Qué Rico… Puerto Rico!!
Small island in the middle of the Caribbean, a few hours flight out of US mainland… this tropical island offers much more than just sun and sand…
There’s vibrant and colorful San Juan, with cobblestone streets lined by beautiful adorned balconies, cafes, bars and restaurants.
The island is also full of natural wonders like the lush and peaceful El Yunque rain forest, and a variety of waterfalls.
To the west there is Rincon, a peaceful surfing paradise. And to the east, the beautiful pristine laid back neighboring islands of Culebra and Vieques, with unspoiled beauty and quiet towns.
And for us, of course, our beloved Puerto Rican food. So, it was an easy choice where to go for my birthday this April. Puerto Rico it was.
Here are some of the top things you should do when visiting this beautiful, charming island.
1. San Juan
The capitol is a vivacious, vibrant and visual delight, with forts, churches, convents and cobbled streets dating back centuries.
The hopping stop for many cruise liners, it has trendy bars that can make killer mojitos and pina coladas (the island’s signature drink), and great night life.
There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, and lots of art galleries and souvenir shopping all around.
We recommend at least 3-4 nights in San Juan.
Colonized by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1508, Puerto Rico was the closest Caribbean island with fresh water en route to the New World, making it a valuable property.
You see the remnants of bygone eras all over San Juan, particularly in the walled area now known as Old San Juan. It’s an area filled with blue cobblestone streets, brightly painted colonial-era structures, and and two majestic forts that have been designated UNISCO World Heritage Sites.
When it comes to where to stay in San Juan, you have two choices…
One is in Old San Juan along the harbor. That’s where we chose to stay for 4 nights at the Sheraton Old San Juan. It’s right on the harbor, where you get up close to big cruise liners docked for their day visits.
The biggest advantage to staying in Old San Juan is that you absolutely don’t need a car to move around. Old San Juan is recommended to be seen on foot, as all the points of interests are within walking distance.
The other popular tourist place to stay is at the nearby sandy beaches (15 minutes ride from Old San Juan ), along Condado and Isla Verde.
The area is filled with a hundred million apartments, hotels, resorts and Airbnb’s, along with plenty of restaurants and nightlife.
San Juan Points of Interest
1. Old San Juan
Old San Juan is Puerto Rico’s Quintessential colonial neighborhood. Narrow streets and plazas are still enclosed by thick fortress walls. A walking stroll through Old San Juan is the No. 1 thing to do in Puerto Rico.
Ornate Spanish town houses with wrought-iron balconies, ancient plazas, eclectic museums and forts, Old San Juan sits on an islet separated from the “new” parts of the city by a couple of miles and a few centuries.
Try booking a walking tour with a knowledgeable tour guide to learn the history and stories of bygone eras. It’s a great way to soak in the Old San Juan, and can end in some café or bar.
2. Fortaleza Street
Old San Juan is full of colorful cobblestone streets, each one more photogenic than the last. Wandering through the capital of Puerto Rico, it is easy to find photo worthy spots.
Yet, there is one street that stands out above the rest, the insta-famous Fortaleza Street. It is one of the most highly trafficked streets in San Juan.
Fortaleza Street leads to La Fortaleza, the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico. This fortress is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is must-see when in San Juan.
Visiting Fortaleza Street should be on your Old San Juan itinerary, because this is where you will find the famous display of art creating a canopy across the street. In the past there were floating umbrellas in the air, replaced by kites for some time. This time we got beautiful white butterflies hovering over us.
To find this portion of Fortaleza street, you must walk down toward La Fortaleza, the residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico. This portion of the street is closed to traffic, making it the perfect spot to take photos.
3. Castillo San Felipe del Morro
At the north western tip of San Juan, El Morro was built by the Spaniards between 1539 and 1790. Rising 140 feet above the sea, the massive six level fortress was built to protect the port, and has a commanding view of the harbor.
It is a labyrinth of cannon batteries, ramps, barracks, turrets, towers and tunnels. Noah had a great time wandering through all these historic marvels.
4. Le Perla
La Perla (Spanish for “the pearl”) is a neighborhood in Old San Juan. This famous, colorful neighborhood is pictured in all the travel brochures, and was made popular by the song “Despacito”.
It is actually a shanty town outside the city walls, overlooking the Caribbean ocean. La Perla has been an infamous neighborhood since its early days. In the 19th century, it was the site of a slaughterhouse and home to people (slaves, the homeless and non-white servants) who were required to live outside the city walls.
La Perla has a reputation of being a not so friendly neighborhood. There are no museums or attractions, except the humble people that call it home. There are a few little neighborhood pubs. If visiting, we recommend you visit during the daytime.
We always wanted to have an up close view of these colorful houses, so decided to try some lunch and a few drinks at one of the few restaurants in La Perla, overlooking the ocean.
It was absolutely worth chilling out, doing nothing and sipping my mojitos and trying some local appetizers.
5. Plaza de la Rogativa (Procession Square)
This was our favorite spot to relax after walking most of the streets in Old San Juan. Plaza La Rogativa is the most scenic square in San Juan, offering a 180-degree view of the San Juan Bay.
From here, you can also get a clear view of the San Juan Gate and La Fortaleza, as well as the El Yunque National Forest in the far distance.
The name “Rogativa” means “Procession”. According to a legend, during the 1797 attack by the British army, the governor of San Juan ordered a “rogativa” by a group of women, led by the bishop, to march through the city streets at night.
Starting from the San Juan Cathedral, the procession carried torches and crosses, while singing hymns along the way. The British mistook these sights and sounds for the arrival of Spanish Army reinforcements, and gave up the attack. Commemorating that event are the four bronze statues in the center of the square.
5. Castillo San Cristobal
Another great stone fortress, built between 1634-1783, guarded the city from land attacks from the east. The largest Spanish fortification in the New World, San Cristobal was know in old times as “the Gibraltar of the West Indies”. It’s an easy walk, just behind the Sheraton hotel at the harbor.
6. Isla Verde
If working on your tan is your motive, then this is the stretch of sandy beaches where you want to be. Isla Verde is the most popular beach side community with tourists.
Outskirts of San Juan
There are many beautiful and interesting spots just an hour or more from San Juan. These were our favorites that you can drive to, with San Juan as a base.
1. El Yunque
After the hustle and bustle of San Juan, if you want some peace and tranquility, head towards El Yunque. It’s the only tropical rainforest in the U.S., and is laced with hiking trails, flowing waterfalls, cool rivers and beautiful mountain views of the lush rainforest.
Easily accessible by car, El Yunque and northeast Puerto Rico are convenient enough for a quick day trip.
The whole loop can be done by car, stopping at different viewing points, and breaking for trails if planning to hike.
Noah was super excited to swim in the waterfalls, and had fun making friends swimming around the cool waters.
They have a cool little café inside the forest, where you can take a break in between all the hiking and swimming.
2. Pork Highway
Puerto Rico’s Pork Highway is a meat lover’s dream!! Pork is a staple across Latin America, but few places showcase the simplistic beauty of the meat than the “Pork Highway” in Puerto Rico.
The dozens of restaurants that make up “La Ruta del Lechón” have become a bit of a tourist excursion of late. But this doesn’t stop the locals from continuing to congregate, as the delicious menu options provide a roadside oasis.
With pigs roasting on open spits, their skin crispy and gorgeously caramelized, and meat that tastes like heaven, it’s not hard to see why it has become so popular.
To get to the Pork Highway, you’ll need to head about 30 miles south of San Juan, to the area known as Guavate. The Pork Highway is a couple mile stretch along Route 184.
It used to be a hidden gem among Puerto Ricans and visitors to the island, but thanks to the Travel Channel and food and travel stars like Andrew Zimmerman and Anthony Bourdain, it has become a must stop for foodies checking out the island.
So, of course, we had to somehow include this in our itinerary. We stopped for our pork special on the way back to San Juan from Rincon, via the south.
Route 184 is a winding mountainous road that seems never ending. Then, suddenly you come across thousands of people milling between these pork restaurants, with live local music in the background.
The succulent pork with crispy skin cooked to perfection, along with sweet plantains and their arroz con gandules, was as good as we expected. Highly recommended to take the drive out of San Juan to dig into the pork.
3. Cueva del Indio
Located in the northern town of Arecibo, Cueva del Indio is an impressive cave that’s surrounded by dramatic cliffs that face the Atlantic Ocean. The cave gets its name from the various pre-Columbian indigenous petroglyphs that are found in the walls of the cave.
To access the cave area, visitors must pay a $5.00 fee. After Hurricane Maria, going into the actual cave is not accessible, but you can still have amazingly beautiful views of the dramatic cliffs and arches jutting out of the ocean.
Visitors are encouraged to exercise caution when visiting Cueva del Indio, as the area is composed of cliffs.
On the way there from San Juan, along road 681, keep your eye out on the left hand side of the road, about a mile before the cave. Suddenly out of nowhere, you’ll see “Birth of the New World”, a statue of Christopher Columbus.
At 360 feet, it’s the fourth tallest statue in the world. Watch closely through the trees, we would have missed it if Noah hadn’t said “look at that pirate ship!”
4. La Cara del Indio – Taino Sculpture in Isabela
La Cara del Indio is a roadside sculpture that welcomes visitors to the city of Isabela, and the Portal del Sol in the west region. Known as the “Indian’s face” in Spanish, the sculpture is a monument dedicated to Cacique Mabodamaca, a Taíno chief that fought against the Spaniards in 1511 and died during the battle.
Mabodamaca was so significant, that many believe he actually escaped and preferred leaping from the cliffs of Isabela than surrendering to the Spaniards. According to the story, his profile was carved by nature on one of the cliffs of El Pastillo Beach, so he continues to watch over his land.
La Cara del Indio is located at the intersection of Rt 2 with 113. Although it’s visible from the car, it’s easy to miss. Visitors can park on the side road to take a picture and enjoy a local treat at the food kiosk next to the sculpture.
2. Rincon & The Porta Del Sol
Welcome to the island’s western corner… “La Porta Del Sol” is a gateway to sun, sand and SURF. Towns like Rincon, Aguadilla and Isabela are world famous surfing destinations, because of some of the world’s best waves.
This is land where Christopher Columbus stopped on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493.
Rincon was the “relaxation” part of our vacation, as we booked a small quaint beach house, which was our highlight of Puerto Rico. It was a perfect spot, which we highly recommend for visitors to Rincon. You can find the Airbnb listing here.
Most of the times, we would just take Noah for swimming or snorkeling, cook our own breakfasts or lunches, and try the local famous sunset dinners. You will hear more about our foods in a separate post coming next.
Sometimes, just doing nothing and putting up your feet, sipping unlimited margaritas is best thing you can do.
Excursions from Rincon
1. Gozalandia Waterfall
Just a small drive out of Rincon, Gozalandia waterfall is highly recommended if you want to swim in a natural pool at a couple of waterfalls near the town of San Sebastian.
This is a very popular local hang out with lots of families with kids, and friends enjoying a cool retreat. Time for another swim for our little one.
2. Steps Beach
Steps beach is popular in the Rincon in surfing community. During the winter surf season, surfers flock to Steps to catch some of the town’s best waves.
Once the waves die down, Steps transforms into a quiet swimming beach, and a great snorkeling spot.
The famous concrete steps, remains of a small concrete staircase from an old residence, are a favorite photo spot for visitors.
3. Playa Sucia
Playa Sucia is one of the most popular beaches in the town of Cabo Rojo. With breathtaking views and plenty of wilderness to explore, this beach is part of the town’s nature reserve.
This beach doesn’t have a strip of hotels or oceanfront businesses, but the striking landscape makes it a special natural wonder. It is the ideal place for beach-bumming and achieving that perfect sun-kissed tan.
Playa Sucia is just steps away from Los Morrillos Lighthouse. It has limited parking, so make sure to get there early. There are plenty of great photo opportunities with limestone cliffs and beautiful waters all around.
Pack a cooler, as there are limited supplies in nearby areas.
Culebra is one of Puerto Rico’s gems. Diamond-dust sand and colorful marine life are what you will find when you visit one of the top beaches globally, which is located there, 20 miles off the coast of Fajardo.
This peaceful tropical island holds countless natural areas and pristine locations to explore. Most of the tours are operated by catamaran ferries, which are suitable for kids above 6 years.
We are saving this island for a visit in the future, when Noah is old enough to enjoys snorkeling and other water sport activities.
4. Puerto Mosquito (Mosquito Bay)
It’s the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world. If “visit a bioluminescent bay” is on your bucket list, then look no further.
Mosquito Bay is, without question, the brightest and most reliable example of this phenomenon in the world.
It’s important to point out that Mosquito Bay is touted as the brightest not because Pyrodinium bahamense is a physiologically brighter species than any other bioluminescent critter, but because it’s home to the largest concentration of these creatures.
Puerto Mosquito (Mosquito Bay) is located on the southern shore of the island of Vieques, one of the islands of Puerto Rico.
Ponce, the “pearl of south”, founded in 1692, is not as popular as San Juan or Vieques, but is full of underrated attractions, fine food and a laid back, authentic vibe. From lush tropical mountains to arid coastal plains, Puerto Rico’s southern region will give you a local’s perspective.
In the heart of downtown, Ponce Centro, is Plaza de las Delicias, with trees, benches and a famous lion fountain. Several interesting buildings are on the square and adjacent streets, making the area perfect for a leisurely stroll.
You can’t miss a distinctive red and black striped building, Parque de Bombas, which is the second most photographed structure in Puerto Rico. A former firehouse, it is now a small museum tracing the history of Ponce’s fire brigade.
There is so much to do and explore in this small Caribbean Island, suitable for all age groups in the family. The beauty of Puerto Rico is that you can drive from north to south, east to west in the matter of a few hours.
From beautiful blue waters of pristine beaches to green lush mountains, it has great varied topography and is full of natural wonders. We will surely go back there, as we have to venture out to the eastern coast that we kept for the future.
Don’t miss out on our next post, what foods to try in Puerto Rico, as the cuisine is such an integral part of this fun filled tropical vacation.
We hope this inspires you to hop on to that short flight from the mainland and have a great vacation on our neighboring island.
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