Thanks to its beautiful beaches, washed by even more beautiful Caribbean waters, all surrounded by splendid palm trees and a tropical breeze Puerto Rico rightly earned the nickname “Island of Enchantment”. But there is a lot more to Puerto Rico than “just” spectacular beaches. It is also a home of verdant nature, historic cities and warm-hearted locals which when bundled together, makes for a perfect vacation.
That’s the obvious one – Puerto Rico simply has it all. Lush jungles, rugged caves and endless options for water activities such as surfing, diving and sailing embrace travellers who crave adventure while lavish resorts and long stretches of white sand beaches attract fancy vacationers.
Stable climate and warm temperatures all year-round mean that Puerto Rico is always a good idea. The island gets the best weather in winter, from mid December to mid April, while shoulder seasons (from April till June and from October till mid December) guarantee that you will have less company. While from July to September you can enjoy the off-season advantages such as solitude and cheaper prices. These months bring more rain and less sunshine with August being the hottest but also the wettest month. It is also officially a hurricane season which is not reason to panic but rather something to check before planning the trip.
Even as a public transportation enthusiast I must admit that Puerto Rico is best discovered on your own set of wheels if you want to cover more ground and enjoy more freedom. Everything is accessible by car and the variety of car rentals is large and affordable.
When renting a car in Puerto Rico keep in mind these three things. First, the cheapest options can be found at the car rentals close to the San Juan’s airport. Anywhere else the prices can be nearly twice as high. Second, while driving in Puerto Rico isn’t exactly crazy, it is something to be extra cautious about since the drivers are pretty ballsy and the roads can feature large holes and bumps. Thirdly, it is not legal to take a rental car from the main island on the ferry to Vieques or Culebra. There you have to either rent another car or just use other forms of transport, such as taxis and buses.
Public transportation in Puerto Rico does exist but can be described as very casual. San Juan has a sort of efficient bus system but the rest of the island relies on public minibuses called públicos which require lots of patience and time (while on the other hand saving you some buck). Públicos simply leave when they are full and there is no official source of schedules or routes.
Puerto Rico is not as big as its other Caribbean neighbours such as Cuba or Dominican Republic, but it surely has a lot of gems that deserve your time. This is what I did in one week:
Puerto Rico’s capital city will most likely be the very first and very last stop of your trip so you might as well linger for a while.
The city can be divided into two parts. The first one is modern San Juan (Condado area) where you can spot the luxury hotels, casinos and modern restaurants. On the other side stands the Old town that wears Puerto Rican history on its sleeve. It is typical for the narrow cobble stone streets lined with colourful colonial houses, historic forts and more traditional establishments, as well as a bustling port where all the fancy cruise ships dock.
Situated between St. Thomas and the main island of Puerto Rico, the picturesque island of Culebra attracts beach bums thanks to its catalogue-like bays and diving opportunities.
The most popular beach is Playa Flamenco. This serene stretch of paradise was ranked as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches and once you get there, you’ll understand why. A rusty painted tank parked on the shore of Playa Flamenco is a historic mark of Culebra’s time as a U.S. Navy practice range 40 years ago.
Accessing Culebra isn’t exactly easy but it’s absolutely worth the hustle. The most common way is by ferry from a port city of Fajardo. The small ferry leaves only a few times a day and is not possible to book in advance. In high seasons the line can be very long and in the worst case you might not make it. People on several forums on the internet advised to line up really early for the 9 am ferry which was apparently the earliest departure. So we showed up at 4 am and to our surprise there was a ferry leaving exactly at 4 am. Two hours of horrendous ferry ride later we were already standing on the Culebra which gave us much more time to enjoy the island. This was January 2017 and as I understand it, the situations change a lot with different time of the year.
You can also fly to Culebra. If you book ahead the 10 minutes flight might be as cheap as 30 USD.
BIOLUMINISCENT BAY TOUR
Another thing to do in Fajardo area is a well-advertised eco tour which takes you into a bioluminescent bay to see how tiny little microorganisms glow in the water. There are apparently only five places in the world where this rare phenomenon can be observed with two of them being on the northeast of Puerto Rico – in Mosquito bay (Vierqueres Island) and Laguna bay.
We gave the latter one a chance and as soon as the sun went down we kayaked through the narrow channel which connects the sea with the bioluminescent lagoon where we were taught more about bioluminescent bacteria. Night kayaking through the mangrove forest was already an incredible adventure for me and seeing the glowing organisms when we moved our hands in the water was a cherry on the top.
Just to save you some disappointment – I am sure the organisms try their best to glow as much possible but the entire experience surely does not look as the Google images promise. It was still an impressive tour on its own and one of my favourite experiences in Puerto Rico.
LUQUILLO BEACH AND FOOD KIOSKS
Luquillo is a little beach town in northeast of Puerto Rico which has two essential things that guarantee a good time – beach and food. Beautiful sand beach in Luquillo is lined with palm trees and famous food kiosks – a row of about 60 ramshackle buildings offering Puerto Rican food popular with locals as well as visitors.
EL YUNQUE RAINFOREST
Hiking in the “only tropical rain forest under the American flag” should be on your list no matter how long you’re staying in PR for. This huge deep jungle offers very lush fauna and flora including native flowers and Puerto Rican parrots.
It is easy to navigate and shelters several trails, waterfalls and natural pools. I highly recommend hiking all the way up to the El Yunque peak which takes few hours of walking through the jungle. Due to the tropical climate the peak is almost always covered in the mist but on a bright day you might even see the Culebra Island.
Rincon can be characterized with two words: Surfer’s paradise. Everything in this cute beach town is about this sport as the large number of beaches prides themselves with world class breaks as well as swells for beginners and casual surfers.
Besides surfing, this is where the young crowds come to play and watch sunset. The town has a very local vibe and makes for a relaxing stop on your Puerto Rican vacation.
I couldn’t recommend driving to the southern west point of Puerto Rico enough as for me Cabo Rojo was probably the favourite stop on the road trip. Just 1,5 hours south of Rincon you can discover a different fauna of Puerto Rico – subtropical dry forest.
The biggest attraction of Cabo Rojo area is a famous Los Morrilos lighthouse, known by locals as El Faro, which was built in the end of 19th century over limestone cliffs. Besides picturesque waves crushing into the 60 metres high cliffs the lighthouse is also surrounded by salt mines which have been important part of the industry since 16th century!
Another gem just a short walk from the lighthouse la Playuela, a little tropical bay with white sand and calm blue waters.
Cueve Ventana (Window Cave) is a large set of caves located on the top of a limestone cliff near the town of Arecibo. It is very popular with tourists who come here mainly to see the end of a cave that, out of nowhere, uncovers a stunning view of the Río Grande de Arecibo valley.
And while the caves are interesting and the view from the ‘window’ is breathtaking, I can’t unfortunately say that I really enjoyed the eco tour given at Cueve Ventana. In my opinion the tour was not very well organised. It was taking way too long due to a large amount of people without giving us particularly interesting information. However it is nowadays the only way how to explore the caves and see “the window”.
The status of Puerto Rico can seem a bit confusing. Internationally, Puerto Rico is viewed as a country with its own identity but officially this Caribbean nation is under the U.S. flag and Puerto Ricans were granted the U. S. citizenship 100 years ago. (But for example they still cannot vote in the presidential elections). So what does that actually mean?
Puerto Rico was given to the United States by Spain after the Spanish-American War in 1898 and has never become a state. Currently Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States, belonging to the U.S. and being under the power of the U.S. Congress.
But things might change for Puerto Rico quite soon as on May 2017 Puerto Ricans will be asked to participate in plebiscite deciding whether to become 51st U.S. state or an independent nation. Both options obviously have their pros and cons.
Either way, you can see the American influences on every corner….for starters you will notice that there are the same fast foods brands, premium outlets and chain stores as you know from the U.S. (even Walgreens and CVS), English is wildly spoken (but not always!), baseball is one of the most popular sports and U.S. dollar is used as an official currency. Fortunately for travelers, so far Puerto Rico has managed to keep their own culture as well and is still a great place to dance to rhythms of salsa and reggaeton while drinking rum, eating lechon and practicing Spanish.