backpacking

Puerto Rico | Backpacking & Proposing

This is going to be a big post. I tried my best to narrow it down, but it just wasn't happening. There's just too much to cover: from my grand scheme of proposing, to the whole planning process behind backpacking and traveling the entire island of Puerto Rico over a two week vacation. To get started, I began planning this trip months and months in advance. It was so hard to find information on actually backpacking in Puerto Rico, then of course there was way too many options on what to do and where to go. Then I had to figure out the general time frame and location of where I wanted to propose. But - I couldn't forget to take into account that this is above all a vacation, not my usual trip where I beat the hell out of myself on some grueling trail for a few weeks.

Everything just fell into place once I realized I should split the trip in half, 50% hiking, backpacking, and camping then 50% laying around and enjoying the beach. So I didn't kill myself trying to grab the perfect photos of everywhere and everything we did. I truly tried to relax and have my first vacation where I don't wake up everyday at 5:00am to grab sunrise photos and the usual craziness that comes with being a photographer.

One of my favorite shots of the trip to start things off.

Day 1:

Leaving Chicago - The first step to any trip is to find the best airfare and of course the best prices on hotels. The biggest trick I have for this is to not care where you're going. Check out fly.com's "fare calendar" all you do is put in where you are and it tells you every flight deal nationally and internationally. I went to Colombia just last year because it was a great price. Of course I booked Julia and I a trip to Puerto Rico because, well why not! It sounded warm and very entertaining.

The next step is doing the research and deciding where and how to spend your time. I love Trip Advisor for figuring out the touristy stuff and deciding which car rental company is a complete scam. For the record Charlie's Car Rental in San Juan is great, but don't listen to them about the toll roads you do not need their IPASS thing, just pay cash.

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Our first night in Old San Juan, Julia and I stayed at The Gallery Inn. It was fantastic! Here are a few from inside the hotel.

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One of the most interesting features of Old San Juan has to be the blue brick that makes up their cobblestone streets.

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Day 2:

We left San Juan and headed straight for El Yunque Rain Forest. I won't lie, I made a huge mistake before coming here. It turns out you need to apply 10 days in advance for a backcountry site. I had no idea! Luckily Julia worked some magic and was able to get us a site for the two nights like we had planned. The first thing we did after the debacle was stop at one of the roadside stands to grab a quick bite to eat before heading on the trail. Although the food was overpriced and not very good, the view was great!

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The first night in El Yunque we stayed at campsite C. It's a few miles down an old road that is only used by the park service due to a mudslide. It's well marked and an extremely easy hike. The campsite itself is a bit of a mess. It's in a rain forest so I really should have seen this coming, but wow the actual spot to put your tent down is absolutely nothing but mud. We ended up putting our tent on the side of the road and it worked out just fine.

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The best part about campsite C is that it has a great river right down the trail.

I actually had the engagement ring in my pocket and I was going to propose right here. The only problem is that I couldn't find the right angle to photograph it, so I ended up scrapping that plan.

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Day 3:

The one thing to always be prepared for: trail conditions. No one is going to mention fording any rivers, but after a few hours of constant rain the road had enough water to completely cover our boots.

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After finding our way back to our car we went on our next hike to La Mina Falls.

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One of my favorite parts of Puerto Rico is that bamboo is everywhere.

Our next hike and the worst idea we had on our entire trip to El Yunque was grabbing campsite A on the La Coca Trail. This trail is awful! It's filled with sharp rocks, lots of thick mud, and above all it's really slippery. The trail isn't supposed to be too long, but when you combine it with the terrain it's a huge pain. The trail was so bad that we actually turned around and completely abandoned staying at the campsite. The only upside is that it has some great waterfalls. I would strongly recommend the hike as a day trip but not an overnight stay.

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Day: 4

Needless to say we left El Yunque in a hurry. Mainly because next on our list was the island of Culebra just to the east of Puerto Rico where we were going to stay on Flamenco Beach. We ended up leaving the rental car in Fajardo, in a nice gated parking lot for only $4 or $5 a day. Flamenco Beach is supposed to be one the top ten beaches in the world and for $20 a night you can camp right there. It's the best deal I've ever heard of. There are plenty of campsites there, but head all the way down to E if you're looking for a quiet stay.

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We set up camp and thats when I realized the sun was going down. That engagement ring had been burning a hole in my pocket ever since I picked it up. I told Julia we should walk down the beach to catch the sunset. As soon as I came to this ridge I knew it was the spot. I told her to run to the top for a test shot, as I pulled the ring out of my bag. I turned my camera to video and I hit record.

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The ring was a collaborative design between myself and an amazing jeweler, Chris Engelken out of Milwaukee, WI. If you're looking for a ring definitely give him a call (414) 803 - 8608 or send him an email cengelken @ wi.rr.com

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Then we went out for a celebratory dinner! Of course we also needed some cell service to call and text everyone the news.

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Day 5:

I woke up early to get some star photos on the beach. Flamenco was used by the military back in the day and in true american fashion we left our trash behind.

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Flamenco happens to be gorgeous but it's not the best for snorkeling. If you're wondering where to go on Culebra to see some coral reefs, go to the parking lot for Flamenco and take the path in far corner towards Tamarindo beach. It's about a 20-30 minute walk, but it's worth it! It was the perfect place to spend the day.

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Even though I'm a professional I'm not above using underwater disposable cameras!

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Day 6:

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Back when we arrived on Culebra there was a guy trying to get the tourists to rent golf carts to travel around the island. I wish we would have done it right away, because damn was it entertaining! Getting around the island itself is really easy there are plenty of cabs that come by the beach to take you around. But wandering through the island on a golf was fantastic!

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Day 7:

We woke up just before dawn to take the ferry back to the main island.

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After an hour long ferry and a 4 hour drive we arrived at Copamarina Beach Resort in Guanica!

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Day 8:

First on our list of stuff to do was head to Gilligan's Island, a mangrove island with a nice little lazy river and enough sand to spend the day drinking, swimming, and grilling.

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The biggest reason I wanted to stay at Copamarina, the dry forest. There's only 1% of all orignal dry forests left in the world and one of them happens to be about 2 minutes down the road from the beach resort.

The Maseta Trail has a particularly good sunset view, and it gives you a great overview of the dry forest near the coast. But if you want to see a massive amount of butterflies head on the Cueva Trail. Be sure to watch out for all the caterpillars on the ground. You could honestly squish one with every step if you're not paying attention.

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Day 9:

I basically slept in a cabana on the beach all day...

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Day 10:

We left Guanica and Copamarina to head to Rincon. It's known as the surfing capital of Puerto Rico. It definitely has that relaxed atmosphere everywhere you go. The best place we stayed on our entire trip was here, and I wish I knew just how great Rincon is so we could have stayed a few more days.

The best place in all of Rincon is The Tropical Treehouse! Check out this place we stayed in the Buddah Hooch.

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Day 11:

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Corn and coconut ice cream with cinnamon on top. To me it initially sounded awful, but I'm always open to try something knew and I'm glad I did! It's delicious I really hope I'm able to find this in Chicago.

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Our next destination was a small house in Utuado. We found this spot on AirBnB.com. For those who don't know about it go take a look! It's a website where people put up their house, spare room, or apartments for rent on a daily basis. You can travel like a couch surfer or grab a lavish beach front villa. Either way I've used it in New York, Seattle, and Puerto Rico each time it's been great!

In Utuado we stayed in a cozy little mountain house maintained by the nicest husband and wife team. They have plenty of land and are surrounded by a whole lot of animals and tons of fruit trees.

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Day: 12

Our first stop on Day 12 was the Window Cave or Cueva Ventana in Arecibo. The Window Cave has an amazing view, it's another easy hike, and it's only $10 per person.

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Then we headed over to Rio Camuy Cave Park. The major thing to keep in mind here is that it's very touristy. It's a giant cave but I would have loved to do it without the group.

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Day 13:

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La Cueva Del Indio has to be filled with the best caves of the trip. There's several old stone drawings from the native Taino tribes and more gorgeous oceanfront views.

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This ladder may look rickety but I'm a big guy and even with my photo backpack it held up just fine. So if you make it all they way to Cueva Del Indio you need to mosey on down!

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Day 14:

We left Utuado early in the morning to get back to San Juan for our last full day before our flight home. We of course stayed at the lovely Gallery Inn, and spent the day going through the old fortresses.

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Day 15:

Before we knew it, it was time to head back home.

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El Cocuy National Park in Colombia

This trip is insane! Jay and I did a 5 night 6 day trek through El Cocuy National Park in Colombia. We covered around 50 miles of backcountry trails, 8 mountain passes, and some ridiculous elevation. It was definitely the hardest backpacking trip I have ever done. I loved every second of it, well... not really, but damn am I glad I did it. The first day of the trip was so hard we actually talked about not going through with the rest of the hike. I know, I'm not proud to say it, but you weren't there so stop judging me. In my defense, I had actually been in a car accident just 4 weeks before the trip. The car was completely totaled and I was in a knee and a back brace throughout the entire hike. The next morning we felt like we were getting over the elevation sickness and decided to give it go. Read through the rest of the blog to get the day by day of what happened and how lost we got!

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Before we could even start the hike we had to take a 12 hour bus ride from Bogota. Yeah 12 hours on a bus isn't fun but Colombian roads really know how to make it awful for you. They're winding mountain roads, usually unpaved or covered in potholes and these drivers are going way t fast for my comfort level. Luckily I can sleep through anything so it wasn't too bad at all. Jay had a little more trouble.

We arrived in a small town outside of the park called El Cocuy right after sunrise. As soon as we got off the bus a really friendly guy took us straight over to a local hotel.

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The crazy thing is that we ended up meeting part of El Cocuy's search and rescue team. They were able to help us pick out good camp sites and show us how terrible our map really was. That was one of the strangest parts, it's really hard to find a map, especially a good map. We spent all morning running around town and everyone said something different' Eventually we found the rangers office, and they gave us a very vague map.

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The next morning we hitched a ride on the back of a milk truck. This is actually the best and easiest way to get to the trail head. The milk man comes to the town center just about every morning at 6:00am. He must make a pretty decent living taking hikers up and out of town. I think we only paid about 15000 pesos or 20000 tops(about $10.00). It was gorgeous, going through the Colombia countryside, and helping load milk jugs directly from the farmers was completely new for me.

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After a 2 or so hours on the milk truck, we made it to the trail head and started out the hike.

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I'm not sure what time it was when we made it to our first camp site, but the cloud covered rolled in fast and it stayed all night long.

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Jay prepped some grub while I wandered around and snapped some shots of camp.

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Sunset was almost impossible to photograph through the whole trip because of the cloud cover. But on the first night you knew someone some where was definitely getting some good shots. Check out the color in the photo below, that's actually how it looked that night.

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We took a much needed mid-day break by this gorgeous lake. I was all about staying there for the night. In fact Jay actually had to convince me to keep going. I was dead tired, and I stopped caring about the back packing trip. Begrudgingly I kept walking...

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By about 2:00 (a very rough estimate) the cloud cover moved back in. It was like this every single day, completely gorgeous!

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Camp on night 2. We were pretty warn out but we found a great spot along the trail. I don't know if it was meant to be an actual camp site, but the ground was dry and soft, and that's the most we could ask for.

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Before we went to sleep Jay found a nice spot to sit and write in his journal for a bit. I ended up convincing him to stay still for about 10 minutes while I got a cool shot of the mountain side and the stars before the clouds came back in.

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I woke back up at 3:00am to get more shots of the stars once the cloud cover broke. I actually ended up doing this every night. I would set up a few test shots, and then let the camera go for a few hours while I went back to sleep. In the morning I would check out the camera and hope something came out alright. Luckily all the equations worked and I got some photos I absolutely love!

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Jay pumping some water and taking another break from the day.

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Camp on night 3. I was so angry at this point. I had been lugging around my tripod throughout the whole trip to get some night shots. Sometime during the day I knocked my mounting plate off my tripod... Basically this meant my tripod is completely useless. I had to stack rocks throughout the rest of the trip to get any useful decent night shots. Shockingly enough it worked out really well!

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When we made it to camp for night 4 we saw the closest thing to a sunset from the whole trip. The clouds cleared just enough to let some light shine through and onto the side of this mountain.

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This is our actual camp on night 4.

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This is our last camp site of the trip. Night 5. Freeze dried food was really starting to suck, and we were so smelly and exhausted at this point I couldn't even get up at 3:00 to do my normal night shots. I ended up sleeping like a normal person and we headed out of the park in the morning.

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Here's the only shot of Jay and I. This is the last mountain pass of the trip.

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We then decided to hike to the nearest town. Everyone said it would only be a 2-4 hour walk, well they lied it was closer to 6 or 7 hours. I may have irritated and exhausted at the time, but it was worth the extra effort.

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