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.
Coastal highway PR-901 winds around the rugged southeast corner of the island, where the mountains of the Central Cordillera collapse gracefully into the sea. Though only a short drive south of Palmas del Mar, the towns and villages here seem unusually remote and despite jaw-dropping vistas and a smattering of windswept beaches, see far fewer tourists.
Autopista PR-53 ends abruptly at the long causeway over the Río Guayanés wetlands, near the former sugar town of Yabucoa. Follow PR-901 along the coast from here, towards Maunabo and the heart of sugar country. You can also head inland on the Ruta Panorámica – the first section of this mountain highway actually follows PR-901, before looping back to Yabucoa on PR-3.
Heading south along the east coast, you eventually lose the cars, condos and tourists and enter a rural, slower-paced and infinitely more appealing part of Puerto Rico. The main towns here, Naguabo and Humacao, hold little interest for most visitors and once again, it’s the coast that provides the real allure. Highlights include the boat trip to Monkey Island (Cayo Santiago), some exceptional seafood restaurants at Playa Naguabo and Punta Santiago and the beaches and staggering vistas of PR-901, one of the most scenic roads on the island. Along the way, nature lovers should check out the thoroughbred Paso Fino horses at Palmas del Mar.
Just over 11km south of Humacao lies the high-end “club community” of PALMAS DEL MAR (w www.palmasdelmar.com), a 2700-acre Neverland of landscaped putting greens, pristine condos, country clubs and 9km of beaches. More like an affluent suburb of southern Florida than Puerto Rico, it’s nevertheless one of the best places to go horseriding on the island and the local dive and boat operators tend to be less swamped than their Fajardo rivals.
Puerto Ricans are among the most passionate horseriders in the world, immensely proud of their unique, island-bred Paso Finos. Despite rapid modernization, you’ll come across locals (often sporting baseball caps and mobile phones) steering their horses along busy roads in towns and villages all over the island, families joining cabalgatas (group day rides) organized on weekends in mountain towns and serious international competitions held here every year.
Horses were introduced to Puerto Rico by the Spanish, the Paso Fino evolving as a cross-breed of the Andalusian, North African Barb and Spanish Jennet. Although the horse also emerged in Colombia, only the Puerto Rican Paso Fino has the tantalizing four-phase gait that makes it so valuable: other show horses have to be taught the walk, but Paso Finos are born with it. Bred all over the world today, Paso Finos are fast learners and extremely responsive, making them a pleasure to ride.
Unless you have local horse-loving friends, the best way to experience the smooth, fine walk of a Paso Fino is to visit a ranch such as Rancho Buena Vista, where experienced guides take groups out on well-trained horses. You can also check out 4 Tiempos (t1-888/4843-6767, wwww.4tiempos.com), the world’s largest Paso Fino magazine, for the latest reviews of horses, shows, and events from around the world, and including what’s going on in Puerto Rico.
Tucked away on the edge of Palmas del Mar (turn left on Academy Drive opposite the information centre), Rancho Buena Vista (787/479-7479, www.ranchobuenavistapr.com) provides a fabulous opportunity to ride Paso Fino horses along tropical sandy beaches. The regular trail rides are perfect for beginners, lasting around one hour and covering 6.5km (no minimum, but maximum thirty people). Experienced riders can opt for the expert trail ride, which lasts two hours and covers over 9.5km of trail. Both routes include local beaches where turtles nest (the beaches are regularly inspected so that nothing is disturbed). Riders must be eight years or older, but ponies are available for children aged three to seven. The ranch is open daily from 8am, but sometimes closes in September and October. Christmas is peak season, so book ahead.
The first place of any interest south of Fajardo, the laidback seaside village of PLAYA DE NAGUABO (not to be confused with Naguabo town, and also known as Playa Húcares, after the local tree), is a welcome reminder than Puerto Rico isn’t all shopping malls, cars and fast-food chains. Other than soaking up the soporific atmosphere (though as always, it gets busy on weekends), the main draw is the plethora of seafood restaurants on the small malecón (promenade), and the celebrated local snack, chapín (deep-fried turnovers usually stuffed with local trunkfish).
Playa Naguabo is on PR-3 a short drive off the PR-53 autopista (exit 13; once off the highway, don’t take the right fork on PR-31 to Naguabo itself). You can park along the main road that runs along the harbour, or in the car park behind the kioscos at the end of the malecón. The helpful Oficina de Turismo (Mon–Fri 8am–4.30pm), where PR-3 hits the malecón, usually has English-speakers on hand and plenty of information on Naguabo municipality, but little else.
The main reason to visit Playa Naguabo is to take a trip out to Monkey Island, just offshore. In 1938, the University of Puerto Rico established a colony of 409 Indian rhesus monkeys on the 39-acre cay (now thought to number at least 1000) to study their behaviour. It’s the oldest monkey colony in the world.
Trips (2hr 30min) on La Paseodora, the motorboat captained by the sprightly Frank (Paco) Lopez (787/316-0441 or 787/850-7881), cost just $35–40 per person, a real bargain (the boat can take up to twenty people, but he prefers to take groups of between six and ten; groups smaller than six will pay more per head). Though it’s forbidden to actually go ashore, Lopez regales his passengers with facts and amusing yarns about the island throughout the voyage, summoning the monkeys on the beach by blowing a conch shell. Trips also include snorkelling nearby, spiced up by the wreck of a cargo ship that sank in 1944 and is now a haven for tropical fish; you might see anything from a manatee to huge starfish and small octopus out here. Lopez goes out every day, but make sure you call in advance to reserve a space
Sacred to the Taíno long before the Spanish conquest, El Yunque National Forest dominates eastern Puerto Rico like a protective wall, absorbing most of the rain hurled into the island by the trade winds. Part of the US National Forest system, its well-paved roads, enlightening visitor centre and network of clearly marked trails make it the most accessible reserve in the Caribbean.
You can drive right into the heart of the forest, but to really appreciate the area you need to go hiking. The Forest Service maintains thirteen trails ranging from easy, concrete paths to more challenging dirt tracks, but even the trek up to the peak of El Yunque itself (the name refers to both the reserve and the mountain) is manageable for anyone of moderate fitness and well worth the effort for the momentous views from the top. Less taxing highlights include a series of plunging waterfalls and natural swimming pools, perfect for cooling down in the summer and a smattering of whimsical structures created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
Most tourists visit El Yunque on day-trips, which is a shame – you’ll get a lot more out of the place by staying at one of the enticing guesthouses nearby. Half the visitors to the forest are Puerto Ricans, who typically come in the hot summer months of July and August when the northern section is often bursting with traffic. More foreigners tend to visit in the winter and early spring, making mid-April to mid-June and September through to October the quietest periods, but it’s relatively easy to escape the crowds at any time. The average temperature of the forest is 73˚F (21˚C), but in winter, the highest peaks can be 20 degrees cooler than the coast (53˚F, 12˚C). And be prepared for rain: El Yunque is a rainforest after all, with an average deluge of 605 billion litres each year.
The Taíno regarded El Yunque as a sacred mountain, the place where Yokahú or Yukiyú, their chief god, made his home (yuké meant “white lands” in Taíno, referring to the clouds). For seventy years after the Spanish conquest the Sierra de Luquillo was a base for resistance against the invaders, but over the following three centuries, farming gradually made headway and large areas of the lower slopes were converted to fruit or coffee plantations.
Much of what you see in the forest today – cabins, towers and even highway PR-191 – was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps between 1935 and 1943. Around 2400 Puerto Ricans were enrolled in this US public works programme, with most of it completed by back-breaking manual labour.
Highway PR-191, which had linked the northern and southern sections of the forest, was seriously damaged by four major landslides between 1970 and 1979, and the mid-section was closed permanently in 1972. In 1976, El Yunque became a UN Biosphere Reserve and several attempts to rebuild the road (notably in 1993) were thwarted, in part by the opposition of local environmental groups – virtually everyone now agrees that the road is simply not practical to maintain. Despite the inconvenience to visitors, hurricanes are regarded as part of the natural cycle, allowing the forest to regenerate. By absorbing the full impact of these storms, many locals believe that El Yunque actually protects Puerto Rico from greater catastrophe: in the Taíno tradition, Yukiyú always fought with Juracán (the god of hurricanes) to save his people.
Most day-trippers visit only the busiest sections of the reserve and leave El Yunque seeing very little wildlife, yet the forest is home to over thirty species of amphibian and reptile, eleven types of bat (the only native mammal) and 68 species of bird – it’s the last that get naturalists most excited. Early morning (before 10am) and late afternoon (after 4pm) are the best times to hear and see them.
El Yunque’s thick, primeval forest is a precious ecosystem of 240 tree species and four distinct zones: 70 percent of the reserve is smothered in tabonuco forest, while higher up is Palo Colorado forest, sierra palm forest and at the very top, cloud or dwarf forest, dense vegetation that rarely tops 3m. Tucked within this greenery is the Puerto Rican green parrot or Cotorra Puertorriqueña, the most celebrated and endangered inhabitant of the forest. When the Spanish arrived in 1508, it was estimated that one million parrots lived on the island: after years of hunting, deforestation and devastating hurricanes, there are thought to be around 50 in the wild, all here in El Yunque (up from a record low of 13 in 1975), thanks to a rehabilitation programme founded in 1968. As you can imagine, you need the eyes of a hawk and lots of luck to spot one. The parrot has a distinctive bright green colour with a red forehead and is usually around 12in long. Nesting season runs from February through to June.
You should have more luck with the Puerto Rican tody (san pedrito), a small bird with bright green feathers, lemony white breast and scarlet throat, and the bananaquit (ciquita), a tiny warbler with a black-and-white striped head and yellow breast. You might also hear the “cow cow, kuk krrk” of the Puerto Rican lizard cuckoo (pájaro bobo mayor), which feasts on lizards and has a long striped tail. You’ll find plenty of information on other bird species in the forest visitor centres.
Justly regarded as the boating capital of Puerto Rico, it’s no surprise that the real appeal of FAJARDO lies along the coast. Numerous boat operators provide ample opportunity to explore the glittering waters and islets of La Cordillera just offshore, while the nearby Reserva Natural Cabezas de San Juan is an unexpectedly wild reserve containing one of the island’s extraordinary bioluminescent bays. The city itself has become something of a boomtown in recent years and is best avoided; a wholly unattractive mess of strip malls, clogged highways and rampant property development.
Coming by car, it’s easy to drive right through all this and most públicos will drop you elsewhere if you ask – get a taxi or another bus if you get stuck at the downtown terminal. The reserva is 5km north of the city on PR-987, near the fishing village of Las Croabas, which also contains some of the best places to stay and eat. Most boat excursions depart from Villa Marina, just east of the centre on PR-987, or Puerto del Rey, several kilometres to the south. For the ferries to Vieques and Culebra, head straight to the grubby port district of Puerto Real (referred to locally and on públicos as “La Playa”).
Lingering in Fajardo itself is pointless; focus instead on the varied ecosystems of the Reserva Natural Cabezas de San Juan and Laguna Grande before exploring the reef-encrusted islands of La Cordillera. While plenty of travellers visit on day-trips from San Juan, staying in the area means you won’t have to pay additional transport charges or get up at the crack of dawn.
Lying just inside the reserve, the placid waters of Laguna Grande look fairly ordinary by day, but when night falls everything changes. Thanks to creatures known as dinoflagellates, kayaks and boats leave glowing trails in the dark, while water falls like sparks of light from paddles and trailing arms. Puerto Rico has several places where heavy concentrations of microscopic plankton create this mesmerizing phenomenon: Vieques is home to the most celebrated example, but on a dark (and moonless) night, Laguna Grande is almost as magical. Optimum days for viewing are based not only on the phases of the moon but also the actual time the moon rises – check before you go.
The only way to experience the lagoon is to take a tour, preferably by kayak. It is forbidden to swim in the bay, so cutting through the mangroves by kayak is the best way to appreciate its bizarre luminescence – it’s not as taxing as it looks and easy for beginners. One of the most eco-friendly and informative operators is Yokahú Kayak Trips (787/604-7375, www.yokahukayaks.com), which runs 2hr tours at 6pm and 8pm daily. Kayaking Puerto Rico (787/435-1665, www.kayakingpuertorico.com) is another professional outfit that can arrange trips also for $45 per person. Try to book at least three days in advance for both companies.
Captain Charlie Robles’s electric boat at Bio Island (787/422-7857, www.bioislandpr.com) is an eco-friendly alternative to kayaking. Captain Suárez (787/655-2739 or 787/556-8291) is the only operator licensed to pilot actual motorboats in the lagoon, and though he’s a knowledgeable guide, his boat isn’t really helping the lagoon. All tours start at the Las Croabas quay, last 90 minutes, and guides are all bilingual.
Wonderfully preserved by the Conservation Trust (www.fideicomiso.org) since 1975, the Reserva Natural Cabezas de San Juan (787/860-2563 or 787/722-5834, weekends 787/860-2560) comprises 321 acres of untamed scrub and mangroves and 8km of reef-lined coast on the northeastern tip of the island. You’ll pass the gated entrance to the reserve just beyond the Balneario Seven Seas car park, but the guard will only let you in if you have a reservation: reserve a tour in advance, by phone or online: English tours depart at 2pm.
Laguna Grande dominates the lower half of the reserve, while the bush-smothered hill that rises over the northern section is topped by El Faro, the old Spanish lighthouse completed in 1882. It now houses a small visitors’ centre with exhibits showcasing the reserve’s marine and coastal ecosystems, including the bio bay – the highlight being bags of dinoflagellates that glow in the dark when shaken. Be sure to soak up the magnificent views from the observation deck on top.
General tours (by trolley bus; 2hr 30min) provide a brief taste of some of the diverse environments preserved here, starting with the mangrove forests that surround the lagoon (30 percent of the reserve), where a short boardwalk passes red, black, white and buttonwood mangroves and hordes of crab scuttle for cover. At Playa Lirios you get a chance to see the rocky coast and scrub and the three headlands that give the reserve its name (cabeza means “head”), before ending up at the lighthouse. Other than birds and insects, the only other wildlife you may encounter are giant iguanas, plodding through the undergrowth.
While the modern city of Fajardo has all the charm of a giant shopping mall, the real Caribbean starts in earnest just offshore. La Cordillera is a chain of around ten uninhabited, reef-encrusted white sand cays, paradise for anyone interested in snorkelling, diving or lazing on the beach. Turtles nest here each year and the sprawling coral reefs are home to a variety of marine life. Many of the islands are protected within the Reserva Natural La Cordillera, managed by the DRNA.
To reach the islands you’ll need a boat: the easiest way to get one is to find or call Captain Domingo “Mingo” Nieves (t787/383-6509) at the Las Croabas pier. He’ll take you to Icacos or Palominitos for $100 (maximum 6 people) and pick you up anytime. For $30 per person (minimum 4 people) he’ll take you snorkelling off Palominitos for a couple of hours. If you’re lucky enough to be a guest at the El Conquistador Resort, you’ll get ferried over to Isla Palominos for free and failing that, numerous boats operating out of Villa Marina and Puerto del Rey visit the islands every day.
Cayo Icacos (163 acres) is the biggest island in the chain, coated in a thick layer of scrubby bush, seagrape and coconut palms, and fringed by incredibly seductive beaches of floury white sand and vivid, turquoise waters. Being relatively close to shore (though still 7km from Villa Marina), it’s a particular favourite of boat operators, which means the best beach areas (on the calmer, leeward side) can get crowded on weekends, but at other times it’s easy to find a secluded spot. The ocean side of the island is rough and rocky, while the reefs between Icacos and the rock known as “Cucaracha” have the best snorkelling.
From here, smaller islets stretch east towards Culebra: Cayo Ratones, Cayo Lobos and, further out, Cayo Diablo (30–40min by boat), are popular dive and snorkel sites (see The islands), and it’s rare to go ashore. Five-acre Lobos is 2.7km east of Icacos and actually a private island, though it’s permitted to dive or snorkel off its reef. A posh hotel was built here in the early 1960s, but went bankrupt soon after and now serves as a luxury vacation home for the owners.
To the south is the larger, rockier Isla Palominos (4.8km offshore and 15min by boat). Most of the island is leased by the El Conquistador Resort and officially off-limits to everyone else, though people do come here to snorkel off the northern shore and dine in the restaurant. Resort guests get whisked across in minutes to enjoy the lavish facilities on the 104-acre island, which include swimming, snorkelling, diving, windsurfing and horse riding. It also has a bar, a café and plenty of loungers on the smallish but pristine beach. Isla Palominitos covers just one acre, 460m off the southern tip of Isla Palominos, and surrounded by a reef perfect for snorkelling. Though it’s tiny, it also has wide, sugary-sand beaches – a real desert island.
Join any dive trip from Fajardo and you’ll almost certainly be heading for La Cordillera. Unless conditions are perfect, experienced divers may be disappointed with the coral and marine life on display, much reduced in the last twenty years or so – hardcore divers should head to Cayo Diablo (or Culebra). For casual or beginner divers, it’s worth a look and it’s not overly expensive.
(t787/860-3483, wwww.scubapuertorico.net) inside El Conquistador Resort is open to non-guests and offers two-tank dives for $99 ($69 for one tank). Trips to Culebra start at $125 for two tanks, while the Discover Scuba programme for beginners is $139. They also run daily snorkelling trips to Lobos ($60) and Culebra ($95), and offer a popular kids’ programme (for 8- to 9-year-olds) known as Bubblemakers – call for details.
(t787/863-3483, wwww.divepuertorico.com) at Puerto del Rey is the other main operator in the area, charging $119 for two-tank dives with equipment and $109 if you bring your own ($55–65 for one tank). Non-certified beginners can dive for $150.
Where you end up diving is largely in the hands of your divemaster and the weather/sea conditions on the day – heavy rain in El Yunque can decrease visibility dramatically, as heavily silted rivers flow into the sea near here. Beginners usually end up at Pyramid (9m), a coral rise teeming with small fish and reef lobsters, but often disappointing for seasoned divers. Cayo Lobos has three main sites, with Lobos itself (up to 10m) having the greatest variety of fish: yellowtail snapper, blue tang, the ubiquitous sergeant major and sometimes dolphins and stingrays. Isla Palominos has five main dive sites, with Sandslide (4.5–21m) one of the most popular, a gentle sandy slope that leads to a large reef crawling with enormous lobsters and all sorts of coral. You might also see dolphins, turtles, barracudas, small tuna and octopus here. Finally, Cayo Diablo (13–15m) has several sites and some of the best diving on the east coast, though swells and high winds often prevent visits. The island is surrounded by brilliant hard and soft corals, schools of barracuda and occasional rays – the water is extremely clear.
Perched on the balmy Atlantic coast in the shadow of El Yunque, 45km east of San Juan, LUQUILLO combines three of Puerto Rico’s most appealing pastimes: lounging on palm-fringed beaches, world-class surfing and gorging on celebrated cocina en kiosco. While it can get insufferably busy on weekends, it’s well worth a pit stop during the week and a couple of attractive hotels mean you can stay the night (and use it as a base for El Yunque). Getting here involves a straightforward 45-minute drive from San Juan along PR-3, or a shorter twenty-minute hop from El Yunque. Taxis from San Juan’s Aeropuerto Internacional Luis Muñoz Marín will charge $70.
Luquillo’s town centre lies around Plaza Jesús T. Piñero, just off PR-3, but other than a few places to eat, contains little to see and the beaches are spread out for several miles either side of here. If you’re coming from San Juan the first is Balneario de Luquillo, the main beach and one of Puerto Rico’s most beguiling strips of sand, formally known as Balneario de Monserrate. Look for the brown sign to “Balneario” and “Kioscos” on PR-3, just after you pass the line of kioscos on the left (if you reach the Luquillo exit on PR-3, you’ve missed it).
With a wide swathe of honey-gold sand, plenty of palm trees and El Yunque for a backdrop, it’s definitely one of the top beaches on the island, best enjoyed on weekdays when you’ll avoid the crowds (and the rubbish). As an official public beach, it has a vast car park, toilets, changing facilities, showers and clear, calm water, perfect for swimming. It even has a staffed ramp for wheelchair users known as the Mar Sin Barreras (“sea without barriers”). Luquillo itself is 1km east of the balneario on the other side of a headland and quite separate from it – you have to rejoin PR-3 and take the next exit to reach the centre (you can follow one-way PR-193 in the other direction).
The northern half of Luquillo town is almost completely given over to condos and known as Vilomar or just “Condominio” – it backs Playa Azul, a narrow but reasonably clean beach where you can park for free on the street and doze under the palms. Central Luquillo lies beyond the small headland (“La Punta”) further along, a slightly shabby, sleepy place fronting the rougher beach of Playa La Pared, popular with surfers. To the southeast you’ll see the sand stretching away into the distance: known as La Selva, this is hard to access by car and often sprinkled with debris, but almost always deserted. Conservationists managed to get the undeveloped stretch of coast between here and Balneario Seven Seas (dubbed “the Northeast Ecological Corridor”) designated a nature reserve in 2008, but just over a year later Governor Fortuño rescinded the decision. With turtle nesting sites threatened by the construction of mega resorts, the area has attracted a coalition of various groups campaigning for its protection: see wwww.sierraclub.org for more details.
Surfers flock to Luquillo’s Playa La Pared (“the wall”) on weekends for its fairly consistent left beach-break, though it can go flat in the summer: it’s fine for beginners, with a fairly gentle swell and a sandy bottom. Board Riders Luquillo Surf Shop (t787/599-2097, wwww.boardridersinc.com) overlooks La Pared at c/Veve Calzada 25, not far from the main plaza and rents surfboards for $40 per day ($10/hr) and bodyboards for $20 per day ($6/hr); lessons are $60 per hour. Ask here about current conditions, or stop by La Selva Surf Shop (t787/889-6205) at c/Fernández García 250, one block inland from the plaza, where boards are usually slightly cheaper and owner Bob Roberts also offers lessons. The reefs around La Punta dividing Playa Azul and La Pared offer some good snorkelling, but you’ll need your own gear.