VACATION IDEAS: ROAD TRIPS
A Road Trip Down Puerto Rico's La Ruta Panorámica
Puerto Rico's rugged 167-mile "scenic route" leads to waterfalls, coffee plantations—and a wild side of the island you won't find at just any old resort.
I'd already stopped to ask the old man for directions twice when he decided to take matters into his own hands. We were in the tiny Puerto Rican town of Castañer, where horses seemed to outnumber people, and I'd spent the past 15 minutes driving around in confused circles. Eventually the old señor took pity on me and climbed into his beat-up Toyota pickup to guide me. "Up there," he said in Spanish, smiling through missing teeth. And after that? He smiled again and angled his arm upward. Sube, sube, sube—climb, climb, climb.
Such is life on La Ruta Panorámica—literally, "the scenic route." The 167-mile byway is Puerto Rico's answer to Route 66: a capillary-like network of back roads spanning the island. Often only a single lane wide, with white-knuckle curves and the kind of minimal signage that makes getting lost a near certainty, it's not for travelers in a hurry. But for anyone with the time and inclination to wander a bit, the Ruta offers an irresistible window into the island's agrarian past.
This is the Puerto Rico you won't find at your classic coastal resort: wild horses trotting along the road, Cliffside barras selling $2 pork sandwiches and 93 cent cans of Medalla beer, nary a Starbucks in sight. To spend a few days puttering along the Ruta, winding from the coffee plantations of the central highlands to the sugarcane fields of the south, is to glimpse an older, quieter Puerto Rico—and all its beauty, frustrations, and charms.
Day 1: MAYAGÚEZ TO UTUADO
If you can fly into San Juan, you can access the Ruta at its eastern end, in nearby Maunabo, or you can fly into Rincón and begin, as I did, at its western terminus in Mayagúez. It was a bustling Tuesday, hot and full of traffic, but within 15 minutes I was high in the hills, where it was 10 degrees cooler and the only sound was the wind rustling trees. This was the start of the Cordillera Central. Topographically, Puerto Rico is shaped like a stegosaurus and the Cordillera is the plates running along its spine. The going is slow: Speed limits top out around 35 miles per hour, and the switchbacks require constant attention. You know how kids pretend to drive, yanking the steering wheel back and forth in a manner that bears little resemblance to actual driving? Well, that's the way you really do drive on the Ruta.
But going slow is part of the point, because the scenery is too gorgeous to miss: gold-green valleys towering tabonuco trees, bamboo trunks the size of football goalposts, crushed pink flowers carpeting the road like fine powder. Every turn held something stunning, all the way to Utuado, six hours away, where I finally stopped for the night at the Casa Grande Mountain Retreat (Road 612, Barrio Caonillas, Utuado, hotelcasagrande.com, bungalows from $105)—20 bungalows on a 100-year-old coffee plantation, run by an ex-lawyer from Long Island who offers yoga classes along with delicious churrasco steaks. After a long day of driving, the sound of the coquí frogs was the only relaxation I needed as I opened my windows to the mountain air and drifted quickly off to sleep.
Day 2: UTUADO TO JAYUYA
Puerto Rico's tropical upland is also the heart of coffee country. Business has declined from its late-19th century heyday, but some small, family-run operations still survive along the Ruta.
My first stop was in nearby Ciales at Museo del Café (42 Calle Palmer, Ciales, 787/871-3439, free espresso), whose proprietor, an avuncular man named Pedro Maldonado, has a trove of records dating back to 1850, when Puerto Rican coffee was the toast of Europe. As he held forth on the island's history, I perused his antique grinders, sipping a cup of the free espresso he pours for every visitor. After that, it was on to Hacienda San Pedro (Jayuya, cafehsp.com), a small coffee farm in Jayuya where a worker named Ernesto gave me an impromptu tour "from bean to bag," trailed by a chocolate Lab named—what else?—Café.
Now that I was sufficiently caffeinated, it was time to burn some energy. Enter Cerro de Punta—at 4,389 feet, the highest peak on the island, near Jayuya. It's a steep 30-minute climb to the top—or a five-minute drive, as I learned from the family who pulled up in a Subaru. Either way it's worth it, as verdant hills spread out to the sea under a deep blue sky. By the time I descended—did I mention it was steep?—I was ready for a dip in nearby Salta de Doña Juana, a 120-foot waterfall. There I found young locals picnicking on sandwiches and beer, and a father and his three teenage sons spear fishing in the crystal-clear pool below.