What It's Really Like to Go on a Ecotourism Adventure in Puerto Rico

Photo courtesy of davidsancar.

Photo courtesy of davidsancar.

This one time I went to Puerto Rico and here’s what I did: wake, eat, drink, beach, sleep, repeat. Somewhere along the way I watched a pretty sunset or two, fought with a boyfriend, and had a small war with a crab. That crab lost an arm. I'm sorry, crab.

Upon returning to the island recently -- this time without the drinks -- I saw that Puerto Rico has enough natural beauty to rival any of its Caribbean neighbors. With that same thought in mind, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC) established the Ecotourism Certification Program in 2014 to help visitors responsibly enjoy the island’s natural gifts, which consist of six different ecosystems and hundreds of wildlife species.

Photo courtesy Ricymar Photography.

Photo courtesy Ricymar Photography.

It would be unfair to compare Puerto Rico’s developing ecotourism infrastructure to ecotourism behemoths like Costa Rica, where nearly a quarter of the country is protected forest. Nevertheless, the PRTC is investing heavily and says, “Puerto Rico was the first destination in the Caribbean to develop its own certification program.” That, coupled with the easy flight from most of North America -- plus no need for a passport or foreign currency transactions for many of us -- is incentive enough for most travelers with adventurous inclinations.

There’s too much to see in Puerto Rico in just one long weekend, so we're using Puerto Rico’s less-developed western region as the home base for this trip. You’ll need to rent a car once you land in San Juan or Aguadilla, but the island is small and its highways are good.

Day 1: Lie Down and Get Wet in the Tanama River

Photo courtesy of Explora PR.

Photo courtesy of Explora PR.

About 80 minutes from both Aguadilla and San Juan, the swift Tanama River cuts through rainforests and dramatic limestone karsts as it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. While there, I learned that one of the best ways to take in the area’s sights is on my back. Luckily, Explora PR has plenty of experience doing just that. The company was founded 20 years ago to educate adventure-seeking travelers about responsibly enjoying Puerto Rico’s native environment while satisfying adventure cravings at the same time, and they adhere to their own 'leave no trace" philosophy diligently.

Photo courtesy of Explora
Photo courtesy of Explora

Travelers begin with a short hike into the rainforest, with stops along the way to learn about local ecology and biodiversity. The guides are a wealth of knowledge about the history of the area, natural and otherwise. After that, visitors repel 120 feet down a cliff and into the roiling Tanama River for body-rafting. Think of body-rafting as a combination of whitewater rafting and body-surfing, but with your face up so you can take in the stunning scenery composed of dense jungle and limestone cliffs. Yes, you will get a few bumps from the many boulders jutting out of the water along the way (and the water's cold), but all of the likes the experience will score you on social media will be your reward in the end.

Photo courtesy of Hacienda Tres Angeles.

Photo courtesy of Hacienda Tres Angeles.

After drying off, it’s back in the car to refuel. While coffee plantations historically devastated the island’s original forests, many of today’s small haciendas are leading the charge in responsible agritourism. The focus on locally produced, locally sustainable, and ecologically responsible agriculture is a major component of the ecotourism movement. Puerto Rico’s coffee region is about an hour south of Explora PR. There are a handful of small-scale coffee growers that combine sustainability with maintaining the island’s legendary coffee reputation -- in fact, Puerto Rican coffee was once the choice of the Vatican. Coffee growers like Hacienda San Pedro, in Jayuya, offer tours on weekend afternoons and -- of course -- there’s plenty of caffeinated goodness on hand to sample. Other local growers that offer tours include Hacienda Tres Angeles, which is PRTC certified for its ecological stewardship, and Hacienda Pomarrosa. It’s even possible to spend a night at some of them, so check ahead.

Day 2: Cave Dive in Rio Camuy, Then Sleep in the Trees

Photo courtesy of viviandnguyen_.

Photo courtesy of viviandnguyen_.

The Rio Camuy cave system -- just beyond the Tanama River and west of Arecibo -- is the third longest underground river system in the world. Aventuras Tierra Adentro is one of the more hardcore outdoor adventure tours to be found in western Puerto Rico. The company is exclusively permitted to access the Angeles Cave, and their tours include zip-lining over the area’s forests and repelling down into the 250-foot hole that marks the Angeles Cave’s entrance. Expect plenty of tight squeezes, mud, and occasional pitch-black free-falls – this isn’t for the faint-hearted, and some degree of physical fitness is necessary to complete the tour. For a more laid-back cave outing, Aventura Cueva Ventana is nearby and offers astounding views of Puerto Rico's mountainous interior plus glimpses of ancient Taino cave drawings along the way. It's also been certified by the PRTC for ecotourism.

About 90 minutes west of Rio Camuy is the tiny town of Rincon. This sleepy corner of the island has been drawing surfers in droves for decades. Over the years, the intervention of organizations like the Surfrider Foundation have helped make sure Puerto Rico takes care of its underwater beauty as well. The organization worked with the community to establish the Tres Palmas Marine Reserve and helps train local citizens to preserve the ecosystem that includes sea turtles, hundreds of species of fish, coral, and even migrating whales. There are plenty of dive and snorkel operators in town, but Rincon Diving remains one of the area’s most popular.

Photo courtesy of Tropical Treehouse.

Photo courtesy of Tropical Treehouse.

There are a handful of great hotels in Rincon, including the upscale Horned Dorset Primavera, but it doesn’t get much more natural than spending a night in a tree house. The eco-friendly hooches at Tropical Treehouse, just a 10-minute drive outside of Rincon, are exactly what the hotel’s name implies. The hooch building technique, with almost no forest-floor footprint, disturbs the surrounding forest as little as possible, and the bamboo construction materials and solar energy are eco-friendly as well. At night, under the mosquito nets, there’s not much else to do but fall asleep to the exuberant chirping of Puerto Rico’s coqui frog.

Day 3: Hit the Beach at Cabo Rojo

Photo courtesy of Deb Stgo.

Photo courtesy of Deb Stgo.

It’s not possible to come all the way to Puerto Rico without spending a little time relaxing on the beach. To be sure, Rincon has some of the best surfer-friendly beaches in Puerto Rico. But Cabo Rojo, about 75 minutes south of Rincon, is home to some of the most pristine beaches on the island.

Photo courtesy of Ron Knight.

Photo courtesy of Ron Knight.

The area is home to the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge and sits within Puerto Rico’s dry forest belt -- a striking contrast to the lush green north and mountains in the center of the island. There are nearly 2,000 acres to explore -- most of which are dominated by salt flats and estuaries -- and over 100 species of birds pass through the area throughout the year, especially during migration season.

To cool off in the afternoon, head to La Playuela, between Bahia Salinas and Bahia Sucia -- the latter’s name translates to Dirty Bay, but the waters here are exactly the opposite. 

This is the Caribbean that most travelers have in mind when they arrive -- an unspoiled crescent bay with cliffs at the headlands and the turquoise sea breaking soft on white sand. 

Photo courtesy of yasmapaz & ace_heart.

Photo courtesy of yasmapaz & ace_heart.

From here it’s a two-hour drive back to San Juan or a little over an hour to Aguadilla. 

If you’re not ready to leave the shore and have an extra night to spare, make the 20-minute drive to Playa El Combate. The small town sits adjacent to a tranquil beach with some spectacular sunset views. 

There are also a handful of locally owned, humble hotels in the area. Parador Combate Beach is a fine choice, where a handful of units are constructed out of repurposed cargo containers and solar power is used to heat the water.

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