Light catches on the water at Guatajaca Lake in Puerto Rico. (Photo: Luis Marin)
Puerto Rico isn’t particularly large when it comes to overall geographical size (though culturally, it’s a giant); still, travelers can find hidden natural gems off the well-worn tourist path.
Less than a two-hour drive northwest from the capital of San Juan, visitors and locals will discover sights that feel far removed from the bustle of everyday island life.
They’ll be lured to the caves and trails of Guajataca Forest Reserve, the cool air and activities on nearby Guajataca Lake, and a path through a famed former railroad tunnel, which emerges onto the mesmerizing sea, rocks and sand of Guajataca Beach.
Guajataca Forest Reserve
The exquisite Guajataca Forest Reserve, or Bosque de Guajataca in Spanish, lies inside the municipality of Isabela, about five miles inland from Puerto Rico’s northwest coast in the heart of karst country.
With its extensive footpaths, limestone caves and an observation tower, Guajataca Reserve packs a lot into a relatively small forest. Signs mark the caves and trails and explain the reserve’s natural history for visitors.
The reserve’s most popular features are its stark, bat-filled, limestone caves with their underground streams, walkways and hypnotic subterranean waterfalls that wash over craggy stalactites and stalagmites.
Be sure to bring a flashlight (the minimum requirement for a budding spelunking enthusiast).
Plan to visit the Cave of the Wind (Cueva del Viento), the largest and most dramatic in the reserve. Just outside the caverns, nature lovers can revel in the reserve’s biological diversity, brimming with myriad bird species and plenty of lush greenery.
Take a stroll along the looping two-mile Interpretative Trail; it’s easily walkable with excellent views of the forest and the unusual birds that call it home. If you’re still itching to explore, you’ll also find plenty of lesser-used trails for some rougher, bushwhacking fun.
To reach the reserve you’ll need a car, as it truly is off the beaten path.
From San Juan, drive west along Highway 2 until you reach the turnoff for Route 446, which is a bit of a narrower and bumpier road. Head south until you reach the Guajataca Forest Reserve entrance, parking lot and visitor’s center.
Straddling the municipal borders of San Sebastián and Quebradillas, and just kissing the southeastern coroner of Isabela, you’ll find Guajataca Lake (Lago Guajataca).
This artificial reservoir, only a short drive from the Guajataca Forest Preserve (take route 476 south to Highway 119), offers people weary of Puerto Rico’s astonishing surplus of sand and saltwater an invigorating freshwater reprieve.
The tranquil reservoir was created when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam across the Guajataca River in 1929.
Though swimming is not allowed here, it’s a prime spot to fish for bass, catfish and perch; cool off on a hot summer’s day (the breeze around the lake is typically much cooler than the rest of the island); kayak on an eco-tour alongside the reservoir’s woodland corners; and generally escape the crowds cramming the island’s more touristy attractions.
Guajataca Tunnel and Beach
The Guajataca Tunnel, just north of Highway 2 and about 12 miles from Lake Guajataca, is an abandoned train tunnel left over from Puerto Rico’s sugarcane-producing days. The passageway forms a dark and mystical path leading toward stunningly picturesque Guajataca Beach.
The contrast between the sunlight and white sand of Guajataca Beach — a popular spot with local surfers — and the murky tunnel make this short walk a pleasant adventure.
For fans of the fantasy novel (or films) “The Lord of the Rings,” it’s akin to leaving gloomy Mordor for the sun-drenched warmth of the Shire.
The waves breaking off the beach are a little wild for a leisurely swim, but the surf and inviting sand make a perfect backdrop for vacation photos, leisurely strolls or setting out an afternoon picnic while soaking in the incredible natural beauty.