There’s no other place in Puerto Rico like the spectacular Bosque Estatal de Piñones (along Carr. 187 between San Juan and Loíza, 787/791-7750, office Mon.-Fri. 7am-3:30pm). Stretching from the eastern tip of Isla Verde, San Juan, to the town of Loíza, this pristine reserve is a natural wonderland of deserted beaches; mangrove, pine, and palm forests; sand dunes; coral reefs; bays; salt flats; and lagoons. An important part of the island ecosystem, Piñones is home to 46 species of birds, including a variety of herons and pelicans.
In addition to swimming, surfing, and fishing, a major draw for Piñones is the Paseo Piñones Bike Path.Boca de Cangrejos (just east of the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan and the Cangrejo Yacht Club) is the gateway to Piñones from San Juan. At first glance, it looks like a shantytown of wooden shacks and concrete sheds barely clinging to a rocky point that juts into the sea. But you shouldn’t bypass Boca de Cangrejos. It contains some of the best and cheapest local food you’ll find, from stuffed fritters to all varieties of seafood. Walk from kiosk to kiosk and try a little bit of everything. Many items cost only $1. Expect crowds and a party atmosphere on weekends and holidays. Just east of Boca de Cangrejos along Carretera 187 are also several bars and nightclubs that keep the place hopping, day and night. Some people caution against venturing here at night, but it can be a fun, adventurous immersion into the local scene if you keep your wits about you. And definitely stop here during the day to stock up on provisions before entering the forest.
Carretera 187 is a narrow two-lane road that winds through Piñones to Loíza from San Juan. Tucked between the thick clusters of palms along the coastal side of the road are unmarked sandy turn-ins that lead to the beach, where you can park and walk down the dunes into the water to swim. You’ll start to encounter the best swimming beaches around kilometer 9, where the reef recedes from the beach. Another option for a good swimming spot is Vacia Talega, a small, unmarked crescent beach visible from the road on Carretera 187 just before you cross the river into Loíza. It has a small sandy parking lot but no facilities. This is also a good fishing spot. Piñones is also a popular place for surfing, especially at Aviones, just past Boca de Cangrejos.
In addition to swimming, surfing, and fishing, a major draw for Piñones is the Paseo Piñones Bike Path, a six-mile-long system of paved trails and boardwalks, which provides an excellent way to explore the forest. Bikes are available for rent at the restaurant El Pulpo Loco (Carr. 187, km 4.5, 787/791-8382, daily 10am-6pm) for about $25 a day.
Venture away from the coast into the forest’s interior and you encounter two lagoons, Laguna de Piñones and Laguna la Torrecilla. The best way to explore these rich mangrove ecosystems is by kayak. To reach the launch site, turn inland off Carretera 187 at kilometer 9 and follow the sign pointing to the Bosque Estatal de Piñones office. A couple of tour operators in the area offer kayak tours of the lagoons and hiking tours of the forest.
It is possible to take a bus (B-40 or B-45) from Isla Verde to Boca de Cangrejos or catch a taxi, but the best option for exploring Piñones is to drive there. Just be sure to lock your car, keep it in sight as much as possible, and don’t leave anything of value visible inside.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Puerto Rico.