Visitors hike at Guánica State Forest in Puerto Rico.

Visitors hike at Guánica State Forest in Puerto Rico. Credit: Ricardo Arduengo for The Washington Post

The scenery starts to change when you leave the tall hotels and tapón (traffic jam) of San Juan behind.

Head south on Route 52, and you will start seeing the lush green mountains of Cordillera Central. As you approach the southern coast, the dense vegetation transforms into clusters of cactuses and shrubs, painting an arid landscape against the distant view of the Caribbean Sea.

Ranging east to west from the town of Yabucoa to Cabo Rojo, the southern coast of Puerto Rico is rich in culture, food, beaches and nature. But beyond all the tangible attractions, locals say the spirit of hospitality makes the place unique. “Our greatest asset is the people, who make people feel at home,” says Milexys Rosado Romero, the owner of Hacienda Tres Casitas, a farm stay in Cabo Rojo.

I learned this growing up in Guayama, where neighbors traded mangoes for papayas. My parents were always inviting people for coffee, or my dad might arrive home with a bagful of fresh seafood he got from a friend he ran into at the beach.

Unfortunately, no reliable public transport options exist, so renting a car is the best bet to reach the smaller towns and unspoiled beaches.

Many of the lodgings offered on the southern coast, from the luxury Copamarina Beach Resort to the kid-friendly Combate Beach Resort, have been owned by local families for generations. Farm stays, small inns known as paradores and vacation rentals dominate the accommodations, making for a relaxed scene.

I recommend visiting from Wednesdays to Sundays for a livelier scene and more dining options; earlier in the week is perfect for having the beaches all to yourself.

Low-key beaches in Cabo Rojo

People hang around a local beach bar/restaurant at sunset in...

People hang around a local beach bar/restaurant at sunset in the Boqueron village in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico on March 27. Credit: Ricardo Arduengo for The Washington Post

Even the Caribbean Sea beaches on the southern coast of Puerto Rico are in chill mode, more relaxed than their choppy Atlantic Ocean counterparts in the north.

With small waves and shallow waters, Combate Beach, on the southwest corner, is ideal for families. Make it a daylong affair with a passion fruit mojito at Annie’s Place with picturesque sunset views.

For a more rustic beach experience, go to Playa Sucia, one of Puerto Rico’s southernmost beaches. While there, hike the trails leading to El Faro de Cabo Rojo and Puente de Piedra for 360-degree views of a colorful mix of Caribbean blues, sandy-colored rocky enclaves and green mangroves along the coast. Walk a mile and a half north of Playa Sucia, and you will encounter the Salinas de Cabo Rojo, with colorful yellow-shouldered blackbirds flying over the pink salt flats.

A rat rod is seen parked in front of a...

A rat rod is seen parked in front of a beach bar in the Boqueron village in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico on March 27. Credit: Ricardo Arduengo for The Washington Post

Boquerón is a neighborhood known for its stands of local fish, oysters and clams. You can also take a dip at its small sandy strip.

Restaurants on the rise in Guayama

Piquillos stuffed with manchego cheese is one of the appetizers...

Piquillos stuffed with manchego cheese is one of the appetizers on the menu of Prime Market restaurant in Guayama, Puerto Rico on March 28. Credit: Ricardo Arduengo for The Washington Post

A coastal city on the southeastern side, it is known for having a charming plaza with homes and buildings dating from the 1800s. One of these historical homes houses Gallo Pinto, a restaurant by chef Ángel David Moreno Zayas that has become a destination with dishes like grilled oysters, bone marrow with beef tartare, and fried red snapper.

After a feast at Gallo Pinto, one must save room for ice cream at one of Guayama’s classic spots, Rex Cream. Owned by Chinese-Cuban immigrants, the Louke Chang family, it’s a mandatory stop. A scoop of salty-sweet corn ice cream with a generous sprinkle of cinnamon is perfect for a walk along the plaza.

At Pozuelo, a fishermen’s neighborhood beyond the city center, go to El Arcoiris for one of my childhood favorites, the octopus salad with a side of tostones.

Apple Foster over crumbled cake with vanilla ice cream is...

Apple Foster over crumbled cake with vanilla ice cream is one of the desserts on the menu of Prime Market restaurant in Guayama, Puerto Rico, on March 28. Credit: Ricardo Arduengo for The Washington Post

You can find one of the most impressive wine lists in the south at Prime Market, where local couple Laury Cordero Sabater and Antonio Palau transformed an old home along Route 3 into an ample outdoor patio with a menu specializing in steaks.

Art and culture in Ponce

People dance to live music at the public square in...

People dance to live music at the public square in Ponce, Puerto Rico, in March. Credit: Ricardo Arduengo for The Washington Post

It’s hard to find Puerto Ricans prouder of their hometown than Ponceños. I’m not disputing their pride, because the city has so much to offer, especially in terms of arts and culture.

“Start with a walking tour of the city center of Ponce to learn about the history of Ponce and gain an orientation of the city,” says Melina Aguilar Colón, the founder of Isla Caribe tours. “One of the sights not to be missed is the Parque de Bombas de Ponce,” she said. Initially built in 1882 for the Exhibition Trade Fair, the Ponce firehouse is a symbol of the city; the distinct red-and-black-striped facade was an inspiration for the Ponce flag.

A souvenir shop in Ponce, Puerto Rico.

A souvenir shop in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Credit: Ricardo Arduengo for The Washington Post

After walking through the city center, go for cocktails along Paseo de la Salsa Cheo Feliciano, named after the pioneering salsa singer José Feliciano. At El Marlin 107, William Collazo, a big name in Puerto Rico’s cocktail community, mixes drinks with tropical infusions like coconut water, guava and mangoes. On the weekends, expect live music along the street where you can test your salsa skills. Although the city has suffered structural damage during Hurricane Maria in 2017, followed by an earthquake in 2020, Ponce has focused on reconstruction and updates to many of its cultural institutions.

A square in Ponce, Puerto Rico.

A square in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Credit: Ricardo Arduengo for The Washington Post

Ponce is also considered the birthplace of plena music, one of the traditional sounds of Puerto Rico. Deeply infused with African beats, plena tells the story of the Puerto Rican people from the early 1900s. You can learn more about plena and other Puerto Rican music like bomba and danza at the Museo de la Música Puertorriqueña.

El Bosque dry forest and bioluminescent bays

A beach scene in Guánica, Puerto Rico.

A beach scene in Guánica, Puerto Rico. Credit: Ricardo Arduengo for The Washington Post

According to Aguilar Colón, “everybody knows about El Yunque rainforest, but nobody talks about El Bosque Seco de Guánica, the dry forest on the island’s southwest coast.”

One of the things that makes Puerto Rico unique is the contrast of ecosystems in a relatively small island. Walking along the trails, you will notice the different varieties of cactuses, Guayacán trees and mangroves as you get closer to the shoreline. The dry forest is one of the island’s hottest places, so ensure you bring plenty of water and sun protection.

A fisherman zips across Guanica Bay in Guanica, Puerto Rico.

A fisherman zips across Guanica Bay in Guanica, Puerto Rico. Credit: Ricardo Arduengo for The Washington Post

Next to Guánica, in the neighboring town of Lajas, there’s another natural phenomenon. La Parguera is home to one of the three bioluminescent bays of Puerto Rico.

The local dock offers boat rides, and you can also find kayak tours taking you deeper into the bay for better views. Beyond the bay, the Parguera is known for its bustling scene on the weekends with plenty of bars, restaurants and bands.

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