Off the beaten path in Puerto Rico - Despite its role as a busy cruiseship hub and its reputation for spectacular beaches, Puerto Rico has so much more than that to offer visitors who stray from the beaten path. In fact, there is nowhere else in the world where Americans can travel without a passport and find a tropical rain forest, bioluminescent bays, a subterranean river cave system, and world-class surfing and diving all within a day’s drive.
That is one of the charms of the Isle of Enchantment - its natural beauty is varied and oh so compact. Add to that a culture rich in Spanish, Indian and African influences that embraces the sensual pleasures of lively music, inexpensive rum and good food, and you’ve got all the makings of an ideal island getaway.
1. Wander the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan. San Juan is arguably the most cosmopolitan city in the Caribbean, complete with skyscrapers, expressways and an upscale, South Beach-style sensibility when it comes to nightclubs and restaurants.
But its origins as one of the first Spanish settlements in the New World some 500 years ago are still apparent in Old San Juan, a walled city flanked by two massive fortresses overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Its seven-by-seven-block grid of cobblestone streets is lined with pastel-colored colonial buildings housing private homes, restaurants, bars, galleries, hotels and shops. And every few blocks you’ll find a shady plaza, some with fountains, gazebos and coffee stands, where people gather to play dominos and feed the pigeons. Once the sun goes down, the night crawlers take over and transform it into a moving street party as revelers hop from bar to bar.
Spend the night in a tropical forest. Because it was formed by volcanoes that have long since become dormant, Puerto Rico’s mountainous interior features dramatic peaks thickly blanketed in dense tropical forest consisting of massive ferns, a variety of palm trees, bamboo, banana trees, orchids, impatiens and bromeliad.
Called the Cordillera Central, the region contains Caribbean National Forest home of El Yunque rain forest. Accommodations here are not plentiful, but each one is unique, from the shabby-chic Hacienda Gripinas (Carr. 527, km. 2.5, Jayuya, 787-828-1717, www.hacienda gripinas.com), a former coffee plantation, to the rustic cabins at Casa Grande Mountain Retreat (Carr. 612, km. 0.3, Utuado, 787-894-3939, www.hotelcasagrande .com), where TVs and radios are banned and yoga exercises are held every morning.
Party down in Rincon. For decades the hilly west coast town of Rincon was primarily the domain of surfers, who come from all over the world to test their mettle against the massive swells, and divers, who plumb the underwater depths around nearby Desecheo Island, a few miles from the town of Mayaguez. As a result, cheap crash pads, food stands and dive bars cropped up to serve their needs. Change is afoot, though.
Explore a subterranean river cave. Deep beneath the limestone hills in the northwest is Las Cavernas del Rio Camuy, one of the world’s largest underground river cave systems. Serious spelunkers can explore its deepest regions on guided tours with outfitters such as Expediciones Palenque (www.expedicionespalenque.com). But most go to Parque Las Cavernas del Rio Camuy (Carr. 129, km. 18.9, Camuy, 787-898-3100, $2), a well-maintained park, to explore on foot the more accessible parts, such as Cathedral and Spiral caves.
Find you own private beach on Vieques. Often described as “the way Puerto Rico used to be,” this sleepy little island one hour by ferry and mere minutes by plane from the east coast of Puerto Rico is a gem of an island paradise. Just 25 miles long and 5 miles wide, it is rimmed in deserted beaches where visitors can truly get away from it all.
There are only a few roads on the island, so Red Beach, Blue Beach and Green Beach easily can be found by picking up a map at the airport, ferry station and various businesses around the island.
If you want something a little less remote, Balneario Sun Bay (Carr. 997, Esperanza, $2) is a publicly maintained beach with a long white crescent of sand and calm surf, plus restroom facilities and picnic tables. If you stay overnight, and you definitely should, check out the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay.
Local outfitters such as Island Adventures (www.biobay.com) provide nighttime boat rides in the bay, which glows electric blue at night thanks to the presence of an indigenous microorganism called dinoflagellate. The less visible the moon, the more dramatic the effect.
Map Puerto Rico provides you with many feautures to plan your trip to this beautiful island. Come as see for yourself!