Friday, March 31, 2017

Lechonera Los Pinos - Puerto Rico

When we visited Puerto Rico we were honed into some foods that we wanted to try. Judy sent me an article before our trip, Ten Must-Try Puerto Rican Foods. It included lechon, spit-roasted pig, "a must-try dish for carnivores." Independently, I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal, dated December 5, 2014, titled "Where to Find the Best Roast Pork in Puerto Rico." It called lechon asado, the traditional barbecued pig with crisp skin and tender meat, the unofficial Puerto Rican national dish. It is customarily accompanied by arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), another one of the ten must-try foods above, morcilla (blood sausage with rice) and guineos (green bananas). The article identified a number of restaurants devoted to roast pig, lechoneras, and the famous Route 184 in Guavate, 30 miles south of San Juan in the Sierra de Cayey Mountains. Route 184 is called a "rutas de lechon" because of its abundance of pig roasteries. 

Los Pinos in Guavate is one of the best known because it has been featured on shows by Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. I recall seeing that Andrew Zimmern show and making a mental note that I would love to eat at that roast pig place some day. Here is that episode. I just now watched the episode with Anthony Bourdain and here is that episode. Having watched these episodes I am salivating and dying to dive in to some roast pork. 

We rented a van in San Juan and along with Judy's brother and one of their sisters, and their spouses, we drove to Los Pinos. The area was full of rolling green hills covered in rain forest and Route 184 was dotted with lechoneras. 

There is nothing fancy about Los Pinos. It reminded me of a large covered park seating area. A roast pig on a spit is visible in the front window and a cafeteria-like line winds around to a register where you can look at and order your food. 
A cavernous eating area with park-like tables.
Pig-on-a-spit in the front window. 
Roast pig from the other side of the window. 

Blow-up pigs in the rafters. 
We ordered rib and cheek meat and it was outstanding. The skin was too thick and tough to eat, so I chewed on it a little bit, then got down to the good stuff. It was moist and fatty, particularly the cheek meat which is just about as good as anything gets. 
The plate covered with pork skin. 
With the pork skin removed, the soft, fatty roast pork is revealed beneath it. 
I saw gandinga, liver stew, on the menu and had to give it a try. Judy felt it was too livery and one taste was enough for her. It was chock-full of liver, but I thought it was pretty good, not overly livery. I had four or five bites, but wanted to save most of my room for pork. 
Liver stew.
We had some arroz con gandules, the rice with pigeon peas, and it was okay. Just regular rice and nothing stood out about the pigeon peas. 
Rice with pigeon peas.
I'd read that their morcilla, blood sausage with rice, was bland. I found it very good. The rice provides some texture, the outer sausage casing was roasted and chewy and after a couple of nibbles by Judy, I ate the rest. Marvelous.
Morcilla or blood sausage with rice.
A cross section shows how voluminous the rice is.
We had batata, sweet potatoes, which were good, but who wants to fill up on that when there is roast pig?
Sweet potatoes
Their potato salad was good and they had tembleque for dessert, a coconut custard dusted with cinnamon that was on the 10 must-try list. It was pretty bland, one taste was plenty. Better was their flan de queso, caramel cream cheese custard, which was more flavorful and had a nicer texture. 
Flan (left) and tembleque (right). 
I really can't think of anything better than a spit-roasted pig or a spit-roasted lamb. Culinary heaven. I'm fortunate not to live near here. I would have a hard time staying away. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Barred Anole

The barred anole (anolis stratulis), also known as the St. Thomas anole or spotted anole, is found in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. The male does not have a dorsal crest or tail fin and the color ranges from brownish gray to gray. It has hour glass shaped spots from the nape to the tail and a black, crescent shape behind the eye. Its flanks are marked with small dark spots. In the Tabonuco zone of El Yunque NF it is estimated that there may be 43,000 barred anole per acre, making it the most prevalent species in that habitat. I saw the one pictured next to the Yokahu Tower in El Yunque NF. 
Barred anole

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Puerto Rican Crested Anole

The Puerto Rican crested anole (anolis cristatellus) is found throughout Puerto Rico and has also been introduced to Hispaniola, Dominica and Florida. Their color ranges from brownish/red to dark black or light gray. 
There were lots of crested anoles in the vines next to the parking lot of our hotel in Levittown, Puerto Rico. 

A reddish color stands out on this anole as it catches some direct sun.
Males have a bright yellow/orange dewlap and both males and females have a crest along the tail. They spend most of their time perched on tree trunks. 
I caught this crested anole in El Yunque NF near the Yokahu Tower. 

A good photo of the yellow/orange dewlap.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Yellow-Chinned Anole

The yellow-chinned anole (anolis gundlachi) is one of 14 species of anole that live on the Island of Puerto Rico. It lives on the lower sections of large tree trunks in dense forests in mountainous areas (800 to 3,800 feet). We saw a number of them in El Yunque National Forest, a tropical rain forest on the slopes of the Sierra de Luquillo Mountains, parts of which get more than 200 inches of rain a year. I saw five or six, and each one was standing vertically on the side of a tree trunk, head pointed toward the ground. 
Yellow-chinned anole seen on the trail to La Mina Falls. Note the vegetation on the side of the tree. 
A side-view of the same anole. The profile really sticks out. This is how I learned to spot them - look for that profile sticking out from the tree. 
A closer view reveals a few more details. 
The dorsal side of this anole is dark olive/green to almost black/brown and the belly is white to gray/white. It has dark blue eyes, a black/brown dewlap and a tail with a crest that undulates on the males. They have powerful jaws and will defend their territories. I learned this first hand when I caught one with my hand and had it clamp-down quite hard on my finger. It did not let go until I released it several minutes later.  
This photo was taken after I let it go on a rock. Note the crest along the tail. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Barracuda - Trunk Bay, St. John

For our recent trip to the Caribbean I got an underwater camera and it has opened a new world to be explored photographically. I had little time to learn about the camera and our snorkel at Trunk Bay on St. John Island, part of Virgin Islands National Park, was my first time to use it. I found that I could not really see through the view finder and I was shooting blind. It was not until I got back to the ship that afternoon and looked through my pictures that I discovered how wide the view I was shooting was and that I was aiming high (many of the fish I was photographing were at the bottom of the picture frame or completely out of it). 
Trunk Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
Our cruise ship, the Royal Caribbean Jewel of the Seas, landed in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, one of three islands in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We signed up for a shore excursion over to Trunk Bay, part of Virgin Islands National Park on St. John Island, the second of the three islands. Virgin Islands NP covers 60% of St. John, a gift from Laurance Rockefeller in 1956 to the NPS. 
The star of my first underwater photos was a barracuda. While I was snorkeling a woman waved me over and told me if I looked down I would see a barracuda. Otherwise, I probably would not have seen it, and if I had, probably would not have known what it was. The barracuda was quite unafraid of me as I circled around and even made some poor attempts to swim below the surface and get closer pictures. 
There are 28 species of barracuda and I don't have the time or resources to try and figure out what species this is. But it was a thrill to see it and I hope there may be more fish to photograph in the future. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Southern Stingray - Antigua

On the island of Antigua, southeast of St. Kitts, in the Caribbean, there is a place called Stingray City where southern stingrays have been hand fed and become tame enough to be cradled in the arms of humans. 

We cruised in to St. John's, the capital city, and rented a van and drove to Stingray City about 30 to 40 minutes east on the island. In a brief orientation, we learned that the stingray's tail cannot be used as a weapon, it is only a danger if it is stepped on. Therefore, we were cautioned to always approach the stingray from the front and to shuffle our feet when we walked so as to avoid inadvertently stepping on a stingray hidden in the sand on the ocean bottom. 

After our orientation, we got on a large catamaran and motored out about ten minutes to a shallow area in a reef that was roped off. There we removed our shoes and were given a snorkel and mask. As we arrived, we could see the stingrays coasting in, the motor of the boat providing a Pavlovian feeding response.  There are 40 to 50 stingrays that participate in this feeding. 
The shallow sandy areas inside the reef provided an area where we could stand in waist-deep water. 
The southern stingray is found in tropical waters of the western Atlantic from New Jersey to southern Brazil. It is diamond shaped and olive brown to green on the dorsal surface (gray for juveniles) and has a white underbelly. 
This is a stingray we saw two days later in Barbados while we were feeding sea turtles. It illustrates the diamond shape. 
This shows one eye on a stingray (top middle) and a large spiracle (below it to the left). It also shows the olive brown color. 
Another view of an eye and spiracle. 
One more view of eyes and spiracles.
It has a barb on a long tail that is covered in venomous mucous which it uses to defend itself. Its wing-like fins propel it along the ocean bottom. It has eyes on top of its head and nearby openings called spiracles that allow it to take in water and pass it through its gill openings, bypassing the mouth , which is on its underside,when it is laying on the ocean bottom. Females grow to more than twice the size of males. Stingrays flap their fins to disturb the ocean floor and expose hidden prey. 
Here a stingray uses its fins to propel itself between two people. 
I loved watching them. They are like large, under-water bats. 
Two stingrays glide past, their long tails trailing behind them. 
We were instructed how to cradle our arms and warned not to lift-up and push the stingray out of the water or it will have a response similar to humans when their heads are forcibly submerged into water.  We were all given an opportunity to cradle a stingray, some of us several times. I instinctively pushed up and the stingray started flapping its fins to get away. 
Judy cradles a stingray.
I then had a turn. 
I spent quite a bit of time near one of the guides watching her cradle the stingrays. They were amazingly docile around her. 
Underwater shots show how she cradles the stingray.
Cradling a stingray.
Here she cradles a young, gray stingray.
Then we were given an opportunity to feed them. We were given a whole squid, tentacles up, and held in our hand with our thumb tucked down to avoid having it bitten. 
Here I hold a large squid.
The stingray has a very strong sucking ability and it can hurt if your hand makes it inside the mouth. I did about ten feedings and it was very fun to feel that heavy suction on the hand before the squid disappeared into the mouth. 
Here I feed a stingray.
A view of the underwater feeding commotion.
This massive stingray nearly dwarfs the person feeding it here. 
This was another highlight of our trip. Just a few more pictures from this memorable experience.

Stingrays gliding between legs.

Judy (left) floats above a traveling stingray.