Beyond the sprawling suburbs of San Juan, much of northern Puerto Rico remains refreshingly rural, a region of small coffee towns, untouched nature reserves and dozing cattle. The north coast is endowed with spectacular beaches and a ragged coastline punctured by blowholes, caves and lagoons, while karst country, its hilly hinterland, is a sparsely populated, ethereal landscape of overgrown limestone peaks, quite unlike anything else on the island.
The north remained a relative backwater until Operation Bootstrap brought rapid industrialization to the coast after World War II, and today many of its larger communities are dominated by pharmaceutical plants and serve as little more than overspill towns for the capital. Proximity to San Juan partly explains the lack of hotels in the area, and though day-tripping sanjuaneros flood the coast at weekends and holidays, fuelling a mini-construction boom in condos and second homes, large stretches of oceanfront remain wild and unspoiled. The small settlements tucked away in the folds of karst country are far more inviting, remnants of the island’s once great coffee industry, while the hills themselves are best experienced on foot, hiking in one of several pristine forest reserves. This region also contains three of Puerto Rico’s most popular attractions: the gigantic radio telescope at the Observatorio de Arecibo, the subterranean wonderland of the Cavernas del Río Camuy and the Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Caguana, an evocative remnant of ancient Taíno culture.
Top image © Photo Spirit/Shutterstock
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.
One of the few remnants of Taíno civilization on the island, the Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Caguana (t787/894-7325) was established between 1200 and 1270, and used well into the sixteenth century. Hidden within a tropical forest and backed by a majestic karst ridge known as Montaña Cemí, a Taíno holy mountain, the site’s palpable sense of antiquity, unusual in Puerto Rico, is just as appealing as the ruins themselves. As with Tibes, you’ll find none of the awe-inspiring monuments of Mesoamerica here, just stone foundations and outlines of a series of ball-courts known as bateyes, as well as some valuable petroglyphs, but thought-provoking nonetheless. The true purpose of Caguana remains a mystery, though it’s evidence of a level of social complexity brushed over by early Spanish accounts, a sort of Caribbean Olympia, built purely for ceremonial games rather than as a settlement: people would gather here at special times, but very few lived here. The ball game (also known as batey), which was played with two teams of ten to thirty males and a rubber ball, is thought to have had great symbolic significance, the outcome influencing important tribal decisions – some experts believe the site was also used to make astronomical observations. If you’ve seen any of the ancient ball-courts in Central America, the similarities will be obvious and though most academics agree that the ball game probably spread across the Caribbean from Mesoamerica, it remains a contentious theory.
Ten courts have been excavated, including the central plaza, a circular plaza and eight smaller bateyes, revealing thick paving stones around the edges and some remnants of walled enclosures. Some of the standing stones are engraved with worn petroglyphs, geometric designs and arcane depictions of human faces and animals. The largest plaza, the Batey Principal, is also known as the Batey del Cacique Agüeybana in honour of the last great overlord of the Taíno, though it seems unlikely he spent time here. The small museum at the entrance exhibits Taíno artefacts garnered from all over the island – very little has been found at Caguana itself.
Puerto Rico doesn’t have many mountain lakes, but Lago dos Bocas is one of its most captivating, hemmed in by karst cliffs draped with tenacious fern-green vegetation. Created as a reservoir in 1942, its three snaking arms cover 25 square miles, making it the third largest lake in Puerto Rico. You might see a few pelicans on the water, but other than soaking up the impressive scenery, the main reason for a visit is to dine at one of several inviting lakeside restaurants, only accessible by boat and open only on weekends.
The lake is signposted at PR-123 km 68, a short drive from PR-10. Park your car at the embarcadero (dock) and catch a lancha (small boat) across the lake to a restaurant of your choice. At weekends the restaurants will ferry you across in their own boats, but you can also use the public lanchas that operate from 6.30am and run every hour between 10am and 5.30pm (free; t 787/879-1838), though it’s supposed to be locals only from 3pm. These boats also run on weekdays and you can enjoy a free spin around the lake, a round trip taking around an hour.
On weekend mornings you’ll be amiably accosted by representatives of each restaurant at the embarcadero: all offer a similar experience, but the best is Rancho Marina (t 787/894-8034, w www.ranchomarina.com; Sat & Sun only 10am–6pm), set in tropical gardens on a quiet stretch of the lake, with a friendly, rustic atmosphere and fresh food cooked in nouvelle Puerto Rican style. Try the albondigas (meat balls in creole sauce, $5.50) or fried cheese with guava sauce ($6) to start, followed by breaded rabbit in tropical sauce ($15.95), or mashed plantain stuffed with chicken ($12.95). Otoao (t 787/312-7118; Fri–Sun) comes a close second, specializing in fricasés (thick stews served with rice; $13.50) of rabbit, lamb and veal.
The mountain town of LARES is often bypassed by foreign visitors, its shabby centre and weathered buildings evidence of prolonged hard times. Yet its citizens are some of the most welcoming on the island, proud of their central role in the Grito de Lares of 1868, the most significant Puerto Rican rebellion against the Spanish and commemorated solemnly here every year on September 23. Indeed, revered independence activist Pedro Albizu Campos is supposed to have said “Lares is Holy Land, and as such, it must be visited kneeling down.” Lares isn’t all serious, however: Campos would no doubt be mortified by the monument honouring the slightly less heroic (but equally famous) local girl Denisse Quiñones, who in 2001 became the fourth Puerto Rican to win the Miss Universe title, and even if the history doesn’t interest you, the town’s celebrated ice cream more than justifies a visit.
The town is centred around the Plaza de la Revolución and its large Spanish Colonial-style church, the Iglesia de Parroquia San José de la Montaña (usually open daily). Its wide vaulted interior has antique tiled floors and a beautifully carved wooden retablo – the rebels placed their revolutionary flags here to signal the beginning of the 1868 revolt. After the well-attended Mass on Sundays, worshippers eat fried snacks at the Kiosko de la Iglesia, beneath the church on the plaza, only open on Sunday mornings. In front of the church are the main memorials to the Grito: the all-white Obelisco, an austere pillar flanked by flagpoles honouring the six heroes of 1868; the Arbol de Tamarindo behind it, a tamarind tree from Simón Bolívar’s estate in Venezuela, symbol of the struggle for freedom in Latin America; and the Monumento a Betances, a statue of the leader of the rebels, Ramón Emeterio Betances.
Walk down the hill from the plaza (north along Calle Campos) and a couple of blocks on the right is the Museo de Lares (t787/563-7883), with an odd collection of photos, documents and bric-a-brac relating to the history of Lares, as well as local contemporary art.
Lares is also home to one of Puerto Rico’s “Coffee Zone” haciendas, Café Lareño (t787/897-3643), south of Lares, at PR-128 km 40. Call in advance to be given a tour of the premises.
The world’s largest radar and radio telescope, the Observatorio de Arecibo (t787/878-2612, wwww.naic.edu) is an immense 300-metre concave dish surrounded by jungle-drenched limestone peaks. Scientists come here to gaze into the deepest corners of the galaxy and the giant installation has an appropriately serene, isolated feel.
The visitor centre contains an illuminating series of exhibits that explain the pioneering research that takes place here, with sections on the Earth and our solar system, stars and galaxies and tools and technology. Short videos look at the Big Bang Theory, the birth and death of stars and finally the Solar System, a mind-blowing imaginary journey that starts with the telescopic protons of a human being and ends at the outer limits of the universe.
Step outside onto the viewing deck and the vast size of the reflector dish is brought home. Below, 38,778 aluminium panels hang just over the jungle canopy, supported by a network of steel cables. Suspended 137m above the dish is a monitoring station and a series of precarious-looking walkways, held up by eighteen cables strung from three reinforced concrete towers (the tallest is 110m). The whole site is surrounded by a typical karst landscape, thick with verdant outcrops of limestone and enveloped with an almost eerie calm.
The telescope was conceived by Dr William E. Gordon at Cornell University and constructed between 1960 and 1963, making it one of the oldest still in use. The location was chosen principally because of its proximity to the equator (which provides the clearest views of the night sky) and the surrounding limestone formations, which provided a natural shell in which to build it. Unlike optical telescopes, it works by collecting radiation in the radio region of the electromagnetic spectrum – the dish concentrates the radio waves so that scientists can detect all sorts of objects in space, from pulsars and quasars to black holes and, one day perhaps, signs of extraterrestrial life. Cornell University still operates the telescope, under contract with the National Science Foundation.
Tapping into one of the largest cave systems in the world, the Parque de Las Cavernas del Río Camuy (t787/898-3100 ext 405) makes a dramatic contrast to the world of palm trees and beaches on the coast, a series of cool limestone caverns packed with dripping stalactites, flowstone walls that seem to collapse into the rock and giant stalagmites crumpled like melted wax.
The caves were known to the Taíno, but rediscovered by speleologists in 1958 and only opened to the public in 1986. The park is a tiny portion (1.2 square kilometres) of a vast cave system that includes 15km of caverns, created by the world’s third longest underground river, the Río Camuy, but most of this is inaccessible to casual visitors.
The secret to making the most of Puerto Rico’s rugged north coast is to skip the towns and head straight for the beaches: the exceptions are Dorado, which boasts a modest collection of museums and galleries, and Vega Baja, a gracious old colonial town. Autopista PR-22 is a fast and efficient route west, but if you have time you’re better off following the coast roads, a leisurely alternative rewarded by long, deserted stretches of sand. The trinity of Balneario Cerro Gordo, Playa Los Tubos and Playa Mar Chiquita represent the best of Puerto Rican beach life, while the Reserva Natural de Hacienda La Esperanza and Bosque Estatal de Cambalache offer some wilder, off-road relief. Quebradillas is the gateway to the Porta del Sol, well off the beaten track despite some celebrated culinary attractions, a compelling beach area and some low-key but enigmatic ruins. Toa Baja, Toa Alta, Vega Alta and Manatí hold little appeal, while even the region’s largest city, Arecibo, offers little in the way of sights and is best avoided.
Head inland to the Bosque Estatal de Guajataca and you start to penetrate karst country, the forest characterized by giant sinkholes and oval-shaped hills covered with a thick carpet of trees. Unlike many of the island’s sadly under-used forest reserves, this one is well organized, with a network of 46 short, interlinked trails making it one of the best for hikers. Like all state forests in Puerto Rico, entry is free.
The information centre (t787/724-3724) is 9km south of PR-2 on PR-446, in the heart of the forest: for the last 2km after the junction with PR-476 the road narrows to a single track. The centre supplies basic trail maps and information, and is usually open Monday to Saturday 7.30am to 4pm, though the rangers occasionally step out for short periods. The campground is along Vereda 9 (trail 9), a short walk from the information centre – you’ll need the usual permit from the DRNA to camp here ($5).
The most popular and accessible trail is the Vereda Interpretiva (3.2km), an interpretive trail incorporating parts of Vereda 1 (2.6km) and others, which can be hiked at leisure in an hour and starts near the information centre – grab an English leaflet here pointing out all the main flora and fauna along the way. You’ll pass through groves of pino Hondureño (Caribbean pine), majó (blue mahoe), moralón and María trees and see bunches of white scented flowers sprouting from cupey trees in the summer, but to hear one of the 45 species of birds in the forest, get here early. Make sure you make the short detour to the Torre de Observación (400m from the start), providing magnificent views of haunting karst formations, before continuing onto the Cueva del Viento (2.5km and around 40min). The entrance to the cave itself is partially blocked by wire mesh and a staircase now takes you down into the cavern, along with several vines and hefty tree roots that reach right into the cave. If you have a flashlight, you can explore the large boreholes that lead off left and right: the latter contains spectacular dry limestone formations and flowstone walls, ending in around 120 metres.
The stretch of coast north of Manatí is graced by some of the most memorable beaches in Puerto Rico. Heading west along PR-686, the first is Playa Los Tubos, a thick, beautiful wedge of sand with a big car park and basic amenities. Los Tubos gets some heavy surf in winter, while for the week of July 4 the beach plays host to the International Playero Los Tubos de Manatí Festival, featuring a series of concerts by well-known artists from Puerto Rico and all over Latin America.
Beyond here the road follows a narrow strip of beach known as Playa Tortuguero, enticing on weekdays when the lack of people means you can simply pull over and stake out your own private stretch. Keep driving west along PR-685 and you’ll come to PR-648, the road to stunning Playa Mar Chiquita. This cove is an almost perfect horseshoe shape, hemmed in by jagged arms of coral on both sides and lined with a silky strip of sand. The water here is calm and perfect for swimming in summer, though in winter bigger waves surge through the narrow gap into the lagoon. The beach remains wild and undeveloped, with no facilities or food on site, though you’ll be sharing it with the usual hordes on weekends and holidays.
To find two much quieter beaches, return to PR-685, turn right and make the short drive to the right-hand turning for PR-6684. Bear left at the next junction, then follow the road around 2km to where it dead-ends. Walk across the fence at the end of the road and turn right at the sign for the Reserva Natural de Hacienda La Esperanza: you should reach Playa de Las Golondrinas in around five to ten minutes. This is home to La Cueva de Las Golondrinas (Cave of the Swallows), a small tunnel at the edge of the beach, cutting through the rocks to the bay on the other side. You’ll find Playa La Poza de Las Mujeres is off to the right, with no actual well (poza), but a tiny, sheltered cove.
Formerly one of the largest sugar plantations on the island, holding 152 slaves at its peak, the Reserva Natural de Hacienda La Esperanza contains over eight square kilometres of unsullied grassy plains, karst forest, wetlands and coastline, as well as a Taíno ceremonial site and the original hacienda building in the centre.
The plantation was established by the Spanish Fernández family in the 1830s, but it’s been owned by the Conservation Trust since 1975. The main entrance is at the end of PR-616, off PR-685 and inland from Playa Mar Chiquita. From here a bone-jarring dirt track leads 6km through the reserve, before ending at a small beach zone, the most accessible area for visitors. You’ll pass several places to pull off along the way, but be warned that on weekends it can get jam-packed, making it hard to find a space (despite the 175 vehicle limit). The two principal beaches are rocky coves, making natural pools ideal for swimming and snorkelling, with a thick bank of trees and tropical bush right up to the water providing plenty of shady cover.
Enlightening guided tours ($8; 1.5hr) of the renovated sugar mill and actual hacienda are available in English (t 787/722-5882), if you reserve in advance. The tour gets you a closer look at these fine colonial buildings dating from the 1860s, with outhouses containing a rare beam steam engine constructed in New York State (at the West Point Foundry) in 1861, and sobering reminders of the hundreds of slaves that once worked here.