MAYAGUEZ, Puerto 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.

The island experience of the resort group is often confined to the view from a condo, timeshare or hotel room along with an adjacent casino or restaurant.

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 Juan.

For a unique experience, photo by Rob Fixmerits 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 coast.

The inland Panoramic Route winds up into mountains and through miles of sparsely inhabited rain forest.

Views of 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.

Everywhere are wild impatiens and hibiscus, and forests of giant bamboo as big around as a mans leg.

Peppering the rain forest are plantations where coffee, tobacco, banana and citrus trees climb the mountainsides in manicured rows. Oranges, grapefruit and avocados litter the roads.

Fog-wrapped 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 defying gravity.

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 Cordillera Central.

Even by Caribbean standards, La Ruta Panoramica is not a typical Sunday drive. As visually stunning as the trip is, the route can be heart-stopping.

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 shoulders.

Encountering a school bus or panel truck coming straight on often requires edge-of-the-seat driving, even at low speeds.

Also, many 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 pressure.

Pedestrians walk these roads, along with dogs, chickens, goats and the occasional cow. photo by Rob FixmerEn 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 laughing.

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.

Activities as 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 drive.

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 sedan.

Bring a jacket and pants. The weather is much cooler in the mountains and can become downright chilly as the sun sets.

Finally, this 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.

Constant 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 adequately maintained.

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 Route.

Another suggestion is to go west from San Juan on Highway 22 to Arecibo, and pick up Highway 2 west and south to Mayaguez.

Trying shortcuts 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 existed.

Signage is confusing and at times indecipherable. Multiple roads share the same highway photo by Rob Fixmernumbers 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 not recommend.

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.

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

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