Eastern Puerto Rico is a microcosm of the whole island, at times brash, modern and touristy, but also rural, remote and achingly beautiful. Being so close to San Juan, the coastline is sprinkled with luxury resorts, condos and exclusive marinas, while in between you’ll find long stretches of primitive beach, festooned with nothing more than the flotsam blown up by the trade winds. Looming over the whole region, the densely forested hills of the Sierra de Luquillo were the last parts of Puerto Rico to be settled by the Spanish, thanks to indomitable Taíno resistance and the wet, hurricane-prone climate. In the nineteenth century the area did succumb to sugar and coffee plantations like the rest of the island, but they did not prosper, leaving nature to reclaim much of the land.
The most captivating evidence of this turnaround is El Yunque National Forest, a protected reserve of mist-draped mountains and bubbling cascades. The forest receives over one million visitors each year, but you can escape the crowds by hiking one of its peaceful and well-maintained trails. You’ll need at least two days to do it justice. Luquillo is the highlight of the northeast coast, a low-key resort town best known for its spectacular beach and legendary snack food, while Fajardo, the gateway to Vieques and Culebra, is all about boats. La Cordillera, just offshore, encapsulates most dreams about the Caribbean: uninhabited islands with sugary white sand, piles of multicoloured coral, fish and the odd turtle. Nearby, the Reserva Natural Cabezas de San Juan is another protected area of untrammelled mangrove swamp and dry forest, also containing Laguna Grande, one of Puerto Rico’s spellbinding bioluminescent bays.
The east coast proper offers a real contrast, a blend of sleepy villages and a wilder, cliff-backed shoreline laced with secluded beaches. Playa Naguabo, noted for its seafood, is also the best embarkation point for Monkey Island, while the sprawling condo development of Palmas del Mar contains one of the best horse ranches on the island. Finally, highway PR-901 snakes along the vertiginous southeast coastline, a twisting route lined with scenic viewpoints.