The west is also a good area to head up into the mountains, and Maricao, west of Mayagüez, is one of the prettiest of Puerto Rico's mountain towns. You can reach Maricao from Mayagüez, but you'll have to take a number of routes heading east. First take Rte. 106 east to Rte. 119. Turn right onto Rte. 119. Take this until the community of Las Vegas, then turn left on Rte. 357 toward Maricao, which you will reach when you intersect with Rte. 105. The scenery is beautiful, but the roads are narrow and the going is slow. It's quicker to head south along Hwy. 2 to Sabana Grande, and then take Hwy. 120 directly to Maricao.
One of the nicest spots is the Monte del Estado National Park (Rte. 120, Km 13.2; tel. 787/873-5632), a picnic area and campground in the Maricao Forest, with wonderful pools fed by mountain streams. The stone observation tower, at 2,600 feet (792m) above sea level, provides a panoramic view across the green mountains up to the coastal plains, and you can see clear out to Mona Island. Nearly 50 species of birds live in this forest, including the Lesser Antillean pewee and the scaly naped pigeon. Nature watchers will delight to know that there are some 280 tree species in this reserve, 38 of which are found only here. The area has about 18 rivers and creeks running through the forest.
Marcaio is coffee country, and there are several plantations and historic plantation houses in the town. Parador Hacienda Juanita is a beautiful inn and restaurant in a restored former coffee plantation house that was built in 1836.
Nearby is Lares, which has a lovely central plaza with shady trees and scattered tropical gardens. The plaza, La Plaza de la Revolucíon, is named after one of the few nationalist uprisings in Puerto Rican history. In 1863, El Grito de Lares ("The Cry of Lares") took place when hundreds of Puerto Rican patriots seized the town from the Spanish on September 28, 1868. While a republic of Puerto Rico was declared, the Spanish quickly resumed control. Today, thousands of independence supporters come here to commemorate the event each year on its September 28 anniversary. Surrounded by mountains and green valleys, it is one of the island's prettiest towns, though it lacks hotels and attractions for tourists.
From Isabela, you can visit Lago de Guajataca and the Guajataca Forest Reserve, which are located in the mountains south of town.
Before heading into Bosque Estatal de Guajataca (Guajataca Forest), you can stop in at the Dept. de Recursos Naturales Oficina, Rte. 446, Km 9, Barrio Llanadas (tel. 787/872-1045 or 787/999-2000), which is open daily 7am to 3:30pm. The office has a stock of detailed hiking routes through the forest reserve. Guajataca Forest sprawls across nearly 2,400 acres (971 hectares) of forestland, rising and falling at various elevations, ranging from 500 to 1,000 feet (152-305m) or more. The woodland in the forest is punctuated by mogotes (tropical cone and tower karsts) and covered with 25 miles (40km) of hiking trails. It is also home to the endangered Puerto Rico boa (you are unlikely to encounter one) and is the habitat of nearly 50 different species of birds. The highlight of the forest is the Cueva del Viento, the "Cave of the Wind." The hiking trails have been well marked by park rangers.
Reaching the lake from the forest can be difficult. Take Rte. 446 south until you reach Rte. 119. The Lago de Guajatac, one of the most majestic bodies of water on Puerto Rico, is our favorite lake for some R&R on the island. It is both a 4-mile-long (6.4km) body of water and a wildlife refuge. For a scenic look at the lake, drive along its north shore which is a haven for island freshwater anglers. You can go fishing here, but you have to bring your own equipment. The most sought-after fish is tucunare, with which the lake is stocked. At the dam here, you can gaze upon an evocative "lost valley" of conical peaks.