Much of Guánica’s seductive coastline falls within the Bosque Estatal de Guánica, a 37 square kilometre forest reserve that incorporates some of the driest and most unusual flora on the island. Its heart lies high above the coast, accessible via PR-334, which ends 3km from PR-116 at a car park and small information booth (t787/724-3724) supplying basic maps (if closed, check at the ranger station nearby). The reserve is crisscrossed by twelve well-kept and mostly signposted trails, with literally hundreds of species of bird flittering around the gnarled trees and bushes, in a withered landscape often reminiscent of outback Australia. Noting that Guánica is now the largest remaining tract of tropical dry coastal forest in the world, UNESCO made it a Biosphere Reserve in 1981.
It’s important to remember, however, that there are four different forest types here, with only one being truly exceptional: the dry scrub forest that lines the southern slopes, studded with the imaginatively named Spanish dildo cactus, squat melon cactus and gumbo-limbo trees with peeling red bark. Two-thirds of the reserve is covered in deciduous forest (most of the area around the information booth, which contains the majority of the bird life), while one-fifth (mostly in the sinkholes and ravines of the east side) is evergreen forest. Coastal forest lines the shore, characterized by bonsai-like shrubs and mangroves.
Impressive as all this sounds, you might find the forest a little underwhelming: unless you have a keen interest in botany, the dry landscape can get monotonous and you’ll have to be here at dawn to catch most of the birds. The best strategy is to take a whole day and tackle one of the longer trails in order to appreciate the bizarre diversity of the area, combining the hike with a few hours on the beach. You’ll need to bring plenty of water and preferably start early. December to April is the driest period, and you’ll find the most colour, flowers and odd bouts of rain, between September and January.
Officially Cayo Aurora, Guilligan’s Island is an idyllic outcrop of thick mangroves bordered by white coral sand, just off the Guánica coast. The sobriquet recalling the US television series Gilligan’s Island was added in the late 1960s as a marketing gimmick (but retaining a Spanish twist), and today it falls under the same DRNA management as the forest reserve.
A ferry plies back and forth from the main island, where you’ll find a few barbecue huts and plenty of shade, but this isn’t really a beach – being completely hemmed in by mangroves is what makes the lagoon so magical. Swim or just drift around in the incredibly clear (and shallow) water, where shoals of parrot fish and crabs huddle beneath the roots, or snorkel over the reef just beyond the jetty.
The ferry (787/821-4941) sails from the pier in front of the San Jacinto restaurant, on the narrow road that splits off PR-333 towards Mary Lee’s by the Sea (taking just 10 to 15 minutes). Note that at weekends and holidays, especially in the summer, cars begin to line up at the ferry car park at around 6am, and the island can get swamped (the ferry takes 45 people per trip, with a maximum 350 allowed on the island). Taking the private launches from Copamarina or Mary Lee’s (both charge around the same price) is a good idea, as you can set your own pick-up time and combine the trip with a visit to Ballena – you’ll have to be a guest to organize this, however.