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Utuado: The Keeper of the Sacred and the Beautiful

By Brenda A. Mari

October 22, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

As Election Day draws near, people’s vibes rev up, anxiety in the workplace builds up and raucous caravans take over the already crowded roads. Yes, in an island where almost 40% of the population, directly or indirectly, depends on the government for moolah, election time tends to bring a whirlwind of fierce emotions. But it is during these times that one should go seek the core of who we are as a culture, regardless of the status conundrum. And what better place to do that than to head "tierra adentro," where the Taíno spirit still thankfully roams, however slight, and the peace of the emerald mountain soothes our stress-ridden souls.

Utuado, the land "between the mountains," as the Taínos called it, lies deep in the heart the island’s lush Central Mountain Range, to the west. It is probably Puerto Rico’s most enchanting piece of terrain, next to Guavate, and home to the most important and sacred Taíno gathering place in the Caribbean. It has more caves than any other municipality and boasts a constant cool breeze that invites you to snuggle up to your dearest. It also has plenty of architectural jewels in the historic part of the town; eerie, submerged coffee mills and churches; thick, lush forests; and fine dining by the lake. It’s got beautiful people and a proud legacy and plenty of curves to get dizzy on. Plus, it’s where more than 8 rivers coincide to feed the rich, coffee-loving land. No wonder such a place has Archangel St. Michael as its patron – it’s simply heavenly.

So, to enjoy the entire "tierra adentro" experience, head off early in the morning from San Juan. Hop on PR-22 West, and in about an hour, get off at PR-10, a stunning chunk of road carved right through the impressive karst mountains. The drive is unbelievable, and the morning sun skillfully brings out the terra cotta colors of the rock. So just keep going, past the signs for Rio Abajo Forest Reserve and the Lago Dos Bocas exit (we’ll get back to those later). Follow the signs for the Parque Ceremonial Caguana (that’ll be those in brown).

When you enter the Caguana Ceremonial Park, one of the most important archeological finds in the Caribbean, an unassuming parking lot receives you, thankfully with clean bathrooms on the side. It’s not until you enter through the wooden path with rails and take in the carefully manicured grounds that you start breathing in the hushed, sacred energy of this place.

Enter past the guard and a lush, fairy-tale like clearing opens up to reveal "bohíos" (Taíno dwellings), "bateys" (Taíno courtyards, usually used for "areytos" or ritualistic performances), and indigenous Ent-like trees that beckon. Be careful of hidden holes in the ground and the occasional fire ant hives. Needless to say, wear long pants and sneakers.

There are 10 bateyes. First up you’ll see the biggest one, where you’ll see Atabey, goddess of fertility -- half woman, half frog -- etched in the big center stone. By the way, you should go see her before the elements wash her likeness away. There is also a tribal drawing of a bird, probably a "yaboa," an American bittern, that would look really cool on as an arm tattoo. There is also another batey that is longer than it is wide and that is where they played their version of soccer.

The guides are very well-versed in the subject. Ask for Michael Guzmán, he’ll be glad to answer any of your questions. It’s best to see the park with a guide, because they can best explain to you the importance of such a place and decipher the carvings on the stones, as well as what the nearby Mount Cemi and Tanama River meant to the Taínos and how they figured into their view of the world.

So, after you’re done breathing in the sacred peace at Caguana, go back in the direction you came from, maybe get some "pan de agua criollo" (fresh baked loaf of bread) , some ham and cheese, and a Gatorade, at the nearby CintrónMax Supermarket before heading out to see the lush scenery of the Rio Abajo Forest. The reserve is a subtropical wet forest characterized by limestone hillsides and "mogote" tops, and sinkholes and narrow valleys between the hills, typical of the karst topographic system. Among the flora you’ll find around its 70 trails and two natural springs are Piper aduneum (higuillo), Cecropia peltata (yagrumo hembra), Didymopanax morototoni, Ochroma lagopus (balsa), Coccoloba diversifolia (pigeon plum), Bucida buceras (ucar), Bursera simaruba (gumbo limbo), and Clusia rosea (cupey), plus Honduran pine, maho, teak, kadam, and mahogany. Maybe you’ll get a glimpse at the elusive and endangered Puerto Rican parrot flying by, or the dwindling "guaraguao," the Puerto Rican broad-winged hawk. The thing is, these trails are enchanted, you can feel it in the air. So you’re bound to find something there if you look hard enough.

After finding your fairy soul, head back into civilization to top off your woodsy adventure with a fine dining experience by the lake. Go back to PR-10 going north and take a left where it says Lago Dos Bocas. That’ll take you to the Embarcadero, where you can choose the boat that will take you to one of the restaurants awaiting you on the other side. Dos Bocas is actually a reservoir created to supply power and water to the surrounding communities. The Pier’s dock boats makes pit stops at several of the lakeside restaurants on the weekends. There is also a kayak rental in the area. Also, the restaurants have their own whalers to take you back and forth. All you have to do is pick.

So there you have it, a day trip to soothe your weary spirit and awaken your passion for peace. After getting touched by such a gorgeous landscape, nothing seems to matter.

Utuado’s beauty is guaranteed to make you forget whether your company will be in the money or not come November 2nd.

The Lowdown

Getting to Utuado: From San Juan, head West on PR-22. Get off at PR-10 going South.

Caguana Ceremonial Park: From PR-10, turn right on PR-11. It’s at Km 12.3, but follow the brown signs, they’re pretty self-explanatory.

Phone: 787-894-7300, 787-892-7325. Open everyday until 4:30 p.m.

Rio Abajo State Forest: Follow the signs from PR-10. Phone: 787-880-6557, 787-724-3724. Camping by permit only.

Dos Bocas Lake: Ditto. Follow the signs from PR-10. Phone: 787-894-3505

Brenda A. Mari is an editor/reporter for The San Juan Star, an accomplished web copywriter and a fan of everything unusual. She can be reached at

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