Snaking its way through some of Puerto Rico's most fabulous scenery as it traverses the length of the island, the Panoramic Route is a classic drive, unlike any other in the Caribbean. It takes at least two days, but there are several mountain paradores (country inns) where you can stay. This description is from east to west. Many parts of the road are extremely narrow, so drive carefully. The route is marked at most junctions (brown signs with R.U.T.A. and symbols for mountains), but not all, so take care.
*Bolded names and numbers in the text below correspond with our map of this tour.
The route starts in the coastal town of Maunabo , heads inland to Yabucoa, and then crosses the Río Guayane before starting to climb into the foothills. Small settlements dot the ridge along which the road runs, with valleys and ravines on either side overflowing with clumps of bamboo, tree ferns, and banana plants. After about six miles (9.7 kilometers), the road starts to climb even more steeply. At this elevation, small coffee plantations replace the cattle pastures of the lowlands.
The route then enters the Reserva Forestal Carite (1) (+1 787 747 4545), 6,000 acres (2,428 hectares) of rain forest. The reserve is home to 50 species of birds and has several waterfalls and a blue pool known as the Charco Azul. Past here the views open up on both sides, with the sea and coastal plains visible to the south. Lagos Carite and Patillas can be seen, too.
The road continues along the ridgebacks of the Sierra de Cayey, bypassing the town of Cayey itself and rising again to a high point at the Mirador Piedra Degetau (2). An observation tower, plus picnic and other facilities, mark this summit, which is dedicated to the memory of Don Frederico Piedra Degetau y Gonzales (1862-1914), a distinguished writer and patriot who was inspired by this panorama.
Just to the north is the town of Aibonito (3), once a retreat for the wealthy and still retaining some of its grandiose homes. It is also the highest town in Puerto Rico. Beyond Aibonito, the Cañon San Cristóbal (San Cristóbal Canyon) (4), the island's deepest gorge, plunges 700 feet (213 meters) to the Río Usabon. The Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico (P.O. Box 4747, San Juan, +1 787 722 5834) is developing nature trails, but in the meantime only experienced hikers should attempt to descend its steep slopes.
The route twists and turns along the spine of the Cordillera Central, offering stunning panoramas across the whole island both to the north and south coasts. Beyond the Cerro El Malo (2,957 feet [901 meters]), the road enters another forest, the 7,000-acre (2,833-hectare) Reserva Forestal Toro Negro (Toro Negro Forest Reserve). This is a particularly scenic area, with the road shrouded by a leafy canopy of bamboo.
Six miles (9.7 kilometers) northeast of here is the Area de Recreo Doña Juana (Doña Juana Recreation Area). It's worth stopping and taking the path opposite, which leads to a huge swimming pool in the forest. The route beyond here leads upward to the Cerro Doña Juana (5) at 3,538 feet (1,078 meters). This is an easy path with no steep gradients and takes around 90 minutes for the return trip. At the top you can climb a small tower for a panorama of the mountains and the coastline. Beyond here you pass the Cerro de Punta (4,387 feet [1,337 meters]), the island's highest point and bristling with radio masts.
The road descends momentarily to the quiet little township of Adjuntas before climbing once more through the Cordillera Central, skirting the Montañas de Uroyan and finally ending on the west coast at Mayagüez.