Puerto Rico is an island of contradictions–the bustling downtown and thumping nightclubs of San Juan are just a short drive from canopies of lush rainforest dominated by remote waterfalls and exotic wildlife. Having lived in Vieques for the past eight winters, I’ve come to learn that Puerto Rico has something for everyone. Here’s my list of Puerto Rico’s 10 best, can’t-miss attractions.
Bioluminescent Bay, Vieques . . . for thrill-seekers
Vieques is a small island off the east coast of Puerto Rico with spectacular beaches and local character. It also happens to be where I make my home each winter. The beaches, restaurants, wild horses, and local color all make Vieques worth at least a few days’ visit, but many people come just to experience its bioluminescent bay, a semi-enclosed body of water that glows eerily at night when the waters are disturbed. It’s magical.
Vieques — Photo courtesy of Jen Gold
Intel: There are multiple outfitters to choose from, but go with Vieques Adventure Company–it’s the only one that has glass-bottomed boats, for maximum wow-factor. Ask for Garry.
Intel: Frequent flights depart for Vieques from San Juan International Airport, but save half the cost by flying from the smaller Isla Grande Airport, just 15 minutes from the international airport; $55 per person, each way. Or take the ferry to Vieques from Fajardo for just $2 per person, each way.
Old San Juan . . . for urbanites
When I’m craving a trip to Europe, I just have to spend a little time in Old San Juan to get my fill of old-world charm. Cosmopolitan and quaint, colorful and gritty, old-school and edgy all at once, Old San Juan is packed with eclectic restaurants, hip bars, and lively music venues. One of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon is to relax at an outdoor café with a Medalla Light (a local beer), and watch the world go by.
Luquillo Beach . . . for family fun
Luquillo Beach is the perfect place for families, as parking, bathrooms and food–three crucial items for families with kids–are all easily accessible. The waves are minimal and the current is almost never strong, so it’s perfect for our 2-year-old to wade in and out with ease. Located on the northeast coast of Puerto Rico, the beach is a wide expanse of golden sand backed by the lush El Yunque rainforest. A long line of food kiosks sits a short walk from the beach, offering up freshly caught octopus, grilled pinchos (chicken skewers), and one of my local favorites, conch salad. Parking is $4, and public buses run frequently between San Juan to Luquillo. Moms, take note: the beach includes public showers, changing rooms, and changing tables.
Luquillo Beach — Photo courtesy of Jen Gold
Hotel El Convento . . . for the fabulous set
I’d be hard pressed to stay anywhere else in Old San Juan. A former convent that retains a feeling of serenity within the chaos of the city, El Convento has bright, spacious rooms, a charming lobby, and extremely helpful staff. With a great central location in the heart of the historic district, it’s not cheap, but it’s worth every penny.
Intel: Ocean-view rooms aren’t always the most expensive here, so call to make a reservation and book a water view; it’s beautiful.
Flamenco Beach, Culebra . . . for sun-worshippers
Although Culebra is even smaller than my own tiny Vieques, I can’t resist traveling here at least once a year to enjoy one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Flamenco Beach is consistently ranked one of the most gorgeous beaches in the world, and it’s easy to see why. This long, pristine stretch of powdery sand with coconut palms and shimmering crystal-clear water is picture perfect. I like to plop my beach chair under the shade of a palm tree and kick back with a stack of magazines for the day. Take a 90-minute ferry out of Fajardo (three daily departures, $2.25 per person, each way), or hop a 15-minute, on-demand Flamenco Air flight from Ceiba International Airport for $30 per person, each way.
Ponce Art Museum . . . for culture lovers
When I’m all beached out and need a dose of culture, this place does the trick. The largest art museum in the Caribbean, the Museo de Arte de Ponce (MAP) houses an impressive collection of European and Puerto Rican art, and recently underwent an extensive renovation.
Ponce Art Museum — Photo courtesy of Jen Gold
The town of Ponce itself, located on the southern side of the island, has a picturesque central square surrounded by lively cafes and pubs, and is also worth a visit.
Intel: Bring a jacket; the museum is air-conditioned and can be very chilly on beach-warmed skin.
El Morro Fortress . . . for history buffs and families
Yes, it’s touristy, but still well worth a visit, especially for history buffs or families with kids. Built by the Spanish, attacked by the Dutch, and used as a U.S. Army military post during the 20th century, Castillo San Felipe Del Morro is now a museum open to the public. This old fort is steeped in history. As an added bonus, the stunning views of the Caribbean Sea and neighboring islands can’t be beat.
Intel: Avoid trips to El Morro on weekends if possible; it’s when cruise ships arrive and depart San Juan, and the fort is overrun with day-trippers.
Parrot Club . . . for foodies
It’s hard to choose a top food spot in San Juan, as there are so many great options. Parrot Club is one of my favorites: It consistently serves fantastic, fresh, and flavorful Nuevo Latino food in a lively atmosphere. I like to come here with a group of friends, order a few rounds of cocktails and enjoy the scene along with a great meal. Make sure to stay for the live music, which starts around 10 or 11 most nights of the week.
Mona Island . . . for nature fanatics
Mona Island lies about 40 miles west of the main island and is accessible by chartered boat. It’s been compared to the Galapagos Islands because of the long list of endangered species that make it their home, and its rugged, untouched beauty. Due to its remoteness, the island doesn’t get nearly as many visitors as most other spots in Puerto Rico. Head here for near-private hiking, snorkeling, diving, camping, or stargazing in this pristine part of the world. I haven’t made it here myself yet, but friends rave about it, and it’s on my Puerto Rico bucket list.
Intel: Finding a charter company to get you to Mona can be a challenge, but one respectable outfitter is Adventures Tourmarine, located in Cabo Rojo.
Rincon Beach . . . for surfers
My surfing buddies can’t say enough about the waves at Rincon beach. While I myself don’t surf, I love this laid-back beach town for its eclectic charm. Well-known as the best surf spot in Puerto Rico, Rincon is in the northwest part of the island where waves can reach up to 30 feet high. But there’s more to this town than just its surf scene. Pretty beaches, funky bars, and quaint inns make Rincon a great place to spend a few relaxed days.
Intel: Try the beautiful Horned Dorset resort for a first-class, unforgettable stay.