Puerto Rico for nature and history

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Lying on a lounge chair in the warm waters of a secluded beach in Guánica, my body became partly submerged in the crystal-clear Caribbean Sea. I could feel the stress of yesterday washing away.

Puerto Rico's landscape is diverse, from the coral-studded reefs to the El Yunque rain forest; from the Camuy River caves to its three bioluminescent bays; from the leatherback turtle-nesting beaches of Culebra to whale-watching in Rincón.

Spending a vacation on the western part of the island best known for bustling San Juan revealed a new kind of wonderful. Here are three towns that gave glimpses of the island's Taíno (native), African-American and Spanish history.

GUÁNICA

A two-hour drive from San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport, getting to the southwest seaside town involves a drive through the rolling mountains of the Cordillera Central and into an immense subtropical dry forest.

Most of the ride on Highway 52 served up breathtaking scenery. The highway provided rich green vistas, then transitioned into country roads with vendors selling sweet quenepa fruit, lechón (pork) sandwiches and cold drinks.

WHAT TO SEE Many come to explore the dozens of isolated beaches and coves around Guánica. For hikers and bird-watchers there is the Guánica State Forest, a United Nations-designated International Biosphere Reserve that includes more than 700 types of plants and trees and half of Puerto Rico's bird species.

The landscape of Guánica's forest is arid and rocky, with cactus and desert vegetation. Steep mountains block rain clouds coming in on the tropical wind, causing rain to evaporate before reaching the south coast. As a result, Guánica boasts the best weather on the island.

WHERE TO STAY Relaxation is the first rule at the Copamarina Beach Resort, which has a slender private beach with king-size beach beds planted in the sand. It's considered a luxury resort with a spa, two restaurants and a dive shop that offers kayaking and snorkeling. The place has a rustic country feel because of its setting in mangroves and forest (from $190, 800-468-4553, copamarina.com).

LA PARGUERA

Nearby - just a 30-minute drive - La Parguera makes up for what Guánica lacks in nightlife. It is a former fishing village that transformed into a popular vacation spot with dozens of inns, guesthouses, restaurants and bars.

WHAT TO SEE On summer nights and weekends, people from as far as San Juan drive down to grab seafood or mofongo, the Puerto Rican delicacy of mashed plantains smothered in garlic. Others come to La Parguera Pier for the scenery and sea breezes, sitting along the dock.

The main attraction is the phosphorescent bay, where objects in the water emit a magical glow. Various boats offer night tours to see the phenomenon, caused by billions of microorganisms.

We enjoyed a delicious dinner at Aguazul, a popular new restaurant near the pier that melds Puerto Rican flavors with international cuisine (787-899-8014, aguazulpr.com). After dinner, we made our way to the dock for an evening stroll and found a big outdoor party. Soon there was dancing, all under a full moon.

MAYAGÜEZ

Puerto Rico's third-largest city, Mayagüez's newest claim to fame is being home to the family of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

At first glance, Mayagüez seems unimpressive: McDonald's, Applebee's, Walmart. But a visit to the heart of the city finds a charming Spanish colonial town with houses painted in picture-book pastels.

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WHAT TO SEE At the center is the tree-lined Plaza Colon, honoring Christopher Columbus. Behind the Columbus statue is the stunning Mayagüez Cathedral, Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria.

The city is undergoing a needed restoration as it prepares to host the Caribbean and Central American Games in July.

No trip to Mayagüez is complete without trying the famed brazo de gitano, a delicious jelly roll best eaten with hot coffee or tea.

WHERE TO STAY We slept at the Howard Johnson Inn, a restored monastery across from the cathedral (from $89, hojo.com). Those splurging might try the Mayagüez Resort & Casino, which has a new river pool with waterfalls and slides (from $169, 888-689-3030, mayaguezresort.com).

Must-sees for a quick trip

Across the island of Puerto Rico, there are sugar-sand beaches, forest and nature reserves, Taíno Indian archaeology sites, Spanish architecture, art museums, historic monuments, fine restaurants and steamy nightclubs. In truth, it would take at least a month (or several visits) to see the main sights. But if you're taking only a short trip, here is a list of the must-sees:

Old San Juan and El Morro

A walk through the cobblestone streets to see the colorful, Spanish-style buildings of Old San Juan is a must. According to the excellent "Puerto Rico Insight Guide," co-published by the Discovery Channel, there are about 400 historically important structures in the old city, some of which are considered to be the finest examples of Spanish architecture in the New World. Here you will find El Morro, the military fort used by the Spanish in the 16th century.

The Gallery Inn

Standing at the highest point of Old San Juan, The Gallery Inn draws guests into this rambling stone building with its massive art collection - including a bust of first lady Michelle Obama.

Bacardi Rum Distillery

A short drive from San Juan, it gives a history of the Bacardi family and a fun lesson on rum production.

El Yunque rain forest

The largest remaining tract of forest in Puerto Rico and the only tropical forest in the U.S. National Forest System.

Rio Camuy Cave Park

Take a trolley into the sinkholes and caves that make up one of the largest river cave systems in the world.

Arecibo Observatory

Made popular for its role in the Jodie Foster film "Contact," Arecibo is the world's largest single dish radio telescope.

Ponce

A two-hour drive south from San Juan, Ponce is Puerto Rico's second-largest city. Here you can tour the distinctive red and black Parque de Bombas firehouse or shop for the colorful vejigante masks beloved by Puerto Ricans and worn during Ponce's carnival celebrations.

Tibes Indian Ceremonial Park near Ponce and Caguana Indian Ceremonial Park in Utuado

Walk on the ceremonial grounds of the early Taíno Indians.

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