Squashed between the north coast and the peaks of the Central Cordillera, karst country is quite unlike anything else in Puerto Rico, a haunting landscape that resembles parts of China more than the Caribbean. Stretching between Quebradillas and Corozal, this is a region of crumbling limestone hills smothered in dense jungle, flashes of white stone poking through the vines like a lost city, the narrow gorges (sumideros) in between pockmarked by cavernous sinkholes. These striking formations, known as mogotes, were created over millions of years, the limestone bedrock worn away by seeping water: Kras (or “karst” in German) is the region in Slovenia where the phenomenon was first studied. Gazing over Puerto Rico’s karst country from lofty viewpoints on the Ruta Panorámica, it’s easier to appreciate their surreal uniformity – a bit like a roughly made egg carton spreading across the horizon.
Hard to believe today, but by the 1940s much of the area had been deforested to make way for coffee plantations and fruit farms. By the 1960s most of these had closed and with the forests restored, you’ll find plenty of tranquil reserves nestled among the peaks, as well as some major attractions: you might recognize the vast Observatorio de Arecibo from movies such as Contact (1997) and GoldenEye (1995), while the Parque de las Cavernas del Río Camuy shows what happens beneath the surface and the Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Caguana is an evocative reminder of the Taíno past. Make time for Lares if you can – spiritual home of Puerto Rico’s independence movement – and the small hill towns further east, with Ciales a charming introduction to the island’s lauded coffee-growing traditions.