Laid-back Puerto Rico has everything you’d expect of a Caribbean island and plenty more besides. The white sand beaches, crystal clear waters and buzzing nightlife are all there, but there’s also the vibrant capital, San Juan, lush rainforest and a mountainous interior to explore.
With African, Spanish and North American influences it’s an intriguing place with interesting cuisine and a wide range of good quality accommodation. Scuba divers and those who enjoy their outdoor pursuits will be in their element and it’s a fabulous destination for a long-haul winter break.
Getting there, getting around Puerto Rico
When travelling from the UK, all flights will involve at least one stop en route. This can be a bit of a pain, but it can also offer up a great excuse to spend a couple of days exploring a fabulous city such as New York or Washington.
Once you have arrived in Puerto Rico, there are no great distances to travel from the capital, San Juan, although there are scheduled flights (in small planes) from the main airport to surrounding cities and islands should you want to get to your destination quickly. There are also ferry services to the islands of Vieques and Culebra, or you could travel in style and charter your own yacht. Otherwise, taxis, rental cars, buses and publico vans (minibuses really) are all available from the airport and major cities and resorts.
Beaches in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico has miles of fabulous beaches backed with swaying coconut palms. The seas are beautifully clear and there are lots of waters sports to tempt you off your sun lounger. Among the best sandy stretches is Luquillo, on the north east coast, which is very popular with families. The view from the beach is spectacular as you can see the misty mountains and rainforest in the distance. Boqueron, on the west coast, is popular with nature lovers as it’s near to a nature reserve. You can often see many species of bird life hopping along the sand.
One excellent beach in Puerto Rico is found on the island of Culebra. Flamenco beach is regularly voted one of America’s best. It’s totally laid back without the crowds found on many other beaches. It’s nestled in a marine reserve, so jet skis and motor boats aren’t allowed, meaning you can kick back and unwind in truly peaceful surroundings.
Sightseeing in Puerto Rico
San Juan, the capital city, is perfect for some serious sightseeing. The gorgeous old town is home to two impressive fortresses and lots of stunning Spanish colonial architecture. Visit Casa Blanca, the ancestral home of the descendants of the explorer Ponce de Leon, and relax in the gardens after touring the house itself. There’s also a hop-on, hop-off trolley tour of Old San Juan which is free of charge.
On the south coast, Ponce is certainly worth a visit. Its historic district has more than 1,000 19th-century buildings, including an attractive theatre and a good art museum.
Family attractions in Puerto Rico
Away from the beaches Puerto Rico is a wonderful destination for families. You can visit the Luis A Ferre Parque de Ciencias, a 42-acre science park in San Juan, which is home to a planetarium and aerospace museum. You’ll also find the world’s largest radio telescope on the island near Arecibo. The observatory opens at weekends from 9am to 4pm and Weds-Fri noon to 4pm. It even featured in the sci-fi film Contact.
If you’re a family of wildlife lovers then a whale-watching trip is a must. The best place to go is off the west coast from mid-January to mid-April and trips leave daily during this period from Puerto Real. There are lots of nature reserves on the island and Las Cabezas, which has guided tours and two miles of trails and boardwalks, is one of the best.
Day trips in Puerto Rico
If you enjoy a good ramble, it’s worth taking a day or two to explore some of the top hiking trails inland. Trek surrounded by spectacular mountain and rainforest scenery, full of waterfalls and interesting wildlife. El Yunque, a national rainforest with a 3,496 ft mountain at its heart, is an extremely popular spot, but if you fancy exploring the most rugged countryside on the island, then head for the wild Reserva Forestal Toro Negro.
If you don’t fancy hiking, you can also drive across the Ruta Panoramica – a 165-mile network of scenic roads with mountain towns and villages and spectacular canyons. In the north west interior, explore the Cavernas del Rio Camuy, the world’s third largest cave system.
Shopping in Puerto Rico
You’ll find lots of craft centers and studios around the island where you can pop in and occasionally see local goods being produced before you buy them. Island lace (mundillo), decorative masks like those worn in island festivals, pottery, ceramics, woven hammocks and mountain-grown coffee are all excellent buys. The local rum is also a good purchase for when you want to relive those holiday cocktail moments back in Blighty.
For more contemporary shopping, visit the Plaza Las Americas in San Juan. It’s the island’s largest shopping centre with over 300 stores.
Eating out in Puerto Rico
The local cuisine is delicious and specialities include mallorca – a sweet pastry drenched in powdered sugar which is enjoyed at breakfast time, empanadilla, a pocket of plantain (one of the island’s staple foods) or yucca dough filled with meat, and pionono, deep-fried plantain cones stuffed with meat or cheese. Main meals include asopao de pollo, a spicy chicken stew and most meat dishes come with an accompaniment of rice and beans.
There’s a big American influence on the island and this is true of the cuisine as well. So if you’re missing a bit of comfort food, you’ll find plenty of burger bars and chain restaurants like Denny’s. On the drinks front, rum is the national tipple and the coffee’s superb.
Nightlife in the Puerto Rico
San Juan is the nightlife hub of the island and many of the most popular bars and clubs are found in the San Sebastian area. The Condado-Isla Verde strip is less bustling, but full of chic drinking dens. You’ll also find plenty of places to hone your salsa dancing skills in the city, and if you’re a gambling man, the hotel casinos are always busy. For those in search of more cultural pursuits, the performing arts centre known as Bellas Artes has a 1,800-seater concert hall and stages opera, ballet and classical concerts.
In Ponce, the boardwalk is the place to go in the evening. Covering around half a mile around the pretty harbour, it’s great for bars, restaurants, salsa music and people-watching. Away from the main island, you’ll also find plenty of live jazz venues on Vieques.