An Outdoor-Lovers Guide to Puerto Rico
There's a lot more to Puerto Rico than San Juan—including a spectacular rain forest, scruffy beach towns, and locals who really know how to roast a pig.
From the San Juan airport, my friend Josh and I hit the ground running. We'd normally rent a convertible no matter what the weather was like, but with blue skies and an 80-degree day there's no question--the ragtop PT Cruiser is ideal.
Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1917, but the 51st state it is not: The culture is Latin and the language is Spanish. Even the automated tollbooth on Highway 3 blurts out "Gracias!" after we toss in a few coins.
We're headed to El Yunque National Forest, a 28,000-acre tropical rain forest that's home to more than 200 species of trees. About four miles after the town of Río Grande, we turn south on tiny Route 191, and our view morphs from large roadside restaurants to corner stores, then to fields fringed by palms and bamboo. El Yunque is in the Luquillo Mountains, and as we drive up the two-lane road, the air grows cool and damp. At El Portal Rain Forest Center, we pick up trail maps and then continue our drive to the Mount Britton Lookout Tower trailhead--the start of an easy half-mile hike, most of which is paved.
At the top, Josh and I climb the steps of the lookout tower, a 30-foot-tall stone structure that resembles a chess rook. We meet a pair of honeymooners from Kansas City and enjoy sweeping views of the cloud forest canopy. It's peaceful, but we're anxious to reach the peak of El Yunque, so we start up the trail that leads to the summit.
Josh, a photographer, is dying to get shots of the scenery, which looks as if it belongs inKing Kong: Giant tree ferns line the path, and in the distance jagged green peaks sit engulfed by a thick, swirling fog. There's another hour before the park closes, so after completing our first trek of the day, we drive to the Palo Colorado Visitor Center parking lot. We hike hurriedly to the main attraction, La Mina Falls--a 35-foot-tall waterfall. Swimming in the natural pool is against the rules, but many people are doing it anyway.
Josh and I hotfoot it back to the car. We have a 45-mile drive to Yabucoa, and we're starving from our long day of hiking. But at the family-runParador Palmas de Lucía, we hear some bad news. "Can you recommend any restaurants in town?" I ask Anna, the receptionist. "At this time of night?" she says. It's 7:15 p.m., and apparently most of the restaurants in Yabucoa close by 6 p.m. Fortunately, Parador Palmas de Lucía has a restaurant, so Josh and I toast our day with Medalla Light beer, dine on skirt steaks and stuffed plantain fritters, and retire to our room with a view of the sea.
- Parador Palmas de LucíaRte. 901 at Rte. 9911, Yabucoa, 787/893-4423, palmasdelucia.com, from $84
- El Yunque National ForestRte. 191, 787/888-1880, www.fs.fed.us/r8/caribbean, $3
There's not much to do in Yabucoa, so we get directions from the receptionist and drive off. It'll be the first of many times we're told to make a left when we really should be going right, but the detour takes us past a roadside fruit stand where we buy bananas, baby pineapple, and juicy yellow mangoes for breakfast. Realizing our miscue, we turn and make a beeline for La Ruta Panoáámica, a scenic stretch of winding one-lane roads that cut through the center of the island.
Soon we reach theSantuario Diocesano Virgen del Carmen, a Catholic church and holy site (a woman who is locally revered once lived and worshipped there). There's a grotto, too, and we're told by the bookstore's cashier that the spring water cures cancer and other illnesses. Curious, we walk down a series of steps to find an elderly woman whose adult son is splashing water on her eyes. With our rudimentary Spanish, we learn that she has cataracts. We're all for divine intervention, but our focus soon turns to lunch.
As we roll into Guavate, it's easy to see why the small mountain town is known for its roast pig. The main drag is lined with restaurants proudly displaying pigs roasting on spits. We chooseEl Rancho Original, an open-air, cafeteria-style restaurant that roasts at least two pigs a day. We order plates of the house specialty, rice and beans, and fried plantains, then grab a seat at a shady picnic table on the porch.
It's 50 miles to Ponce, so after lunch we get on fast-moving Highway 52. Our first stop in Ponce, a bustling city, is thePonce Museum of Art. With more than 3,000 pieces, including an important collection of Pre-Raphaelite works, the museum is a refreshing surprise, literally: The air-conditioning is as enjoyable as what's hanging on the walls.