Having been born and raised in Puerto Rico has been one of the greatest gifts I have received from life. Although very small (approximately 100 miles long by 35 miles wide), it has become a popular destination by tourists due to its location, warm weather and rich culture. First, let me tell you some brief history on the island.
Between the 7th century and the 11th century, Puerto Rico, which was actually called Boriken at the time, was inhabited by the Taino Indians. After Christopher Columbus’ arrival in 1493, the Spaniards began to colonize the island and slowly but surely the Taino population started to decrease due to factors such as harsh working conditions, diseases, and unsuccessful rebellions against the Spanish.
As an outcome of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States of America and In 1917 the US Congress passed the Jones Act, which granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. To this day, some people dislike and some others don’t mind the fact that Puerto Rico is “americanized”. I can agree that there are probably too many McDonalds and KFC’s here and there but there is no denial that Puerto Rico has kept its history and cultural influences from our ancestors. You can see it through people’s lifestyles, architecture and the many beautiful sites this island has to offer.
Oftentimes I get asked by friends or friends of friends for recommendations as to what places to go to in Puerto Rico. There are things to consider when giving advice on the where to go’s . It all depends on the type of trip you want to take. Some people just want to sit at the hotel and relax, while others are more on an adventurous mode. I love to sit down and write travel suggestions down because I believe that the best way to get to know a place is through a local. Instead of giving you a list of the top 10 places to visit, I will tell you what I recommend doing on a 10 day trip.
DAY 1: OLD SAN JUAN
Although I haven’t traveled the whole world to know, I consider Old San Juan to be one of my favorite places in the world to travel to!!! Old San Juan is located at a driving distance of approximately 15 minutes from the Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport. I always recommend this to be the first stop because it is really close to the main areas such as Condado and Isla Verde, which have plenty of hotels to choose from. If this is your first time in Puerto Rico, I strongly recommend choosing one of these areas to stay for the first couple of days.
If your hotel provides it, take a shuttle to Old San Juan, take a taxi or drive in and you will find public parking throughout the area. Make sure you have comfortable shoes on as you will be walking for some time throughout the area and at many times on the blue cobblestones that decorate the streets of this historical part of the city. Aside from beautiful architecture, you will find great restaurants, museums and plenty of shopping. You will see many souvenir shops as well as outlets, such as Coach, Ralph Lauren, Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger, Dooney & Bourke, Crocs, and Polo. The streets of the Old City, such as Calle Fortaleza, Calle San Francisco, and Calle del Cristo, are the major venues for shopping.
Ok. Get the shopping over with. Get the souvenirs to take back home, walk all the way north to the top of the streets and now…. let’s go to FORT SAN FELIPE DEL MORRO!
EL MORRO is one of Puerto Rico’s most important historical sites. It is a beautiful landmark which was built during the 17th and 18th centuries to defend the San Juan coastline. As you walk through the ramps, dungeons, towers and tunnels, you can bear witness to nearly half a century of military history that began with the Spanish conquistadores and ended with World War II . Standing on top of this part of history while having in front of you breathtaking ocean views, is a moment I am sure you will never forget.
Once you leave the Fortress and head back towards the streets of the Old City, don’t hesitate in purchasing a piragüa!
Piragüas are a Puerto Rican pyramid shaped shaved ice dessert that is covered with fruit flavored syrup and are sold by vendors, known as piragüeros, in small colorful pushcarts. Now, if these snow cones do not do it for you and you are one of mine, I recommend a visit to Nono’s!
Located on Calle de San Sebastián, Nono’s is the perfect stop for a cold Medalla (the Puerto Rican beer). The bar is located in a colonial-style building and it is frequented by both locals and tourists. It has an excellent atmosphere and I would say a MUST stop before you head back to the hotel.
As I want to focus on daily things to do, lets proceed to day 2!
DAY 2: PIÑONES, CONDADO, ISLA VERDE
Since this is, after all, your vacation, let’s take time to just relax and what a better way than enjoying one of our beautiful beaches. Located just 5 minutes away from the Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport, Isla Verde is a great area to stay in. Its beach is beautiful and fun!! You can rent jet skis, banana boats, or a beach chair and just relax by the beautiful waters. One of my favorite beach restaurants is located right here. It is called Alambique and beware because it can get a little bit crazy. After a day at the beach, locals and tourists cross over and continue the party. (Did I mention how much Puerto Ricans love to party?) Drinking on the beach is legal and blasting the speakers of your stereo is, too. So, if you want something more quiet, I recommend staying closer to the tourist areas, such as behind the El San Juan Hotel & Casino. Gambling in Puerto Rico is also legal so if this is something you are interested in, I strongly advise you to go to this hotel in the evening. It is a combination of glamour with an island vibe and then great entertainment.
You can either stay at the beach the whole day and plan a wild or not so wild night out, or you can head out to Piñones, especially when you get hungry. If you are looking for something fancy, I do not recommend it. But, if you want an afternoon snack, then this is the place. Now, when I say snack I am not talking about chips or beef jerky. I am talking about Puerto Rican fried food type of snacks. When in doubt, in Puerto Rico we just “fry it”. When we don’t know how to cook something we just do that and Piñones is the place to try the best we have to offer. It is an area about five minutes from Isla Verde. You can either stop at one of the first kiosks or keep driving for a scenic road that shows you a more rustic side of the island. Once you choose a place, you will see that the menu consists mainly of ‘alcapurrias’, ’empanadillas’ ‘taquitos’, ‘bacalaitos’,… They are greasy, crispy and yummy!!! They consist of different meat and seafood fritters.
From here, either be brave and go back to the swimsuit and a swim in the ocean, have a couple of Medallas in the area or go get ready for what the evening might bring….always great things in the island. For nightlife in the area, you can never go wrong with the bars in the Condado area.
DAY 3: EAST COAST (LUQUILLO & FAJARDO)
Time to pack the bags, check out from the hotel and head east. At this point I recommend renting a car with GPS because now it is road trip time.
Destination: El Yunque National Forest, the sole tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System. What makes this place so different from all the other U.S. National Forests is its year-round tropical climate and immense biodiversity. It has multiple trails for you to hike on while breathing the fresh air El Yunque has to offer. Along the walk you will see different waterfalls which make the sounds in the forest even more pleasurable. Bring your bathing suit with you in case you are feeling a little bit adventurous… and hot. Make sure you bring some water with you and a snack. Also, get a map of the trails so you don’t get stuck in a trail you cannot finish. Yep, it kind of happened to me once.
This is a fun trip and take your time to enjoy what nature has to offer. After all the fritters you ate yesterday, the hiking will make you feel better. Once you are finished at El Yunque, you will probably be starving. So, how about some more fritters. Come on, you are on vacation. After you leave the area, head out to the kiosks at Luquillo.
The Luquillo kiosks consist of a long row of humble little restaurants along the beach. No matter the destination, stopping by is an experience that is uniquely Puerto Rican. Some are vacant, others are numbered and many of them are named. It could be hard to choose but the best bet is to ask a local. It all depends on what you feel like eating. I always go by my gut feeling or to the ones that have the street on one side and the beach on the other.
You can take a walk or swim right on Luquillo Beach, which is located behind the kiosks, or you can head out and relax before nighttime, which is when the next part starts.
A must know before the next destination: Bioluminescence is the emission of light by an organism or biochemical system and It occurs in a wide range of protists and animals, including bacteria and fungi, insects, marine invertebrates, and fish. It results from a chemical reaction that produces radiant energy very efficiently, giving off very little heat.
There are three bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico and one is located in Fajardo, just 15 minutes away from Luquillo. There are many tours and excursions that you can take. It is done at night and in order to enjoy the bioluminescence it is better when there is very little moon light. Once you book an excursion they will provide the kayaks and the life vests. I did this once for my birthday and it was probably one of the best experiences I have ever had.
DAY 4: CULEBRA ISLAND/VIEQUES
After a day like yesterday, time to go back to the beach and relax. While in Fajardo you have access to get to the more secluded sister islands of Culebra or Vieques. These islands have some of the best beaches in the Caribbean and I am confident to say that even the world. Study what each one has to offer and then make a choice as to which one you prefer but I can assure you that either one is a great choice. You get there either by a ferry or a quick plane ride . My top choice is Culebra because it is smaller and it is where Flamenco Beach is located. Here you can find white sand and crystal clear turquoise waters.
In either one of these islands you can find hotels, therefore, making it better than having to take the ferry or plane back to the mainland on the same day.
DAY 5: ROAD TRIP TO THE MOUNTAINS
Once you are back in the mainland, start heading out to Guavate. By the time that you get there you will be ready to taste one of Puerto Rico’s favorite culinary delights: pig on a spit. Even Anthony Bourdain, of No Reservations on the TravelChannel, came to Guavate on his trip here to taste this specialty. The earlier you get out there, the better. It is approximately a 1 to 1 1/2 hour drive from Fajardo. Once your belly is nice and stuffed, head out towards Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city. It is such a beautiful drive through the mountains. You will see quite a change in scenery as you get closer to Ponce. It goes from green and moist to dry.
Once you arrive in Ponce you can take a drive to the old fire house, a landmark and pride of this part of town. As you leave Ponce towards Sabana Grande, continue going southwest on highway 102 and you will hit one of the few roads in Puerto Rico that can truly be called an oceanfront drive, leaving you on a stretch of two lane road where you’re driving almost level with the ocean.
When you get to Cabo Rojo, make it a point to stay here to enjoy the beautiful sunset this town has to offer. In the meantime, you can enjoy the amazing food sold in the restaurants and kiosks in this area. It has amazing seafood. I would stay in the area and continue the road trip tomorrow.
DAY 6 AND 7: THE WEST (RINCON, AGUADILLA, ISABELA)
My favorite part of Puerto Rico is located on the west coast of the island. Once you leave Cabo Rojo, you will make it to the first stop in a matter of 40 minutes. Note that this could be day 6 and 7 of your trip. It is more relaxed than the east as it consists more of beautiful beaches and less walking/hiking. Here is the map of where you are now (left side of the map)
Rincon is one of the most popular surfing destinations in the world. It is highly populated by people who came as tourists and ended up staying. The surfing season in this area lasts from December to April and you can find plenty of surfing schools in the area. After the season is over you see the waters filled with paddle boarders. I love the vibe in this town. If you wear jeans you might feel over dressed and I love it being that I consider myself to be a beach girl who loves her shorts and flip flops. This place can pull you in and you end up lounging the whole day by the beach and grabbing a beer at a local bar where everybody is in carefree mode. While living in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I would come here and honestly feel that I was in a different country.
After Rincon you have the town of Aguadilla. It is said that it is through here that Christopher Columbus came in to the island in 1493. I have a special place in my heart for this town. This is where my family is from and where some of my best childhood memories come from. I drive through this town and I feel my grandparents are there with me, even when I know they now accompany me only in spirit. This town has so many special places in my heart. I will mention what I consider to be the best beach in Puerto Rico. It is called Crashboat.
Crashboat has become a popular location for fishing and for jumping into the clear waters. It also has two large sand beach areas for general bathing.
From the town of Aguadilla go to Isabela. In Isabela you can find outstanding panoramic views as well as more beautiful beaches, rivers, caves and archaeological sites. Among the attractions are Jobos Beach and Pozo de Jacinto, a pit cave with a very interesting story.
These three towns are located pretty close to each other and although you can see them all in one day, it is my recommendation to stay out here for day 6 and 7.
DAY 8: ARECIBO OBSERVATORY/LA CUEVA DE LA VENTANA IN UTUADO
As the trip might be coming to the final days, start heading North East back to San Juan. The next destination will be in Arecibo. As you may know by now it can get very tricky trying to get around Puerto Rico on a GPS. For Puerto Ricans directions could be as easy as “Make a left right after the green garbage can and then go straight and you will see a Church, keep going and then you will see speed bump, take two of those and keep going and when you see a big tree, then that is when you are going to make a right and then just ask someone for more directions”. The best I can do is to tell you that the next destination is in Arecibo and it is called Cueva Ventana. It is located on Route 10 at KM 75, right next to a Texaco gas station. There is a trail that begins adjacent to the gas station. This trip will take you about three hours and you will need a flashlight as you walk inside the cave. Once you pass this you will be introduced to a view that is out of this world.
Some movies have been shot here such as Disney Channel’s Original Movie “Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie” and more recently “Runner. Runner” starring Justin Timberlake and Ben Affleck.
Once you leave the cave you can head out to see the world’s largest single-aperture telescope at the Arecibo Observatory. The radio telescope is 1,000 ft and it is used in three major areas of research: Aeronomy, Radar Astronomy and Radio Astronomy.
DAY 9: PLAZITA DE SANTURCE
This day I would leave it open to do that thing in your mind that you are curious about, that one thing a local told you about and you said it is something that would be done a “next time”. I always recommend an open day to do whatever you feel like doing. It could either be going to Plaza las Americas (the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean and the second largest in Latin America) or it could be to just relax by the ocean or pool by your hotel.
One of the places that I miss the most when I am away from the island is as simple as a market area in a middle of a plaza (or square) in San Juan. We know it as “la Plazita de Santurce”. It is a bit tricky to get here so the best bet is to take a cab. It is about ten minutes away from the aiport area. Although located in the main city, this place shows how the Puerto Rican culture has not been lost. While it is a market during the day where you find fresh fruits and vegetables, at night it becomes a party scene.
It has a variety of restaurants, bars and cafes lining the streets that surround the marketplace. As you go walk down the streets you hear different music coming from the different venues. Sometimes the music is live, and then sometimes it is people just singing while they dance or sit to play a game of dominoes. My recommendation here is to stop by the bar located right next to the marketplace. It is called El Coco de Luis and they serve amazing but strong drinks which you can combine with fresh cocounut water or my favorite, fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. I recommend wearing something light as it can get pretty hot around here… call it weather or call it that latin heat, consequence of the music, the dancing and the partying.
I would say this is the perfect way to end an amazing vacation in Puerto Rico. It will definitely leave you wanting to come back and you should as there are so many towns I did not even mention.
DAY 10: PERHAPS A LAST SPLISH SPLASH?
Time has come to return the car and head out to the airport. If you have more time, go for that swim on the ocean before heading out. Don’t be surprised if you get a musical farewell at the airport by our ‘Pleneros’. Plena is a Puerto Rican folkloric type of music which is part of our traditions, especially during the Christmas season. They can be seen walking around the terminals while singing and playing the ‘panderetas’, a type of drums used to play this particular music. I would cry everytime I had to board a plane listening to them on the background.
It was a little bit hard for me to narrow it down to ten days. I always tell people that they should come for two weeks minimum. There is so much more to see and experience. One more thing I want to mention is that you do not need a U.S. Passport to come to Puerto Rico! I hope this information serves as some kind of guide for your next or first visit to the island. If you ever have a question don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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