Puerto Rico Day 3: Old San Juan and Mata de Plátano

After our morning stint at El Yunque, we drove up to Old San Juan so the Other Half could fully appreciate the monolithic ruins that are the remains of Castillo El Morro and Castillo San Cristobal. Luckily for us, we just happened to be traveling during National Parks Week (for once!), so the entrance fees to the forts were waived.

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I know, how could it be awesome enough to risk driving through San Juan’s traffic again? Well, it was. The great thing about the forts is that they’re just like San Juan itself–a mash between history and a wonderfully vibrant culture. From the parapets of San Cristobal, you can see down to the harbor or into one of the many downtown alleyways, or even into the nearest neighborhoods.

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But what got me the most about integrating this ages-old fort into San Juan was this:

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That’s right. Every day, people walk their dogs across this lawn that overlooks both forts and the ocean beside it. For some reason, the ‘please clean up after your dog’ can just struck home how San Juan Viejo has grown up around these centuries-old monuments.

And, of course, there was this dog:

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This dog was not a stray, but his owner apparently didn’t want to take him for walks. The owner let him out of the building, and the dog promptly did his rounds. He looked both ways (and sat to wait for a few cars) before crossing the street, he gave strangers a wide berth, he walked up to El Morro, did his business, and headed home. It was the most hilarious thing I think I’ve ever seen.

Anyway, we wandered around the forts for the better part of a few hours before heading back to the harbor and realizing two things: (1) we were going to hit work traffic, and (2) that we were late for an appointment to go see some bats.

I’ll be honest, I saw this post and the resulting video while casting about for ways to find Puerto Rican boas. And even though we weren’t as well-planned as they were, we were excited to see the wildlife of the Mata de Plátano field research station.

Unfortunately, our guide’s first words were ‘you should have rented a jeep.’ Yep, that’s how unprepared we were for the winding, unpaved hill we descended to reach the bat cave at the research station. Accessing the area requires a student guide to direct you to the area of the bat cave. (And yes, this post will contain the words ‘bat cave’ as many times as I can possibly fit it. And potentially ‘cueva de los murcielagos’ if I can hack it.). In our case, our guide was an an undergraduate student researching the bats, making him a veritable wealth of information.

We arrived at the Cueva de los Murcielagos (okay, well, it’s technically the Cueva de los Culebrones because of the snakes) just after sunset, when some of the bats were already out feeding on the plants around us. We reached the cave in time to see a mass exodus of bats, as well as something that wasn’t a bat.

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Sure enough, one of the Puerto Rican boas was out catching bats already. And yes, that is a bat wing in his mouth. There are six species of bats that live at the cave, of which we saw four and got pictures of three. The big red ones in the picture are Antillean ghost-faced bats, and the pale-tan ones are Leach’s single-leaf bats.

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We also saw another species, the sooty moustached bat, after setting up what looked like a weaving loom to safely catch a few bats for a closer look. Unfortunately, the Other Half was tired from the long day and the two-hour drive to our hotel in Ponce that still faced us, so we didn’t wait long enough to see the red fruit bats emerge from the cave. In retrospect, we both wish we’d have stayed longer, but, to be fair, we also saw a lot of cool things.

For instance, we expressed interest in finding the Puerto Rican screech owls we could hear calling all around us, only for our guide to shake his head and say we probably wouldn’t find them. However, like with the coqui frogs, we took it as a challenge. Sure enough, on the way out of the reserve, we spotlighted two of the owls hiding high in the trees near the path. We were so excited, we almost missed the sleeping San Pedrito, or tody, that sleepily stirred from the low branches right next to us.

We also saw hundreds. And hundreds. Of large, thumping fireflies. It was like being in a garden of light; there were so many that it looked like the leaves on the trees were glowing in the moonlight. The fireflies in Puerto Rico aren’t normal fireflies, though. They look more like bark beetles with two glowing spots behind the head, and when you pick them up they tap you with a resounding click to get you to let them go.

And of course, the bane of all existence (at least according to dogs that have been poisoned by them), three cane toads joined us to hang out near our flashlight and try to catch something for diner.

Mata de Plátano was definitely the highlight of our trip. Next time, though, we’ll be better prepared for it. We’ll just have to rent a jeep, touch up on our Spanish, and aim for the stars. And the bats. Because those are the most important things.

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