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The Associated Press
Travel Puerto Rico High Country: Sweet, Cool Air, Lush Vegetation And Leisurely Pace
By SUZANNE MURPHY-LARRONDE
November 11, 2002
JAYUYA, Puerto Rico (AP) - When city folk from Puerto Rico's populated northeastern region yearn to relax and indulge in nature, it's more than likely they'll head "a la isla" or "out on the island," far from the bustle and congestion of metropolitan San Juan.
While they may opt for the delights of sun and surf at a nearby beach, they're just as likely to head for the less-populated high country of the Cordillera Central, where the air is sweet and cool, the vegetation lush and the pace leisurely.
Like a long, elevated spine, the Cordillera Central traverses Puerto Rico from east to west for about 60 miles, unveiling a side of the island seen by few tourists.
An unhurried ramble along the western portion of the chain's Panoramic Route reveals a world of dense forest reserves, small towns and undulating fields of coffee. And it offers a step back through history for a glimpse of a lost Indian civilization that was still flourishing here less than 1,000 years ago.
As you drive along, you'll be treated to spectacular views of cloud-covered peaks and subtropical valleys that stretch north to the Atlantic Ocean and southwards to the Caribbean coastline.
Count on two to three days for a foray into this area and keep on hand a detailed map pinpointing the Panoramic Route, a network of two-lane, blacktop roads which winds ever upward in a series of switchback turns. Gas stations are plentiful on the trip's first leg, but become less so the higher you go.
For snacking, keep an eye out for small grocery stores known as "colmados" and roadside fruit stands that sell "coco frio," coconut water served ice-cold from its unhusked shell.
Plan to spend a night or two in a historical "parador," one of the island's small country inns. Several in this region are located in restored, 19th-century coffee plantations such as the popular Hacienda Gripinas.
Begin your trip from San Juan by taking the Arecibo Expressway and Route 2 to the town of Manati. Turn south on Route 149 as it climbs through haystack-like karstic hills past the town of Ciales and intersects with Panoramic Route 143.
This 60-mile journey takes approximately two hours and places you at Divisoria, a small community which straddles 7,000-acre Toro Negro Forest.
Today, the reserve is home to dozens of varieties of plants and majestic trees, including towering, slender-stalked mountain palm, feathery bamboo and giant tree fern.
West of the intersection lies the man-made Guineo Reservoir, the island's highest lake, and to the east the Dona Juana Recreational Area with its ranger station, picnic tables and freshwater swimming pool.
You can follow one of several slippery hiking trails to a deserted watch tower or to 200-foot Dona Juana Falls.
As you travel west, you will pass Cerro Maravilla, its flanks carpeted with lush vegetation and a silvery forest of communication towers crowning its summit. Nearby are some striking lookouts onto the south coast and the Caribbean.
Farther along the road lies the base of Cerro de Punta, at 4,390 feet the island's tallest peak. A steep, one-lane road leads to the top for still more panoramic views of San Juan and the Atlantic.
Now, leave the Panoramic Route and head north on winding Route 144 for a look at Jayuya (heye-YOU-yah), one of Puerto Rico's highest towns.
Nestled in a lush valley and surrounded by the mountain summits of Cerro de Punta and neighboring Los Tres Picachos, rural and refreshingly cool Jayuya is the home of remote coffee "fincas" or plantations, ancient petroglyphs and some of the island's finest woodworkers, many of whom take their inspiration from the region's natural beauties and early Taino Indian culture.
To learn more about the legacies of some of the Caribbean's earliest inhabitants, stop by the Jayuya Archaeological Museum, home of hand-crafted native pottery and sacred ceremonial objects known as "cemis," from which the museum itself takes its fantastic shape.
If possible, spend the night in this rarefied corner of the Cordillera where you will be lulled to sleep by a chorus of "coquis," Puerto Rico's native tree frogs.
On your way back down from Jayuya, turn northwest on Route 140 and continue past Utuado on Route 111 to the Caguana Indian Ceremonial Park for another glimpse of the island's pre-Colonial history.
The most important of some 30 Indian centers found in the area, Caguana is set in its own 13-acre botanical garden where royal palm, guava, cedar and ceiba abound.
Its main attraction is 10 "bateyes," rectangular ball courts where Taino Indians once gathered to play a semi-religious game similar to soccer.
Of particular interest are the many petroglyphs which adorn these rock-bound fields and date back some 800 years.
The park also features replicas of native huts or "bohios" and a pocket-size museum highlighting important archaeological finds. Admission is free.
Double back on Route 111 to Route 10, going via Adjuntas, a pleasant mountain enclave with agricultural roots.
The surrounding fields yield a highly esteemed brand of coffee, but it is as a producer of citron that the town has gained international recognition. Facilities here process this amorphously shaped citrus fruit and ship its finely cubed skin to the United States and Europe to flavor cakes and other sugary confections.
Pick up the Panoramic Route on Route 518 as it continues west, crossing Lake Garzas Dam and skirting Guilarte Forest Reserve.
Here you can climb a flower-fringed trail to the summit of 3,900-foot Mount Guilarte for unobstructed vistas of both coasts and a look at some of the 278 tree species which thrive in this dense domain.
Continue west on Routes 525 and 135 through the rolling hills of compact coffee bushes to Los Rabanos, known more commonly to locals as Castaner.
Coffee cultivation is said to have been introduced here from the French Caribbean in the early 1700s. By the end of the following century, the island's premium blend had earned itself a reputation in Europe for its winning combination of aroma and flavor. To this day, the dark green plants still flourish here and annual bean harvests pump an estimated $70 million into more than a dozen mountain rural communities.
On the last leg now, head for the coffee stronghold of Maricao, on the western edge of the Cordillera Central, and the Maricao Forest Reserve.
Puerto Rico's smallest municipality is also one of the prettiest and boasts its own fish hatchery (open daily to the public and located off Route 410) which stocks island reservoirs.
In February there's the annual Maricao Coffee Festival. Held in the town's diminutive main plaza, it features a parade, folkloric entertainment, arts and crafts and agricultural exhibits.
If you go ...
WEATHER: Temperatures in the Cordillera are much cooler than on the coast. Bring a sweater for the evenings and sunscreen and hat for daytime explorations.
GETTING AROUND: Rent a car at Munoz Marin International airport or from any of the major agencies in the San Juan area.
INFORMATION: For a listing of hostelries in all price ranges, contact the Puerto Rico Tourism Company at 666 Fifth Ave., 15th Fl., New York, NY, 10103, or call (800) 223-6530 or (212) 586-6262.
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