The Top 20 Caribbean Adventures
Adventure seekers, get off the cruise ship. There's more—much more—adventure in these islands than you can find in a four-hour shore excursion.
Jungles serve up some of the planet's best birding; volcanoes make for great hikes; and underwater, there's a whole other universe to explore.
So leave the tourists behind. Come and experience the best adventures the Caribbean has to offer.
1. Puerto Rico: Hike El Yunque
Going deep in Puerto Rico means diving into rainforest, not water. In the humid heart of Puerto Rico's interior, the Caribbean National Forest covers 28,000 acres of mountainous rainforest terrain. Known colloquially as "El Yunque," the preserve is part of the U.S. Forest system. In fact, it's the only tropical rainforest habitat in the entire system.
Still, you'll know you're not in Kansas when you step into this jungle. An eerie silence hangs over fog-shrouded peaks. The air is heavy as you choose from several trailheads and begin your hike on rough trails cloaked in huge tropical ferns and palm trees, still dripping from an early-morning shower. Some of the trails lead to hidden waterfalls where you can take a refreshing plunge; some climb through diverse ecosystems on the way to mountain summits. Most require at least a half day; all require good hiking shoes and insect repellent.
2. Grand Caymans: Swim with Rays
Yep, it's touristy, and you can be overrun by wanna-bes who don't know a snorkel from a snapper, but Stingray City on Grand Cayman is a Caribbean must. Local fishermen once cleaned their catch here, and over time the open-water site became a veritable diner for large Atlantic southern stingrays. It's located on and around a sandbar in the North Sound, between West Bay and Rum Point. Through the years, these creatures have become accustomed to being handled by participants in daily snorkeling excursions. Divers can head to a 12-foot-deep portion; snorkelers make their stop at the Sandbar, just three feet deep. In addition to the stingrays and an array of reef fish, you'll also see an occasional sea turtle or moray.
3. Bahamas: Swim With Sharks
Sure, you can dive anywhere in the Bahamas, but where else can you (safely) see sharks? Long Island's Stella Maris Shark Reef is the place to go to watch for bull shark, hammerheads, reef sharks and makos. At times, the sharks are joined by barracuda, jacks, groupers and other fishes. After a half-hour boat ride, divers descend to 20 or 30 feet, settle down on the sandy bottom, and watch the sharks being fed (there are often more than a dozen of the toothy critters!) This shark dive—now almost three decades in operation—was the region's first, and many still consider it to be the best.
4. Shipwreck Dive the BVIs
It's one of the most picturesque shipwrecks anywhere, the shape of its hull and tall mast are still perfectly recognizable under layers of coral. Thanks to the movie The Deep, the RMS Rhone, which lies under the surf in the BVIs, just might be the most famous sunken ship, as well. This 310-foot steamer broke in two pieces and sank in an 1867 storm off Salt Island. Today, it's a national park, crusted in coral and operating as a marine-life motel. The bow lies at a depth of about 80 feet and includes the crow's nest and cargo hold. Swim inside for a look at rooms occupied by colorful parrotfish, snapper, and grunts. The stern lies in shallower waters and can be seen by snorkelers who can easily view the prop shaft and propeller in the clear water. Bring your "C" card; dive certification is required.
5. Sint Maarten: Sail On
You'll find plenty of chances to sail in the Caribbean, but the most unique locale is found on the south side of Sint Maarten. No other Caribbean destination gives you the chance to actually crew and race an America's Cup yacht—including the Stars and Stripes, the winner of the 1987 America's Cup. The 12-Metre Challenge is offered daily from Bobby's Marina in Philipsburg. Best of all, you don't even have to know port from starboard to become one of the crew. Each guest is encouraged (but not required) to learn and perform one of the many tasks in sailing these greyhounds of the sea. You might be operating the hydraulic primer to control the boom and keep the sails tight, working as a backstay grinder or trimmer to move sails and ropes, or powering the mighty Genoa sail as a primary grinder. The 12-Meter Challenge costs about $70 per person.
6. Aruba: Catch a Wave
Buffeted almost continuously by whistling trade winds, the tiny island of Aruba is a boardhead's paradise—it's every bit as good a place for boardsailing as Maui or the Columbia River Gorge. Factor in the sugar-sand beaches, flat waters that hover round 75 degrees throughout the year, a good number of reputable windsurfing shops and schools, and a wide array of diversions away from the beach and you have a memorable Caribbean experience. The top spots? Fisherman's Hut and Arashi. For the hardcore windsurfer, June is undoubtedly the time to go—the winter crowds have abated, the winds are rippin', and each year the Hi-Winds Pro-Am Windsurfing Contest brings in the world's best speed-sailors.
7. Jamaica: Get Blue
If you know coffee, you know Jamaica's Blue Mountains; indeed, many hikes into this cool, rugged region weave through coffee fields. Just keep in mind that Jamaica is not the safest place to veer off the beaten path without a guide or at least some direction from a tour company—there are some well-protected ganja fields hidden out there. The Blue Mountains-John Crow National Park is filled with sites to challenge adventure travelers of all types—hikers, birders, mountain bikers, and more.
For a real lung-expanding hike, set your sights on Blue Mountain Peak, the highest mountain in Jamaica at 7,400 feet. Intrepid climbers begin their ascent very early (4 a.m.) to watch the sunrise from the mountaintop, but it's advisable to hire a guide if you plan to climb in the dark. You'll trek through coffee plantations and banana and papaya groves, which change to wilder forest as you reach the higher altitudes.
8. Grand Cayman: Walk the Wilds
Orchids and parrots burst with color, doves and woodpeckers hover overhead, snakes and lizards wander the footpaths. Grand Cayman's Mastic Trail serves up all this wildlife, plus a lush forest of cedar, mahogany, and palms, along with lowlands dense with mangrove. Of course, much of the Caribbean once looked like this, but colonization and the subsequent clearing wiped out much of the native habitat. Even on Grand Cayman, which is a low, coral-formed island, nature once displayed astounding diversity. Now, through the efforts of the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, the Mastic Reserve has been established in the steamy interior of the island, featuring trails through portions of the original dry, subtropical forests.
9. St John: Go Eco-Tenting
It sounds too good to be true: the strict protections and wild scenery you'd expect from a U.S. national park—on a gorgeous Caribbean island. Nope, you're not dreaming. The 11,560-acre Virgin Islands National Park encompasses the bulk of the island of St. John; within its confines are miles of tropical growth, postcard-perfect beaches, and marine life as colorful as gumdrops. If your idea of a Caribbean paradise is a palm-shaded tent site overlooking the surf, St. John should be your choice in the Caribbean. It can get crowded, so opt for off-season months (summer and fall). Options range from bare sites to eco-friendly shelters. When camp's made, you can hop in a Jeep and hike one of the many marked trails (keep an eye out for the free-roaming wild burros); other pastimes include snorkeling the guided underwater trail at Trunk Bay and strolling along the self-guided Cinnamon Bay Nature Trail.
10. Bonaire: Dive into Heaven
Most Caribbean islands have protected stretches of their most precious asset—sandy beaches fronting the sea—but none can top Bonaire's beach and marine conservation efforts. The entire coastline—from the high-water mark to the 200-foot depth—has been deemed the Bonaire Marine Park. The result: marine life so plentiful a recent study showed the island had one of the world's most diverse fish populations.
Bonaire's tourist appeal is built almost entirely around diving and snorkeling, and it ranks as some of the best in the Caribbean. The reef starts within walking distance of the beach so you can forgo pesky dive-boat schedules. Visibility tops 100 feet—perfect for viewing colorful parrotfish and tangs as well as attractions like the wreck of the freighter Hilma Hooker, which now lies, enshrouded by swarms of fish, at a depth of about 90 feet.
11. St. Lucia: Climb the Pitons
The view itself is a classic—the Pitons of St. Lucia, soaring straight up from the sea's edge. But actually climbing the twin set of natural icons—2,620-foot Gros Piton and 2,460-foot Petit Piton—is a challenge very few undertake. These volcanic peaks are for experienced climbers only—they aren't technical, but landslides are a constant danger and the going is very rugged. Snaking up the misty, jungle-covered, boulder-strewn mountainsides for the huge views from the top is an experience well worth the trouble. In spite of its size, Gros Piton is the easier and can be done in half a day; the steeper-sided Petit Piton is more of a challenge.
12. Puerto Rico: Into the Caves
What lies beneath the islands of the Caribbean? Come see at Puerto Rico's Rmo Camuy Cave Park, termed the world's third-largest underground river cave system. The usual gamut of subterranean sightseeing tours are offered, but you can also get doses of serious caving here: Rappel 200 feet through the cavern entrance; crawl through passages of mud; body raft along the underground river; or see rarely visited parts of the cave. And while at first it may seem like you're discovering this underground world, you'll soon see evidence that you've been scooped by about 500 years—cave paintings and carvings by the island's original Taino Indians are proof. Parts of the cave can close during heavy rain; rainy months are July through November.
13. Turks and Caicos: Spot Whales
From December through April, intrepid ecotourists journey to remote, undeveloped Salt Cay for a very simple but spectacular reason: a chance to spot humpback whales. Although you can watch them from shore, the best view is up close and personal, right in the water with the giant mammals when these humpbacks migrate through the Turks Island Passage on their way to the Mouchoir Bank about 30 miles to the southeast. Certified divers are treated to a symphony of whale songs reverberating through the water. Can't make it during the winter months? Grab your fins anyway; these walls are home to manta ray during the summer months, and you can expect to see dolphins on most dives as well.
14. Trinidad: Go On Safari
Not many people make it down to Trinidad, a stone's throw from Venezuela, but those who do are rewarded with an awesome collection of bird species. Having splintered away from South America a mere 11,000 years ago has resulted in the vast abundance and diversity of its wildlife. Head to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, a rainforest preserve located in Trinidad's Northern Range, an echo of the South American Andes. Exploring the preserve on foot, you'll tramp along woodland trails and spot exotic species by the score, from blue-headed parrots to some of the 10 species of hummingbirds. Be on the lookout for armadillos, anteaters, ocelots, and red howler monkeys, too; in all, Trinidad has over 150 mammal and reptile species.
15. Barbados: Surf It
Hang on tight: The huge waves that crash into the east coast town of Bathsheba make for a thrilling ride. The surf's almost always up here, since the position of Barbados, far out in the Atlantic, creates a prime environment for surfing, as swells have hundreds of miles to develop before crashing into the island's eastern side. Huge boulders, like a giant's beach toys, litter the sand, and the sea splits into rows of pounding breakers, especially at a spot deemed "the Soup Bowl." The best surf is found in the winter months; in November surfing championships take place in these frothy waters. Early summer can bring flat waters and many turn to body surfing.
16. Tobago: Ride a Ray
Got a case of "been there, done that?" We have just one word for you: Tobago. Yes, Tobago, which offers some of the Caribbean's most spectacular diving. Of this island and its sister, Trinidad, Tobago is more laid-back and peaceful, with little to distract you from enjoying its natural beauty. Off Speyside on the island's northeast coast, the waters are crystal clear—the better to observe and sometimes interact with the giant mantas that congregate from November to early summer. The creatures, whose wingspan can reach 25 feet, are gentle but not exactly shy, often allowing divers to approach them at close range. Some can be pet, while others seem to enjoy interacting with divers in an impromptu underwater ballet. Divers have also been permitted to hitch short rides on their broad backs, or "Tobago taxi."
17. Dominican Republic: Get Wet
Water, water everywhere—and with it plenty of choices for the adventure traveler. Although the coastal waters have plenty of temptations, the options get even edgier when you go inland—like diving at the fishing village of Bayahibe. Cascading draws thrill-seekers to Jarabacoa, a town in the rugged interior that's just a two-hour drive from Cabarete. Rappel down slick waterfalls and swing through the air over the turbulent waters of the Yaque Norte. When you're ready to take to the water, this river is also home to some Class III rapids and plenty of untouched landscape that can only be viewed from the water.
18. Dominica: Dive an Underwater Peak
Not to be confused with the much larger Dominican Republic, Dominica (dough-min-EE-ka) is one of the least-changed islands in the Caribbean. Don't expect glitz and glamour here, just a lush, mountainous landscape offering peace and quiet. Start at Morne Trois Pitons National Park and scale one of the three mist-covered peaks, the highest reaching 4,550 feet. Cool down in a crater lake or in the waterfall-fed Emerald Pool—but steer clear of Boiling Lake, heated by volcanic gases. Then grab a regulator and kick down the Pinnacle at Scotts Head, an underwater peak.
19. St. Kitts: Hike with Monkeys
Mt. Liamuiga was once known as "Mt. Misery," but the name turned off visitors (go figure). A climb up this dormant (but not extinct) volcano does deal a little misery, but the reward is a walk through a dense rainforest on its upper reaches. The mountain dominates the surrounding sugarcane fields and can be seen from anywhere on St. Kitts. The trek up Liamuiga's steamy slopes and down into its volcanic crater is special not just for its rainforest flora but also for the occasional glimpse of the green vervet monkeys which populate the island. The climb can be moderate to strenuous depending on the route you choose, but it's always rewarding.
20. Grenada: Hike the Jungle
Tiny Grenada is nicknamed "the spice island," and a trip here is anything but bland for adventure travelers. A six-hour hike from Grand Etang to Concord slices through the rainforest beneath a canopy of birds, monkeys, and exotic vegetation. At the end, travelers are rewarded with a swim at Concord Waterfalls. Can't get enough hiking? Then return to Grand Etang and take a five-hour trek to Fedons Camp, tucked 2,500 feet above sea level in a misty rainforest. Atop Mount Qua Qua, adventurers follow the route from which Grenada's first revolutionaries began their overthrow.