ARECIBO, Puerto Rico -- The northwest coast of Puerto Rico offers opportunities for day trips less than two hours by car from San Juan.

Here are a few of my favorites:

" The Arecibo Observatory: If astronomy is your thing or science fiction movies spin your wheels, a visit to Cornell Universitys radio telescope near Arecibo is a must. While cutting-edge research is performed here 24/7, the Cornell team offers a friendly visitor center packed with multimedia educational displays, a theater and an auditorium.

The visual impact of the worlds largest single-dish radio telescope is stunning. In fact, the telescope and its site, a massive natural sinkhole in the mountains, were chosen for the opening scenes of the movie Contact because they serve as dramatic examples of Big Science.

The dish is 1,000 feet across, covering 18 acres. Its surface consists of 38,778 panels of perforated aluminum that, along with their supports, weighs in at 300 tons.

The towers anchoring the 30-plus miles of support cables for the domed collector suspended over the dish range from 265 feet to 365 feet high.

But sheer spectacle is not the only thing that takes your breath away. The observatory can be reached via a long, steep climb up concrete stairs.

Although there are a couple of rest shelters along the way, plus a scale model of the solar system that begs studious attention, some people find the climb too taxing, even at a leisurely pace. While most people -- even overweight Yanquis -- do just fine, this star trek is not for the feint of heart.

The observatory is open from noon to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children and $2 for seniors. For more, visit www.naic.edu.

To reach the observatory, take Highway 22 west from San Juan to Arecibo, then head south on Route 10. Follow the signs to the observatory and be prepared for a roller-coaster ride through the forest-covered hills and valleys along the way.

" Rio Camuy Cave Park: While the telescope is an increasingly popular destination for tourists, few have discovered the nearby Camuy Caves.

The park itself is 268 acres. Below its surface lies a vast system of caverns carved more than a million years ago by the Camuy River, which starts in the mountains near Lares and flows north into the Atlantic.

For much of the way, Rio Camuy flows underground, creating limestone caverns. The Camuy Caves are thought to be the third-largest cavern system in the world, although only seven miles of them have been explored. The park was sited where several massive sinkholes were created many millennia ago when parts of the caverns collapsed, exposing the underground cave network. TW.com photo by Rob FixmerToday, trolleys cart visitors up and down the sides of the largest sinkhole for guided tours in English or Spanish. 

The Camuy Caves are unique in several ways. The series of sinkholes -- 16 have been found so far -- open the caverns to fresh air and sunshine at various points. Also, the sight of the Camuy River flowing 400 feet below the walkway of a vast, cathedral-like cavern is truly memorable. Finally, the caves contain a species of blind shrimp found nowhere else in the world.

Puerto Ricos parks authorities took great pains to make the caverns comfortably accessible to visitors and to minimize damage to the fragile ecosystems of this long-hidden world. The largest vestibule, the Cueva Clara, is 695 feet long.

The caves are open Wednesdays to Sundays and on holidays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Reservations are required and can be made by calling (787) 898-3100 or (787) 763-0568. The park has a gift shop, picnic areas, walking trails, a theater and a nearby coal mine tour. From Arecibo, head south on Route 129 and follow signs to the Rio Camuy Cave Park.

" Tropical Trail Rides: For serious horseback riders and novices, this privately operated stable offers several unique experiences, not the least of which is fulfilling the fantasy of riding horses on a beach.

The stable also offers a rare opportunity to ride one of its 25 Paso Finos, the small, naturally gaited horse found only on Puerto Rico. Because of the horses small size, Tropical Trail Rides has a 250-pound weight limit for its riders. The trail ride pace is casual and unhurried, the itinerary is flexible and groups are allowed a number of options.

Although owners Craig and Michelle Barker do not advertise the fact, more experienced riders have greater freedom of movement. As the trail makes its way from beaches and shoreline through an almond forest, skilled riders are permitted to break away from the pack. Riders can pause to swim or explore caves along the shore.

Tropical Trail Rides (www.tropicaltrailrides.com) operates seven days a week. Two daily rides, about two hours in length, depart the stables at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. For reservations, call (787) 872-9256.

Take Highway 22 west from San Juan until it ends and merges with Highway 2. Continue west for about 23 miles, take a right at Highway 110 toward Rafael Hernandez Airport for about four miles and another right at Road 4466. Take the first left and follow the signs to Tropical Trail Rides.

To contact editor Rob Fixmer, send e-mail to [email protected].

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