INSIDE LA ISLA

If you can dream it, Puerto Rico can make it happen

By Peter Martin

An endless array of high octane activities for thrill-seekers of all ages

Puerto Rico is a perfect place for beach lovers to kick back with their feet in the sand, their faces in a book, and a cool drink within easy reach. The simple pleasures of basking in the sun surrounded by the sea may sound like an ideal way to pass the day for some visitors.

But that’s simply not always going to cut it for the growing number of adventurous travelers drawn to the island by its ever-expanding range of activities that are guaranteed to get the blood pumping of any adrenaline junkie.

These days there is no shortage of high-octane options for thrill-seekers of all ages. So whether it’s soaring above a tropical forest, surging down a mountain stream, or skimming along the waves, intrepid trekkers that arrive with a thirst for adventure can rest assured that Puerto Rico will quench it and keep them coming back for more.

At roughly 100 miles long and 35 miles wide, Puerto Rico provides a plethora of spine-tingling possibilities from coast to coast and everywhere in between.

Many a salty soul has made the pilgrimage to this ocean-sports mecca – which boasts a maritime menu of options that run the gamut from challenging the wild waves of the northwest coast to stalking big billfish along Marlin Alley and from jet-ski jaunts through mangrove islets along the south coast or cay-hopping by catamaran off the eastern edge and over the offshore island towns of Vieques and Culebra.

But the fun doesn’t begin and end around the water’s edge. More and more adventure-seekers are looking inward, to Puerto Rico’s still untamed and untapped mountainous interior. The forested mountains that make up the backbone of the island are home to an ever-expanding array of activities. Though often not in easy view, this rugged terrain is studded with stuff to do.

A great way to get the adrenaline meter moving is a trip to Toro Verde, a 320-acre ecological adventure park in Orocovis, a small town that crowns the island’s verdant central mountain range. The drive up is a treat itself, but it’s the traverses along multiple zip lines (from mild to wild), ropes courses, suspension bridges, and rappels that fuel the fun factor to new heights. Let out your inner animal on attractions with names like the Beast, the Bull Maze, and the Monster, which at 8,300 feet is certified by Guinness World Records as the “longest zip line in the universe.” The numbers attached to this monstrosity don’t lie – think flying at speeds of up to 95 miles per hour over the length of 28 football fields at heights of more than 1,200 feet.

 

 

Fuel up in the onsite café, wind down at the highly-popular restaurant, and pop in to the souvenir shop for a shirt that lets the folks back home know you took on some truly epic zip lines.

The fact is, Puerto Rico has been at the forefront of the zip line craze and now boasts a ton of alternatives guaranteed to get anyone’s engines zooming from zero to 60 in no time.

Toro Verde ecological adventure park in Orocovis, is certified by Guinness World Records as the “longest zip line in the universe".
Toro Verde ecological adventure park in Orocovis, is certified by Guinness World Records as the “longest zip line in the universe”.

 

Nearby is the Toro Negro State Forest, an 8,000-acre expanse that reaches into the municipalities of Ponce, Jajuya, Orocovis, Ciales, and Juana Diaz. Toro Negro is Puerto Rico’s highest cloud forest and boasts the island’s  highest lake and its three uppermost peaks, topping out 4,400 above the Caribbean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean, both of which can be seen on clear days. The forest tracts include nearly a dozen miles of trails, an observation tower, campgrounds, and picnic areas and swimming holes, known locally as charcos, in cool mountain streams.

Combine culture and cool at La Piedra Escrita, a massive boulder in an Orocovis stream that is etched with hieroglyphs carved by the Tainos, the island’s indigenous inhabitants at the time of the arrival of Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. A long boardwalk leads down to the rock-lined stream and La Piedra Escrita, or the Written Rock, provides a great perch to plunge into the clear and cold water.

To the east, the azure Atlantic and crystalline Caribbean give rise to the palms-studded flanks and emerald ramparts of the El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest within the U.S. national forest system. Touring by automobile offers some truly stunning scenery, but the best way to uncover this often cloud-shrouded gem is by hiking along one of the various established trails that snake through it. Meander down through the steamy jungle to soak in a natural pool created by a cascading waterfall, washing away any fatigue and providing rejuvenation for the walk back out of the woods.

Yunke Zipline Adventure offers five zip lines and a rappelling course along the forested flank of the El Yunque foothills in Luquillo, a northeast coastal town that is also home to stunning beaches, and an iconic string of food kiosks. Safe, fun, and scenic is Yunke’s mantra. Keep your eyes open as the area is home to a riot of local flora and fauna.

Want to jump right into the action? Why not leave the logistics to one of Puerto Rico’s top of the line providers? Dragonfly Adventures has been generating buzz for decades at its Carabali Rainforest Park, a 600-acre ranch at the base of the El Yunque Rainforest that offers multi-generational activities including horseback riding, mountain biking, all-terrain vehicles, and go-karts. Don’t skip the onsite steakhouse. The tour owner and operator has since expanded beyond the ranch and now boasts offsite venues, restaurants, an event production company, and a hotel.

Sitting off the edge of Puerto Rico’s northeast coast, and within view of El Yunque, are the offshore island towns of Vieques and Culebra. Take the ferry over from Fajardo, a small coastal city that also serves as a launching pad for catamaran and sailboat trips to sandy and palm-lined cays that rise up out of some of the best snorkeling waters in the Caribbean. The fun doesn’t need to end after dark. That’s when the Laguna Grande bioluminescent bay starts to shine, with microscopic organisms known as dinoflagellates light up the lagoon. Conservation-minded kayak tours are the way to go, ensuring that the glow does not wear off for future generations.

Puerto Rico boats three bioluminescent bays and the ones in Fajardo and nearby Vieques are among the world’s brightest.

Nothing says Caribbean getaway clearer than touching down off a secret beach in a seaplane. Seaplanes in Paradise will get you where you want to go, even if you never knew that place existed. Established full-day and half-day self-guided and guided packages are available to explore every angle of Puerto Rico including trips to the offshore islands of Culebra and Culebrita and combined seaplane/catamaran excursions. Don’t hesitate to go custom as the company’s motto is: If you can dream it, we can make it happen.

 

 

While adventurous travelers will welcome the fast-paced play in Puerto Rico, they may well find that their vacations went by too quickly. Make the most of precious time by taking advantage of the adventure that is even lurking in and around San Juan. While it revels in its well-deserved reputation as the culinary, cultural, and nightlife capital of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico’s capital city and surrounding environs are by no means a concrete jungle. Sure there are wild times to be had amid the hustle and bustle, particularly after the sun goes down, but the light of day reveals a spectrum of ways to play.

Soak up the sights in sky-high style, and achieve maximum liftoff in a helicopter tour. Imagine hovering over the Spanish-colonial ramparts of Old San Juan with views of the capital’s stunning beaches and flashy financial district. Puerto Rico Helitours offers flights ranging from five minutes to half an hour in the capital. Or take off from the mountain town of Barranquitas, where skilled pilots will fly you into the rarely seen Dos Bocas and San Cristobal canyons.

Vertical Solutions offers charters and a range of half-day and full day tours of spots including the Arecibo Observatory, the Camuy Caves, Toro Verde, and the offshore islands of Culebra and Vieques. Clients can also customize flights.

Staying high and dry is fine, but sometimes you just need to get wet. Why not combine the sky and water with a kite-surfing session. Tap into the wind and the waves at 15 Knots, which offers gear rentals and lessons in Isla Verde, an area that has earned a reputation as a world-class destination for the hot sport of kiteboarding. GoodWinds Watersports & Kitesurf Center in Dorado is also always a good bet. Take advantage of top flight services including gear rental, lessons, radio coaching, and guided tours. Aren’t ready to harness up and hang on? No worries, as the shop also offers guided surf tours that can include jet-ski jaunts to empty outer reefs off Dorado’s stellar coastline.

San Juan is also home to a series of surf breaks to suit everyone from novices to kamikazes. Lessons and board rentals are readily available at Pine Grove Beach in Isla Verde. More seasoned surfers can fill their stoke factors at spots like La Punta in the heart of Condado or La Ocho, a fabled break at El Escambron Beach that may well be among the best truly urban surf breaks this side of Waikiki.

The epicenter of Puerto Rico’s stellar standup paddleboarding is the clear and calm Condado Lagoon, a tranquil place to stay or a base to launch forays into the San Juan Bay or out into the azure Atlantic.

Adventurous anglers will fall hook, line and sinker for the fabulous fishing in and around the capital city. The San Jose Lagoon and Torrecillas Lagoon, interconnected mangrove lined estuaries that provide world-class tarpon grounds, with specimens of the so-called Silver King reaching up to the 100-pound range. There’s still plenty of room for snook, jack crevalle and other sought after sportfish in this inshore saltwater paradise. Or leave the lures behind and tour the liquid maze by kayak, standup paddleboard, or power boat. Either way you’ll be treated to a thriving ecosystem that sits in silent shadow of the international airport, your revelry interrupted only by the jumping of fish, the splash of dive-bombing pelicans and the occasional rumble of a 747 jumbo-jet coming in for a landing.

Rally the whole family for an easy trip to La Marquesa, a 600-acre passive and adventure park at the forested-edge of San Juan, and just 15 minutes from the capital city’s tourism hubs of Condado and Isla Verde. From cable cars, trolleys, and canopy tours to zip lines and rock-climbing, there’s family fun on tap for everyone from five to 95. The ski-lift style cable car is a unique way, especially in the Caribbean, to reach a 70-foot observation tower that offers stunning views of the metropolitan area.

Another can’t miss option is Ecoquest Adventures & Tours, a conservation-minded company that specializes in organizing excursions well within striking distance of San Juan. Hotel pick-up lets clients leave any transportation troubles behind, allowing them to focus purely on fun options including zip lines, rappelling down waterfalls, canopy bridges, and off-road vehicle treks through Puerto Rico’s lush and often overlooked backcountry.

Head south out of San Juan, through Caguas and up to Cayey; the gateway to Carite State Forest, which spans 6,000 acres and is managed as a recreation area by the Puerto Rico government. Camping and picnic areas are safe and scenic. Waterfalls and cool natural stream pools, including the beautiful Charco Azul, can be found.

Combine a Carite excursion with a pit stop at the Guavate area of Cayey, where open-air eateries serve up heaping helpings of criollo classics. Their specialty is lechon, whole spit-roasted hogs that are as delectably moist and tasty on the inside as they are golden and crackling on the outside. Guavate is small, but is not to be missed. You may not even need a map to find it, just follow the scent of the simply stunning victuals being prepared at this favorite grub hub of locals and visitors alike.

 

 

Rocaliza Adventure Tours, headquartered in the city of Caguas about 30 minutes south of San Juan, serves up half-day and full-day tours near that Carite State Forest that include canyoneering, hiking, rappelling, and multiple zip lines. Climb upriver using secured reports and then rappel 80-feet down the El Salto waterfall among others.

Ready for rock climbing? Seasoned guides will lead rock hounds of all levels up classic routes at the island’s best crags and boulders, most of which are close to the capital city.

Another great place to get your kicks is in karst country, as the foothills that sweep up from the northwestern coast to the central mountain range are known. The region is marked by limestone outcroppings known locally as mogotes, which create a labyrinthine landscape that is lush and mysterious.

Abundant rainfall and subterranean rivers have carved out porous limestone to create an unseen world of cave systems throughout the karst region. Cueva Ventana, or Window Cave, is one such hidden gem. Climb PR-10 up by car from the coastal plain at Arecibo until you spot the bare bones sign for the cave. A short trek up the woods leads you to the somewhat steep scramble down into the cave. The cave itself is not expansive and its geological features are not the real draw. What keeps visitors draws dropping is the end of the cave, which is essentially a massive opening high up on a sheer limestone cliff that provides incredible views of the bucolic Rio Grande de Arecibo Valley below while the harmless denizens of the dark chasm, in this case bats, flutter overhead.

Take in the vista for as long as you like, but keep your eyes open. It’s a long way down. And you’ve still got some fun waiting just up the hill at Lago Dos Bocas, a mountain reservoir tucked hard in the hills in neighboring Utuado. The fishing is good, but you don’t need to count on catching anything to fill your belly. A few excellent restaurants dot little pockets of the shore and are accessible only by water taxi service, making getting there have the fun as ospreys glide on thermals overhead.

Karst country is also home to the Camuy Caverns River Park, a government-run attraction that takes people deep into an underground world of subterranean rivers, stunning stalactites and stalagmites, and strange creatures. Trolley trains do much of the work but there are opportunities to get out and stretch your legs on walks through soaring caverns.

The first waterfall produced as a result of deposit in the mouth of the river by Lago Guineo (Lake El Guineo), the highest lake in Puerto Rico between Ciales and Orocovis. Photo by Carlos Pérez Hoeussler of Canyoing Puerto Rico.
The first waterfall produced as a result of deposit in the mouth of the river by Lago Guineo (Lake El Guineo), the highest lake in Puerto Rico between Ciales and Orocovis. Photo by Carlos Pérez Hoeussler of Canyoing Puerto Rico.

Chart a course for the Tanama River, a cool, clear mountain stream that twists, turns and plummets down from the high-country between Arecibo and Utuado, the heart of Puerto Rico’s remote, rugged and unspoiled karst region and home to one of the few wild populations of the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot. Hidden treasures are revealed at virtually every turn along the river. Hiking in the area is sure to please, but this is one epic adventure that is best enjoyed by jumping in with both feet. Body rafts and inner-tubes are without a debt the best way to explore the caverns, overhangs and rapids of this refreshing liquid trail that traverses through lush jungle

Book a trip with the fun and knowledgeable guides from Explora Multiaventura, Tanama River Adventures or Canyoning Puerto Rico which developed into the first excursion company to offer guided tours to the island’s canyons, cascades and canyoning routes;  who will handle logistics, gear and safety.

Bold travelers need not be bound to the ground in Puerto Rico, where the sky is the limit when it comes to kicks. The small airport in Arecibo is home base for sky-diving operators. Learn the basics on the ground and then gear up for a free-fall as butterflies flutter in your belly. Wheels up and in the air to 10,000 feet, it’s time to take the leap. The tandem jump with a certified instructor is a true rush.

Flights of fancy are also on tap in the karst region at the Arecibo Observatory, a massive radio telescope sunken into the top of a mogote. The hands-on visitors’ center provides a glimpse of the important science that continues to be done at the scientific installation. Let your imagination soar as onsite researchers probe the outer reaches of the galaxy.

Make that dream of soaring like a bird come true by learning to hang glide or paraglide. The experienced USHGA-certified instructors at Team Spirit Hang Gliding offer a full range of courses on the art of free flight. Don’t have time to master the sport? Don’t worry. Take a tandem flight with a seasoned pilot. From the launch site on the south side of El Yunque Rainforest, your pilot will work the glider into uplifts and thermals, circling higher and higher. With flights lasting up to 30 minutes and reaching heights of more than 2,500 depending on the weather conditions you are in for the ride of a lifetime and views of the mountains, Atlantic Ocean, and even San Juan, you’ll never again have to wonder what it feels like to soar with the clouds.

Out west, world-class waves have lured legions of hard-core surfers to the island’s northwest corner for decades, but beginners can easily find lessons given by skilled teachers who will get them into the right spots and onto their feet riding swells in no time. Horseback riding along the beach, snorkeling in the protected Tres Palmas Marine Reserve, or scuba diving in the pristine and crystalline waters off uninhabited Desecheo Island or Mona Island are other facets of the northwestern region that make it shine like a beacon for the saltiest of souls. Standup paddleboard excursions along the rarely traveled Guajataca River or inner-tube tube float trips down the Isabel irrigation channels.

Continue down the coast to the Cabo Rojo area, where you can fly fish on the flats, hike along a salt march or head offshore for truly epic deep-sea fishing.

Down and around are the coastal towns of Guanica and Lajas, which are sure to seduce with off-the beaten path adventures to secret beaches and mangrove islets surrounded by bathtub clear waters that are as warms as they are inviting.

 

Ponce, the so-called Pearl of the South, it’s also where you can catch a ferry ride out to Caja de Muertos, or Coffin Key.
Ponce, the so-called Pearl of the South, it’s also where you can catch a ferry ride out to Caja de Muertos, or Coffin Key.

 

Ponce, the so-called Pearl of the South, is known as the cultural hub of Puerto Rico’s south coast, with a restored downtown area and art museum that can hold its own with some of the more celebrated heavyweights around the globe. It’s also where you can catch a ferry ride out to Caja de Muertos, or Coffin Key, an uninhabited nature refuge that serves as a breeding ground for sea turtles and once served as the stage for Masonic meetings outside of the disapproving eyes of the Spanish crown. Swim with a kaleidoscope of marine creatures and trek through the cactus-studded dry forest to the 1887-Spanish colonial lighthouse that caps this idyllic offshore hideaway.

Adventure-seekers could literally throw a dart at a map of Puerto Rico and probably hit on something, somewhere that would surely get their juices flowing. A good time is guaranteed, whether setting of on your own, or opting for a guided excursion, as the island surrounds you with opportunities to push boundaries up in the mountains, down below ground, along epic coastlines, under water and high in the sky.

Either way, it should be abundantly clear that Puerto Rico serves up an endless array of adventures for travelers of all ages. So many that the Enchanted Island could also be called the Excitement Island.