Somewhere else in the world, it’s morning. But while casually strolling the worn cobblestone streets of Old San Juan on the island of Puerto Rico, I try to imagine another Caribbean destination with such warmth, appeal and diversity.
The sun-drenched, cloudless sky almost matches the Alice-blue color of the Caribbean Sea. It offered me the promise of another golden opportunity to explore the land that inspired Christopher Columbus to aptly call this area the “Rich Port,” or Puerto Rico.
As I survey the meticulously cared for colonial-era buildings, painted in lucid pastel colors of pink, coral, mauve and taupe, I’m struck by how perfect they appear. The intricate wrought-iron filigree adorning balconies and windows are dotted with potted plants; occasionally, someone tends to the lush greenery and multi-colored flowers, carefully encouraging their growth.
Visitors and locals migrate to the 350-year-old structures that house hotels such as Hotel El Convento, a Carmelite convent built three centuries ago, but renovated with modern amenities. It still retains its colonial charm with features such as marble chessboard floors and mahogany furniture. Across the street from the hotel, a few hungry lunchtime patrons, including myself, wait for a table at Il Perugino, an intimate café serving Italian cuisine. Refreshed and rejuvenated afterward, it’s time to explore some of the city’s attractions.
Fashion icons Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Mont Blanc and others call trendy Ashford Avenue home, but many of the narrow pathways between buildings lead to locals offering more one-of-a-kind curios and handcrafted native items. Any side street seems to lead to souvenirs at great bargains, especially on authentic Puerto Rican santos (carved wooden antique objects of religious devotion).
Old San Juan takes at least a full day to explore. Anxious to delve into the historical aspects of this ancient realm, I navigate my way first through the congested streets to the fortress San Felipe del Morro. This imposing edifice, a World Heritage Site constructed in 1540, rises six stories above the pounding surf. Remnants of the massive city wall that once completely surrounded Old San Juan sits adjacent to the fort.
I was drawn to the Garitas, tiny rounded sentry posts that have become a symbol of the island. Guards stationed here once peered out into the Caribbean at a gaggle of French or English warships eying this coveted prize. Nearby, other historical sites include San Cristobal Fort, the San Geronimo Fort and Museo de Arte de Ponce, which features a world-class collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings.
When the sun went down, I felt the rhythm and pulse of the city’s many clubs and lounges. The energy is contagious. I’m a fan of most styles of music, and I got my fill of Latin rock, salsa, techno and jazz. Brava, a classic Puerto Rican disco with an innovative Eastern European design resides in the bustling Wyndham El San Juan Hotel & Casino. Salsa reigns supreme here. I muscled my way to a wraparound balcony above the center stage and joined other onlookers shoulder-to-shoulder watching the Puerto Ricans savor their vibrant nightlife.
After of few minutes of swaying to the music and invariably bumping everyone around me, I caught the eye of a beautiful Latina girl who acknowledged my stare with a broad smile. I moved closer and tried to talk above the din. We exchanged the usual pleasantries as best we could. Her name was Soleh (So-Lay), she said. I surmised that more so by reading her lips then actually hearing her say it. I managed to explain who I was and what brought me to Puerto Rico. She seemed genuinely elated to know I would write about her country.
Over two glasses of aged Bacardi rum, I gleaned insights on what I could do to enhance my Puerto Rico experience. Above the usual recommendations for San Juan, she encouraged me to visit the outer reaches of the island, specifically the massive cave system at Rio Camuy Park and the El Yunque Rain Forest – two of the attractions on my to-do list. I thanked her and we tapped glasses in a friendly toast. Abruptly, she got up from the chair, and I caught a fleeting glimpse of her dancing away under the flashing disco lights.
It was late morning before I set out for El Yunque, thanks in part to the long-standing tradition of nightclubs not closing until the last patron exits. I remember crawling into bed around 4 a.m. and realizing that breakfast was going to be nothing more than an illusion. I gently eased behind the wheel of my rented 4-by-4, a cup of steaming dark coffee in one hand, and pointed it toward one of the island’s more heralded natural wonders.
This 28,000-acre tropical treasure represents the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest system. Splashed with countless cascading waterfalls and home to 50 orchid varieties, 150 types of ferns and 26 species of animal, hikers and nature lovers find it a veritable nirvana.
This rain forest rests on the slopes of the Sierra de Luquillo. The highest mountain here, Pico del Toro, rises 3,523 feet (1070 meters) above sea level. As I drew near, I could see the mountain shrouded by fog. It is so high it creates its own weather patterns, resulting in different ecosystems. It rains nearly everyday at some point, so I dressed accordingly.
The road up the mountain follows a small river with places to pull over to enjoy the views of Luquillo Beach, one of the island’s most touted. The view becomes ever better as you wind your way up the incline to the northern entrance, the only access to the summit area.
My first “awwwww moment” came at around six miles up when I spotted La Coca Falls, near the roadway. From the parking lot area, I watched the water gush over moss covered rocks. I could have climbed some fairly slippery rocks to the base of the falls, but common sense overruled vanity so I kept going.
The Yocahu lookout tower at the nine-kilometer marker signals the end of the road for the tour buses. I kept going for a couple more miles to the Sierra Palm Visitor Center, a good place to get a trail map, info, or a campsite should I plan to overnight.
The Center, and the next two parking lots, Caimitillo and Palo Colorado, gave me access to trailheads to both El Yunque summit and La Mina Falls. Raging waterfalls intrigue me, so I shuttled off down Big Tree Trail, a slippery path strewn with wet rocks that require the agility of a goat. But when I saw the massive wall of water raging over the precipice and into the boiling pool below, I forgot about the obstacles.
After a few minutes of profound awe at what I witnessed, I continued past the falls, eschewing the chance to bathe in the pool, and returned to the road only a short distance from the parking lots. El Yunque Trail, a pathway that took me the better part of the day to negotiate, rewarded me with a panoply of flora that even a novice can appreciate.
The path wends its way up the mountain through large fern trees and palms. About halfway up (2.5 miles, 4km), I strayed to a branch off to the left where I encountered the Mount Britton lookout tower. Below me the vast jungle oasis stretched as far as the eye could see. The Mount Britton trail contains several sets of steep steps, as well as small pools. From either this trail or the summit trail, I could walk back to the parking lot easily via the service road if my spirit gave out.
Along the way, there are many small waterfalls usually surrounded by infinite varieties of flowers. The river snails, which cling to the rocks, produce schisto, a bacteria which can cause liver problems. It’s not a good idea to drink the water untreated, so I took along some bottled water and a few snacks.
When I reached the summit, it was noticeably cooler, so the light waterproof windbreaker I stored in my backpack along with a rain hat came in handy. The trees and ferns are smaller at this elevation, and the views less obstructed by tall trees and brush. After a little rest, I decided against going back by the path I came up and instead, took the easy way down via the service road. Part way down the service road I could venture back into the forest via the high side of the Mount Britton trail, but the upcoming cave exploration and exhaustion ruled that out.
The northwest region of Puerto Rico is known as “karst country,” a stretch of uneven terrain caused by the erosion of the island’s limestone, and resulting in one of the world’s largest systems of underground caves. Rio Camuy Cave Park, one of these natural underground jewels, also features one of the world’s largest river cave systems. While I don’t consider myself a “caver,” or spelunker if you want the scientific term, I felt compelled to at least get a cursory look at this geographical phenomenon.
I arrived early at Rio Camuy and got a numbered ticket for the tour at the parking lot. I bought the actual entry ticket at the Visitors Center where I waited around and perused the gift shop until my turn came. Before long, we shuffled into a theater and saw a brief video explaining the nuances of the caves and park and also the rules regarding the tour. (Basically, don’t touch anything!)
I hopped aboard a trolley for a brief ride through the park to the cave entrance. The trolley glides past lush vegetation that includes bamboo and banana trees, as well as many species of ferns. Tainos Indians used the caves as revealed by their stone carvings along the walls. The Río Camuy, which can be spotted at the park’s main sinkhole, is actually the world’s third-longest underground river and lends its name to the cave system.
I am claustrophobic, but the opening to the cave is quite large and I didn’t feel the urge to flee. Clara Cave is the name of the hole I walked into and for 15 minutes, I admired the drawings and size, but little else. We emerged into an open area when I could see the Camuy River running beneath us with a huge overhang above me. Our guide offered us an opportunity to drink from the “Fountain of Youth,” a natural spring formed by the river. To get a sense of its depth, I followed the roots of the trees that grow here and they extend over a hundred feet below ground to reach the water source.
I continued walking along a path to the other side of the cave where an almost 200-foot-tall roof rife with stalactites drip-dropped mineral-rich water onto the cave floor, forming craggy stalagmites. The stalactites hung pretty far down and one or two unlucky people bumped their heads.
A colony of roughly a half-million bats live in the cave, but luckily, they sleep during the day and I didn’t see any – but I could smell their presence. Once out of the caves, the tour ends at the Tres Pueblos Sinkhole where I saw the river again. No one has fully explored the cave system, so who knows what surprises lie beneath it.
The Rio Camuy Park and El Yunque provided a gateway into the world of unparalleled natural beauty of Puerto Rico. A gratifying contrast to the urban treasures of Old San Juan.