Sights in Isabela, Puerto Rico

The area known today as Isabela was once ruled by Cacique Mabodamaca, one of the island’s most powerful Taíno chiefs. Legend has it that when faced with capture by the Spanish colonists, he leapt to his death off the cliffs of Isabela. When his body was recovered, the medallion that signified his lofty place in the hierarchy of Taíno culture was missing from around his neck and is still sought among the cliffs today.

A striking monument to Mabodamaca exists at the intersection of Carretera 2 and Carretera 113. A large bust of the great Indian chief has been carved into the side of the mountain, his medallion respectfully replaced around his neck. The monument not only serves as a reminder of the Taíno culture that once prevailed in the area, but it also marks the northern entrance to Puerto Rico’s west coast.

The first Spanish settlement in this area was called San Antonio de la Tuna. The date of its origin is unknown, but it was situated on the banks of the Río Guajataca, which separates Isabela from Quebradillas. In the early 1800s the residents of the town made a formal request to the island’s governor asking that the town be relocated closer to the coast, and in 1819 a new town was established and called Isabela after Queen Isabel of Spain.

The town of Isabela features a charming little plaza anchored by a church, as are all town plazas. But most visitors head to the municipality’s gorgeous beaches along coastal road Carretera 466. This is where you’ll find lots of opportunities for swimming, surfing, diving, and horseback riding, as well as a variety of hotels, restaurants, and bars.

The beach in Isabela. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.
The beach in Isabela. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.

The westward drive along Carretera 466 is pretty remarkable. The long stretch of road passes through undeveloped land lined by palm groves and the sea on one side and flat grassy plains grazed upon by herds of cattle on the other. Beyond the plains is a huge ridge that runs parallel to the beach, creating a dramatic backdrop to the pastoral scene.

Those seeking an idyllic patch of wilderness beach must hurry if they hope to find it in Isabela, though: Condo construction has exploded, and it won’t be long before everyone discovers this pristine parcel of paradise.


Monumento al Indio

Monumento al Indio (intersection of Carr. 2 and Carr. 113 on the westbound side) is an astonishing artistic achievement made in memorial to the area’s Taíno Indians and their cacique, Mabodamaca. A large bust of the chief has been carved into the side of a mountain, marking the road to Isabela and the west coast.

Monumento al Indio. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.
Monumento al Indio. Photo © Suzanne Van Atten.

San Antonio de la Tuna Ruins

San Antonio de la Tuna Ruins (from Carr. 2, turn south just west of Carr. 113) is the site of the area’s first town, which was relocated and renamed Isabela in 1819. The original town was situated on Río Guajataca and was believed to have been established around 1725. The site is marked by the ruins of the town’s church. Arrange a tour by trolley by contacting the tourism office (787/872-6400) in the alcaldía (city hall) on Plaza Recreo de Isabela.

Bosque Estatal de Guajataca

Bosque Estatal de Guajataca (Carr. 446 south of Carr. 2, 787/724-3724) is a 2,357-acre forest reserve in a mountainous region south of Isabela. Be advised, though: The drive here is not for the fainthearted. The closer you get to the forest, the narrower the road becomes until it’s just one car wide, despite the fact it’s a two-way road. Adding to the thrill, the road climbs steadily upward and takes many sharp twists and turns around mountains with steep, unprotected drop-offs just inches from the road’s pavement. You know you’re close—and none too soon—when you encounter a sign warning drivers to roll down their windows, turn off their radios, and honk their horns as they travel around the blind curves.

The forest is well worth the hairy drive to get there, though. A subtropical moist forest that receives 75 inches of rain a year, it’s distinguished by its unique karst topography featuring underground limestone caves and dramatic haystack hills called mogotes. Because its temperature wavers between 75°F and 79°F, it’s a great place to escape the heat during the hot summer.

Bosque Estatal de Guajataca is rich in indigenous flora and fauna. It is home to 186 species of trees, including Honduras mahogany and teak hibiscus, and is home to 45 species of birds, including the Puerto Rican woodpecker, screech owl, and bullfinch. It’s also where you can find the rare, endangered Puerto Rican boa constrictor.

There are 27 miles of trails in the forest that lead to such sites as a lookout tower and El Viento Cave, a natural limestone cave formation with stalactites, stalagmites, and columns. There is also a 1.5-mile interpretive trail. Primitive camping is allowed, but a permit is required.

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