If you can fly into San Juan, you can access the Ruta at its eastern end, in nearby Maunabo, or you can fly into Rincón and begin, as I did, at its western terminus in Mayagúez.
It was a bustling Tuesday, hot and full of traffic, but within 15 minutes I was high in the hills, where it was 10 degrees cooler and the only sound was the wind rustling trees. Topographically, Puerto Rico is shaped like a stegosaurus and the Cordillera is the plates running along its spine.
I'd already stopped to ask the old man for directions twice when he decided to take matters into his own hands.
We were in the tiny Puerto Rican town of Castañer, where horses seemed to outnumber people, and I'd spent the past 15 minutes driving around in confused circles. Such is life on La Ruta Panorámica—literally, "the scenic route." The 167-mile byway is Puerto Rico's answer to Route 66: a capillary-like network of back roads spanning the island.
Eventually the old señor took pity on me and climbed into his beat-up Toyota pickup to guide me. Often only a single lane wide, with white-knuckle curves and the kind of minimal signage that makes getting lost a near certainty, it's not for travelers in a hurry.
"Up there," he said in Spanish, smiling through missing teeth. But for anyone with the time and inclination to wander a bit, the Ruta offers an irresistible window into the island's agrarian past.
This is the Puerto Rico you won't find at your classic coastal resort: wild horses trotting along the road, Cliffside selling pork sandwiches and 93 cent cans of Medalla beer, nary a Starbucks in sight.To spend a few days puttering along the Ruta, winding from the coffee plantations of the central highlands to the sugarcane fields of the south, is to glimpse an older, quieter Puerto Rico—and all its beauty, frustrations, and charms.