Travel Guide, Winter 1995-1996
For whatever reason, PR gets bad PR. True, the capital, San Juan, deserves its reputation as a honky-tonk haven for gamblers, other hedonists, and entrepreneurs looking for a tax break. But once you leave the metro area, you'll find the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. national forest system, miles of deserted beaches, world-class surf, and a salsa-flavored rural rhythm.
El Yunque, about 22 miles east of San Juan in the Luquillo Mountains, is the primary recreation area in the 28,000-acre Caribbean National Forest. A showcase of 66 species of birds (including the endangered green-bodied, blue-winged Puerto Rican parrot), 80 types of orchids, 150 varieties of ferns, and 225 native tree species, it's also, as you might imagine, the wettest national forest, with 200 inches of rain per year. Near the Sierra Palm visitor center off Route 191, the forest's main road, are several short hiking trails, including the Big Tree Trail to La Mina Falls and the El Yunque Trail to 3,496-foot El Yunque Peak. Go only as far as Los Picachos Lookout Tower and don't bother with the summit: It's covered with microwave dishes and transmission towers. A more challenging hike is the El Toro/ Tradewinds Trail, an eight-hour slog to the forest's highest peak, 3,524-foot El Toro. The trail passes through four distinct vegetation zones, from the tabonuco forest and flamboyan trees below 2,000 feet up to orchids, morning glories, and mist-shrouded vines at the summit. Camping is allowed in designated areas with a free backcountry permit available at the Sierra Palm visitor center. (For Caribbean National Forest information, call 809-887-2875.)
Down the slopes of El Yunque to the waters off the town of Fajardo is some of Puerto Rico's best diving. There are scores of islets (nicknamed the Spanish Virgin Islands) as well as the larger islands of Culebra and Vieques. Sea Ventures (two-tank dive, including lunch, $65-$80; 809-863-3483) at the huge Puerto del Rey Marina makes daily trips to sites like North Palominos (you'll see large brain corals), the wall at Palominitos (a graduated wall with fan corals and the occasional dolphin), and Vieques (three reefs about three miles in length). Stay at the Ceiba Country Inn Bed and Breakfast (doubles, $60; 809-885-0471), a charming nine-room bed-and-breakfast in the foothills of El Yunque.
The place to find blond surfer dudes mingling with Puerto Rican moms and kids is Rincón, the island's westernmost point, where international competitions have been held. In the winter, the North Atlantic storms churn up the swell and send ten-foot waves breaking onto Rincón's 14 surfing beaches. Expert boardsailors favor Shacks Beach (Playa Bajura), also good for diving and snorkeling. Just east is Jobos Beach, where an eddy carries you right out into the surf. El Rincón Surf Shop in nearby Aguadilla (809-890-3108) rents well-used sailboards for $175 per week (complete rig), but if you want state-of-the-art equipment, bring your own. The shop also rents surfboards for $15 per day and bodyboards for $5 per day and serves as a general clearinghouse for surf updates. Surfers crash at the Rincón Surf and Board (dorm beds, $15; doubles, $40; suite, $75; 809-823-0610), a nine-room hostelry perched on a hillside five minutes from the beach. But if you prefer to be pampered between sets, head a few minutes south of town to the Horned Dorset Primavera (doubles, $140-$220; 809-823-4030), an elegant Spanish colonial inn on its own tiny beach.
The island's southwest corner has three towns worth exploring. Abutting the town of Guánica are beautiful deserted beaches and the Guánica Forest Reserve (for information, call 809-724-3724), a dry, coastal mangrove forest known for excellent bird-watching (hummingbirds, nightjars, finches, warblers). Stay at Copamarina Beach Resort (doubles, $135; 800-468-4553 or 809-821-0505), a 70-room hotel with a water-sports center on tranquil Cana Gorda Beach (sea kayaks, $10-$18 per hour; sailboats, $25 per hour). To the west is Phosphorescent Bay, near the town of La Parguera, where, after sunset, the plankton light up when the water is disturbed. A night dive with Parguera Divers ($59; 809-899-4015, ext. 131) is like swimming through the Milky Way. Farther northwest is Boquerón, a funky village on a beautiful bay with a mile-long white-sand beach. Stay at the relaxing Parador Boquemar (doubles, $65-$75; 809-851-2158).