A few minutes outside of San Juan and just past touristy Isla Verde is the town of Loíza, best known for its traditional vejigante masks and the beachside community of Piñones, where you can get some of the best frituras in the region.
But what makes Loíza distinct from any other part of Puerto Rico is the rich African heritage that permeates the town's identity. The town was settled in the 16th century by members of the Yoruba tribe that were brought to the Island as slaves. In modern times, most of the music, dance, culinary traditions, and art produced in Loíza is Afro-Puerto Rican and the town has the largest black population on the Island.
The first stop for many people that visit Loíza is Piñones. This community is comprised mostly of businesses selling frituras (fritters and fried turnovers), as well as chicken and pork skewers, fresh seafood, and fruit frappes. The most famous is El Boricua, which makes its fritters as they're ordered guaranteeing freshness and bold flavor, not to mention the portions are enormous.
You can also visit the Piñones State Forest, a mangrove forest that spans most of the Loíza coast. You can bike, walk, or run the 11 kilometers of trail and boardwalk from Punta Cangrejo (where Piñones starts at the Loíza city limit) all the way to Vacía Talega beach.
COPI, a cultural and ecotourism center in Piñones, has bikes and kayaks for rent, and they also offer bomba classes and cultural workshops.
There are several beaches just off Road 187 which follows the coastline. La Posita is a wonderful family beach; it's essentially a giant tide pool created by a natural rock barrier. A bit further down is the ideal surfing spot, Aviones beach, named after the airplanes that are often seen and heard flying overhead as they take off from the nearby airport. Much further down is Vacía Talega beach, a sandy crescent with tranquil waters and a gorgeous view of the shoreline.
Festival of Saint James
The most famous celebration in Loíza is the yearly Festival of Saint James (in Spanish, Fiestas Tradicionales en Honor a Santiago Apóstol). For a week in July, the town celebrates multiple processions and parades, live bomba and plena music play in the town squares as women in colorful skirts and men in traditional garb dance and sing. This is the festival where the vejigantes come out in force during the parades, wearing the emblematic coconut mask with horns, along with other characters like the Spanish Caballeros (knights), the Viejos dressed in rags, and the Locas, men dressed as crazy women.
Parque Histórico Cueva María de la Cruz
Venture deeper into Loíza and you'll reach the María de la Cruz Cave Historic Park, an archeological site discovered in 1948. Inside were the remains of some of the first inhabitants of the Island, dating back as far as 4000 BC, as well as many Taíno artifacts. The cave itself is impressive, measuring 98 feet in height, 164 feet wide, and 82 feet deep. In 2018 the municipal government established facilities around the cave including an education center, an art gallery, an artisan market, a playground for children, and a campsite. Guides offer tours of the cave and workshops about beekeeping since the area is also a bee sanctuary.