Leaving the bustle of San Juan behind, Jeff Wise searches for the island’s solitary pleasures in Rincón, Mayagüez, and along the Ruta Panorámica.
© Bobby Fisher Other Side of Puerto Rico
| Credit: © Bobby Fisher

Rincón isn’t happening. Antonio’s Beach is dead. The teenagers lounging around the pool at the Casa Isleña guesthouse are melting into their chaises; their Coronas are going warm. Across the parking lot, two college-age surfing instructors sprawl in their folding chairs and stare out at the ocean, impassive as Buddhas.

"When’s the next swell due in?" I ask the surfers.

"No idea, man," says one lazily.

A lone wave gathers strength as it slides toward the shore, musters a few inches of height, then surrenders to the sand with a hiss like that of a deflating tire.

On the beach, a girl stands up and points to the sea. Two kids by the pool rouse themselves, lean on the retaining wall, and peer out. A shout: "Mira!," as a couple hundred yards away, a snout arcs up from under the sea and a fountain of white erupts. "Humpbacks breaching!" Through my binoculars, I can make out two adult whales and, smaller but identical in shape, three juveniles. One is so tiny she might have been born that very day. Within minutes the humpbacks have disappeared and the hubbub has faded. But so has the gloom.

Here, a hundred miles from San Juan and the resorts of the island’s northeast, excitement takes a different form. Life moves more slowly and the rhythms of Puerto Rico’s traditions lie closer to the surface. Instead of discos and casinos, there are waves and whales, coffee plantations and timeworn mansions, seaside cafés and midnight swims. I’d come to escape the New York winter’s wearyingly drawn-out clutches, looking for a week of de-stressing and, I hoped, a taste of a different Puerto Rico.

There are times when you don’t necessarily want the fanciest or most up-to-the-minute spot. What you want is the feeling that you’re in a completely different place from where you started. I’ve come to think of this area—from the Rincón Peninsula on the west coast to the historic city of Ponce in the south—as the Other Side of Puerto Rico.

At that moment, though, I was thinking about waves. I began surfing in my thirties, much too late to ever be any good. But the thing has its hooks in me, and I could relate to the dour mood at the local bakery, where a gaggle of gringos were buying bagels and discussing the sad state of the surf. A 25-year-old from New Jersey was lamenting into his cell phone about the fate of his vacation. "It’s been pretty flat all week," he said. "I caught some waves my first day and haven’t been out since."

Start talking to the Americanos around here and you’ll find that many have been coming for years. It’s their home away from home, a place that they return to in order to commune with their own kind. Take Bobby Dozier. He came here 17 years ago looking for waves and wound up staying for good. Now he sells surfboards from a kiosk in his front yard. I sat down with him in his driveway and he told me how the world of gypsy surfers got turned on to Rincón after the World Surfing Championship here in 1968. But it’s never really blown up, gotten too big, or lost its flavor—it hasn’t turned into a surf Disneyland like Waikiki, crowded with newbie surfers on 12-foot-long rental boards.

"The same people come back year after year after year," he told me. "Guys who first came at 17 are still coming at 60."

Since the surf wasn’t up, I decided to head inland. I drove south to Mayagüez, a port town with a gracious plaza in its historic center, and then drove east out of town.

The Ruta Panorámica is 165 miles of scenic switchbacks running along the top of the island’s central spine, linking quaint hill towns, forest preserves, and historic paradors, or inns. The foliage arched over the roadway in a series of cool, dark tunnels as I twisted my way higher into the sierra, past massive stands of bamboo, past chickens, dogs, abandoned cars, and glimpses of stunning vistas of the jumbled hills stretching into the distance like an angry sea frozen in green.

Not many mainlanders make it to this part of the island. The busy season is during summer school holidays, when Puerto Rican families escape the heat, splashing under waterfalls and hiking through the impatiens-choked forest. This is the home of the jíbaro, the hill-country peasant, a figure as evocative of Puerto Rican culture as the cowboy is of the American West.

My second night on the Ruta, I checked into the Hacienda Gripiñas, a parador that was built in 1858 as the homestead of a wealthy plantation owner. Today it evokes those long-ago days when gentility flowered amid backbreaking oppression. You can still imagine the planter holding court in the plank-floored living room, his visitors easing into the cane-backed rocking chairs.

My room was on the second floor, with windows looking out over the forest. Gripiñas is an imperfectly preserved old relic, but I didn’t care. To nap in the late afternoon, serenaded by roosters and tree frogs as the mountain air wafted in one window and out the other, was all I needed to erase the fatigue incurred by those twisty turns.

The next morning I decided to head for the nearest cross-island freeway, which sent me to the heart of Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city. Founded in the late 17th century, the city experienced a commercial boom in the 19th, then declined so quickly that no one had time to tear anything down. The center of town is crowded with wedding-cake colonial mansions, arrayed in a procession of balconies, balustrades, and bas-relief.

In the evening I strolled around the plaza. The fountains burbled and, once again, tree frogs chirped, and as I settled on a bench under the full moon, I appreciated the tropical custom of napping by day and dining late. The cool night air was a respite from the day’s solar assault. Admiring the impressive buildings around the plaza, I wondered: Did they seem as breathtakingly elegant in their day, or did they come across as gauche and overadorned?

I dined at the best restaurant in town: Mark’s at the Meliá. Chef-owner Mark French cooks steakhouse favorites alongside traditional Puerto Rican dishes. As I started into the shrimp mofongo—a dome of plantains suffused with creole sauce—his wife, Melody, sat down and answered my questions about Ponce. "It’s a big city, but it’s really a small town," she said. "Everyone knows everyone else."

I’d already surmised that Ponce isn’t exactly cosmopolitan. Earlier that day I’d stopped in at the city’s grand theater, built in the 1860’s, where I received a five-minute tour. Apparently some leading stars of the opera world regularly passed through about a century ago, but more recent highlights include a 1992 community-theater production of Man of La Mancha.

I confessed my newest fantasy to Melody: buying one of Ponce’s run-down palaces and moving here to fix it up.

She smiled. "All the old homes have been in the same families’ hands for generations, and no one’s motivated to sell," Melody said. "We’ve tried to buy one several times. But it hasn’t worked out for us so far."

Unrealistic aspirations shattered, I continued my circuit. West of Ponce, the climate turns arid. Low brown hills slope down to the dark flat sea. Turning off at Guánica, I found myself on a narrow road that rounds a series of high headlands seemingly untouched by human presence. I was entering the 10,000 acres of the Guánica Dry Forest. The desert-like ecosystem, my guidebook informed me, harbors such curiosities as the crested toad, the purple land crab, and a 700-year-old tree.

That evening I drove to La Parguera, a port town set amid the mangrove swamps, and bought a ticket for a ride on a motorboat to one of the nearby bioluminescent bays. Here the conditions have spawned high concentrations of microscopic, light-emitting algae, so dense that the water glows. The effect is said to be strangely beautiful, but I was skeptical. Algae?

The boat pushed off from the pier and then wound through the mazelike channels west of town before dropping anchor in a pitch-black cove. "Okay, you have five minutes to swim," the captain announced.

The idea of dog-paddling around the Black Lagoon was less than appealing, but I jumped in anyhow. I surfaced to find myself surrounded by a nebula that intensified with each stroke. Through these pinpoints of light, like sparks from a cool fire, I swam trailing a constellation and marveling at the wonder of it. Algae!

Most of the 39 suites at the Horned Dorset Primavera, the next stop on my itinerary, are two stories high, smell like an Aveda spa, and have their own plunge pools. Decorated in Spanish-colonial style, the rooms are sheathed in marble and outfitted with mahogany furniture from Bali and Italy, ceramic lamps from Morocco, old prints in gilt frames, and ceiling fans with blades fashioned from palm leaves.

Briefly, I wondered how I was going to be able to enjoy all that luxury. Then I floated in the pool, went for a walk on the isolated beach, and climbed into my four-poster bed and fell asleep. This was not a catnap but a narcotized slumber, followed by a wine-soaked dinner overlooking the sea.

I left all these comforts behind the next day and drove to Puntas, where a northwestern swell had completely changed the mind-set of the beachgoers. As surfers describe it, the sea was "going off." Head-high waves curled themselves into tubes at the break line, the better to be shredded by Rincón’s surfing elite. I rented a board, paddled out, and immediately got steamrollered. And then again. And again. Sensing a pattern, I beat a retreat.

That evening I went for sundowners at María’s Beach, around the point from Antonio’s. I sat on the turquoise-painted deck of a bar called Calypso and stared at the sea. I started chatting with a couple from New Jersey who’d brought their 18-month-old daughter with them for her first trip to the island. "I’ve been coming to Rincón for years," the man told me. "I proposed to my wife here."

Out on the break, someone rose up on the lip of a curling wave and chased down the black smooth face, silhouetted against a flaming red sea. A trio of young surfers marched wearily out of the white water, boards under their arms. Three girls were changing out of the back of a beat-up hatchback, their faces wide with wonderment as they swapped stories of what had just happened on the horizon. The sound system blared reggae as the moon eased toward the ragged bank of clouds that sprawled across the sky. I clinked Coronas with the couple from New Jersey and turned to watch the next line of waves build and crest. The swell was working, the breeze was kind, the fading day was fine. It wasn’t much, but in Rincón, it was all we needed.

Jeff Wise is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.

When to Go

Coastal Puerto Rico is warm and humid throughout the year, with temperatures ranging from the low 70’s to the high 80’s. Hurricanes occasionally make landfall from June to September. Temperatures are significantly cooler inland, especially in the mountains.

Getting Three

JetBlue and Continental fly daily from New York to Ponce and Aguadilla, a half-hour’s drive from Rincón. Spirit Airlines flies daily to Aguadilla from Fort Lauderdale.

Where to Stay

Horned Dorset Primavera Hotel

Km 3.0, Carr. 429, Rincón; 800/633-1857 or 787/823-4030; horneddorset.com; doubles from $970.

Great Value: Hotel Meliá

75 Cristina, Ponce; 800/448-8355 or 787/842-0260; hotelmeliapr.com; doubles from $105.

Great Value: Mary Lee’s by the Sea

A low-key hotel near the Guánica Dry Forest. Km 6.7, Carr. 333, Casa 25, Guánica; 787/821-3600; maryleesbythesea.com; doubles from $100.

Great Value: Parador Hacienda Gripiñas

Km 2.5 on Ramal 527; 787/828-1717; haciendagripinas.com; doubles from $125, including dinner and breakfast.

Where to Eat

Calypso Café

María’s Beach, Rincón; no phone.

Mark’s at the Meliá

75 Cristina, Ste. 1, Ponce; 787/ 284-6275; marksatthemelia.net; dinner for two $95.

Shipwreck Bar & Grille

Outdoor dining near Rincón’s marina. Black Eagle Marina, Rincón; 787/823-0578; dinner for two $60.

What to Do

Acampa Nature Adventures

Climb up waterfalls during a daylong hike in the Toro Negro rain forest. 787/706-0695; acampapr.com; $149.

Bioluminescent Bays

Dozens of motorboats at La Parguera waterfront take passengers out to this eerie natural wonder ($5).

Ponce History Museum

51-53 Calle Reina Isabel, Ponce; 787/844-7071.

Surf Lessons Puerto Rico

Get a 1 1/2-hour lesson with International Surfing Association–accredited Ramses Morales. 787/617-4731; surflessonspuertorico.com; $65.