Many tourists who visit Puerto Rico don't look beyond the beach, the rainforest, and the ancient walls of the old city. And really, there's nothing wrong with that. Those are, after all, the star attractions in Puerto Rico, along with the island's marvelous islands. But when you travel beyond these environs, you'll find there's a lot to explore and enjoy here.
And for those who love nature and seek a serene escape from the bustle, allow me to suggest the Jardín Botanico.
The garden is managed by the University of Puerto Rico and is located in the Río Piedras neighborhood of San Juan, at the intersection of Carretera 1 and Route 847 (entry on Guaracanal Street). It's open daily from 6am to 6pm (closed on major holidays). Entry is free. For more information, call 787-758-9957.
The University of Puerto Rico has a campus worth checking out. In addition to some fine architecture, it houses the Museo de Antropología, Historia y Arte (Museum of Anthropology, History and Art) an important collection of archaeological artifacts from the indigenous Taíno tribe that called the island home before Columbus dropped in for a visit. The university also manages the Botanical Garden, a tranquil refuge spread over 75 acres. The garden features over 30,000 plants from all over the world, arranged in two areas (the North and South gardens) and divided into 12 well-planned and dutifully tended environments.
A day in the garden:
Your first stop when you enter is one of two sculpture gardens. From here, you can visit gardens dedicated to orchids, bromeliads and other flowers. There's also a research center where you can buy plants (probably not a wise choice for tourists) and learn about endemic plant species and species that are close to extinction. My two favorite spots in the botanical garden are the Japanese Garden and the Monet Garden. The former, with a lovely red bridge over a pond full of lilies, is a place where I could sit and write in peace for a few years. The latter is a lovely recreation of Monet's aquatic garden in Giverny, with a rose-adorned archway serving as the entrance to an intimate and truly picturesque setting. Not surprisingly, this is the most popular spot in the garden for weddings, although the bamboo chapel is a lovely alternative.
In addition to the native and exotic flora, the garden is home to a variety of birds and marine life. It also has a fantastic herbarium with over 40,000 dried plants. And there are sculptures all over the park that provide a lovely contrast between natural and manmade art.
The garden started out as a purely educational effort for the study and preservation of tropical plants and birds. To this day, it offers workshops, guided tours, seminars, and conferences about various subjects. And the garden maintains a Federal Forestry Service library accessible by appointment only. So if you're truly interested in botany and horticulture, there are a number of ways you can get involved. But if you just want a quiet stroll in a scenic park, a day away from the beach, or a natural setting unlike any other in Puerto Rico, take a closer look at the botanical garden. I certainly enjoyed the experience, and I appreciate the fact that such a large tract of open space has been preserved in such a dense urban setting. It's one of many terrific free activities you can enjoy in San Juan.