Slicing across the physical and spiritual heart of Puerto Rico, the Ruta Panorámica follows the highest ridges of the Central Cordillera for 266km. This scenic highway cuts through some of the least explored but most rewarding parts of the island, snaking among mist-shrouded peaks, scintillating viewpoints and dense, dimly lit forests. This is rural Puerto Rico at its most traditional, a patchwork of small coffee farms shrouded in palo colorado forest, where the local colmado (shop) doubles as a bar, and smoky roadside barbecues cook up roast pork and thick wedges of banana. It’s a landscape inhabited by the descendants of the jíbaros, the hard-working peasant farmers who first colonized the jungle-drenched slopes and who embody much of Puerto Rico’s romantic ideas about its past: humble but wise, poor but proudly independent.
You can follow the route in either direction, but the further west you drive, the more rural and traditional things become. The Bosque Estatal de Carite is one of four forest reserves along the way, with basic camping facilities and trails in various states of use, while the lechoneras of Guavate roast succulent hunks of pork nearby. Keep heading west and you’ll reach workaday Aibonito, host to an exuberant flower festival and the staging post for the Cañón de San Cristóbal, a dizzying gorge en route to Barranquitas, one of the region’s most absorbing towns. Straddling the centre of the island, the Bosque Estatal de Toro Negro is Puerto Rico’s most alluring forest park. Nearby Jayuya has become the focus of a mini-Taíno revival, and Adjuntas remains a conservative, traditional hill town, though it’s home to Casa Pueblo, a cultural centre and hub of environmental activism. Finally, perched on the western end of the cordillera, sleepy Maricao is enveloped by some of the world’s finest coffee plantations, and is home to the best of the mountain hotels, Hacienda Juanita.
Cradled between some of the highest peaks on the island, ADJUNTAS is a remarkably traditional rural community, a million miles from urban Puerto Rico. It sits on one of the island’s primary north–south arteries, PR-10, 50km south of Arecibo and 30km north of Ponce, but with the highway now bypassing the town, its torpid centre seems frozen in the 1950s, with none of the strip malls and fast-food outlets that grace most Puerto Rican towns – for now. It’s also known as La Ciudad del Gigante Dormido (“the city of the sleeping giant”) after the ridge of mountains on its western side, which vaguely resemble the outline of a giant, lying face up. The town is perhaps best known in Puerto Rico today as the home of one of the island’s most successful conservation movements, Casa Pueblo. This local organization waged a long but eventually successful campaign against local open-mining of copper and gold deposits, and is today at the forefront of the Puerto Rican environmental movement. Adjuntas lies just off the Ruta Panorámica, around 32km from the heart of the Toro Negro.
Once the largest exporter of citron in the world, R&A de Jong (t787/829-2610), founded by Dutchman Andries de Jong in the 1960s, is now dedicated solely to the production of Café Bello, a high-quality coffee. Their plant is just north of town at PR-123 km 36.6 – you can stop to buy coffee and take a tour of the premises, but it’s best to call in advance if you can.
You can also buy gourmet coffee at Hacienda Patricia (t787/813-1878), home of the Segarra family’s sun-dried and wood fire-roasted Arabica beans. The plantation that was established in 1900, right on the Ruta Panorámica (PR-143 km 6.6, about 11km before Adjuntas – on the left just after the junction with PR-140). You can usually try their product in a small café on site.
The most compelling reason to stop in Adjuntas lies 200m south of the plaza on PR-123, at c/Rodolfo González 30 – an innovative cultural and environmental centre known as Casa Pueblo (787/829-4842, www.casapueblo.org). The arresting pink criollo-style house was purchased in 1985 by a group of environmentalists that had already been protesting the development of local open-air copper mining for five years – the mining posed a catastrophic threat to the local ecosystem. It took fifteen years of campaigning, but in 1995 the government passed a bill prohibiting open-air mining in Puerto Rico, and by the following year the land formerly threatened by the mine was turned into a small reserve, the Bosque del Pueblo. Founder Alexis Massol-González received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2002 on behalf of the group, and today Casa Pueblo supports sustainable development and conservation projects all over the island, also conducting a number of toxicity studies on Vieques.
The main house acts as a performance centre and art space, with a small shop selling local arts and crafts, coffee beans grown by the project (Café Madre Isla), T-shirts and books. Most of the wall space is dedicated to charting the group’s history and environmental campaigns through photographs and various media coverage. At the back is a small Mariposario (butterfly house) and garden, where caterpillars are reared on lettuce leaves. The whole place is powered by solar energy.
Justly regarded as La Ciudad del Café (“coffee city”), the languid mountain settlement of MARICAO is one of the most traditional on the island, the haunt of Taíno rebels, jíbaros and some of the world’s best coffee for over two hundred years. At harvest time the town is bathed in the aroma of roasting coffee beans, blazing red berries plucked from bushes that carpet the slopes nearby. Other than enjoying the pleasures associated with its premier crop, Maricao makes an enchanting last or first stop on the Ruta Panorámica, with its celebrated coffee festival, a small but engaging fish hatchery and the vast forest reserve just out of town.
Maricao has a small, compact centre of ramshackle wooden criollo houses with verandas, and a smattering of cheap cafés and shops, though it’s rarely busy – on Sundays the place seems totally abandoned. While sights may be lacking around central Plaza de Recreo Luis Muñoz Rivera, the town does have a certain lazy charm, and its narrow streets are perfect for aimless wandering.
Just outside the centre, on PR-410 a few metres from PR-105 (the Ruta Panorámica), a cleft in the hillside hides the Gruta San Juan Bautista, a small grotto and waterfall dedicated to San Juan (St John). A short pathway and steps lead up both sides of a statue above the waterfall, an image of Jesus being baptized by the saint. It’s a shady, peaceful spot and easy to park nearby.
The words of eminent Puerto Rican poet Luis Lloréns Torres (who attended school here) eloquently capture the powerful quality of Maricao’s Arabica coffee beans: “after drinking coffee from Maricao, even the devil couldn’t sleep”.
Still regarded by many connoisseurs as the home of the world’s best coffee, Puerto Rico is undergoing a remarkable coffee renaissance after decades of stagnation. Coffee was introduced to Puerto Rico in around 1736, most likely from the French colonies of Martinique and Haiti, and boomed in the nineteenth century. In 1887, Don Angel Agostini, a Yauco resident of Corsican descent, went to Paris to begin a hugely successful marketing campaign that resulted in the Pope becoming a regular customer of Puerto Rican café, along with half the salons of Europe.
Maricao’s rainforest environment, volcanic soils and proximity to cooling sea breezes make it perfect for coffee growing, while its location on the western side of the island protects it from hurricanes. To fully appreciate its rich coffee legacy, attend the three-day Festival del Acabe del Café in February (usually around President’s Day), an annual celebration that marks the end of the coffee harvest (Sept–Jan). It’s one of the island’s most popular festivals, so be prepared for crowds. In addition to special exhibitions and live music concerts, the central plaza is packed with stalls selling arts and crafts, criollo food and, of course, locally produced coffee.
Café Hacienda Juanita is still produced at the La Casona de Juanita, a direct descendant of the legendary coffees that once graced the tables of the Vatican, and can be purchased at the hotel shop. Hacienda Adelphia (t 787/473-9512, w www.cafedemaricao.com) at PR-105 km 37.5, in Sector Union, produces the much-sought-after Offeecay brand. Its gourmet Gold series coffees are for serious connoisseurs. You can buy them at the festival or directly from the plantation, but you must call ahead. Café Real de Puerto Rico at PR-105 km 23.6 (t 787/833-1698, w www.cafedepr.com) is produced by a local collective in the Maricao and Jayuya areas, but is primarily sold via their website. Hacienda Caracolillo, at PR-105 km 42.8 (t 787/838-2811) in the barrio of Indiera Baja is part of the Grupo Jiménez stable and produces Café Concierto ($12.95 for eight ounces), an exquisite roast, as well as contributing to the respected export brand, Yauco Selecto. Call in advance to ask about buying fresh from the plantation.
One of the largest towns on the Ruta Panorámica, AIBONITO is known as La Ciudad de las Flores (“the city of flowers”), a sobriquet marked by a giant flower festival every summer. Just to the north, the Cañón de San Cristóbal cuts across the hills like a narrow slit, its soaring, fern-smothered walls the ideal stomping ground for hikers and adrenaline junkies, while the Mirador Piedra Degetau offers a gentler but equally spectacular panorama of the region. Despite the oft-quoted legend that the town’s name stems from its beauty (an early Spanish visitor is said to have exclaimed “Ay, que bonito” on seeing the area), you’ll see little evidence of this outside festival time, and it’s a sprawling, unattractive place often choked with full-size SUVs barely able to pass through the narrow mountain roads.
Just a few kilometres north of Aibonito, the Cañón de San Cristóbal is a rugged 9km-long gorge created by the raging waters of the Usabón, Aibonito and Piñonas rivers. Tucked away in the folds of rolling hills and farmland, the canyon is hard to make out from above, its sheer sides smothered in dense subtropical foliage, clinging moss and swaying ferns, but the drop down in places reaches a hair-raising 230m. Exploring the gorge takes some effort, but that’s part of the appeal: clamber to the bottom and you’ll enter a lost world of plunging waterfalls (some the island’s highest), churning pools and a plethora of endemic Puerto Rican flora, freshwater fish, snakes and rare birds such as the red-tailed hawk. In between the rocks it’s still possible to see overgrown TVs and abandoned fridges, rusting and half-hidden in the jungle, a reminder that this was used as a municipal garbage dump for over twenty years. In 1974 the Conservation Trust stepped in to halt this shocking state of affairs, and today around 5 square kilometres of the gorge are protected.
The only reason for a trip into Aibonito is the Festival de las Flores (held between the last weekend of June and the first weekend of July), a cornucopia of blooming orchids, ginger flowers, rambling bougainvilleas and even miniature flamboyant trees. The festival has a permanent site on the outskirts of the town, just off PR-722 km 6.7, where up to sixty booths sell all manner of blossoming plants and workshops are held by local experts. Live music is also a big draw, with salsa and merengue stars flying in to attend, and there are plenty of arts, crafts and food stalls to complement the flora. Parking is free, and entrance is usually around $7.
Since its foundation in 1804, the humble hill town of BARRANQUITAS has produced so many famous Puerto Ricans that it’s known as the Cuna de Próceres, the “cradle of important persons”. Much of the old town was destroyed in the great fire of 1895, hurricanes adding to the damage over the years, and though only a handful of historic homes remain, it can be an absorbing place to spend a few hours, with a compact core of steep, narrow streets and a couple of important sights. The town’s chief claim to fame is as the burial place of two political heavyweights, Luis Muñoz Rivera (whose home has been turned into a museum) and his son, Luis Muñoz Marín, but it also has a reputation for high-quality arts and crafts, best appreciated at the annual Feria Nacional de Artesanías. Established in 1961, this takes place around July 17 to commemorate the birthday of Muñoz Rivera, livening up the central plaza with over two hundred stalls.
Rising gently from the east coast, the Ruta Panorámica winds its way past isolated farms for 25km before running into the BOSQUE ESTATAL DE CARITE, a lush mountain forest of pino hondureño, subtropical palma de lluvia and aged palo colorado trees. Covering an area of around 27 square kilometres, the land ranges from 240 to 900m above sea level, making it several degrees cooler than the coast, and was once laced with 25 hiking trails, though Hurricane Georges washed most of these away in 1998. The most popular of those remaining is the 800m trail leading to Charco Azul, an inviting freshwater swimming hole.
The forest information office is on the north side of the reserve in Guavate, which isn’t really convenient unless you’re driving from San Juan (coming from the east you’ll have driven through the forest by the time you reach it). The more compelling reason to visit this area is to trawl the numerous lechoneras nearby, purveyors of magnificent barbecued meat.
West of Aibonito the Ruta Panorámica climbs ever higher, eventually skirting the loftiest mountains in the Central Cordillera and slicing through the heart of the Bosque Estatal de Toro Negro (also known as the Reserva Forestal Toro Negro), one of the largest forest reserves on the island. This is the longest continuous stretch of the highway and the most rewarding – an emptier road that traverses the roof of the island along a series of misty ridges draped in thick sierra palm and pine forest. The route affords almost endless vistas of the north and south coast, glittering on the horizon.
The Ruta Panorámica passes through the Toro Negro on PR-143, and all points of interest are accessible off this road. The forest covers around 27 square kilometres and is divided into seven segments: the most convenient for visitors contains the Area Recreativa Doña Juana and peak of the same name, while after a small gap, a larger and higher section incorporates the watershed of the Río Toro Negro, Cerro Maravillas, and Puerto Rico’s tallest mountain, Cerro de Punta. Although the two peaks are easy to climb, it’s frustratingly difficult to explore this potentially more dramatic section without a specialist map and preferably a local guide, as trails are unmarked and hardly ever maintained – casual hikers should stick to the Area Recreativa Doña Juana for a taste of the forest.
The tallest peak in Puerto Rico and a relatively straightforward climb, Cerro de Punta (1338m) is a few metres shorter than Ben Nevis (the UK’s highest point), a lofty mound of cloud forest often draped in bewitching threads of mist. As you’d expect, the views are mind-blowing, and best appreciated in the mornings before the clouds move in. Few tourists make it to the summit, adding to the sense of isolation, though you may see workers tending to the communication towers on top. Don’t hesitate; it’s perfectly legal to scale the mountain.
From the large gravel car park at its base, just under 5km from the turning to Cerro Maravillas, a weathered road leads 1.5km to the antennas on top: it’s only advisable to take your car if you have a four-wheel drive, though plenty of time pressed travellers manage to grind their rental vehicles to the summit. Note that the car park and road are unmarked: heading west, it’s on your right at around km 17 on PR-143. The route up is fairly steep, but shouldn’t take more than an hour if you decide to hike it. Beyond the communication towers, the actual grassy peak (the punta itself ) can be reached via an overgrown stairway – a concrete block marks the summit. On a clear day you can see up to 100km, with a hazy San Juan
in the distance.
For more of a challenge, tackle the peak from the northern side – the trail starts at Hacienda Gripiñas and can be hard to follow, so ask at the hotel for directions first. Assuming you don’t get lost, experienced hikers should be able to get up and down in one day.
The route, officially La Ruta Panorámica Luiz Muñoz Marín after the first elected governor of Puerto Rico, is really an interlocking network of around forty different rural highways, so you should follow the small brown “Ruta” signs throughout – these can be unreliable, however, so invest in a detailed atlas or map of the island. You’ll need two or three days to see everything, and longer if you intend to stop for some hiking along the way.
On the east coast, the road begins as a loop between Yabucoa and Maunabo, incorporating scenic coastal highway PR-901. From Yabucoa, PR-182, a narrow road that rarely sees much traffic, takes you into the mountains, and eventually, via PR-181 and PR-7740, into the Bosque Estatal de Carite.
Despite their somewhat hazardous reputation, driving the twisty roads up in the mountains is far less dangerous than the speeding highways of San Juan, assuming you stay within the fairly slow speed limits (usually 35mph), and take your time. All the roads are paved but heavy rain can cause problems, and there are some traffic black-spots around Aibonito. Places to stay are usually off the main route, and it’s worth booking ahead as rooms are limited, though you should have no trouble finding petrol stations. Note that to camp in any of the forests, you’ll need to get permits in advance from the DRNA in San Juan.
Nestling on the banks of the Río Grande de Jayuya, deep in the Central Cordillera, the mountain town of JAYUYA might seem unremarkable, but it’s come to occupy a central role in the mythology of modern Puerto Rican identity. Littered with low-key but enigmatic reminders of the island’s past, the town is the closest thing Puerto Rico has to a Taíno spiritual centre, most vividly expressed during the annual Festival Nacional Indígena. Traditionally regarded as the stereotype of hicktown by sophisticated sanjuaneros, Jayuya’s symbolic importance was recognized in 1950, when independentistas briefly occupied the town and proclaimed the Republic of Puerto Rico. Like Barranquitas, Jayuya also has a reputation as an arts and crafts centre, and more recently, the area has been rebuilding its reputation as one of Puerto Rico’s top coffee-producing regions.