Puerto Rico’s coastline is protected in many places by coral reefs and cays which are fun to visit and explore. La Cordillera is a nature reserve of cays and rocks off the northeast tip of Puerto Rico, including Icacos, Diablo, Ratones and Las Cucarachas, which have a rich coral reef, clear water and sandy beaches. There is an abandoned limestone quarry on the south side of Icacos.
The cays are easily accessible by boat from Las Croabas or Fajardo. You can also snorkel or scuba around the cays by seaplane from San Juan, Zoltan knows all the best spots, Seaplanes in Paradise, US$150 per person for four people, T7250243, www.spiderlink.net/seaplanes. There are many sailboat excursions from Fajardo with snorkelling, lunch and drinks, usually US$55 per person on catamarans (also known as cattlemarans taking 49 people), more on the monohulls. Also sailboats from Marina del Rey, San Juan and Parguera.
A ferry, Old San Juan (Pier Two) – Hato Rey, Cataño, crosses every 30 minutes, 0600-2200, weather permitting, T7881155, US$0.50, to Cataño. In October 1999 an enormous statue of Columbus made by a Georgian, Zurab Tsereteli, is to be assembled in sections here as a major tourist attraction. From Cataño waterfront. you can catch a público (US$1 per person), or bus C37 to about five blocks from the Bacardí rum distillery. Route 888, Km 2.6, T7881500,There are free conducted tours around the plant Mon-Sat, every 30 mins 0830-1630, travelling from one building to the next by a little open motor train. Closed for Christmas holidays.
On Route 2, shortly before Bayamón, is the island’s earliest settlement, Caparra, established by Ponce de León in 1508. Ruins of the fort can still be seen and there is a Museum of the Conquest and Colonization of Puerto Rico. T7814795. Open daily 0900-1600.
A short drive away on Route 503, Km 2.1, in the outskirts of the city, is the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center. This is an Igneri (300 AD) and pre-Taino (700 AD) burial ground, with seven ball courts (bateyes) and two plazas, one in the form of a star, a replica of a Taino village and a good museum. All the ball courts & plazas are said to line up with solstices or equinoxes. The site was discovered in 1975 after heavy rain uncovered some of the stone margins of the ball courts.
Under the Zemi Batey, the longest in the Caribbean (approximately 100 by 20 m), evidence of human sacrifice has been found. Underneath a stone in the Main Plaza, which is almost square (55 by 50 m), the bodies of children were found, buried ceremonially in earthenware pots. In all, 130 skeletons have been uncovered near the Main Plaza, out of a total on site of 187. The park is filled with trees (all named), the most predominant being the higuera, whose fruit is used, among other things, for making maracas (it’s forbidden to pick them up though). Tue-Sun (and Mon holidays, when closed Tue), 0900-1600. T8402255, US$2; bilingual guides give an informative description of the site and a documentary is shown.
Hacienda Buena Vista, at Km 16.8 on Route 123, north of the city, is another recommended excursion. Built in 1833, converted into a coffee plantation and corn mill in 1845 and in operation till 1937, this estate has been restored by Fideicomiso de Conservación de Puerto Rico. All the machinery works (the metal parts are original), operated by water channelled from the 360 m Vives waterfall; the hydraulic turbine which turns the corn mill is unique. Fri-Sun, tours at 0830, 1030, 1330 and 1530; groups of 20 or more admitted Wed and Thur. US$5 adults, US$1 children under 12. T7225882 (at weekends 8487020), Reservations are necessary for the 2 hr tour (in Spanish or English).
At weekends trips can be made to the beach at Caja de Muerto, Coffin Island, the ferry (if still running) leaves from La Guancha at 0900, returns 1600. There is a fishing pier, barbecue area, information office and beautiful beach with clear water. A trail to the 1880 lighthouse leads from White Beach where the dock is. Very good snorkelling. T8484575. US$5.50 return, children US$3.50.