Author Nicholas DeRenzo Photography Gabriela Herman
DAY THREE Having immersed myself in urban San Juan, today I’m turning my attention to the nearby countryside—specifically El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, a 40-minute drive from the city. My tiny rental chugs up the side of a mountain, which gets denser and greener as I go. Pretty soon, I’m surrounded by waterfalls, prehistoric-looking ferns, soaring palms, and exotic parrots.
At the forest headquarters, I meet archaeologist Raymond Feliciano, who has offered to drive me around the park in his SUV. The selfie-stick crowd tends to keep to the main route, but Feliciano wants to show me another side of the forest: the top. Because my idea of mountain climbing is getting up the subway steps in one piece, we make the ascent by car rather than foot.
As we navigate a series of treacherous switchbacks, I mention how untouched the forest feels. “I wanted to get in a couple of dinosaurs,” Feliciano says dryly, “which wasn’t well received. But you do get the whole Jurassic Park experience.” In fact, this land-that-time-apparently-forgot is mostly second-growth forest, planted by the New Deal–era Civilian Conservation Corps following the ravages of erosion and misuse. Feliciano describes it as “created nature.”
Our destination is the 1930s Mount Britton observation tower, which looks like a giant rook from a chess set. We climb the spiral staircase and emerge onto a castellated roof overlooking a staggeringly epic expanse. From this height, you can see San Juan, as well as the islands of Vieques and Culebra. “On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Virgin Islands,” Feliciano says.
Closer at hand is El Yunque Peak, the second-tallest mountain in the forest. “When the Spanish came to extract gold, the mountain was covered by a cloud,” Feliciano tells me. “The Taíno natives called it yu-ke, the resting place of their god of creation. The Spanish heard yunque, which means ‘anvil.’ So now people come expecting to see an anvil.” Anvil or no, it’s easy to be swept up in the grandeur of it all.
For lunch, I head to the nearby Luquillo Beach kioskos. These ramshackle eateries are a staple along Puerto Rican beaches, each serving its take on classics like alcapurrias de jueyes (crab fritters) and bacalaítos (fried salt cod pancakes). I stop at kiosk 20, Terruño, take a seat overlooking the palm-lined beach, and order a Medalla Light (a local light beer that’s less than $2 a pop), a crispy rabbit turnover, and a snow-white dish of grouper cooked in rice and coconut milk.
From here, it’s a 20-minute drive to the decidedly more elegant confines of the St. Regis Bahia Beach. Occupying 400-plus acres on a former coconut plantation bounded by two rivers, the resort is centered on the Plantation House, where I check in. I wander past a minimalist koi pond and into what feels like a grand private estate, where I’m immediately greeted with a rum punch.
Luxury, though, is only part of the story here. The St. Regis Bahia Beach is the first property in the Caribbean to be named a Gold-Certified Signature Sanctuary by Audubon International. “We function like a tiny national park,” says resident ecologist Ashley Perez, who’s waiting for me at the hotel’s boathouse, ready to coax me into a two-person kayak.
Within minutes of paddling away from the dock, we’re surrounded by a diverse array of wildlife, including a green heron, which responds to our presence with dramatic squawking. “He’s cursing at us,” she says with a laugh. “‘You ruined my lunch!’ They’re very clever. They use tools—they throw sticks in the water as bait.” We see egrets and chickenlike gallinules walking among mangrove roots on comically oversize feet. “I love the little sandpipers,” Perez says, “because they always look like they’re dancing.”
Then there’s the feisty chango—the same bird that so inspired Santurce artist Jaime Rodriguez Crespo. These birds, Perez tells me, have a habit of whining and begging their parents for food even after they’re old enough to feed themselves. “When Puerto Rican kids get really annoying,” she says with a laugh, “their parents always say, ‘Ay chango!’”
We dock the kayak and set out in a golf cart to explore the nonwatery part of the preserve, passing trees swollen with cementlike termite nests. Soon, a mongoose skitters across our path. “They’re rare to see!” Perez exclaims. “Mongoose were brought to the island to kill rats. And now … Puerto Rico just has rats and mongooses.”
The sun has started to set, so I freshen up in my suite’s room-size rainforest shower, then head to dinner at the Plantation House. To get there, I navigate the boardwalks that crisscross the resort (better to leave the slithering blue ground lizards and lumbering iguanas below undisturbed), serenaded by a chorus of coqui frogs croaking the two-syllable refrain that gives them their onomatopoeic name. It’s a sound that nearly every Puerto Rican I’ve met has said they’d miss if they ever left the island.
Spilling out onto a seafront veranda, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Fern is an exceptionally refined affair. After a refreshing watermelon julep and a dinner of roasted lobster with creamy corn and chili vinaigrette, I pop down to the lobby bar. Every St. Regis boasts a signature Bloody Mary (the drink was invented at the Manhattan flagship in 1934), and here it’s the spicy Encanto Mary, infused with ají picante chilies, rimmed with crushed plantain chips, and garnished with plantain-stuffed olives.
The bartender catches me staring at the painting behind the bar, a monumental neo-Expressionist work depicting a Taíno native cutting through a plant-filled marsh in a boat. “It’s an Arnaldo Roche Rabell,” she says, and I’m reminded of something an art museum employee told me: “Puerto Rican art is colorful and loud and spicy and full of flavor—and so is our food, and so is our music, and so is all of our culture.”
Hemispheres senior editor Nicholas DeRenzo never considered himself a rum guy until the whiskeylike Ron del Barrillito came salsa-ing into his life