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Se Hace Camino al Andar: Trailblazing in the name of love

The Puerto Rico I know and love is a lush strip of land as rich in diversity of natural resources as countries dozens of times its size. As someone who’s spent the last seven years in the diaspora taking up space in the outdoors, and have gained a reputation for attempting incrementally difficult outdoor pursuits with the vision of becoming the first female Puerto Rican mountaineer, last year I started to wonder… how can I do more? How can I represent my island and its people with honor, and doing so in a way that is unique to myself? The answer came about one day last March not too far down an overgrown mountain trail in San Germán, my brother and I grossly underprepared for some jungle-like bushwhacking, having the time of our lives. It weathered personal storms, the ambiguity of the “when” and “how”, and the disadvantage of longing from afar. Yet, in less than a year from that initial lightbulb moment on trail, I would become the first person to complete Puerto Rico’s only backpacking trail in a single day, setting a Fastest Known Time (FKT) on a fantastic home route, and aligning my work to support the development of future trail systems around the island.

And this is just the beginning.

A landscape view of rolling hills covered in greenery View from El Yunque Peak Tower, the most popular segment of the Veredas Noreste route.

The Backstory

How can I do more?

How can I authentically showcase the grit, determination, and humility of the Puerto Rican spirit?

I am not a stranger to those questions. They haunt, pervade, and sometimes change the lives of the people that seek honest answers to them. The diaspora knows, and many, if not all immigrants have felt the pressure of arriving at an opportunity to give back in a meaningful way, to fill the voids that have opened up like canyons over time, our absences becoming more common, distance as the norm.

In September 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by two catastrophic back-to-back hurricanes that left most of the places I love and care for unrecognizable. For days my Facebook was an absolute chaos; my diaspora friends and I collectively freaking out and attempting to maintain our calm during gut-wrenching radio silence from the people we were/are related to back in the island. It took four days for my family to find some way of contacting me to let me know they were safe. The farm my parents own and harvest, this sacred place where they spill blood, sweat, and tears constantly, was destroyed, and other outdoor recreation areas, from public coastlines to state forests, suffered catastrophic and in some cases irreversible damages. Over the following months, the state of total disarray the hurricanes left in their wake would be compounded by political humiliation, mismanagement of funds and emergency supplies by the government, and the total failure of the aged electric grid. Thousands of people died.

Answering these hallmark questions, which for the most part, lingered constantly in the back of my mind, became the driver of everything I did. At the time, I volunteered in relief efforts, led an initiative for solar panel donations with the support of my previous employer, and donated what I could to organizations doing grassroots organizing in small-town communities deeply affected and largely ignored by both the storms and the socioeconomic inequities present. I also took the time to fall in love with the natural spaces that I loved, staying present through their transformation, and finding a new sense of commitment to them, regardless of their state.

Three tents pitched in a grassy field with a few trees in the background Camping in the central mountains of Puerto Rico in December 2017, about 3 months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Seek, and Ye Shall Find

Life has changed in the past five and a half years. Puerto Rico has gone through a myriad of historical events since, some of which have made global news, putting a spotlight on its status as a US territory and the inequities that come about from it. The outdoor spaces devastated by Hurricanes Irma and María recovered in the majestic way that only nature knows how to pull off. Outdoor recreation beyond traditional water sports has gained traction, and communities around the island have rallied to care for and protect natural spaces that make our island unique in the Caribbean.

In the years since the hurricanes, I visited Puerto Rico continuously, and every single time took the opportunity to explore the natural resources of the place I called home for 23 years. I experienced a new sense of wonder at the amazing coastal vistas and beautifully remote treasures tucked deep in the central mountains. The questions still danced in my brain, but without the pressure of an emergency response, I embraced creativity in my approach to their responses. I took those questions to the trails with the hopes of finding answers.

“Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you…”

Matthew 7:7-8, KJV

A landscape view of a beach along Puerto Rico's coastline The Veredas Noreste route traverses the entire coastline of Puerto Rico’s Northeast Ecological Corridor.

Ideas to Action

In March 2022 I decided I was going to use my expertise in planning and executing complex long-distance and/or multi-day treks to develop a series of trails or mixed surface routes in Puerto Rico. This was an interesting challenge, given that most Puerto Rico trails currently accessible for public knowledge on route database applications are only a few miles in length – with one exception: the Veredas Noreste(Se abre en una ventana nueva) Trail, a 36-mile multi-surface route that traverses the northeastern corner of the island, taking you literally Reef to Ridge, from seaside through one of the most pristine protected coastal ecological corridor in the island to the highest point of El Yunque National Forest. I developed a plan to define this and a few other routes more precisely, gather the necessary mapping data to trace the routes, and later run/hike them and submit this information to FKT. The goal was two-fold: provide Puerto Ricans a new opportunity to wonder and challenge themselves in the outdoors, and put the island literally on the map for adventure enthusiasts near and far.

A local Puerto Rican newspaper The island’s main local newspaper, El Nuevo Día, reported on “the island’s immense potential for hiking” and other trail-related activities after my FKT run.

In December 2022 I launched the website Trail Running Puerto Rico(Se abre en una ventana nueva) to document my plans and journey to achieving the first FKT x PR trail project. I dedicated my free time to engaging with community leaders familiar with the trail, participating in trail maintenance efforts, connecting with organizers, researching obstacles, training, and logistics planning for the big day. Single-day trail efforts like this one are unheard of in Puerto Rico, so the permitting system was difficult to navigate, and preparation was necessary to know the trail well before the attempt. It took a village to even approach the starting location confident I could complete it without major setbacks.

A women in running gear standing on a set of stairs along the Veredas Noreste trail 23 miles in the Veredas Noreste route - descending Los Picachos in El Yunque.

It took me 13 hours and 20 minutes to complete the first ever single day crossing of Veredas Noreste. I spent the day surrounded by a support system that believed in me, but more importantly, shared the vision I had for building a culture of adventure trail sports in the island. Reef to ridge, I once again saw the island with new eyes and embraced new hopes for its future. There’s so much to see and do and live in Puerto Rico, and I’m honored to make that part of my personal mission moving forward.

A woman standing under a waterfall After a long day of trail maintenance a few weeks before my new FKT attempt, I took the chance to visit the Juan Diego Falls in El Yunque.

The point of submitting the route, and all future routes I trace and complete in my FKT x PR project, to the FKT platform is not about having a record – because, for the record, I’m not fast. When the true purpose of my intentions develops, many other people will go on to break my records… and that’s the point. This project was (and IS) about bringing a big part of who I am back home to Puerto Rico, and seizing an opportunity to do something of value by using one of my core strengths and ambitions in the place I love most. It’s already proving to have been the right thing to do, because it’s sparked public interest, allowed for conversations of trail building and conservation stewardship regarding other parts of the island, and built connections with the groups truly leading this culture of responsible adventuring and outdoor recreation back home.

Doing this work is the answer to those perennial questions of purpose and intentions. And for the next challenge, I stand firm because I lack in athleticism, I counter with heart, resourcefulness, and community.

This is just the beginning.

A woman jumping in front of a mural with flags on either side Leaving the island in some ways has been a blessing - seeing the place I love with new eyes and perspective allows for fun, innovative ideas I would’ve never considered had I stayed. Excited to keep giving back to Puerto Rico in my own ways.