Planning Your Time on Puerto Rico’s North Coast

The north coast of Puerto Rico is a wild expanse of rocky coastline and gorgeous ocean views, hilly karst country, and green farmland.

Playa Sardinera in Hatillo. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.
Playa Sardinera in Hatillo. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.

It’s also thick with industrial plants, shopping centers, fast-food restaurants, road construction, and traffic. Despite the urban sprawl, though, the north coast has a lot going for it.

Although craggy, rocky shores and rough waters can make finding the ideal swimming spot a challenge, there are several spectacular ocean-side jewels worth seeking out—at the resorts in Dorado, Punta Cerro Gordo in Vega Alta, and Playa Mar Chiquita in Manatí. Meanwhile, the powerful waves along the north coast make for excellent surfing, especially around Manatí and Arecibo. The major sport on the north coast, though, is golf. Dorado is home to several classic courses.

There are three major attractions on the north coast. First there are the world-class golf courses in Dorado, just 30 minutes from San Juan. The other two are the Observatorio de Arecibo, which is the world’s largest radio telescope, and Las Cavernas del Río Camuy, a major cave system with hiking trails and a nature park. Both are about a 30-minute drive south of Arecibo into the island’s mountainous karst country. The unusual topography alone is worth the drive. An intricate system of underground limestone caves creates enormous sinkholes and haystack hills—called mogotes—on the earth’s surface. It’s a stunning sight completely unlike anywhere else on the island—and nearly the world.

Travel map of North Coast, Puerto Rico
North Coast

Planning Your Time

Puerto Rico’s north coast is a great place for a day trip, an overnight stay, or a long weekend. Thanks to two major roadways, it’s easily accessible whether you’re approaching it from San Juan or from the west coast.

Despite what you might think, Highway 22, a multilane divided toll road with six tollbooths between San Juan and Arecibo, is the best route along the north coast. Although construction projects and commuter rush hours can slow your progress, it is the most expeditious route. The alternative is Carretera 2, a congested multilane commercial route that bisects the island’s longest, most unsightly stretch of urban sprawl. It should be avoided when possible.

Dorado is the farthest eastern municipality, about 17 miles and 30 minutes from San Juan. A popular vacation spot, it has lovely beaches, luxurious resorts, and world-class golf courses. Farther westward are the municipalities of Vega Alta and Manatí, which have some spectacular beaches—Balneario Cerro Gordo and Playa Mar Chiquita, respectively—that are ideal for swimming.

View from the campgrounds at Balneario Cerro Gordo in Vega Alta. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.
View from the campgrounds at Balneario Cerro Gordo in Vega Alta. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.

But the most popular sights along the north coast are Las Cavernas del Río Camuy and Observatorio de Arecibo, both in the southern tips of their respective municipalities and about 1.5 hours from San Juan. It’s possible to visit both sights on a day trip if you get an early start. While in Arecibo, be sure to check out Cueva del Indio, an amazing geological and archaeological wonder featuring petrified sand dunes and Taíno petroglyphs.

The best selection of hotels and restaurants can be found at either end of the north coast. To the east is Dorado, where the accommodations are upscale resorts and pricier restaurants, and to the west is Hatillo, home to more budget-minded hotels and eateries.

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