Puerto Rico has always been a popular beach destination for Americans, but rarely people venture outside the big all-inclusive resorts and spend more than one day in San Juan.
Thanks to the many boriquen friends we met in the States who made us falling in love with the island even before visiting it, we decided instead to organize a road trip on the island and also visit one of the gorgeous Spanish Virgin Islands, Culebra, where its famous Playa Flamenco had just named by Tripadvisor the world's best beach in 2014.
Despite being a US territory with all the pros and cons, Puerto Rico has a very deep history and rich culture and we are glad we got to see many corners of it and enjoy extensive time with its wonderful people -which makes us think back now about our trip there even more painfully than other times, after the devastating hurricane Maria crushed the island in 2017.
If you want to donate to help those affected by Hurricane Maria, please support the program that the chef José Andrés has created, World Central Kitchen.
We flew to San Juan directly from BWI with Southwest. The first two days in Old San Juan we didn't need a car, but then we rented one for 6 days at Enterprise at the Hilton in El Condado (just outside the old town) and drop it off at the Resort El Conquistador near Fajardo port, before getting on the ferry to Culebra. We bought the boat tickets at the port the same morning, and did the same thing on the way back. In Culebra we also rented a jeep for one day from Carlos (in front of the small the airport) but on the island you can go around with the very convenient publicos (small minivans who charge $2/3 per person per ride - it's useful to get a couple of private drivers' numbers so you can call the same ones to pick you up).
PR is officially US so it's very convenient to use Dollars and not having to switch to an International phone plan!
We spent a total of four days in the capital San Juan: two and a half in the old part and (Viejo San Juan) and one and a half in the new part (Ocean Park).
Viejo San Juan is one of the oldest and most preserved Spanish settlement in the Americas and we loved it. We had booked a cute AirBnb on Calle San Francisco (that is no longer available), in the middle of the historic center, which is comprised in a small island connected to the new city by a bridge, and that had all the colonial charme that we expected. In Viejo San Juan you can walk trough the cobbled streets everywhere and you will be surrounded for the most part by beautiful, colorful, restored colonial buildings, especially in the area around Puerta de San Juana and El Morro. We saw the first sunset on the wonderful Paseo de la princesa, a boardwalk that runs all along the city walls by the ocean, that is filled with cats and iguanas!
We dedicated the next day visiting the impressive fortress of El Morro and the area around it, which is the leading tourist attraction for both tourists and puertoricans (and a US National Park landmark) and we loved it! The castle has a beautiful green field in front of it, where kids play flying kites and the very picturesque old cemetery of Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis.
We also visited the very interesting Museo de las Americas, right in front of the park and ate at the cute cafeteria inside Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño.
The streets around El Convento (a famous building turned into a hotel, facing one of the prettiest square, Plaza de la Cathedral), The Gallery Inn (another artsy boutique hotel) and Plaza Salvador Brau are all beautiful, with many art galleries, restaurants and shops. Calle Nozargaray is facing the ocean and has a wonderful view, although the area right below it, La Perla, despite being a very colorful place to photograph -and where the video of Despacito was filmed-, is a shanty town and some say it may not be completely safe to visit. We also visited the other Viejo San Juan's fortress, Castillo San Cristobal and from there walked to la Playa del Escambrón, a popular beach on the eastern part of the island, right before the bridge and surrounded by a nice park.
In our last two days in PR we stayed in new San Juan, in the nice residential area of Ocean Park and spent a night at Andalucia Guesthouse, right in front of another very famous bakery, Kasalta. The neighborhood between Ocean Park and El Condado is very pleasant to walk through, being home to many wealthy mansions surrounded by beautiful gardens and also the city most expensive's hotels, and right on the beach. We saw a very nice music festival in Plaza Antonia Quiñones and ate a good burger at the popular The Place.
We also drove through los barrios of Miramar, famous for it art déco architecture, and the densely populated and culturally vibrant Santurce, where you can see a lot of interesting street art and visit the two main art museums of the city: the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican Museum of Contemporary Art.
We spent half a day at the beach at Isla Verde and took a drive through the ocean road going east to the famous food stalls (kioskos) of Piñones, where you can taste the real Puertorican food like mofongo, tostones, alcapurrias, arepas and empanadas.
We took a day trip to El Yunque forest from San Juan and then spent a night near it few days later before taking the ferry to Culebra. The area of the park, the only tropical rain forest in the US, is very big but well organized. We began our visit from the El Portal center and drove to La Coca Falls and other nice spot of the forest, then parked our car at the Palo Colorado picnic spot and hiked down for about an hour to La Mina falls, the biggest of the park. The trail is beautiful and passing between the jungle and the river, where we also took a dip, and we saw many beautiful types of plants and flowers. Except for the falls, which are very crowded, everywhere else was pretty idyllic and quite. We then drove to the Yokahú observation tower, which offers a nice viewpoint on the mountains and the forest.
The second day we spent in the forest was at the lovely El Hotelito, a beautiful-decorated private home turned into a bed and breakfast, completely immersed in the forest, on top of a hill (you can get there only on a dirt road). We loved the experience of having dinner there (made by the owner) and sleeping in a big room with no glass windows surrounded by the lush nature and the sound of coquis, the local rain forest frogs, which are colorful and very loud!
On our way to the west coast of the island we took an hour detour and stopped the the famous Arecibo Observatory, the world's largest single-aperture radio telescope. The observatory, which has appeared in many films including Contact, lays on top of some beautiful hills and has a very nice information and educational center. While driving on the scenic coastal road (the beaches on this side of the island are very beautiful, for example Manatí) we took some nice photos at the Mirador de Guajataca and then spent a few hours in Isabela at the nice but crowded Los Jobos beach, from which you can take a walk to the famous Pozo de Jacinto, a pit cave on the rocky coast where the ocean waves break in a very scenic way. The area is very popular for locals and filled with little restaurants and small stores.
The coast from Isabela and Rincón has some truly beautiful beaches (like Aguadilla) very popular with surfers, with some big resorts and smaller, cozier places. We stayed on the hills near the lighthouse of Punta Higüeras at Lazy Parrot Inn, a good place to relax, and then went both in the afternoon and the next morning to the near, beautiful and almost deserted (it's a marine reserve) beach of Las Tres Palmas - probably our favorite on the island besides Culebra.
After leaving the Rincón area we drove down to the little village of San Germán, the second oldest city in Puerto Rico after San Juan and a beautiful example of Spanish colonial architecture, especially around Plaza Santo Domingo and the church. From there we drove to the pink Salinas of Capo Rojo and spent a couple of hours by the famous beach below the Lighthouse of Capo Rojo, which has some fantastic views on the cliffy coast, much drier and very different from the lush green one of the East. We spent that night at the small but very pretty guesthouse of La Jamaca in the village of La Parguera, a popular center for those who want to take a boat trip to the small Caribbean islands of the beautiful natural reserve in front, one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems of PR and among the best to see the famous Bioluminescence - a rare phenomenon that occurs when the microorganisms that thrive among the mangroves turn the water into a bright sparkling light at night. The little town is very lively and a nice place to spend the night.
From La Parguera we drove to Ponce, the second largest city in PR and basically the capital of the Southern coast. The town is very old and has a beautiful historic center, around the tree-lined Plaza de las Delicias, the main cathedral, and the Parque de Bombas, a funny looking historic fire station, now turned into an art exhibition hall. Ponce has also some good art museums and nice villas, the most famous of which is called Castillo Serralés, also a museum, that is located on top of a hill overlooking the city and the ocean.
The highway from Ponce back to San Juan is also called la Ruta panoramica, for its very nice view of the Bosque Carite (where we took a nice hike) and famous for day trips from the capital, mostly dedicated to picnic escapes. The area of Caguas is in fact very popular for the lechoneras, roadside kiosks and restaurants abundant of delicious local dishes, especially pork-derived and roasted directly on the street. Our friends Alex and Rafa took us to Los Piños, one of the most popular of them, where we had a fantastic meal. This part of the ruta panoramica, also called the "Pork highway" is also portrayed on a BBC's piece.
In Fajardo, before taking the ferry to Culebra, we spent a couple of hours on the nice Playa Seven Sea.
We decided to spend the five days we had allocated for the beautiful island of Culebra in a bungalow that we rented at the Culebra Beach Villas, directly on the fantastic on the beach of Playa Flamenco. The small "villas", privately owned and rented for the season, are rustic but comfortable, with a very nice porch area overlooking the nice garden, filled with flowers and palms and literally few feet away from the beach. A true paradise -and we were so glad we choose this option, because when the day trippers and tourists left the beach in the evening to go back to PR or their hotels, we were among the very few lucky ones that got to have the beach for ourselves, and that was very magical.
The island itself is not very populated, with very few hotels and airbnbs, which makes it a popular day trip (rather than a long-stay destination) from Fajardo, with a convenient one-hour ferry ride. Here you find all the information on how to get to the island (also ply plane).
You can reach Playa Flamenco from the village with a 10-minute público ride from the port. The beach has a couple of kiosks, but it's better to buy food at the village before getting there - we bought some groceries in the local supermarket and used the little kitchen we had in our bungalow to prepare our lunches and dinners. You can decide to spend all your days on Playa Flamenco -which will never bore you, except when the boat trips from Fajardo arrives, which are very loud- or venture on some of the trails that leave from the main parking lot, like the one leading to Playa Tamarindo, our favorite one because completely empty and best for snorkeling! The hike takes 40 minutes -along some nice nature and also snakes!- but it's completely worthy.
One day we took a must-boat day trip to the amazing Culebrita, a little deserted island half an hour from the port. There are several fishermen that can take you there, and we found Yulín, who was very nice and left us enough time to explore the island both by feet to the fantastic old lighthouse (a true pirate place!) and in the water, snorkeling in the perfect, filled with fish turquoise water.
The village of Culebra, where the ferry docks, is very small and all walkable in less than ten minutes, with a nice morning market and few cafeterias and restaurants. We loved the Dinghy Dock restaurant, where you can also spend the night watching the giant tarpons at the dock. The other populated area of the island is near the small airport (halfway from the village to Playa Flamenco), where most of the residents live and where we rented a jeep for one day to see the other side of the island. Zoni beach is one of the furthest, wild beaches that it's also worthy to see, and the roads to get there have very nice views on the island coast and surrounding Caribbean sea.
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