Nature Adventure, Out on the Island > Nature/Adventure > Puerto Rico
The city of San Juan is full of man-made wonders, from Old San Juan’s massive forts to the elegant Museum of Puerto Rican Art. The Island also has 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 adventurous 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. Rain and fog are in abundant supply. 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, well-maintained 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 owned and managed by residents of Adjuntas; Guilarte, known for its path leading to a remote peak with a great view; and Toro Negro. Toro Negro is the highest rain forest on the Island, a beautiful expanse of sierra palms and panoramas with several of the island’s highest peaks, streams and waterfalls.
If you want to immerse yourself in Toro Negro, consider an outing with one of Puerto Rico’s premier nature tour operators. The forest’s 7,000-plus acres encompass streams and pools, canyon-like riverbanks, small dammed lakes and a host of plants and trees, making Toro Negro ideal for backpacking, hiking, canyoneering, river/waterfall exploration and overnight camping. A number of operators can accommodate you on any or all of 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 rivers wearing headlamps, helmets and life jackets as you explore the caves themselves; and raft down the Tanamá River through canyons, tunnels and other karst formations. This is some of the most challenging and demanding 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 “walk” toward the sea by sending out roots and helping prevent shoreline erosion. Piñones Forest east of San Juan has a bicycling boardwalk 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 birdwatching at dawn.
The adventurous may prefer to explore the coastline atop a horse or in a kayak. One of the most popular, best-kept horseback riding centers is near the town of Isabela. Riders experience a two-hour journey through coastal shrub and along a long, semi-deserted beach to caves and a cliff at the base of Punta Borinquen. On the other side of the island, kayak operations let you explore the mangroves surrounding Laguna Grande in Fajardo. Paddle through mangrove-shaded channels by day and, at night, view the lagoon’s eerie bioluminescence. Other kayaking day trips are available in the region.
The most brilliant of the island’s bioluminescent lagoons (the glow is caused by micro-organisms, best viewed on moonless nights, which light up with any movement in the water) is found on the offshore island of Vieques. Vieques is a lovely 21-mile-long stretch of land that combines stunning beaches with an interesting history and an artsy sophistication. The nearby offshore island and islets of Culebra are pure nature, with beautiful beaches and memorable kayaking. Both places have an easygoing West Indian feel, with hotels, inns, restaurants and rentals.
If you want an extreme offshore island adventure, look to Mona Island. An uninhabited island, Mona is graced with a fascinating history, complete with tales of pirates and buried treasure, 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. Accommodations consist of rustic camping under the stars. Many visitors feel Mona is unique – the Caribbean’s last frontier. Permits are required for visits to Mona, so you need to set this up with an experienced operator.