As of today, there are only four months and four days remaining until my departure to the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. The fact that I will be spending one month- that’s 30 glorious days- in the tropics is unfathomable to me. It is the most outlandish thing I’ve yet to do in my 23-years of life and will mark the first of many expeditions throughout this Country and the world. Puerto Rico will be my first experience in a tropical region – Florida not included. I am ecstatic! The reality of this fast approaching journey hasn’t quite sunk in yet, so I’ve been doing some research to help make the most out of my time there. Up until recently, I pictured Puerto Rico as mostly tropical beaches with hot sand and warm water, teaming with marine life (I assume I am not alone in this presumption), but it turns out this isn’t 100% accurate. Little though the island may be (9,104 km² kilometers – nearly half the size of New Jersey) it holds great diversity. Not only is it teeming with an abundance of unique wildlife, but the U.S. territory is rich with history, which has my inner environmental and history nerds hungering for exploration.
Puerto Rico is home to the world’s largest telescope.
The Arecibo Observatory is a radio telescope in Arecibo, PR. The telescope reaches 305 meters high (1000 feet) and is the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world. If you’re like me and you’re interested in astronomy, then this is pretty exciting news. The Arecibo telescope is used in three major fields of research: atmospheric science, radar astronomy, and radio astronomy. It is available for use to scientists throughout the world, though I’ve read it’s generally on a very competitive basis, which only makes sense. There’s a reason why Arecibo, Puerto Rico was chosen as the designated place for the observatory. The telescope had to be stationed near the equator line since that is where radar able to study the ionosphere can simultaneously survey nearby planets. The telescope sits in Karst terrain which is noted for its barren, rocky ground, a plethora of sinkholes and caves, and no surface streams or lakes. The terrain is a result of years upon years of eroding due to underground waterways upon large amounts of soluble limestone.
One of the most impressive functions of the Arecibo Observatory- and a very important one at that- is that it gathers orbit refinements for potentially dangerous asteroids which veer a little too close to Earth. Basically, it keeps a look out for asteroids that could cause major destruction on our planet in the future. Fun fact, in 2012 the observatory picked up 65 near-Earth asteroids, of which 33 were potentially hazardous. I think we owe our gratitude to this enormous telescope.
It’s a “spelunker’s playground”.
What makes Puerto Rico so fascinating is its underground cave system. One never imagines deep, dark, damp caves in sunny Puerto Rico, yet, the island holds the third largest cave system in the world. Camuy River Cave Park alone has over 800 caves to explore, many of which you have to be an experienced spelunker to have access to along with permission from the National Parks Company. Needless to say, I am itching to explore the lesser known parts of the cave system, however, there’s a part of Camuy Caves where inexperienced spelunkers are able to tour. The caves are part of a large network of limestone and underground waterways and are home to hundreds of bats (13 different species) as well as Alloweckelia Gurnee, a species of blind fish, completely unique to the cave waters. Along with bats, fish and waterways, Camuy Caves houses a 150-foot sinkhole (terrifying), believed to have once been an enormous cavern that collapsed thousands of years ago.
Along with Camuy Caves, there is Cueva Ventana or “window cave”, in Arecibo. Unlike Camuy Cave, which lies below the ground, this cave sits atop a limestone cliff. It’s something of a hike up the cliff, but it is well worth the trek because the cave’s window overlooks the Rio Grande de Arecibo valley. The voyage up to the cave includes rare plants- some of which are close to extinction- and also a history of the original Taino Indians, the indigenous peoples of Puerto Rico. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the island was inhabited by the Taino Indians. Cueva Ventana holds remnants of this native civilization in the form of petroglyphs.
There is a beach that glows in the dark.
At night, the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay emits a blue glow thanks to the half-plant, half-animal microorganisms that reside there. Dinoflagellates: unicellular protists (plankton), many of which are photosynthetic, meaning they are capable of producing their own food using energy from sunlight (hence the half-plant aspect). There are more than 700,000 bioluminescent dinoflagellates that live in each gallon of bay water, a hard number to swallow.
Bioluminescence always fascinated me as a child; it is the phenomena which also makes fireflies glow. Mosquito Bay is an excellent reason to visit Puerto Rico because bioluminescent marine life almost always resides in the deep ocean and is therefore rarely visible to our eyes. Bioluminescence is believed to be a natural defense system that allows the dinoflagellates to distract predators by illuminating more appetizing prey; for such tiny creatures, these microscopic organisms are pretty crafty. Mosquito Bay was created as a result of the Spanish trying to cut the bay off from the ocean. They, therefore, trapped the Dinoflagellates within it. Funny enough, the Spanish believed the bioluminescence to be the handy work of the devil. Little did they know that the Bay would someday be one of the most treasured natural wonders on earth.
Puerto Rico has one of largest dry forests in the world.
While El Yunque National Forest is certainly impressive (it is the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system as well as the most biologically diverse, and yes I will be visiting it with a fully charged camera) it is not the only “forest” on the island. Never in a million years would I have imagined there to be a dry forest in Puerto Rico, but cradled in the corner of the southwest of the island lies Guanica State Forest, 9,000 acres of arid land. The forest barely receives any rainfall throughout the year thanks to its location in the rain shadow of the Cordillera Central (the mountain range in PR). I hadn’t the slightest idea what a rain shadow was, so I did some research and discovered that it refers to the dry side of the mountain range; the side that is essentially forced to become a desert because the mountains block all rain-inducing weather patterns. The moist air travels near the top of the Cordillera Central where it rains just before reaching the peak.
Guanica is an excellent place to observe wildlife, especially members of the avian family. It’s hard to conceptualize 50% of the island’s bird population living in this State Forest, but they do- many of which are endemic to the forest itself. That’s over 135 species of bird in one area. Birds who call this forest home include Adelaide’s Warbler, Puerto Rican Flycatcher, Key-West Quail-Dove, and my all-time favorite, the Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo. There are also a number of reptiles and amphibians within the forest, including the Coqui frogs, endemic to Puerto Rico (and the unofficial symbol of the island). With over 700 species of plants, the vegetation in Guanica is an example of how wonderfully diverse the terrain in Puerto Rico is, including lots of shrubs and cacti (so stark in comparison to the widespread palm trees and ferns).
I’m sure there are many other advantages to visiting Puerto Rico— one being that traveling outside of one’s comfort zone encourages personal growth. As I continue prepping for this month-long journey, I would love to hear your take on Puerto Rico. Whether you have visited the island yourself or have gathered interesting facts about it, I’m all ears. Leave your suggestions in the comments- I’m open to anything, from food to try, to places to snorkel, and art to see- and I will be posting more about the trip soon.