When it comes to Caribbean getaways, the Bahamas and Jamaica always seem to be top-of-mind. But why not consider beautiful Puerto Rico, with its historic townships and palm-fringed shorelines? The picturesque island, east of the Dominican Republic and west of the U.S. Virgin Islands, was discovered in 1493 when Italian explorer Christopher Columbus landed there and claimed the territory as a Spanish province. It wasn’t until 1898, during the Spanish-American War, that Spain ceded the colony (now, a modern-day commonwealth) to the U.S., which is why it still has such Spanish overtones, especially in its historic district of Old San Juan.
No passport? No problem: Since Puerto Rico is an American territory, U.S. citizens can travel there without one, U.S. currency is accepted island-wide, and you won’t even be charged overseas cell phone fees (amen to that). And, as if you needed more reasons to pack your bags, the weather is basically perfect (between 70 and 80 degrees) year-round. It’s also just a short, direct flight from the mainland—we’re talking two hours from Miami and just over three from New York City.
Here, our top tips and tricks for where to go, what to see, and what to do during your stay in sunny, sandy Puerto Rico.
Old San Juan
Most flights from the States take you to Puerto Rico's capital city, San Juan (itself an islet), which is, incidentally, just a quick bus or taxi ride away from the bright colonial homes, narrow callejóns (alleyways), and cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, the territory's oldest settlement. The Old City, as it's commonly known, was founded by the Spanish conquistador Ponce de Léon in 1508.
Stay in the centrally-located Hotel El Convento, a renovated convent from the 1600s: Enjoy complimentary evening cocktails on the terrace and take a dip in the plunge pool. Sample the island’s famous sweet, creamy coffee at Spicy Caribbee, and stock up on local spices. Explore the town's fortresses, Castillo San Cristóbal and El Morro, visit the 16th-century Catedral de San Juan (and Ponce de León’s tomb), tour La Fortaleza palace, and see if you can squeeze into La Casa Estrecha (aka The Narrow House). After that, treat yourself to helado de parcha (passion fruit-flavored ice cream); it's a local favorite.
Wear your comfiest walking shoes, too. Old San Juan is hilly and its streets uneven. Plan accordingly: Although free trolleys go most places, they don't stop on the notoriously steep, Calle del Cristo, where most of the action's at.
From San Juan, hop on the $2 ferry from Ceiba, and enjoy the 30-minute ride to Isla de Vieques, located in the Carribean Sea, just off Puerto Rico's eastern coast. Stay at Hix Island House, a 13-acre eco-lodge nestled deep within a hillside; you'll get a private outdoor terrace, open-air shower, and unadulterated sea views. From there, a concierge can arrange restaurant and scuba diving reservations, snorkeling, fishing, sailing, and horseback-riding excursions, and kayak tours of Bioluminescent Bay (the brightest of the three that Puerto Rico has), which gets its name from tiny, glowing microorganisms that produce bursts of blue light when disturbed. White sand beaches, azure waters, and wild horses await.
El Yunque National Forest
Headed back to San Juan? Carve extra time into your travel schedule and make the 45-minute drive north to El Yunque, Puerto Rico's largest nature reserve. The 29,000-acre tropical rainforest is situated in the lush, misty Luquillo Mountains and is home to spectacular waterfalls, colorful orchids, and diverse wildlife, such as mongoose, rare fruit bats, nonvenomous snakes, the endangered Puerto Rican parrot, and the noisy coquí tree frog, Puerto Rico's unofficial mascot. Full- and half-day tours abound, with nature walks, hiking, kayaking, and zip-lining offered via various operators (just make advance reservations).
No visit to Puerto Rico is complete without a visit to the west-central Cueva Ventana ("window cave"), a natural cave (and cultural landmark) sitting atop a karst (limestone) cliff in the city of Arecibo, overlooking the Arecibo River and the verdant valley below. Its cavernous walls are also home to ancient petroglyphs carved by Puerto Rico's indigenous Taíno people. Trekking to the cave on a guided tour is, itself, an adventure, as you squeeze through narrow passageways, scramble over tree roots, and navigate total darkness (a flashlight is provided) while encountering various flora and fauna (namely, bats) along the way. The final vista, though, is well worth the hike.
On the sparsely-populated west coast of Puerto Rico lies Rincón, a decidedly non-touristy scene where surfing is always the main event. For a real Puerto Rican beach experience, head to Sandy Beach, where palm trees grow, surfers dot the shoreline, and coconuts fall in the sand. Although there aren't too many hotels around (Casa de Rincón and Villa Cofresí are your best bets), there are still plenty of Airbnb and Vrbo options. And if you've never surfed, you can learn from the best at Rincón Surf School; the fully committed can even stay overnight at its Surf Resort. When you've worked up an appetite after hanging 10, take in lunch or dinner (and a few cocktails) at Tamboo (named one of America's best beach bars), and watch the sunset while you're planning your next excursion. Note: Rincón's attractions are scattered throughout the area, so renting a car is a must.