Lingering in Fajardo itself is pointless; focus instead on the varied ecosystems of the Reserva Natural Cabezas de San Juan and Laguna Grande before exploring the reef-encrusted islands of La Cordillera. While plenty of travellers visit on day-trips from San Juan, staying in the area means you won’t have to pay additional transport charges or get up at the crack of dawn.
Reserva Natural Cabezas de San Juan
Reserva Natural Cabezas de San Juan
Wonderfully preserved by the Conservation Trust (http://www.fideicomiso.org) since 1975, the Reserva Natural Cabezas de San Juan (787/860-2563 or 787/722-5834, weekends 787/860-2560) comprises 321 acres of untamed scrub and mangroves and 8km of reef-lined coast on the northeastern tip of the island. You’ll pass the gated entrance to the reserve just beyond the Balneario Seven Seas car park, but the guard will only let you in if you have a reservation: reserve a tour in advance, by phone or online: English tours depart at 2pm.
Laguna Grande dominates the lower half of the reserve, while the bush-smothered hill that rises over the northern section is topped by El Faro, the old Spanish lighthouse completed in 1882. It now houses a small visitors’ centre with exhibits showcasing the reserve’s marine and coastal ecosystems, including the bio bay – the highlight being bags of dinoflagellates that glow in the dark when shaken. Be sure to soak up the magnificent views from the observation deck on top.
General tours (by trolley bus; 2hr 30min) provide a brief taste of some of the diverse environments preserved here, starting with the mangrove forests that surround the lagoon (30 percent of the reserve), where a short boardwalk passes red, black, white and buttonwood mangroves and hordes of crab scuttle for cover. At Playa Lirios you get a chance to see the rocky coast and scrub and the three headlands that give the reserve its name (cabeza means “head”), before ending up at the lighthouse. Other than birds and insects, the only other wildlife you may encounter are giant iguanas, plodding through the undergrowth.
Lying just inside the reserve, the placid waters of Laguna Grande look fairly ordinary by day, but when night falls everything changes. Thanks to creatures known as dinoflagellates, kayaks and boats leave glowing trails in the dark, while water falls like sparks of light from paddles and trailing arms. Puerto Rico has several places where heavy concentrations of microscopic plankton create this mesmerizing phenomenon: Vieques is home to the most celebrated example, but on a dark (and moonless) night, Laguna Grande is almost as magical. Optimum days for viewing are based not only on the phases of the moon but also the actual time the moon rises – check before you go.
The only way to experience the lagoon is to take a tour, preferably by kayak. It is forbidden to swim in the bay, so cutting through the mangroves by kayak is the best way to appreciate its bizarre luminescence – it’s not as taxing as it looks and easy for beginners. One of the most eco-friendly and informative operators is Yokahú Kayak Trips (787/604-7375, http://www.yokahukayaks.com), which runs 2hr tours at 6pm and 8pm daily. Kayaking Puerto Rico (787/435-1665, http://www.kayakingpuertorico.com) is another professional outfit that can arrange trips also for $45 per person. Try to book at least three days in advance for both companies.
Captain Charlie Robles’s electric boat at Bio Island (787/422-7857, http://www.bioislandpr.com) is an eco-friendly alternative to kayaking. Captain Suárez (787/655-2739 or 787/556-8291) is the only operator licensed to pilot actual motorboats in the lagoon, and though he’s a knowledgeable guide, his boat isn’t really helping the lagoon. All tours start at the Las Croabas quay, last 90 minutes, and guides are all bilingual.