An American Abroad

The Doña Juana Waterfall: Puerto Rico 72 Hours Before Hurricane Maria

Continuing my story of what Puerto Rico was like just before it was ravaged by Hurricane Maria . . .

After my quick stop in Salinas, I continued west. Midway between Santa Isabel and Ponce, I swung north on Route 149 and back up into the mountains again. The road changed from four lanes of pavement to two lanes to something more like one and a half lanes of dirt.

Signage was bad and the GPS on my mobile phone was going wonky, so somewhere I made a wrong turn. In a few kilometers, I found myself on a dirt track so narrow that the jungle reached in and brushed Yosuke (my Toyota 4Runner) on both sides. The road got incredibly steep, steeper than any incline I have ever driven. I watched nervously as my dashboard temperature gauge started to climb along with me. I’d left my inclinometer at home, but I estimate I was on a 40% slope. My windshield was filled with palm fronds and blue sky.

I turned gingerly through several sharp switchbacks, U-turns so tight and so steep I had to crank the steering wheel all the way to the right just to make it. Two times Yosuke broke traction on the incline and I had a terrifying vision of sliding backward off the road and down the mountain. I had no choice but to go forward, though, since there were few places wide enough to turn around. It seemed to take forever, but after about 1.5 kilometers, I found a little house with a turnout just wide enough for Yosuke to navigate. Back down the mountainside I went, worrying now about how well my brakes would hold me on the gravel trail.

I figured out where I’d made my navigation error and headed north again on the correct route. This road was only a little better than the one I’d just left, but it was paved for the most part and wasn’t quite as steep. Occasionally I passed by the sobering wrecks of vehicles that had slid off the road and rolled down the steep embankment.

My goal was to find the Doña Juana waterfall, which my guidebook said was the highest waterfall on the island. Puerto Rico is not exactly noted for its waterfalls, and at only about 200 feet, Doña Juana was not exactly world-class, but it was my goal nonetheless. Having an objective, no matter how slight or silly, motivates me to keep on traveling. I began to pass over small mountain streams and occasionally got a peek at the valley below.

Finally, I passed by the Doña Juana falls, but since the site is hardly a tourist attraction, there was no place to park. The road was so narrow that I couldn’t just stop and get out without blocking traffic, so I continued another kilometer down the road, found a place turn turn around, headed back, pulled over where the road was slightly wider, and walked the rest of the way. Next to my parking spot was an impenetrable wall of jungle.

The waterfall was refreshingly uncommercialized. There wasn’t even so much as a marker or a plaque, much less anything like a gift shop or souvenir stand. This pleased me.

I was here:

I took a few photos, got back into the truck, and continued back down the mountain to the coast, where I continued my travels west.

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