Christopher Columbus is believed to have first disembarked on the island of Puerto Rico at Bahía de Guánica in 1493. At that time, Guánica was the indigenous capital of the island, led by the culture’s most powerful Taíno Indian, Cacique Agüeybaná. Guánica also played a role in the Spanish-American War when it was fired on by the USS Gloucester and surrendered to U.S. troops in 1898.
Guánica is so completely different from the rest of Puerto Rico that you’d think you were on a whole other island. The flat, dry, desert-like landscape is so unusual, in fact, that a large part of the municipality has been designated a United Nations Biosphere Reserve in an effort to preserve and study its unique environment. Called Bosque Estatal de Guánica, the 10,000-acre reserve contains hiking trails, caves, beaches, and the ruins of a Spanish fort, among other sights. The coast offers great snorkeling and diving.
Guánica also has a burgeoning tourism infrastructure featuring several interesting accommodations varying from a quaint, funky B&B to an all-luxury resort.
Bosque Estatal de Guánica
The primary draw for visitors to Guánica is the astounding landscape of Bosque Estatal de Guánica (Carr. 334, 787/821-5706, 787/724-3724, or 787/721-5495, Mon.-Fri. 9am-5pm, free). This 10,000-acre subtropical dry forest sits atop petrified coral reefs millions of years old and features a variety of environments. On the southern side you’ll find the dry scrub forest, featuring sun-bleached rocky soil, cacti, and stunted, twisted trees. There are also patches of evergreen forest along the upper eastern and western parts of the forest, where you can find Spanish moss, mistletoe, bromeliads, and orchids.
The rest of the forest has deciduous growth, where 40 percent of the trees lose their leaves between December and April. Agave and campeche trees, a source of red and black dye once exported to Europe for hundreds of years, are common to the area. Other flora among the forest’s 700 species includes prickly pear cactus, sea grape, milkweed, mahogany, and yuca. Be sure to avoid the poisonous chicharrón, a shrub with reddish piney leaves that can irritate the skin on contact.
Guánica is of special interest to bird-watchers. More than 80 species have been identified here, including the pearly-eyed thrasher, a variety of hummingbirds, the Puerto Rican mango, and the Puerto Rican nightjar, a bird that nests on the ground and remains nearly motionless all day until dusk. Other species of wildlife include the crested toad, a variety of geckos and lizards, land crabs, and green and leatherback turtles. Mongooses are also present in the area, having been introduced to the island many years ago to kill rats on the sugar plantations. The vicious little varmints are to be avoided at all costs.
There are 36 miles of trails in the forest. From the main entrance off Carretera 334, follow the long narrow road to the information center, where you’ll find the trailheads and where you can obtain trail maps and tips from the helpful English-speaking rangers. The most popular hikes include: a three-mile, 1.5-hour hike to the ruins of Fuerte Capron, once a lookout tower for the Spanish Armada and the site of an observation tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s; a 40-minute loop trail ideal for bird-watching; a 35-minute hike to see the ancient guayacán tree (300 or 1,000 years old, depending on the source); and a 2-hour hike to underground caves, which requires special permission from the information center and accompaniment by a guide.
If you’re planning to hike in the forest, be sure to wear sturdy shoes or hiking boots and bring a hat, insect repellent, sunscreen, and plenty of fresh drinking water.
Should you prefer a drive-by tour of Bosque Estatal de Guánica, take the breathtakingly beautiful scenic route Carretera 333, which starts in the town of Guánica and traverses eastward along the southern rim of the forest. The curvy road snakes up the side of a steep incline that grows thick with cactus and bougainvillea. When the road crests, prepare yourself for a stunning bird’s-eye view of the ocean and Bahía de Guánica. Continue eastward and you pass the ruins of a Spanish lighthouse on the left, and on the right is Area de Pesca Recreativa, a shady remote patch of beach and a fishing spot with no facilities except for one picnic shelter. The road leading to the recreation area is bumpy and deeply rutted, but it is possible to travel without a four-wheel drive if you proceed with caution.
Continue eastward along Carretera 333 and you encounter Balneario Caña Gorda (Carr. 333, km 5.8), a large, modest, shady public beach with bathrooms, covered picnic shelters, a roped-off swimming area, and a wheelchair-accessible area. The facilities are fairly worn but well maintained. Other features include a basketball court and lots of parking.
Next on the route is Punta San Jacinto, where you can catch a ferry (Carr. 333, 787/821-4941, Tues.-Sun. during high season and Fri.-Sun. during low season, 9am-5pm, every hour on the hour, $5) to Gilligan’s Island, a small cayo just a few hundred yards offshore featuring a huge shallow lagoon of aquamarine water perfect for swimming and lots of great snorkeling and diving spots. It was tagged Gilligan’s Island by the local tourist trade as a marketing gimmick, and the name caught on.
Carretera 333 ends at Bahía de la Ballerna, a lovely sandy beach area and a great snorkeling and diving spot known as Submarine Gardens.