Countless opportunities to enjoy stunning natural wonders exist in Puerto Rico. But Raimundo Espinoza, founder of environmental research and conservation nonprofit Conservación ConCiencia, has one simple, overarching tip: “Get lost in Puerto Rico,” he advises. “Go to the mountainous towns and coastal towns. You’ll find amazing local restaurants everywhere in Puerto Rico. Dining at these restaurants, bars, and food trucks, and even fueling up at the gas stations throughout the Island—they’re all typically locally owned, not chains—really helps to support the local communities.”
Espinoza notes an emerging travel trend he can really get behind: the construction of rustic eco-cabins developed specifically for Airbnb rentals in Utuado and other municipalities in Puerto Rico. “For their economic means, people are building small cabins, but putting a lot of luxury into it, with amenities like personal pools. These can be found in many isolated locations in the middle of the mountains. They have very small footprints. You can connect with nature and disconnect as well.”
Espinoza’s organization works to protect Puerto Rico’s natural environment by “showing through conservation there’re also opportunities for economic development,” he says. “We work a lot with coastal and fishing communities to protect the marine environment.” Below, find some of his favorite destinations and the many ways to celebrate nature conscientiously while enjoying a visit to Puerto Rico.
Discover an underground marvel
Do not miss the opportunity to explore the caverns of Río Camuy Cave Park, located in the northwestern region of the Island. The caverns are part of an extensive network of natural limestone caves and underground waterways carved out by the Río Camuy, the third-largest underground river in the world. “It makes you realize how big Puerto Rico really is—it’s not just the beaches and party scene in San Juan,” notes Espinoza. “The caverns are amazing. You’re traveling underground. It’s like a sci-fi experience, almost like you’re walking into an old medieval church underground—the caverns are big and dark, with rays of sunlight coming in. They have a sort of ominous feel, having been around for such a long time.”
Beyond their historical importance—though discovered in 1958, archaeological evidence shows the caves were explored hundreds of years ago by the Island’s indigenous inhabitants—the caves are an important habitat today for species like bats and insects that are native to Puerto Rico.
Soak in the fountain of youth
Up in the mountains, in the verdant hills of Coamo, you’ll find the deeply relaxing and rejuvenating thermal springs of Coamo Thermal Baths, whose curative mineral waters are also said to help ease conditions such as diabetes, gout, circulation problems, respiratory issues, and joint pain. Discovered in 1847, the hot springs, according to local legend, are Juan Ponce de León’s Fountain of Youth.
Either way, there’s no denying submerging in the two pools (one warm, the other hot) is a supremely relaxing excursion. “It’s a very different landscape than you’d expect from the sunny beaches which the Island is famous for,” notes Espinoza. Expect cooler temperatures up in the mountains and be sure to enjoy the journey getting there. “The central mountain range is not developed, it’s quite natural. Even the drive to get to the hot springs is amazing—you’re driving through the jungles and forest.”
Take a full nature immersion
Come float in the river and explore fabulous hiking trails and waterfalls at El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical forest reserve in the U.S. There are numerous private tour operators providing guided hikes. “That’s an amazing way to go,” says Espinoza. “Start at the Visitor’s Center, which has just been remodeled—it’s a great place to learn about the area.”
Boasting an average rainfall of 120 inches per year, El Yunque has a diverse ecosystem, home to unique plant and animal species such as Puerto Rico’s famous coquí frog. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for the sounds of the coquí during your explorations. After a hike in the fresh air, take a swim, get under the water, and get refreshed. But be forewarned: “The water is really cold!”
Beyond the area’s excellent hiking, “for the more adventurous, at the back of El Yunque, there’s Charco El Hippie waterfall through Naguabo,” says Espinoza. “You can swim in the river, in the middle of nowhere. You’ll have the feeling of being Robinson Crusoe, or at the Blue Lagoon…alone, in the middle of nature.”
Experience rainforest relaxation
Surrounded by nature in the northeast of Puerto Rico, the Mountain Lodge Suites at Hacienda Carabalí offers rainforest- and ocean-view suites. “The hotel is situated off the hills of El Yunque and has activities like horseback riding and a go-kart track. It’s a perfect place to relax, get into nature, and decompress,” says Espinoza.
Light up the night
Puerto Rico boasts three of the five areas of the world that have bioluminescent bays. In Vieques, La Parguera, and Fajardo, microscopic, single-celled organisms called dinoflagellates grow in quantities big enough to produce a “glow-in-the-dark” effect when stimulated by movement.
Each is worth visiting, but Laguna Grande in Fajardo makes an easy trip from San Juan. Not technically a bay, the narrow and long canal that leads to this glow-in-the-dark water is a lagoon. “Bioluminescent bays are amazing,” raves Espinoza. “Licensed operators take you out at night in kayaks. Water shines in neon deep blue-greenish colors when your oar moves through the water. You’ll also see that glow in the water in streams of light behind fish. It’s an impressive sight.”
Head to “the Galapagos of the Caribbean”
Located between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the entirety of Mona Island is a protected nature reserve. “It’s an amazing location, and more exclusive because of where it’s located,” says Espinoza. “Only a few concessioners are allowed to take people out there, and when you visit, you’re helping continue the eco-tourism that these operators provide. Mona Island has been called ‘the Galapagos of the Caribbean.’ So many species on the island are only there: lizards, iguanas, little snakes, and geckos that only exist on this island.”
The reefs around this uninhabited island off the west coast of Puerto Rico are in great condition, says Espinoza, so expect to find an abundance of fish and turtles. It’s a three-hour boat trip from the mainland, so day-trippers will want to go early in the morning and spend the day snorkeling. Camping permits can be bought to stay on island. “If you have time, it’s totally worth it,” advises Espinoza. “Not many people are aware of or do it. It’s the closest you’ll get to experiencing what it was like to be in the Caribbean before it was inhabited.”
What can you expect? When Espinoza went, he saw “sea turtles nesting on the beach, swam with sharks, and stayed up all night looking at the stars—they shine so bright there, because there’s no light pollution. It’s one of the most natural experiences—the Caribbean unfiltered!”
Zip through the rainforest
For an unexpected eco excursion, head to the mountains for an unforgettable ziplining experience at Toro Verde Nature Adventure Park. In addition to several regular ziplines and suspension bridges, there are two thrillingly enormous ziplines here, the 1.5-kilometer “Beast” and the 2.5-kilometer “Monster.”
“For many years it held the world’s record for the longest zipline in the world,” says Espinoza. “And it’s all over protected forest reserves. It’s very humbling—you feel so small over these large, forested areas, soaring like a small bird over the area.” Not only is it an exhilarating experience, but you’ll also be doing your part for the environment, he notes. “Nature can be protected, and the local communities can be supported by activities based on the needs of the forest.”
Kayak with sea turtles
This, says Espinoza, is another great activity that promotes local eco-tour providers. “The area where it occurs, Reserva Natural Canal Luis Peña, on the small island of Culebra, is a protected area. You’re providing economic opportunities for the local community” when you book a tour that will bring you up close and personal with sea turtles. Culebra, located off the east coast of mainland Puerto Rico, is rife with gorgeous white-sand beaches to explore as well. “Flamenco Beach is ranked as one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world consistently,” notes Espinoza. “Culebra is what’s given the Caribbean its image.”
Kitesurf in paradise
If you’re into water sports, a trip to idyllic La Parguera in the seaside town of Lajas in southwestern Puerto Rico is in order. “It’s a great town, with lot of activities, food, and a good party scene for younger folks,” says Espinoza. “Go diving in its large bay, explore mangrove canals and forests. And for anyone interested in kitesurfing, it’s a great area to practice this marine sport.”
These experiences highlight the need to protect Puerto Rico’s natural environment, one that’s paramount, Espinoza notes, for locals and visitors alike, and for the generations to come. “Those famed green mountains and spectacular vistas throughout the Island? That view is there because we are protecting the environment.”
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