Everyone was working hard yesterday getting the Rainforestinn ready for our winter season. Laurie was pressure washing the big porch by the pond. Thomas (our volunteer from New Zealand) was grinding down the cement floor for the new gym. Jon and Caitlin were putting in the electric and water lines for our new aqua-ponics greenhouse which will use water pumped from the pond for the hydroponics. Anna (our volunteer from Maine who was returning for a visit) was in the new yoga room working on a photoshoot so that we can post some pictures on our website.
September 13th, 2012 · bed and breakfast construction, rainforest
The lawn in front of the rainforest inn villa overlooks the Caribbean sea. Because it’s often too muddy to walk on Curtis Humphrey, who volunteered with us a couple of years back, built some amazing brick paths. He designed them to spiral out from the center. This design, like the rays of the sun, called for something interesting for the focus. We found an old stone carved bird bath at an importers and installed it in the center.
Normally that would be the end of it. Beautiful bird bath and lots of birds in the rainforest. But the birds never visited our welcoming bath. And we are lucky to have plenty of birds. Lizard cuckoos in the tree by the driveway, the monkey call of the Puerto Rican screech owl, Guaraguas high overhead, humming birds, vireos, Puerto Rican todies visiting every tree and bush, hovering over the pond, everywhere you look except the bird bath. Our rainforest birds weren’t the least interested in our bird bath. It rains here constantly, there’s water everywhere, so a bird bath in the rainforest is completely useless.
It’s pretty sunny on the villa front lawn (when it’s not raining) and it seemed ideal for a sundial. They’re not available in Puerto Rico (I didn’t consider that there might be a reason you don’t see sundials here) so I started searching eBay for sundials. They are plentiful on eBay. Lots of choices, different materials, brass, ceramic, cast iron, and different styles: horizontal dials, vertical dials, equatorial dials, polar dials, analemmatic dials. We settled on horizontal dials as thats the one you most commonly see in a garden with the wedge shaped gnomon pointing north. You see I was learning the nomenclature. Sundials aren’t that simple. Ebay had lots of horizontal sundials for sale and I measured the birdbath to see what size it should be.
Next I filled in the birdbath with concrete and tiled it with a nice compass dial pattern of Travertine (limestone) tiles. I cut them to size around the edges and glued the vertical ones on with epoxy and later set the surface ones in thin set. Then I grouted it with a nice bronze colored sanded grout. It looked great, ready for the sundial.
Luckily I didn’t buy one of the factory made sundials on eBay. They would have looked good but they wouldn’t have told time. It turns out that bird baths aren’t the only thing that doesn’t work in the rainforest. Sundials, the factory made variety, are setup with a gnomon and face markings for the northern latitudes. Down here in Puerto Rico, near the equator, they have to be custom designed. So now the whole sundial project was in question. As you can see in the photo though the bird bath did look good with a tiled face and it certainly wasn’t a bird bath anymore.
I kept looking at sundials on eBay and then I saw the perfect one. The eBay listing said: “Working sundial custom made for your location.” firstname.lastname@example.org would design the sundial based on my latitude and cut it out of steel using a plasma torch. He had an example of his work shown (held by a goat) and it looked like exactly what we wanted. I sent Jamison the PayPal purchase and a couple of phone calls later (turns out he’s from Maine like my wife) he built our new sundial and mailed it down to us in Puerto Rico. He powder coated it with bronze paint baked in an oven so it wouldn’t rust in the constant rains and I mounted it slightly raised so it would drain off and stay as dry as possible. And it tells time.
July 24th, 2012 · Rainforest Hiking
Sometimes our adventurous guests (and nearly all of them are) arrive at our inn without the preferred clothes and shoes to wear on the untamed trails which we recommend. Sometimes they call or email first but too often they show us their Tevas or trail running shoes after they get here and ask (looking down at their feet) if they would be ok. Packing for traveling is tricky. You need footwear that can do double-time. Most people bring Tevas and sneakers because they know they will be walking in the city, on the beach, or at the airport. Of course you can wear anything on the approved “Disney” trails in the center of the rainforest where the visitor center is and where the hordes of tourists flock together. On those manicured and paved trails with the rest stops around each turn (to duck out of the rain) and the informative signs, you can wear flip-flops (called chancletas here) and shorts and have no problem. But on the Indiana Jones style trails we recommend at the rainforest inn (when asked by our guests for something adventurous) you would be in trouble. You have to wear long pants, consider a long-sleeved shirt and leather gloves. I also like to wear a good stout hat because I don’t like how the spider webs feel in my face nor denizens crawling in my hair. Also the hat is good for the constant rain (no little trail huts to duck into on the real jungle trails).
A poncho is really not necessary because they are hot and the hat takes care of most of the bother from our warm tropical showers. You might want to carry a small poncho or windbreaker for the high cool mountain rains. I recommend Tilly hat’s as they wash easily, pack well, and are comfortable. They are versatile hats that you can wear on the beach and sight seeing as well. For eyewear, you don’t need sunglasses in the jungle. You’re under the canopy and you want to be able to see trail markers and cool creatures (boas are very hard to spot with their camouflage). Pants that are the kind you zip off the bottom legs are great especially for swimming if you don’t want to go natural (the swimming holes we send you to are way off the beaten path and it’s very unlikely there will be anyone seeing you). Shirts can be any of the new travel shirts. Long sleeves are best (you can roll them up). You have to protect your arms and legs because of the combination of razor grass and the “Christmas bush” which is in a few areas of some of the deep jungle trails. The Christmas bush has an intense poison ivy effect which in combination with the razor grass cuts could spoil your vacation. Please remember that we are talking about intense jungle treks not the manicured hikes that are also offered in the El Yunque rainforest. We can also recommend some easy hikes with open improved trails which are not in dense jungle but are under the canopy and are also only hiked by our guests (hopefully no former guests will post a blog saying how to get to some of these places).
The most important thing is to bring the right shoes. I wear a New Balance Minamus and absolutely love them. The sole has some little lugs which help keep you from slipping but the big advantage is how thin it is so the flexing action of your foot knocks the mud off and your foot can hug the elevations and textures of the trail. Hiking boots or trail running shoes just become caked mud ice skates. Laurie wears bright lime green and black inov-8 bare-grip 200 with the larger lugs that offers more thickness in the sole than my Minamus shoes. She says (of my shoes) that if she wanted to go barefoot she would “go barefoot”. These shoes are pricy but worth it but less expensive than a good hiking boot. Laurie’s shoe is popular with rough terrain trail runners. The important thing is to find a shoe with a thin flexible sole that has widely spaced lugs. The inov-8 also has plenty of comfortable toe room. Both shoes hose off the mud easily and dry out with no damage. We stand them up on a small table with a fan on them overnight ready for our next early morning jungle escape. In the photo of the shoes the black shoes with the “N” are my New Balance Minamus, the lime green ones are Laurie’s Inov-8 bare grip 200. There are newer models of these shoes out now but just be sure the sole is thin and has some wide spaced lugs. Field hockey shoes (one of our guests wore those on a hike) work well too.
June 3rd, 2010 · , puerto rico, rainforest
Most any adventure is found because of the perceptions you bring with you. This blog is not for the person who can’t leave “home” behind or thinks even the color of the coffee is a problem. It is for the fearless at heart and the romantic of mind. Nothing kills a great vacation like inflexibility and rigidness. You could have a much nicer vacation if you don’t sweat the small details. Oh and don’t forget to leave your huge expectations at home. Sure we all like that familiar schedule of our daily life but accepting the challenges of traveling often changes your life in unforeseen ways, sometimes even dramatically. How often do you walk down a 200 year old cobblestone street hand in hand and then dine at a sidewalk cafe or do you take a hike deep into the rainforest and get lost to find yourself sleeping there for the night? It’s romantic to have couple time and to commune with nature, being in an unfamiliar place adds the spice. We recently had a couple staying with us who turned what could have been a hiking disaster into an adventure and a remarkable memory. More on that a little later.
Our tiny bed and breakfast has all kinds of guests from all walks of life and all age groups. The best traveling guests can not be anticipated ahead of time, unless of course they are the guests that should have been recommended to another more commodious (read “stuffy resort”) place in the beginning.
Here at the Rainforest Inn we are urban pioneers of a sort. We have gotten used to going with plan B from the first days of our repairs of a hurricane ravaged family estate. Before we opened our bed and breakfast we didn’t have electricity or running water. Now that calls for a lot of flexibility. I won’t say we didn’t want to kill each other once in a while, then that same evening we would have a candle light dinner on the roof of one of the unfinished buildings on the property. Don’t think for a minute that we didn’t sometimes say W.T.H. did we get ourselves into, but that’s another whole blog.
Nick and Ena’s hiking disaster happened after they made it to a secret waterfall deep in the El Yunque Rainforest on the Mameyes river that we had talked about as a potential hiking destination. This is a spot reserved for only the adventurous and not easy to find. It’s off a trail that is not one of the paved easy trails that everyone else takes. It’s located past the end of a steep muddy trail up a ways deeper in the rainforest and even more secluded.
In the photo: Behind the large rock in the center of the pool in front of the waterfall is deeper water where you can swim in and out under the full force of the falls. This secret waterfall is one of the nicest in El Yunque tropical rainforest. As an aside, an important aside, please don’t send me an email asking for directions to this waterfall. It’s not that we don’t want people going there (or maybe that’s part of it because it is a really unspoiled location) but it’s the danger of hiking there that must be made very clear first. We also talk with our guests at breakfast about other easier hikes and about what you can do to avoid getting lost and what you should do once you know you’re lost, then they make their decision on which hikes are for them.
Because this is not the first time I’ve been involved in rescue process of someone lost in the rainforest I’ve learned some things, many of which are counter-intuitive and surprising. There are great differences between our El Yunque rainforest of Puerto Rico and the northern deciduous forest where most of our visitors have gotten their hiking experience.
The rainforest is a “jungle”. It’s very dense and everywhere confusing green growth blocks your view. I guess most people realize this as it’s what jungle means. Once a hiker goes off the trail he won’t be able to see far enough to find the trail again and it will be very difficult to make your way through the dense growth and even more difficult to plan your route as cliffs and other obstacles won’t be visible until you’re right on top of them.
The usual boy scout rules for what to do when you’re lost don’t apply here. Don’t stay where you are (unless you’re injured and still on the trail — if you’re injured and lost then you’re really screwed which I will explain soon too).
Please understand two important differences about the process of searching for lost hikers in the El Yunque rainforest of Puerto Rico and how it would be done in a vast northern forest like the Appalachians or the Sierra Nevada.
1. Puerto Rico is a small island. It is only thirty miles by one hundred miles. You could walk from one side to the other (from the Caribbean to the Atlantic) in less than two days.
2. We don’t have search planes (or at least we don’t use them in the rescue process) and we certainly don’t have helicopters with advanced infrared devices that will find you in the jungle (that would be nice but it is only happens in the movies).
When someone is lost in the rainforest we find out because the hikers told us or told someone else where they were going that day and they haven’t returned by the next morning. For our guests we always strongly suggest they give us an itinerary of the hikes they plan to do and when. The first step after that is to look and see if their car is parked at the trail head where they said they were going. Then we hike down the trail to see if we find them down there still because they may be injured. This time I was in San Juan working so my nephew Jimmy volunteered to hike down the trail. In the worse case we look for evidence that there was a flash flood in the nearby swimming areas. We also take a very loud air horn which can be heard like from my bed and breakfast to the peak of El Yunque and back. But everytime I’ve done this first step I’ve never found anyone and luckily never found evidence of someone being injured.
The next step is to report the missing hikers to the El Yunque security patrol officers (or often done as part of the first step). In this case we called Jose Ayala the law enforcement patrol captain of the U.S. forest service enforcement and investigative branch. They have arrangements with the local Department of Natural Resources and the Rio Grande rescue volunteers and they will organize and mobilize the vast effort to find someone who is lost. It is important to realize that this next step is costly and will likely involve many days of fruitless searching because as I explained earlier the rainforest is dense and visibility is poor so our searchers will practically have to step on you before they find you. This is why if you get lost in the rainforest and then get injured you are in such deep trouble. It will likely be several days or more before you are found. So please if you find yourself lost and you don’t have a map, or a compass, or a GPS or a cell phone then avoid panic. Realize that all is not lost. It will be fairly straight forward to walk out of there. If you have no idea which direction to walk then go down hill. Follow a stream. Be careful with the slippery rocks and go around impassible brush while you walk beside the stream following it down hill. Eventually that stream will hit the ocean and well before that you will encounter a road and civilization. Puerto Rico is a small densely populated island and there are houses everywhere.
Our guests Nick and Ena got lost when it started raining on their way out. In their hurry to get out of the rain and because of poor visibility they got off the trail. They knew that they could find their way out and didn’t give up even when the straight line route (you can catch glimpses of the sun or go by elevation changes to be sure you’re not walking in circles) ended at a cliff and several patches of nearly impassible brush. As darkness was descending upon them they realized they were spending the night in the rainforest. They had drinking water (never hike anywhere without enough drinking water) and it doesn’t get so cold at night here but you will spend an uncomfortable hungry night. They spent the night, watched the sunset and the darkness close in while listening to the raucous jungle sounds. Ena discovered some insect life she would have rather not have known so intimately while she tried to sleep.
The following morning Nick spotted a coke can up the hill and later a discarded tire (they were happy to see the litter of civilization) and walked up past that to find the road. We hadn’t yet mobilized the search and rescue crew and everyone went back to the Rainforest Inn. Ena mentioned they were disappointed that they would miss the ginger pancakes breakfast. We were very happy to see them when they returned at around noon or so and made them their ginger pancakes for lunch. They are now looking forward to their next visit to Puerto Rico and some more hikes, possibly shorter hikes.
Nick and Ena are the perfect example of your fearless and romantic travelers who learned first hand that life is what it is and so is traveling!
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April 23rd, 2010 · , Fish Pond
We’re nearly finished now. Laurie has moved all the rocks around the edge so that you can’t see the pond liner.
This illustration shows how the bottom rock is inset and the water level comes up halfway on that rock. We did it like this except we ran the pond liner up higher behind the second rock so that the level of the water comes up to nearly the same height as the surrounding dirt. In fact on the patio side of the pond we put the liner across a shelf and up high behind the rocks which border the patio. This is now filled with dirt contained with plastic ground cloth so that we can plant bog loving water plants there. The papyrus and the sealing wax palms are two of the bog-loving plants.
I hope everyone isn’t completely bored with these updates of our pond project. I took a picture of Laurie right after she finished hiding the liner edge with rocks.
Now the only thing left to do is for me to fix the leak in the bio-filter tank and fill it with stones so we can turn our waterfall on and start the filtration process. I’m also getting a little excited about planting water lilies and lotus flowers. They are really pretty flowers. They open every morning and close at night. I’m not really a gardener. Laurie does all the planting. I usually just build the infra-structure and maybe plant an occasional useful plant like a fruit tree or a papaya. But these water lilies are really fun to watch bloom. You also don’t have to do any weeding. Having a lot of lilies and lotus flowers will limit the type of fish that we can put in the pond though. Koi will eat the lilies and root around in your underwater pots damaging them. I think we may just stick with some of the amazing varieties of gold fish. Large orange gold fish and black moor gold fish swimming around will be beautiful and the just eat dog food like our other small fish that we put in to make sure there would be no mosquito larvae.
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March 31st, 2010 · Fish Pond
I took a couple of pictures of Laurie and Joss moving the big rocks away from the pond edge. It illustrates how strong a woman and a boy team can be.
If I was an artist I would also insert a nice drawing showing what we are trying to accomplish here but instead we will make do with words. The pond is lined with black plastic but the pond is supposed to look like a natural jungle pond (ideally a peaceful zen-like pond) which you might stumble upon while hiking in the jungle so the black plastic needs to be hidden. We found out after we had all the rocks in place that one side of the pond was a little high so it was difficult to hide the black plastic on that side with rocks. We also realized that the best way to hide the plastic is to have a shelf of rocks a little way below the top level of the pond. We are achieving this by pulling out one layer of sand bags on the high side. It is also necessary to back fill dirt very close to the edge so that we can root plants that will drape over in places and also look natural. The plastic will loop up a little behind the low level of rocks before we back fill with more rocks and dirt. This will contain the water when we bring the level of the pond up again.
It sounds so easy when I describe it like that. For those of you who are reading this with the intent to build your own pond I suggest that you plan having that small shelf about a foot below the final level all around your pond. Then below that you should have another wider shelf of about 18 inches deep to place low beds of contained soil for your lilies. The shelf we put in was a little deep so we had to raise our soil beds with concrete blocks.
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March 21st, 2010 · , bed and breakfast construction
It seems like every year there’s a new buzz-word for the way we do things at the rainforest inn.
- Appropriate Technology
We do them all. We collect rainwater in cisterns. We compost. We built the high post-and-beam ceilings out of old cedar recycled from the large old multi-family home that was here before and destroyed by two hurricanes. We grow lettuce in old gutters. We’re just finishing an aqua-culture pool, recycled from a big old cracked swimming pool, that will grow tilapia for our dinner from the many decorative plants that thrive in the pond water (actually pond scum). We save electricity every chance we get and are moving on to the installation of a large windmill (when the technology is there with enough reliability and absolute quietness like we’re used to here). Our septic system is split with gray water for the gardens. The aqua-culture filtration tank will have lettuce and tomatoes growing in it (and big beef steak tomatoes are impossible to grow in the heavy rains up here any other way).
But why do we happen to be running a bed and breakfast that fits in with all the new eco-lodge projects and incorporates so many buzz-words? Do we study on the internet all the coolest things and copy them or is it a coincidence? I think there is an explanation for the coincidence. We built our finest “wedding suite” from recycled cedar because it was beautiful wood but mainly because re-cycled wood was free. We collect rain water in cisterns because, at the time, there was no other water source. We conserve electricity, have green hot water heaters, high ceilings with large breezy windows and many fans because electricity here is so expensive. We orient the houses and the windows to catch the constant cool trade winds. All the power on the island is from imported oil burned in inefficient power plants and very costly. We grow spices, papaya and bananas and everything else we can because it makes the best yummy fresh breakfasts for our guests and (similar theme here?) it saves us money.
I think the same thing is happening with a lot of other small businesses and households like ours. The solutions seems to be to try and supplement your power with solar and wind resources. Grow your own. Enjoy what you have and be creative with your new projects.
Don’t feel bad if someone asks you why your latest project is taking so long to finish. It turns out that doing everything yourself slowly and buying each of the components as you can makes for far more interesting results. It is a lot more fun and rewarding to know that most of that construction was done with your own hands. And it is sure a lot of fun showing guests around our completed projects and basking in the admiration.
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March 12th, 2010 · Fish Pond
We have started planting lilies in our pond. We have found some purple ones, some white ones, and some bluish ones. We got them from friends and from one of the nearby resort hotels. You can go to any hotel with a pond feature and talk to the gardeners. They have to thin out the ponds all the time and they just throw away the plants they pull out. You can see in the picture at the left that new roots grow out on the stems of the big leaves. Just cut off the big stem to separate it from the larger plant and put those roots down in your pot. Try to find a pot with a pretty big mouth as the tubers reproduce and grow sideways. Line the pot with plastic weed cloth to keep the dirt in and use dirt that has none of those little floaty white things in it (vermiculite?) like you find in potting soil. We used a mixture of sand, clay and composted manure. Wrap the edges of the weed cloth over the top around the plant and put gravel or small stones all over to hold the dirt in. You want the pot to be about 12 to 18 inches (the top of the pot) below the waterline. We used concrete blocks under the pot to bring it up to the right level. The leaves and flowers float up to the surface and the roots (hopefully) stay down in the pot. If your pond is small and shallow you can just put the roots down in the muck at the bottom of the pond. If you look closely at the photo of the purple lily you can just see the top edge of the pot and you can see some pots behind it that have smaller lilies that haven’t grown up to the water surface yet. We are madly planting as many water plants as possible to reduce the amount of sun that penetrates the water because we have seen algae blooms before and would rather not have any in this pond.
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March 7th, 2010 · , bed and breakfast construction, Fish Pond
Well still no fish, at least none that you can see easily. There are guppies and some other bug larvae eating fish called a Pleco. The guppies are pretty with colorful tails but they don’t show off much and it’s a big pond. It will be a while before we can introduce larger fish. The next species will probably be a bunch (gaggle, school?) of gold fish as they also eat mosquito larvae and we are proud of the fact that there are practically no mosquitoes this high in the rainforest so we plan to keep any lost mosquitoes from breeding in our pond. Not just lost. The mosquitoes that make it up here have to go through a gauntlet of coquis, geckos, anoles, and the voracious bats which madly dart about the sky every evening eating everything.
I finished the wiring for the pond lights and tried them out with the bulbs they came with. Far too bright (as you can see in the photo). We want a subtle light that makes you want to walk out by the pond and enjoy the sound of the waterfall and not risk a migraine. We replaced those bulbs with some energy efficient tear-drop shaped bulbs that look pretty good. I had to do a lot of work on the wiring because the conduit I put in is below the liner where it’s raised up on the side there but the outlets were just at the waterline which I realized was not such a good idea. I put in waterproof covers (adding an extra coating of magic silicone/acrylic stuff and covering in waterproof clay before putting the liner back in place. This involved shifting a lot of dense heavy boulders and I had to fish in new wire in conduit and outlets that are now high enough to not risk electrocuting an inquisitive fish.
Laurie and Laurie are starting to plant around the pond. They put in my favorite, a sealing wax palm which you can see there to the right of the bio-filter tank. I wanted to plant the palm in the pond in a large pot because I read on the internet (see you’re not the only one) that sealing wax palms are swamp creatures and thrive in bogs. But I talked to a local pond expert and he told me that the container would have to be only partly submerged and we would have to disguise the upper part of the container with plants that drape over. Since we are having enough trouble moving rocks around and later planting plants to disguise the black liner my wife (one of the Laurie’s) vetoed that plan. But I don’t mind as I got my sealing wax palm and I think it is beautiful. The palm was courtesy of Marina and Wally who own the nearby Villa Sevilla Vacation rentals. They also gave us some bromeliads and a couple of small palms equally as rare as the sealing wax palm which grow up to be dangerous thorn covered masterpieces. You can see that I’m testing the waterfall in this photo. There is still some work to make that look natural.
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February 11th, 2010 · , Fish Pond
As you can see in the picture we have cleared all around the old pool and finished putting all the sandbags in. The block walls of the bio-filter are also in place. You can’t see it but all the underground pipes and conduit for the pump power and lights are in place too. The next thing we have to do is add big stone walls to make it look nice (we hope).
What have we learned so far? Lesson #1 when laying a block wall. Even if you don’t have much cement left and even if Home Depot is closed early on Sunday it still is not a good idea to try and conserve cement by changing the 1 to 3 ratio of cement (along with 25% calcium carbonate added to the cement) to sand. It turns out that the resulting mortar looks just the same but doesn’t stick the concrete blocks together. We had to redo the first course of blocks the next day when we bought some cement.
Kadafi’s big truck arrived today with the stone. It is from a local “Cantera” and each load of stone costs $200. I will need one more load of smaller stones to place around the tank. The following quicktime video is of the truck dumping the load. It was more spectacular in person because the ground shook.
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