In Puerto Rico’s lesser-explored southwest lies a rare coastal ecosystem home to off-the-radar beaches, coral cays and a dry forest teeming with endangered species. Kerry Christiani explores
Dawn crept in softly over the bay of Guánica. The rain that had fallen overnight had rinsed the new day clean, and fat, glistening drops still glistened on the stunted banana trees and palms on the trail down to the dock. The showers were unseasonal for the time of year – and all the more unusual for one of Puerto Rico’s driest regions. I sat alone on the jetty in the calm of an overcast morning with a brooding sky overhead, relishing this remote stretch of beautiful coastline.
The Caribbean Sea, usually brightest blue, spread out before me like quicksilver, the half-light silhouetting the gnarled, skeletal branches of the mangroves. As the sun rose, an impressionist painter’s palette of colours washed over the scene – pastel pinks, blues and golds. Now I could make out the faint outline of the offshore, low-lying cays – Cayo Aurora, better known as Gilligan’s Island, and Isla Ballena. A couple of gently rocking boats sent ripples across the bay. Setting my camera aside, I slid into the sea. With everyone still tucked up in bed, a swim at this hour felt secretive – illicit, almost.
Another early riser soared above the water in search of breakfast. Its distinctive beak told me that it was a brown pelican. Pausing mid-glide, the bird dive-bombed its prey, hitting the water with an almighty splash.
Home and dry
Such moments of contemplative silence and at-oneness with nature are surprisingly rare on Puerto Rico, an island more famous for its love of a good fiesta than quietude. Guánica, however, is the exception. A Unesco Biosphere Reserve since 1981, the Bosque Estatal de Guánica is one of the world’s best-preserved subtropical dry forests. Sitting atop petrified coral reefs millions of years old and spread across 4,000 hectares, the reserve is an ecological wonder comprising four kinds of forest: dry scrub, deciduous, evergreen and coastal. Only 75cm of rain falls here annually compared with 500-plus in the tropical rainforest of El Yunque, some 200km northeast.
Besides trails into the arid hills and forests, there are 16km of coast with bird-rich scrub and little-visited beaches to discover, receiving just a fraction of the crowds found elsewhere on the island. Nature rules here: some 45 threatened, endangered and endemic species make it their safe haven, among them the extremely rare, prettily mottled Puerto Rican nightjar (which sings at night to ward off rivals), the Puerto Rican emerald hummingbird and the Puerto Rican woodpecker. Botanical oddities include flowering cacti such as the bizarrely named Spanish dildo cactus and the squat melon cactus.
As day finally broke, I snapped out of my reverie. There was exploring to be done. The cays seemed within swimming reach but I was aware that distance at sea could be deceptive, so I opted instead to rent a kayak at Mary Lee’s By the Sea. Though a boat regularly makes the short hop over to Gilligan’s Island from San Jacinto Club, there’s nothing like paddling around the cays under your own steam, stopping at white-sand coral coves obscured from view by dense thickets of tangled mangroves and lapped by shallow, turquoise water.
Within less than half an hour I reached Gilligan’s. Lugging the kayak ashore, I heard an echoing gurgle emerge from the bushes. A rare species of bird, perhaps? Not this time: just snorkellers splashing around in the lagoon’s crystalline waters. Though pretty, the cay was a little busy with day-trippers, so I paddled on to the next islet: Isla Ballena, or Whale Island. Here there was not a soul in sight. Kicking back on the beach, I watched great herons, brown pelicans and other seabirds wheeling in the sky. Then my gaze homed in on a stash of conch shells, their spirals smooth and pink, abandoned there like a gift from the ocean.
Back in the kayak, I wove in and around the mangroves, lingering to watch a white egret take graceful flight. At the narrow inlet of Punta Ballenas, I came across another totally deserted beach: a long strip of sand with a footpath heading off into the scrub. Hauling my kayak onto the sand, I wandered inland, stopping to admire cacti, prickly pears and delicate purple orchids. Suddenly, I had the unnerving sensation that the sand around me was shifting. On closer inspection I realised the trail was in fact a super highway for thousands of fiddler crabs, creating a pointillist artwork of sand balls as they scuttled. Dodging pincers, I ventured back to the kayak.
Beyond the placid water of the bay I could see open ocean and huge waves rolling in. Stopping for a swim on the quieter side of Gilligan’s, I had the uncanny feeling someone or something was watching me. Sure enough, partially hidden in the mangroves was a metre-long iguana – the biggest I’d seen. Though I knew iguanas are an invasive species considered a pest in Puerto Rico, I had to admire this one: totally immobile yet poised for the kill, with its spiky armour, long-striped tail and prehistoric features.
That night, by the light of a crescent moon at Mary Lee’s, I planned the next day’s adventure, heading deeper into the upland deciduous and semi-evergreen forest.
From the visitor centre off Hwy 333, a network of 12 signposted trails fan out into the forest, most leading to lookouts with views over tree canopy and coast. The warden in the office warned against tackling the more challenging trails as heavy rainfall had rendered them slippery. “Y los mosquitos tienen hambre – the mosquitoes are hungry,” he said with a knowing grin. He had the look of a man who rarely saw visitors.
Contenting myself with a stroll on the circular path from the car park, I walked into silent woods wisped with mist, noticing the darting shadows of birds too shy to linger. On a tree spotlit by the sun, a tiny anole lizard watched me with caution, frozen in motion. A fine rain began to fall and, true to the warden’s word, the mosquitos soon launched their bloodthirsty attack. Looking at a tattered map, I saw a tempting-looking 6km trail to the ruins of an old Spanish fort, Fuerte Caprón. But a rumble of distant thunder and some impressive storm clouds told me that might be one to leave for another day.
The future’s bright
Following Hwy 333 to the eastern fringes of Guánica reveals some of the loveliest stretches of coast on the island. Beyond the frost-white arc of Playa Ballena, sloping into the azure Caribbean, is the even less-frequented Playa Tamarindo, flanked by its namesake tamarind trees. The 6km Meseta trail hugs the shoreline, passing tangled shrubs and melon cacti to emerge at rocky outcrops lashed by waves.
A sign told me that ongoing conservation and reforestation efforts would ensure the future of the area, the protected domain of the endangered Puerto Rican crested toad. This endemic toad, which breeds in seasonal ponds formed by rain and lives in crevices in the limestone, is just one of Tamarindo’s many unique species, which include the blue-tailed ameiva lizard and hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles. My efforts to spot these were, however, in vain. Day was swiftly fading as I returned to the beach, and all I could make out in the crepuscular light were the silhouetted forms of scores of pelicans diving and rising in this lonely swathe of the island.
Four more wild places
1 El Yunque National Forest
The shaggy, waterfall-laced green peaks of El Yunque in Puerto Rico’s northeast are the only tropical rainforest in the USA. Signposted trails twist through 11,700 hectares of dense, mountainous jungle. The endangered Puerto Rican parrot is elusive, but you’ll certainly hear the dusk serenade of the indigenous coquí tree frog. Dodge seasonal crowds on less-trodden paths such as the El Yunque Trail. The boutique-chic Rainforest Inn is a fine base, with hammocks, great views over jungle to the Caribbean and true wilderness.
Dangling off Puerto Rico’s east coast, this National Wildlife Refuge island has gorgeous secluded beaches, coastal lagoons, mangrove wetlands and upland forests. Wildlife watchers will be in their element spotting manatees, brown pelicans, sea turtles and semi-wild horses. The island’s highlight is Bioluminescent Bay, best explored by kayak at dusk on a moonless night when you can see microorganisms in the water flash green-blue like strobe lights.
3 Cabo Rojo
West-coast Cabo Rojo has sublime white-sand beaches and turquoise waters to rival those in more popular Rincón farther north. Particularly lovely is the long sweep of sand and shallow sea out near Faro Los Morrillos lighthouse. Equally worth seeing are the Salinas salt flats that form part of the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for migratory birds.
Tucked away in the island’s northeast, near the workaday town of San Sebastián, Gozalandia is far less touristy than it sounds. Trails wend through forest to a series of dazzling, aqua-blue cascades, some with rope swings and all with natural pools for swimming. Avoid weekends and public holidays to have the place almost to yourself.