The eastern mountain towns of Caguas and Cayey don’t boast the dramatic peaks and valleys of Jayuya and Utuado, but they have plenty to offer in the way of attractions. Caguas is home to the impressive botanical gardens at Jardín Botánico y Cultural de Caguas, and Cayey is graced with a dozen or so lechoneras, casual eateries that specialize in open-pit roasted pork. Many locals make a day of visiting the area to dine at all-you-can-eat buffets, dance to the live bands, and shop at roadside vendors, who sell everything from local crafts to homemade cheeses and sweets to gallons of mavi, a traditional Taíno beverage made from fermented tree bark of the mavi tree.
On weekends, street vendors sell crafts, homemade cheese, candied fruits, and mavi champagne along the way.Cayey is a 30-minute drive from San Juan or Ponce, and one of the best ways to experience its natural beauty and local culture is to take a short scenic drive that loops through the area. From San Juan, take Highway 52 south and exit at Carretera 184. At the end of the exit ramp, turn right and take an immediate left onto Carretera 184. At the intersection, turn left onto Carretera 763 (a right turn will take you to Reserva Forestal de Carite), then left onto Carretera 765 and right onto Carretera 1. Carretera 1 intersects with Highway 52 at the Caguas Sur Boriken exit. Not only does this drive give you some spectacular views of the mountains, but it will take you by many popular lechoneras, some of which have live music. On weekends, street vendors sell crafts, homemade cheese, candied fruits, and mavi champagne along the way.
Jardín Botánico y Cultural de Caguas
Jardín Botánico y Cultural de Caguas (Hwy. 52 and Carr. 156, Caguas, 787/653-8990, Thurs.-Sun. 10am-4pm, $5 adults, $3 ages 7 and younger and 60 and older) is a gorgeous oasis of natural beauty that was once the site of Hacienda San Jose, a sugar plantation and rum distillery established in 1825. Ruins of the home still remain on the grounds, as do remnants of the rum distillery and sugar mill, including an iron sugarcane press and brick smokestacks. The well-maintained grounds provide a living laboratory and paddleboats along with a re-created jíbaro farmhouse and Taíno batey (ceremonial ball field). There are also greenhouses (787/633-0139, Mon.-Fri. 6:30am-11:30am and 12:30pm-3pm) where plants can be purchased.
Monumento al Jíbaro Puertorriqueño
Technically located in the municipality of Salinas, Monumento al Jíbaro Puertorriqueño (Hwy. 52, km 49.0, accessible only from the southbound lane) is located just south of Cayey and honors the Puerto Rican farmer. If you want a closer look, there is an exit just past the statue that ends at a parking lot. From there you can take the 0.25-mile hike to the base of the large white statue depicting a hard-working man of the land, his solemn wife, and their infant child, created by sculptor Tomás Batista of Luquillo.
Reserva Forestal de Carite
Reserva Forestal de Carite (Carr. 184, km 27.5, Cayey, 787/747-4510 or 787/747-4545, Mon.-Fri. 9am-4:30pm, Sat.-Sun. and holidays 8am-5pm, office Mon.-Fri. 7am-3:30pm) is classified primarily as a subtropical humid forest rich in vegetation, including Honduran mahogany, hibiscuses, eucalyptus, giant ferns, and several varieties of palm. Unfortunately, this forest reserve was severely damaged by Hurricane Georges in 1998, and many of its hiking trails have never been restored. There is one 550-yard trail, though, that ends at Charco Azul, a lovely natural pool.
If you don’t mind camping in sight of the road, Area Recreativa Guavate (Carr. 184, km 27.2) offers nice, shady hillside camping with bathrooms, covered picnic tables, and an outdoor shower. Camping permits must be secured at least 15 days before arrival by calling the forest office or the Department of Natural Resources in San Juan (787/723-1770).
Museo de Arte Dr. Pío López Martínez
Museo de Arte Dr. Pío López Martínez (205 Ave. Antonio R. Barceló, Cayey, 787/738-2161, ext. 2209, Mon.-Fri. 8am-4:30pm, Sat.-Sun. and holidays 11am-5pm, free) is an art museum dedicated to local artists with an emphasis on the work of Ramon Frade (1875-1954), who celebrated the island’s agricultural community with paintings that dignified the farmer and his contribution to society. Also featured are changing exhibitions of cartels, Puerto Rico’s renowned poster art used to publicize festivals, plays, and social concerns.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Puerto Rico.