Puerto Rico inspires Caribbean daydreams for good reason — with its coral reefs, sandy beaches, turquoise waters, lush green mountains, colorful homes, tons of culture, and great food, this is an incredible destination! We wanted to explore everything Puerto Rico has to offer, so we started our vacation on the northeast side of the island off the white sandy beaches in Rio Grande. From there we moved to the historic and charming Old San Juan to experience the array of pastel-colored Spanish colonial architecture. It’s the second-oldest city in the Americas, and it was an experience in itself to stroll up and down its cobbled streets. While staying in the Old San Juan area, we went on a day trip to Culebra island to visit Flamenco Beach, which has been ranked among the best in the world by Discovery Channel. Based on recommendations from the locals, we took a another road trip around the island of Puerto Rico to explore some of the non-touristy locations such as Cabo Rojo, Playa Sucia and the breathtaking views of Puerto Rico’s coastline.
“Take me to the ocean. Let me sail the open sea. To breathe the warm and salty air and dream of things to be.” — Erica Billups
Puerto Rico was love at first sight for both of us! The homes, the streets, and the people of Puerto Rico reminded us of our home countries — India and Venezuela! Puerto Rico’s capital city of San Juan has it all — history, culture, architecture, world-class restaurants, a thriving nightlife and pristine beaches. Before we get into the details, here are a few pictures that were taken at the Ruins of Antiguo Leprocomio in Palo Seco, Puerto Rico! We got married on the beach near these ruins, so this is a special destination that is very close to our hearts!
What to see?
- Old San Juan — There is something very romantic and charming about Old San Juan or Viejo San Juan. This part of the city is known for it’s rich history, impressive forts, old world elegance and delicious food. You’ll find breathtaking historic buildings in every color of the rainbow and at the end of each street, spectacular views of the ocean. Paseo de la Princesa in Old San Juan is one of the most scenic walkways in the world. San Juan is the second oldest city established in the New World. One of our favorite things to do was walk on the lovely cobblestone streets of Old San Juan. Everywhere you turn, there’s something magnificent and alluring to see. Old San Juan is one of Puerto Rico’s finest cultural attractions, and there’s no better way to spend an afternoon than by exploring the historic centre of this picturesque district. Old San Juan can be summed up as colorful, romantic, charming and magical.
- Castillo San Felipe del Morro & Castillo San Cristóbal — Castillo San Felipe del Morro or Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, is a 16th century citadel located in Old San Juan, founded in 1521 by Spanish settlers. The first fortification, La Fortaleza, began construction in 1533 and currently serves as the governor’s mansion. Castillo San Felipe del Morro, or El Morro for short, was the second fort built on the islet of what is now Old San Juan. El Morro’s construction commenced in 1539 and finished in 1790, and this six-level fortress designed to unnerve attackers approaching from the sea. It still stands as a symbol of pride for Puerto Rico. You’ll find small enclosures called Garitas where the Spaniards stood guard in times past. Today, you can enjoy stunning views of the ocean from these fortifications. Castillo San Cristóbal or San Cristóbal Fort, located in the northeast edge of Old San Juan, was built by Spain to protect against land based attacks. It is part of the San Juan National Historic Site. Castillo San Cristóbal is the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World. Both Fort San Cristóbal and the iconic El Morro that make up the San Juan National Historic Site, dominate San Juan Harbor. Plan to stop by San Cristóbal on the day you visit El Morro since you just pay one access fee for both sites.
bioluminescent bay in La Parguera — La Parguera is an idyllic seaside destination found in Puerto Rico’s southwestern region. Unlike the rest of the seaside destinations found around the island, La Parguera doesn’t have any beaches, but instead, it is surrounded by pristine cays. Some of La Parguera’s most visited cays are Cayo Enrique, Mata La Gata, and Cayo Caracoles that can be reached by renting a boat. Paraguera is also one of only three places in Puerto Rico (along with Mosquito Bay and Laguna Grande) where you can observe bioluminescent phytoplankton. These tiny microorganisms light up when disturbed, creating incredible visual displays in the water after dark.
- Visit Flamenco Beach on Culebra Island — Our plan was to take a ferry (cheaper but longer option) from Fajardo Ferry Terminal to Culebra Island. As luck would have it, after standing in the queue for over 2 hours, the tickets to the “only” ferry that takes you to Culebra were fully sold out with just 4 people ahead of us. We didn’t have a lot of time left, so we did a little research and found Aeropuerto José Aponte de la Torre, where you can hop on a short flight to Culebra Island, located 17 miles east of Puerto Rico. One-way flight ticket was $50 per person and it lasted ~15 minutes to land on the island. Culebra attracts visitors from all over the world due to its beautiful beaches. The two must-see beaches on Culebra are Flamenco and Tamarindo. To easily roam the island, we decided to rent a jeep right at the airport. Flamenco beach is one of the top 10 beaches in the world, and it is known for its shallow turquoise waters and ivory sands. The beach was truly spectacular!
- Snorkeling at Tamarindo Beach in Isla Culebra — With views of the Cayo Luis Peña, Tamarindo beach is one of Culebra’s most stunning beaches. Tamarindo is loved by locals for its calm waters and diverse marine life, which are ideal for snorkeling, kayaking, and paddleboarding. The shore of Tamarindo beach is very different from the other beaches in Culebra island, with a mix of light golden sand, pebbles and coral stone pushed ashore from the sea. The water is crystal clear, we saw breathtaking underwater panoramas with corals, fishes, turtles and other sea life. If you are looking for a quiet beach in Culebra, Tamarindo beach is the right choice.
- Day Trip To Vieques, Puerto Rico — Isla de Vieques, located 7 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico, is considered to be a haven for those seeking an authentic Caribbean experience. The island is relatively quiet, lush, uncrowded, and gorgeous. Whether you’re visiting for a few hours or staying for a week, Vieques is a small Puerto Rican treasure where you will experience a tropical paradise. Vieques is also well-known for boat tours of the bioluminescent Bay (or Mosquito Bay). You can take a short commuter flight to Vieques from the San Juan Airport or a ferry from Ceiba, which is the less expensive option. You can find flights from three airports in Puerto Rico (San Juan, Aguadilla, Ponce), but flights from San Juan are more flexible and much cheaper. The flight is about 25 minutes costs between $100-$300 round trip. Vieques is a great destination to get away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland and enjoy a relaxing day riding horses, kayaking in the bioluminescent bay, and dining on local tapas.
- Hiking at El Yunque National Rainforest — It the only tropical rainforest in the United States and is located in the mist-wreathed Luquillo Mountains, where year-round precipitation ensures lush, green landscapes and a healthy diversity of animal life. There are a lot of tour options available, but we chose to explore this place on our own. We hiked through the dense rainforest along the trails, learning about the plants and animals that inhabit the area, We also saw a series of awe-inspiring waterfalls. The observatory tower at El Yunque offers breathtaking views of the surrounding forest and the ocean. When you go, hopefully you get a chance sighting of the endangered Coquí, a small and cute frog endemic to the Island.
Bacardi Factory Tour — You can’t visit Puerto Rico and skip the tour of the Bacardi factory. The rum distillery is located in the nineteenth-century sugar plantation, Hacienda La Esperanza. The tour includes a free shot of Bacardi rum, so why not? From Old San Juan, you can take a ferry from the terminal near Dársenas Square at a cost of $1 roundtrip per person. We chose the historic tour, which does include a few small tastes of rum, this was $17 per person. The other tours are, the Rum Tasting Tour ($50 per person) and the Mixology Tour ($60 per person).
- Arecibo Observatory — Puerto Rico is located close to the equator, so it’s an ideal location for a radio telescope which allows us to track planets passing overhead. Arecibo Observatory is the world’s second-largest single-dish radio telescope. My husband is a big fan of everything related to Astronomy, so when I suggested we visit, he was ecstatic! Radio telescopes can work at all times of day and in all kinds of weather, so the observatory operates 24 hours a day. It’s very unfortunate that Hurricane Maria damaged the antenna and the dish. A federal spending bill passed in February 2018 to provide relief to Puerto Rico allocated $16.3 million to repair the Arecibo Observatory, and it is open to public again as of March 2022.
- Road trip around Puerto Rico — We decided to drive around the island and it was one of the best road trips ever! We traveled from San Juan to the Arecibo Observatory. From there we drove south to Cabo Rojo, the southern most tip of Puerto Rico. We found out about Playa Sucia from the locals and decided see it in person. The name means dirty beach due to the soft and powdery sand that gets churned with every crash of the surf and makes the water temporarily cloudy. It was one of the most beautiful beaches we have seen. We circled the island in one day and drove back to San Juan via Ponce and Guayama.
Where to stay?
We wanted to experience both the amazing Caribbean beaches and the charm of Old San Juan, so we decided to switch it up and stay at several hotels during our trip. We spent the first two days at the Coco Beach Resort in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. For the rest of our trip, we moved to Old San Juan, a charming and stunning area with historic architecture and gorgeous cobblestone streets lined with colorful buildings. We stayed at a boutique hotel called Villa Herencia and a luxury hotel called El Convento. Both the hotels in the Old San Juan area were spectacular!
- Coco Beach Resort — This beach resort is located on Puerto Rico’s northeastern coast on Coco Beach and it is approximately 30 minutes from the city of San Juan. The resort is far away from the hustle and bustle of the capital, so we were able to relax a couple of days at the beach before we headed into town to explore San Juan. They had hammocks on the beach which was great to just lay down and enjoy the roar of the waves. The resort had green iguanas everywhere. Green iguanas are not native to Puerto Rico and have no natural predators, so you’ll find them everywhere. The beach at the resort is a little rocky, but slip on some water shoes and you will still revel in its beauty.
- Villa Herencia — Quietly nestled in the cool shadowed streets of Old San Juan, between the famous San Juan Gate (Puerta de San Juan) and the Cathedral of San Juan Citadel is this quaint and unique gem of a hotel. Casa Villa Herencia is a luxurious eight-bedroom boutique hotel set with stunning furnishings from the early 1900s. This auberge offers easy access to countless shops, galleries, restaurants, and nightlife without being too close to sleep soundly. Delightful cobblestone streets lead travelers to this colorful hotel deep in the heart of Old San Juan.
- El Convento — Old world charm and elegance meets contemporary comfort in this luxury hotel, located in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. The rooms and the interior of the hotel meshed perfectly with the ambiance of this old city. It is one of the best properties we’ve ever experienced. The service is second to none. The hotel had a complimentary wine and cheese reception every night. The courtyard of the hotel was filled with trees and even the hallways were meticulously maintained.
What to eat?
Puerto Rico, with its complex history, is home to many cultures. Puerto Rican cooking is a tasty blend of Spanish, African, Taíno, and American influences. Plantains are the single most popular side dish served on the island and you’ll find mofongo and tostones on every menu here. On our trip to Puerto Rico, we ate to our hearts delight every day. Puerto Rico’s restaurant scene continues to evolve as many Puerto Rican chefs are diving deeper into indigenous ingredients to create unique dishes with fruits and vegetables that have been part of the culture for centuries. The dining experience in Puerto Rico goes beyond the vibrant capital of San Juan to cities like Rincon, Guayama, and Rio Grande. Here is a round-up of some of our favorite restaurants.
- Barrachina in Old San Juan — It is located in the heart of Old San Juan on Fortaleza Street and was founded in the late 1950’s by Chef Pepe Valencia from Valencia, Spain. They are known for their paella, mofongo, and Piña Coladas. Did you know where the Piña Colada was invented?… while working as the main bartender at Barrachina, Don Ramon, decided to mix rum, pineapple juice, coconut cream, condensed milk and ice in a blender, thus creating a delicious and refreshing drink, known today as the Piña Colada.
- Rooftop restaurants in San Juan — Kumo, Cuarto 16, Azotea, Bar Cathedral serve up amazing Puerto Rican Food in an informal atmosphere, and the view from these rooftop restaurant stretches for miles. These are amazing locations to enjoy your meal and drinks with fantastic views of the Old City.
- El Jibarito in Old San Juan — This colorful and lively location is bustling with locals enjoying traditional Puerto Rican dishes such as mofongo and tostones. The place is always packed, but definitely worth the wait.
- La Cueva del Mar in Old San Juan — Food here was simply amazing. We had the fried red snapper and it was very fresh and exquisitely prepared.
- La Tasca Ole-Lelolai in Fajardo — On our way back from Culebra island, we were looking for a place to eat dinner. We found one of the few restaurants in the area, it was truly a gem. The food was beautifully presented and heavenly, plus the service was outstanding. The views of the ocean from the patio were the best. Unfortunately, this restaurant did not survive the economic downturn that Puerto Rico has been suffering for several years now.
- Los kioskos de Luquillo near Rio Grande — The Luquillo kiosks (or kioskos) are a much-loved part of Puerto Rico. They are located along Luquillo Beach. The kiosks are fun and casual, with open air dining. There are ~60 kiosks that offer drinks, local food such as mofongo, tostones, bacalaítos, fresh oysters, alcapurrias, empanadillas, rice & beans etc. and the prices don’t leave a hole in your pocket. We went kiosk hopping from one to another and tried several different items. Keep in mind that this is popular with tourists and locals, so if you want the best seats, get there early! Stop in and you will be in for an experience that is uniquely Puerto Rican.
How to save money?
- Be flexible on your travel dates and compare flight prices online via Google Flights or Skyscanner across a whole month and you can find cheapest days to fly. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that departures on Wednesday or Thursday are significantly cheaper than Friday or weekend departures!
- Travel during the low season (from August to November)! You can save on both airfare and hotels.
- Pack smart, travel light, and save on baggage fees.
- Save money spent on food when you travel by packing snacks, food for the flight, and eating breakfast at the hotel.
May we recommend?
Here are our recommendations for anyone hoping to travel to this magnificent destination. Visitors might have very valid concerns about traveling to Puerto Rico as it was hit hard by the hurricanes, but they are on the path to recovery and the tourism industry is committed to providing excellent service to visitors.
- Hurricane season runs from June to November. We traveled to Puerto Rico in the month of August and we were very lucky, but we highly recommend that you avoid travel during the hurricane season.
- The ferry service has been inconsistent after the hurricane. We recommend taking a flight to and from Culebra or Vieques islands. This is a bit more expensive, but the quickest and most reliable option to visit these beautiful isles.
- The main airport in Puerto Rico (Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport) is fully operational after the storms. The cruises now dock in Puerto Rico again and most of the hotels are operational. However, some of the popular hotels are still under recovery, so please check your options carefully.
Puerto Rico is ready to enchant you! Are you ready?
Puerto Rico will always remain in our hearts because we got married here! You’ll quickly find that Boricuas (as the locals are called) are truly some of the nicest people on earth. When you travel to this Caribbean island, you’ll have a great time no matter what you’ve chosen to do on your trip. From towering mountains to world-class beaches and everything in between. Keep in mind that your visit to Puerto Rico is a gift to yourself and to the people of this island.
As we always say… Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer!