Puerto Rico is a great place for a quick getaway. From the east coast of the US it is an easy flight to San Juan and, with consistently reasonable ticket prices, it is a great Caribbean pick for the budget traveler. As a US citizen no passport is required which means no time lost at customs and no hassles of money exchange or weird driving regulations. Remember, Puerto Rico is a US territory, so much is familiar to most American tourists and getting around is a breeze for English-speakers. However, what makes Puerto Rico such a great destination are the things that are different. Puerto Rico is distinctly Spanish and visitors will find many unique cultural and historical attractions all over the island that elevate a trip to Puerto Rico beyond just a beach vacation. The island is also developing a lot of different offerings for travelers to enjoy its natural attractions, much more so than most Caribbean destinations, making it a up and coming player in the ecotourism game.
Here are my top ten things to do in Puerto Rico:
1. Visit Old San Juan:
Old San Juan still retains the Spanish flavor of its first colonists with wonderful architecture, cobblestone streets, colorful buildings, castles, mansions and civic buildings. The area is small, (only 7 blocks square!), but contains over 400 original colonial structures which date from the 16th and 17th century. Along with many historical attractions Old San Juan has wonderful cafes, restaurants and shops so it is wise to plan a full day here. It is also easy to navigate on foot with many of the major must-sees (Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo de San Cristobal, Paseo de la Princesa) within a short distance. Check out this suggested self-guided walking tour.
PS: If you are interested in Puerto Rican nightlife check out Nuyorican Cafe for fantastic Salsa music.
2. Kayak in a BioBay:
Puerto Rico is home to three Bioluminescent Bays: Mosquito Bay on Vieques, Laguna Grande in Fajardo, and La Parguera in Lajas. The water in the bays glows when disturbed due to a high amount of dynoflagellates (small glowing micro-organisms) living there. These bays are extremely fragile and very rare so experiencing one is a must! Mosquito Bay on Vieques is the best and brightest. If you can manage an overnight stay on the island you will not be disappointed. I recommend going with Black Beard Sports or Blue Waters. Laguna Grande, near Fajardo, is second on the list with a convenient location to San Juan. This bay has a fun entrance where you must paddle through a mangrove forest (in the dark of course!) to enter the magical bay – pretty cool. La Parguera is the least bright but if you are in the area do check it out.
Puerto Rican food is a cross between Spanish, African, American and Taino (Native Indian) flavors. Rice, Beans, Cassava, Plantain, Chicken and Pork are popular ingredients and typical dishes include: Stews (asopao), Meat Pies (pastelón de carne), roasted pork (lechon), rice and pigeon peas (arroz con gandules). Mofongo is a Puerto Rican specialty which is mashed plantain, spices and any number of different fillings. You will also find a lot of fried street foods. If you want to get an education in Puerto Rican cooking I recommend taking one of San Juan’s Food Tours. Food Tours are a great way to taste a large variety of dishes, meet locals, learn some history and have fun. Try Spoon Food Tours or Flavors of San Juan. If you are out on the road you can stop at the “Pork Highway” on Route 184 in the mountains of Central Puerto Rico. Visit Friday-Sunday for a all-day pork fiesta and party like the locals. Drive the whole highway, stop and try as much as you can – a unique Puerto Rican experience.
El Yunque Rainforest is the US’s only subtropical forest and is a quick day trip from San Juan. The park has a great trail system for hikers of all abilities to enjoy. Try the trail to La Mina Falls and enjoy swimming under the falls. Many visitors go with local guides which can deeply enhance the impact of your visit. Try Louie’s VIP or Borikua Tours. After you visit El Yunque, stop at Vinny’s for some great food by the ocean.
5. Visit the Islands
If you find the pace of life just too fast on Puerto Rico you can retreat even further into island life by hopping a flight or ferry to one of Puerto Rico’s islands. The islands of Vieques and Culebra boast pristine beaches, rustic tropical beauty and a much slower pace of life. Flamenco Beach on Culebra is consistent considered to be the best in Puerto Rico, while Vieques’ Biobay and Beach Reserve are world-class attractions. Consider spending a night on one of these beautiful islands to fully appreciate all they have to offer. For those who enjoy a true nature experience you can visit Mona Island, a uninhabited virginal island which has been called the “Galapagos of the Caribbean”. There are campgrounds but no food, water or services available. Call (787) 999-2200 for a camping permit.
6. Explore a Cave
Puerto Rico is home to some amazing caves that are easily-accessible. There are caving experiences to be had for all levels of adventurers. The Rio Camuy Caves, in Utuado, are the third largest in the world and definitely worth a visit. The caving itself is not difficult and there are tour guides available at the park as well as an audio guide in Spanish and English. La Cueva del Indio, located in northwest Puerto Rico, was used by the native Taino Indians (and pirates supposedly!) and has some fantastic petroglyphs. The cave itself is on the ocean and very scenic. Guides are available. Cueva Ventana is also located in northwest Puerto Rico and after a short hike offers a very scenic view over the countryside. Lastly you can contact Robert at Borikua Tours for a private tour of 4 of Caveland‘s 60 caves in Morovis.
Whether you are an experienced rider or a first-timer seeing Puerto Rico by horse is a unique and fun way to see the island. Many of the stables offering trail rides can take you to remote locations not accessible to most tourists where you can experience riding on pristine beaches and exploring the surf on horseback. Depending what part of Puerto Rico you are visiting check out Pintos R Us (Rincon), Esperanza Riding Co. (Vieques) or Tropical Trail Rides (Isabela).
8. Ride the Waves
Puerto Rico has been called the “Hawaii of the Atlantic” because of the great surf conditions on its Northwestern coast. Head to the towns of Rincon, Isabela or Aguadilla to experience big waves and the laid-back surf culture that thrives here year-round. If you want to rent gear or get lessons check out Rincon Surf School. If you want to explore the beaches on your own there is an interactive surf map available here.
9. Snorkel off a Sailboat
While there are some good snorkeling spots on the main island the best reefs are going to be further out around some of Puerto Rico’s small islands and there are some great sailors willing to take visitors to explore these pristine waters. Most offer full day or half day sails and you can choose your ship: tiny catamaran to full fledged wooden sailboat and everything in between. Most sailing trips will include food and time for snorkeling. If on Vieques check out: Little Boat Sailing or Vieques Classic Charters. From Puerto Rico: Erin Go Braugh or Sailing Dreams Yacht Charters.
10. Enjoy the Beach
What would your Puerto Rican vacation be without time spent enjoying the pristine waters, white sands and jungle shorelines. Arguably Puerto Rico’s best beaches are located on the islands of Culebra and Vieques, with Flamenco Beach on Culebra being considered the most beautiful. However, if a trip to the islands doesn’t fit in your itinerary there are wonderful beaches on mainland Puerto Rico to suit any traveler. Check out this great list of beaches to find one that suits your beach style.