Special acknowledgments: David Soto with Borinquen Trail, Garry Lowes and Discover Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico is a gem for tourism, with so many reasons to visit—among them the walking and biking adventures you can create. The island commonwealth is known for its amazing Spanish-Caribbean culture, warm and welcoming people, beautiful outdoor spaces (including El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system), world-class beaches, 16th-century Spanish forts, tantalizing rums and now its rail-trails.
While these pathways are just starting to flourish in Puerto Rico, the island’s connection to them goes back to the late 1990s, when then-U.S. Congressman for Puerto Rico, Carlos Romero Barceló, helped defend railbanking, a process by which an out-of-service railroad corridor is preserved for future rail use by interim conversion to trail. Since 1983, the Railbanking Act has been a cornerstone of the rail-trail movement, accounting for nearly 20 percent of America’s rail-trail mileage (4,200+ miles of rail-trail), but, in 1998, an anti-railbanking bill was being fiercely debated in Congress. Marianne Fowler, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s senior strategist for policy advocacy, recalls Barceló’s comments as a member of the Natural Resources Committee. The island had lost many of these valuable transportation corridors as its national railroad was being abandoned during the 1950s, and he was passionate that the U.S. mainland not meet the same fate.
Recently, a new group has formed in Puerto Rico to support a developing islandwide rail-trail known as the Borinquen Trail. When I spoke with David Soto, who is helping to lead the effort, his pride and excitement for the project were obvious. The group’s work centers around three priorities: inventorying points of interest along the route (including those relating to its railroad history); leveraging the trail’s economic and tourism benefits; and providing a safe and healthy alternative to driving.
Although the movement is just now putting down roots in Puerto Rico, here are a handful of trails well worth exploring on the island.
Although the Túnel de Guajataca is short on length, it’s big on experiences with a curved tunnel and rock cuts that will make you marvel at railroad ingenuity, as well as ocean vistas and a world-class beach hosting a sandy-bottom surf break that will leave you feeling refreshed.
Add to your ride or walk by following the entrance roadway, which is also along the former railroad alignment, to the historical water tower that still bears a fading mural of its railroad past. About a quarter mile farther, you will see the rusting structure of the trestle that spans the Rio Guajataca.
Located off Highway 2 and about a 60- to 90-minute drive west of San Juan, there is plenty of parking located at the entrance to Túnel de Guajataca and the public beach. To get the most out of this trail, be sure to bring your wide-tire bike or comfortable sneakers and save the flip-flops for the beach. Equestrian guided rides are also offered nearby. And don’t miss the restaurant to the east that has a deck with a good view of the ocean and tunnel from afar.
Nearby, another worthwhile attraction is the Tunel Negro, which is actually longer than the Tunel Guajataca and runs partially along the Guajataca River. It was only in service a short time before it was closed due to train safety concerns after an unfortunate derailment.
Located in the town of Aguadilla on Puerto Rico’s northwestern tip, the lovely Paseo Real Marina offers a milelong linear park with unobstructed views of the coastline. Reached easily from Highway 440, the paved, waterfront trail begins near the center of town and parallels a local roadway that was once a key rail connection. The path continues south to Colón Park, where trail users—largely walkers and runners—can enjoy water features, numerous food kiosks, sandy beach access and a great place to just sit and catch the sunset.
The beauty of Puerto Rico’s rail-trails is that they don’t just offer a straight, one-dimensional ride. The Rincón Mountain Bike Trail at Domes Beach provides interesting sights, such as the Antigua Planta Nuclear (hence the nickname “Domes”), the historical lighthouse El Faro de Rincón and miles of single-track trail and world-class surfing at Domes Beach. As the route is unpaved, adventurers will need a mountain bike. Did I mention whale watching, amazing sunsets, or riding a horse on the beach? The nearby equestrian guides can even set you up to enjoy the rail-trail and surrounding trails by steed.
Parking and restroom facilities are available at the park where El Faro de Rincón is located (off Highway 4413), just to the north of Rincón.
Although not a rail-trail, the scenic Paseo Lineal de Isabela—comprised of paved pathway, protected bike lane and boardwalk surfaces—stretches for just over 4 miles from the Pocita de la Princesa to the Well of Jacinto, mostly along the northwest coast of the island. The trail’s western section is particularly attractive, and its ocean views get rave reviews. The trail is easily accessible from Highway 466 and there are convenient bike rentals and cafés along the route for refreshments.
Even on the small island of Vieques, about 8 miles from Puerto Rico’s main island, people are beginning to understand what the future could look like with an interconnected trail system comprised of old historical sugar cane rail routes. Old service roads were first used to explore the inner western end of the island around Mt. Pirata, which is also known as “Pirate Mountain,” and now sights are set on the former rail lines.
In 1940, Vieques was acquired by the Department of the Interior for the creation of a major military training ground. Decades later, in 2003, the area was handed over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and consequently made into refuge and sanctuary. Today, the hundreds of abandoned bunkers and buildings from the island’s past life as a military complex could be repurposed to support sustainable farming and tourism.