Puerto Rico: Enjoy the Less-Developed Side of This Caribbean Destination

El Convento Beach within the Northeast Ecological Corridor in Puerto Rico. Coalciion Pro CEN/Wikimedia Commons

Puerto Rico is one of the most accessible Caribbean islands. Because it is a U.S. territory, Americans from any one of the 50 states can visit without a passport or concern about unfavorable currency exchange rates. Although Spanish is the dominant language of Puerto Rico, English is widely spoken, especially in tourist areas. These features, along with the tropical beaches that ring the island, make Puerto Rico a popular destination for U.S.-based snowbirds.

Those who ignore the resort scene can find a respectable menu of eco-tourism attractions in the island’s less developed areas. The territory boasts mountains, inland forests, sections of undeveloped coastline, protected islands, and even arid, desert-like landscapes. Nature-themed activities abound, especially in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico's eco-tourism headliner. Additional state forests and other protected areas make this a surprisingly exciting destination for a tropical, eco-themed vacation.

Sleep green

Because it is a major vacation destination, Puerto Rico has more than its share of resorts and chain hotels. Resorts run by the likes of InterContinental, Sheraton and Hilton have earned Green Globe certification for their sustainability practices.

The Hix Island House is a resort that advertises its green features alongside its other attractions. The Hix uses solar panels to reduce its reliance on standard electricity and also reuses water from showers to care for the plants on its 13-acre grounds. Tastefully furnished loft-style rooms with open-air terraces show that luxury and style can go hand in hand with eco-friendliness.

For those who don't mind roughing it, the territory has plenty of opportunities for camping , which requires a permit in state forest areas. Some state forests have cabins that are available for around $20 per night.

See green

El Yunque National Forest is the headlining attraction of Puerto Rico's eco-tourism industry. It covers 28,000 acres and is one of the few truly tropical forests in the U.S. El Yunque is home to more than 200 species of trees, more than 20 of which exist only in this region of northeast Puerto Rico. The relatively cool mountain climate draws locals as well as tourists, who take advantage of the trails that cater to day-trippers who want to take shorter hikes as well as those who seek longer treks. Aside from the trails, there are picnic areas and a visitors' center. Eco-tourism companies organize extended vacations for people who want to focus solely on the park during their holiday. However, interpretive areas and programs are available for those who want to experience El Yunque as part of a day trip. San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital city, is a relatively short drive away.

While El Yunque is undeniably tropical (it sees more than 16 feet of rainfall annually), Guanica State Forest gets only 2 1/2 feet of moisture per year. This dry protected area in the southwestern portion of the island covers nearly 1,000 acres. The state forest is home to dozens of bird species, with nine of them endemic to the area. The vegetation here thrives in the arid climate. Some of Guanica's landscapes are similar to dry forest or desert scenes found elsewhere in the world. A biosphere reserve in the Guanica area contains coastal mangrove forests. One of the reserve's goals is to educate people about fragile coastal coral beds and other marine ecosystems, which are often damaged by water-based activities related to the tourist trade.

Because it is an island, many of Puerto Rico's natural attractions have to do with the sea. Culebra Island, a small strip of land in the Caribbean that is owned by Puerto Rico, is home to nesting sea turtles, including giant leatherback turtles. The government manages a sea turtle conservation project on the island. Would-be visitors can contact the organization for information on how to help with the conservation efforts during their stay. Another major water-focused attraction is the bioluminescent bay near Vieques on the east coast of Puerto Rico. Local eco-tourism company Island Adventures Biobay Eco-tours runs tours of the bay and also maintains a website with a calendar listing the best times to visit. Caja de Muertos Island , off the southern city of Ponce, is another offshore diving and nature viewing spot. Because the island's wildlife is protected, the beaches and shoreline remain pristine, and there is ample opportunity for wildlife viewing both above and below the water.

The town of Rincon, on the west coast of Puerto Rico, features diving and boating opportunities. The town is also home to tour companies that lead whale-watching cruises during humpback whale season , which takes place during the Northern Hemisphere's winter.

What eco-tourism destination would be complete without a canopy tour? La Marquesa Forest Preserve , only about a half-hour from San Juan, has a long canopy tour that consists of eight separate traverses. The tour lasts up to two hours.

It is impossible to list all of Puerto Rico's reserves and parks in anything less than a full-sized guidebook. Guanica, El Yunque and Culebra are the most notable nature-themed highlights, but other parks and reserves may be worth a spot on an eco-tourism itinerary.

Eat green

Those on their way to the western portion of Puerto Rico might want to stop by the town of Aguadilla . Here, lovers of organic and vegan food may be impressed by the Natural High Cafe . This organic, vegan restaurant serves locally grown food and is one of the few places to get a vegan meal in Puerto Rico. Even non-vegetarians will appreciate the use of fresh ingredients in the dishes and juices.

Culebra Island is home to Juanita Bananas , a kitchen that focuses on fresh foods. The menu is ultra-fresh because many ingredients are grown in the gardens adjacent to the restaurant. The fruits and veggies are watered using Earth-friendly drip irrigation. Grocery Holistica Aimee , another Culebra-based shop, carries organic foods and supplements.

Fresh Mart stores are found at several locations around the island. These stores have cafes serving fresh food with vegetarian options. For the most part, however, Puerto Rican cuisine is meat centered, with animal products often used even if meat is not a direct part of the dish. Luckily, the tropical climes make for ideal growing conditions for tropical fruits and vegetables, which are both widely available.

Go green

Outside of San Juan, public transportation is limited. However, the capital has an extensive commuter bus and rail network. You can get around the city on the AMA Metrobus service if you don't want to rely on taxis. Tourists might find the rail system, the Tren Urbano, useful for reaching some of the outlying areas of San Juan. A majority of tourists rent cars or rely on taxis.

As a whole, the island's transportation network is lacking. However, privately operated cars and mini-buses licensed by the government, called publicos (the license plate number should end in a “P”), run between towns throughout the territory. Fares are fixed, so as long as you know what the fare is, there is no need to do any negotiation. Though some people might not find this as convenient as a territory-wide bus network, these bus-taxi hybrids are a good alternative for people who don't want to drive.

There is no denying that Puerto Rico is an accessible and attractive tropical beach destination. However, it is equally attractive as an eco-tourism destination, having both lush tropical inland and water-centered nature attractions, as well as unique landscapes that cannot be easily found on many other islands.