My Own Personal Puerto Rico
As a former editor of ¡Qué Pasa! and Puerto Rico Travel & Tourism magazines, I am often asked to recommend things to see and do in Puerto Rico. I retired two years ago and my preference is to relax at home — I have traveled and photographed the island so many times with my wife, driver and partner, that I am now content to contemplate it from my mountaintop retreat near the rainforest. I am still asked, however, for my recommendations. Here are my (and my visiting family and friends’) favorites and some notes about why.
With so much less than positive news about the island in the media, it is good to remember that it is still a wonderful destination for a vacation. It is like visiting a foreign country, but it is part of the USA, no passport is needed, and it’s just a couple of hours away from any major US city. Most everyone speaks English (and Spanish) and there are also direct, inexpensive flights between San Juan from Madrid, Spain — so it is easy to get here from there. There are countless flights to Puerto Rico through New York or Miami. Columbus “discovered” Puerto Rico in 1493; I hope you will discover it soon!
Old San Juan
Visit Puerto Rico without spending as much time as possible in Old San Juan is just unforgivable. The entire comfortably walkable, walled city is a World Heritage Site and is packed with history — and museums to record it (and bars, restaurants and shops to celebrate it).
It tends to be crowded with tourists in the winter, but summers — when the cruise ships are mostly gone — it is a special delight. It is my favorite place (after my house) to be. The Puerto Rico Day Trips page has a self-guided tour map that is a little old, but so is the city! http://www.puertoricodaytrips.com/old-san-juan-basic-info/.
Just Google Old San Juan, of course, for lots of suggestions: one page has 41 things to do in the Old City. Watch for the dates of the entries however: some are outdated, especially about restaurants — Old Harbor Brewery, for example, one of my former favorites for its craft beers, is now closed.
The San Juan National Historic Site (https://www.nps.gov/saju/index.htm) is the official name of the forts: Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal and a scattering of other things, such as most of the citadel walls and the little fort across the bay. It is run by the U.S. National Parks Service, so it is among the best organized and maintained parts of the 500-year-old city. Plan to take a tour with one of the “interpreters,” trained guides that can give you a better sense of what you are seeing. Self-guided tours are fun, too, especially if you are a photographer and want to stop and take your time for the best captures.
Rum and Food Tasting Tour of the Old City
I took this tour a few years ago and loved it and have read rave reviews recently — TripAdvisor calls it the best in the city. Check out Flavors of San Juan’s page (http://sanjuanfoodtours.com) for the offerings, but a 3-hour or so visit to restaurants for local rum and food pairing with knowledgeable guides beats wandering around looking at facades. If you have a group, consider a private tour.
Taste Traditional Puerto Rican Food
No time for a guided tour? I suggest stopping at Raíces in Old San Juan (also in Hato Rey and Caguas) (http://restauranteraices.com/English/index.html) for lunch or dinner and experience their mofongo. Also, I was in Europe recently and a travel companion raved about her trip to Old San Juan and the coffee and mallorcas at the historic café, La Bombonera (Calle San Francisco 259). Finally, hot chocolate or chocolate in myriad forms is featured at Casa Cortés across the street (http://www.casacortespr.com/chocobar) — the Cortés family has been making it for generations but this new shop (and gallery) makes it easier to love.
There are souvenir shops all over the place, but one really stands out: Puerto Rican Art and Crafts (http://www.puertoricanart-crafts.com) on Fortaleza Street. It is the place to go for authentic made-in-Puerto-Rico art and crafts items, coffee, rum, cigars, etc. Stop in just to see the paintings for sale in the upper gallery.
Cruise San Juan Bay
There are several operators who offer cruises on small vessels in San Juan Bay, but my wife and I joined friends recently for a sunset cruise on the Amazing Grace. Check this schooner out at http://www.eastislandpr.com/the-amazing-grace-old-san-juan-tour.html. It was lots of fun.
Shop Plaza Las Americas
A stop at Plaza Las Americas (http://www.plazalasamericas.com/?lang=en), the largest shopping center in the Caribbean, is always on my granddaughters’ list of “must does.” Puerto Ricans love to shop, so expect a lively crowd cruising the mall and its hundreds of stores, mostly from the mainland but with some unique shops.
Be Dazzled by Spectacular Resorts
To really show off the island’s top venues, we always try to take visitors to see the lobby and public areas of El San Juan Hotel (http://www.elsanjuanhotel.com) and the casino at the Ritz Carlton (http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/hotels/puerto-rico/san-juan), both in Isla Verde. The Meat Market and Marea at El San Juan are two of our top restaurant choices for great food on special occasions. If out on the island, the lagoon pool at Gran Meliá Golf Resort in Río Grande is great for a family day in the sun. (You can buy a day pass if you are not staying there).
Hit the Beach
If your hotel is not on a beach, two public beaches are popular places to catch some rays. My son-in-law likes the Balneario in Isla Verde. It is rarely crowded, there is secure parking for a modest rate and adequate changing facilities (Google: Balneario de Carolina). The beach itself is — like the 300+ beaches around the island — gorgeous. The traditional place to go in the summer is Monserrate Beach in Luquillo, “Luquillo Beach.” It tends to be crowded in mid summer (don’t go on a summer holiday weekend!), but the rest of the year it is a delight, especially with the backdrop of El Yunque Rainforest. A long line of food stands and restaurants at the entrance are an attraction in itself, with locals claiming certain stalls as their favorites. I personally like to drive on toward Río Grande and eat at Antojitos Puertorriqueños on the right after you turn onto the road to the Westin RioMar (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g1006845-d1758226-Reviews-Antojitos_Puertorriquenos-Rio_Grande_Puerto_Rico.html)
Out on the Island:
Swim Beneath a Waterfalls in El Yunque Rainforest and Sail and Snorkel to a Desert Island on the Barefoot. Both of these tours (and many more) are available from Castillo Tours (http://www.castillotours.com/tours.html). My family, friends and I have been on the Barefoot many times and it is always amazing. You can do El Yunque Rainforest on your own — head for Big Tree Trail, an easy (mostly paved!) one mile or so hike to and from a beautiful waterfalls (you can see it on the Castillo site) but it is easier and more interesting to go with a group and guide. The Barefoot is not to be missed. You book it online, board the catamaran in the eastern city of Fajardo, sail to the San Juan Islands and Icacos, a nature reserve with crystal clear waters, white sand beaches. This is world class snorkeling (equipment supplied and no experience necessary) among huge schools of tropical fish. You eat a light lunch on the boat — lunch, refreshments and rum drinks are included. Virtually everyone who visits me goes on the Barefoot at least once! You can arrange with Castillo for transportation from any major hotel.
Ride the Monster Zipline at ToroVerde (and Feast on Fabulous Food)
If you crave a major adrenaline rush, a trip to Orocovis and ToroVerde Adventure Park (http://www.toroverdepr.com) is the solution. It has two of the highest, longest, and fastest ziplines in the world. My youngest granddaughter and her fiancé and my son and daughter-in-law dared to conquer “The Monster, the longest zipline in the universe,” and many others did the slightly less insane “The Beast.” For the less brave (or crazy) there are plenty of other challenges, and the old folks (like me) can hang out at a fine dining room with a panoramic view of the park and sample world class food and drinks. The park offers transportation from San Juan hotels if you don’t rent a car or want to drive the mountain roads (they are really not bad).
Kayak in a Bioluminescent Bay
There are several companies that offer kayak trips to the biobay in Fajardo. I did it twice a few years ago with Kayaking Puerto Rico (http://www.kayakingpuertorico.com/pages/biobay.html), a well-established and professional organization. My guide had a master’s degree in marine biology! Their glitzy website exaggerates the bioluminescence, but to be fair, it is a wonderful, eerie, and gratifying natural experience and very difficult to photograph (believe me, I tried) so a little Photoshop can be forgiven. There are three biobays in Puerto Rico including this easily accessible one in Fajardo, another in La Parguera in the west and another in the offshore island of Vieques. I’ve been to all three and enjoyed the experience each time.
Eat Fish and Lobster at Las Croabas
In the area around the park in Las Croabas, Fajardo, where the kayaks leave for the biobay, there are a number of seafood restaurants and, sometimes, food trucks, featuring fresh fish and lobster. We once waited for the fishermen to deliver their catch of lobsters to a food truck there, and although it wasn’t cheap (about $50 for the two of us with drinks and side dishes), it was extraordinary! The best thing is to just check out the places around the park and pick one that appeals to you. They are all good!
Sail or Fly to the World’s Best Beach in Culebra.
If I were younger and more patient, I would head to the Fajardo dock and catch the ferry to Culebra (http://www.islaculebra.com/puerto-rico/culebra-travel.html) several times a year. The ferry only costs a couple of bucks, but there are often long lines, crowds, and a bit of disorganization, usually followed by a pleasant sail to the island. What’s there? Flamenco Beach, often cited as one of the top beaches on Earth. It is just a short and cheap public car ride from the dock (the island has fewer than 1,000 inhabitants and only three roads). You can fly there, but that is not cheap; and you can stay for more than a day. We have stayed several times at Club Seabourne (http://www.clubseabourne.com), a picture perfect, first class boutique hotel — and hope to do it again and again. (We loved the colors of the hotel so much we painted our house a similar shade of blue.)
These are some of our top favorites, but there are plenty more things to do in Puerto Rico. You might visit the Caribbean city of Ponce and its unique attractions. It is just an hour or two drive from San Juan on an expressway. Mayagüez is another good choice about a three-hour trip, and if you go there, you must go to Cabo Rojo, my favorite destination in the west (a great lighthouse, nature reserve, beaches, seafood). Surfers like Rincón and Aguadilla — all the way around to Isabela. I don’t surf and I don’t like the long drive any more (see above), but I could be convinced to go west if an overnight is included!