The Southern Route to The Mountains

A much easier way to the central mountains from San Juan, however, is to head south along the Luis A. Ferré Expressway, Highway 52, to Cayey and even farther up to Aibonito. You can take an afternoon drive and have dinner as the sun sets in the mountains; from some vantage points, the view goes all the way to the coast.

In fact, this path is well worn by sanjuaneros heading south with mountain air and food on their mind. Their first stop is usually Guavate. Take the exit for Route 184, which winds through rolling farmland and farther up along a mountain stream flowing through the lush Carite State Forest. In addition to the eateries, the sector is famous for local arts and crafts and plants and flowers that are sold from stands along the roadway. While the area began gaining fame years ago for a cluster of restaurants outside the natural reserve's main entrance, the string of lechoneras has now extended along the entire route from the Expressway. Indeed, Los Amigos, at the Expressway exit, is for those who want to dive in to the genuine experience, and make a quick escape. (On Sunday afternoons, especially around Christmas season, traffic is often clogged along the country road.) It has among the best food we've had here, and though utterly unscenic (like a restaurant converted from a gas station) it draws a lively crowd from early on. A merengue band was getting the party started right when we last stopped in around 2pm on a Sunday, when patrons were already burning up the dance floor in between the cafeteria and the food stands in front of the open-air fire pits where whole pigs, chickens, and turkeys were being slowly roasted Puerto Rican style.

The best restaurants, however, have a certain rustic charm in addition to their utilitarian nature. Some look like wooden tropical chalets with blooming flowers, while others are set in front of a stream gushing through a lush mountainside. Our favorites include La Casa del Guanime (Rte. 184 Km 27.8; tel. 787/744-3921), El Rancho Original (Rte. 184 Km 27.5; tel. 787/747-7296), Los Pinos (Rte. 184 Km 27.7; tel. 787/286-1917), and El Mojito (Rte. 184 Km 32.9 tel. 787/738-8888). The truth is, however, that we have been rarely disappointed in any of the restaurants we visited.

Most have live music on weekend afternoons, so whether your taste runs from salsa to merengue to local jíbaro country music or to something more contemporary may play a big role in your choice. Also, the road carves through a lush forest and a string of restaurants along its right-hand side is set in front of the mountain stream; several have dining rooms overlooking the stream and in the quieter ones its gurgling is the only music you'll hear.

The atmosphere is important, but the main thing about Guavate is the food: roast pork and chicken, fried rice and pigeon peas, boiled root vegetables soaked in oil and spices, blood sausage. This is traditional Puerto Rican mountain food, but the level of the cooking keeps getting better every time we return. The roast turkey (yes, they keep it juicy) is a healthy alternative to the pig; it has recently been showing up escabeche style, drenched in olive oil, garlic and onions, roasted peppers and herbs -- absolutely delicious.

Just south of Guavaté is the northern entrance to the Carite Forest Reserve, a 6,000-acre (2,428-hectare) reserve that spreads from Cayey to neighboring Caguas and San Lorenzo, and all the way down to Patillas and Guayama on the south coast. The forest ranges from heights of 820 to 2,963 feet (250m-903m) above sea level, and from several peaks you can see clear down to the south coast and Ponce. The forest, with frequent rain and high humidity, is covered with Caribbean pine and has several ponds and streams. Some of the forest's most interesting sites are near the northern entrance by Guavate. On one peak is Nuestra Madre, a Catholic spiritual meditation center that permits visitors to stroll the grounds. The large natural pond, called Charco Azul, is a favorite spot for a swim. It is surrounded by a picnic area and campground. There are over 50 species of birds in the forest.

Guavate is just the start of Cayey, which is a beautiful town through which to take a drive. Another mountain road with fine restaurants is found in its Jájome sector. All of these are open Thursday through Sunday for lunch and dinner. This is probably a better choice for visitors wanting a more refined dining experience than the raucous pig roast that is Guavaté. To get here, take the main exit to Cayey, turn left on Route 1, and then exit on to Route 15 on the left and follow signs to the community. From some spots you can see all the way down to the south coast. Two of these are the Jájome Terrace (Rte. 15 Km 18.6, Cayey; tel. 787/738-4016) and the Sand and the Sea Inn (Rte. 715, Cayey; tel. 787/738-9086).

Farther up into the mountains is Aibonito, a pretty town overlooking the island's gorgeous green valleys. From Route 15, take the exit to Route 14 and follow signs for Aibonito. A good time to visit is during the annual Fiesta de las Flores at the end of June and beginning of July, a festival stretching across two weeks where local growers present some of the most beautiful flowers grown on the island, including locally grown orchids. There are various gardening seminars and official shows, but the event is much more than flowers. Like most Puerto Rican parties, count on a lot of great food and live music too. This mountain town, with its cool, crisp air, is worth a trip any time of the year, however. La Piedra Restaurant (Rte. 7718 Km 0.8; tel. 787/735-1034) has been luring diners from San Juan for decades with its gourmet, inventive local cuisine using locally grown ingredients. It has one of the best views around. Other local favorites are El Rincón Familiar (Rte. 14 Km 48.8; tel. 787/735-7425) and Tío Pepe Restaurant (Rte. 723 Km 0.3; tel. 787/735-9615).

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.