When Christopher Columbus reached Puerto Rico in 1493, he staggered ashore somewhere on the balmy west coast, a sun-soaked region known today as the PORTA DEL SOL, or “gateway to the sun”. This is Puerto Rico’s playground, with an enticing coastline rimmed by low-key resorts offering sensational snorkelling, diving and surfing. Yet tourists rushing to the beaches miss out on a traditional hinterland steeped in colonial history, with rickety old towns, crumbling ruins and a diverse landscape that runs from the forest-drenched northern mountains to the arid saltpans of the south.
The northwest coast begins at Isabela and Playa de Jobos, a gorgeous arc of sand and the perfect place for surfers to get warmed up. Punta Borinquen marks the start of Puerto Rico’s prime surfing real estate, a chain of nonstop breaks that peaks in Rincón, one of the world’s most revered surf centres but just as inviting for divers, horse riders and beach bums. Inland, the French elegance of the Palacete Los Moreau, the delicate lace of Mocaand the historic towns of Aguada and Añasco provide aesthetic relief from the coast, while serious divers and adventure seekers should target Isla Desecheo and Isla de Mona further offshore. Mayagüezis the underrated capital of the west, slowly recovering some of its former glitz and loaded with fine colonial architecture, plus the best zoo on the island. The southwest is vacation central for Puerto Ricans, dominated by unpretentious resorts with heaps of character: Playa Joyudahas the seafood, Playa Buyé and Boquerónthe beaches, and La Parguera an intriguing patchwork of canals and mangrove cays. Towering Cabo Rojo and its nineteenth-century lighthouse guards an otherworldly landscape of lifeless salt flats and reserves thick with bird life, while San Germán is a colonial pearl of a city with quiet, narrow streets and cobbled plazas, perfect for idling away an afternoon.
Puerto Rico’s rustic southwest corner is entirely taken up by the municipality of Cabo Rojo, a region of mellow seaside resorts, sprawling marshland and a coastline smothered in tangled mangroves. While El Yunque gets slammed with the full tropical force of the trade winds, Cabo Rojo is protected by the Central Cordillera and sees relatively little rain, making the area a prime target for sun-hungry tourists. The city of Cabo Rojo, known locally as el pueblo, boasts a few low-key historic attractions, but don’t confuse this with the actual cape (the name means “Red Cape”) further south, where crusty saltpans provide a startling contrast to the warmer tropical landscapes of the north.
The ramshackle fishing village of BOQUERÓN, with its jumble of clapboard houses and slightly shabby seafront, is a magnet for Puerto Rican tourists on weekends, who pile in to soak up the carnival atmosphere and fresh seafood. Apart from the food – particularly the fresh shellfish, sold raw from stalls on the main road through town – the real draw is the Balneario de Boquerón. One of the best beaches on the island, this 5km horseshoe-shaped curve of velvety white sand is backed by a thick crust of palm trees. You can park here or stroll along the coast from the main village. Other distractions include two nature reserves nearby and, in the summer (usually June), Boquerón’s very own gay pride parade, which has regularly attracted over five thousand revellers since it began in 2003.
Central Boquerón is a compact area of shops, restaurants and hotels lining the bay and wharf area along PR-101, 6.5km south of Cabo Rojo – PR-101 makes a loop from PR-100 and rejoins PR-307 heading north to Playa Buyé. The beach is at the end of a wide road off PR-101, just before entering the main part of the village. Note that PR-101 is closed to traffic Friday to Sunday nights. The nearest bank is Banco Popular at Plaza Boquerón, PR-101 km 17.4, a ten-minute drive east of the village, but there’s an ATM inside the Boquerón Beach Hotel.
One of the last true adventure destinations in the Caribbean, the ISLA DE MONA is a blessedly isolated nature reserve 72km off the west coast of Puerto Rico, and just 61km from the Dominican Republic. Staying on the island requires advance planning, though it’s much easier to arrange day-trips to dive or snorkel off its deep, unbelievably clear waters and richly stocked barrier reef. It’s worth the effort: although it’s not quite the “Galapagos” made out in the tourist literature, it does offer the chance for a real wilderness, back-to-nature experience.
The island is roughly 11km long and 6.5km wide, and other than occasional groups of illegal immigrants from Cuba, completely uninhabited, though you can still see evidence of Taíno and early Spanish settlement. The island is essentially a raised plateau surrounded by 40m sea cliffs, with an extensive cave system and 8km of absolutely stunning pearly white beaches lining its southern shore. Other than enjoying the caves and these (usually) utterly deserted strips of sand, Mona’s chief attraction is its wildlife. The Galapagos comparison was spurred chiefly by the giant rock iguanas that lounge on the shore, and can grow up to 1.5m long. There are also wild pigs, goats and cattle, left by Spanish colonists, and pods of humpback whales offshore in winter. Between May and October turtles nest on the beaches and there are over 100 species of bird zipping around the island, including hawks, red-footed boobies and pelicans. The DRNA maintains a basic ranger station, toilets and showers at Playa Sardinera on the west side of Mona, but otherwise you’re on your own – you must bring a tent and all your food and drink.
One of the most alluring beaches in the southwest, PLAYA BUYÉ has a natural, unspoiled feel quite unlike anything else in the region. Though it can get crammed with families at weekends and the narrow strip of sand is backed by condos, development’s low-key, the sea is a deep azure blue and bushy portia trees with bony limbs reach almost as far as the water, providing plenty of shade. You can park at the end of the potholed road to the beach, signposted at km 4.8 on PR-307, south of Cabo Rojo, and a small shop sells basic supplies and snacks.
One of several proudly traditional Puerto Rican seaside resorts on the southwest coast, PLAYA DE JOYUDA isn’t really a beach but a string of seafood restaurants, fishing shacks and faded hotels. Running for 2km along PR-102 south of Mayagüez, between a ragged shore of bleached coral and the mangrove-fringed nature reserve of Laguna Joyuda, it’s as unattractive as it sounds (most of the coral is dead and erosion has whittled away the seafront), but while its sobriquet of Milla de Oro del Buen Comer (“golden mile of good food”) is a little exaggerated, some of the seafood restaurants are genuinely excellent value and the tiny islet of Cayo Ratones just offshore makes an appealing target for a lazy afternoon. The island is completely undeveloped and is actually part of the Bosque Estatal de Boquerón, a protected nature reserve, with silky white sands and excellent snorkelling. You have to hire a boat to take you across: contact Adventures Tourmarine (t787/255-2525, wwww.tourmarinepr.com) at the small dock between the Vista al Mar and Vista Bahía restaurants, at PR-102 km 14.1. Captain Elick Hernández García ferries passengers to Cayo Ratones ($5, minimum four people). He also does fishing charters and diving/snorkelling day-trips to Isla Desecheo for $75 (minimum ten people) and Isla de Mona.
There are plenty of hotels in Playa de Joyuda, but although you can get basic doubles for $75 to $100, none are a particularly good deal and you’re better off staying elsewhere. If you do end up here, the best of the bunch is Hotel Parador Joyuda Beach, PR-102 km 11.7 (t 787/851-5650, w www.joyudabeach.com; $75–99), at the more secluded north end of the strip, with simple but large and clean motel-style cabins, stretching back from a seafront of palms and a healthier reef just offshore. Rooms come with the usual cable TV and air conditioning, and plenty of parking, but it gets packed on weekends.
All the eating action takes place on PR-102, with the best restaurants jutting out over the rocky fringe for incredible sunsets and views of Cayo Ratones. The two top choices are El Bohío at PR-102 km 13.9 (t 787/851-2755), a wooden stilt house hanging right over the water, and venerable Tino’s Restaurant at PR-102 km 13.6 (t 787/851-2976). Menus offer the usual range of seafood, plus steaks and tasty criollo sides such as yucca and mofongo ($15–17). Usually open Wed–Mon 11am–8.30pm.
Despite the tourist veneer, the former fishing community of LA PARGUERA has managed to retain a modicum of rustic charm, especially on weekdays, with its weatherboard housing and tightly packed streets. But the real draw lies along the coast: Parguera’s unique offshore environment, a patchwork of placid lagoons, extensive coral reefs and mangrove-smothered cays, is a water wonderland, known rather grandly as a “barrier reef-fringing mangrove ecosystem”. Beyond this lies some of the best diving anywhere on the island, a huge drop-off known as La Pared (“the wall”) that runs for 32km parallel to the south coast. A short drive to the east is the Bahia de Fosforescente, the island’s most accessible bioluminescent bay, though thanks to pollution, the least impressive. And at the end of the day, the ensemble of down-to-earth pubs serving hearty Puerto Rican snack food, and punchy local sangría makes for entertaining eating and drinking, especially on weekends.
La Parguera’s transformation has been rapid, even by Puerto Rican standards. In 1945 it was a tiny backwater of just 24 fishing families; the first hotel was built in 1955, but as recently as the early 1970s it was best known for its mud-spattered streets and cavorting feral hogs. It now welcomes over 100,000 visitors a year and, as elsewhere, flashy condo development has arrived on the outskirts. If you’re here in summer, try to catch the Procesión de San Pedro on June 29, honouring the local patron saint. Headed by an effigy of St Peter, the procession begins on foot before taking to a flotilla of boats and making a festive tour of the nearby cays.
After years of decline, MAYAGÜEZ is finally starting to feel like Puerto Rico’s third city again, a wilfully provincial place that has always stuck its nose up at posh Ponce and the brash wealth of the capital, desperately proud of its historic reputation as “La Sultana del Oeste” (Sultan of the West). Long ignored by tourists, central Mayagüez is a surprising treasure-trove of ornate architecture, a legacy of the boom years of coffee and sugar, and home to some endearing edible attractions: the cream-stuffed brazo gitano and zesty home-made sangría. Now just the eighth most populous city on the island after years of migration, the city’s impressive centre has been spruced up, and a palpable sense of optimism pervades the streets.
Mayagüez was founded in 1760 by a group of settlers from the Canary Islands, the name deriving from the Taíno word for the Río Yagüez, “Maygüex”. In the nineteenth century the city became a major port and commercial centre serving the rich coffee plantations in the western mountains. This was despite a series of catastrophic natural disasters: the great fire of 1841 destroyed most of the city, while the 1918 earthquake and tsunami levelled it yet again with seven hundred stone buildings and over a thousand wooden homes destroyed – much of what you see today dates from the massive rebuilding programme that followed. The University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Campus (UPRM) was founded in 1911 (wwww.uprm.edu), and today the city remains a major education centre, students making up a large proportion of its population.
The city was an important rum producer between the 1930s and 1970s, and Cervecería India (now Cervecera de Puerto Rico), which opened in 1937, still produces Medalla beer here. After World War II, textile factories boomed, and between 1962 and 1998 Mayagüez was a major tuna-canning centre, supplying 80 to 90 percent of all tuna consumed in the US – now only one factory remains, supplying the Bumble Bee brand. The city’s recent renaissance was in part inspired by its selection to host the 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games – the games were a big success and gave a welcome boost to the local economy.
The windswept northwest coast of Puerto Rico is redolent of Hawaii’s North Shore, a series of empty beaches and sandy dunes set between small, laidback beach communities. In the winter, the surfing here rivals Rincón, and as always, you’ll need a car to enjoy the best breaks. Many pros claim that the municipality of Aguadilla contains the finest surf on the island, though the city itself holds little appeal unless you’re travelling with kids. Towns are not major attractions here, so stick to the more rural stretches of coast, pulling over wherever you see a tempting sweep of sand.
Most visitors zip between the surf breaks and beaches of Aguadilla and Rincón without stopping, but there are a handful of enticing historical diversions along the way, including a traditional lace-making town, a handsome mansion and a holistic health institute.
Travelling west on PR-115 towards Rincón you’ll pass the Ann Wigmore Natural Health Institute (787/868-6307, www.annwigmore.org) at km 20 on the edge of AGUADA. The centre is dedicated to teaching the late Dr Ann Wigmore’s “Living Foods Lifestyle” through its two-week programme – see the website for details. Wiggie’s Shop on site sells all sorts of health foods, books and related products. Near the Ann Wigmore Institute, don’t miss the celebrated roadside stall on PR-115 at km 20 known as A El Original Kioskito de la 115 (787/868-3124), a popular vendor of sweets, cakes and snacks for over 25 years. Try the limber de coco, frozen coconut milk cake, (or the piña, uva, maiz or “cheez-cake” versions) for less than $1.
Central Aguada has little to offer, but the town’s quirky eating options are worth a try, with A El Plátano Loco (787/868-0241, www.platanoloco.com) top of the list. You’ll find it south of town off PR-411 at km 5 – look out for the signs to “Universidad del Plátano” and turn right beyond “Parada 5”. As befits the name, everything on the menu features plantains, the savoury green banana: a bizarre but satisfying array of lasagne, pizza, sandwiches and the isla de plátano, the signature mofongo shaped like Puerto Rico and stuffed with meat. Try the sweet flan de plátano for dessert.
Founded in 1772, 8km inland from Aguadilla, MOCA is best known for its delicate, handmade bobbin lace or mundillo, used to embellish collars and handkerchiefs,
linens, pillows, bridal veils and baby clothes. The town’s mundillomaking roots are hazy: the craft was imported from Spain and became popular among the island’s elite in the nineteenth century, when it seems to have become the established trade of the town. Though lace-making remains an important cottage industry here, you won’t see much evidence of this on the streets: it’s a fairly typical Puerto Rican country town, with a sleepy centre of ageing clapboard houses and newer concrete buildings. The busy main square, Plaza Don José de Quiñones, contains a small statue of female lace workers, the Monumento a la Tejedora de Mundillo, but is overshadowed by the pretty pink Spanish Colonial-style church.
The best place to buy mundillo nearby is Artesanía Leonides and Pequeño Angelito, both at c/Blanca E. Chico 200 just south of the plaza. You can pick up lacy purses, place settings (from around $15), and cute dresses and booties for babies here ($30–40). Otherwise the Festival del Mundillo (T787/818-0105) is held at the end of June, when stalls in the main
plaza overflow with fine lace products.
Further inland along PR-2 from Aguadilla is the Palacete Los Moreau (T787/830-2540), lording it over a swathe of parkland like a mini French castle. The house is tucked away 2–3km along PR-464 from the highway (follow the signs), and is now the artfully restored cultural centre and museum for Moca municipality. This enchanting mansion was once at the heart of one of Puerto Rico’s largest coffee plantations, established by the Peugeot family in the nineteenth century. The estate was inherited by Frenchman Juan Labadié in 1860, but it wasn’t until 1905 that the house you see today was completed, a grand criollo adaptation of French château style. The mansion appeared in the 1935 best-selling novel La Llamarada by Enrique Laguerre – it was renamed in 1993 to honour the fictional Moreau family from the book, and the author was buried in the garden on his death, twelve years later. Inside, the first-floor museum contains bits and pieces related to Moca, while a more absorbing collection of black-and-white plantation photographs can be found on the second floor. The house and grounds are far more engaging than the collections on display, however, and the beautifully restored wooden floors, stairs, rails and upstairs bedrooms give a rough idea of what it must have been like to live here.
The coast is littered with dazzling beaches west of Isabela, but the most appealing is PLAYA DE JOBOS, a sumptuous crescent of sand facing a shallow, protected bay perfect for swimming and surfing. Though the beach avoids a serious hammering, even in winter, heavier waves roll steadily into the bay throughout the year, making Jobos hands down the best surf beach for beginners on the island.
Sadly, a couple of restaurants have blocked access to the best part of the beach at the eastern end; you’ll have to park on the road or opt to eat/drink at the restaurants to use their private car parks.
The Punta Jacinto headland near here is a jagged cape of dead coral, with sweeping views across Playa Jobos and Playa Montones on the other side, a long expanse of honey-gold sand usually deserted during the week. From the Jobos side you can clamber up to the tip of the headland, where you should spy the natural arch and blowhole known as Foso Jacinto (or El Pozo de Jacinto), a few precarious centimetres from the crashing waves below.
Northwest Puerto Rico is surf heaven, its numerous breaks catching more swell than Rincón during the peak Nov–March season, and some decent waves lingering through summer. The best spots lie to the north of Aguadilla in the area known as Punta Borinquen, host to the 1988 world surfing competition, and closer to Isabela at challenging Middles, site of the 2010 Rip Curl Pro Search (Playa de Jobos is also a magnificent beach for beginners). Assuming you have a car you could base yourself at any of the beaches or towns covered in this section, as distances are short – make sure you visit one of the following shops if you intend to spend a lot of time in the area.
PR-110 km 10, near Gate 5, Ramey Base t787/890-6071, wwww.aquatica.cjb.net. This small shop rents boards for $25 per day and offers 90min lessons for around $65.
Calle E, no. 135, Ramey Base t787/431-8055, wtupicabrera.com. Managed by veteran surfer Tupi Cabrera, who offers lessons ($40/person, or $35/person for two) and board rentals ($20/24hr). A good choice for beginners.
Ramey Shopping Center t787/890-3108, wwww.elrinconsurfshop.com. The friendly English-speaking staff here have been assisting surfers for over thirty years, selling gear, handing out surf maps and tide charts, advising on current conditions, and offering rentals and lessons.
Cliff Road Bldg 704, on the way to Playa Surfers t787/890-5080. Compact but hip place for gear, owned by surf pro Rebeca Taylor – also has the best website for up-to-date surf conditions.
Best known today for its network of dreamy beaches, plunging cliffs and slamming winter waves, between 1939 and 1973 PUNTA BORINQUEN was occupied by Ramey Air Force Base, home to B-52 bombers and hundreds of US airmen. Since closing, most of the base housing has been sold off to locals and ex-Federal employees, creating a slightly institutional-looking community that retains the layout and road system of the old base.
Along the jagged coast between Punta Borinquen and the city of AGUADILLA there are many enticing beaches. Playa Crash Boat is the best and most accessible, with a festive atmosphere on weekends and some decent surfing. Despite a spate of beautification projects along its seafront in recent years, downtown Aguadilla itself has a justly unglamorous and gritty reputation.
Some of the wildest waves can be found at Playa Surfers, a classic reef break rather than a beach, on the rugged northern side of the old base. Surfers is sometimes compared to the legendary break point at Lower Trestles (in California), with a long right and a short, hard-hitting left, but unless things are unusually fierce, it should be OK for beginners. To get here, drive behind Ramey Shopping Center and Faro Suites on 4th Street, turn right on Cliff Road and pass Surf Zone: where the road appears to end at a residential estate, turn left through the metal fence and follow the road downhill.
The secluded beaches that lie west of the base offer some of the best surf breaks on the island, as well as the chance to laze on usually empty swathes of sand. To get here, take the unmarked narrow lane that cuts across the golf course from PR-107, just beyond the turning for the club house and opposite the airport runway – this winds through bunkers and sombrero palms before dropping steeply through the cliffs to the shoreline. As you near the sea you’ll pass a small turn-off to Playa Borinquen, a soothing carpet of fine sand – the water is ideal for swimming in the summer. The main road continues along the coast for a short distance until it’s replaced by an extremely battered dirt track laced with potholes. The beach here is known as Playa Ponderosa, and you should be able to spot the remains of Las Ruinas del Viejo Faro Españo poking through the scrub – the old lighthouse was constructed in 1886 but flattened by the earthquake and tsunami of 1918. The two breaks offshore are known as Ruinas and the hard-to-forget Shithouse. More intrepid (or well-insured) drivers rattle a little further along to Playa Wilderness, a solid long right pro surf beach where groundswells of 7m are possible. At the end of the track lies the equally challenging Wishing Well break, just north of Playa Crash Boat – you’ll have to return to PR-107 to reach the latter, however.
Hemmed in between the coast and a ridge of lush, flower-strewn hills, RINCÓN has managed to hang onto its small town roots, despite being one of the most popular resorts in Puerto Rico and justly celebrated for its bellos atardeceres (beautiful sunsets). Perhaps best known to outsiders as the premier surfing destination in the Caribbean, its northern barrio of Puntas is a maze of narrow lanes and steep slopes dotted with chilled-out guesthouses, bars and cafés, all booming thanks to “surf tourism”. US expats (many of them surfers) dominate businesses in the area, providing an easy-going, international feel similar to Vieques. In contrast, the southern beaches of the Caribbean Coast area are lined with gleaming beach resorts, condos and hotels attracting thousands of overseas and Puerto Rican sun-seekers. This area in particular has been experiencing a mini-construction boom, prompting some disapproving locals to refer to the town as “Rin-condo”. Development has not gone unprotested however, and thanks to environmental groups, particularly the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, Rincón is at the forefront of ecological activism on the island.
In addition to some serious surfing, you can do just about any outdoor activity here, with nearby Isla Desecheo offering some of the best diving in the region, and horseriding along the beach for those who prefer to stay dry. During the winter season hordes of surfers descend on the town, while the blazing summer months are dominated by Puerto Rican vacationers who tend to huddle in the southern resorts – with the waves flattening off, this is the best period for snorkelling and swimming.
Heading south from Rincón towards Mayagüez it’s worth making a brief detour to Añasco, a small town “where the gods died”. Taíno cacique (chief) Urayoán had a Spanish soldier drowned in the nearby Río Grande de Añasco to prove the white men weren’t gods, precipitating the rebellion of 1511, but today Añasco is a hard-working blue-collar town some 17km from downtown Rincón.
The best reason for a pit stop is to try the local speciality, hojaldre cakes (literally “puff pastries”, made with brandy and spices), sold from a tiny shop east of the main plaza: Fábrica de Hojaldres (t787/826-5011) is tucked away in a commercial building off Calle 65 Infantería (PR-109) opposite the old Plaza de Mercado – walk through the passage towards the car park at the back and look for the yellow sign. The official address is c/65 Infantería no. 50.
Clearly visible around 19km off the coast of Rincón, Isla Desecheo is a barren 370-acre hunk of rock that became a national wildlife refuge in 1983, off-limits to casual visitors. The real draw lies beneath the sapphire waters that surround the island, an underwater wonderland with consistent 30–45m visibility, open for diving and snorkelling. Amid the shimmering corals, swim-through tunnels and caverns just offshore you’ll spot nurse sharks, giant lobsters and a plethora of tropical marine life: porcupine fish, spiky scorpion fish, and schools of flounder, snappers and triggerfish. Boats take around 45 minutes to reach the island for details.
Steeped in colonial history, SAN GERMÁN boasts a ravishing centre of narrow streets and ornate mansions adorned with stained glass and elaborate stucco. It’s certainly the most beautiful provincial town in Puerto Rico, equally as precious as Old San Juan, but with a fraction of the visitors. Chief among its rare collection of graceful homes, churches and museums is the Museo Porta Coeli, one of the oldest places of worship on the island and now an absorbing museum of religious art.
The centre of San Germán is compact enough to explore on foot, and strolling its handsome streets is the best way to soak up the impressive architecture on show, a blend of local clapboard houses, various Neoclassical styles and plenty of flamboyant Art Nouveau and modernisme touches. The austere atmosphere is exaggerated by the lack of people: like many provincial Puerto Rican towns, traditional street life has been sucked out by malls and suburban development, and other than a steady flow of customers to the incongruously located Walgreens on Calle Luna, at times it can seem a bit of a ghost town. Start exploring at Museo Porta Coeli, on the eastern edge of town, San Germán’s oldest and most iconic building.
San Germán has an odd and rather confusing history, compounded by a lack of historical records and, as always, the intense competition among Puerto Rican municipalities for historic precedence. Villa Sotomayor, built in 1510 and destroyed a year later, is often considered the first incarnation of San Germán (at least by Sangermeños) – its successor, built in 1512, was actually named San Germán, but located in Aguada or Añasco, depending on whom you believe. After trying several different locations, it was the descendants of this town, consistently battered and pillaged by pirates and Taíno, who eventually abandoned the defenceless coastal plains and founded the current city kilometres inland between 1570 and 1573 (though a community had been growing here on the Santa Marta hills since the 1540s). At first it was called Nueva Villa de Salamanca, after the city in Spain, but nostalgic citizens insisted on calling it San Germán el Nuevo. Consequently, San Germán, Aguada and Añasco all claim to be Puerto Rico’s “second oldest city”. The new San Germán flourished, and was the administrative centre for the western half of the island until 1692, with a greater population than San Juan until well into the 1700s. In 1856 the city was devastated by a cholera epidemic in which 2843 people died, and it gradually became more of a backwater.