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 the end of 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 after February and early March. Would I like to join the trip?
Puerto Rico is 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, see why it’s easy:
You do not need your passport — a license or ID is all you need to steal.
The currency is the US 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 Island All Car
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.
Puerto Rican Beaches
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?
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.
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 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).
More: 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 is not just an island pretty 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.
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 entered. 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.
San Juan Nightlife
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. This is one of the fan 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.
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.
On this trip I stayed at two Hilton properties in San Juan: the Hilton Caribe and 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, rooms were better at the Condado Plaza.
Now-if you’d like something even more upscale, resort-like, luxurious, and secluded, check out the Conquistador Resort in Fajardo, on the east coast. This is a Waldorf Astoria property and it is the largest resort in Puerto Rico. They even have their own private island!
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 all to be the first of many trips to Puerto Rico in my future.
Puerto Rico has public transportation, but the best and most efficient way to get around is by renting a car. You can get anywhere island car with 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.
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 pictures on the beach, you will 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.