Mayagüez, Ponce, and Guavate—January 7, 2007

January 9, 2007 22:45 – 22:45

The odd line in the above map shows our travels for Sunday, January 7th. We arose earlier than usual, and drove first about 90 minutes to the zoo in Mayagüez, another hour or so to the art museum in Ponce, then another hour up to Guavate for dinner, then back to Dorado. Yesterday’s 218 miles encircled over half of Puerto Rico.

Zoológico de Puerto Rico

The zoo is about 10 minutes inland from Mayagüez (pronounced my-yah-gwez due to the two dots over the u). The sign below describes the mission of the zoo. Paraphrasing, it says: The zoo’s mission is to educate, to provide recreation, and to conserve the flora and fauna of our planet. At the same time, we humbly intend to educate each of the visitors so they come to know the species that live in the animal kingdom and their impact on the ecological web in which we live.

Admission to the zoo and parking cost $21. We didn’t try to use our FONZ card this time, opting instead to contribute to the zoo’s bottom line.

One of the first animals we encountered was a North American black bear that was in an enclosure that was way too small. It was sad and inhumane, but not thoroughly typical of the zoo—the only zoo in Puerto Rico, by the way. They have ongoing efforts to expand the habitats of the different animals so that they are more representative of how the animals live in the wild. They hadn’t gotten to the bear yet. I also suspect that the climate of Puerto Rico is not exactly suited to the large mammal, which seemed a bit sluggish. This day, the temperature in the zoo was a bit cooler than usual, and only in the 70s. I can’t imagine the bear would be happy in the warmer months.

A little further down the trail however, we came to a small island that was hopping with various birds, lizards and monkeys. The monkeys shown below were foraging for insects at the base of trees. These seemed a bit more natural to us, and the monkeys seemed to have what they needed to be healthy and happy.

Other primates at the zoo, including some chimpanzees, however, were caged and forced to be too close to the visitors—many of them rude. While the signs indicated that feeding and bothering the animals was strictly prohibited, this didn’t stop a number of ignorant visitors from trying to feed the animals human food, tapping on glass, making annoying noises, and generally contributing to the misery of the caged creatures.

On the bright side, the zoo is in an area of dense growth and steams. The scene below is typical of the vistas that abound throughout the park. We walked for about two hours at the zoo, and still didn’t cover all of it. While the number of animals is way less than that at the National Zoo in DC, I’d say that the area of the zoo is probably larger.

On the sadder side, a number of large raptors and owls, including those shown in the next few pictures, were cage in small enclosures. I don’t believe there is a way to humanely keep such birds. On the other hand, such birds displayed at zoos often have been injured and are otherwise unable to survive in the wild. So, the zoos provide them a way to live out their lives in relative ease. They don’t need room to soar since their injuries prevent them from flying. I don’t know that this is the case for the raptors at the zoo in Mayagüez, but I’d like to think that these aren’t healthy animals otherwise imprisoned.

While flying animals live a confined life, one gets the impression that the iguanas and other lizards fare a bit better. This bright-eyed fellow below didn’t seem to be suffering from his confinement. Also, thousands of smaller lizards, frogs, and birds inhabit the zoo of their own choosing. The species that represent the zoo’s “collection” probably account for less than 1 percent of the total animals that live within the zoo’s borders.

Do you know the difference between alligators and crocodiles? I don’t. Unfortunately, there was no sign on the limited enclosure provided for these reptiles. I counted four in all. Using Encarta as a guide, I’m guessing that these fellows are crocodiles. When an alligator’s jaw is closed, its two large lower teeth are hidden. Shown here, the lower teeth are exposed on these two creatures, suggesting that they probably are crocodiles.

The sign was on the wrong cage, but the creature shown at the left below is a bongo. He wasn’t being especially percussive. The bongo is a spiral-horned antelope that hails from Africa. According to Encarta, the bongo’s family includes the kudu, sitatunga, bushbuck, bongo, and eland. This might help with those crossword puzzles. The creature at the right is the Katie North Americanus.

It’s hard to keep a good iguana down. The one shown below is what they call an iguana de palo (tree iguana) in Puerto Rico. There were a number of them throughout the zoo, some as long as seven feet from nose to toe. Imagine having one of those drop onto you from a tree. Vegetarians, they live in harmony with other animals, mostly. In the wild, they are frequent road-kill, and are devastating Puerto Rico’s fruit and vegetable crops. On any given day in the interior, you’ll see a dozen or more squashed in the road, and you’ll see perhaps one or two in motion that manage to cross the road before a car or truck appears around the bend. If I had a bumper sticker down here, it might say I BRAKE FOR IGUANAS.

I’m not sure what the creature below was. Its horns aren’t spiral shaped and it had no stripes. So, it’s not a bongo.

Below, a porcupine and an iguana seemingly live in peaceful coexistence. I say seemingly because at one point, the iguana decided to “share” the bowl of fruits and veggies. The porcupine’s quills expanded dramatically and the porcupine tipped the bowl hard to tell the iguana to back off. So much for “share and share alike”.

Below, the iguana gets a brief whiff of fruit as the porcupine goes postal. The quills flare out in a what is more than a little threatening gesture.

The zoo has a number of large beautiful tigers. They had middling-sized habitats not dissimilar to those in the National Zoo. While too small to be thoroughly humane, the tigers did not seem to be lethargic, and were alternately resting and moving around. They could have stood for a bit of air conditioning, though. They seemed to be panting to try to stay cool.

The cat shown below is a mountain lion or puma. They’re generally found in cooler climates, but this one didn’t seem to be too hot. Its habitat was entirely too small, though.

Billy Wilson’s Wild Spot Café

One of the highlights of our visit to the zoo was the discovery of the Wild Spot Café. It was getting close to one o’clock and we had skimped on breakfast. The sign announced chickensteaks and cheesesteaks. We were skeptical, but they turned out to be the real deal.

Bill Wilson met Maricela in Wilmington, Delaware about seven years ago. She spoke little English and he spoke no Spanish. But, they connected. When employment in Wilmington went south, so did Bill and Maricela, who was coming home to Puerto Rico. Bill tried hawking local fare—pinchos (shish kabobs) in Puerto Rico, but that didn’t provide enough income. So, he decided to open a steak and cheese sub shop – at the zoo! The cheesesteaks and chickensteaks were as good as any you’ll find in Philly. So, if you’re in Mayagüez and looking for a taste of home, you can do worse than the zoo for lunch. Lunch and soft drinks for three hungry gringos cost less than $20.

This was Sunday, and Bill and Maricela’s two children were at the zoo with them. The little girl is about six and speaks perfect Spanish. Their little boy is about two, a young ringer for his father, as precocious as they come, and no doubt will also master the local language. Bill’s three years in Puerto Rico have brought his linguistic skills up to speed, and he’s close to passing for a native. Nothing like total immersion to help you learn a language.

At about a quarter to two, we realized that we’d need to get on the road to Ponce if we wanted to have enough time at the Museo del Arte de Ponce (MAP)—which closes at 5 pm on Sundays. Ponce is about an hour from Mayagüez. It took us about 15 minutes to find the exit for the zoo and our rented Corolla, and then we were on our way.

The drive to Ponce was mostly across the interior rather than around the coast. Roads were winding and twisty, but the vistas were stunning. Myriad ancient hills and valleys decorate Puerto Rico, and most of the ones we saw along the way were magnificently carpeted in green.

Ponce

Arriving at MAP, the parking guard nodded us into their dedicated parking lot. As we walked up to the front, a sign announced Manos y Almas, indicating the special exhibit. The special exhibit featured a number of folk art representations surrounding Christmas and Three Kings Day. Karen enjoyed the exhibit, although I found the offerings a bit primitive. Perhaps by that point, I was tired from driving the twisting and winding roads of the interior.

The permanent collection was heavy on the dark and stolid art of the 16th through 18th centuries. There were few works whose painters I recognized. There were a few Gainesboro pieces, but most were dark portraits that seemed like works that other museums had probably passed on.

There were several that I really did like. One I especially liked was this portrait by Bouguereau, called Longes du Pays (Far from Home).

Katie was amused and confused by Immaculate Conception by Antonio de Pereda y Salgado. I can’t find a good picture of it, but you can get the basic idea at http://jmc.ou.edu/carstarphen/travel/Angela%20Chambers.htm

Casa Wiekchers-Villaronga

Before leaving Ponce, Karen directed us to the Casa Wiekchers-Villaronga, pictured below. Because it’s set among the narrow streets of Ponce, it’s hard to present a single picture.

Lechonera los Gemelos

Leaving Ponce, we decided to pig out at a lechonera. Lechón is roast pig. At a lechonera, pigs and other creatures—such as turkeys and chickens—are spit roasted to perfection. Side dishes, such as rice and pigeon peas, white rice, habichuelas (large red kidney beans), various plantain and yucca dishes, and so on, are available and kept hot in large cafeteria style bins, heated by hot lights. I set a course for Guavate.

Along the way, we encountered a number of huge brush fires. I’m guessing they were set by accident. A few days before, we had encountered one that was right at the edge of the autopista (Spanish for a limited access highway).

We got off of the main road onto route 184 about 5 miles outside of Guavate. Karen’s book said the most popular lechoneras were at about the 27 km mark on the 184. We hit massive traffic at each of the lechoneras we passed between km markers 32 and 29. Several had very very very loud live bands playing, as Sunday night is a big night for lechery, and this was the end of a big three day weekend celebration of Three Kings Day.

We settled on Lechonera Los Gemelos (Spanish for twins) at about the 28.2 km marker. They didn’t have a live band, but there was ample parking and room to sit down.

This picture is a bit fuzzy because it was taken with Karen’s cell phone. Her lens could stand a brief visit from a lens cloth or tissue.

I have a feeling that you couldn’t possibly go wrong with any of the lechoneras. They all have the same fare, and choosing one is a matter of what kind of entertainment—if any—and crowd you want. We chose a quieter one whose CD player featured eardrum-friendly volume levels. There were no drunks toasting each other, which added to our ability to enjoy the food and watch the children playing. Their rest rooms were also adequate and clean.

At a lechonera, you or someone else (at your direction) piles whatever carnage you want onto a platter. Sometimes, you’re charged by the pound. Other times, you’re charged a flat fee per plate. The latter appears to have been the case at the Lechonera Los Gemelos. Our three plates, heaped with pork, turkey and chicken and rice and bean accompaniments, with beer and non-alcohol sangria (for Katie), came to less than $30. It was by far the best food bargain of the trip.

Katie had fowl, while Karen and I dined on succulently perfect lechón. While some Tennessee style BBQ sauce from Three Pigs of McLean would have added to the experience, it would have been hard to otherwise improve on the fare. Karen might have liked some coleslaw, but for me, the rice was a better complement. But, I’ve never quite understood the allure of coleslaw.

When we arrived, a large pig was being kept hot on the spit, along with a turkey and several chickens. As we were leaving, pictured below, the pig is still in rotation, as was a new turkey and three or four new chickens.

Following dinner, we drove the remaining hour or so back to Dorado del Mar. After a brief visit to Walgreens, we found ourselves at home, where we watched a little of the Grease casting show. It looks like they’re having a hard time casting the role of Danny. I’ve never seen Grease (I was terrified of and disgusted by “greasers” in the 1950s and early 1960s. In Norfolk, “greasers” were also called “hoods”, which is short for hoodlum. Smoking, drinking, robbery, muggings, fights, knifings, and gang rapes were their various calling cards. The idea of a movie or play essentially glorifying or otherwise paying tribute to them has always puzzled me. Your mileage might vary.

However, a number of the women trying out for the role of Sandy had terrific voices. I wouldn’t mind listening to a lot of their singing. None of the guys I heard, however, were anywhere close to Broadway quality.

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