detached lamppost and took a rest. The light flickered as he pushed down on it to reach the next set of sloping holds. At 25 feet he desperately grabbed the bottom of a Catalan-style ironwork balcony. He looked down and announced his intention to jump.
The crowd erupted into a chorus of, “No! No! It’s too high!”
“I can’t hold on!” he cried in Spanish, sweat soaking the back of his red polo shirt.
“Get onto the balcony!” someone yelled.
Fear and adrenaline helped him grab the bottom of the iron railing. One of his hands slipped and he dangled in the air by one arm. He matched and heel hooked a gap in the railing. With his leg locked in, he reached up for the top railing, manteled and slumped onto the ledge. We could hear him breathing heavily and thanking God. A few moments went by and he stood up. He looked at Chris and asked, “How did you get down?”
“I came down the wall on the right,” Chris said. “You have to be careful, though. The holds felt slippery.”
The man sighed in exasperation and straddled the balcony. The crowd went wild and repeated, “No! No! No!” He stepped back into the alcove.
The owner of the building, a chic hotel called Da House, stepped out into the alley and sternly addressed the man. “Get down now! I’m calling the police!”
Struck with fear, the man began his sketchy descent. While he rested on a creaky street lamp, a policeman appeared and demanded, “What are you doing?”
The man slumped off the wall and landed on the ground like a rag doll. He stood up in a daze, looked at the policeman, shrugged and walked away. Dumbfounded, the policeman watched as the man stumbled into a nightclub nearby. Above, the balcony door slowly opened and a sleepy man with disheveled hair peeked out, then closed the door and returned to bed.
I looked down the alley and spotted Chris making out with Brooks. I looked around for Kara and noticed she and Brooks’s friend were missing. I walked over to Bryant, standing outside the salsa club, and he suggested we split for another bar.
“Tomorrow,” Bryant said, slapping me on the back. “I promise to show you the wealth of climbing this place has to offer!”
Piñones (GPS Coordinates: +18° 27’ 8.84”, -65° 54’ 21.88”) These cliffs resemble the mouth of a dragon. The volcanic rock is sharp and looks brittle, but is surprisingly solid. The height of the cliff varies depending on the tide and currents, and can get as high as 25 feet. This spot is located on Punta Vacia Talega. To get here from PR-26, take the exit for Ave. Los Gobernadores/PR-187. Follow this road for approximately 13.3 km.
Bayamon (GPS Coordinates: +18° 24’ 34.12”, -66° 8’ 30.50”) This urban crag is a short drive from San Juan in the Julio Enrique Monagas National Park. The cliffs are limestone and look like melted wax. The climbing is three-dimensional and involves a lot of pinching, stemming, and liebacking. This is primarily a sport-climbing area, though there is some decent bouldering downhill from the main cliffs.
Directions below are from the free Nuevo Bayamon Guide from Aventuras Tierra Adentro: From San Juan get on Highway 22 West. Take exit 10 to Road 5. Stay in the right lane and take the first exit. At the stop sign, make a left to 28 (also known as GOYA Road). Cross a traffic light and turn right after the GOYA warehouse. After the park gate, cross the parking lot and make two rights to a second parking lot between playgrounds and gazebos. Park here. Hike up the tar road that heads toward the woods. Take the trail marked with a cairn and a carabiner sign between two bunkers. When you come out into a clearing, keep hiking straight up. After the uphill left bend of the road, you will see two trails on your right side. Go up either one and you will arrive at the cliff.
Aguadilla (GPS Coordinates: +18° 30’ 23.65”, -67° 8’ 7.09”) This spot is near the Survival break, one of the most famous and dangerous places to surf in all of Puerto Rico. The bouldering here is primarily on radically overhanging sandstone cliffs that jut over the spot where waves break. It is a great place to beach camp, relax and surf.
Rosario in San German This area features a radically overhanging white limestone cliff with amazing tufa features. There are also numerous multi-pitch sport routes on beautiful orange and red limestone. The views from above the canopy of coffee farms are spectacular.
Directions below are from the free Rosario Peñón Guide: From road #2 take exit #168 to road #330 north. Drive 3.8 miles and turn right to road #348. After 1.6 miles park on the left side of the road just before crossing a small bridge over a creek. Cross the road and hike west on a dirt road. The rock will be on your right. Approach time is about 10 minutes.
Cueva Del Indio (GPS Coordinates: +18° 29’ 34.70”, -66° 38’ 14.53”) Cueva Del Indio, in Barceloneta, is the premier deep-water soloing destination on the island. There is a unique cave covered in Taino petroglyphs. Impressive overhanging routes and a steep arch make this area an experts-only outing. Avoid climbing when the sea looks rough. From San Juan head northwest on Expreso Jose De Diego/PR-22 W. Take the exit toward Cll 2. Continue onto PR-140. Continue onto PR-684. Turn right onto Ave Boca/PR-684. You will be on this road for about 14.5 km. A sign on your right will say Cueva del Indio. Pull into the dirt driveway and park in front of Richard’s house. He will charge you $2 to park.
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