Because I lived in Puerto Rico for 15 years, I often get asked about what to do and where to stay in this beautiful island. Of course, these things depend on the type of vacation one is looking for, one’s general preferences, etc. but I can usually provide a varied list of recommendations so others can then pick and choose what sounds good for them. I will share here the recommendations I have for someone wanting to experience Puerto Rico. Feel free to ask questions!
Take part in the fiestas patronales (patron saint feasts)
Each town in Puerto Rico has its patron saint. Around the feast day of the saint, the town has a “fiesta patronal” with a lively parade (heck, everything is lively in Puerto Rico!), music, games, artisans, and food and a very lively atmosphere! Find a piragüero to make you a piragua (shaved ice with your favorite flavor syrup on it!).
Enjoy Luquillo’s beaches
The beaches of Luquillo, along with Rincón‘s on the west coast, are some of the best on the island. Luquillo is due east of San Juan and along the way one can stop at the food kiosks off the main road. These kiosks used to be “huts” but, along the way, the government decided to build them better structures. I don’t know how many there are but probably over 50 of these eateries. Stop and taste some of the different foods and maybe a cold beer!
If you feel like it, drive further east to the town of Fajardo. You can visit its old lighthouse “Faro de las Cabezas“. You can also drive to the former El Conquistador Hotel (it seems to change name every few years so I stick to the original which everyone knows there) which offers great views cays and the sea below. It was a very famous hotel in its heyday before it went into decay in the 1970s. It has been resurrected a few times and it is currently a hotel open for business.
Visit the world’s largest single dish telescope
Made even more famous by the Jodie Foster movie, Contact, and the James Bond movie, Golden Eye, this observatory, built in 1963, is famous for being the largest single dish telescope in the world. Its diameter is 1,000 ft and it is impressive to see it firsthand, nestled in a small valley. When I went many years ago (when it was being run by Cornell University), there was a recording playing at the observation deck describing the observatory. It is from this radio observatory that a message was sent in 1974 by SETI to anyone out there listening that Earth existed and was populated by us. “Look at me! Look at me!” (Like I want angry or scary aliens being alerted to our existence…)
Go off the mainland to Vieques and Culebra
If Puerto Rico is small, Vieques and Culebra are even smaller but they both offer a nice getaway to a more remote part of the island group. Vieques was the former location of a U.S. military base so part of it is not as developed as you would expect since the closure of the base is relatively recent. But I hear that it has been developed smartly. I have not been to Culebra and, from what I gather, it is less developed. Either would be great for R&R!
Go under in the Cuevas de Camuy
The caves (or is it more accurate to say “caverns“? some day I will study the difference…) of the Río Camuy, just west of Arecibo, are definitely worth a visit (60 mies or so west of San Juan but miles in PR do not equate easily to time – lots of traffic!). Due to the proximity to Arecibo, it may be worth combining this visit with the radio telescope since the latter is a fairly quick stop. The Río Camuy, it may surprise many to know given the smallness of the island, is the world’s third largest underground river. The river has carved these caves (about 10 miles of them, very little of it accessible to the public) from limestone and you can visit them and ride in them – no worries, the assumed half a million resident bats are likely asleep during the daytime. But if you go, go early as they stop letting people in after a daily quota has been met (1,500 visitors last I checked).
Visit the pearl of the south: Ponce
Cross the island from San Juan to Ponce (an hour plus drive) via a scenic drive, and visit the “pearl of the South.” Ponce is named after the first governor of Puerto Rico: Juan Ponce de León and later explorer of what became Florida. Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second largest city. It has a totally different feel than San Juan’s metropolitan area: a slower pace, and even the climate is different being a little drier. Its art museum is well done and its old fire station (Parque de Bombas) is very picturesque. Both were the target of a special field trip from my high school for the freshman class every year (only an hour plus from San Juan but THAT is considered a LONG trip in this small island!).
Explore Old San Juan
Founded on 1521, there are not enough words to describe how unique Old San Juan is. Only Havana is competition for OSJ, I hear. It is the oldest city in the United States, pre-dating St. Augustine by a few decades. Its cobblestone streets, its beautiful multi-century old buildings (built before anything was built by Europeans in the continental U.S.), and its plazas make this a true jewel of a town. I appreciate it a lot more now that I no longer live there and have seen more of the world – beats a lot of old towns I have seen. (Check out my post about OSJ here.)
As a kid, my Dad used to drive us up the hill to enter the old quarter, then along the north coast (with the shantytown La Perla down below the city wall), into the heart of old San Juan to then drive through the old San Juan Gate (a sea-facing gate in the city walls). Right after going downhill through the gate, the road turned immediately to the left but my Dad used to pretend we were going straight into the water, a thrill ride that I fell for every single time!
This gate is the last remaining gate along the city’s walls. This gate is now pedestrian only and the left turn now takes you down a pleasant walk down the Paseo La Princesa (site of a former jail!). The city walls are incredible and are preserved along the waterfront but not the inland part. You can explore these by walking into a garita (guard posts) where Spanish soldiers used to keep watch for foreign invaders and pirates.
The crowning pieces of Old San Juan are the fortresses of San Cristóbal and San Felipe del Morro (El Morro). The latter is more imposing but the former is also worth a visit. Do take a tour when you visit so you can grasp how incredible these structures are due to their age, their construction and their history. The field in front of El Morro is great for a picnic or fly to kites as you look out on the Atlantic Ocean. I loved going there as a kid.
There is a cemetery at the foot of the city walls of that field but, be careful if you decide to go to the cemetery… visitors are easy prey in this important cemetery in San Juan. I will not keep expanding on all there is to do in OSJ (there is a LOT to see!) but there are small museums, art galleries, bars, etc. Just walk around and explore!
See La Parguera’s bioluminescent bay in the southwest
This bay in the southwest town of Lajas is a unique place. The thing to do is to get in a small boat and go into the bay at night. When the still waters are disturbed, the microorganisms that live in the bay glow. I have actually never gone but it is famous. When I return to Puerto Rico some day, this is on my list of things to check off!
Experience Loíza aldea
Loíza is a coastal town east of San Juan that seems to have preserved more of the African heritage of the island than the rest of the island. Stop and try any of the local restaurants / stands and try “salmorejo” (crab dish) or any of the fried foods! This is definitely off-the-beaten path for visitors.
Drive the mountain towns and see their main plazas
This is my favorite thing. Puerto Rico is made up of 70-odd towns, each with a center following the traditional Spanish colonial pattern of a main plaza with the town hall on one side and the main church on the opposite side (the other two sides were houses of better-off families back in the day). Though they sound very similar, each is quite unique and it is fun to visit and see the differences. Some of the towns are on the coast but the center of the island is mountainous so visiting the inland towns also has the side benefit of driving around the mountains and tropical forests of the island. Of course, the main plaza in the capital city, San Juan, is very nice but others compete favorably! Though I have never visited it, I hear Guayama‘s is one of the prettiest.
Go tropical in El Yunque
The mountain of El Yunque east of San Juan, past the airport is actually not Puerto Rico’s tallest point but it is its most notable one as it is quite standalone in comparison to Cerro de Punta (the tallest point in the island at around 4,400 ft). It is neat to visit as it allows you to see tropical flora at its best. My favorite are the gargantuan ferns. You can also get off at the waterfalls and climb around or get in the water. It is a neat visit, especially if you are headed to the Luqillo beaches or the food kiosks!
There are other neat places to see and visit (e.g., the Bacardi distillery!) but I did not want to write my favorite 111 things to see and do, so I chopped off a digit (not a finger!) and kept it to 11. Please feel free to ask any questions if you are planning or thinking of a visit to Puerto Rico!