Visiting the Northeast Ecological Corridor
Welcome to Puerto Rico, "The Island of Enchantment"
Now that you've learned about the Northeast Ecological Corridor and our efforts to protect it as a nature reserve and a prime eco-tourism destination we'd like to introduce you to the second part of our concept. The Carribean National Forest or as it's locally known, El Yunque, is the only Tropical Rainforest in the United States Forest Service System, and it's the second most visited site in Puerto Rico (after Old San Juan). Not only that but the island of Vieques, now that the US Navy has left the island as a result of a long fight with locals, is largely protected.
We believe that Northeastern Puerto Rico should be a prime destination for eco-tourism. We'd call it La Porta a la Naturaleza. Now it's time to plan your visit.
The following is an eco-tourist's guide to the northeastern part of Puerto Rico. Not only will you see some of the island's shining environmental jewels but you'll also get to know the people, the culture and some of its environmental struggles, as well.
Arriving in Puerto Rico
While approaching the landing strip of Puerto Rico's Luis Munoz Marin airport, one can't help but notice the urban sprawl surrounding the capitol of San Juan. Puerto Rico is in a battle for its encanto, or enchantment, as the cement slowly takes over. But don't despair, you will soon enter the green zone! We'll take you east out of town along the coast, through Piñones, Loíza, Río Grande, El Yunque, Luquillo, Fajardo, Ceiba, Humacao, on to Puerto Rico's smaller islands, Vieques and Culebra.
There is a city bus (the C-45) that runs from the airport to Loíza along the northern coast. From Loíza, you would have to use the system of públicos, or private vans, to continue further out of the metropolitan area.
Renting a car makes getting around easier and if you check on line for the various car rental companies that allow you to drop your car in Fajardo (your final destination on the mainland of Puerto Rico) you will be free to take off by ferry or small aircraft for one of its smaller islands, Vieques or Culebra. You'll be able to pick the car up again on your way out.
To avoid the less attractive inland highways (Highway #3 or #66) take Road 187 (just north of the airport) towards Piñones/Loíza. This will take you along some of Puerto Rico's wild coastline, starting with a recently constructed bike trail. Piñones boasts Puerto Rico's largest mangrove forest, much of which is currently threatened by what would be the largest hotel in all of Puerto Rico, a residential-tourism development called Costa Serena.
Piñones is also home to an ancestral community that represents the richness of Puerto Rico's Afro-Caribbean heritage. This cultural heritage is present in the exquisite fritters sold in traditional kiosks along the road, in the famous coconut masks and other colorful crafts, and in the rhythms and percussion of the bomba music, born in this region.
Hike or rent a bike and enjoy the path set aside for this. This path includes two viewing towers for a bird's-eye view of the coastal area and stretches through the mangrove forest that used to continue, uninterrupted, across the northern coast of the island.
After driving past the entrance of Carolina´s Public Beach (called Balneario de Carolina) and crossing the bridge of Boca de Cangrejos, you will see to your immediate right a wooden structure next to the Torrecilla Lagoon. This structure was rescued by the community in 2001 and is currently home to the Piñones Cultural and Ecotourism Center. The community has celebrated numerous cultural activities in the Center and is currently in the process of jumpstarting various micro-enterprises to provide tourism services to visitors, such as bike rental, kayak rental, boat tours, hiking tours, cultural performances, crafts shop, etc.
Stop by to see a beautiful mosaic on the floor of the Center, designed by internationally known and Loíza native Samuel Lind, that provides an aerial view of Piñones and the bicycle trail. Most Saturdays and Sundays, the Center organizes bomba dancing and percussion lessons for community children as well as for visitors. Please call ahead for specific hours and schedules (787-253-9707).
As you continue your drive through Route 187, do not miss trying out some the local fritters, these are famous in all of Puerto Rico. Some recommendations include: Alcapurrias, Bacalaítos, Arepas, Arroz con Jueyes, etc. (ask around depending on your preference, meat or seafood). Combine it with a cold coconut juice directly from the coconut (coco frio). There are many stands across the road, the traditional kiosks owned by local residents are in El Terraplén, located just right after a sharp curve in Punta Maldonado (observation tower). There is a small protected beach just front of the kiosks, locally known as La Pocita.
If you prefer sitting doing in a restaurant, Soleil (787-253-1033) and Bamboobei (787-253-0938) are a couple of interesting restaurants to try.
Continue on through Route 187 and eventually you will see to your left one of Puerto Rico´s most beautiful beaches, Vacía Talega. Stop by for a swim.
The town of Loíza was settled in the 16th century and boasts a beautiful plaza, or town square, a recently renovated San Patricio Church (next to the town square) and a small cultural center where you can learn about this area's distinct history. Its famous patron saint festival takes place during July and is known for it's striking masks and local music.
To enter directly into the plaza, turn left just after the first traffic light after you cross the large bridge over the Loíza River (Rio Grande de Loíza). Continue on through Route 187 and you will cross various community sectors, Mediania, Tocones, Vieques. Ask around for Taller Los Ayalas or Taller de Samuel Lind if you would like to see some beautiful crafts and paintings, respectively. Route 187 cuts through Loíza and crosses over to Rio Grande until you meet with Highway #3.
The drive between Herrera Bridge (Puente Herrera) to the highway is panoramic with trees on both sides of the road forming a natural tunnel and you can see El Yunque at a distance.
The next town east is Río Grande, the town that claims the name City of El Yunque, since the main entrance to the Caribbean National Forest is found in its Barrio Palmer.
There is a lovely, old, massive ceiba tree in the centre of the town of Rio Grande. It is 2 blocks away from the plaza, straight ahead on the far side of the plaza with the, "alcadia", or town hall, on your left. The ceiba is considered to be a sacred tree by the locals.
On the turn off from Route 3 for the Westin Rio Mar is a good, "colmado", a convenience store, named Colmado Rodriguez. It lacks frills but is totally local and the owner, Tony, is fully bilingual and very approachable. Friday nights they have live music and you can enjoy a cold drink and people watch.
From Richie's Bar & Restaurant enjoy a fantastic view of the northeast coast. Take the turn off towards the Westin Rio Mar (there's a sign) and pass the entrance to the Westin continuing a few minutes further on, on the right. If you get there just before sunset to watch the light fade. Antojitos is another good option. It's on the right just after making the left turn toward the Westin
The Caribbean National Forest, also known as El Yunque, is the only tropical rainforest in all of the United States. Sadly, in the last 10 years, 80% of the proposed construction projects in the periphery of the forest have been approved by the local planning board. This had occurred even though the original zoning tried to protect the area. The island's government is currently working to prepare a new land use plan while construction continues unabated.
A great place to swim is in the river in El Verde. From Rt. 3, drive up Rt.186, to a, "backdoor", of the Caribbean National Forest. Go over one river, the Rio Grande, and stop just after the bridge at the second river, the Rio Espiritu Santo. A short scramble over big boulders on the upper side will get you to a fantastic swim hole, completely hidden from the road. Once you're used to the cool temperature, you can swim under a rock and climb up a waterfall that is slightly visible form the road.
The turn off for the main entrance to El Yunque will take you through a strangely residential area before heading uphill into the forest. Keep your eye out for signs for the Forest and for Route 191.
There are lots of hikes to choose from. A great choice is the trail going up to Los Picachos from the Palo Colorado Visitor's Center. It takes about 3 hours round trip and also includes a good observation tower at Mt Britton.
For another "back door" option take Rt. 988 (near el Portal Tropical Forest Center) over a bridge and past a large dumpster, to the Angelito trail head. The 20 minute hike will lead you to a large swimming whole with a rope for jumping it. See Luquillo section if you'd like to continue down Rt. 988.
Try the Rainforest Inn for small scale lodging. Owners Bill and Laurie are a delight and resident interns will take guests on a guided hike to a private water fall for a small fee. Three night minimum. Call (800)749-2955 or (800)672-4992.
This small beach front town is home to 19,000 people. The hope is that once we protect the Northeast Ecological Corridor that Luquillo will be the portal for the park. The goods and services offered to tourists can be provided by the area residents and should help to stimulate the local economy. To see the NE Ecological Corridor ask for "La Pared" the surfing beach right in town. Look to your right. There's the Corridor. Let's protect it!
If you are coming to Luquillo after visiting El Yunque you may enter Luquillo through another, "back door", of the rain forest in Sabana. From near El Portal Tropical Forest Center, take Rt. 988 and consider stopping at another favorite local swimming hole, Angelito.
Continuing further down Rt. 988, past a work station and over a small bridge, turn left on Rt. 983 to head down towards town. At Km. 5.9, in Sabana, is the little-known gem Museo de Antiguedades La Familia, or the Family Antique Museum (787-889-5368). This is a quirky collection of antiques and junk that you can peruse for a small entry fee.
If you are entering Luquillo, traveling west on Rt. 3, a good place to look for adventure is Hacienda Carabali (787-889-4954) where one can rent horses or mountain-bike.
After a hard day on the trail those carnivores among us might enjoy the chicharones
de conejo, or fried rabbit chunks, offered at El Rancho Bar and Restaurant (787-889-4461). Sometimes live music is offered here on weekends.
In Barrio Fortuna, on the Atlantic, is Hotel Yunque Mar (787-889-5555). This recently opened, small hotel offers an alternative to the larger resort hotels like the ones proposed to be built in what we would like to see become the, "Northeast Ecological Corridor", a nature reserve.
Continuing east you will find the famed kioskos, a line of sixty small, colorful establishments that serve an assortment of local food and drink. On weekends, there is often music and dancing.
Next is the famous balneario, or Luquillo Public Beach, which many consider to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Here one can camp or just spend the day. Wheelchair access to the water is provided and the water is always calm as the area is protected by a reef. Depending on the underwater visibility this reef can offer good snorkeling.
In the town of Luquillo proper there a couple of other beaches if you prefer a little more
wave action, like La Pared, where surfers often catch waves. Two surf shops in town, the long established La Selva Surf Shop (787-889-6205) and Boardriders Surf and Cafe (787-889-7793) provide clothing, board sales and rentals, surf lessons and apartment accommodations. Boardriders recently opened café where one can eat a meal or slurp a fresh-fruit smoothie right across the street from the beach.
On the town plaza of Luquillo The Sunflower Café (787-435-9740), serves up vegetarian lunches and occasionally hosts presentations of original poetry and music by local artists. Don't let the closed gate fool you…this just means that the proprietor, known to some as Vegeman, is probably in the kitchen concocting some delectable vegetarian dish. Just call out to gain entrance!
Another place to grab a bite is the long-established Cafeteria El Flamboyan located on a corner where you turn to go to Playa Azul beach. The Flamboyan is a good place for breakfast or lunch and they have multiple pool tables should the weather turn rainy.
The larger town of Fajardo began has long been fishing port and is now a center for sailing and boating of all kinds.
From Fajardo you can visit the Northeast Ecological Corridor. Make your way to the Seven Seas Public Beach or balneario. Parking costs $3. You'll enter the beach area itself and hike left down the beach to the very end where the vegetation and rocky beach area begin.
You'll see a small, slightly overgrown trail up to the left. Take that trail until it ends and turn right. Follow this trail until it ends at what's known as Playa el Convento. You can hike up the beach to the right and scramble up a rocky outcrop for an incredible view of the Corridor and/or hike right beyond the governor's beach house to the Corridor's best bathing beach.
Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve (787-860-2560) gives tours by reservation and includes a restored lighthouse and several different eco-systems to experience. Nearby is the bioluminescent bay which can be seen by kayak or hired boat. From the bay of Las Croabas day excursions are available to the string of beautiful cays offering great snorkeling.
In town, near the Interamerican University, are Williams Pizza (787-863-7775) a small, long-established, local pizza chain and Cremaldi Ice Cream (787-801-1770) where you can check out historic photographs of Fajardo while enjoying a homemade ice cream of local fruit flavors.
Spanish Virgin Islands
Vieques and Culebra are two of Puerto Rico's smaller island municipalities located 7 to 15 miles east of mainland PR. The climate is drier than on the main island and there are no rivers. Since there is little sediment pouring into the ocean, off both islands, they have more suitable environments to support corals, mangroves, semi-tropical dry forest and clear turquoise water with beautiful white sandy beaches.
Both islands have excellent turtle nesting sites, both have problems protecting the turtle eggs from natural predators and people. Both have bird rookeries. Vieques is the sight of a recent battle with the Navy, which for decades had done bombing exercises on the island. Several years ago the Navy left the island for good. Locals are waiting superfund clean up and are in a debate over how the remaining lands should be used and/or protected.
For those who get seasick and want quick air passage to the outlying islands of Vieques and Culebra head for the Fajardo Airport (787-860-43110) for a small plane out. A much more economical mode of transport would be a ferry from Playa de Fajardo in Puerta Real (Call the PR Ports Authority 787-863-3360 or 800-981-2005 for schedules and reservations and to possibly bring a car with you). There is no transportation off either island after dark and summer weekends are very crowded making it almost impossible to get on the ferry. Otherwise the islands are relatively quiet and you can always find an isolated gorgeous beach practically for yourself.
Recommended activities include bird watching, exploring in your jeep rental, snorkeling and scuba diving, kayaking, bicycling, horseback riding, hiking or running (in the early morning or late afternoon).
Isla Nena (Vieques)
Vieques is the larger island, 24 miles long by 5 miles wide with a population of approximately 10,000 people. Vieques also hosts one of the more densely populated bioluminescent bays of the world, which makes it one of the brightest bioluminescent bays, with comparatively little light pollution in the night sky. Easily visited with guided tours by kayak or pontoon boat after dark.
Vieques has not even one traffic light, horses run free and more than 2/3 of the island is a Nature Reserve ( US Fish & Wildlife). Vieques is ideal for snorkeling, hiking, bicycling, kayaking and other natural adventures.
Renting a jeep is the only way to see the whole island, but for a short stay you can walk to the beach if you stay in Esperanza.
Night life in Vieques is limited to a few bars, with a little music on occasion, but the restaurants are plentiful and excellent. Food ranges from local kiosks by the road and pizza parlors to gourmet restaurants with tapas menus, sushi nights and Caribbean Fusion delights.
There is camping on Vieques, with some facilities, at Sun Bay Public Beach (Balneario Sombe).
The locations for lodging in Vieques vary from the only real town, Isabel Segundo, to the small, south-side tourist community of, Esperanza, with many villas and inns in the countryside between the two coasts. There is one small resort on Vieques (called Martineau Bay Resort) and many small boutique hotels, countless guest houses and villas for rent.
The smaller island of Culebra includes a National Wildlife Refuge managed by the US Department of Fish and Wildlife. There's great bird and turtle watching opportunities and camping at Playa Flamenco.
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