advertisement

"The Panoramic Route" -- called La Ruta Panorámica by Puerto Ricans -- winds its way through the Central Mountains in the heart of the island for some 100 miles (161km). This is the most scenic drive in the Caribbean. The mountains are the home of the jíbaro, the country farmer whose way of life is fast disappearing in modern Puerto Rico. The agricultural life and ways of the jíbaro, which have inspired some of the most important works of literature and a whole genre of country music, still live on in the central mountain towns, however, and this route is the most comprehensive way of seeing them. Expect winding, twisting roads, and don't forget to blow your horn as you turn blind curves. After rainstorms, there are frequent washouts. Although locals speed by you as if in a race car, it's advisable for newcomers to go no more than 25 mph (40kmph). In spite of some difficulties, it's worth the effort to cross through the Cordillera Central's dramatic peaks and valleys. The Cordillera mountains rise more than 4,000 feet (1,219m) in some places. You'll pass by Cerro de Punta, which at 4,389 feet (1,338m) is the highest in Puerto Rico. These mountains have helped define Puerto Rico. Start: Drive from San Juan.

Day 1: From Carite Forest to Jayuya

Leave San Juan early in the morning for the drive south, taking Highway 52 to exit 32, which will take you to Rte. 184, also heading south. Stay on 184 as it cuts right through the most scenic parts of the Carite Forest Reserve. Roadside grills tempt with the succulent lechón (roasted pig) sold at the area's famous lechoneras. Sanjuaneros flock here on weekends to enjoy the cool mountain breezes, the grills, and even dance halls that line 184. There are also cool swimming holes throughout the forest and recreation areas. For more information, refer to Carite Forest Reserve.

Highway 184 leads into Rte. 179, which you can follow out of the forest reserve (signposts lead to Lago Carite, the largest lake in the forest). To continue west along the route, follow the signs northwest to the town of Cayey, one of the larger towns in Puerto Rico's central mountains.

Once at Cayey, follow Rte. 1 south to Rte. 7722. On Rte. 7722, turn right onto Rte. 722 which leads directly into Aibonito, at 2,500 feet the highest town in Puerto Rico, and one of the prettiest.

Before town is the Mirador Piedra Degetau, an observation tower with a picnic area from which you can see both the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Caribbean Sea to the south, not to mention the vast expanses of Puerto Rico visible to the west and east.

You'll feel you've wandered back in time upon arriving in Aibonito, a former vacation retreat for the wealthy, which is still marked by their majestic homes, as well as coffee plantations. The town is known as a flower growing center of the island, and has an annual flower festival that is always worth a visit, since there is plenty of local food, live music, and other entertainment.

Beyond Aibonito, the Panoramic Route traverses the spine of the Cordillera Central for the next 30 miles, offering awe-inspiring vistas along the way. You'll pass the Cañon de San Cristóbal, a canyon that cuts 700 feet (213m) through the mountain chain, offering waterfalls and steep cliffs. Three rivers surge through its ravines. The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico has purchased surrounding lands to protect this natural wonder and is working on establishing interpretive trails and an observation center. At its present level of development, we recommend it only for experienced hikers.

Beyond the canyon, the route continues towards Toro Negro Forest Reserve, a lush cloud forest, and Lake Guineo, the highest lake in Puerto Rico. The forest is also home to Cerro de Punta, at 4,390 feet high, Puerto Rico's highest peak. Stop inside the forest at the Recreativa Doña Juana, a picnic area beside a swimming pool fed by mountain streams. The restaurant here serves good Puerto Rican barbecue. The nearby Visitor Center, at Rte. 143, Km 32.4 (tel. 787/867-3040), offers you a trail map; it's open daily from 8am to 4pm. There are no supplies in the park, so bring mosquito repellent and bottled water.

At the eastern side of the forest is the famous Doña Juana Waterfall (Rte. 149, Km 41.5), cascading 120 feet (37m) over a rock-strewn cliff.

Head for the remote mountain town of Jayuya, surrounded by big green mountains, to the country inn Parador Hacienda Gripiñas. From Rte. 143 cut north along Rte. 149, and then turn west at the junction of Rte. 144 signposted into Jayuya. The inn is a wonderful place to relax and cool off from the Caribbean heat. The town is also a great place to explore the island's Taíno past. Make sure to visit La Piedra Escrita (the Written Rock), a huge boulder beside a stream with Taíno petroglyphs carved into it, and the Cemi Museum (Rte. 149, Km 9.3), which has a nice collection of Taíno jewelry and artifacts.

Day 2: Utuado, Adjuntas & Maricao

Leave Jayuya in the morning, cutting south on Rte. 44, then northwest along Rte. 140 (which becomes Rte. 111), following the signs into the town of Utuado, site of another well-known parador, Casa Grande Mountain Retreat, which is another option for a stopover.

With its Spanish-styled central plaza, Utuado still reflects its colonial roots, but it is also one of the spots in Puerto Rico that most embraces its Taíno past. Most visitors arrive here to explore the Indian Ceremonial Park at Caguaña, a 1,000 year old Taíno site that was used for recreation and worship. There are ancient bateyes (ball courts) and stoned monoliths covered with petroglyphs. This is the largest site of Taíno ruins in Puerto Rico.

You can easily wander around for an hour or two before heading on towards Adjuntas, the heart of coffee country, which you get to by taking Rte. 10 south. Adjuntas is known as "the town of the sleeping giant" because of its silhouette created by the enveloping mountains. In addition to coffee, it is also an important producer of oranges.

Also worth a visit is Lago Dos Bocas, a beautiful lake surrounded by forest. Free ferries ply the lake and you can take a ride to one of the rustic cafes along the shore. The lake is stocked, so it's a nice spot to fish as well.

There is a tangle of roads leading here through the mountains to Maricao, a beautiful mountain town of huge coffee plantations, and the last stop along the route. Travel along Rte. 129 to Rte. 111, then continue along Rte. 128 until Rte. 431. From there, it's on to Rte. 4431, Rte. 124, and finally Rte. 120 into town. This winding road changes its number so many times, you'll lose track; follow the signposts to Maricao and not the route numbers, and you won't go wrong.

Maricao's Monte del Estado Forest, is the largest state forest on the island, and you can spend all day exploring it. The coffee-producing town is the smallest municipality in Puerto Rico. It lies at the far western end of Ruta Panorámica, and is an idyllic retreat for exploring, as it's surrounded by mountain gorges, old bridges, terraced houses, rushing streams of cold water, and enough switchback roads to challenge the most skilled of alpine drivers.

The forest has swimming pools fed by mountain streams, a picnic area and campground with cabins for rent. It's a perfect spot to have lunch here surrounded by mountain peaks. On hot days, the forest pools, fed by mountain streams, are particularly refreshing. Locals will do their own cooking on site, but you can also bring food from any restaurant in town, such as El Buen Café (tel. 787/838-4198), right on the main plaza, which serves up cheap and flavorful sandwiches and plates of comida criolla, local island dishes.

There is a Visitor Center at Rte. 120, Km 16.2 (tel. 787/873-5632), which will provide maps of the forest and even hook you up with a private guide if you want to do more extensive exploring. Hours are Daily 8am to 4pm. If you climb Torre de Piedra, a stone observation tower, you can take in a panoramic sweep of the entire western half of Puerto Rico. It is open daily from 8am to 4pm (free admission).

The best place for overnighting in the area is Parador Hacienda Juanita, a converted, 160-year-old former coffee plantation lodge in a beautiful setting. There's a wonderful restaurant on site, and meals are served in a dining room and on a back porch overlooking a lush forest. Another option is to barrel on west down to Mayagüez, and then go on to the beach towns to the northwest or to the southwest. It's a 2-hour drive from Mayagüez to San Juan, a distance of 98 miles (158km) up the west coast and across the north coast.

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.