Recommended Routes: Tortuguero Lagoon, Puerto Rico
This article is brought to you in partnership with Continental. Follow the link to learn more about our sponsored content policy.
The gravel bike world is exploding. More and more people are venturing beyond the tarmac in search of quieter and safer roads, exploring the world around them. But if you’ve never ridden gravel before, it can be difficult to find the perfect trails and roads to explore this burgeoning discipline.
Enter our series of recommended routes. In partnership with Continental, we’ve put together a collection of the best gravel biking routes in the United States. Stay tuned for upcoming episodes in the weeks and months to come. And head to Trailforks to see the routes themselves.
Lyrics by Emmanuel Marquez | Photos by Eric Rojas
It’s impossible to refuse an invitation to a bike ride that promises to surf the whitest sand, access secret beaches and plunge into a natural spring, all on the same route.
That’s why I accepted my friend Carlos’ invitation without thinking about it. Although I have never ridden a gravel bike before.
You see, gravel riding is not yet widespread in Puerto Rico – it is in its discovery phase. There’s a lot more hype about mountain biking, but you may overhear people in the cycling scene talking about Colin Strickland’s latest race or Lachlan Morton’s alternate calendar, so people are learning, awareness is rising and bike sales too.
The plan was to start on the white sands of the Tortuguero National Reserve bike path in the town of Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, and ride the least tarmac to connect to another nature reserve, Hacienda La Esperanza, in Manatí, and vice versa. along the coast. The route itself is only about 30 miles, but believe me, riding in the Caribbean heat will make you feel like you’ve gone much further.
Our starting point, Tortuguero, has Puerto Rico’s only freshwater lagoon. We decided to stop there in the morning for a little meditation before leaving. Standing on the small jetty, we were greeted by reflections so crisp you could see both the sky and the water at the same resolution. You can also kayak here if you wish and the place is just perfect for a picnic.
At 6:30 a.m. we set up our Trailforks app and headed out. The first part of the ride was mostly on a dirt track surrounded by sea grape plantations where we could hear the sneaky sounds of some jungle creatures that we were scaring away or decided to say hello at the last minute. The sun wasn’t completely over yet and we took advantage of the coolest temperature of the day as we were out in the woods and a few rays of sunshine peeked through the bushes to light the way perfectly.
That’s what off-road riding is all about, it’s just you, your bike, and nature. Your senses heighten and you focus on your adventure.
The gravel bike moved well over this terrain. I didn’t know what to expect as I’m an average roadie with limited off-road experience, but it was surprisingly good. Even without any suspension, my arms weren’t tired at all. The 48/31 chainrings combined with an 11×34 cassette were the perfect gearing and I never found myself looking for an extra tooth on the climbs or on the flats.
Then we hit the fun part: the stretch of white sand we call “Arenas Blancas”. Smooth, harmless grains of sand require all your torque to stay on top of your bike. Pedaling through the soft white sand is the closest I’ve ever seen to surfing. You are on the edge. As with everything in life, you have to keep pedaling to find your balance and move forward. Just let the tires fight for traction and cherish every second you’re off the ground as a victory.
Hitting the single dirt track again brought the most technical part of the ride. There are just a few steep inclines with sharp rocks and then a smooth but not steep descent where we could ride smoothly if we found a good line and could handle a few drops. “Spin for the win!” I repeated it to myself several times. Pushing the gears high here will only get you pumped up.
Halfway up the climb it was time for the main event of the race. The source of Guayaney is one of the most impressive natural sites I have ever seen in my life. You have to be careful going down the rocks to the water, but this little hike is worth it. The spring water has so many shades of blue that my retina struggled to find the perfect one.
It’s cold but not freezing, perfect for a splash on a day like today when the sun wants to tattoo itself on your skin. Soaking my feet in water was therapy. The bottom rocks reflected a specter of polished silver. We saw fish happy to live there and wondered how this miracle was created. The best part is that you can only get there on foot or by bike.
Once you drop down from the source, you hit an open space. The valley, as I like to call it, is a short dirt road surrounded by palms and local flamboyant trees that takes you from Tortuguero to the town of Manatí. You can go fast here if you want or save your strength for the weekly local reviewer. You will also feel the heat in this part because you are fully exposed to the sun. I took the opportunity to look around me, admire the landscape and continue because my friend Carlos was about to drop me.
There is a small cafeteria just at the end of the trail called Brisas de la Laguna (or “Lagoon Breeze”). “Chinchorro” is the local term for this kind of rugged/improvised but convenient roadside place that offers drinks and snacks for half the price of fancier places.
It’s around 8 am and their glass display on the counter was already full of hand fried empanadas, chicken, beef and cheese. In the background, Mexican pop music blasted through the speakers as employees finished prepping as if waiting for lunchtime. I thought it was Selena’s voice but I was wrong. You can buy water and soft drinks here and if you feel ready at this point, a local beer too. Ask for a Medalla (“medal”) and thank me later.
It was time for some tar. The particularity of the road segments of this course is that you go parallel to the coast and they always present the temptation to go to the beach or to stop for a coconut full of water. Road conditions are good and the hilly terrain will keep you awake and entertained.
This meant it was also a great opportunity for our food/coffee/chat/Instagram scrolling stop. A real pit stop. We settled into a place just off road #687 called Panakeia Juice Bar. Air conditioning was a nice amenity but they also provide a perfect outdoor patio to keep our COVID peace of mind. After a delicious cinnamon cornmeal, turkey omelet, and coffee, we almost forgot there was still horse riding to do.
Hacienda La Esperanza Nature Reserve is one of those places that makes me wonder if I’m still inland. Everything here is greener and manicured, a rare open space in the concrete jungle we call the city. I later discovered that Hacienda La Esperanza is the largest protected natural area on the northwest coast of Puerto Rico.
Once you enter the main grass trail around the wetlands, you join the white gravel path that takes you to secret beaches, Las Marías and Tómbolo Beach. For a moment I thought I was Fabian Cancellara pounding on the roads of Tuscany during the Strade Bianche. OKAY. I was (slower) but the sound of gravel being smashed to the ground by my tires as the breeze hit my face was so soothing and made me feel like a champ on the podium.
Do you remember the movie Cast Away starring Tom Hanks? That’s how we felt once we reached the back of the trail and discovered the beach. Crystal clear waters, fallen coconuts in the sand, a natural C-shaped seawall and no one else in sight. The panorama was worthy of a postcard and tempting enough for our photographer Eric who decided to take the plunge.
Coming back to the car with my bike and legs covered in white dust and lactic acid, a sense of accomplishment filled the air. It was well over 90ºF (32ºC) now. Sweat poured quickly from my head as I unzipped my jersey, but I felt refreshed and happy. I wondered why, but then I realized that I had just walked through heaven.
What do you want to know
It’s no secret that Puerto Rico’s climate is warm all year round. Although this route crosses a Nature Reserve and some wooded areas, the heat is a major factor. Expect temperatures of 80-90ºF (27-32ºC) and high humidity levels. Dress accordingly, hydrate well before, during and after the ride, wear sunscreen and cool off afterwards in the natural spring.
Restaurant & Bar is the highest rated restaurant in the area on Trip Advisor. They specialize in Caribbean food and wine, but they also offer brunch and lunch. Their menu includes seafood, steaks and pastas. I heard their bar is one of the most complete in the area.
Mentioned by Puerto Rican global urban artist Bad Bunny on one of his songs as a childhood place, Padilla’s Pizza offers everything you could ask for in delicious, fresh pizza. They also serve steaks and burgers which you can combine with a cold beer or a Margarita.
If you’re starving after your ride is over, Tortuguero BBQ can definitely fill you up. They have typical Creole cuisine which includes roast chickens, barbecued ribs and roast pork. All go perfectly with the local favorite rice and beans, yucca or fried plantains.
Pedalea bike shop in Vega Baja. Discover their newly renovated facilities with one of the best stocks of products on the island, from components to clothing to nutrition. Pedalea also has a full repair shop, they know their stuff well and they have one of the most competitive cycling clubs on the island.
If you ride during the work week, Monday through Saturday, you can use the Tortuguero Athletics Track for free in the Route #687 parking lot from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. If you go out on a Sunday, you will most likely find 100 cars parked along road #687 as it is one of the most popular off-road driving destinations on the island.
If you are coming from San Juan International Airport, drive west on the PR22/Expreso José De Diego highway. Take exit 43 to National Road 2 and follow signs to Tortuguero Nature Reserve. The trip takes about 40 minutes. Expect tolls.
If you want to know more about gravel riding in Puerto Rico, you can contact Hansel Pellot of the Puerto Rico Gravel Project on Instagram. He frequently organizes weekend hikes and backpacking adventures and posts them as vlogs on YouTube.