Puerto Rico is a place very near and dear to my heart. I will openly admit that I am extremely biased about how amazing it is, but it’s easy to see why it is a favorite destination for so many. They do not call it la isla del encanto (the island of enchantment) for nothing. The rich history, blended from Spanish, native Taino, and African roots, is what makes Puerto Rico known for its distinct sabor (flavor). Although the small island is just over 100 miles from east to west and 35 miles from north to south, it is packed full of beauty, adventure, and culture. There is so much to offer, including quintessential Caribbean beaches, old world remnants, gorgeous mountains, vibrant Latin music, delicious cuisine, and the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. In my opinion, there is simply nowhere else that can compare.
I have visited the land Puerto Ricans proudly refer to as Borinquen many times and know it very well, especially after once spending a week beach-hopping across the island. It is hard to pick my top highlights but I have narrowed it down to five must-go experiences for any of you interested in visiting my favorite place on earth.
1. Take a day trip to Culebra, a tiny island off the east coast of Puerto Rico that is home to Flamenco Beach, which is commonly known as one of the top ten beaches in all of the world and the second best in the Caribbean. The powdery white sand and deep turquoise water makes this one of those pristine postcard-like sights that you dream of when you envision paradise. It’s also a fantastic place to snorkel. The rest of the island is just as gorgeous and can be explored in its entirety in a few hours if you’re able to somehow peel yourself away from Flamenco Beach’s hypnotizing perfection. To get to Culebra, you must drive about an hour east of San Juan to Fajardo and catch a 1.5 hour ferry ride out for $5. Make sure to check the ferry schedule and go early. You simply cannot miss this experience when visiting PR. Tip: Another option instead of the often rough ferry ride is to fly out to Culebra, which can be done in 10 mins for about $90. You can also stay there overnight.
2. Visit Luquillo, a beach where a lot of locals go, so you’ll get an authentic Puerto Rican experience. Don’t make the mistake most tourists make and stick to the beaches in the San Juan area, which are just okay. I assure you there are FAR better beaches on the island. Luquillo is less than an hour drive east of San Juan and it’s well worth the effort. This palm tree lined stretch has superb water that is clear, calm, and could not be more inviting. You can rent beach chairs to relax or try several water activities here, plus there are vendors selling delicious ice cold treats on the beach and usually loud reggaeton music blasting from cars in the parking lot. Also, right off the main road you will find a strip of about 50 kiosks selling food and souvenirs. Here you can try Puerto Rican street foods, such alcapurrias and bacalaitos, freshly made by one of the many vendors. However, the best one is the very first kiosk, called “La Parrilla” which simply means the grill in Spanish. They have fresh seafood, the best arroz con habichuelas (rice and beans), a refreshing Sangria, and a yummy quarto leches dessert that I still dream about years later. I have eaten here several times and it never disappoints. Definitely one of my favorite restaurants and beaches in the world. Tip: Try to visit on a weekday so it’s far less crowded.
3. Explore El Yunque, a tropical rainforest in the northeast area of Puerto Rico (actually not far from Luquillo mentioned above, so you can do both in one day!) You can do a guided tour, hike the trails on your own, or just drive up to La Coca falls for beautiful views. Here you’ll be among the purest form of nature, including lush trees and plants, birds, frogs, and more. It is recommended that first timers visit the visitor’s center first to learn a little about the ecosystem and conservation efforts that are made here, plus get a map of the trail heads and other helpful info. There are plenty of spots to grab a meal on the way and within the park. Tip: Since they get a ton of rain here, be sure to go early in the day and pack rain gear accordingly, such as raincoats/ponchos and good shoes with a study grip. Bug spray is a must.
4. Venture to Cabo Rojo, which is on the opposite end of the island in the very southwest tip. It is well worth the drive for La Playuela (aka Playa Sucia) alone, which is one of the most breathtaking beaches I’ve ever witnessed and is also rated one of the top beaches in the Caribbean. This area is a treasure for locals and select adventurous visitors, but thankfully it’s still unknown to most tourists and remains one of those “off the beaten path” gems. Taking a short hike to see the famous lighthouse, Faro Los Morrillos, is a must for the absolutely unbelievable views from the limestone cliffs nearby. You can then walk over to Playa Sucia and enjoy the tranquil waters and some of the most gorgeous beach scenery you’ll ever see. If this is not enough, there are great snorkeling opportunities nearby, as Isla de Mona or Isla de Ratones provide access to phenomenal marine life. The little town of Cabo Rojo will give you a taste of what pueblitos (small towns) across the island are like – quaint and charming, yet filled with relevant history (monuments, museums, churches). Tip: Parking is quite a walk from the lighthouse and beach so wear appropriate shoes and pack what you’ll need for an excursion that will take a few hours, if not all day. The lighthouse is closed on Wednesdays.
5. Old San Juan is without a doubt the most popular spot for tourists, but it simply cannot be missed. This incredibly historic area is over 500 years old and has tons to see and do. There are many shops, hotels, cafes, and markets along the original Cobblestone streets from centuries ago. The Spanish colonial architecture has mostly been well preserved and the bright colors are a delight to witness. No visit is complete without seeing the two famous forts – El Morro, which took almost 250 years to build in order to protect the city from invaders at sea, and Castillo San Cristobal, built by Spain to prevent land attacks. Both are sure to wow you with how old they are and the amazing views they offer. At night, this peninsula lights up and buzzes with energy. The salsa music Puerto Rico is famous for can be heard on every corner. Be sure to check out my fav, El Nuyorican Cafe, for a fun night of live salsa and dancing. Tip: You’ll want to plan for at least two days to explore the peninsula of Old San Juan (the two forts, plus the many shops and historical sites throughout).
Bonus: The perks of traveling to Puerto Rico
- It’s a U.S. territory, so you enjoy all the perks of being in the states, such as domestic cell service and not having to exchange U.S. dollars.
- U.S. citizens do not need a passport to visit and do not have to go through customs.
- It’s extremely easy to get around and figure out how to navigate. Most GPS devices will have no trouble getting you around the island.
- While there is crime here like anywhere else and the economy is currently facing extreme struggles, crimes against tourists are seldom so it is relatively safe. In general, you can wander around most parts of this island and will not be bothered, but in fact, will find most people friendly and helpful.
- I always prefer to rent a little apartment in certain San Juan neighborhoods for a few days, such as Ocean Park and Santurce, rather than a hotel. This will allow you to stay in a real Boricua neighborhood and get the full cultural experience. It’s still central to tourist activities in Old San Juan, but much cheaper. Plus Ocean Park and Condado have great beaches.
- You can take a Caribbean cruise departing from the ports of San Juan, like I did once. It was fabulous.
- Unlike most other countries in Latin America, English is commonly spoken by most people in tourist areas and even those who don’t speak English know enough to communicate. Still it is best to brush up on a few basic phrases and words to be prepared.