The Rio Blanco tumbles down a tropical mountainside forming a series of waterfalls and rapids famous for locals and tourists alike. When we visited, we met travelers from all over the United States and locals who knew the falls well.
Charco El Hippie was the best part of our 2 week stay in Puerto Rico (it even beat out Playa Buye and Vieques). What made these falls and swimming holes in Naguabo so special? Well, it’d be easy enough to give credit to the falls and caves and cliff jumping, but a friend we made at El Hippie really made it special.
His name was Chelo, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
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Things to do at Charco El Hippie
Don’t just show up to El Hippie and lounge around, or dip in the main pool. Once the locals start showing up, you’ll learn a lot of the secrets (magic, I daresay) of El Hippie. Oh, and if you find a gold wedding band with “George 05/27/2023” engraved in it, we’re missing one…
- Jump from the cliffs. When the locals show up, they’ll show you the exact spots where it’s safe to jump. But go ahead, get in on the action.
- Swing from flamboyan. There is a swing on the far side of El Hippie from where you walk down to the pool (across the pool, if you will) hanging from a flamboyan tree. It’s not sketchy. I saw lots of people swinging on it, and did so myself. It’s not a swing-and-jump swing, but one for sitting and swinging back and forth.
- Plunge in the caves and rapids. This is where our new friend Chelo helped out. Luckily my wife speaks Spanish, because spending time with Chelo was one of my favorite things in Puerto Rico.
- Climb to La Canoa Falls. Cross the pool and head upstream, around the boulders on the right side of the river. Wow! See that waterfall? That’s La Canoa Falls.
- View petroglyphs. Unfortunately I didn’t know about the petroglyphs until we left the falls, but they’re downstream from the main pool. You’ll have to navigate some boulders to see these ancient drawings, but a local might be able to show you their location.
Swimming beneath La Canoa Falls (first) and swinging from a flamboyan tree at Charco El Hippie (second). 6/8/23
What to bring to El Hippie
Visiting El Hippie is like visiting the beach: you’re going to want to spend all day there and it’s a bit of a walk from your car, so you want to be well-prepared. Everything you take should be able to handle some water, especially if you want to set up your camp on the far side of the pool, which we did.
All of these items can be found on my Puerto Rico packing list, so you might check that out before visiting anywhere in Puerto Rico.
- Snacks! We spent hours at El Hippie and only brought some passionfruit from out mountain Airbnb. I was having too much fun to feel hungry, but I could’ve used some extra calories while exploring the waterfalls and rapids.
- A swimsuit that can handle some activity. I only use Bearbottom swim shorts because I can wear them for anything (like hiking and rock scrambling at El Hippie). For ladies, wear an athletic, go-anywhere bathing suit, not something frilly and skimpy.
- A daypack. I floated my GORUCK bag across the pool, and none of the clothes inside got wet. The GORUCK GR1 is the best travel (perfect for carryon), hiking, adventure daypack you can buy. I don’t go anywhere without my GR1 or larger GR2.
- Good shoes! This can’t be understated. Wear shoes you can hike in, get wet, and jump from cliffs in. My Teva Original sandals were happy to swim, cliff jump, rock scramble, and hike in. I wouldn’t want to be weighed down with hiking shoes and water shoes, so I use the ultimately versatile Teva Universal.
- Sunscreen! There’s shady spots at El Hippie, but we were there for hours and clocked some serious time in the Puerto Rican sunshine. I recommend non-toxic, reef-safe sunscreen like this one from Blue Lizard (check the price on Amazon).
- Extra clothes. Leave some clothes in your car for the drive back, but also bring an extra shirt in your daypack to the falls. I recommend something light and long sleeve, too, for a sun coverup. Finally, bring an outdoorsy hat that. We love booney hats like this one.
- A beach towel. You’re going to dip in the pool, cliff jump (maybe), and plunge into rapids (maybe). No matter how you visit Charco El Hippie, bring a towel.
For a list of other things you might bring on your waterfall adventures, check out my Puerto Rico packing list.
How to get to El Hippie
Getting to El Hippie is pretty straightforward. You will need a car to get there, and you’ll be a bit off the beaten path, but we had no trouble finding it.
When you reach the end of the road, there is a house that charges $5 to park. When we visited El Hippie, there were signs that were very adamant about not parking anywhere that would block the road, or someone’s property. We were the very first car to arrive that day (around 9am on a weekday), and the owner of the house was ready for us. The $5 is well-spent to visit this little paradise in Naguabo.
Now, you’re going to want to spend all day at El Hippie (probably–most people do). We stayed at an Airbnb in the rainforest just outside El Yunque, but it was still a 40 minute drive to the south side of the National Park. I highly recommend getting to El Hippie before it gets busy (and it does get very busy).
Visiting from San Juan
If you’re visiting from San Juan (which is perfectly doable), leave early in the morning and bring snacks. Puerto Rico is small, so it’s only a 75-90 minute drive from the island’s capital. Roads in Puerto Rico can be a little rough, including the roads around El Hippie. We rented a small 4×4 SUV from Enterprise for our adventures.
Luquillo and Fajardo
Two other places you might be staying are the cities of Luquillo or Fajardo, both in the northeast corner of Puerto Rico. Luqillo has popular beaches and access to coastal experiences, and it’s not very far from San Juan. It’s also a quick 45 minute drive to Charco El Hippie. A bit larger than Luquillo, Fajardo is a popular stop for anyone driving south to reach the ferries to Vieques and Culebra. If you’re staying in Fajardo, you’ll drive about 35 minutes to reach El Hippie.
Stay in the rainforest
There are a few cool places to stay near El Yunque, surrounded by nature. Aside from the usual Airbnbs you might browse, there are treehouses, charming boutique hotels, sustainable & tropical retreats, and ecolodges perched over the river.
We spent a few days staying in the rainforest and exploring El Yunque and you should too.
In front of the gushing La Canoa Falls. 6/8/23
La Canoa Falls
When you’re hanging out at El Hippie, don’t forget to check out La Canoa falls, just upstream from the main pool. Across the pool (on the side with the swing), there are boulders leading upstream. Climb over these to see an amazing view of towering La Canoa Falls. You can also swim here: jump from the cliffs (take care to only jump into the center of the river, just beneath the cliffs (aka jump at your own risk!) or climb down to a natural stone ramp into the water.
Swimming close to La Canoa is a real treat. The falls are loud and powerful and easily push you back downstream.
La Canoa isn’t the farthest upstream you can venture–if you know who to ask. Some locals will take you on a upstream walk in the river, showing off some more falls and rapids. Our guide (who we met at El Hippie), however, took us far above El Hippie onto private land, which he has access to. His name was Chelo.
Our El Hippie Tour Guide
Chelo first approached my wife (who speaks Spanish) and asked if she wanted him to take us down into some caves. She asked if I wanted to go with him, without much more an explanation, and I agreed. He was a fit, barefoot, older guy who had already bested all the cliff jumping by diving into Charco El Hippie from the tallest of all the cliffs. I figured he had some fun up his sleeve and quickly trotted after him.
Chelo first took us on an interactive, soaking wet mini tour of the caves and rapids hiding amongst the boulders downstream of El Hippie. We scrambled across the enormous rocks before descending into a small cave, where he happily took some pictures of us.
Standing in the rapids of the Rio Blanco below El Hippie with Chelo (first) and the first cave he took us into (second). 6/8/23
I figured that was the end of the journey: a couple photos beneath the rapids inside a cave. Chelo, however, told us to turn around and step into the rapids. He demonstrated, showing us where to go and where we’d end up. What followed was a rollercoaster-like swim and slide through the rapids of El Hippie, descending a hundred yards or so via caves and gushing water. Chelo stayed with us and gave us directions, helping my wife in the more precarious rapids.
It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. I love caves, I love swimming, and I love venturing out of the way to find experiences and natural wonders. I came out the other side with just a single bruise and a treasured memory (and perhaps some secret knowledge of El Hippie’s adventurous side). But we weren’t done!
After the adventure of caves and rapids, Chelo asked if we’d like to venture high above La Canoa, El Hippie, and the tumbling river below. He said there were falls higher up, great views, and only he could take us.
You see, the beautiful rainforest above Charco El Hippie is privately owned. Like I’ve mentioned, some “tour guides” (locals you meet) will show you up the river itself, but Chelo has permission from the land owner to show small groups way up onto the mountain.
We paid Chelo $100 and he showed us to a large gate, close to where we entered El Hippie. It’s visible as an obvious “No Trespassing” warning when you arrive. Instead of leading down to the water, the gate leads up into the mountain and high above the river.
The path up the mountain was extremely steep and quite rugged, definitely a challenging climb. But the views were well-worth the effort. We were hundreds of feet above the cascading, boulder-strewn river. The sounds of the rainforest filled the air. And up ahead, at the end of the climb, we reached Charco Blanco, a large swimming pool beneath a wide, powerful waterfall. Swimming to this waterfall was tough, the water tumultuous, but the refreshment of the water gushing over my sunburnt head was awesome.
Hiking above Charco El Hippie on private land. 6/8/23
If you’re lucky enough to bump into Chelo and know a little Spanish, he might just show you down into the caves and rapids of El Hippie. Chelo might offer to take you hiking above the falls. Go ahead and accept the invitation. It was well-worth the $100 he charged us and I’ll surely be looking for him again the next time we visit El Hippie.
Our local tour guide, Chelo (first), and a tropical view of the Rio Blanco (second). 6/8/23
Video from above Charco El Hippie on the Rio Blanco. 6/8/23
The top of our hike at Charco Blanco below a powerful waterfall. 6/8/23