Puerto Rico Seriously Has It All
Now that I’ve settled down in New York after five years of travel, one of my goals is to travel more within the U.S. I have a lot of cities I want to visit this year: Austin, Nashville, Portland. But the biggest goal of all? Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico was a priority for late February. Or sometime in March. After growing up in New England, that’s been the most frustrating time of year, when you’ve been dealing with winter for months and months and just can’t take it anymore.
I started planning — but it wasn’t going to happen. I spent a lot more on home furnishing expenses than expected, I couldn’t find any flights with my miles, and I didn’t know any receptive hotels. Puerto Rico would have to wait, I decided sadly.
Then the most perfectly timed invitation landed in my inbox from Puerto Rico Tourism. Four days exploring the island in late February and early March. Would I like to join the trip?
Would I like to join the trip?! Of course I would!
I ended up having a wonderful time in Puerto Rico and I was surprised at just how much it has to offer.
It’s So Easy
Normally, I have no qualms about traveling internationally. That said, I appreciated how much less work I had to do in order to travel to Puerto Rico, which is a U.S. territory. If you’re an American, here’s why it’s easy:
- You don’t need your passport — a license or ID is all you need to fly.
- The currency is the U.S. dollar.
- While Spanish is the main language of the island, English is widely spoken and everyone in the tourism industry speaks English.
- Your U.S. phone plan will work normally without having to get a SIM card or paying roaming charges.
Additionally, there are direct flights to Puerto Rico from all over the U.S. (but especially on the East Coast). I was also surprised to see that you can fly direct to Puerto Rico from as far away as Frankfurt and London!
The Perfect All-Around Island
Plenty of people fly to Puerto Rico and never go beyond the confines of their resort. Not my thing, but I get it. Sometimes you need a getaway where you do nothing.
But if you want more than just a beach, Puerto Rico has it all. If you’re visiting for just a few days, like I was, you can easily fit in beach time, adventure time, culture time, and yes, even hanging-out-at-the-pool time.
Of course, if you’re going to the Caribbean, you want to see some beaches!
Culebra island, east of the main island of Puerto Rico, is home to Flamenco Beach, which is frequently voted one of the best beaches in the world in travel magazines and on sites like TripAdvisor.
Meh. I’ll believe it when I see it, I thought. Could this beach really compete with the tropical beaches of the Philippines, the white sands of the Florida panhandle, the unreal urban beaches of Sydney, the raw and untamed beaches of South Africa’s Eastern Cape?
OH, DID THIS BEACH EVER DELIVER.
Flamenco Beach is easily one of the best beaches I’ve ever seen. Perfect sand, bright clear water, and even though I visited in the heart of high season, it wasn’t too crowded.
For what it’s worth, I’ve heard that the neighboring island of Vieques has even better beaches. I can’t wait to check those out! Caroline from Caroline in the City wrote a great guide to Vieques.
Zip-lining is a popular adventure activity in resort destinations, and for good reason: it’s easy and requires no skill. I got to experience zip-lining at Toro Verde Adventure Park in Orocovis, in the mountainous center of the island, and it’s the most beautiful and dramatic place I’ve ever zip-lined in my life. (Not gonna lie — it was also the scariest. I kept my eyes shut a lot.)
My trip coincided with the opening of the new longest zip-line in the world: The Monster! The Monster has a total distance of 1.5 miles, or 2.5 kilometers, or 28 football fields. You do it while on your stomach, like Superman, and can achieve speeds up to 93 mph (150 kph).
(I know a lot of places claim to be the longest or the biggest or the highest zip-lines in the world, but this one is absolutely the longest. The Guinness Book of World Records people were there to certify it.)
Plus: if you get stuck on the line, Javier will come out and rescue you, dragging you back between his thighs.
If you’re up for adventure, there’s far more than just zip-lining: Lillie from Around the World L wrote about visiting El Yunque Rainforest, and Cam and Nicole from Traveling Canucks wrote about doing a bioluminescent kayak tour in Fajardo.
Puerto Rico isn’t just a pretty island devoid of personality — there is so much history and culture and art. While there are lots of cultural options all over the island, San Juan is the epicenter and an easy place to explore.
If you’re looking to maximize your time, head to Old San Juan. Here, you’ll find the island’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site (La Fortaleza, or the three forts that protect the bay) as well as colorful buildings in the old town and a handful of museums.
If you time your visit to one of Puerto Rico’s legendary festivals, you’re in for a treat. Here are some of the better known ones.
I had no idea what Puerto Rican food was before arriving on the island — but I left having having experienced so many different flavors.
Some dishes to try:
Mofongo — A popular dish where a dome of mashed plantains (or cassava or breadfruit) surrounds a variety of fillings.
Lechón — The ultimate roasted pork! Piggy heaven.
Tostones — Mashed plantains formed into patties and fried.
Bacalaítos — Bacalao, or salted cod, is popular here; bacalaítos are fried bacalao patties.
Morcilla — Every culture has its own blood sausage. This one is Puerto Rico’s.
Arroz con gandules — Rice and beans. With Puerto Rican spices.
Rum — Puerto Ricans love their rum! Try some Don Q.
Puerto Rican food is delicious — but be warned, it’s also very heavy. I don’t know how Puerto Ricans don’t all weigh 400 pounds. You might want to balance out your feasts with lighter meals. I waved a white flag and ordered ceviche on my final night.
Next time, I’d love to drive the pork highway, written about in this post on Twenty-Something Travel.
Off the Beaten Path Destinations
There isn’t much in Puerto Rico that hasn’t been discovered — but there are plenty of lesser-visited corners.
With a packed four-day trip, I didn’t get too far afield, but I did get to enjoy the city of Ponce in the south. From the moment I saw it, I was entranced. It reminded me of Granada, Nicaragua, mixed with a little bit of New Orleans.
An added bonus? Ponce and the south have a wonderfully dry climate, a major change from humid San Juan.
One of my favorite parts of our trip was the final night in Placita, a collection of open-air bars in San Juan. (I was also thrilled my Puerto Rican buddy, Norbert of Globotreks, was in town and came to join us!) We went on a Thursday night and it was hopping, though Norbert told me it really gets going on Friday and Saturday.
If you go, be sure to check out Santaella. It’s one of the fancier places in Placita. My Puerto Rican friends say this place has the best bartenders in San Juan and they made me a delicious tamarind margarita.
The casual bars are equally fun and you can get local Medalla beers for around $2.
Where to Stay in Puerto Rico
San Juan is the perfect base for a trip to Puerto Rico — it’s close to the airport, the city is fun, there are lots of nice beaches, lots of tour providers will pick you up from hotels there, and it’s easy enough to get all over the island within a few hours’ drive.
Here are photos of the room, view, and grounds of the Hilton Caribe:
Here are photos of the room, view, and grounds of the Hilton Condado Plaza:
Both hotels are solid options — each has beautiful rooms, a nice outdoor space, ocean views, and beaches with calm, clear Caribbean water. But between the two of them, I greatly preferred the Caribe. It had much better pools, beachfront, and outdoor grounds, plus two Starbuckses on the premises (including one on the beach!). The Caribar has excellent tapas — I especially loved the ropa vieja arepas. That said, the rooms were better at the Condado Plaza.
Now — if you’d like something even more upscale, resort-like, luxurious, and secluded, check out El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo, on the east coast. This is a Waldorf Astoria property and it’s the largest resort in Puerto Rico. They even have their own private island!
I didn’t stay overnight here, but I got to explore it one afternoon. And while I normally can’t stand hotel visits on press trips (“Look at this amazing hotel…but you can’t stay here. Please blog about us?”), I enjoyed my visit here so much that it left an enormously positive impression on me. I need to stay here on my next trip!! Also, the desserts at Chops are unreal, especially their mile-high chocolate cake and piña colada cobbler.
If El Conquistador strikes your fancy and you’ve got the cash, go for it. It’s a special place.
I can’t believe it took me 31 years to get to Puerto Rico! I honestly had no idea it had so much to offer until I got to see it for myself.
Between the ease of visiting and how much there is to do, I know this is only going to be the first of many trips to Puerto Rico in my future.
Essential Info: Puerto Rico has public transportation, but the best and most efficient way to get around is by renting a car. You can get anywhere around the island within a few hours. It was just 90 minutes from San Juan to Ponce on the south coast.
I visited Culebra on a one-day Culebra Snorkel Trip with East Island Excursions. The trip includes a snorkel stop next to the island and a two-hour stop at Flamenco Beach, plus a simple lunch, some snacks, and alcoholic beverages. The cost is $99 for adults and $79 for children under 12.
Personally, I think the snorkel trip is a little bit expensive for what you get, compared to similar activities I’ve done in similarly priced destinations, and not enough time is spent on the beach, but it’s a fun, fast, and easy way to experience Culebra for a day.
Do note that on this trip, you can only get to Flamenco Beach by swimming from the boat. This means that if you want to take photos on the beach, you’ll need a dry bag for your camera. They sell some smartphone-sized dry bags at the dock; instead, I recommend that you buy a high quality bag before your trip. This is a good dry bag that will fit a DSLR camera and it comes with a bonus smartphone bag. The crew will assist you if you can’t swim.
If you choose to visit Culebra independently, there are ferries from Fajardo, but it’s quickest and easiest to fly from the mainland.
I went zip-lining at Toro Verde Adventure Park in Orocovis. An eight-line zip-lining tour costs $85; The Monster costs a supplemental $175. There’s also a shorter version of The Monster, called The Beast, which costs a supplemental $65.
Rates at the Hilton Caribe start at $179. Rates at the Hilton Condado Plaza start at $179. Rates at El Conquistador Resort start at $199. These are all low-season rates; rates increase sharply in high season. Find other Puerto Rico hotels here.