A Puerto Rico Road Trip That Puts Indigenous Culture First

Those wanting to experience a deeper, lesser-known side of Puerto Rico should consider a self-guided road trip along the Taino Route.

The Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes is one of Puerto Rico’s largest ceremonial sites.

The Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes is one of Puerto Rico’s largest ceremonial sites.

Photo by Jesse Echevarria

This article is part of a series created by United Voices, a new AFAR immersion program that brings together local content creators and AFAR editors for workshops, reporting stories, and experiencing a destination together. We make our debut in Puerto Rico.

Long before hotels and salsa clubs, Puerto Rico was home to an Indigenous population referred to as the Taino, a name given to the Caribbean Arawak-speaking peoples by Christopher Columbus upon his arrival in 1493. For centuries afterwards, they were subject to foreign rule and colonization, to the point where some have even (wrongfully) declared them extinct. Their legacy lives on not only in the DNA of Puerto Rican people themselves but also through petroglyphs (rock carvings that were an original form of writing) and artifacts.

Puerto Ricans proudly embrace their Taino heritage, which can be found in their food, art, music, and ceremonies. When I took a hike in Guanica’s Dry Forest with Soraya Tours founder Norymar Maldonado, for instance, she explained that she wears Taino markings on her face as a way to honor her ancestors: “We are the children of a genocide. We are the children of a massacre. We are the children of an invasion and so much more.”

Those wanting to experience the island’s deep and influential roots should consider a road trip around it. Here’s an itinerary that takes in ceremonial and cultural Taino sites across Puerto Rico.

The sea cave Cueva del Indio

The stunning coastline near Cueva del Indio has been the backdrop of star-studded films.

Photo by Alexsf.gr/Shutterstock

Day 1: Cueva del Indio and Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Site

  • Start: Arecibo
  • End: Utuado
  • Distance: 90 miles

From San Juan, the first stop is Cueva del Indio in Arecibo, about an hour’s drive. The name means “cave of the Indian” in Spanish, and for good reason. The sea cave is home to the largest collection of petroglyphs along Puerto Rico’s coastline. (Fun fact: These stunning cliffs have been featured in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.) Previously, a ladder led down to an area with petroglyphs on the walls, but it has been removed to discourage any risk-taking involved with accessing the area.

The journey continues one hour south to the Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Site in the mountains of Utuado in the center of the island. Once inland, the roads get windy, but it’s worth the effort to get there. The site includes 10 bateys, plazas believed to have been used throughout the centuries for sports and gatherings. The bateys are surrounded by large stones, many featuring petroglyphs with recognizable images like birds or faces. A small, free museum has Taino tools and jewelry on display from the site, as well as a Spanish-language introductory film at the entrance. The best part, however, is the feeling of peace the location inspires as you’re sitting on the grassy expanse, taking in the solemnity of the space.

In February 2023, FEMA allocated $1.4 million to the restoration and preservation of this park. The money will go toward repairing buildings around the site, such as a museum, auditorium, and administrative offices.

Where to stay: Casa Grande Mountain Retreat

Casa Grande, a 20-room retreat in Utuado, offers an opportunity to disconnect. Located on 105 acres of greenery, it features hiking trails, a saltwater swimming pool, yoga classes, and vegan farm-to-table meals that reflect the season and chef. Note: There is no A/C or Wi-Fi here, but you’ll be entertained by the sounds of nature and cooled by the breeze on your private hammock and porch.

The Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center is home to many Taino artifacts, which visitors can learn about from the people who work at the center.

The Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center is home to many Taino artifacts, which visitors can learn about from the people who work at the center.

Photos by Jesse Echvarria

Day 2: Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center

  • Start: Utuado
  • End: Ponce
  • Distance: 40 miles

The next morning, drive a little more than an hour south to the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center, a Taino site that opened to the public in 1982. It is the oldest Indigenous ceremonial complex and astronomical observatory in the Caribbean and the largest Indigenous cemetery in Puerto Rico. The center houses a museum and gallery with a timeline of the site’s inhabitants, dating back more than 2,000 years. There is local artwork including paintings and sculptures on display, as well as everyday items like hammocks and pottery recovered from past excavations.

The center is only a 10-minute drive from downtown Ponce. After working up an appetite, have a taste of barbacoa, a Taino word describing the process of slow-cooking meat that eventually became known as barbecue. Barbacoa and Grill in Ponce serves a mean grilled barbecue and batata, a Puerto Rican sweet potato with all the fixings like cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo, bacon, and chicken.

Where to stay: Ponce Plaza Hotel & Casino

The 69-room Ponce Plaza Hotel & Casino is a bright yellow historic property dating back to the 1800s. Located in the city center, the Spanish-style architecture includes iron balconies overlooking the downtown area, with views of Ponce Creole buildings. The hotel is across the street from Parque de Bombas, Puerto Rico’s first fire station, known for its distinctive design.

Mural de Zama and La Piedra Escrita are a few places in Jayuya where visitors can see petroglyphs.

Mural de Zama and La Piedra Escrita are a few places in Jayuya where visitors can see petroglyphs.

Photo by Photo Spirit/Shutterstock

Day 3: Museo Cemi and Piedra Escrito

  • Start: Ponce
  • End: Condado
  • Distance: 85 miles

The final day of this road trip starts with a one-hour drive north to the town of Jayuya. It is known as the Indigenous capital of the island because of its Taino sites, like La Tumba del Indio, a tomb with Taino remains inside a mausoleum. There’s also the Museo Cemi, a museum dedicated to Taino history. The building is shaped like a traditional Taino cemi, a deity in sculpture form.

Mural de Zama, a mural made completely of petroglyphs, is only accessible by a 1.4-mile hike to an elevation of 4,390 feet above sea level, the island’s highest point, Cerro Punta. Those not interested in hiking to Cerro Punta can head to La Piedra Escrita instead, a granite boulder also featuring petroglyphs that sits in the Saliente River.

Where to stay: Condado Ocean Club

End the trip back on Puerto Rico’s north coast at the Condado Ocean Club in San Juan. The adults-only, 96-room property offers private cabanas, beach dining, and an infinity pool overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It has a salsa night at Sandbox beach bar and lounge every Saturday and a gastro series at the hotel’s restaurant, Social, highlighting local flavors. Every Thursday, it serves a Latin-style menu in addition to the regular dinner menu, offering foods like codfish croquettes and coconut tres leches.

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