I have to say, the Western side of Puerto Rico was my favorite, even though I loved El Yunque. There is SO much on this side of the island, and I thought that the Karst formations here were fascinating and endlessly beautiful.
First, I’m going to include Ponce in my discussion of the Western side of the island. This was the first city that we stayed at in Puerto Rico (driving for ~1.5-2 hours after a full day of airplane travel was not pleasant), and it was our introduction to real Puerto Rico, rather than the place that I had built up in my head. It was my awakening to the fact that Puerto Rico is its own country, with its own, unique culture (which I discuss in my previous Puerto Rico post- link), The architecture here is unlike anything I have ever seen in the US, and it is really a testament to the age of the city (founded in 1692- which is pretty old for the “new” world). Just taking some time to walk around and appreciate the buildings downtown is a great use of any traveler’s time. However, on top of the lovely buildings like the Cathedral of Our Lady Guadelupe and the Parque de Bombas, there are also a bunch of nice museums in Ponce. I have heard that the art
museum here is well wroth the trip, but I was only able to visit the Ponce Museum of History, which I enjoyed as it gave me a chance to both practice my Spanish reading abilities and learn more about Puerto Rico. This museum is also free, but be sure to sign the guest book when you visit. Finally, keep in mind that a lot of museums may be closed on Monday or Tuesday in Ponce, so try to do a little research when deciding what days you will be there and what you want to see. Also, I would suggest doing a little reading on safety in Ponce, because there have been some issues with crime against tourists in this area- link .
While in Ponce, I also visited Toro Negro for some hiking in the rainforest. Trying to use a phone GPS to find this place proved to be quite difficult, so I would suggest following the directions on the site I have linked to above if you want to give it a visit. The site says that the ranger station here may no longer be manned, but when we went it was open and we were able to get maps and suggestions for what trails to see in the time we had. Not having a lot of time, because we decided to visit last minute and had some trouble finding it, we just hiked to Charco La Confesora, which was a nice swimming spot, and wasn’t too busy (especially compared to El Yunque!). There is enough here to spend the whole day exploring, however, as there are some architectural points of interest (an old observation tower and a swimming pool- no consensus as to whether this is open now or not) as well as some waterfalls- Dona Petra and Dona Juana Falls. I would have loved to spend more time there exploring, and it was so much quieter than El Yunque. I would highly suggest spending some time here if you are looking to experience the rainforest of Puerto Rico at all.
Finally, to my favorite part of western Puerto Rico- the north where
the Karst is. The place that I read about most for this area was Rio Camuy Cave Park , and since I love caves, I absolutely had to visit. First, here’s what is great about this place: the ride and hike into the cave are mind-blowingly beautiful; I just love descending through the forest into the shady caves, and it was wonderful to see how the life of the forest really invades these caves and adapts to life here. The formations in the main part of the cave are massive, and finale of the tour is an overlook down to a river that gives the cave its name, and in my mind, makes it s unique spot worth checking
out. All that being said, this is not the best cave tour I have been on. For the size of the cave, the tour was far too long, and this was due to several things: the tour guide had to say everything in Spanish and English (probably my fault- let’s be honest), the trails were very slippery and some people had to take them slowly for safety’s sake, and the tour groups were huge, so everything took longer than it would have otherwise. It really felt like they were just trying to get as many people through the cave as they could, but even so, if you aren’t careful, you might not be able to visit, because the park wisely caps how many people can come per day. So, if you do decide to stop by (the views are worth the downfalls of the tour, as long as you get there early enough), come early! If you don’t, you may need to wait for a long time for your tour (some reviews I read said 3 hours- not sure if they are exaggerating or not, but I got there by 10a and I had to wait an hour) or you may not get to go at all. Once you get there, you will get a number as you drive in (your place in line), then you pay for parking, park, pay for your ticket, and wait for your number to be called. Keep the process in mind, and I think the visit will be much more enjoyable; I didn’t have problems because I read up on it beforehand.
An alternative spot to visit (or a great addition) is Cueva Ventana
or the Window Cave (aptly named). On this tour, you will climb through two caves. The first is quite lovely in that there are tree roots and even little plants growing in the cave, surviving on the bare minimum of light. The second cave has a room full of bats, which was amazing to see, especially at such close distance. It then leads to the cave’s namesake, a large opening that looks out onto the countryside and a curving river. The view alone is worth the price, honestly, but the wildlife that we saw in these caves was exceptional. I saw my first amblypygi here! I liked this tour a little better than Rio Camuy, but there were a few things that concerned me. First, I thought we were disturbing the bats, and while some of the visitors were just shining lights on the animals or screaming a little because they were afraid, I know from my PhD work that this can add up to some serious problems for the animals. Also, the tour groups here were also very large, which made it hard for the guides to make sure that people were following their directions. Overall, it was a great place, however, and both caves really gave me the opportunity to get to know this beautiful area.