Rico -- Because most tourists equate Puerto Rico with San Juan,
they miss opportunities and experiences available to intrepid
travelers who break away from the resorts and casinos to explore an
exotic land and a mestizo culture unlike any other in the West
Indies or Central America.
Granted, San Juan
offers much to explore and celebrate, but its a small part of the
total Puerto Rican experience.
As a rule, Puerto
Rico attracts two main types of tourists: cruise ship passengers
and resort denizens of San Juans Condado and Isla Verde high-rise
beachfront areas. Cruise passengers seldom venture beyond the
shops, clubs, restaurants and Spanish fortifications that lie
within a quarter of a mile of Old San Juans cruise port.
experience of the resort group is often confined to the view from a
condo, timeshare or hotel room along with an adjacent casino or
But the intrepid
tourist can be found in less-frequented locales such as the rugged
mountain areas west of San Juan, where the giant radio telescope
near Arecibo draws frequent visitors, and east of the city, in El
Yunque National Park. Both are accessible by motorcoach from San
For a unique
experience, its best to rent a car with
unlimited mileage for a minimum of two or three days and follow
La Ruta Panoramica (in English, the Panoramic Route) from
Mayaguez, on Puerto Ricos west coast, to Maunabo, on its southeast
Panoramic Route winds up into mountains and through miles of
sparsely inhabited rain forest.
mist-shrouded peaks, valleys, canyons and waterfalls that stretch
to the ocean beyond (both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea
can be seen from various points) are punctuated by intimate
glimpses into life in mountain villages.
wild impatiens and hibiscus, and forests of giant bamboo as big
around as a mans leg.
rain forest are plantations where coffee, tobacco, banana and
citrus trees climb the mountainsides in manicured rows. Oranges,
grapefruit and avocados litter the roads.
houses cling to mountainsides on stilts. On flatter plots, the
stilts provide covered parking for cars under the houses. On
steeper slopes, cars often are parked on flat roofs, precariously
Puerto Rico has
two main north-south arteries: Highway 10 runs from Arecibo in the
northwest to Ponce on the southern, Caribbean coast, and Highway 52
connects San Juan in the northeast with Ponce.
Although La Ruta
Panoramica connects both coasts, it is not a highway but a 165-mile
collection of about 40 haphazardly marked roads that traverse the
island on a tortuous path along Puerto Ricos geological backbone,
the expansive midisland stretch of mountains known as the
Even by Caribbean
standards, La Ruta Panoramica is not a typical Sunday drive. As
visually stunning as the trip is, the route can be
The roads are
barely the width of a single lane in many places, occasionally with
precipitous drops on either side. While there are spots to pull off
to shoot a picture or take in the views, the roads seldom have
school bus or panel truck coming straight on often requires
edge-of-the-seat driving, even at low speeds.
natives ride horses, bareback and at a lively gait, from house to
house or between villages. Although the horses are inured to
vehicular traffic and not easily spooked, and the skilled riders
are intimately familiar with the vagaries of the roads, both
represent another hazard along a route guaranteed to raise blood
these roads, along with dogs, chickens, goats and the occasional
cow. En route to churches, stores or
schools, villagers often stop to socialize, and it is not unusual
to round a curve to find a small group in the road, talking and
Despite all the
warnings regarding this journey, the experience is worth it. In the
decade that my wife and I have explored the island, many of our
most memorable moments have grown out of mundane interactions with
villagers and townspeople.
simple as ordering food or drinks at a roadside eatery or bar,
finding a bathroom or filling the gas tank can lead to good-natured
bantering, clumsy group translating and lots of gesturing,
pointing, grinning and laughing.
And weve learned
a few tips for getting the most enjoyment from this
The first is not
to hurry. La Ruta Panoramica, like much of the islands culture,
celebrates romance and defies deadlines. Getting lost is both
inevitable and desirable, and it should be anticipated, enjoyed and
woven into the fabric of the experience.
Second, rent a
small to midsize car. Full-size vehicles might promise more
comfort, but the roads were not built to accommodate them. A ragtop
Jeep or other convertible is fun but not practical.
This is a
mountainous rainforest route with a high likelihood of
precipitation somewhere along the journey. Stick with a
Bring a jacket
and pants. The weather is much cooler in the mountains and can
become downright chilly as the sun sets.
drive is not for everyone. We have twice attempted the trip with
people who were mildly prone to car sickness. In one case, simply
moving our passenger to the front seat did the trick, but in the
other case, we were forced to turn back.
navigation through endless curves, mountains, valleys and canyons
can make even a hardened traveler queasy a time or two.
We have always
started the trip on Highway 105 in Mayaguez on the west coast.
Although highway is something of a misnomer and most sections are
the width of narrow country roads, the surfaces are paved and
The climb begins
near the coast and within 15 miles of Mayaguez, the altitude is
1,000 feet above sea level, heading toward Puerto Ricos highest
point, Cerro del Punta, at 4,389 feet.
From San Juan,
drivers would take Highway 52 south to Caguas and pick up Highway
30, heading southeast to Humacao. From there, Highway 53 leads to
Yabucoa on the east coast, where it intersects the Panoramic
suggestion is to go west from San Juan on Highway 22 to Arecibo,
and pick up Highway 2 west and south to Mayaguez.
through the middle of the island is not advisable. Puerto Rican
road maps enter the realm of fantasy once the roads leave the
coast. Those that appear to cross rivers come to an abrupt stop at
the waters edge, with no sign that a bridge ever
confusing and at times indecipherable. Multiple roads share the
same highway numbers and signs but are given
different names on maps.
The full trip
will take at least two days, or three at a leisurely pace, with
stopovers in Adjuntas and Aibonito in the islands center. Arriving
at Adjuntas in early evening has the added bonus of a spectacular
sunset over Lake Garzas.
If time is short,
travelers can sample the experience in a single day by leaving San
Juan in the morning, heading east to Caguas and returning north on
Highway 52 to San Juan in the late afternoon.
We have done the
western portion this way, as well, but it is much longer and calls
for an early departure and a long day of hard driving.
It also requires
finishing the mountain portion of the drive in the dark, which I do
However you start
and wherever you end, the memories of Puerto Ricos La Ruta
Panoramica will be savored long after resort and beach vacations
morph into anonymity.
editor Rob Fixmer, send e-mail to [email protected].
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