Puerto Rico // The north coast and karst country //

Reserva Natural de Hacienda La Esperanza

Formerly one of the largest sugar plantations on the island, holding 152 slaves at its peak, the Reserva Natural de Hacienda La Esperanza  contains over eight square kilometres of unsullied grassy plains, karst forest, wetlands and coastline, as well as a Taíno ceremonial site and the original hacienda building in the centre.

The plantation was established by the Spanish Fernández family in the 1830s, but it’s been owned by the Conservation Trust since 1975. The main entrance is at the end of PR-616, off PR-685 and inland from Playa Mar Chiquita. From here a bone-jarring dirt track leads 6km through the reserve, before ending at a small beach zone, the most accessible area for visitors. You’ll pass several places to pull off along the way, but be warned that on weekends it can get jam-packed, making it hard to find a space (despite the 175 vehicle limit). The two principal beaches are rocky coves, making natural pools ideal for swimming and snorkelling, with a thick bank of trees and tropical bush right up to the water providing plenty of shady cover.

Enlightening guided tours ($8; 1.5hr) of the renovated sugar mill and actual hacienda are available in English (t 787/722-5882), if you reserve in advance. The tour gets you a closer look at these fine colonial buildings dating from the 1860s, with outhouses containing a rare beam steam engine constructed in New York State (at the West Point Foundry) in 1861, and sobering reminders of the hundreds of slaves that once worked here.