Rincón & West Coast
West is best – at least as far as those quintessential snapshots of Puerto Rico go. Here the azure ocean assumes a visceral palpability because this is the place to get in it: paddling to catch a ride on one perfect wave after another, or swimming off sandy strands that regularly grace 'world's best beach' lists.
El Yunque & East Coast
The east coast is Puerto Rico shrink-wrapped; a tantalizing taste of almost everything the island has to offer squeezed into an area you can drive across in a couple of hours. Sodden rainforest teems with noisy wildlife and jungle waterfalls at El Yunque National Forest, the Commonwealth’s tropical gem.
Measuring 21 miles long by 5 miles wide, Vieques is substantially bigger than Culebra and distinctly different in ambience. Though still a million metaphorical miles from the bright lights of the Puerto Rican mainland, the larger population here has meant more choice of accommodations, swankier restaurants and generally more buzz.
Veering from a manicured coast of plush golf resorts and posh surf spots, this region rears up into the less-visited vine-tangled crags of karst country, where landscapes seem positively prehistoric with yawning cave systems, mogotes (vegetated, steep-sided hillocks) and undulating spreads of forest.
Long feted for its diamond-dust beaches and world-class diving reefs, sleepy Culebra is probably more famous for what it hasn’t got than for what it actually possesses. There are no big hotels here, no golf courses, no casinos, no fast-food chains, no rush-hour traffic and, best of all, no stress.
You’ll know you’ve arrived in Rincón – ‘the corner’ – when you pass the sun-grizzled gringos cruising west in their rusty 1972 Volkswagen Beetle with surfboards piled on the roof. Shoehorned in the island’s most remote corner, Rincón is Puerto Rico at its most unguarded, a place where the sunsets shimmer scarlet and you’re more likely to be called ‘dude’ than ‘sir.
Ponce es Ponce (Ponce is Ponce), runs a simple yet telling Puerto Rican saying: the explanation given as to why the nation's haughty second city does things, well, uniquely – and in defiance of the capital. Native son and author Abelardo Díaz Alfaro went further, calling Ponce a baluarte irreductible de puertorriqueñidad – a bastion of the irreducible essence of Puerto Rico.
Those who explore these winding roads gain a dramatically different perspective on the island and chances to commune with Puerto Rico’s old soul. Best approached with a flexible agenda, this is a place of Taíno legends and sugarcane moonshine, muddy hillside towns and misty afternoons.
Fajardo & Around
Fajardo sprawls like a scruffy suburb between the foothills of El Yunque and the sea. It has many personalities: downbeat ferry port for Vieques and Culebra, upscale yacht harbor, nature preserve and beautiful beach escape. Fajardo also reigns as one of Puerto Rico’s biggest water-activity centers.
El Yunque National Forest is one of Puerto Rico’s crown jewels. It boasts nearly 29,000 acres of lush mountainous terrain, with waterfalls dotting the landscape, rushing rivers and gurgling brooks, bromeliads clinging to towering trees, and bamboo groves opening to spectacular ocean views.
La Parguera is a strange place. Here is a seaside tourist town with no appealing coastline, a town that invested millions on a smart new seaside malecón but still appears deserted, a town that hauls in visitors to witness its bioluminescent bay, and in ferrying them to see it, is slowly degrading its main attraction through motorboat-oil pollution.
Occupying a small sliver of land wedged between Hwy 2 and the sea, Aguadilla is a ho-hum coastal city of surprising contradictions. Its world-class surf scene stands in vibrant contrast to its bland sprawl of Eisenhower-era tract housing and the nearby graying campus of a retired US Air Force base known as the Ramey Base.