Nature Adventure - Go Do It! > Magazine > Nature/Adventure > Puerto Rico

Tanama River and Caves, NIV
Nature Adventure - Go Do It! > Nature/Adventure > Puerto Rico
The San Juan metro area is full of manmade wonders, from Old San Juan’s massive forts to the elegant Museum of Puerto Rican Art. Beyond San Juan lies an impressive, and impressively diverse, array of natural wonders. To discover the natural side of Puerto Rico, you need to get out on the Island, to the central mountains, the northern caves, the western beaches, the southern mangroves, the eastern islets. Most sites lie within two and a half hours of San Juan, and you can easily rent a car and visit them on your own. But if you want to immerse yourself or enjoy more extreme activities – from rappelling to river rafting to off-trail hiking – you should let experienced nature tour operators be your guides.

Lush rain forests hug the slopes of many of the Island’s highest mountains. Here you find tree-sized ferns, giant leaves and elfin trees. Streams cascade into marvelous pools, and views extend across forests to the coast. The federally run Caribbean National Forest, better known as El Yunque, hosts the best hiking on the Island. There are popular wellmaintained trails to peaks and pools, and primitive trails into remote areas. 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 - Villalba.

Toro Negro is the highest rain forest on the Island, a beautiful expanse of sierra palms and panoramas. Its 7,000-plus acres encompass streams and pools, canyonlike riverbanks, small dammed lakes, and a host of plants and trees, making it ideal for backpacking, hiking, exploration, and overnight camping. A number of tour operators can accommodate you in these activities.

Equally unruly but drier vegetation is found in the northern hills, in a bizarre landscape known as karst. The porous karst limestone has been eroded over the ages by rainwater 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 renowned caves and sinkholes formed by one of the world’s largest underground rivers, spend several hours at Río Camuy Cave Park.

There are other ways to explore Puerto Rico’s karst. 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. This is some of the most challenging and potentially dangerous adventuring on the Island and should only be done through a qualified, experienced operator. Puerto Rico’s coastal forests consist primarily of one species of tree – mangroves. Stooped and small-leafed, mangroves shelter all sorts of marine and land organisms, particularly fish and birds. They also send out roots into the sea 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, Guayama. 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 birdwatching is found at the Laguna Cartagena and Cabo Rojo Wildlife Refuges in the southwest.

The adventurous may prefer to explore atop 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 and along coastal plains. In Fajardo, kayak operators can take you to Laguna Grande, where you paddle through mangrove-shaded channels by day and view the lagoon’s eerie bioluminescence at night.

The offshore island of Vieques, east of mainland Puerto Rico, has the most brilliant of the Island’s bioluminescent lagoons. The glow is caused by microscopic dinoflagellates, best viewed on moonless nights, 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 land is open for hiking, biking and other 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 -- paradisaical settings for exploring, bird- watching, snorkeling and kayaking -- are open to the public by day.

If you want an extreme offshore Island adventure, look to Mona Island. Uninhabited, Mona is graced with a fascinating history and an even more fascinating ecology – yard-long iguanas, limestone cliffs and caves, scrub forest, bird colonies, and crystal-clear waters filled with marine life. Permits are required, so you need to set this up with an experienced operator.
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