Vega Alta and Vega Baja are on fertile low-lying land divided by Río Cibuca, and it was here—not Dorado—where gold was found on the north coast. And naturally, where there was gold there were conquistadors. During colonization, the river’s shores were populated by the Spanish, who used Taíno labor to mine the valuable mineral, which was washed into the river’s channels by the strong ocean current. After the gold rush depleted the deposits, then came the sugar rush: The rich, level soil made the area perfect for growing sugarcane, and many slaves were brought in to work the land. In 1848 there was an attempted revolt among the slaves in Vega Baja, which was squelched when one of the main agitators was killed.
The highlight of the Vegas is definitely Punta Cerro Gordo, a gorgeous piece of coastline that boasts one of the island’s best publicly maintained beaches and a great camping area.
Believed to have been built around 1776 (the time Vega Baja was established), Museo de Arte Casa Alonso (34 Calle Betances, Vega Baja, 787/855-1364, Tues.-Sat. 9am-noon and 1pm-4pm, free) is a two-story, 2,000-square-foot neoclassic creole-style home constructed of wood, bricks, and stone. The interior has been restored and now serves as an art and history museum, displaying, among other objects, many of the artifacts recovered from the home, including ceramics, tiles, stoneware, and coins. In the first-floor courtyard is a 40-foot well, which provided water to the home’s residents, the first of whom was Vega Baja mayor Pablo Soliveras from Catalan. In addition to a collection of 19th-century furnishings, the house contains a room devoted to Puerto Rican popular music that includes photographs, phonographs, records, and radios.
Puerto Nuevo (Carr. 686, km 12, at Carr. 692, Vega Baja, 787/858-6447) has two parts to it. One part is a balneario, a free, city-maintained recreation area with a lovely natural lagoon. Facilities include covered picnic shelters, outdoor showers, a playground, and a variety of food vendors selling fried snacks. Directly east of the balneario is a narrow road that takes you to a spot of wilderness coast where rocky outcroppings and soft patches of beach compete for space. Sandy pull-offs into the low-lying shrubs and trees that line the beach in some places suggest the area is something of a lovers’ lane at night. But on weekend days and holidays, it’s a popular party beach for teenagers and young adults. There are no facilities, and the property is not well maintained, as evidenced by the amount of litter.
El Trece Recreational Area (Carr. 160, km 13, Vega Baja) is a 13-acre city-maintained sports and recreation park on the Indio River where visitors can swim in natural pools of fresh river water. There are also hiking trails, picnic shelters, bathroom facilities, a handball court, and a grass volleyball court.
Reserva Natural Laguna Tortuguero (Carr. 687, km 1.2, Vega Baja, 787/858-6617 or 787/858-5020, reserve open Wed.-Sun. 6am-5pm, office open Mon.-Fri. 8am-4pm) is a two-mile-long lagoon surrounded by swamps, marshlands, and karst mountains. A fishing dock provides a great place to angle for tilapia. In addition to fish, the lagoon is home to an estimated 1,000 caimans, a species of crocodile, believed to have originated from baby caimans that were imported from South America in the 1970s as pets and eventually released. They grow to six feet and can be vicious, but they’re typically encountered only at night when the lagoon is closed.
The Vega Baja Eco-Tourism Office (Laguna Tortuguero, Carr. 687, km 1, 787/807-1822, Mon.-Fri. 8am-3pm, reservations required) offers guided nature tours through the lagoon. It also operates tours at El Trece recreation area and other areas.
Balneario Cerro Gordo
Even if there weren’t a shortage of beaches suitable for swimming on the north coast, Balneario Cerro Gordo (Carr. 690, Vega Alta, 787/883-2730 or 787/883-2515, Wed.-Sun. 8:30am-6pm, parking: $2 cars, $3 vans) would still be a wildly popular place to plunk down in the sun or frolic in the surf. It is a large, drop-dead gorgeous spot of forested coastline with dramatic cliffs, a rocky peninsula, and a palm-lined beach. There’s a large protected cove that’s perfect for swimming, and on the other side of the point are rougher waters ideal for surfing.
Facilities include bathrooms, showers, food vendors, lifeguards, and picnic tables. On the eastern end, on a shady mountaintop, are some great campsites ($13 per person) with ocean views. Expect a crowd on weekends and holidays.
It’s all about the celebration of food in the Vegas. In mid-July, Vega Alta heralds the versatility of breadfruit with the Festival de Panapén (787/883-5900). In addition to performances by musicians and dancers, there are arts and crafts booths, food kiosks, and a breadfruit-cooking contest.
In Vega Baja, it’s all about syrup at the Festival del Melao Melao (787/858-6617) held in early October. Artisans and food vendors line the Plaza de Recreo, where wood-carving competitions are held.
Vega Alta is 39 kilometers (21 miles) west of San Juan. Take Highway 22 west to Carretera 690 south. Vega Baja is 49 kilometers (30 miles) west of San Juan. Take Highway 22 west to Carretera 2 west.
Vega Baja Casa de Cultura y Turismo (Calle Betances at Tulio Otero, Vega Baja, 787/858-6447, Mon.-Fri. 8am-4:30pm) offers information on the history and culture of the area and provides tours upon request.