Hiking & Bird-Watching in Guanica State Forest
Heading directly west from Ponce, along Rte. 2, you reach Guánica State Forest (tel. 787/821-5706), a setting that evokes Arizona or New Mexico. Here you will find the best-preserved subtropical ecosystem on the planet. UNESCO has named Guánica a World Biosphere Reserve. Some 750 plants and tree species grow in the area.
The Cordillera Central cuts off the rain coming in from the heavily showered northeast, making this a dry region of cacti and bedrock, a perfect film location for old-fashioned western movies. It’s also ideal country for birders. Some 50 percent of all of the island’s terrestrial bird species can be seen in this dry and dusty forest. You might even spot the Puerto Rican emerald-breasted hummingbird. A number of migratory birds often stop here. The most serious ornithologists seek out the Puerto Rican nightjar, a local bird that was believed to be extinct. Now it’s estimated that there are nearly a thousand of them.
To reach the forest, take Rte. 334 northeast of Guánica, to the heart of the forest. There’s a ranger station here that will give you information about hiking trails. The booklet provided by the ranger station outlines 36 miles (58km) of trails through the four forest types. The most interesting is the mile-long (1.6km) Cueva Trail, which gives you the most scenic look at the various types of vegetation. You might even encounter the endangered bufo lemur toad, once declared extinct but found, thankfully, still jumping in this area.
Scuba Diving, Snorkeling & Other Outdoor PursuitsThe best dive operation in Guánica is Island Scuba (tel. 787/309-6556), the closest to famed southwest diving sites like The Wall, a 22-mile-long undersea formation, cut with crevices and canyons that is a diver’s delight. Many of the sites, rife with coral, schools of tropical fish and big game fish, lie within 2 miles of the outfitter, which is on the water in Playa Santa. There are some 40 dive sites along the Wall, including The Canyons, The Parthenon and The Trench. Run by a husband and wife team whose enthusiasm for diving is infectious, there are trips every day. The warm blue water make this a perfect spot to try the sport, and beginners will see rainbow corral gardens and tropical fish glittering all around, and probably a slumbering nurse sharks and barracuda as well. But the quantity and quality of area dive sites make this a winner with diving aficionados as well. A two-tank dive costs $100, plus $20 for full diving equipment, including snacks and drinks, and a beginner’s discovery course is $150 Full PADI diving courses and a scuba course.
At one of the local beaches, Playa Santa, west of town, Pino’s Boat & Water Fun (tel. 787/821-6864 or 484-8083) will meet all your water sports needs and make sure you have tons of fun in the process. They rent paddleboats, kayaks, and standup paddle boards at prices ranging from $15 to $25 an hour. A banana-boat ride costs $8 per person, while water scooters cost $60 per person for an hour. It operates from a beach shack that has beach chairs and umbrellas and sells beach supplies.
One of the most visited sites in the area is Gilligan’s Island, one of a number of mangrove and sand cays near the Caña Gorda peninsula. Part of the dry forest reserve, it is set aside for recreational use. A small ferry departs from in front of Restaurant San Jacinto (tel. 787/821-4941), just past Copamarina Beach Resort, periodically from 10am to 5pm, weather permitting; round-trips cost under $8 per person. Alternately, you can rent kayaks and paddle boards from Mary Lee’s guesthouse and a few other spots in the San Jacinto sector. Ballena Beach is farther down Rte. 333, in the coastal border of the Dry Forest. This is a beautiful beach, with huge palm trees and golden sand. During winter storms, surfers flock here for rare, tubular waves.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.