Hiking in the Caribbean - Part 3 (Puerto Rico)

This is part 3 of a 4 part series about 'day-hiking' mountains and volcanoes while vacationing in the sunny Caribbean. This series is reproduced with the permission of our partner themountainhiker.com

Caribbean Vacation in Puerto Rico / Old San Juan

I suspect that most people think of the Caribbean as a place to relax on the beach with a tropical rum punch in hand... and while that's a great idea, when I think of the Caribbean, I paint a mental picture of hiking through a lush rainforest, heading up-hill of a green mountain or volcano, enjoying the eye-popping views of the Caribbean Sea along the way!

The Caribbean islands, also known as "the West Indies", are located in the Caribbean Sea / Atlantic ocean, forming a sort of right hand arc between Florida and South America. The largest Caribbean islands are in the north-west, and include Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), Jamaica and Puerto Rico. These islands also have the largest mountain ranges and tallest peaks in the Caribbean. That said, I would suggest that some of the best Caribbean Islands for ‘up-hill’ hiking are further south east and include Dominica, Jamaica, Martinique‎, Saint Lucia‎, Guadeloupe‎, Saint Kitts & Nevis, Saint Vincent and Grenada. Active volcanoes still exist on some of these southern Caribbean islands, which always make for a fascinating hiking experience. Based on vertical height 'above sea level', the highest 15 mountains in the West Indies are:

Island  Rank  Height  Mountain 
Dominican Republic 1 10,164 feet (3,098m) Pico Duarte
2 9,324 feet (2,842m) Loma Alto de la Bandera
5 7,477 feet (2,279m)  Loma Gajo en Medio 
Haiti 3 8,773 feet (2,674m) Pic la Selle 
4 7,700 feet (2,347m)  Pic Macaya 
Jamaica  6 7,402 feet (2,256m)  Blue Mountain Peak 
Cuba 7 6,476 feet (1,974m) Pico Turquino 
12 4,098 feet (1,249m) Gran Piedra 
15 3,740 feet (1,140m)  Pico San Juan 
Guadeloupe 8 4,813 feet (1,467m)  La Grande Soufrière 
Dominica 9 4,747 feet (1,447m)  Morne Diablotins 
Martinique  10 4,577 feet (1,395m)  Montagne Pelée 
Puerto Rico 11 4,389 feet (1,338m)  Cerro de Punta 
St. Vincent 13 4,049 feet (1,234m)  La Soufrière 
St. Kitts  14 3,793 feet (1,156m)  Mount Liamuiga 


Some great mountainous rainforest hiking is available on all of these islands... Some trails take just a couple of hours to hike, while others require a full day to complete. Weather permitting, most of these hikes allow you stunning views of the island and/or Caribbean sea, and all of the hikes will provide you with a gratifying sense of accomplishment - From a physical 'I did it' perspective'. There are also multi-day backpacking trails on the Dominican Republic, Dominica and Martinique.  For the full 'backpacking in tropical nature' experience, campsites are available in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, Dominica, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Grenada.  Each island has designated camping areas, usually in their national parks.

Over the coming weeks, we'll provide a small taste of some of these islands, along with a sampling of hikes available to you. Be prepared to work up a sweat, and be rewarded with a number of fun rainforest experiences!

Last week we experienced Dominica.  This week, as part 3 of this 4 part series, lets explore Puerto Rico.

Hiking in the Caribbean - Hike Puerto Rico and protect your head from the sun

A view of the north - east side of the island, from the top of El-Yunque

Puerto Rico is a 5,324 sq mile (13,790 sq km) island that divides (the Greater and Lesser islands of) the Antilles.

Hiking in the Caribbean - Hike Puerto Rico and protect your head from the sun

 Looking over the south side of the island from Mt. Britton

A popular and comfortable tourist destination for Americans, Puerto Rico is located in the northern part of the Caribbean sea.  While small relative to the other islands of the Greater Antilles (like Cuba and Hispaniola), Puerto Rico is massive in size when compared to the islands of the south-eastern Caribbean reviewed earlier in this series.  Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic side) is located approximately 60 miles (100km) to the West and the US Virgin Islands are only 15 miles (25km) to the east of the island.

If you’ve ever been there, Puerto Rico is probably most memorable for the town of Old San Juan and its massive 16th-19th century Spanish fortresses, their “coqui” frogs that can be heard all night long, as well as being the birthplace of the Pina-Colada.  The island has plenty of fun attractions, including fascinating and unique Bioluminescent Bays and Subterranean Cave Parks, as well as a number of Nature Reserves and places for Scuba Diving, not to mention Rum Tours.  While most vacationers enjoy the beaches and nightlife of Puerto Rico, the island's remote forests and mountains, a refuge for a variety of wildlife, are just waiting to be explored. 

The best time to hike in Puerto Rico, in terms of the weather, can be anytime between December and April, with March typically being the driest month.  The Cordillera Central mountain range, runs the length (east – west) of the southern half of the island and contains dozens of volcanic mountain peaks.  The island has 21 State Forests (Bosque Estatal), including the El Yunque National Forest, the only sub-tropical rainforest in the United States.  El Bosque Estatal de Toro Negro has a number of peaks higher than 3,300 feet (1000m), including Puerto Rico’s highest, Cerro de Punta at 4,390 feet (1,338m) above sea level.  El Bosque Estatal de Monte Guilarte is also home to a number of peaks above 3,300 feet (1000 meters), with Monte Guilarte standing at 3,934 feet (1,199m) being one of the highest peaks in Puerto Rico.  While there are amazing mountains in Puerto Rico begging to be hiked, very few of them have well documented trails, and some even have highways crossing their peaks. For example, the “Panoramic Route” highway goes across the top of El Bosque Estatal de Maricao, where there's even a nice campground nestled in the mountaintops.  That said...

The best maintained hiking trails are in the 28,000 acre El Yunque National Forest.  There are a few mountain ranges in the park, with the most noticeable peaks being:  Pico El Yunque at 3,461 feet (1,055m) and Monte Britton at 3,012 feet (918m) in the north part of the park;  El Toro at 3,474 feet (1,059m) in the south-western part of the park;  Pico del Este at 3,409 feet (1,039m) and Pico del Oeste at 3,340 feet (1,018m) in the south-eastern part of the park; and El Cacique at 3,327 feet (1,014m) in the centre of the park.  Probably the most popular trail in Puerto Rico combines Pico El-Yunque and Mt. Britton to make for a very enjoyable intermediate type of hike.  This 3 mile (5 km) round trip hike will take you a leisurely 2.5 – 4 hours to complete.  The actual vertical hiked is probably less than 1,500 feet (450m), although you'll find the views of the island from both peaks are pretty amazing.  The mix in trail type and flora will provide you with a nice variety, and you may get lucky and experience walking through a cloud as you near Pico El Yunque.  While the best advertised and maintained park on the island, it is usually far from crowded.

Hiking in the Caribbean - Hike Puerto Rico and protect your head from the sun

 One of the many small waterfalls on the El-Yunque trail

Hiking in the Caribbean - Hike Puerto Rico and protect your head from the sun

The trail is a little "rocky-awkward" in spots

Hiking in the Caribbean - Hike Puerto Rico and protect your head from the sun

A max-zoom of a peak of Los Picachos - From the Old Tower (El-Yunque)

Hiking in the Caribbean - Hike Puerto Rico and protect your head from the sun

A breath-taking view of the north east corner of Puerto Rico

Hiking in the Caribbean - Hike Puerto Rico and protect your head from the sun

On top of the world (El-Yunque) - With Luquillo and the Atlantic in the background


Other recommended and somewhat challenging trails for up-hill hiking in Puerto Rico’s El-Yunque Forest include the El Toro Trail (officially no longer maintained) which is a 4.4 mile (7km) round trip hike with an elevation change of 1,400 feet (427m) taking you to the tallest peak in the park; Perhaps even better is the Tradewinds Trail, which hikes 7.5 miles (12km) round trip, with an elevation change of over 1,800 feet (550m), to El Toro from the east; La Coca Trail is a 3.4 mile (5.5km) round trip hike that is a little hilly and crosses a number of rivers.

There are trails in El Bosque Estatal de Monte Guilarte, one of the more popular being a short and steep hike to Punta (Monte) Guilarte, where the views of the southern coast of the island are spectacular.  There is also a campground, with campsites and cabins available in this park.

While you can access Puerto Rico's tallest peak Cerro de Punta, with a short walk off a main highway in El Bosque Estatal de Toro Negro, you can actually hike to it from an old coffee plantation “Inn”, just north-east of the mountain.  This (likely unmaintained) trail appears to be about 4-5 miles (7-8km) long round trip, with a vertical change in elevation of approximately 2,300 feet (700m).   From the concrete monument marking the highest point on the island, you will get a 360 degree view of the entire island, it’s mountains, the Caribbean sea and Atlantic ocean, as well as San Juan – 75 miles (120km) to the north.  There are also a number of short trails from a campground within the park, one of which leads to an observation tower 3,500 feet (1070m) above sea level providing you with another fantastic 360 view of the island.  Other trails go to one of the many waterfalls in the area, the most popular being the 200 feet (60m) tall ‘Dona Juana’, which is near a popular natural swimming hole.

So...  If you've walked around Old San Juan and it's amazing fortresses, and find the time to get away from the beach and Pina Coladas (actually, Mojitos are now more popular on the island), you should try to experience Puerto Rico's rainforest trails.  If you still have time and energy after your hikes, remember there's still Bioluminescent Bays and Subterranean Cave Parks to explore on Puerto Rico!

Hiking in the Caribbean - Hike Puerto Rico and protect your head from the sun

A beautiful quiet beach near Rincon

Please travel safe and "enjoy your day in the sun!" - Be sure to protect your head, face and eyes from the sun's harmful UV rays by wearing an Urban Canairie hat whenever you're outdoors in the Caribbean.  It's ideal for hiking as well as everyday sight-seeing.

Next week, as the final part of this 4 part series, we'll discover St. Kitts.

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