Off the Beaten Path in Puerto Rico
La Isla de Encanta: The Enchanted Island. An island that has stolen my heart. Canyons spilling with tropical fauna, salt flats staining the waters pink and caves covered in Taino drawings down winding roads if you choose to adventure outside the city. Perhaps my love for Puerto Rico is genetic, passed to me by my abuela and my abuela’s abuela. I was not born in Puerto Rico, and my father was Nuyorican out of the Bronx, but no matter.
My love for this Caribbean enclave is as vast as the tropical waters surrounding it. Still, I am always saddened when people say they have visited but never left Old San Juan. San Juan should not be missed, but to only see this part of the island is to miss its core. Here are some of my recommendations for off the beaten path things to do in Puerto Rico.
Off the Beaten Path in Puerto Rico
Northern Puerto Rico
Cueva del Indio, Arecibo
This is one of the most amazing and beautiful art historical sites I’ve ever seen. A small dirt parking lot off the road in Arecibo charges a few dollars for parking, and you can view the sea cave for free. You must climb down a wooden ladder to get in to the caves, and the craggy cliffs above are sharp, so be sure to wear sneakers.
Once descended, the walls of the cave are covered in relief petroglyphs, many of which you may recognize from replicas in tourist shops. These are the immemorial scrawls of the long lost Taino. Ocean waters crash into and out of the cave, and sun rays travel in shafts, illuminating different cave walls and their drawings.
Studio of Samuel Lind and Vejigante Store of Raul Ayala, Loiza
Samuel Lind is a renowned Puerto Rican artist, and a visit to his studio showcases an array of vibrant artwork that encapsulates the landscape and culture of the island. Paintings of flamboyan trees rest alongside silk-screened posters that Lind has created for cultural festivals like the local Bomba y Plena fest. African heritage runs through the artwork.
Just down the road from Lind’s studio is the bright yellow vejigante shop of Raul Ayala. Here, Ayala hand crafts traditional vejigante masks out of coconut hulls. You have probably seen these masks all over the island. They masks are brightly-colored, clown-like and feature horns. Their meaning is linked to Spanish folklore as well as Taino and African culture. The mask is worn at folk festivals, such as that in Loiza, and is often accompanied by a cape. The wearer of the mask may chase people to scare them.
Southern Puerto Rico
Salt Flats in Cabo Rojo (Las Salinas)
The hyper-saline waters of Puerto Rico’s salt flats stain the lagoons pink, amazing against a cerulean sky. Here you can learn about salt production and the conditions essential to its extraction.
Los Morillos Lighthouse and El Punte Natural, Cabo Rojo
The Los Morillos lighthouse is grey with neon green windows, perched on the seacliffs. From here, you can take a short hike down the bicycle trail to reach El Punte Natural. Here you will find a sea vista straight out of dreams: a natural limestone rock arch extends into the sea, and below aquamarine waters roll into and out of an ocean cave.
Parque de Bombas, Ponce
This black and red building has an amazing Gothic Victorian exterior, and was Puerto Rico’s first firehouse. The Parque de Bombas now houses a firefighting museum that presents the history of Ponce.
El Charco Azul, Patillas
This is the type of place that goes wholly unmentioned in guide books. El Charco Azul means ‘the blue swimming hole’, and a quick hike into the jungle will bring you to the clear, mineral green waters of this peaceful pool. A perfect locale for picnicking and splashing in the cool waters. Camping is also possible by permit.
Off the Beaten Path things to do in Puerto Rico
Cordillera Central (The Central Mountains):
El Canon de San Cristobal, Barranquitas
El Canon is located on the border of Barranquitas and Aibonito in southern central Puerto Rico. Known as the Little Grand Canyon, the canyon is actually lush and green. The Rio Usabon ribbons through the bottom, and there are many hikes that can be taken down to the river bed, as well as to peaceful waterfalls. The hikes here are quite rugged, and for thrill-seekers, rappelling into the river is possible with the assistance of guides.
Hacienda San Pedro, Jayuya
If you wish to go to the heart of Puerto Rico, a visit to Hacienda San Pedro is in order. Located in Jayuya, this coffee plantation is nestled in the Cordillera Central just west of the island’s center. The plantation has been passed down through four generations of the Atienza family, and their coffee is robust, a powerful reflection of the farming roots of the island’s heartland.
Cemi Museum, Jayuya
The Taino are the indigenous people of Puerto Rico, and cemi is what the Taino called a god or spirit. The spiritual history of Puerto Rico is steeped in Taino culture, and the Cemi Museum is housed in a building made to resemble the cemi itself. Aboriginal Taino culture is interwoven with the local lifestyle, and Puerto Rican people speak about of their history and folklore with great pride.
In much of the island’s artwork and beliefs you will find influences of the Taino and the tribal symbols and carvings they used. Tourist shops in Old San Juan are flooded with Taino symbols, such as the tribal line drawings of the coqui and the sun, taken from the ancient Taino cave drawings on the island. The Cemi Museum is a place to gain a better understanding of the connection between the earth and the people of this island, and why it is so sacred and beloved.
Eastern Puerto Rico
Luquillo Kiosks and Beach Drive Up, Luquillo
The beach at Luquillo is not the most beautiful in Puerto Rico, but I love to spend a day here. Stop at the kiosks next to the beach for a cocktail in a coconut or some fried bacalaito, surrulo con queso, empanadas or tostones, and then drive right onto the sand and pull up to the waves (4wd vehicles only) like the locals.
El Yunque Waterfall Party and Batidos
El Yunque is the mystical mountaintop rainforest of Puerto Rico, and every day there is a party. Hike to waterfalls like La Mina with a cooler and have a picnic and party. The hike out is an uphill climb. There is a shack down the road from the trailhead where you can grab a batido (like a tropical fruit shake), breathe deep and take in the view.
La Parguera, Fajardo
You may read about Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays in guidebooks, and I encourage you to see this sight by kayak, as this is the most environmentally conscious way to do so. Pollution from motorized vehicles is contributing to the destruction of this sight. Those who may be worried about kayaking in the ocean and mangroves at night have nothing to fear, as the waters are placid and the experience breathtaking. Gems of light glisten off soft sea ripples as you paddle through open water to the mangroves.
Then, a long narrow channel through the root system of the mangroves leads to an opening into a grand bay. You may begin to notice luminescent trails in the water before entering the bay, or your guides may give you a large tarp to hold above your kayaks if there is a lot of moonlight.
Beneath the tarp, slip your hand into the water, and you will see yourself holding stars. Throw a handful of water onto the front of your boat and watch the stars slide off. La Parguera is one of only a few biobays in the world. The experience of seeing a pool full of stars, like fireflies of the bay, is transcendent.
Western Puerto Rico
La Playa Crash Boat, Aguadilla
This is the beach of my ancestors, who grew up in Aguadilla. Its waters are crystalline, its sand is soft and there are wooden fishing boats painted brightly, propped along the beach, a tropical visual that leaves a bright and lasting impression.
There is a long cement pier that extends out into the languid waters, from which people jump and do tricks into the ocean, and vendors along the sidewalk sell pinchos (kabobs) de tiburon or pollo with guava sauce. Sunbathing is prime on the long crescent of golden sand below the seacliffs covered in foliage and green jungle vines. The road down to the beach is long and winding, with vistas out onto the Caribbean as you descend.
Cacique Mabodamaca Sculpture, Isabela
This is a huge bust carved into rock along the roadside as you first arrive into Isabela. The work was created by sculptor Isaac Laboy Moctezuma as an homage to Cacique Mabodamaca, a brave Taino chief of the area, who fought for his homeland and people against the invasion of Europeans during the 16th century. The meaning of this sculpture tells a great deal about the political and territorial history of Puerto Rico, and the nationalist struggles that have lasted until this day.
Off the Beaten Path things to do in Puerto Rico
Playa Oeste in Rincon
This is a great little gallery located not far from Steps Beach, in the laidback surf town of Rincon. (Rincon means ‘corner’ in Spanish, and the town is located just at the northwestern corner of the island. This is one of the chillest locations in Puerto Rico.)
Gallery Oeste is a self-described tropical surf art gallery located in the bottom of a hacienda, and is well curated, hosting a two-room selection of art made by local artists, everything from brightly colored Puerto Rican paintings on driftwood to hand-glazed muted tiles of tribal sea and sun designs. This is a roadside gallery showcasing local art, perfectly encapsulating the sea, surf and spiritual culture of its surroundings.
Steps Beach, Rincon
This beach is just off the roadside with a narrow strip of sand and a fringe of palm trees, under which to lie in the shade. The beach is named after the cement steps that are washed up on its shore, and the steps make for the perfect perching place to take a unique picture in front of the glistening and gilded Mar Caribe.
Calypso Cafe and Maria’s Beach in Surf Season, Rincon
A little slice of paradise. Spend a day on Maria’s Beach sunbathing and surfing, or just watching others ride the breaks. Then climb the hill and have some cocktails on the packed porch of the Calypso Cafe overlooking the ocean.
There are thousands of locations to visit off the road less traveled in Puerto Rico. These are some of my favorites. It’s also a great idea to just rent a car and drive around the entire island. You’ll enjoy discovering your own favorite haunts and private beaches.
Photo credits for Off the Beaten Path things to do in Puerto Rico by Unsplash.