Tanama River and Caves, NIV
Nature Adventure Caribbean Style > Nature/Adventure > Puerto Rico
At 100 by 35 miles, Puerto Rico is a small island, the smallest of the Greater Antilles that make up the northern bend of the Caribbean archipelago. Yet it shelters an impressively diverse array of natural wonders – tropical rain forests, palm-shaded beaches, caves and river canyons, mangrove forests; bioluminescent lagoons; bird-rich dry scrub, and a central mountain range more than 4,000 feet high. Since Puerto Rico is small, you can easily reach these sites on a day’s outing. Rent a car if you want to explore on your own, or contract a nature tour operator if you want to adventure with ease.
The most challenging of Puerto Rico’s nature outings lies in the northern hills, in a strange landscape known as karst. The porous karst limestone has been eroded to form sinkholes, haystack hills and extensive cave networks. For gentle hiking through karst terrain, visit Guajataca, Río Abajo or Cambalache forests. For glimpses of the caves and sinkholes formed by one of the world’s largest underground rivers, spend several hours at Río Camuy Cave Park.
This is a great family trip and not to be missed. After a short video, you take the trolley down to the entrance of the main cave. You wander past massive formations on a paved walkway to the bottom of a giant sinkhole. On your return to the entrance you overlook a portion of the Camuy River that flows underground. Arrive early.
If you want something more extreme, you can rappel down cliffs to enter the cave systems; swim in subterranean river caves wearing headlamps, helmets and life jackets; and raft down the Tanamá River through canyons, tunnels and other karst formations. These can be difficult and potentially dangerous adventure outings and should only be done through a qualified, experienced operator.
Let’s go now to the top of the tropical world. Nature turns chaotic in the lush rain forests, with towering ferns and palms, wind-stunted trees, and leaves the size of umbrellas. Streams cascade into pools, and views extend across forests to the coast. Commonwealth-run mountain forests include Carite south of Caguas, with a short path to a bluish-tinged pool; Bosque del Pueblo, a forest acquired by residents of Adjuntas; Guilarte, known for a lovely path leading to a remote peak; and Toro Negro, the highest forest on the Island. Its 7,000-plus acres encompass streams and pools, canyon-like riverbanks, and small dammed lakes. It is ideal for backpacking, hiking, and overnight camping, but be forewarned that few trails are marked or well maintained.
The federally run Caribbean National Forest, better known as El Yunque, hosts the best hiking on the Island. There are more than two dozen miles of trails, popular well-maintained paths to peaks and pools and primitive paths into remote areas. The longest trail on the Island, six-mile-long El Toro/Tradewinds Trail, meanders through various types of forest to El Toro Peak, El Yunque’s highest at some 3,500 feet. Rangers at El Portal Visitor Center at the foot of the forest can provide information about current hiking conditions.
Puerto Rico’s coastal forests consist primarily of mangroves. Stooped and small-leafed, mangroves shelter all sorts of marine and land organisms and help prevent shoreline erosion. Piñones Forest, east of San Juan, has a boardwalk, primarily for bicycling, through some of its mangroves, and Jobos Bay Estuarine Reserve on the south coast is an off-the-beaten-path jewel with a visitors’ center in Aguirre. Guánica Forest farther west encompasses beaches, islets and one of the largest tracts of dry coastal forest remaining in the world. It is an excellent place for bird-watching at dawn. More bird-watching is found at the Cabo Rojo Wildlife Refuge in the southwest.
Your idea of adventure might be to explore on a horse or in a kayak. Horseback riding centers in Luquillo, Isabela, Camuy and Humacao (Palmas del Mar) offer one- and two-hour journeys through rain forest or along coastal plains. For kayaking, Fajardo and La Parguera offer paddling through mangrove-shaded channels by day and viewing the eerie bioluminescence of a lagoon
For more underwater light shows, the offshore island of Vieques has the most brilliant of the island’s bioluminescent lagoons (best viewed on moonless nights). The glow is caused by fragile organisms which light up with any movement in the water. This 21-mile-long island also shelters the largest wildlife nature refuge in the Caribbean, home to stunning beaches, a boardwalk through a mangrove lagoon and some 18,000 acres of untouched scrub forest. Currently, approximately half of the refuge is open for hiking, biking, bird-watching and other natural activities. Nearby, Culebra also supports a wildlife nature refuge, primarily for seabird colonies on the many islets surrounding the largest island. Two of the islets -- lovely settings for exploring, bird-watching, snorkeling and kayaking -- are open to the public by day.
For the ultimate island adventure, plan a trip to Mona Island. An uninhabited nature refuge, Mona is graced with a fascinating history and an even more fascinating ecology – yard-long iguanas, limestone cliffs and caves, bird colonies, and crystal-clear waters with abundant marine life. Permits are required, so you need to set this up with an experienced operator.