Access & Resources
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WHEN GIVING DIRECTIONS, Puerto Ricans tend not to use street names, preferring instead to go with landmarks like "the old ceiba tree" or Las Tetas de Doa Juana ("Doa Juana's Breasts"), the 2,700-foot twin peaks near Cayey, in the south-central part of the island.
This habit stems from decades of inadequate road signage. And while the signs may have improved, old habits die hard. So on a recent two-hour drive from San Juan to Isabela, in western Puerto Rico, while I was searching for a horse stable run by Tropical Trail Rides, I happened upon a man gardening under a glorious flamboyant tree and I braced for the worst. Fortunately, the hospitality of rural Puerto Ricans, or jibaros, tends to match their disdain for conventional direction-giving. "Follow me," the gardener said, jumping into his pickup truck.
Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth since 1952, has a population of 3.9 million. Luckily, more than a third of them live in the San Juan metropolitan area. Compared with other parts of the 3,435-square-mile island, the westa loosely defined region running from Isabela, in the north, to Gunica, in the southhas always been a place to find a little breathing space, and since the fifties it's been a secret closely guarded by savvy Puerto Ricans and a handful of American surfers. What initially lured the gringos hasn't changed: a 70-mile coastline with prodigious waves that backs up to varied terrain, from the lush pine, teak, and mahogany forests that blanket the Cordillera Central to the arid Arizona-style desert.
Start your tour with the 20-mile drive from Isabela south to Rincóe;n, a stretch that offers some of the best surfing in Puerto Rico. From there, travel 14 miles south to the port city of Mayagüez, the largest town on the west coast, then 23 miles south to the calmer waters of the Caribbean Sea, where you'll find sublime snorkeling off Cabo Rojo. When you reach the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge, just south of town, mountain-bike a trail network among thousands of migratory birds, then cap it off with a swim in the nearby bioluminescent bay. If you're not already aglow, this dip will do the trick.