Back roads with island color
Ginger Adams Otis, Lonely Planet
12:00 AM PST, November 06, 2018
You can't help but fall in love with an island that keeps surprising
you, especially when it's small enough to drive across in half a day.
Puerto Rico, 100 miles by 35 at its widest point, has all the sun, sand
and surf you could want in a Caribbean destination. But just beyond the
north coast's popular tourist beaches, there's an entirely different
island waiting to be explored.
So long, city life
To fully experience all that Puerto Rico has to offer, pry yourself from
the seductive arms of Viejo San Juan � the colonial section of the
capital that beguiles visitors with narrow cobblestone streets and
intimate courtyards � and hit the road. Head down Highway 3 to Fajardo
(about 90 minutes, depending on traffic), where you can park in a secure
lot by the dock and hop a ferry to Culebra, the less celebrated but
ultimately more entrancing sister island to Vieques.
A beach, a beer
Rent a jeep, scooter or bike, or use the services of Willy, Culebra's
genial taxi driver, to get to the more remote playas � Flamenco, Zoni,
Brava, Soldado and Resaca. Dewey, the one and only town, takes five
minutes to cross on foot and holds a handful of ex-pat-run B&Bs that are
short on high-end amenities but long on Jimmy Buffet-style partying.
Hard-core scuba divers throng to the surrounding cays to swim with the
fishes, but you'll see plenty of underwater life just paddling around.
Jungle meets desert
When you've had your fill sunning with the turtles, return to the
"mainland" and follow the highway to Ponce, once known as "The Pearl of
the South." You can soak up more of Ponce's colorful past by visiting
Hacienda Buena Vista, a beautifully restored coffee plantation and the
Centro Ceremonial Ind�gena de Tibes (Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial
Center), showcasing native life 1,000 years before the arrival of
Christopher Columbus. The one sight not to be missed, however, is the
Gu�nica Dry Forest Reserve, 20 minutes away, where Puerto Rico's steamy
interior rain forest gives way to arid desert.
A hiker's dream
Lizards drape themselves over dusty rocks, and tinder-dry bushes sprout
from the sunburned earth. Cross any number of trails of all skill levels
in the 9,500-acre dry forest, and you'll always end up at the edge of
the ocean, where soaring seabirds hang out to catch overdrafts. There
are some rough paths leading down to the water, but it's also possible
to drive along coastal Route 333, which traces the outskirts of the
park. You can pull over for a dip.
The fast lane home
Puerto Rico could keep surprising you for days � even weeks � if you
continue on to the cheery fishing village of La Parguera or into the
Central Mountains for a stay at the 200-year-old Hacienda Gripi�as. But
if your vacation's at an end and you need one more fix of Viejo San Juan
before you go, jump on the newly finished San Juan-Ponce autopista
(Highway 52), and you'll be sipping a mojito in the old town in less
than two hours.
Places to stay
Hotel Meli�, in Ponce, is a century-old hotel, with a restaurant that
puts a new twist on the classic mofongo (mashed plantains). Doubles from
$100; 2 Calle Cristina, (800) 448-8355, http://www.hotelmeliapr.com .
Hacienda Gripi�as, located in Jayuya, in the middle of the island, is a
200-year-old hacienda with alpine surroundings. Doubles from $125;
Highway 527, Jayuya; (787) 828-1717, http://www.haciendagripinas.com .
To rent a house or villa, call Michael McCarty at Culebra Vacation
Planners. Rooms from $40 a night; four-bedroom houses from $500 per
night; (787) 742-3112, http://www.culebravacationplanners.com .
The Dinghy Dock, which gets first dibs on the locals' daily catch, is
well known in Culebra for its fresh fish. Breakfasts from $3, lunch from
$5, dinner from $13; Punta del Soldado Road, (787) 742-0581. Pako's,
great for lunch or dinner, is part art gallery and part award-winning
restaurant. Meals from $17; 70 Calle Luna, Ponce; (787) 290-4602.
American, Continental, Delta and US Airways offer connecting service
(change of planes) from LAX to San Juan. Restricted round-trip fares
begin at $359. Local charters such as Air Flamenco fly from San Juan to
Culebra. Round trip $90; (787) 742-1040.
When to go
The peak tourist season is December to April. Best time to avoid crowds?
The low season between May and November. But beware, that's also the
hurricane season. For more information on when to go and what to do, see
welcome.topuertorico.org. The broad-ranging site lists local recipes.
Coconut spice ice cream, anyone?