Puerto Rico has no shortage of offerings. This itinerary focuses more on hitting the beaches in San Juan, the south side and the island of Vieques, but those who want to explore an island filled with giant lizards, whale watch, snorkel and dive can head west to Rincón. Aside from seaside fun, Puerto Rico has a wealth of natural beauty: caves, tropical forests and mountains all vie for space on this small island. Hurricane season is obviously not the time to go, but the rest of the year rarely varies in weather despite what looks locals may give you when they realize you are going to the beach in “winter”.
Just remember that in Puerto Rico, time constraints have no meaning, so be prepared to be flexible, or more likely, be prepared to just chill out and do what feels right.
[Also see our travel article “Ten Best Vacation Islands in the Caribbean“]
Days 1 and 2: Bacardi-soaked wanderings in Old San Juan
The well-kept beaches are the number one reason to visit Puerto Rico, and so visitors schedules should be flexible to fit in time at the beach when the sun is shining. For the first two days in San Juan, hit Condado, Isla Verde or Ocean Park beach when it’s sunny, and when the clouds start to roll in, head over to Old San Juan to be enchanted by the pastel houses and cobblestone streets. The stores here cover all needs, from local handmade artesania to high-end shops. Keep cool with a piragua, or shaved ice, which are sold out of carts all over the main square.
Old San Juan is the walled city built in 1509 by Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon, and many buildings from that era are still in excellent shape. Check out Casa Blanca, de Leon’s old home, San Juan Cathedral and the Dominican Convent, which is now the Institute of Culture. Watch the sun sink from El Morro, one of two stone forts built to protect the city from the Dutch and British.
The next day, after another lie on the beach, cool off with a mojito at the Casa Bacardi Rum Factory, which lies on a 127-acre sugar cane plantation. The tour takes walks visitors through the small museum and ends with a few complimentary drinks. After, head to upscale neighborhood Miramar to see the historic wooden houses and to charter a yacht for the afternoon. In the evening, gorge on mofongo, fried green plantains mashed with pork rinds and garlic. If feeling lucky, hit the casinos, or any number of bars and clubs in Old San Juan, Isla Verde or Condado — just beware that most places in Old San Juan operate at tourist prices.
If it’s just too hot, head to Plaza las Americas, a huge mall where people from all over the Caribbean come to stockpile clothes and other goods. It can be depended on to have a steady supply of water, light and air-con in hurricane season, plus winter clothing is unsurprisingly sold for dirt cheap.
Day 3: Manmade and natural stunners in Arecibo
One hour west of San Juan is the world’s largest radio telescope, which rests in the middle of a forest. Continue to feel dwarfed while riding The Beast — a 50 mph zipline so long it’s impossible to see the finish from the start. Once back on solid ground, drive 15 minutes to the south to experience the Rio Camuy Caves. Terrifying or exhilarating depending on your point of view, this underground park is a network of limestone caves, canyons and sinkholes. One is even home to a forest, several species of animals and a waterfall, which is fed by the world’s third largest underground river.
Day 4: Fresh mountain air and the south side
From Arecibo, it’s time to cross to the south side. Along the way, don’t miss the Toro Negro Forest Reserve, which includes the highest point of the Cordillera Central, and a hike up to the Juanita waterfalls. After a morning at the top, come back to sea level in Ponce, Puerto Rico’s Second City. Ponce has no beaches, but visitors can check out the art museum or the cathedral to stretch their legs. Nearby Guánica has seven beaches, each of which boasts white sand and turquoise waters. Keep up energy levels with fried yucca and a seafood lunch.
Day 5: Explore the tropics
The only tropical rainforest the U.S. Forest System, 28,000-acre El Yunque is absolutely breathtaking. Just an hour southeast of San Juan, the forest plonks visitors straight into another world. Visitors can choose to hike or drive through the forest. The two most popular trails are El Yunque trail, which climbs 1,500 feet to the top of the rainforest, and the paved Mt. Britton trail, which is much less strenuous and leaves visitors at Mt. Britton Tower in the clouds in about 45 minutes. After getting back to nature, it’s a jarring return to modernity at popular Luquillo beach, which is fully serviced.
Days 6 and 7: Vieques beckons
Days 6 & 7: Vieques beckons
In Fajardo, board a ferry to the undeveloped island of Vieques, which is just four miles wide and 22 miles long. Vieques used to be a U.S. military base, and several parts of the base are now open to the public. Ferries dock in the town of Isabel Segunda and visitors can either stay there or take a taxi to the small town of Esperanza on the other side of the island, which is more tourist-friendly. Rent a jeep to find all the deserted beaches as well as search for the Stonehenge-like structure built by the Taíno natives. One must-do is a late-night kayak in the bioluminescent bay, which is lit up by micro-organisms called dinoflagellates. There’s also the option of doing this in Fajardo, but it’s much more brilliant in Esperanza due to the lack of pollution.