Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Vieques Puerto Rico - Part 4: Beaches of Babylon

The combination of white sand and turquoise water has long been the travel agent's favoured remedy for sun starved urbanites jonesing for a break from grey concrete and greyer skies.  The suggestion is that once your toes touch the sand you will completely forget your boss is an asshole and your spouse is cheating on you. Providing you aren't on holiday with either you can guarantee the beaches of Vieques quell the urge to go on a killing spree in the office/family home (for a few months at least).

With that in mind, coming to Vieques without visiting the wildlife refuge beaches is like going to Oktoberfest and have a mineral water with your salad.  These are the jewels in the Vieques crown and are not to be missed.  When the Viequenses kicked the Navy out in 2003 they not only waved off their supposed oppressors but achieved the added bonus of suddenly having access to miles of pristine coastline that was previously out of bounds to the general public. 

Seventy years of Navy control has meant no hotels, restaurants, vendors and all the other man made crap built in the name of convenience that clutters up most of world's natural beauty.  What we have left is a smorgasbord of postcard pretty beaches you can now explore at your leisure.

Despite their undeniable beauty there is a darker side to the Navy's occupation.  The EPA has confirmed there are still residual traces of ambient pollution in the form of mercury, lead, uranium and napalm from all the munitions testing that has taken place over the years. It's not enough to cause you to grow an extra head but probably not going to increase your life expectancy. 

In fact the Puerto Rican Health Department has deemed this pollution to be the cause for a 27% increase in cancer rates on the island compared to the mainland.  Lawyers have been rubbing their hands with glee at this news and have served legal proceedings faster than Usain Bolt ordering some McNuggets.

Nowadays, it is hard to believe the Navy were the polluting ogres they are claimed to be. I cycled all over the preserve and there is hardly any visible evidence the Navy were ever even there.  The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service now manage the site which is the largest national refuge in the Caribbean.

Appearances can be deceiving though. Critics have argued that much of the inaccessible eastern area have been converted to refuge status purely as a ploy to keep humans out and avoid the expensive large scale clean up required or remove all unexploded ordinance and toxic chemicals from the island.  Until they teach the manatee to sweep for bombs and drink the chemicals they will remain out of sight and out of mind in the dense foliage and Caribbean waters.

Whilst the damage to humans is still a matter of conjecture I have to say, outside of the sea, I noticed a distinct lack of nature within the preserve.  Very few birds, lizards or other mammals are visible in an area which has had little or no human habitation gives me cause for concern.  This may have to do with pollution or possibly be caused by the numerous mongoose you will see flitting in and out of bushes.  They seem to be the island's success story and no doubt have played a part in reducing the number of birds.

One thing I want to clear up is the out of date info on the Internet about roads being so treacherous you need a Hummer to navigate them.  This may have been the case a few years ago but is not so now.  From Esperanza its a smooth, pleasant 7 mile cycle to Blue Beach via the PR997 on a mixture of asphalt and hard grit roads and the bonus is there are no large hills. In fact the road is completely paved all the way to Red Beach. You could roller skate there! (if you were mental).  If you want to investigate Orchid Beach and Secret Beach you could easily park up and walk as these roads are still a bit "rustic" but not as bad as I was expecting.

The first main beach of note past the Old Camp Garcia gates is Playa Caracas or Red Beach (the old Navy names seem to be on their way out now). I was there on a Tuesday (it might have been a holiday)and the car park was bumper to bumper with SUV's. Caracas is a broad bay of light sand with calm turquoise water which is perfect for families.  A group of youngsters were getting their drink on and were using their van as a makehift sound system with reggaeton up to 11 .  It's not a beach to come if you want solitude as it is likely to be full of sociable Puerto Ricans.

Of course us Europeans are more introspective and seek out the furthest most untouched beaches to fulfil some sort of Robinson Crusoe fantasy.  Don't worry, a bit further along there is something for the castaways amongst you .  Heading out from Caracas the road stops being tarmac and goes into a dusty hard grit bordered by thick forests of sea grape and sand spurs.

Its about 3 miles to Blue Beach (Playa Chiva) which is not just one beach but a large stretch of coastline (over a mile at least) with multiple access points (I counted at least 12 numbered entrances) each with their own little lane or car park area. You can dip down into one of the lanes emerge onto the beach and see if that stretch takes your fancy (or is secluded enough for you). If not just carry on down the road.

I choose a spot just left of Cayo Chiva, a rocky pancake of an island within swimming distance, and comandeer a nice little beach amongst the rocks with some shade and some prime snorkeling.  I had planned on swimming out to the island only to be put off by the conspicuous notices warning that I might be blown up by unexploded ordinance.  Chatting to the locals I was told that people have been swimming here for years but because of the rise of recent litigation warning notices have been plastered all over the area just in case any one was stupid enough to want to take home a souvenir.

Banned from swimming out I console myself with some excellent snorkeling from the shore.  I spot some fearsome barracuda (they look mean but won't hurt you unless provoked) peering at the abundant schools of fish in a healthy looking coral system.  There are tons of spiny sea urchins in this area so swim shoes are advised.

Just as I am about to head back in I see one of the most beautiful sights a snorkeller could wish for.  A huge green sea turtle about the size of an SUV hubcap floats by in front of my eyes and gracefully flaps away like a lazy bird flying through treacle. I follow at a respectful distance as it munches away on the plentful sea grass and occasionally it comes to the surface to open its beak and gulp down some sea air.

I shout over to a couple I met from St Thomas whose wife has been looking for a turtle all holiday and she comes bounding out into the sea. It is only then I realised turtles can really motor when they feel disturbed as at top speed we are unable to keep up with it any further.

If you want even more isolation you can head a mile or so over to Playa Escondida (Secret Beach) at a clearly sign posted fork in the road.  If driving, a SUV is essential as the access road to this beach is steep and rocky with barely enough room for two cars.  This narrow beach really is tucked away behind verdant hills and almost hidden from view. There were remenants of makeshift chairs and tables in the surrounding vegetation. I can only imagine what a cool party you could throw on this beach if you could be bothered to lug all the gear here with you.

The last accesible beach in this area is Playa La Plata (Orchid Beach). The terrain changes once again on the way here as huge Mesquite cacti loom out of the bush. This really is not a good time to get a puncture as you are miles from "civilisation", the mobile signal is non existant and the thorns of these bad boys go through car tyres like a knife through butter. 

I pay careful attention to the road and suddenly emerge through the sea grape onto a rustic swathe of open white sand facing the broad bay of Ensenada Honda. There are a few intrepid visitors on this beach (maybe the "end of the line" kudos as attracted the castaways) and an enterprising couple have made a fort out of palm tree fronds and bamboo poles to protect themselves from the tropical sun.

After a few minutes relaxing on this beach you may well consider moving in with them and giving your boss the middle finger.  There is no better life then that of a castaway.

In the new year: The absolute last blog on Vieques : Bio-Bay Baby!

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Trip Report: Vieques Puerto Rico Part 3 - Piers, Bunkers and Isabel Segunda

After yesterday's adventures I felt confident enough to tackle a long ride today. They don't come much longer or hotter then cycling from Esperanza via Isabel Segunda to Playa Arenas on the North-western tip. You need to take plenty of water and fill up when you can because its definitely thirsty work.

From Esperanza the easiest way to the North coast (if not necessarily the quickest) is to head up PR201 over the spine of the island past the turn off for the Wildlife Refuge beaches. The road is perfect with forest on either side and respectful motorists even though I saw only one either cyclist the entire day. Its only 5 miles to Isabel II but you do have to negotiate a reasonably large hill. The freewheel down kind of makes up for it though (I'm lying).

Compared to soporific Esperanza, Isabel II is a bustling metropolis with that typical faded Latin port charm that you find in the Caribbean. It has a lot more locals here so you do get more of a Boricueño experience. There are banks, hardware stores and estate agents but its not a particularly pretty town as all the original Spanish architecture has no doubt been wiped out by the regular hurricanes that lash the coast.

I grab some provisions from a colmado and head to the only historical structure of note, Fortin Conde de Mirasol, situated on a bluff overlooking the town. It a nice enough fort with some cannons, a museum and impressive views of the town but compared with the grand offerings in Old San Juan its like watching your local park football team after seeing a Barcelona master class at the Nou Camp.

From Isabel II its 10 miles west to Laguna Arenas and the first leg out of town isn't the most picturesque. People wonder why I bang on about cycling but there are a disproportionate amount of cars for such a lightly populated island and most of them congregate on this stretch. Luckily, you only have to put up with exhaust fumes for the first 4 miles of the PR200 because as soon as you get past the airport the traffic melts away and you are left with some wonderful countryside with a 28 Days Later vibe.

Just past the airport is the island's famous 300 yr old Ceiba tree. The Ceiba tree is respected in this part of the world and rumoured to have mystical powers and connections to the underworld. It just looks like a big thorny tree to me. There is a little beach here where I hang out with a Puerto Rican family doing what they do best; chilling on the beach. They pull their van into the shade of some palm trees, crank up the salsa music and get the barbeque going. Bliss.

A bit further along, Mosquito Pier is something of a curate's egg. A mile long stretch of concrete sea wall built in the 1940's it was initially planned to stretch all the way to the mainland and would have housed a huge naval base to rival Pearl Harbour. However, the project was abandoned early in its construction after the US realised it was unnecessary and risky have all their naval eggs in one basket.

Despite being over 70 years old it looks like there is some newer construction in the distance so I cycle to the end only to be stopped by a chain link fence protecting a run down guard house and little else. A forlorn security guard plods about and is only too happy to have someone to talk to when I make eye contact.

He tells me that six years ago the end of the pier was refurbished and there were grand plans to turn the structure into a cruise ship port. Unfortunately the project has been mired in red tape and "politica" and the poor guy had been made to stand there, like a character in a Franz Kafka novel, mindlessly protecting a few planks of wood for no discernable reason. To combat the boredom he has taken to livening up his empty days by creating little stone sculptures on the surrounding rocks. I humour him by taking some photos whilst simultaneously feeling his ennui.

Carrying on a few miles down the road there isn't a soul to be seen. The countryside opens up and the horses wander about freely oblivious to my presence. There is a derelict creeper covered church silently rotting by the side of the road. For me this part of the island is the biggest draw as aside from the strip of grey asphalt snaking its way through the foliage you get a sense that the island has looked much this way for thousands of years.

Another reason to come this far out is to have a snoop round the military bunkers the Navy used to store ammo. These Cold War remnants are not that well sign posted so you have take a left about 4 miles past Mosquito Pier to discover these bizarre concrete relics cut into the earth and camouflaged from the sky by the constant threat of impending jungle.

You could hold one amazing Tomb Raider themed game of paintball in this area with its maze of paths, abandoned structures and verdant slopes. If you look carefully there is still some faded military paraphernalia lying around indicating this was a hive of activity at one point. Now the area is merely a curio, an anachronism, a fragment of a bygone era.

From here its a comparatively short hop to Green Beach and its excellent snorkelling but it was getting late and I had more pressing concerns, namely, cycling the 15 miles back to Esperanza. I was beginning to think that 4x4 wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Next Week: Part 4 -The Wildlife Refuge Beaches.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Vieques Puerto Rico Part 2 - Bikes, Beaches and Blow Outs

So, are you nice and settled in your accommodation of choice? You have scoped out the local bars and taken a quick dip in the sea to wash off some of that airplane fug? Surely no one comes all the way to Vieques just to mooch about a tiny fishing village right? Damn straight, they come to explore.

And here starts the eternal debate in Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet forums about how best to navigate a country with no discernible public transport system . Puerto Rico in general has very poor public transport following as it does the US model where the car is king. Unlike the rest of Latin America which has a fantastic bus and coach network servicing pretty much all the big cities and rural back waters if you don't have a car you are basically seen as a wierdo or a bum and are left to the whims of others.

Vieques is no different from the rest of Puerto Rico in so much as there is no proper bus service but an ad-hoc system of private publico mini-buses that circumnavigate the island and drive along popular highways hoping to pick up a fare. You can't be in a hurry as there are no timetables and no guarantee when and if a van will show up. As it happens when we got off the plane there was a chap sitting there waiting to take our 15$ p/p fare to Esperanza, which is just as well as I made the controversial decision not to hire a car.

Understandably many visitors insist that the only way to get around the island is by rental car booked as far in advance as planning will allow (apparently there is a "shortage" of rentals) in order to guarantee your freedom. Whilst it is undoubtedly more convenient and a must for the elderly or families with kids I felt cycling would give me a better feel of the island ultimately and be less hassle. It was the best decision I made.

I hired a bike from rambunctious outdoorsman Garry from Vieques Adventure Company . He has no premises so like many things on Vieques everything has to be done over the phone. The 3 day rental was $75, non negotiable, but decent value as you are supplied with a good quality Trek mountain bike with disc brakes, helmet, rucksack, pump and a couple of inner tubes (you will need them). After I handed my money over and told him about my plans he gave me this pearl of wisdom

"Speed up when you see dogs, they aren't too friendly round these parts"

First day I thought I'd take it easy and check out a number of the nearer beaches on the south side. First up is Playa Media Luna a very easy 3 mile ride past the palms of Sun Bay on a dirt road and into the bush. It is a secluded, calm crescent shaped beach which is good for kids as the water remains shallow for a distance. Scenes from classic film Lord of The Flies were filmed here but despite its history it is a little tame for my tastes.

If you continue another mile or so along the bumpy road you will get to Playa Navio which is a fun little beach with aqua marine water a few more waves. Contrary to popular internet opinion the waves weren't really good enough for body surfing (lugging the body board there was a waste of time) and the Sunday afternoon game of beach volleyball failed to materialise. One of the nicer beaches none the less.

To complete my south side sweep I headed West from Esperanza along the PR997 and PR201 which are decent tarmac road (funding from Washington in full effect) and with less traffic as it heads away from the "action". Down this way I experienced the dog problem Garry warned me about. There is nothing that gets you pumping the pedals quicker than a mangy mutt snarling at your heels. Perhaps Lance Armstrong should have tried that trick instead of juicing on steroids.

Things get interesting the further down this road you go. There are funky little shacks with people wiling away the afternoon on their porches. In places bizarre pick up truck sized boulders litter the verdant landscape and the countryside takes on the air of the Wild West. About 5 miles down this road you get to Playa Grande, a truly untamed beach which feels like it could be off the set of Jurassic Park. There are imposing views of Mount Pirata and the untouched palm lined coast. Not a soul or a man made structure to bet seen for as far as the eye can see.

On the way back to Esperanza about 3 miles on the right is the turn off for Playa Negra. You can have your own little Indiana Jones adventure as the beach is accessed through a jungle path down a semi dry river bed. I wheeled my bike through the foliage and over tree trunks to get to this seldom visited beach and to be honest it was a little underwhelming. I have seen better black sand beaches as the volcanic sand seemed to have be diluted lessening its dramatic effect.

On my way back the detour was made worthwhile by a herd of wild horses which appeared out the jungle and blocked my way out. I don't know who was more surprised, them or me. After a brief stand off they slinked past eyeing me with suspicion to a drinking hole created amongst the bows of some old logs.

Feeling pleased with myself as I traipsed back along the riverbed I heard the noise that every cyclist dreads.


At this point I kind of was hoping it for a Fer-de-Lance or Black Mamba wrapped around my to my leg, anything would be better than a puncture. As I wheeled my way back up the path and onto the road I tried to pump the tyre back up hoping it was a slow one that I could fix in the relative comfort of the Inn. No such luck. As I turned a corner the tyre blow out and I nearly went headlong into the ditch. I was a good 90min walk from Esperanza it was getting dark and I would have to negotiate those dogs on foot unless I did a roadside repair.

After a few aborted fittings where my mind entertained thoughts of falling foul of machete wielding Puerto Rican gangbangers (Eh Gringo! you are a long way from home my frieeeend!) I got the tube changed and cycled back joyfully, my body coursing with endorphins of relief. Those dogs would have to find dinner elsewhere tonight.

Next Week: Part 3 Piers, Bunkers and Isabel II

Friday, 23 November 2012

Trip Report : Vieques, Puerto Rico Part 1- Mozzies, Mares and Malecons

There are very few parts of the world not tainted by the avaricious tentacles of corporate America.  In the depths of the Guatemalan Highlands I distinctly remember sitting in a Burger King complete with 16th century colonial courtyard offering  majestic views of a live volcano whilst I chowed down on a Whopper.

You can buy yourself an iPhone from the Apple store in the Vientiane and rent a car with Avis in Nairobi. The battles between tradition, progress and convienence are fought the world over.

So, its refreshing to know that right in America's back yard there is a place you can go with no chain restaurants, no big hotels and no traffic lights. Your biggest worry is which beach you should visit and whether you have packed enough sunscreen. The place is Vieques and I predict it won't remain untouched for that much longer.

Part of the Spanish Virgin Islands, Vieques is a sliver of jungle covered rock 8 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico boasting wild landscapes and an attitude so laid back you will have to hold a mirror under its nose to check its still breathing. Its pristine nature is due in part to a 60 year period of enforced isolation when the island was under the control of the US military that used the east of the island for munitions testing.  

Following the tragic death of a civilian guard in 1999 at the hands of an errant bomb the islanders pushed ahead with a protractracted campaign to boot them out.  The Navy left in 2003 with its tail between its legs dragging behind it a trail of lawsuits.

From San Juan its a 30 min buzz in a twin prop (Vieques Airlink and Cape Air do returns for between $150 to $210 depending on departure airport) over lush countryside and aquamarine ocean to the island's compact airport. From here it's a choice of the island's only two towns Isabella Segunda or Esperanza.

I stayed in Esperanza as this is closer to the prettier south side beaches.  Prior to arriving I was warned that hiring a car in advance is a necessity.  This is baloney. I didn't bother with a car for the duration of my stay and got everywhere I needed to go using a combination of publico buses, walking and pedal power with no problem at all. 

In my opinion cars are needed on Vieques only by the elderly, families with young children and the lazy.  You can do without one providing you are reasonably fit and have a sense of adventure.

Esperanza itself is a strange and beguiling backwater. Historically a fishing village whose practioners can still be seen bobbing about on boats in the bay or slinging their nets off the broken down pier it now exists as a tourist gateway to the newly opened beaches and unique bio-bay. 

With its tiny strip of bars and restuarants located on the pretty ocean front malecon I would say it is the typical, tropical one horse town. Only you are likely to see more than just the one horse.  Wild Paso Fino horses run wild throughout the island (a relic of Spanish colonialism) and once in a while you will see a young local gallop up and done the high street to a clatter of hooves and dust. It is the Vieques equivalent of the boy racer and his XR3i trying to impress passersby with his alloy wheels and body kit.

I stayed at the charming Esperanza Inn looked after by genial hosts Lisa and J, transplantees from Key West, Florida who bought the place 6 years and renovated the grounds and added additional apartments to create their corner of paradise amongst the mangoes and chickens. J admits it was a bit of a struggle adapting to island ways at first where appointments with contractors weren't kept and red tape hindered progress. It seems Vieques is a place where its not what you know but who you know but slowly civilisation is creeping in.

You can snag a room for $95 or an apartment for $125. Apart from the uber-helpful hosts I particularly liked the communal kitchen where you can chat over the breakfast table or save a few bucks cooking (Vieques like the rest of Puerto Rico is expensive). Every rose has its thorn though. Vieques is very rural and I had my own personaI battles with its resident mass of hungry mosquitoes and noisy cockerels (earliest crow 2am!). DEET, frequent room checks, ear plugs and moving rooms put pay to those problems.

Fun can be had within walking distance of strip. There is some particularly enjoyable snorkelling to be had under the fishing pier where I saw a platoon of squid, huge barracuda and the largest school of fish I have ever seen (I literally could not see the ocean floor).

For those with more energy it is possible to swim out to Cayo Afuera either directly from the pier or walking out to Cayo de Tierra and swimming west with the current. Flippers are handy and watch for the motorboats. Alternatively Fun Brothers will take you out there by kayak for $35. There is some healthy coral by the boulders where you can spot rays, puffer fish and trigger fish.

If that all sounds too much like hard work you can stroll along to pretty Sun Bay balenario (public beach with facilities) a picturesque crescent of palm-backed tanned coastline with a great view of the keys .  We were there mid week and had the entire mile and a half to ourselves.

Visiting as I did at the end of hurricane season meant the pace was even more somnolent then usual. Night time options were limited. Best of the bunch was Duffy's, an open sided restuarant with a nice vibe and a varied menu where you can sit at the bar watch some sports and shoot the breeze with the predominantly American tourists. Lazy Jack's is a dive bar that had a bit of action mostly in the shape of ex-pats with faraway looks in their eyes  who perhaps have spent too much time glued to their bar stools. Worth a beer or two.

For brekky the only place serving was Belly Buttons which was nice and varied enough but I got tired of frittering away my money on tips so ended up finding a decent bakery, La Dulce Esperanza on Calle Almendro, (by the baseball field) that opens only in the morning and only when it feels like it.  It has much more of a local vibe some decent pastries (the guy behind the counter gets his share of freebies), fresh pan de agua (local sweet bread) and sandwiches for under $5.

Worth mentioning that the guidebooks are out of date regarding ATM's in Esperanza.  Before you had to travel to Isabella Segunda to get money. Now there are at least two portable machines (one in Duffy's and one in Colmado Lydia) where you can get out money for a small fee. Do make sure your card actually works though as my magnetic strip packed up and I had to budget my remaining cash and put everything else on credit.

Friday, 16 November 2012

San Juan, Puerto Rico - The Miami of the Caribbean

When the nights draw in and the temperature dips I always feel the urge to get out my credit card and artificially postpone winter for as long as my bank balance will allow.

My favourite part of the world is Latin America due its laid back people, beautiful landscapes and year round sun. Having been lucky enough to visit one or two countries a year for the last 10 years I am rapidly running out of new places to visit. Scouting about the atlas this year I came across Puerto Rico, an unusual hybrid of Latin charm and US infrastructure (being as it is de facto territory of the United States). I decided to take my chances.

Touching down in the capital San Juan the air is hot and heavy. From the taxi (you can get pre paid ride for $21 in front of the airport that stops any rip off merchants) I quickly notice the mix of high rise hotels, palm trees and Walgreens that reminded me of faded Miami. I hadn’t come all this way for El Walmarto so we head to Old San Juan a perfectly preserved colonial gem complete with the cobbled streets, pastel painted facades and largest Spanish built forts in the Americas.

Basing yourself in a well maintained, well policed (there were more police present then at an all you can eat Dunkin' Donuts giveaway) touristy part of the capital comes at a price. The Hotel Milano was reasonably appointed with friendly staff but had probably seen better days with a lift so slow it would have been quicker to abseil.down. However it was the best bargain I could find at about £75 a night and it was bang in the thick of the action.

Old San Juan is a cool if expensive place to hang out for a few days. It reminded me of days growing up on the Costa Blanca. The shadow of Spain understandably hangs heavy over OSJ's cobbled streets and ornate balconies. The Spanish empire used Puerto Rico as their plundering hub for best part of 400 years and their former presence is everywhere.

Whilst undeniably pretty OSJ, is a beguiling tourist trap. With high prices and plenty of souvenir shops selling mass produced maracas you have to look hard to find the real Puerto Rico. For instance I found it very difficult to find cheap local eats.  I walked all over trying find a decent bakery eventually locating one by the harbour after following a few locals munching surruptiously on pastelitos . In that respect OSF isn't a real working city as such and most of the locals come to OSJ to work and then drive back to the neighbouring suburbs of Santurce and Hato Rey.

I was staggered by the prices which we were more expensive than the States. Don't come to Puerto Rico expecting Guatemalan or even Dominican Republic bargains unless you get right into the sticks. In OSJ you will do well to get change out of $40 for lunch or dinner for two unless you decide to eat at Subway (there is nothing wrong with a Subway).

Food wise Blessed Cafe has a heavy Bob Marley vibe, slightly grubby interior but some tasty jerk chicken and goat curry for 15-20$ per main. The staff were glued to the TV watching the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that was tearing up the North Atlantic coast. Quite a few Puerto Ricans seem move to the mainland (New York/New Jersey is popular) get an education and return to start businesses.

We stopped off at Airenumo a bistro with delusions of grandeur and a spanish chef who offers a myriad of paella options. It is nice enough but for $80 for two pleasant if unspectacular mains I would have expected unicycling waiters or a view of hanging gardens of Babylon. Overpriced.

One of the nicest things about going for a stroll through the narrow streets is the unexpected archetectural treasures hidden around every corner. Sturdy lookout posts, baroque gates and imposing fortresses dot the city. To the north, protecting the bay, stands the greatest reminder of Spain's colonialism, El Morro and El Castillo. They combine to create the largest colonial fortress in the Americas. For $5 (a rare bargain) you can get access to both Unesco Heritage sites where you can scale ramparts, explore dungeons and enjoy imposing vistas of the Caribbean from its look out points. Do take water por que es muy caliente!

A decent half day trip is a visit to the old Casa de Bacardi located across the bay in down at heel Catano. You can jump on the ferry for 50c from Pier 2 and cruise out the 20 mins or so to the opposite side of the bay. When you get there you are quickly ushered to waiting minibuses (7$) who shuttle visitor to the free tour. Once there you get a couple of drink tokens to sample the wide variety of rums and cocktails on offer and then starts the hour long Bacardi advert.

I found it reasonably entertaining with info about the history of Bacardi and cocktail tips on how to make the perfect Mojito but it wasn't a patch of the Jack Daniels tour in Lynchburg as you are not allowed to go into the distillery due to security considerations. Of the millions of potential targets around the world why Bacardi think terrorists would pick a rum factory in the Caribbean to make their point remains a mystery to me.

Back in OSJ if you want to continue your rum buzz you can head to Parrot Club were drinks are pricey but you can luxuriate in a pleasant tropical ambience with its brightly painted interior, extensive cocktail list and a pianist in the corner plinking away jazz versions of pop hits (a jazz Roxanne anyone?).

For me the nightlife highlight was Cafe Nuyorican an unassuming salsa club off a side street that we walked by twice without clocking (tip: It's just round corner from Da House). An intimate venue with a mix of locals and wide eyed tourists its small dance floor allows the salsa maestros to strut their sultry stuff. If like me the only salsa you capable of producing is the sort that goes into a burrito don't worry. You can grab a seat and watch the pros dance it out to some phenomenal music courtesy of mega-talented house band El Comborican who absolutely kill it live. Salsa is an institution in PR and back in February one Sir Mick Jagger popped into the venue in the small hours to see what all the fuss was about.

So, take the plunge in Old San Juan: If its good enough for a Rolling Stone its good enough for you.

Trip Report : Vieques, Puerto Rico Part 1- Mozzies, Mares and Malecons

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Exploding Helicopter - The Day The Earth Stood Still

Keanu Reeves is an artist who divides opinion. Some say he is a sh*t actor with the emotional range of a pork pie and the personality of an Easter Island statue whilst other more generous critics merely refer to him as “b*llocks”. Whichever side of the fence you reside, it is surely a mystery how the man has managed to cultivate such a long and illustrious career (whose zenith is still arguably Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) with a delivery as flat as Keira Knightley’s chest.

His ability to act with an almost zombie-like detachment was probably what drew casting directors to award him the part of the robotic alien Klaatu in Scott Derrickson’s remake of the B-movie classic The Day the Earth Stood Still.

As usual humans are raping the Earth and Keanu and his tree-hugging alien chums touch down to wipe our destructive asses off the planet in order to preserve the Earth’s unique flora and fauna for the benefit of…well, no one.

After landing in Central Park and meeting a hostile welcoming committee of stereotypical hoo-ha-ing marines who set about interrogating Kuaatu Guantanamo style he wisely uses his powers to escape with reluctant scientist Dr. Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly) in order to decide mankind’s ultimate fate.

Dr Benson attempts to change Klaatu’s mind about wiping us out by taking him deep into the forest to see Nobel prize winning Professor Barnhardt (John Cleese) who persuades him that we aren’t all bad eggs and that mankind has the capacity to change. Just as he is about to buy that baloney Dr Benson’s bratish stepson Jacob (Jaden Smith) proves mankind is mainly made up of scum by grassing him up to the cops and leading them to their hideout.

A pair of police choppers looms over the tree line and home in on Klaatu. Before they mow him down he uses his powers of telekinesis/bad acting to fry the helicopters circuitry causing the pilots to clutch the sides of their heads as their telecoms unit malfunctions in a cacophony of high pitched interference. With the pilots disabled their helicopters go into a traditional tailspin and smash into each other and break apart. The debris plummets to the ground and goes up in a delicious ball of flame.

Artistic merit

The film is chock full of choppers so it was only a matter of time before one went to helicopter heaven. The explosion here is nicely realised with some rich and satisfying oranges and is all the more impressive for silhouetting Reeves in a Hugh Jackman in X-Men style. It would have been nice to see the wreckage hit the floor but there is no doubt about the twin chopper’s shared demise.

Exploding helicopter innovation

Helicopters destroyed by alien mind control. This is quite an unconventional takedown.

Do passengers survive?

We don’t know for sure as Derrickson refrains from showing us the impact of the stricken choppers on the ground but chances are the pilots are barbecued to a crisp in the chunky fireball.


For a film that relies so heavily on special effects it is just as well Weta Digital at least make the visuals plausible. I particularly liked the swarms of tiny nano-machines programmed to wipe out every man made device to bring the earth back to its natural state. My office could do with that sort of deep clean.

Oh, and James Hong (Big Trouble In Little China) turns up for a cameo in a bizarre scene in McDonalds which only really succeeds in reminding you that this film isn’t as good as other films he has been in.


The film has very few interesting elements to distract you from its pedestrian plot full of genre clichés, product placement and forgettable performances. It is a by-the-numbers blockbuster lacking wit or imagination and ends up being a bit preachy and up its own a*se.

Substituting the original film’s anti-war message for the remake’s environmentalist guff really doesn’t wash within the parameters of the original story and by the end you really don’t care if the world’s population lives or dies.

I was forced to watch this film due to contractual obligations imposed by the perverted hierarchy at Exploding Helicopter H.Q. It was either watch this and write a half-arsed review or engage in sexual activity (not the good kind) with a senior member of staff. If anyone knows any good employment lawyers please email me their details.

Favourite Quote:

Helen Benson: Have you done your homework?

Jacob Benson: School's cancelled on account of the aliens.

Interesting Fact:

A photo of GORT the humanoid robot and Klaatu's purveyor of destruction alongside Ringo Starr dressed as Klaatu graces the cover of Ringo’s 1974 Goodnight Vienna album. Rumour that purchasers of said album wanted the world to end after hearing it could not be verified at the time of going to press.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Exploding Helicopter - Surrogates

Imagine a world where you could sit on your arse all day in the comfort of your own home and get others to do your work for you. Sounds great doesn’t it? In fact you could argue that those living on benefits in this country currently enjoy this luxury (ooh, little bit of politics there). But what about your self esteem, social skills and self-improvement? Surely everyone would just end up in their pants, eating crisps looking like Elvis circa 1977?

Johnathan Mostow envisions this dystopian future in the surprisingly cerebral sci-fi actioner Surrogates. Comfort and security come at a price and the price is having to shag your robot wife until, spiritually your soul becomes a circuit board.

In the future people don’t go out in the real world. They sit at home in special pods and remotely control high-tech cybernetic robots or “surrogates“ who live out their lives vicariously so they can concentrate on staying at home and watching porn. The slogan is:

“Life…but better”

The future isn’t particularly dangerous, in fact crime is virtually non-existent, but there is no underestimating mankind’s desire to do as little as possible. First came the remote control and now this.

Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) is one such sluggard. As an FBI agent he has to investigate the deaths of two people who die when their surrogates are destroyed (something that normally would be impossible). His investigation draws him into the anti-surrogate movement whose leader The Prophet (a virtually unrecognisable Ving Rhames in Bob Marley/Martin Luther King mode) wants to wipe out surrogacy and get the world back to the basics of growing your own carrots and washing once a month.

Willis is in a police chopper tracking a suspect, Miles Strickland (Jack Noseworthy), close to one of the Dredd Reservations (self-policed surrogate-free zones). The police on the ground corner the suspect down an alley not knowing he has on his possession an “O.D.” a developmental weapon with the ability to kill people through their surrogates. After wiping out the police Strickland unleashes the weapon on the chopper which overloads the pilot’s circuits blowing its eyes out.

The out of control chopper spins wildly for what seems like an eternity, clips the top of a building before crashing down and flipping over like a child’s toy.

Artistic merit

Whilst you have to appreciate Mostow’s dragging out the suspense for as long as possible there was only one way the helicopter was going with the pilot out for the count; and that was down.

The crash itself looks surprisingly cheap and CGI’d compared to some of his previous efforts and the washed out yellows look like something I would expect to see on the Amiga game Persian Gulf Inferno.

Exploding helicopter innovation


Do passengers survive?

Survive is perhaps not the most apt verb here as everyone is a robot. The chopper pilot does not resurface from the fireball but Willis calmly escapes with his arm torn off seeping some sort of green fluid which may or may not be absinthe.


I found this film to be an unexpected pleasure in a genre dominated by studios that dumb things down to the point of no intellectual returns. Reprising the team behind Terminator 3 writers Michael Ferris, John Brancato along with director Mostow create a fully realised, plausible universe with great touches such as robots “jacking” with electronic “drugs”, beauty salons that resemble garages and roadside surrogate battery chargers.

Willis is not his usual bullet proof self and shows pleasing levels of vulnerability when dealing with some of the movies more existential themes. His flawed relationship with his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike) elevates the film above the standard sci-fi action fare that normally relies on fancy effects and a blue tint for its authenticity.

The fact that in this fantasy world everyone has flawlessly beautiful surrogates to hide the fact that in the real world they are so ugly they couldn’t get a date from a calendar is a concept anyone familiar with Second Life will well appreciate.

The same way you can never really be sure that 18yr old underwear model you are talking to in a chat room is not a 44yr old truck driver from Burnley no surrogate owner is quite what they seem in the real world. Mostow keeps the action moving ensuring the film never outstays its welcome.


As with most sci-fi you can pick holes in the minutiae until the cows come home. Why have coffee shops for robots that don’t need to drink coffee? Don’t be a smart arse, its called artistic licence.

I won’t spoil it for you but the dénouement is a little far fetched to appear plausible for such a massive company with undoubtedly hundreds of fail safes to prevent their units from malfunctioning on a monumental scale.

Favourite Quote:

(Willis questioning an attractive female surrogate lawyer)

Female Lawyer: Agent Greer, we're not doctors.

Tom Greer: Honey, I don't know what you are. I mean, for all I know, you could be some big, fat dude sitting in his arm chair with his dick hanging out.

Interesting Fact:

Disney took the odd step of not holding any press screenings for Surrogates. This is normally the sign for a studio in “damage limitation mode” with an absolute turkey on their hands that they don’t want universally panned even before it’s had a chance to see the light of day.

Subsequent reviews have been “mixed” but Disney’s failure to back a sci-fi film with brains does the film and the movie industry in general a disservice.