North of Ponce, Toro Negro Forest Reserve  (tel. 787/867-3040) lies along the Cordillera Central, the cloud-shrouded, lush central mountain chain that spans Puerto Rico's spine from the southeast town of Yabucoa all the way to outside Mayagüez on the west coast. This 7,000-acre (2,833-hectare) park, ideal for hikers, straddles the highest peak of the Cordillera Central at the very heart of Puerto Rico, quite near the midway point between east and west coasts. A forest of lush trees, the reserve also contains the headwaters of several main rivers and lakes, and has several crashing waterfalls. The reserve lies at the borders of four mountain towns: Villalba, Jayuya, Adjuntas and Orocovis.

The lowest temperatures recorded on the island -- some 40°F (4°C) -- were measured at Lake Guineo, the island's highest lake, which lies within the reserve. The best trail to take here is a short, paved, and wickedly steep path on the north side of Rte. 143, going up to the south side of Cerro de Punta, which at 4,390 feet (1,338m) is the highest peak on Puerto Rico. Allow about half an hour for an ascent. Once at the top, you'll be rewarded with Puerto Rico's grandest view, sweeping across the lush interior from the Atlantic to the Caribbean coasts. Other mountains in the reserve also offer hiking possibilities. The reserve spans several distinct types, including a sierra palm forest, which in places forms a complete canopy from the sun, and a mountainous cloud forest, with dwarfed, but vibrantly green plants and trees.

The main entrance to the forest is at the Doña Juana recreational area, which has a swimming pool filled with cold water from the mountain streams, a picnic area, and a rustic campground. An adjacent restaurant serves up Puerto Rican barbecued chicken and pork and other local delicacies. Many hiking trails originate from this area. One of the best is a 2-mile (3.2km) trek to an observation post and the impressive 200-foot (61m) Doña Juana Falls.

Jayuya lies north of the reserve, but to access it, you must return east along Rte. 143 to Rte. 149, and take that north, farther into the central mountains to Rte. 144, which you'll take back west to access the town. This is a beautiful area, filled with old coffee estates and lush mountain forest. The local parador is a country inn built on the grounds of an old coffee plantation (Parador Hacienda Gripiñas), which is one of the best places to stay in Puerto Rico's interior. There's also a fine restaurant on the grounds. Built by a Spanish coffee baron more than 150 years ago, the restored plantation home is surrounded by gardens and coffee fields.

Jayuya is also known for the relics found here from Puerto Rico's Taíno past. Off Rte. 144 is La Piedra Escrita, the Written Rock, a huge boulder beside a stream, with Taíno petroglyphs carved into the stone. It's a wonderful picnic spot. Jayuya also hosts an annual Indigenous Festival in November, which combines native crafts with music and food. The Cemi Museum, Rte. 144 Km 9.3 (tel. 787/828-1241), in town has a collection of Taíno pottery and cemís, amulets sacred to the island's indigenous peoples. The adjacent Casa Museo Canales, Rte. 144 Km 9.4 (tel. 787/828-1241), is a restored 19th-century coffee plantation home with interesting exhibits. Both museums charge $1 for adults and 50¢ for children and are open from 9am to 3pm every day.