When Christopher Columbus reached Puerto Rico in 1493, he staggered ashore somewhere on the balmy west coast, a sun-soaked region known today as the PORTA DEL SOL, or “gateway to the sun”. This is Puerto Rico’s playground, with an enticing coastline rimmed by low-key resorts offering sensational snorkelling, diving and surfing. Yet tourists rushing to the beaches miss out on a traditional hinterland steeped in colonial history, with rickety old towns, crumbling ruins and a diverse landscape that runs from the forest-drenched northern mountains to the arid saltpans of the south.
The northwest coast begins at Isabela and Playa de Jobos, a gorgeous arc of sand and the perfect place for surfers to get warmed up. Punta Borinquen marks the start of Puerto Rico’s prime surfing real estate, a chain of nonstop breaks that peaks in Rincón, one of the world’s most revered surf centres but just as inviting for divers, horse riders and beach bums. Inland, the French elegance of the Palacete Los Moreau, the delicate lace of Moca and the historic towns of Aguada and Añasco provide aesthetic relief from the coast, while serious divers and adventure seekers should target Isla Desecheo and Isla de Mona further offshore. Mayagüez is the underrated capital of the west, slowly recovering some of its former glitz and loaded with fine colonial architecture, plus the best zoo on the island. The southwest is vacation central for Puerto Ricans, dominated by unpretentious resorts with heaps of character: Playa Joyuda has the seafood, Playa Buyé and Boquerón the beaches, and La Parguera an intriguing patchwork of canals and mangrove cays. Towering Cabo Rojo and its nineteenth-century lighthouse guards an otherworldly landscape of lifeless salt flats and reserves thick with bird life, while San Germán is a colonial pearl of a city with quiet, narrow streets and cobbled plazas, perfect for idling away an afternoon.