My guide to visiting Puerto Rico

Road-testing the relaxed pace of Puerto Rico

It’s easy to see why Puerto Rico is a popular destination for vacationers from the east coast of North America. Although situated just a short jump from Cuba, Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States — the currency is US dollars, the time zone is almost the same as New York, most people speak English (with a good smattering of Spanish), and all of the big American food and retail chains are well represented.

But Puerto Rico is a lot more than just a warmer version of the US — it offers visitors a unique combination of sandy beaches, rugged landscapes, and Latino living that makes for a pretty spectacular vacation destination.

Increasingly, Puerto Rico is also becoming a popular destination for European travellers looking for a sunny destination as a mid-winter break — direct flights to San Juan make it a fairly painless eight-hour journey.

Purely in the name of research, I tore myself away from the grey, rainy skies of London to road-test the relaxed pace of Puerto Rico.

The Beach

Sunday is beach day for the locals of San Juan, but if you’re on holidays then you’ll find it tempting to spend every day that you can enjoying the golden sand, warm water, and gentle rolling waves.

Ocean Park Beach in the Condado neighbourhood is generally the busiest, with fiercely contested beach tennis matches between local young guys with lean, muscular bodies and perfect tans.

There are no restrictions on drinking in public or at the beaches (although public drunkenness is frowned upon) so most people bring their own supplies, but there are also beach vendors hawking cerveza and agua. The helados (ice-cream) vendors also do a brisk trade — pushing their carts up and down the beach, ringing a small bell to attract attention if things get a bit quiet.

There’s not really a gay beach as such — Ocean Park has a good smattering of gay guys. The other place to go is Atlantic Beach which apparently has a bit higher gay density on a Sundays and you can finish the day with cocktails at beach-side bar Oceano. Other popular gay venues are SX, and Circo Bar.

Isla Verde is a more touristy beach, and it’s also probably the best beach. It’s lined by hotels and high-end apartments, but even if you’re not staying beach-side you can access from a number of points.

Swimwear-wise, all the guys (even the gays) seem to wear long board-shorts.

Things to do

If you are one of those people that needs more from your vacation than just solid beach time, then Puerto Rico has plenty to keep you busy. Paddle boards and jet skis can be hired locally and are a popular way to get out on the water. Kite surfing is possible from the main beaches of San Juan (especially Isla Verde), but if you want serious surf then head to the Rincon beaches on the west of the island. If you want scuba diving, there’s a number of dive operators — with Fajardo and Palmas Del Mar the best locations.

Surprises

There’s a lot about Puerto Rico that feels very familiar, but occasionally you do come across some surprises — little quirks that you may not have been expecting. For example, you can watch cock fighting in Puerto Rico; you might run into a beach-side Argentine Tango class; or you might learn to love Mofongo — a local specialty which is a side dish of green mashed plantain.

Where to stay

  • Budget: Hostel La Vista — If you’re looking for a budget-accommodation in San Juan, then Hostel La Vista is a solid choice. There’s nothing fancy about a hostel like this, but the staff are friendly, everything is relatively clean, and the wifi works. Its big selling point is that it is an easy walk to the beach — about five minutes. I spent two nights here mid-week in February. It wasn’t crazy busy and the other travellers that I met all seemed reasonable people. A good budget option.
  • Affordable: Coqui del Mar — If you’re looking for something a bit more relaxed than a hotel, then the Coqui del Mar guesthouse in the Condado neighbourhood of Puerto Rico is perfect. Comfortable, self-contained units provide you with the flexibility to stock up the kitchen so you don’t have to eat out for every meal. This isn’t high-end luxury — it’s simple and functional. Its big selling point is its proximity to the beach — you just need to walk half a block and your feet are on the sand. You’ll probably have rented a car for your vacation on Puerto Rico, but there are shops and restaurants within walking distance of the guesthouse. Coqui del Mar is proudly gay-owned (by Rob Villacres), but apart from a helpful Gay Guide to Puerto Rico in the information pack in the room, there’s nothing overtly gay about the accommodation itself. During my stay the other guests all seemed to be either straight couples or families. Condado Pride (first weekend in June) would be an ideal time to stay here. There’s also San Juan pride during the winter which Coqui del Mar supports and promotes. If you were planning a trip away with a group of friends or the extended family, then this would be an ideal base. You could take over the entire guesthouse and have BBQs in the courtyard. But it works equally well for a couple, with a number of different sized guest-rooms to choose from. A perfect accommodation solution for your Puerto Rico vacation.
  • Romantic: Olive Boutique Hotel — Right in the heart of the bustling Condado neighbourhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, the Olive Boutique Hotel is an oasis of stylish oasis of calm. This is a grown-up hotel. No children allowed, which instantly sets the tone. As part of the Small Luxury Hotels association, you know that you’re in safe hands — but the Olive has some lovely, personal touches that give this place some real character. The decor is inspired by the Mediterranean, with flourishes of Morocco and Moorish Spain. There are only 15 rooms, so everything has quite an intimate feel. My room had an enormous terrace balcony overlooking the lagoon — with a shower and jacuzzi on the terrace. Inside the room was another shower — enormous and encased in completely transparent glass. I can imagine that perhaps some couples wouldn’t want to watch each other showering, but I’m a bit of an exhibitionist so I loved it — plus it was plenty big enough so you could easily shower together. Loved the L’Occitane products in the bathroom (Lavender Pillow Mist? Yes please!), and there was super-efficient air-con, and excellent wifi. Very comfortable. Another feature of the hotel is its rooftop bar. Stunning views and a feeling that you really are a world away from it all. It’s easy to see why the hotel is popular for parties and events — I would love to hire the entire place, to have friends and family taking over the 15 rooms and celebrating in style on the rooftop bar. Maybe for my next big birthday, or a wedding (cough). You could choose to have your breakfast either on the rooftop bar or on the balcony of your room. I opted for balcony dining — sipping my coffee and contemplating the day ahead looking out over the Condado lagoon. It’s hard to imagine a better place to stay in Puerto Rico.
  • Luxury: San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel — The San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel is ideal if you are looking for a quality holiday in the sun and the sea. Isla Verde beach is probably the most touristy beach of San Juan, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Lined with hotels and high-end apartments, the beach offers classic golden sand, warm water, and rolling waves that are are easy to swim in. The San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel has direct beach access from its main lobby, with sun lounges, towels, and umbrellas all available for guests at no extra charge. You know you’re on holidays when you’ve got cute waiters bringing you margaritas while you relax on a sun lounger, looking out across the sea. This is a modern hotel with stylish design — light, clean, and bright. Rooms are spacious and comfortable — all the amenities that you would expect from a hotel of this standard (including good wifi), with an understandable focus on the spectacular views out across Isla Verde beach. Service throughout the hotel was great, relaxed and friendly but professional and efficient. Another great feature of the San Juan Water Beach Club Hotel is the roof-top bar. It’s a surprisingly large space with a pool, fully equipped bar, and spectacular views. The roof-top bar also serves food throughout the day and night. The hotel also has an in-house restaurant. This is an unbeatable beach-side vacation destination.

Where to Eat

  • Bistro Cafe: Bistro Cafe was a recommendation from the owners of Coqui del Mar. It was easy walking distance from the guesthouse — I’d tried to eat here on Sunday but the queue of people waiting to get in was enormous so I returned for breakfast on the Monday, it was still busy but no problem getting a table. I went for the fried eggs and bacon, served with pancakes. There was a slight panic when the friendly waitress asked me how I wanted my fried eggs done (not really a question you get asked in London) — I asked for over-easy as that what I’ve seen people do in the movies. Really delicious. The dishes of waffles and french toast passing my table also looked very impressive — piled high with fresh fruit. Coffee was good. I liked this place so much that I came back later in my stay for another go at their breakfast menu. The cute waiter sold me on their special — scrambled eggs with chorizo and goat cheese, seriously good. Their choice in music was good too — early rock and roll and some American dance-hall classics. It’s easy to see why people are queuing to have brunch here.
  • La Boulangerie: La Boulangerie was a local recommendation — a French-style restaurant known for good breakfasts but also serving food throughout the day. There was a bit of French on the menu, and a few French-style dishes, but that seemed to be about the extent of the French influence. Service was friendly and efficient. I ordered the Croque Monsieur — it was okay, but a bit underwhelming. There’s better options in San Juan.
  • El Vagón: Tucked away on Calle Labra in the Condado neighbourhood of San Juan, El Vagón is essentially a food truck — selling Mexican street food. It has a seating area with plastic tables and chairs, coloured lights creating a festive awning. There was a young, friendly crew working the kitchen and the bar — service was fast and efficient. I had tacos and a beer. The perfect way to begin my Puerto Rico adventure.
  • Inca Chicken: If you’re looking for rotisserie chicken and all the sides, then this is it. A modern restaurant with a bright fit-out. Heavy duty air-con that was so effective that you needed a jumper which is kind of ridiculous. It was Super Bowl Sunday the night that I was there and all the screens were tuned to the game. I really have no idea what the rules of American Football are, does anybody? It was kind of hypnotic to watch though — so many ads, everyone mic’d up, and touchdown celebration dances that must take more rehearsal than the half-time show. Awesome, I think is the appropriate description. The chicken was pretty good — nice flavour but a little dryer than I would have liked it. I’m guessing that everyone was a bit distracted by the Super Bowl.
  • Tomate: It bills itself as ‘a Mexican fusion and margarita bar’, which is genius — who’s going to walk past that? I was there early afternoon on a Sunday. On weekends they offer bottomless margaritas or mimosas, but I know my limitations so I opted for the scrambled eggs and a beer — not exactly the classic brunch combination but it was what I felt like. Upbeat music, a modern decor and friendly and efficient service. The eggs were really good, served with a refried bean and fried potatoes. Good choice.
  • Levi’s Restaurant & Grill: Levi’s Restaurant & Grill is a simple, local restaurant serving typical Puerto Rican dishes. It’s open 24-hours every day, and is popular for breakfast. I called in for a mid-week lunch, opting for a rice and chicken dish — tasty. Service is relaxed and friendly, and the televisions are tuned to the favourite telenovelas so that makes for compelling viewing while you’re eating.
  • La B De Burro: With a decor celebrating the wresting masks synonymous with Mexico’s professional wrestlers, La B De Burro is a great choice for a simple relaxed meal. San Juan is the kind of place where you don’t need much more than some good tacos and a beer, or maybe a margarita or three. If that’s what you’re looking for then you’re going to love La B De Burro.
  • Hosteria del Mar: Hosteria del Mar is a beach-side hotel in the Ocean Park neighbourhood of San Juan. You don’t have to be staying here to enjoy the restaurant — situated on a wooden terrace overlooking the golden sand and rolling waves. I took a break from swimming and sunbathing to try one of their wraps — fried calamari. A tasty lunch in an amazing location.
  • Kasalta: You’ll find Kasalta in the Condado neighbourhood of San Juan — walking distance from Ocean Park. This is an old-school counter-service kind of place, serving food throughout the day and night but particularly popular at breakfast. You queue at the counter, place your order, wait for a few minutes while it’s cooked, and then take your tray of food and find a table to sit. I was there for breakfast on a Thursday and the place was busy but the queue moved fairly smoothly. I ordered fried eggs, ham, and cheese — one of the standard breakfast options on the menu. It didn’t look pretty but it was tasty. I found the plastic cutlery fairly ineffective so ended up piling it all together and eating it as a sandwich. Like I said, not pretty but tasty. An inexpensive and functional breakfast.
  • Mango’s: Mango’s is a local’s favourite for lunch in the Condado neighbourhood of San Juan. Walking distance from Ocean Park beach, you can sit inside where it’s air-conditioned, or outside and enjoy the warmth of the day. There are daily changing specials, so it’s worth studying the menu to see what’s on offer. The food is simple but tasty — I had prawns which were good. Service is friendly and efficient, and prices are reasonable. There’s nothing particularly glamorous about Mango’s but it’s a good lunch option.
  • Pirilo Pizza Rustica: Pirilo Pizza Rustica is an Italian restaurant in San Juan, but it’s a good choice for a reasonably priced meal. Unlike most restaurants in Puerto Rico, Pirilo isn’t closed in and pumped full of air-conditioned cold air — it’s an open design, embracing the warm tropical evening with a wooden decor that gives it a real island-feel which is probably what most visitors to San Juan are looking for. Service was young, enthusiastic, and generally on the ball. I had a pizza, simple but good.
  • El Alambique: This is one of the few beach-front bars and restaurants on Isla Verde beach in San Juan. It’s a great way to enjoy a warm evening, and it’s popular with locals and tourists. The friendly waitress squeezed me into a seat at the bar, and I was soon drinking a Corona while waiting for my burger to arrive. Without doubt this is one of the noisiest restaurants that I’ve been in for a long time — a lot of the people eating and drinking seemed to be Americans, talking at the tops of their voices for no particular reason, perhaps in competition the staff were also extremely loud — one small waitress regularly breaking into the chorus of Let It Go from Frozen. The burger took a while to arrive and probably wasn’t worth the wait, but when you’ve got the beach in front of you, a warm breeze blowing, a beer in your hand, and plenty of entertainment around you, then there’s not much to complain about.

Vieques

Vieques is a small island just off the coast of Puerto Rico’s main island. This is the island where you’ll find Mosquito Bay — the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay, a phenomenon created by light-producing organisms that live in the water. Time your visit with the new moon when the luminosity is at its most spectacular.

Even though it’s only a short distance from the main island, getting from San Juan to Vieques isn’t as straight forward as you’d imagine. There is a ferry from the port at Fajardo — but the only way to get from San Juan to Fajardo is by taxi and that costs around USD$125 each way. Most people seem to fly from San Juan to Vieques — this costs around USD$150 each way. You’ll also need to hire a car to get around on Vieques.

Hix Island House is the place to stay — a luxurious retreat designed for minimal impact on the island’s environment and maximum comfort. This is the ideal place to escape the world.

Read more from Gareth Johnson