Getting to El Yunque

There are certain things to know about Puerto Rico before visiting. The island comprises both the most pristine and breath-taking tropical scenery imaginable -- and widespread poverty, which rears its head in the form of crumbling, rusting structures, maddeningly something roads and hollowed-out homes with ornate metal bars protecting what little possessions are kept inside. And unless you are among the few rich enough to have access to heliports and blinders, you can't reach the former without at least passing through the latter. While that seems to be an annoying reality the wealthy begrudgingly accept, this tempered sense of paradise, this grounding in reality is precisely why I love Puerto Rico so much.

Perhaps I'm afraid of what would happen to my perspective or my expectations were I to experience only the beauty, unchecked by a reminder of how fortunate I am and what this country is really like.

To get to Casa Cubuy, our rainforest getaway, you have to drive for miles along Route 3 from San Juan, past Luquillo and Fajardo, past Naguabo and into Rio Blanco, a tiny town named for the river running through it. Route 3 is pocked with gigantic potholes, which slow traffic to a halt throughout the way.

Driving in Puerto Rico is like an extreme sport, a game of survival. Our rental car is no match for the natives driving Daiwoos with missing rear windows, mismatched doors and crushed headlights. They weave in and out of lanes, no turn signals used, speed up on the shoulder to pass and make crazy right hand turns from the far left lane. In addition, brave or crazy souls on motorcycles create their own lanes, darting in and out between cars reaching speeds that seem a death wish.

Thus, it's a long and exhausting drive which, in reality, covers only about 55 km. (In PR, the road signs are in KM, the gas in liters.) Along the way, you pass a seemingly infinite number of decrepit strip malls, storefronts guarded by heavy iron railings so that you can't tell what's open and what's not. Along here, the business seems to be autos -- there seem to be more ferreterias than people. In between are fast-food restaurants -- Wendy's, KFC, Taco Maker, Dunkin' Donuts. It's not a pretty drive.

When we arrived in PR this past Friday, we were running on fumes from only a couple of hours sleep before our 6:30 am departure. Still, we decided to soldier on and kill a few hours in Old San Juan in the hopes of avoiding the early weekend rush-hour traffic that was already at a standstill on Route 3.

We found a parking space right near Cafe Berlin, our usual spot for a quick bite or nice coffee, and sat nestled inside as a rain cloud burst open and soaked the Plaza Colon. Afterwards, we wandered the streets for a bit, making our way across the rather deserted blue cobblestone streets and up to the grounds of El Morrow.

It was early evening by the time we hit Route 3 and it was, of course, no better than before. Both of us were fading a bit, but we held it together long enough to pass all the familiar businesses, hold our own in traffic and pull into the Pueblo grocery store in Fajardo to stock up on some supplies and snacks. There, Chris made a call to Casa Cubuy, our rainforest oasis, and learned that the storms we'd enjoyed earlier had knocked power out to the inn. So we took our time, grabbing a bite to eat and dawdling until we could fight exhaustion no more and needed to head for a bed. Casa Cubuy is located on the south side of El Yunque tropical rainforest. Route 191 used to run across the top of the mountain but a landslide a few years back closed the road at the top and now you have to drive all the way around, pas the usual tourist entrances to the public parts of the mountain, and make your way up.

It takes, when you are tired and eager to have arrived, forever and a day to get there. You wind around, past the big letters proclaiming the "promised land" above a development of candy-colored homes, past Roosevelt Roads military base.

When we hit the bottom of Route 3, it was already pitch black and even with our windows rolled up we could hear the melodious chorus that is the tiny coqui frogs singing in the darkness. They provided the soundtrack for the 15-odd minute drive it takes to get from the bottom of 191 to Casa Cubuy, which sits almost at the top. The road is all tight turns and narrow lanes, towering clumps of bamboo and rusted out cars. Locals come barrelling down the mountain as if they have nothing to lose until the gringos cry "uncle" and pull to the side.

Although the houses and makeshift bars we passed climbing our way up all seemed to have power, Casa Cubuy Ecolodge did not. We parked the car and kept our headlights on as we grabbed our things. The owner, Marianne, met us out front with her grandson and a fading flashlight. She directed us inside, which would have been a chore were we not comfortably familiar with the set up, and bid us wait while she fetched a propane lamp.

The darkness amplified the sense of isolation up here and I felt tired and disoriented. When we settled in and blew out the lamp, I was surprised to find that the sounds of the rainforest I'd so looked forward to -- the roaring waterfall, the whistling winds, the downpours -- were slightly unsettling.

Throughout the night, our room lit up from time to time with great flashes of lightning. A storm raged across the rainforest until the early morning hours, when the dawn revealed a glimpse of lush greenery outside our balcony and the quietening of the coqui. It was only then that I fell asleep completely soundly, blissfully sleeping through breakfast and the sounds of fellow guests chattering away in the common area below.