OUR GROUP, THREE FAMILIES with five teenagers, had been hiking for two hours through the remote south side of Puerto Rico's El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the US National Forest System. Sun-seeking clumps of bamboo added to the lush canopy high above, and dangling philodendron vines offered us some memorable Tarzan moments. Our destination was the base of a waterfall 1,800 feet from our starting elevation. Our spry 68-year-old guide, Robin Phillips of Rain Forest Fruit Farm, had promised us a swim in the "Jacuzzi" on top.
Although we were an adventurous bunch, the adults moved at a moderate pace, stopping often to rest and sample Phillips's foraged treats: the cucumber-like center of one plant, the blood-red seeds of another, which Phillips called jungle candy. The teens backtracked to sample the seeds but then hurried us on.
"Now, can you please stop stopping," my 14-year-old daughter scolded as she crammed her mouth full and shot ahead again. "You're way too slow."
Actually, very little about our nine-day Puerto Rican excursion was slow.
We had chosen the destination for rugged hiking like this on the mainland of Puerto Rico and a chance to unwind on the beaches of the island of Culebra, but we regularly discovered other natural riches that called us to explore.
The trip began with a four-hour flight from Boston to San Juan (tickets cost us about $450 each, but I've seen cheaper; no passport necessary for US citizens), and then our party of nine crammed into an Air Flamenco puddle-jumper for the half-hour flight ($115 per ticket) to Culebra, off Puerto Rico's eastern coast. This jagged white diamond, at just 11 square miles, is home to many idyllic beaches, each with its own characteristics, and a nearly 1,500-acre national wildlife refuge. Best of all, there were no tourist hotels, nor was there flashy night life. A friend who lives in San Juan had warned us that we should be prepared to "chill."
By late afternoon, we'd claimed bedrooms in our spacious waterfront rental house with two kitchens. At roughly $700 per night, it was more economical for our crew of 11 (two had joined us) than a high-end hotel. We then used the home's kayaks to paddle around Ensenada Honda Bay. We also hacked open a coconut that my determined son wrestled from a palm tree. Just as the adults were preparing for some hammock time, the teens began grumbling about actually doing something.
So much for chilling, I thought.
Soon, we had rented a golf cart (try Carlos Jeep Rental), and I was piloting it over precariously steep roads for a sunset snorkel at the deserted Punta Melones, a stony beach with a healthy coral reef just a quick swim from shore.
We drove home through Dewey, the one tiny town on Culebra, where we gorged on blackened tofu and fresh fish tacos at Zaco's Tacos. With its funky patio and vegan-friendly fare, it was our favorite of the few restaurants we tried on the island. For dinners, we preferred cooking in our outdoor kitchen with provisions purchased at the Colmado Milka, a typical island grocery store that stocked a bit of everything. As my husband pointed out, "If we need transmission fluid, it's right next to the red beans."
ON OUR FIRST MORNING, even the teens woke at dawn to swim with leatherback sea turtles in the gentle waters of Playa Tamarindo. In the afternoon, we headed to Playa Flamenco, regularly recognized as one of the world's best beaches for its remarkably clear turquoise water. When we first approached — carrying fruit-flavored shaved ice called piraguas and cheese-and-tamarind empanadas from a riot of kiosks — we all stopped, our feet seemingly stuck in the powder-white sand. It was gorgeous. And it was ours.
Most unbelievably, except for a few pockets of sunbathers, we had half of the mile-long, horseshoe-shaped beach to ourselves. "Where is everybody?" my friend Kathy remarked. But that's how we felt throughout the trip: as if we had found an undiscovered paradise.
After five days of endless sun, we departed Culebra and took an inexpensive ferry to the port of Fajardo on the mainland of Puerto Rico (you should arrive several hours early, because ferry tickets go fast). On a favorably moonless night, we joined a kayaking tour to Laguna Grande, one of Puerto Rico's three "bio bays" in which bioluminescent micro-organisms glow like neon when stirred. The trip out, in double kayaks through a pitch-black canal lined with the reaching branches of mangrove trees, proved harrowing: Think bumper boats in a swift, dark current. When we arrived at last in the serene bay, we ran our hands through the water and, like magic wands, made mesmerizing plumes of light appear.
We spent the night at the Casa Cubuy Ecolodge in El Yunque and in the morning filled up on its hearty breakfast featuring heaping trays of tropical fruit. Satisfied, we headed out on what's known as the aqueduct trail. At the end of its 5-mile length, a scramble over steep granite puts us at the longed-for "Jacuzzi," a pool of pristine water so fresh that at Robin Phillips's encouragement, we kneeled and drank from the stream. Then we switched from sweat-soaked hiking clothes into bathing suits and plunged into the pool. The teens splashed and snapped photos with falls cascading behind them. I closed my eyes against the tropical sun and finally — finally — took some time to chill.
WHERE TO STAY
We booked our house rental through this popular service, which lists many options.
> Villa Flamenco Beach
These efficiency apartments are just steps from Culebra's Flamenco Beach. Call 787-383-0985 May to September and 787-742-0023 December to April; it's closed October and November (villaflamencobeach.com). Rates start at $135.
> Casa Cubuy Ecolodge
A simple but welcoming hotel in El Yunque, where you can sleep with your windows open for a coqui frog serenade (787-874-6221; casacubuy.com). Double-occupancy rates start at $110.
WHERE TO GO
> El Yunque National Forest
If time is tight, visit the easily accessible north side (www.fs.usda.gov/elyunque) and hike on one of the well-marked trails. If you have two days for the south side, Robin Phillips at Rain Forest Fruit Farm leads guided tours and offers lodging (787-874-2138; rainforestfruitfarm.com).
> Bioluminescent Bays
Book your guided tour with a reputable operation. We liked Yokahu Kayak Trips (787-604-7375; yokahukayaks.com), for about $50 per person. Check the lunar phases, and shoot for a moonless night.
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Sandra A. Miller is a local writer and teacher. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.