Coordinates: 18°2'17.88", 67° 12'19.8"
- Where do you go on vacations? – that was the question an American friend once asked me when she visited Puerto Rico. Before I could answer, she exclaimed: - You live in paradise! – Our Island has many natural treasures, like El Yunque, the karst, the Subtropical Dry Forest in Guánica, and the Monte del Estado, to mention a few. Nonetheless, Punta Guaniquilla in Cabo Rojo, besides being unique in the Puerto Rican archipelago, is a completely transforming space.
What I experienced when we toured through Punta Guaniquilla’s Natural Reserve with the Para la Naturaleza organization was revealing in many ways. I experienced opposite emotions. I felt strengthened pride over living on an Island of such privileged and exuberant whereabouts, such as this. But I was also embarrassed and overcome with anger over the lack of ownership and respect some feel towards these treasures.
interpreter is key
One key element, in making this an unforgettable excursion, was who guided us through THE EXPERIENCE. The Para la Naturaleza interpreters are more than guides: they make what is there, something personal. Ray, José, and Sandra submerged us in this natural space in such a special way, that I left worshiping every moment lived. We stopped at several places to observe, learn, and understand why and how this place is related to each one of us, as human beings and as Puerto Ricans.
THE EXPERIENCE begins at the Hacienda La Romana’s ruins, located near the entrance. There they distributed water and snacks for the route, and the helmets with lights we would use inside the cave.
From here you could see spectacular scenery composed of rock formations called dog tooth. Against such wonderful background, Ray told us about pirates and conservancy. Briefly, but vehemently, he described the ecosystem’s composition. I noticed the enthusiasm on his tone of voice when detailing the flora and fauna. When explaining that the reserve harbors eighty-nine bird species, he could not help smiling with pride. When adding there are three hundred and eighty-nine species of plants and trees, his chest lifted up with satisfaction. Their love and commitment towards their job were palpable to us throughout the tour.
Our interpreter also explained our trip would last approximately three and a half hours, mostly under the sun, thus the importance for constant hydration and wearing a cap. The route is circular, meaning you enter through one place and exit through another. However, the path has more than one trail identified; the reason why it is extremely important that you go with someone familiar with the surroundings.
COFRESÍ, the Pirate
Punta Guaniquilla has both ecological and historical value. Corsicans, pirates, and buccaneers attacked the Cabo Rojo area, like other parts of the Island. It is said that Cofresí, the Pirate used Punta Guaniquilla as a refuge. One of the caves we visited in the reserve was given his name.
The refinery in paradise
To elaborate on the place’s history, Ray told us that in the 70s an oil company wanted to establish a refinery in this Garden of Eden. Yes, this would have been sinful! However, the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, through a co-management agreement, acquired the land for the sole purpose of conservation. Later on, the Conservation Trust and its reserve handling division, Para la Naturaleza, acquired it completely to perpetuate its conservancy. Currently, they are four hundred and eighty-seven acres destined for preservation.
Five Star Hotel
After the interpreters shared the overall information with us, we set out to explore this exclusive location. When we were by the ruins, José, another experienced interpreter, told us this reserve is like a five- star hotel for birds. Upon entering this paradise I could observe the natural resources that make it luxurious, not only for the birds, but for photographers and bird watchers. We then moved on to a subtropical dry forest.
We were walking along a path surrounded by bushes and trees. Ray was going first when suddenly, he stopped:
- Do you hear that hollow sound? - he asked. It had deep resonance, like a frog’s.
- That is the Smooth-billed ani – Ray explained the bird makes that sound to alert someone is near. Then, we heard the flight call; the screech sounds like an alarm, but subtler.
Like a Good Puerto Rican
At this five-star hotel we could also hear Adelaide’s Warbler, the Zenaida Dove, the Gray Kingbird, and of course, our beloved Tody. Like a good Puerto Rican, this specie is very family-oriented. Not only the mother feeds the young, but the father and the siblings do so, as well. We could hear and even see the Troupial, it was striking a pose in one of the trees by the path. Almost at the end of the route, I could photograph a Gray Kingbird. We also saw plenty of butterflies, some white and others yellow, that unruly fled towards my camera’s lens. The Gray Kingbird was the easiest to photograph.
Bran Nettle and Cow-itch
Among the many reasons you should visit this place with an interpreter is its poisonous flora. For example, you should avoid a shrub called chicharrón (or Comocladia glabra) as it has an acid that burns the skin. Ray also warned us about the bran nettle and the cow-itch. My grandfather lived in a Vega Baja farm and I remember the desperate sensation that impregnates skin after touching the bran nettle. However, the most dangerous tree, as it can be deadly, is the Manchioneel. We found it almost at the end of the path, near the mangrove forest.
An Ecosystem Mosaic
While walking, Ray pointed out how we moved from one ecosystem to the other: from the subtropical dry forest, to a mangrove swamp, to the cave system, then to the lagoon. We saw a sweet-pea tree and a black mangrove, inches from each other.
Four Types of Mangrove
In the mangrove swamp, you observe four types of trees: the button-mangrove, which is found in the highest part of the mangrove swamp; the white-mangrove, with two small orange-to-reddish glands in the leaf base; the black-mangrove, which is characterized for its pneumatophores (roots for gas exchange); and finally, the red-mangrove, which is closest to the water.
When passing through the rocky area we saw cracks in the rocks caused by abrupt climate changes such as extreme heat. After climbing up and down the rocks, we arrived to a very cool and cozy shaded area. There we observed a friendlier flora: the oxhorn bucida, the turpentine-tree and other plants that grow on top of rocks, like the native Anthurium.
Ray told us about a man on a past tour that mentioned his mother cooked him chicken broth with the bark of this tree. The man thought it was real chicken broth, until he discovered she boiled wood with the water. During the 40s, the turpentine-tree was used to feed a lot of Puerto Rican families.
Without Light You Won’t Find the Exit
Another reason you need an interpreter are the safety measures that must be observed in the caves. The Para la Naturaleza guides are trained in cave rescue and first aid. We entered Cofresí, the Pirate’s Cave with Ray and José while Sandra stayed outside, as a safety precaution. In an emergency, the person outside can respond faster and look for help if needed.
Safety inside the Cave
Exploring this type of ecosystem requires each person wears a helmet with a light; the organization’s staff provides it and is prepared for any eventuality. Just imagine that you go with a lantern and run out of batteries inside the cave; without a light, there is no finding the way out. Similarly, even with a light, if you don’t know the place, you can easily get lost.
out of this world
We left the cave and came upon an oasis. Silence. Stillness. Peace. I was so engrossed by the scenery that I couldn’t proceed. Petrified, but not with fear. I felt as if I had landed on the moon; like Ray said: "the scenery is out of this world". The rocks work with the water as allies; they rise above the liquid as if floating. The clear sky grants a three-dimensional sensation to the mountains of rocks, as if they are about to come to life. The Black Necked Stilt walks elegantly above the water and doesn’t take flight until it finishes eating.
A Minute of Silence
During the tour, Ray invited us to partake in various exercises. I was captivated by two of these exercises: the one I’m about to describe and one we did at the end of the trip with a turpentine-tree.
In the lagoon area and sitting over the rocks, our now friend, Ray, encouraged us to close our eyes and stay silent for a minute. It was amazing to have the opportunity to be thankful for THE EXPERIENCE and ask for patience with those who do not yet understand the value of this place. It was mystical to meditate about the relevance of the turpentine-tree, the butterfly, the mangrove, and the whole ecosystem, not only for nature, but also for our subsistence in the Planet.
Towards the Other Side
THE EXPERIENCE didn’t finish there. This article can be compared to a movie with many endings. After that mystical moment, the other side of the rocks was waiting for us. To get there, we walked through the salt work. Then I noticed wearing boots was very convenient, as my feet would have been soaking wet at the end of the trip had I worn tennis shoes.
Yikes, Manchineel’s Lethal Shadow
Then we arrived at the manchineel tree. We stopped in front of it and I remembered Roy Brown’s song: Aires Bucaneros: "Huy, letal sombra del manzanillo, roja calina de las praderas, miasma envolvente de los manglares..."
Ray picked up a fruit from the floor and had us smell it. The little green fruit smelled sweet; exquisite to the smell, but poisonous to the taste. Along the same line, the milky liquid that comes out of its leaves is a toxic acid to the skin. According to our interpreter, it was during the colonization the tree’s harmful effects were discovered; it is said that the Spaniards tried to weed out this tree from the Island.
Jelly Like Ground
We moved from one impression to the other: from a tree that can be deadly to a terrain that expands and contracts, like an accordion. There we did another exercise to experience a slight earth tremor. We stood up in two rows, facing each other. One side was to jump first and then the other side would follow. The idea was to feel the ground vibrating under our feet. We arrived at the other side, walking through ground that moved with each one of our steps.
Rocks on Edge
The rocks look further away, but are nevertheless as impressive. Here, the sand marks the lagoon’s beginning and suddenly a giant scree shows up as if it feared the water. The rocks seem to be floating, suspended from the absent clouds. The clear sky enhanced the amazing landscape.
The end of our journey: a turpentine-tree giving away free energy. Here, we made the last mystical exercise. I had previously experienced the sensation of hugging a tree. However, after THE EXPERIENCE in this mind-bending place, it was like clustering all the sensations into one startling moment. Hug. Energy. Moments. Life. Gratitude. Love.
One by one, we hugged the turpentine-tree while it gave us its energy. We then went up a hill to contemplate, beside a gigantic cactus, the vastness of the Caribbean Sea and the ground’s greenery. Splendorous!
This is the end. THE EXPERIENCE ended here. We said goodbye to our new Para la Naturaleza friends after thanking them for sharing their exquisite interpretation of this environment. On our way home, I thought that, had I visited Punta Guaniquilla before my American friend had come to Puerto Rico, I would have told her: "In Puerto Rico we have the privilege of vacationing right here, while feeling as in another planet."
Below you will find THE EXPERIENCE’s complete video, our recommendations and a footnote, which is important to read.
Conscious Travel Practices:
1. Learning the relevance of Punta Guaniquilla's History.
2. Knowing the different ecosystems of the place and respecting them.
3. Enjoying the privilege of visiting places like this without vandalizing them.
4. Educate yourself about the flora and fauna of the place.
5. Support organizations like Para la Naturaleza and help promote education and environmental preservation.
Video of the Experience
Why it is advisable to visit the reserve through Para la naturaleza:
1. Only this way, you live THE EXPERIENCE.
2. Personal safety – among the reserve’s resources there is a cave system where someone who doesn’t know the place can get lost. There are also several identified trails that might confuse people.
3. Environmental safety – there are natural resources you can harm if you don’t know about them. Examples are the salt work, which you must cross at the point furthest from the rock, not to damage it; and the hermit crab, which one might step on if you’re not consciously observing your surroundings.
4. It would be a pity to visit this reserve, without learning all about it. Understanding its relevance and how this biological unit works are essential.
5. You are entering private property, thus it is important to be accompanied by the authorized guides.
1. Make a reservation with Para la Naturaleza. There is a lot of demand to visit this place.
2. Use hiking boots because of the ground’s diversity. Do not wear sandals, or flip-flops. With tennis shoes your feet will probably get wet.
3. Long pants and a long sleeved shirt. Believe me, I felt the insects very close by.
4. A cap or hat for the sun: totally necessary.
5. Reusable water bottle as to not generate trash with plastic ones.
6. Snacks in cloth bags so you don’t use plastic ones.
7. Camera or cellphone to take pictures of a unique place.
Moved by this place’s majesty, I was in awe and furious when I noticed the graffiti on the ruins. Someone, obviously with no sense of responsibility, or belonging, dared to commit such despicable barbarism. What an embarrassment!
Even though there are still people without consciousness, we have organizations like Para la Naturaleza that carry out a commendable effort to educate and preserve. Not only do they have various educational programs like “Ciudadano Científico” and “Árboles Campeones”, they work tirelessly towards preservation. Currently, only 8% of the island is destined for preservation. This organization aspires to reach 33% by the year 2033. In places like St. John more than 50% of the grounds are protected, in the Dominican Republic they preserve 24%. Visit the Para la Naturaleza‘s webpage and find out how you can be a part of this change for Puerto Rico.
For more information on the Punta Guaniquilla Reserve you can dial 787-722-5882 or visit the webpage of Para la Naturaleza.