Seen as the gateway to the Caribbean, Puerto Rico's rich heritage blending Spanish and African cultures gives the island a personality unlike anywhere else. The cruise destination continues to entice travelers into staying longer to soak up more of the island's white-sand beaches and thriving food scene, whose claim to fame includes founding the piña colada. While the destination is a year-round one, you can skip the heat (and crowds) by taking your winter getaway to this tiny island no larger than the state of Connecticut. It's teeming with everything from rainforests with waterfalls to beaches boasting perfect surf sites. Here are 10 reasons to jet off to Puerto Rico for the holidays–no passport required.
Take advantage of winter weather on the streets of Old San Juan — Photo courtesy of Puerto Rico Tourism Company
While Puerto Rico's weather is warm year-round, you'll skip a lot of the rain and humidity during the winter months from November through April. Temperatures aren't as high, but the sun is still out so a tan is guaranteed. Caribbean nights also get a bit cooler, dropping into the 70s on the coast and 50s in the mountains, making al fresco dining much more appealing.
Perch up poolside at the InterContinental San Juan on Isla Verde Beach — Photo courtesy of InterContinental San Juan
Caribbean resort getaway
Don't expect to find all-inclusive hotels on this island like you would throughout other parts of the Caribbean. Instead, Puerto Rico is home to a number of options from luxury to budget-friendly getaways, local inns and campsites. Isla Verde is the resort-heavy part of Puerto Rico, just 10 minutes from the airport and 20 from Old San Juan. Wrapping up a $22 million renovation, the 397-room InterContinental San Juan is sitting on one of the area's best white-sand stretches. This is the spot where lounging all day–whether in a beachfront chair or from an oceanview room–is encouraged, where island time sets in as soon as you sip a piña colada by the pool, and continues long after with evening drinks around the firepit. Don't miss Akua bar's award-winning Coqui nightcap, named after the island's tiny indigenous tree frog, that blends the best elements of an old fashioned and piña colada.
Longest Christmas celebrations in the world
Brace yourself for a holiday seasons that starts after Thanksgiving and continues through January, three weeks past New Year's Day. Puerto Rican holiday festivities blend traditions from Spain and Africa, with customs like parrandas, a Puerto Rican version of Christmas caroling and the eight-day octavitas celebration, which follows the Epiphany on January 6.
Puerto Rican Mardi Gras
Christmas officially ends with the San Sebastián Street Festival on the third weekend of January. Essentially Puerto Rico's version of Mardi Gras, San Sebastián Street in Old San Juan shuts down for four days of music, parades and religious processions for the ultimate street party that originally began over 40 years ago to honor Saint Sebastian.
You can always find specialties like the fried plantain-filled mofongo (pictured here), but Puerto Rico also has holiday favorites around Christmas — Photo courtesy of Puerto Rico Tourism Company
If you happen to be in Puerto Rico around Christmas, you'll have the chance to sample local specialties like lechón asado (roasted pork), pollo guisado (chicken stew with potatoes and green olives) and pasteles (mashed green bananas stuffed with meat and wrapped in banana leaves). You can also try the coconut-based coquito, the Puerto Rican version of eggnog, at almost any bar you visit.
Kayak in one of Puerto Rico's three bio bays — Photo courtesy of Puerto Rico Tourism Company
Best time for bio bays
There are only five bioluminescent bays on the globe and Puerto Rico is home to three of them. One of the easiest to reach from San Juan is Laguna Grande in Las Croabas, Fajardo, about an hour away by car. Lit up by large amounts of dinoflagellates each time you paddle or touch the water, the bay glows brighter on moonless nights, especially if it hasn't rained in a while.
Hike the Rain Forest
Since the sun isn't blaring quite as strong as in summer, it's the perfect time to take nature hikes through El Yunque. The only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, El Yunque is home to 26 animal species you won't find anywhere else in the world, as well as the picture-perfect La Mina waterfalls, easily accessible by a light 30-minute hike on paved paths.
Kayak in Dewey on Culebra, just 17 miles off mainland Puerto Rico — Photo courtesy of Puerto Rico Tourism Company
Easy island hopping
While winter may be high season, you can escape the crowds island hopping off the east coast of Puerto Rico to the Spanish Virgin Islands of Culebra and Vieques. Catch a ferry and visit Flamenco Beach on Culebra or head to Mosquito Bay on Vieques where you can kayak through the brightest bio bay on the globe.
More direct flights
Since snowbirds are fleeing the cold, direct flights to San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport more than double in winter. You can find affordable last-minute daily flights on over 12 airlines from destinations like Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., with flight times under four hours.
Start your Caribbean cruise from the Old San Juan port — Photo courtesy of Puerto Rico Tourism Company
Easy Caribbean cruise access
With the second-largest cruise port in the Western Hemisphere, Puerto Rico is known as the cruise capital of the Caribbean. Instead of spending two days at sea when coming from Florida, fly to San Juan and start the trip there so you can pack more destinations and sightseeing into your Caribbean getaway (plus tack on some time before or after to explore San Juan).