It’s hard for some visitors to wrap their heads around the idea of spending their time in Puerto Rico not in the water but in the mountains. That’s what makes the Cordillera Central, Puerto Rico’s central mountain region, one of the island’s greatest hidden gems.
This is the place adventure junkies come to go hiking, rappelling, spelunking, and ziplining, and it’s where history buffs go to explore the island’s Taíno Indian roots.Thousands of acres of undeveloped land thick with tropical jungle, high mountain peaks, waterfalls, rivers, caves, and canyons comprise the interior of the island, but the natural beauty isn’t the only reason to visit. This is the place adventure junkies come to go hiking, rappelling, spelunking, and ziplining, and it’s where history buffs go to explore the island’s Taíno Indian roots.
Accommodations tend to be more rustic here than in San Juan, and the service may not be up to some travelers’ standards. But there are some unusual and unique places to stay, like a coffee plantation dating back to 1858 in Jayuya and a 107-acre nature retreat among the peaks of Utuado. And the restaurants may not be on the cutting edge of the latest culinary trends, but you can dine on some of the best pit-cooked pork you’ll ever taste at restaurants called lechoneras, which specialize in the delicacy.
Planning Your Time
One of the great things about the Cordillera Central is that it’s possible to get a taste of its charms on a day trip from just about anywhere on the island.
On the east side of the island, Highway 52 travels south from San Juan through Cayey to Salinas on the south coast. On the west side of the island, Highway 10 runs south from Arecibo to the mountain town of Utuado. Eventually the highway will continue farther south and connect with Adjuntas, but for now travelers must take Carretera 123 to Adjuntas, where Highway 10 starts again, ending in Ponce on the south coast.
Ambitious travelers who want to travel the whole length of the Cordillera Central can drive La Ruta Panorámica, a designated route following a series of well-marked secondary roads that travel along the highest peaks, offering stunning views of mountains and sea. Due to the sometimes narrow, twisty roads and scenic points along the way, it can take the better part of the day to drive the whole route one way.
The greatest number of dining options can be found on the eastern end of the mountain region near Cayey, where there is a high concentration of lechoneras roasting whole pigs over open fires, or the side-by-side towns of Morovis and Orocovis, which are also rich in outdoor adventure activities, including ziplining and canopy tours. Near the center of the region is San Cristóbal Cañon, a verdant canyon between Aibonito and Barranquitas, another popular spot for thrill-seekers who are into challenging hikes and rappelling.
Jayuya is the site of Bosque Estatal de Toro Negro, home to the island’s highest peaks, but it’s best known as a center of Taíno culture, evident at La Piedra Escrita, a natural pool in Río Saliente featuring large boulders covered in Taíno petroglyphs, and Museo del Cemí, a unique museum shaped like a Taíno amulet containing Indian artifacts found in the area. Nearby in Utuado is Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Caguana, a major Taíno archaeological site dating to AD 1100, and Bosque Estatal de Río Abajo, a 5,000-acre subtropical humid forest.
Recommended accommodations are few in the Cordillera Central, but there are two worth seeking out, one a former coffee plantation in Jayuya and the other an off-the-grid yoga retreat in Utuado.
Note that it rains often in the mountains and it can be cool at night, so pack accordingly. And keep an eye on the weather. Heavy rains occasionally result in mudslides and flooding, which could close some roads. Also watch out for livestock. It’s not unusual to see a cow or horse tied up to a house right smack beside the road, and chickens are forever crossing the asphalt.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Puerto Rico.