The world of gravel cycling is exploding. More and more people are venturing beyond the tarmac in search of quieter, safer roads, exploring the world around them in the process. But if you’ve never ridden gravel before, it can be hard to find the perfect trails and roads to explore this burgeoning discipline of the sport.
Enter our Recommended Routes series. In partnership with Continental, we’ve pulled together a bunch of the best gravel cycling routes around the USA. Stay posted for future episodes in the weeks and months to come. And head to Trailforks to see the routes themselves.
Words by Emmanuel Márquez | Photos by Eric Rojas
It is impossible to turn down a bike ride invitation that promises sand surfing on the whitest of sands, access to secret beaches, and a splash in a natural spring all on the same route.
That’s why I accepted my friend Carlos’s invitation without thinking about it. Even though I’ve never ridden a gravel bike before.
See, gravel riding is not big in Puerto Rico yet – it is in its discovery phase. There is much more hype about mountain biking, but you can catch people in the cycling scene talking about Colin Strickland’s latest race or Lachlan Morton’s alternative calendar, so people are learning, awareness is up, and bike sales too.
The plan was to start at the white sands of the Tortuguero National Reserve bike trail in the town of Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, and ride the least amount of tarmac to connect with another natural reserve, Hacienda La Esperanza, in Manatí, and back again along the coast. The route itself is only 30 miles (48 km) or so, but trust me, riding in the Caribbean heat will make you feel like you went way further.
Our starting point, Tortuguero, has the only fresh water lagoon in Puerto Rico. We decided to stop there first thing in the morning for a little meditation before heading off. Standing on the little pier we were greeted by reflections so crisp that you could see both the sky and the water at the same resolution. You can kayak here if you want too and the place is just perfect for a picnic.
At 6:30 am we set up our Trailforks app and headed on. The first part of the ride was mostly on dirt single track surrounded by seagrape plantations where we could hear the sneaky sounds of some jungle creatures that we just frightened or that decided to say hi at the last minute. The sun was not fully above yet and we enjoyed the freshest temperature of the day as we were into the woods and just a few sun rays escaped the bushes to illuminate the way perfectly.
That’s the special thing about off-road riding, it is just you, your bike, and nature. Your senses step up a notch and you just zone in on your adventure.
The gravel bike moved well on this terrain. I didn’t know what to expect as I’m an averaged roadie with limited off-road experience, but it was surprisingly fine. Even without any suspension my arms were not fatigued at all. The 48/31 chainrings combined with an 11×34 cassette were the perfect gearing and I never found myself scrapping for an extra tooth on the climbs or on the flats.
Then we hit the fun part: the white sand stretch that we call “Arenas Blancas”. Smooth, inoffensive grains of sand require all your torque to stay on top of your bike. Pedalling through the fine white sands is the closest I’ve ever been to surfing. You’re on the edge. Like anything in life, you need to keep pedalling to find your balance and move forward. Just let the tires fight to find some traction and cherish every second you’re not on the floor like a victory.
Hitting the dirt single track again brought the most technical part of the ride. There are just a couple of inclined slopes with sharp rocks and then a fluid but not steep descent where we could roll smoothly if we found a good line and could manage a few drops. “Spin for the win!” I repeated this to myself many times. Pushing high gears here will just gas you up.
Halfway through the climb it was time for the main event of the ride. The Guayaney Spring is one of the most impressive natural sights I have ever seen in my life. You need to be careful descending the rocks to the water, but this little trek is well worth it. The water in the spring has so many tones of blue that my retina struggled to find the perfect one.
It is cold but not freezing, perfect for a splash on a day like today where the sun wants to tattoo itself on your skin. Dipping my feet in the water was therapy. The rocks on the bottom reflected a polished silver spectrum. We saw fishes happy to live there and we asked ourselves how this miracle was created. The best part is you can only get here by foot or bike.
Once you descend from the spring you hit some open space. The valley, as I like to call it, is a short dirt single track surrounded by palms and local Flamboyan 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 crit. You will also feel the heat in this part the most as you are fully exposed to the sun. I used the time to look around, take in the scenery, and carry the hell on because my friend Carlos was about to drop me.
There is a small cafeteria just as you hit the trail end called Brisas de la Laguna (or “Lagoon Breeze”). “Chinchorro” is the local term for this type of rugged/improvised but convenient spot on the side of the road that offers drinks and snacks for half the price of fancier places.
It’s roughly 8:00am and their glass display on the counter was already full of handmade fried empanadas, chicken, beef, and cheese. In the background some Mexican pop music blasted the speakers as the employees finished up the prep as if waiting for a lunch hour rush. I thought it was Selena’s voice but I was wrong. You can buy water and soft drinks here and if you’re feeling ready by this point, a local beer too. Ask for a Medalla (“medal”) and thank me later.
It was time for some tarmac. The special thing about the road segments on this course is that you are going parallel to the coast and they always present temptation to hit the beach or stop for a coconut full of water. Road conditions are good and the rolling terrain will keep you awake and entertained.
That meant it was also a great opportunity for our food/cafe/chatting/Instagram-scrolling stop. A proper pit stop. We settled on a place just off road #687 called Panakeia Juice Bar. Air conditioning was a pleasant amenity but they also offer an outdoor patio perfect to keep our COVID peace of mind. After a delicious cornmeal with cinnamon, a turkey omelet, and coffee we almost forgot there was more riding to do.
Hacienda La Esperanza Natural Reserve is one of those places that makes me question if I’m still inside the country. Everything is greener here and well kept, a rare open space in the concrete jungle we call the city. I later found out that Hacienda La Esperanza is the largest natural protected area in the northwestern coast of Puerto Rico.
Once you enter the main grass trail around the wetlands you connect with the white gravel path that takes you to secret beaches, Las Marías and Tómbolo Beach. For a moment I thought I was Fabian Cancellara hammering away on the roads of Tuscany during Strade Bianche. OK. I was slow(er), but the sound of the gravel being crushed to the ground by my tires as the breeze hit my face was so soothing and made me feel like a champion on the podium.
Do you remember the movie Cast Away with Tom Hanks? That’s how we felt once we hit the back end of the trail and discovered the beach. Pristine waters, fallen coconuts in the sand, a natural C-shaped seawall and nobody else in sight. The panorama was postcard-worthy and tempting enough for our photographer Eric who decided to jump in the water.
Riding 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 90 ºF (32 ºC) now. The sweat dripped from my head rapidly as I unzipped my jersey, but I was feeling refreshed and happy. I wondered why, but then realized I just rode through Paradise.
What you need to know
It’s no secret that Puerto Rico’s climate is hot year round. Even though this route goes through a Natural Reserve and some tree-covered sectors, heat is a major factor. Expect temperatures from 80-90 ºF (27-32 ºC) and high levels of humidity. Dress accordingly, hydrate well before, during and after the ride, wear sunscreen and cool down afterwards in the natural spring.
Up Restaurant & Bar is the top-rated restaurant in the area on trip advisor. They specialize in Caribbean cuisine and wines but they also offer brunch and lunch. Their menu includes seafood, steaks and pasta. 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 spot, Padilla’s Pizza features all you can ask for in fresh delicious pizza dishes. They also serve steaks and burgers that you can combine with a cold beer or Margarita.
If you’re starving once your ride is done Tortuguero BBQ can certainly fill you up. They have typical creole food that includes rotisserie chickens, BBQ ribs, and roasted pork. All of them go perfectly with the local favorite rice and beans, yucca, or some fried plantains.
Pedalea Bike Shop in Vega Baja. Check out their newly remodeled facilities with one of the best product stocks on the island from components, to clothing, and nutrition. Pedalea also has a well-rounded repair shop, they know their craft well, and they have one of the most competitive cycling clubs on the island.
If you’re riding during the work week, Monday through Saturday, you can use the Tortuguero athletic track on road #687 parking lot at no charge from 6am to 7pm. If you go out on Sundays, you will most likely find 100 cars parked alongside road #687 as this is one of the most popular off-road riding destinations on the island.
If traveling from San Juan international Airport, drive west on highway PR22/Expreso José De Diego. Take Exit 43 to state road #2 and follow the signs to Tortuguero Natural Reserve. The drive takes around 40 minutes. Expect tolls.
If you want to know more about gravel riding in Puerto Rico you can contact Hansel Pellot from the Puerto Rico Gravel Project on Instagram. He frequently organizes weekend rides and backpacking adventures and posts them as vlogs on YouTube.