You don’t have to go to Patagonia, or some other far away land to experience some of the most exciting adventure activities in the world. They abound in Puerto Rico and it’s a direct flight from many U.S. cities including New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Boston and others.I flew Jet Blue from Fort Lauderdale for only $86 each way. No passport, no currency exchange, no hassle. This Caribbean island is where your grandma went for blackjack in the 60’s after Castro closed Cuba, but now its allure is the natural beauty of the land and sea that provide a variety of fantastic natural wonders about which only a few know.
There are several mountainous rain forests on the island and the one in Orocovis, about an hour’s drive from San Juan is where you will find the highest zip line in the world. The 4,745 foot cable span from one mountain top to another is the world’s second longest and you can reach speeds of over 70 miles per hour as you cross the gorge and the meandering river way below.
They call it “The Beast” and it’s the highlight among many other zip lines, cable walks, and climbing expeditions at a place called Toro Verde. It is the biggest aerial park in the world, and you get to experience nature from every perspective, flying over the rain forest canopy and the rivers below, or on a walking hike to see the varieties of plant life below the canopy.
It would take several days to partake in the entire range of activities, but you can select a la carte or packages for an adrenaline-inducing full or half day. In addition to the Beast, I did the Jump of the Coqui, where you get halfway across a cable bridge and then rappel down to the valley floor.
For the acrophobic there are plenty of nature hikes and mountain bike trails where you don’t leave the ground, but for the bold there are more than enough ways to take on an exhilarating challenge. You are always very safe because you are helmeted, harnessed, and attached to an overhead cable, and the guides are very well trained, extremely knowledgeable, and helpful.
On the first day of my trip I took a surfing lesson from Pro surfer and instructor William “Chino” Sue-A-Quan at the WoW Surfing School. There is a beach at Pine Grove near the Four Seasons Hotel that is just perfect for beginners such as me to learn to ride the waves. The instructors were skilled surfers and patient teachers and I eventually did get some decent rides. The beach is a short walk from the Verdanza Hotel, the hotel where I stayed, a nice hotel of just the right size. It is large enough to have all the amenities you need, but small enough so there is calmness and tranquility; no long lines checking in or out and the attentive staff at the front desk actually get to know you by name and are extremely helpful with advice and suggestions. The hotel’s diverse restaurants are all excellent and the wine bar Di Vino was great for a relaxing drink and small bite with their tapas selections.
Old San Juan
I took a short ride to Old San Juan and had lunch at a place called El Jibarito, a favorite of the locals for delicious true Puerto Rican food. It’s the first time I’ve had mofongo, made from mashed plantains mixed with rice and meat or seafood. For desert, the coconut flan, made in-house was delicious and fresh.
After lunch, I walked the streets of Old San Juan admiring the amazing architecture influenced by Spain, which colonized the island shortly after its discovery by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage west in 1493. The streets are paved with cobblestones that have an unusual blue hue. They were made in Spain and used as ballast in the ships sent empty to collect the bounty of the New World.
Take some time to stroll through the streets of Old San Juan to see sights, public plazas and churches including San José Church and the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, which contains the tomb of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. The Cathedral is also home to the Colegio de Párvulos, the oldest Catholic school for Elementary education in Puerto Rico, built in 1865.
You’ll notice that parts of the city are enclosed by massive walls and forts surrounded by gorgeous watchtowers. One of the most notable is El Palacio de Santa Catalina, also known as La Fortaleza, which today continues to serve as the executive mansion for the Governor of Puerto Rico.
Caja de Muertos
My next morning I headed south to the city of Ponce for a trip to an island called Caja de Muertos which means Coffin Island, named so from a story of pirates in the mid nineteenth century. As legend would have it, Portuguese pirate Jose Almeida fell in love with a Basque lady, married her, and took her pirating with him around the Caribbean. She was killed during a raid and Almeida had her embalmed and placed in a glass box inside a copper coffin. He buried her in a cave on Caja de Muertos, a deserted and uninhabited island then as it remains today. Many years later, a Spanish engineer discovered the coffin, identifying the cay on a map and giving it its present name.
The island is a 40-minute boat ride from La Guancha pier and breakfast is served onboard the boat – breads, cheeses, fruit, tamarind, and juice. The tour company I went with – Acampo – was excellent and highly recommended. They offer a whole host of other adventures throughout Puerto Rico as well.
Caja de Muertos is a nature preserve so there are several pristine beaches on the 1.5 mile long island. Atop the highest point on the island is a lighthouse, no longer in use, built in 1887. From the beach where the ferry drops you off you can see it far and high off in the distance. It is about a half mile trek from the beach, with some steep inclines, prickly cacti and sharp rocks.
Upon reaching the summit and seeing the statuesque aged structure up close, remarkably intact despite years of sun, wind and rain, your effort is well rewarded. The view from the top is magical, and I can’t imagine how they got the bricks, timber and iron for construction up that steep path 125 years ago.
Back down to the beach and it was time for one of my great passions, snorkeling in the crystal clear Caribbean Sea. I glided slowly through the silent water, admiring the beautiful colors of fish and plant life on the reef. Some glistening minnows passed by me. At first a few, then more and suddenly, thousand upon thousand, enveloped me as they streamed by.
It’s awesome beyond description, and I was awed as the school flowed onward, watching each fish make an instant decision on whether to pass me on the right, left, or below before resuming their formation. Back at the boat the crew had prepared a lunch of delicious barbecued steak with rice and beans, and then it was off on a kayak to explore further beaches around the island.
Tip: This is an excellent day trip and be sure to bring swim suit, dry change and both hiking boots and water shoes to maximize your enjoyment.
The Bioluminescent Bay
One night I joined a group of other travelers to visit Laguna Grande at Las Croabas to kayak through the mangrove into one of the eight bioluminescent bays in the world. After a half hour paddle through the mangrove you enter the bay and the water has these totally astonishing dinoflagellates, small micro organisms (800,000 of them in each gallon of water) that when disturbed, give off a biolumiesncent glow. As your paddle moves through the water, a beautiful bright blue light is created as these creatures react to your presence as a defense mechanism. We stopped in the middle of the lagoon, put a tarp over the kayak to eliminate the moonlight and scooped up handfuls of what turned into something I can only half describe as blue mercury, sparkling on your skin and the water passes over. It was truly one of the most incredible experiences of my life, an eleven on the wow meter.
Few have been able to capture its magnificence on camera or video, so this is an encounter with nature you must not miss.
Hacienda Campo Rico
Another great adventure to be had in Puerto Rico, although not my personal favorite, was at Hacienda Campo Rico, where we took Argo 8×8 amphibious vehicles on an off-roading experinece through some of their 2,000 acres of muddy trails, mangroves, lagoons, and limestone hills. As it had rained the night before, it was a rough, wet, and muddy ride, a little too bumpy for my taste, but a couple of short hikes in between that showed the diverse vegetation and a cave on the property were quite nice.
Visit Frontier Adventures for more on Hacienda Campo Rico off-roading excursions.
Where to stay, eat, and drink
I found the Verdanza Hotel to be just right for my stay in Puerto Rico, with a convenient location, friendly staff, great service, and ample dining choices. It’s in the Carolina section of the island where many other hotels are located, about 20 minutes from Old San Juan. The 222-room hotel has all the modern and convenient amenities you’d want, including free WIFI in public areas, an expansive pool area with whirlpool, poolside food, and beverage service, a self service Business Center, and a state of the art Fitness Center.
It is also located a few blocks from Alambique Beach. In the evening this area, also called Isla Verde, comes alive with live entertainment, dance clubs, casinos, and restaurants. One night we walked over to the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel for dinner and drinks. Their rooftop bar and restaurant overlooks all of the Isla Verde beachfront and it’s a great, chill spot day and night. There is a small pool and comfortable lounge sofas, an incredible sound system and it is an intimate space I highly recommend you visit.
Another fun dining option is Mango’sat Ocean Park which has a diverse menu from chicken and fish dishes to salads and
an array of very sweet cocktails. Expect a lively crowd, so if looking for a more quiet and peaceful evening, this isn’t the place to go, but for a young and hip scene, you’ll be in the right place.
For a casual lunch or romantic dinner, visit the Hosteria del Mar Inn’s Uvva Restaurant, located in a quiet residential area between Old San Juan and Carolina. The beachside inn is a lovely, quaint retreat from the more active areas of Puerto Rico with delicious food.
I really enjoyed my trip to Puerto Rico, and the abundance of action and sports activities are perfectly complimented by the island’s rich history and friendly people. I can’t wait to get back again soon because I know I was just scratching the surface of things to do and places to see on this awesome island.