As we said farewell to the Dominican Republic and saw its coast disappear behind us, the only thing separating us from Puerto Rico was 90 miles of open water in the Mona Passage. The Mona Passage is the stuff of legends for sailors. We have been hearing tales about this infamous body of water for years, and have dreaded crossing it. Sharp winds can interact with strong currents over some of the steepest underwater cliffs in the Atlantic Ocean to turn this relatively short crossing into a miserable, turbulent caldron. We had friends who crossed it before us regale us with accounts of non-stop mal de mer and confused seas that made forward progress difficult, and each mile a physical challenge for the crew.
We had waited for the most benign weather window possible to motor sail across this watery obstacle. The winds were not ideal since they were coming straight from the east, the direction we were going. But by choosing a night when the trade winds moderated and the wind shadow of Puerto Rico extended fairly far west, we gave ourselves the best chance possible to arrive in Puerto Rico quickly and with the contents of our stomachs intact.
Poseidon looked kindly on us and our plan worked! By choosing to cruise the less-traveled southern coast of the Dominican Republic, we were able to launch into the Mona Passage from a much more favorable position than those traveling from the north. This also reduced the distance traveled in the passage and likelihood of erratic storms. We were shocked at just how calm the sea was. It was not glassy, by any means; but no giant whirlpools, sea dragons, or hydra came for us. In fact, it was rather boring, and only a few cargo ships crossed our path in the distance to break the monotony of our night watches.
Sometime in the middle of the night, we silently slipped by Mona Island. By dawn, we were more than halfway and already feeling the effects of the large wind shadow that the mountains of Puerto Rico were casting on the ocean, tempering the waves even further. Around 9 am, we cruised into a placid and mostly empty bay by the seaside town of Boquerón, doused the sails, dropped anchor, called in our arrival to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, and promptly went to sleep. We were back in the USA!
Despite checking in with U.S. Customs by phone, the agent told us that we were required to show up in person, within twenty-four hours, at the nearest U.S. Customs office to complete our entrance documentation into the U.S. The nearest office is in Mayagüez, 25 kilometers north of our harbor. We dinghied ashore at the Club Nautico de Boquerón and took a cab to Mayagüez to rent a car for a few days. We not only wanted to clear Customs, but also provision and do some sight-seeing.
After trekking for over an hour by cab and car in heavy traffic, we arrived at the beautiful historic building that houses the local U.S. Customs office. When we told the agent our purpose for the visit, he became visibly annoyed. We thought we had done something wrong, until he apologized profusely for wasting our time. It appears that the phone agent has been misinforming cruisers and telling them to report in person when there is no such requirement. As if to emphasize his displeasure with his colleague, the local agent gave us a printout declaring our cleared status in comically large font that he then stamped. He said, “You don’t actually need this, but just in case you get hassled…” It seems that the U.S. is not exempt from inconsistent clearing procedures, and agents with overactive egos.
Now that we were officially back in the U.S., it was time to shop! While we enjoyed exploring the varieties of local shopping available in the Bahamas, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, there were certain things that we could only get in a U.S. territory. This is particularly true of some expensive tools and boat parts that were cost-prohibitive to buy elsewhere, when available. We also did the required grocery and liquor run before starting out sightseeing.
There were three places that Kimberly had researched for us to visit on the southwestern area of Puerto Rico: the historic town of San Germán, the remote mountain town of Maricao, and the towering red cliffs that give Cabo Rojo its name. Well, nature conspired to make sure we only got to visit two of the three.
San Germán was established in the 16th century and is the second oldest city in Puerto Rico. It was once the capital of the entire western part of the island. Built in 1609, the Porta Coeli (“Gateway to Heaven”) Convent church, or El Convento de Santo Domingo de Porta Coeli in Spanish, is one of the oldest church structures in the western hemisphere and a must see attraction. It is full of strangely interesting religious art. In fact, the entire San Germán town center is full of worthwhile attractions like the pharmacy museum, the art museum, and beautiful Spanish architecture.
Our attempts to reach the second tour for the day, the coffee plantation mountain town of Maricao, were halted when our rental car started sliding backwards down a steep road. It seems that you cannot get the economy car and expect to climb a 45 degree incline of wet asphalt in the middle of the rain forest. Who knew! The road was only wide enough for one car and we had a mountain on our left and a sheer cliff into a jungle abyss on our right. There was no turning the car around to go downhill front first. Kimberly jumped out in the rain to guide me as I positioned the tires as straight as possible to prevent us from sliding sideways down the cliff. A few inches at a time, we half drove/half slid the tiny excuse for an automobile down the wet road to the amused delight of a couple of locals. I’m sure they were placing bets on our chances of making it backward down the hill with the car intact. Why did we not get the collision damage waiver, dammit!!! Since I’m not writing this post from the bottom of a jungle abyss, we clearly made it out safely.
Undaunted, we pressed on the following day to explore the Cabo Rojo lighthouse and the nearby red cliffs. The lighthouse is beautiful, and the magnitude of the cliffs is breathtaking. Unlike many attractions in U.S. parks, the cliffs are not lined with protective barricades; you can get as close to the edge as you dare. There is a small memorial near one edge marking the tragic demise in 2011 of a young man who got too close, fell, and drowned before he could be rescued.
Despite having been at anchor for several days in the Boquerón Bay, we really had not explored the local town yet, so we beached our dinghy, Lagniappe, and went walking. Boquerón is not big, but it has a charming main street lined with beach shops, bars, restaurants, and tour operators. Just on the edge of town is a sprawling public beach that lines most of the bay. On the weekend, we saw dozens of local families setting up their chairs and umbrellas for a day of soaking in the water. Along the beach, Kimberly got to try fresh squeezed sugarcane juice for the first time. She’s hooked!
On the day we were ready to depart Boquerón, the winds were just too high for a comfortable passage, so we stayed. That means only one thing, boat work! Kimberly did laundry while I messed around with greasy things creating more for her to wash. As it always happens on a boat, if you look for things to do, you will find more than you want. Our fridge and freezer temps were running a bit higher than normal and I was able to track it down to our water circulating pump that helps remove heat from the compressors. Thousands of tiny barnacles, small enough to get past the screens, had taken residence in our pump and turned themselves into something resembling cement. Just another fun day aboard. At sundown we frolicked in the bay (i.e., took cruiser baths), hoisted Lagniappe, and headed south to stage for rounding Cabo Rojo at dawn. We spend the night at anchor under the watchful glow of the lighthouse and the protection of the red cliffs.
At first light, we hoisted the anchor and rounded Cabo Rojo. This was a momentous day, August 9th; we had been living at sea for ONE YEAR! They say that if you make it past your first year and still like cruising, that you will continue…well, we like it! By 9 am we were anchored next to a mangrove and reef system called Cayo Enrique, just off the coast of the town of La Parguera. This little reef offers excellent protection while still allowing for complete privacy and isolation. It also offers extremely clear and warm water. We saw several local boats come out just to spend the day swimming and relaxing. We jumped in near the edge of the reef and were rewarded with a colorful underwater garden and a close pass by a large spotted eagle ray coming in from the deep.
Just a couple of miles away from our anchorage was a must-see attraction, one of only five bioluminescent bays on earth. The shape and location of the bay create an unusual condition allowing bioluminescent creatures to thrive in large numbers. This also happened to be the night of the Perseid meteor shower. A double light show! We waited until the moon set at 1 am to eliminate any possible light interfering with our enjoyment of this amazing place, and dinghied in absolute darkness for a couple of miles, avoiding the reefs, to find the narrow entrance to Bahia Fosforescente. We were simply not prepared for what we saw. The slightest disturbance of the water caused an eerie and extremely bright glow. Our wake was on fire. After playing with the water from the dinghy, I couldn’t wait, I jumped in. My entire outline was shimmering, like making snow angels out of light while floating. Then we looked up. The sky was streaked with meteors every few seconds. We have seen meteor showers before, but never this abundant. The Milky Way seemed close enough to touch. We could have stared at the sky and the water for hours.
The next day we motored Pura Vida a few miles east to an even more secluded and protected anchorage at Bahia Montalva. The water was warm and perfectly still. Despite the afternoon winds, we felt absolutely no swell and had the whole bay to ourselves. It had been a while since we had gone spearfishing, and this place had potential. We dinghied to a channel between Arrecife Romero and Cayo Don Luis where the reef dropped from the water surface to about thirty feet.
Immediately we spotted a slipper lobster and speared it for Kimberly’s dinner. Kimberly spotted a large lionfish and I speared it. Boom, kill shot! Dinner was starting to look really good. I swam to the dinghy with Kimberly trailing on shark watch. This is something we always do when dangling a tasty bloody morsel in the water. Back on Lagniappe, I was eager to get the lionfish off the spear and keep hunting. That’s when the evil bastard came back to life and jerked. The pain told me immediately what I did not want to admit – I had just been stung by the very poisonous lionfish. As if in a well-planned act of revenge, the fish stung me on the tip of my spear trigger finger. My entire index finger felt like it was being crushed in a vice and set on fire at the same time. Kimberly jumped aboard and we headed back to Pura Vida for some first aid.
The initial recommended treatment for a lionfish sting is similar to that for a stingray, soak the affected area in very hot water for 90 minutes. While this helps neutralize some of the poison, it does nothing for the searing pain. I also immediately took pain killers and Benadryl to try to take the edge off the pain, and prevent any allergic reaction. We looked up nearby hospitals just in case things got worse. There have been cases of people suffering horrible infections following a sting and having to have chunks of tissue surgically removed. Fortunately, a visit to the ER was not necessary, but we called the Divers Alert Network (DAN) medical hotline to make sure we were taking the proper precautions. I did not sleep at all from the pain that night, and the next morning I started a week-long regimen of Cipro antibiotics to prevent infection. We had brought a stash of them on board for emergencies. After a couple of days, the pain became manageable and we kept a close eye on the nasty-looking fingertip. It took over a month for the tip of my finger to heal and I still have limited feeling accompanied by some pain when touching things, but I did not lose any significant amount of tissue, and lived to tell the tale. The score is still somewhere around John-Michael 70 – Lionfish 1; but damn, that one point was a doozy.
After a couple of days of convalescing and moping around the boat, I was ready to move to the next location. We motored a few more miles east to a bay near the town of Lajas. This is a picture-perfect bay lined with mangroves on one side and palm trees on small cliffs on the other. We were perfectly protected from any wind and waves. Best of all, we had the entire bay to ourselves. About a mile away, we could see the ferry boats taking tourists by the dozens to Cayo Aurora, aka Gilligan’s Island, but they never got close enough to disturb our tranquil anchorage. A short dinghy ride north of our anchorage we found a colorful eclectic gem of a local restaurant, Jacinto, which makes the best chicken empanadas we have ever had. After consuming several on the spot, we bought more to stock our freezer for a future passage. We also tried the only other restaurant in the area, which is the exact opposite of the extremely casual Jacinto. The Copamarina Beach
We had heard from friends and other cruisers that Gilligan’s Island is a must-see destination, so we dinghied over to check it out. The place was packed. About two dozen tourists get dropped off on the island every 30 minutes, and by the time we got there, there were hundreds of people swimming or lounging near the water. The island is a small mangrove cay with a unique feature, it has two channels that run its entire length with a strong current from the ocean. These channels create a natural lazy river in the shade of the mangrove trees and carry you to a shallow sand patch on the other end of the island. The swim up current is challenging, but the ride back is fantastic. The fast water flow has carved out ledges under the mangroves where scores of huge snapper lazily await their meals to swim by.
After a couple of weeks of secluded anchorages, we were ready for the big city. Plus, my birthday was approaching and I was dangerously low on IPA beers. We had reserved a slip at the Ponce Yacht and Fishing Club for a couple of weeks and were having tons of boat parts and other goodies delivered there to coincide with our arrival. Ponce, the second-largest city in Puerto Rico, was our first port of call since leaving the Florida Keys in January where we could have Amazon Prime deliveries, so we enthusiastically exercised our pent-up demand. With great anticipation of all that city life offers, we bid farewell to our secluded bay at dawn and hoisted the mainsail for the twenty-mile journey to Ponce.