Into the heart of Puerto Rico

Into the heart of Puerto Rico

Utuado, a mountainous region in central Puerto Rico, is a thick and humid jungle. Our hosts described our next destination in southwest Puerto Rico as a “desert” as we loaded our luggage into the car. I was intrigued by the cloud formations around us and wondered if their definition of a Desert was the same as mine. To my delight and surprise, less than an hour into our drive, the dense trees gave place to cacti, and the landscape transformed into a series golden hills. This feeling of amazement was repeated over and over again as we explored the island’s diverse landscapes. Our goal was to explore Puerto Rico’s heart and discover its diverse 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. I was walking through Old San Juan the day we arrived and found a lightness in the sun, music, and rainbow of colored buildings. The cobbled streets make a great base for readjusting into a slower state of mind before you venture out. 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. Para la Naturaleza, a non-profit organization, is committed to protecting the site’s rich cultural and natural history.

The old estate house tells the story of slaves who worked the land and helped to build a lucrative sugar industry. We decided to take a walk across the sparkling landscape while we stood on the steps. We crossed the river to reach Playa Tombolo, which is a peninsula with half-moon coves either side. It is a wonder, with beaches stretching to the sides, in front, and behind you. Nesting seabirds flock just offshore to the rocks and the solidified sand dunes rise high 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 entrance, welcoming you into the sprawling jungle. The clouds are low and the air smells of 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 Tanama river for 20 years. Jorge led the way as we crossed a suspension bridge. Jorge, a guide who has worked on the Tanama river for 2021 years, was able to show us the landscape through his eyes. He knows where the wildlife lives, the oldest trees, and how it feels to rebuild hiking trails after flooding. Jorge told us to jump when we found ourselves on top of a rock overlooking a river below. It was a great way to increase our adrenaline and then relax on our inner tubes.

After breaking through the refreshing surface, I swam to my flotation device and entered the Portillo Cave. The river flows straight through the cave, while the rock walls rise above, lit only from the helmets that have headlamps. Bats hang on to the ceiling and fly in small groups. I lost all my sense of time in the eerie darkness. As I emerged into the bright sunlight, I was shocked to realize that it was late afternoon.

Drying off, Jorge inquired “Where’s next?” I described my excitement for Hacienda Verde Tahiti, the farm where we would be glamping for the night. We first saw Cabo Rojo’s desert-like views from this spot. “It’s much drier down there, you mightn’t believe it.” We arrived at the farm gate in less than two hours. Trees lined the driveway, while Pitahaya plants grew in long, straight rows on either side. Ingrid Radames, our hosts, welcomed us with a cup of local rum. Koko and Luna, their dogs, joined us for the short ride to our two story campsite.

Showing us the amenities, Radames explained, “Our intention at Verde Tahiti 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. To prepare for the terrifying adventure that would soon take me below those turbulent waters, I took a few deep breathes.

“How many sharks are you expecting to see?” Pedro, our divemaster thought for a moment before replying “About 5 or 6.” I was not prepared when I was surrounded by 9 Caribbean reef sharks. La Parguera is home to a number of beautiful cays that are located in the Caribbean Sea. They are all located in the southwest corner. Each one is a treasure trove of small treasures that are worth exploring. 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 over a decade. The sharks seem to know Pedro well and just a tap on his tank can bring them out of deeper waters. Two hour-long dives were made in the morning. One was surrounded by sharks and the other found an octopus and two large rays. We also discovered a variety of crustaceans. Divers use hand signals to identify the species that they have spotted. Pedro, on one hand, has a collection of tattoos that depict various sea creatures. He points to them before shining his flashlight onto the real thing. This is the epitome 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. I felt some kind of ecosystem whiplash as I drove from La Parguera to far east island. We passed through Ponce’s amazing architecture, which stretches from arid landscapes to lush forest, up a jagged coastline and finally into Fajardo, where palm trees were densely planted beside the steep roads. Hacienda Chocolat is up an unmarked road, adding to the allure of Yadira Vazquez’s legendary chocolate bars. Yadira began growing cacao in her backyard for a hobby. She now has 4,000 trees with 2,000 more in production. Yadira makes her own artisanal bars, which you can only buy while on the property. Her team harvests small batches and produces them. We arrived just in the right time to enjoy a whisky and chocolate tasting. Yadira introduces the first pairing. “My love for the plant was born from a past life, or something similar.” Yadira hopes to help Puerto Rico regain its star status as a producer of cacao.

She is well on her way, with Hacienda Chocolat receiving the silver Cocoa of Excellence award in 2021. We tried four whiskies and four different chocolates. The richness of these flavors was unparalleled. I had no idea that a truffle could come in so many different forms. Although Yadira admits that it is difficult, she is determined to integrate her cacao trees with the forest. They do not use pesticides or fertilizer, and try to plant the cacao in the existing landscape.

Our final stop was deeper into the forest Yadira is deeply in love with. We walked Mt. Britton in El Yunque National Forest. The first thing you will notice when you enter is how steeply the road climbs. After about a half hour, you can see the coast from a glance through the trees. 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 conclude our circumnavigation by taking a top-down look at the island’s unmatched diversity. I could see the rainforest slowly blend into the dry coastline with many cities resting in valleys. It is rare to travel through multiple countries on an island. Puerto Rico has something for everyone. There is no other place in Puerto Rico where you can think of a place where you don’t like the climate. All you have to do is drive an hour.

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