I had envisioned Puerto Rico as an island surrounded by deep blue ocean waters and bordered by long sandy beaches with hundreds of palm trees swaying nearby. And that is indeed part of this Caribbean island. Puerto Rico even has 270 miles of coastline and 300 beaches to choose from. If you’re looking for a beachfront getaway that’s perfect for relaxing, you’ll definitely find it here.
But the interior of Puerto Rico is equally captivating and relatively unknown. I was therefore delighted to have the opportunity to spend a few days getting to know the less visited regions of the island. Hopefully I can convince future visitors to go off the beach too, if only for a day.
This trip was organized by Discover Puerto Rico, but all opinions are my own.
1. Make your own cheese
I knew my day got off to a good start when it started in a cheese factory. Vaca Negra, an artisan cheesemaker in Hatillo, a region on the north coast of Puerto Rico, was our first stop of the morning.
Founded in 2008 by Wanda Otero, a microbiologist, Vaca Negra is located in the heart of Puerto Rico’s dairy country. They source raw milk from the 50 nearby farms and transform it into European-style cheeses and probiotic yogurt.
As the cheesemaker grew and expanded, a cafe was added with indoor and outdoor seating, along with a menu of farm-to-table snacks and appetizers. We were met by the cafe’s chef, Gia, for a tour of the property.
We peaked at the storage area, which is kept at a constant 50 degrees as the cheese ages. Hundreds of rounds of cheese were piled on floor-to-ceiling shelves. Then we watched an employee cut large rounds of cheese in preparation for sale and shipment.
Finally, we were treated to a tasting of both cheeses and yogurt. We started with samples of Montebello (similar to manchego) and Le Petite (similar to blue cheese or gorgonzola). Then we tried guava, mango and coconut yogurts. Everything was delicious. If I lived in the area this would be a regular stop.
For a very special experience, consider booking the Make Your Own Cheese tour with Vaca Negra. This begins with an informative session on the dairy industry and cheese making in Puerto Rico, followed by a walking tour of the property, and ends with the chance to make your own cheese. The cheese is matured for 2 months and can be collected by guests or arranged for shipment.
2. Mountain Zip Lining
It had been nearly 10 years since I last zip-lining, so as the van made its way into the mountains, I was both nervous and excited. We went to Toro Verde Adventure Park, located in the Municipality of Orocovis, a region of central Puerto Rico nearly 4000 feet above sea level.
While most of our group opted for the series of seven zip lines, one brave member chose? El Monstruo, or ‘The monster’. As the longest zipline in America, this 8,300-foot cable is equivalent to 28 football fields. It became famous after Jimmy Fallon witnessed it on an episode of The Tonight Show† When I was told that riders can hit speeds of up to 95 miles per hour, I knew this wasn’t for me.
So the five remaining members of our group got our harnesses and helmets and started the hike to our first zipline. Over the course of 2 hours we would fly over seven lines, each a little longer than the last.
Getting off the platform of the first zipline was the hardest part of the day. Once that was behind me, I knew I could trust the staff and equipment to keep me safe as I flew over the forest. Finally, we got to the last line, “Flight Of The Phoenix”, which was 2,526 feet long and 623 feet above the ground. By the time I got to the other side I found myself disappointed that this experience was over. If there had been another zipline I would have continued.
A truck met us at the end and drove us back to the starting point. Our entire group was giddy with excitement as we recounted our experiences.
Between most zip lines there is a short and easy hike, but between lines six and seven there was a long uphill trek. Anyone wishing to complete this experience should have sturdy, narrow-toed shoes and be prepared to walk approximately a mile over uneven terrain.
Pro tip: Taking photos with a zip-lining can be difficult, but Toro Verde has two convenient options. First, photos can be requested in advance and a photographer shoots at the end of two lines. Second, a camera strapped to the wrist can be rented. Motion sensors along the first three lines launch both photos and videos. A link to photos and videos will be sent via email later in the day. Members of our party tried both options and were very happy with the results.
3. Visit a sustainable farm
While I was interested in exploring a sustainable farm, I wasn’t too excited about it. The weather was hot, I was tired of ziplining, and returning to my hotel room for a nap sounded tempting. So imagine my surprise when this turned out to be one of the highlights of my 8 days in Puerto Rico.
Frutos del Guacabo is located on just a quarter of an acre of land in the Manati region, on the north coast of the island. But despite its small size, a wide variety of agriculture takes place here. Along the long driveway are peppers, tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers, herbs and fruit trees. Flowers seem to add color and decoration along the driveway, but they are all edible and very popular with local chefs for covering food and cocktails.
In the center of the property are a dozen goats, producing milk which is made into cheese. At the back of the farm are greenhouses protecting hydroponically grown lettuce.
Effron Robles started Frutos del Guacabo in 2010 to provide restaurants and supermarkets with locally grown produce, something that was previously lacking on the island. He also wanted to introduce vegetables that were not normally known or used in Puerto Rican cuisine. Today he works with 50 farmers in a cooperative to provide residents, restaurants and markets with fresher and healthier food.
We started with a tasty lunch made with all local ingredients, many grown on this farm. Then we toured the property to learn about the plants, farming style and evolving food scene in Puerto Rico. Finally we had the chance to milk the goats, something that seems much easier than it actually is.
Tours of Frutos del Guacabo are offered 6 days a week, Monday through Saturday. Lunch can be added to any tour which I highly recommend. They are also happy to accommodate any dietary restrictions.
4. Explore a cave system
I’ve always been intrigued by caves, so when I heard that I was going to explore one of the largest cave systems in the world, I was extremely excited. Located in the northwest region of Puerto Rico, Camuy Cave Park is a complex of 10 miles (16 kilometers) of caves, 220 caves, and an underground river. The park encompasses only part of the entire system that scientists estimate may have as many as 800 caves.
We started by receiving hard hats and then walked downhill to the entrance of the cave system. Our guide introduced himself and gave an introduction to the tour. Then we walked into the darkness. The air felt dense, like a tropical forest after a rainstorm. Sometimes it was hard to see, and then a little bit of sunshine would appear like a light at the end of a tunnel. Around us were hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites, the largest at 17 feet tall. It was both an eerie and surreal experience.
Although there is some lighting in the cave, it is wise to also bring a small flashlight or use the light on your mobile phone. The path through the cave is paved, but it twists and turns, and sometimes it’s hard to see the next step ahead. All guests are requested to stay on the trails and not step into the surrounding mud, which is very slippery.
Camuy Cave Park was heavily flooded after Hurricane Maria in 2017 and has since been closed for 3 and a half years. It reopened in mid-2021 after much work was done to upgrade the pathways, railings and viewing platforms. Unfortunately, most of the bats have fled this cave system due to the flooding and have not yet returned.
After a 30 minute walk through the caves and caverns we retraced our steps – this time uphill – to the entrance of the park. Anyone with reduced mobility can request a ride back to the start.
Pro tip: The Camuy Cave Park does not currently have a website. Advance booking is not necessary and tickets can be purchased at the entrance. In the event of heavy rainfall, all tours will be canceled.
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