A Road Trip Down Puerto Rico's La Ruta Panorámica

Puerto Rico's rugged 167-mile "scenic route" leads to waterfalls, coffee plantations—and a wild side of the island you won't find at just any old resort.

Just a short drive down Carretera 143, near Jayuya, is Hacienda Pomarrosa (Carr. 511, Esq. Carr. 143, Barrio Anón, Sector Hogares Seguros, near Jayuya,, doubles from $125), a coffee farm and guesthouse run by German transplant Kurt Legner. We sat in the shade sipping cups of Arabica and snacking on homemade banana bread baked with fruit from the hacienda, interrupted only by the squawk of one of the farm's chickens. Afterward, Legner strolled through the rows of coffee plants—they'd only recently shed their springtime blossoms—pointing out the rose apples that give the hacienda its name and the pine trees he planted to remind him of his home in Düsseldorf. "I miss it sometimes," he said. "But here, it's much better."


The 95-mile section of the Ruta between Hacienda Pomarrosa and the coast is its most scenic stretch, slicing past lookouts where you can see both the Atlantic and Caribbean and skirting the mighty San Cristóbal Canyon. After the halfway point at Aibonito—which literally means "Oh! Beautiful!" (and lives up to it)—the trees open up and the mountain vistas burst into view.

It's a brisk ramble through the misty Bosque Estatal de Carite cloud forest, then the Ruta drops like an elevator, the smell of salt air wafting on the breeze. This is sugarcane country—the humid lowlands where t he sugar industry flourished for centuries, until prices dropped in the 1940s. The ghosts of the past still live on in Yabucoa, where the towering husk of the Central Roig sugar mill stands like a monument. One of the last working mills in Puerto Rico, before it closed in 2000, Central has been overtaken by groves of wild banana and papaya trees. Squint a little, though, and you can see what it must have looked like, before the tourists and hotels.

After Yabucoa, the Ruta comes to a sudden end near Maunabo. I took a sunset dip in the bay, then zoomed up the six-lane expressway toward San Juan, which, after the past three days, felt like traveling at warp speed. I sat outside a bar in Old San Juan and watched the revelers near the Plaza de Colón—crowds of young people, perhaps the grandchildren of those same old factory workers or hacendados, sipping café con leche or tumblers of rum. It felt like now I knew a little about where they came from.


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