By: Lorna Zayas Rodríguez
Photos: Javier Pinzón
Few places offer as much as Puerto Rico. Politically, it has been part of the United States since 1898, when it changed hands as spoils of war during the Spanish-American War. This duality has given it a singular history, with a unique culture and vibe. Puerto Rico is a place “to take it easy,” as a song by two of the island’s great artists, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, would have it, but it is also a place to “move it” with a goal in mind, because Puerto Ricans are a fierce people who always rise to a challenge and emerge stronger than ever. Since there is so much to choose from, the problem is deciding what to do. We offer some suggestions to help you prepare your itinerary for a trip to a place that has been a Copa Airlines destination for 39 years.
Carabalí Estate, Luquillo
Poised between the El Yunque mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, the estate offers horseback and ATV rides along paths that wind through nearly 600 acres of subtropical mountains.
Horses will take you to the foothills of the rainforest, providing an adventure inside a unique ecosystem. The hour-long ride (no stops) covers 4 miles, while the two-hour ride includes a 30-minute rest to enjoy the Mameyes River.
You can also choose an ATV circuit of 5.5 miles (one hour) or 7.4 miles (two hours). Both are extremely enjoyable, but the second circuit climbs higher into the mountains, ensuring better views and the chance to cool off in a pond.
Las Cabachuelas Nature Reserve, Morovis
The indigenous Taíno people, the original inhabitants of Puerto Rico, have left their mark in this system of sixty caves, caverns, steep-sided hills, and gorges; these latter are cracks in the limestone mantle, a feature unique to the Puerto Rican karst zone. The Taíno left pots, drawings, and writings in one of the island’s least explored cave systems. This wonder has been a nature reserve since 2012. Members of the Cabacoop cooperative serve as guides for tours of four of the caves —with different caves visited in rotation to protect the ecosystem— during an 8-mile walk that takes four hours.
Visitors love Cabachuelas not only for its archeological and cultural significance, but because it contributes to the Taíno community’s economy and helps pay for education. The Taíno were documented up to the 19th century, when they were thought to have disappeared.
Located one hour from San Juan, this warm southern town created an Agrotourism Circuit (Facebook: Circuito Agroturístico) that provides educational tours to acquaint visitors with several of the municipality’s projects: the Caraballo Apiary, El Cafetal honey, Yaucromatic, and the Café Don Luis roastery.
Conceived by Jonathan “Pito” Hernández, Yaucromatic brings together the works of fifty national and international artists in public spaces in the town’s urban core.
The Circuit includes a visit to Placita Yauco, which combines sales of handicrafts, coffee, vegetables, fruit, and honey with information about these local products.
This initiative will also introduce you to the Café Don Luis roastery where, aside from tasting the gourmet product, winner of the island’s Gold Cup competition, you will tour the roastery where the beans are heated, roasted, and dried.
Placita Yauco makes clear that the natural cycle, from pollination to consumption, is extremely inter-connected. We now head to the Caraballo Apiary, a farm where visitors can interact with bees and learn about these insects and the importance of pollination and apiculture.
By the Sea
One of Puerto Rico’s greatest attractions is its coasts, so here is a sampling of keys, islets, and isles that you shouldn’t miss.
Culebra and Culebrita: One way to reach these beautiful isles is via Pure Adventure boats (@Pureadventurepr), which depart from the former Roosevelt Roads military base in Ceiba.
A one-hour excursion across the water will take you to Flamenco, one of the most famous beaches in the world. Located in Culebra, this beach and the Carlos Rosario beach will take your breath away.
To the east sits Culebrita, a small uninhabited island with crystalline waters and white sands that seem more dreamlike than real. Once you’re here, don’t miss Tortuga beach, so named for the many turtles that visit what is one of the planet’s loveliest spots.
Gilligan’s Island, Guánica: The island of Cayo Aurora (its formal name) lies only five minutes by boat from the coast of Guánica (on the island’s southern side). An ideal place to snorkel or kayak, this little bit of paradise has BBQ pits, picnic tables, and restrooms.
Guests of the Copamarina Beach Resort will be picked up and dropped off by the hotel boat; there is also a boat from the San Jacinto pier near the hotel.
Caracoles, Enrique, and Mata La Gata Keys, Lajas: These spectacular keys are near the Lajas coast on the island’s southwestern side. You can easily reach these keys by taking the boat from La Parguera or contracting a private service such as Papayo Divers (Facebook: Papayo Divers). The paths through the mangroves are just waiting to be discovered. And now that you’re in the Lajas keys, explore La Parguera, the community’s most representative area, featuring restaurants and shops and beaches that border a bay that glows with bioluminescence, one of the few of its kind in Puerto Rico, or the world, for that matter.
This town lies half an hour from La Parguera and visitors should make a point of seeing Salinas in the National Wildlife Refuge. The salt produced in this area gave rise to the first industry in the Antilles: the Spaniards began exploiting salt as early as 1511. Extraction of the mineral has continued uninterrupted since then.
Your next sight will be one the most visited beaches, Playuela, known as Playa Sucia (Dirty Beach), which name is in no way indicative of the wonders here. High on one side stands a now defunct lighthouse that began operating in 1882; a 10-minute walk uphill will take you there. The view from on high looks out over beautifully impressive cliffs.
Near San Juan
Continue on toward San Juan (three hours from Cabo Rojo) and stop at Isla Verde on the coast near Carolina. If you’re still looking for adventure, check out kiteboarding, where you stand on a board pulled by a kite.
The 15 Knots Kiteboarding School, located in the Cangrejos Marina and Yacht Club in Piñones, offers instruction. You don’t need experience, just a desire to stand on a board and battle the wind in an adrenalin-fueled activity that is a perfect complement to island hopping.
A trip to Puerto Rico is not complete without a visit to Old San Juan, with its Spanish Colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. The entire city is lovely, but you mustn’t miss the San Felipe del Morro Castle and Fort San Cristóbal, gigantic bulwarks that served as the first line of defense against invaders during the Spanish period.
Take a few days to get to know this world treasure, packed with award-winning bars and restaurants, boutiques, shops, art, nature, music on every corner, and culture. You can tour the city on your own or use a specialized guide service.
Despite its small size, the uniqueness of Puerto Rico is not easy to categorize. Puerto Rico is many things, so we invite you to enjoy it to the fullest, but above all, at your own pace.
Puerto Rico in the Best of Taste
The culinary options in this Caribbean archipelago are infinite. We offer some suggestions.
Waikiki, Condado: Featuring a magnificent view of the coast, the restaurant offers criolla (Creole) and international cuisine, with an emphasis on seafood.
Placita de Santurce Boronía: Puerto Rican food with live music every day.
Santaella: First-class bartenders and Puerto Rican dishes with an international twist.
Cocina Abierta, Condado
Restaurant and cuisine atelier that interprets gastronomic concepts from various places.
Carabalí Bar & Grill, Luquillo
A Western-themed restaurant serving criolla food.