LUQUILLO, Puerto Rico — You can get to Puerto Rico’s beautiful shores with an easy four-hour nonstop flight and no passport, yet many tourists never venture outside the resorts to sample some of the spectacular natural wonders just outside San Juan. If your budget and travel schedule allow for an outdoor-adventure extravaganza, all you need is a one-day car rental for the 45-minute drive to the eastern part of the island. Here, nature is at her most dazzling and you can see it all up close.
Head first to Carabalí Rain Forest Park in Luquillo. They have first-come, first-served one-hour horseback riding tours that skirt the foothills of the only tropical rain forest in the US National Forest System. The view from horseback is relaxed, as are the horses. The tour is ideal for families, with even the youngest, most inexperienced riders able to keep up (minimum age is 3). A rental helmet comes with every horse, but even better, a disposable hairnet to keep it all sanitary. The one-hour ride costs $25 for ages 11 and under, $35 12-adult. Two-hour rides include a half-hour stop to cool off in the Mameyes River and are about double the price, but can be reserved in advance. The same place offers an ATV tour if that’s more your speed. Road No. 3 km 31.6, Street A, 787-889-5820, www.carabalirainforestpark.com
Next, head a few minutes east to the rugged Luquillo Beach for a quick bite to eat. Restaurant “kiosks” line the beach with many different offerings from burgers to native criollo cuisine. La Parilla has great mojitos, octopus salad, and tasty churrasco skirt steak. Fetch your beach bag from the trunk and grab a swim. Or, if time permits, head to the even more spectacular Seven Seas Beach. Luquillo Beach, Kisok 2, 787-889-0590, www.laparrillapr.com
Now that you’ve seen El Yunque rain forest from the perimeter, drive to the visitors center (El Portal) to get an orientation and some trail maps to plan your visit ($4 for ages 16-adult). Hike, swim in the waterfalls, look for lizards, iguanas, parrots, and the coquí, the tiny frog that makes the enormous noise that mirrors his name. The temperature falls rapidly as you drive up the mountains, so pack a sweatshirt and pants. The lookout tower closes at 4:30 and the main gate at 6 p.m. Rio Grande, 787-888-1880, www.fs.usda.gov/elyunque
As darkness falls, the best is yet to come — kayaking down a magical mangrove channel to a bioluminescent lagoon, one of only five places in the world where the phenomenon occurs. Drive about 25 minutes from Rio Grande to the small town of Las Croabas in the municipality of Farjardo. Be sure to grab a bite to eat before you arrive, as there is no running water in that section of town and while some restaurants have water tanks, facilities are pretty rough. The company that has provided guided kayak tours longer than anyone else is Enchanted Island Tours, run by Texan Michael Grasso Jr. For $68 (which includes tax and natural reserve fees, minimum age 6), you’ll get a life jacket, a paddle, a kayak, kayak 101 lessons, after-trip snacks, trip guides, and a photo. And you’ll also see one of the coolest things ever: plankton that light up brightly underwater when agitated, apparently a defense mechanism that attracts larger predators to eat the plankton-eating predators. Don’t bother bringing a camera, since even seasoned veterans with tons of pixels under their belts can’t capture the luminescent Pyrodinium bahamense — all the pictures on the kayak operator websites appear to be photoshopped (though new advances in video technology promise to change that). While there are low-glow periods and tours wisely warn about the diminished viewing conditions on a full-moon night, we were still able to view this stunning wonder, thanks partly to good cloud cover. Laguna Grande, 787-888-2887, www.eietecotourspr.comDenise Swidey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.