Puerto Rico’s rustic southwest corner is entirely taken up by the municipality of Cabo Rojo, a region of mellow seaside resorts, sprawling marshland and a coastline smothered in tangled mangroves. While El Yunque gets slammed with the full tropical force of the trade winds, Cabo Rojo is protected by the Central Cordillera and sees relatively little rain, making the area a prime target for sun-hungry tourists. The city of Cabo Rojo, known locally as el pueblo, boasts a few low-key historic attractions, but don’t confuse this with the actual cape (the name means “Red Cape”) further south, where crusty saltpans provide a startling contrast to the warmer tropical landscapes of the north.
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Playa de Joyuda
Playa de Joyuda
One of several proudly traditional Puerto Rican seaside resorts on the southwest coast, PLAYA DE JOYUDA isn’t really a beach but a string of seafood restaurants, fishing shacks and faded hotels. Running for 2km along PR-102 south of Mayagüez, between a ragged shore of bleached coral and the mangrove-fringed nature reserve of Laguna Joyuda, it’s as unattractive as it sounds (most of the coral is dead and erosion has whittled away the seafront), but while its sobriquet of Milla de Oro del Buen Comer (“golden mile of good food”) is a little exaggerated, some of the seafood restaurants are genuinely excellent value and the tiny islet of Cayo Ratones just offshore makes an appealing target for a lazy afternoon. The island is completely undeveloped and is actually part of the Bosque Estatal de Boquerón, a protected nature reserve, with silky white sands and excellent snorkelling. You have to hire a boat to take you across: contact Adventures Tourmarine (t787/255-2525, wwww.tourmarinepr.com) at the small dock between the Vista al Mar and Vista Bahía restaurants, at PR-102 km 14.1. Captain Elick Hernández García ferries passengers to Cayo Ratones ($5, minimum four people). He also does fishing charters and diving/snorkelling day-trips to Isla Desecheo for $75 (minimum ten people) and Isla de Mona.
One of the most alluring beaches in the southwest, PLAYA BUYÉ has a natural, unspoiled feel quite unlike anything else in the region. Though it can get crammed with families at weekends and the narrow strip of sand is backed by condos, development’s low-key, the sea is a deep azure blue and bushy portia trees with bony limbs reach almost as far as the water, providing plenty of shade. You can park at the end of the potholed road to the beach, signposted at km 4.8 on PR-307, south of Cabo Rojo, and a small shop sells basic supplies and snacks.
The ramshackle fishing village of BOQUERÓN, with its jumble of clapboard houses and slightly shabby seafront, is a magnet for Puerto Rican tourists on weekends, who pile in to soak up the carnival atmosphere and fresh seafood. Apart from the food – particularly the fresh shellfish, sold raw from stalls on the main road through town – the real draw is the Balneario de Boquerón. One of the best beaches on the island, this 5km horseshoe-shaped curve of velvety white sand is backed by a thick crust of palm trees. You can park here or stroll along the coast from the main village. Other distractions include two nature reserves nearby and, in the summer (usually June), Boquerón’s very own gay pride parade, which has regularly attracted over five thousand revellers since it began in 2003.
Central Boquerón is a compact area of shops, restaurants and hotels lining the bay and wharf area along PR-101, 6.5km south of Cabo Rojo – PR-101 makes a loop from PR-100 and rejoins PR-307 heading north to Playa Buyé. The beach is at the end of a wide road off PR-101, just before entering the main part of the village. Note that PR-101 is closed to traffic Friday to Sunday nights. The nearest bank is Banco Popular at Plaza Boquerón, PR-101 km 17.4, a ten-minute drive east of the village, but there’s an ATM inside the Boquerón Beach Hotel.
Isla de Mona
Isla de Mona
One of the last true adventure destinations in the Caribbean, the ISLA DE MONA is a blessedly isolated nature reserve 72km off the west coast of Puerto Rico, and just 61km from the Dominican Republic. Staying on the island requires advance planning, though it’s much easier to arrange day-trips to dive or snorkel off its deep, unbelievably clear waters and richly stocked barrier reef. It’s worth the effort: although it’s not quite the “Galapagos” made out in the tourist literature, it does offer the chance for a real wilderness, back-to-nature experience.
The island is roughly 11km long and 6.5km wide, and other than occasional groups of illegal immigrants from Cuba, completely uninhabited, though you can still see evidence of Taíno and early Spanish settlement. The island is essentially a raised plateau surrounded by 40m sea cliffs, with an extensive cave system and 8km of absolutely stunning pearly white beaches lining its southern shore. Other than enjoying the caves and these (usually) utterly deserted strips of sand, Mona’s chief attraction is its wildlife. The Galapagos comparison was spurred chiefly by the giant rock iguanas that lounge on the shore, and can grow up to 1.5m long. There are also wild pigs, goats and cattle, left by Spanish colonists, and pods of humpback whales offshore in winter. Between May and October turtles nest on the beaches and there are over 100 species of bird zipping around the island, including hawks, red-footed boobies and pelicans. The DRNA maintains a basic ranger station, toilets and showers at Playa Sardinera on the west side of Mona, but otherwise you’re on your own – you must bring a tent and all your food and drink.