Into the heart of Puerto Rico

Utuado, a mountainous region in central Puerto Rico, is a thick and humid jungle. As we loaded luggage into the car, our hosts described our next destination in the southwest as a “desert.” With the clouds erupting from the trees around us, I questioned if their definition of a desert was the same as mine. Less than a few hours into our drive, to my surprise and delight, the dense trees gave way to cacti and the landscape transformed into a series of rolling golden hills. This feeling of surprise repeated itself again and again during our trip around the island’s incredibly diverse landscapes. Our goal for the week was to divert from the coast and explore the heart of Puerto Rico, seeking out its varied cultures and ecosystems. Though the island is relatively small—just 110 miles from east to west, and 39 miles north to south—we moved seamlessly from limestone cliffs, sprawling wetlands, curving mountain roads, rainforests, desert, and everything in between.

The day we arrived, walking the streets of Old San Juan, I found a brightness in the sun, the music, and the rainbow of colored buildings in the city center. The cobbled streets are a great home base to recalibrate into a slower headspace before exploring further. As we drove to our first destination, the dense city immediately melted into the greenery of Hacienda La Esperanza, a 2,000-acre nature preserve that was once a sugar plantation. The non-profit Para la Naturaleza is dedicated to protecting the site’s rich cultural, and natural, history.

The old estate house exhibits the history of slaves who toiled the land, forming the backbone of a lucrative sugar economy. Standing on the steps, we decided to embark on a stroll across the glittering landscape. Following the river, we arrived at Playa Tómbolo, a peninsula with two half-moon coves on either side. It is a marvel, with beaches stretching behind, to the side, and in front of you. Nesting seabirds flock to the rocks just offshore and solidified sand dunes rise above the beach.

These large formations hinted at the landscape further south, where the smooth roads bend between the towering stone. It looks like a formal gateway, welcoming you to the sudden and sprawling jungle. The clouds hang impossibly low and the air smells like fresh rain. Arriving on the doorstep of Batey Adventures, we were greeted with a radiant smile by Jorge, a guide who has worked on the Tanamá river for 20 years. With Jorge leading the way, we crossed a suspension bridge and saw the landscape through the eyes of someone who knows every detail—where the wildlife lives, where the oldest trees are, and what it was like to build and rebuild hiking paths after floods. “You have to jump,” Jorge said when we found ourselves on a rock overlooking the river below. It was an initiation to spike our adrenaline before lazily floating on our inner tubes.

After breaking through the refreshing surface, I swam to my flotation device and entered the Portillo Cave. The river runs straight through while the rock walls tower above, lit only by the headlamps attached to our helmets. Bats cling to the ceiling and flit around in small clusters. In the captivating darkness, I lost all sense of time. Emerging into the bright sun, I was startled to remember it was late afternoon.

Drying off, Jorge inquired “Where’s next?” I described my excitement for Hacienda Verde Tahití, the farm where we would be glamping for the night. It was here that we first learned of desert-like views in Cabo Rojo. “It’s much dryer down there, you might not believe it.” In less than two hours we turned into the gate of the farm, trees framing the driveway as Pitahaya plants grew in long rows on either side. Ingrid and Radames, the owners, greeted us with a taste of local rum. Their dogs Koko and Luna were a secondary welcome wagon, joining us on the short ride to our two-story campsite.

Showing us the amenities, Radames explained, “Our intention at Verde Tahití is to allow guests to disconnect from their busy lives and reconnect with themselves.” Lying under the darkest skies on the island, greeted in the morning by native birds, I saw how easy that could be. Fully refreshed, we drove further west to the salt flats, one of the oldest businesses on the island, and out to a lighthouse from the 1880s. The structure is poised above cliffs that drop sharply into the sea below. I took a few deep breaths to prepare myself for the harrowing adventure that would soon bring me deep below those choppy waters.

“How many sharks do you think we’ll see?” Pedro, our divemaster, thought for a second before responding “Around 5 or 6.” I was therefore not prepared when I found myself being circled by 9 Caribbean reef sharks. La Parguera has a series of diverse and pristine cays, broken from the southwest corner of the mainland and scattered in the Caribbean Sea. They are small treasures, each with something to discover. From a bioluminescent bay to thick mangroves. Not far beyond the shore is the Parguera Wall, a 20-mile-long reef bursting with life. Pedro has been diving in these waters for more than a decade. The sharks seem to know him well, and all it takes is a small tap on his tank and they emerge from deeper waters. We made two hour-long dives in the morning, one surrounded by sharks, and the other discovering an octopus, two large rays, and a wide variety of crustaceans. Divers typically use hand signals to identify the species they’ve spotted. Pedro, on the other hand, has a sleeve of tattoos full of various sea creatures he points to before shining his flashlight on the real thing. A textbook definition of charming.

Emerging from the depths and returning to land, I settled into the car and let my heart rate return to a steady pace. On the road from La Parguera to the far east side of the island, I experienced some form of ecosystem whiplash. Once again, we passed through the remarkable architecture of Ponce, between arid landscapes into lush forest, up a jagged coastline, and finally into Fajardo where palm trees were densely scattered beside the steep roads. Hacienda Chocolat is up an unmarked road, adding to the allure of Yadira Vázquez’s legendary chocolate bars. Yadira started growing cacao in her backyard as a hobby. She now has 4,000 trees with 2,000 more in production. Her team harvests and produces small batches, with Yadira crafting her own artisanal bars that you can only purchase while on property. We arrived just in time to attend a tasting of chocolate and whisky. Introducing the first pairing, Yadira explains “My love for the plant came to me from a past life or something like that. My favorite movies have always had to do with cacao plantations.” Yadira aims to help Puerto Rico re-establish its reputation as a star of cacao production.

She is well on her way, with Hacienda Chocolat receiving the silver Cocoa of Excellence award in 2021. In total, we tried four whiskies and four chocolates. The richness of the flavors was unmatched. I didn’t know a truffle could have so many expressions. Yadira, though she admits it is a challenge, is committed to incorporating her cacao trees with the surrounding forest. They use no pesticides or fertilizer and do their best to plant the cacao within the established landscape.

Our final stop took us deeper into the forest that Yadira has a deep love for. We burned off some of the lingering alcohol by hiking Mt. Britton in El Yunque National Forest. Upon entering, the first thing you’ll notice is how endlessly upwards the road begins to wind. After a half-hour, a glimpse through the trees and you can see as far as the coast. These views are only a small preview of the gasp-worthy 360-degree view you get from the top of Mt. Britton. It felt right to end our circumnavigation with a top-down view of the unmatched diversity of the island. I could see the rainforest blend slowly into the dryer coastline, with various cities resting in the valleys. It is rare to visit an island and feel like you drove through multiple countries. The regions of Puerto Rico offer something for everyone’s tastes. I can’t think of another place where if you find yourself thinking “I don’t like this climate,” all you have to do is drive for an hour.

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