Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico
Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Old San Juan's Charming Colonial Streets
Old San Juan's cobblestone streets and brightly painted colonial buildings transport visitors back in time. As one of the oldest settlements in the Americas, this historic area has remained remarkably well-preserved. Wandering the narrow lanes, it's easy to imagine life here centuries ago when the city was a strategic port connecting the New World to Europe.
Today, Old San Juan continues to enchant with its old-world charm and lively culture. The best way to explore is simply to stroll around, peeking into art galleries, relaxing in shaded plazas, and stopping frequently for Puerto Rican coffee or an icy piña colada.
Must-see sights include El Morro, an imposing 16th century fortress that juts dramatically into the sea. Visit at sunset when the fading light casts a glow over the imposing walls. The nearby San Cristóbal fort offers sweeping views over the city. History buffs will also appreciate the well-curated exhibits at El Museo de Las Américas, providing insight into the area's rich heritage.
No trip to Old San Juan is complete without a visit to Calle San Sebastián, said to be the oldest street in the city. Lined with vibrant 18th and 19th century Spanish colonial architecture, it's an Instagrammer's paradise. Stop into one of the many tapas bars for a glass of sangria on a sunny patio.
Plaza de Armas is another postcard-perfect spot ringed by historic buildings like the red-domed Catedral de San Juan Bautista. Street entertainers and roaming peacocks add to the festive ambiance. Relax on a shaded bench and watch locals engage in intense games of chess.
For an elevated perspective, head to the pedestrian-only Paseo de la Princesa. This tree-lined promenade overlooks the tranquil Bahía de San Juan and offers photo opportunities with iconic rainbow-colored umbrellas. As the sun sets, the 18th century Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery casts an evocative glow.
What else is in this post?
- Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Old San Juan's Charming Colonial Streets
- Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - El Yunque National Forest's Lush Green Beauty
- Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Bioluminescent Mosquito Bay's Magical Glow
- Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Culebra's Idyllic Beaches and Snorkeling
- Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Rincón's Ideal Surfing and Scenic Vistas
- Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Ponce's Vibrant Arts and Culture Scene
- Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Caves of Camuy's Mysterious Underground World
- Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Fajardo's Exciting Watersports and Ferries
Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - El Yunque National Forest's Lush Green Beauty
A refreshing oasis of verdant rainforest, El Yunque National Forest offers a lush natural playground just a short drive from the coast. Designated as the only tropical rainforest within the US National Forest System, this 28,000 acre expanse protects one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. With over 240 species of trees and plants, the forests support a rich array of wildlife. Experience a true communion with nature exploring jungle trails, swimming in refreshing waterfalls and observing exotic creatures.
One of the most memorable ways to experience El Yunque's pristine wilds is tackling the steep La Coca Falls Trail. As you make your way through dense foliage and mossy boulders, the sound of rushing water signals your arrival at the falls. Set amid an idyllic natural pool, the powerful 80-foot cascade is a classic Puerto Rican postcard scene. Don a bathing suit to enjoy a brisk swim in the bracing mountain waters.
For more relaxed exploring, the easy Big Tree Trail delivers major rewards for minimal effort. Lush ferns brush against your legs as you stroll among the forest’s towering tabonuco trees, which can grow up to 140 feet. Pause at La Mina Falls to admire the delicate cascade as it tumbles into abroad rock pool.
Venture deeper into the misty jungle on the Angelito Trail, keeping your eyes peeled for the national forest’s mascot, the tiny coquí frog. You’re sure to hear their distinctive calls reverberating through the trees. The 0.5 mile loop also features interpretive signs detailing facts about this delicate ecosystem.
No visit to El Yunque is complete without a stop at Yokahu Tower. Ascending 655 feet to the highest point in the forest, the lookout treats you to panoramic vistas across the lush canopy. On clear days, you can even glimpse the shimmering Atlantic in the distance. Don't miss the interpretive displays outlining details of the forests’ ecology.
You’ll also want to spend time simply driving through El Yunque, soaking up scenic overlooks like the one at La Coca Falls. Stopping frequently lets you appreciate the diverse flora and fauna. Watch for the bright flash of the Puerto Rican Tody or Puerto Rican parrot, two species found nowhere else on earth. Exotic orchids and giant ferns thrive in this unique climate.
Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Bioluminescent Mosquito Bay's Magical Glow
Among Puerto Rico’s many natural wonders, none kindles more wonder than Laguna Grande’s ethereal blue glow. As one of the best bioluminescent bays in the world, this serene coastal lagoon puts on an aquatic light show like no other. By day, its waters appear like any other quiet mangrove lagoon fringing Puerto Rico’s east coast. Yet once darkness falls, the bay reveals its magical secret. Billions of microscopic dinoflagellates illuminate with an iridescent blue shimmer, transforming the bay into a veritable portal to a fairy tale world.
While bioluminescence occurs sporadically throughout the oceans, it is exceptionally concentrated in Laguna Grande. This rare phenomenon results from prolific populations of Pyrodinium bahamense, whose single-celled organisms produce an eerie glow when agitated. As fish swim through the bays and boats ply the water, they excite the dinoflagellates into their dazzling aquatic light show.
Gliding across the glassy bay aboard an electric eco-friendly boat intensifies the experience. As your vessel gently noses through the placid waters, trailing bioluminescent streaks of neon blue radiate from the bow. Trails of shimmering light swirl and eddy in the boat’s wake, discharging an ethereal aura. Dipping your hands or paddles into the water creates swirling Rorschach-like patterns of glimmering aquatic light. Gazing into depths illuminated by this magical glow is a truly transcendent experience that many describe as looking into the Milky Way underwater.
Yet the bay’s fragility requires conscientious visitation. Major storms and climate change increasingly threaten this delicate ecosystem. Strict regulations limit visitation to sustainable cruise companies utilizing electric engines to minimize ecological impact. Tours occur only on nights with peak dinoflagellate concentrations when bioluminescence is brightest. Unfortunately, cloudy or rainy conditions can obscure the phenomenon. However, patient visitors willing to adjust plans around optimum conditions will be richly rewarded.
Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Culebra's Idyllic Beaches and Snorkeling
With its powdery sands and translucent turquoise waters, Culebra offers some of Puerto Rico’s most idyllic beaches for relaxed sunbathing and world-class snorkeling. Located 17 miles off the eastern coast of mainland Puerto Rico, this small island paradise hides away from the tourist crowds. With no massive resorts or commercialization, Culebra’s beaches remain pristine and serene.
Sea turtles glide through the clear waters, while palm trees sway over the soft sands. Thanks to limited development and difficult access, Culebra feels like a secret hideaway untouched by mass tourism. Those willing to ferry over from the main island and rent a golf cart or scooter for beach-hopping will be rewarded with this Caribbean dreamscape.
Arguably Culebra’s most stunning stretch of sand, Flamenco Beach consistently ranks as one of the world’s best beaches. Just offshore, vibrant coral reefs flourish, creating excellent snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities. Don your mask to discover breathtaking marine life, from neon-hued parrotfish to intricate sea fans waving in the currents. Hawksbill and leatherback turtles frequent these waters. Back on shore, beachcombers delight in Flamenco’sTalcum-powder sand giving way to turquoise waters ideal for swimming and kayaking.
At the peaceful Carlos Rosario Beach, mangrove-lined shallows create a protected swimming area perfect for families. Meander through tunnels in the red mangroves where reef fish dart between submerged roots. As you bask on the soft sand, relish the sweeping views over Dewey Island and Vieques in the distance. After working on your tan, enjoy a picnic lunch at one of the shaded shelters.
On Culebra’s more remote northwest coast, nestled between hills studded with cacti, Playa Zoni offers a pristine strip of sand where green turtles nest from March through June. Here you may have the beach entirely to yourself outside peak local times. Bring snorkeling gear to encounter vibrant marine life in the bay’s coral reefs.
With its shallow, calm waters, protected Melones Beach also makes an excellent spot for beginning snorkelers. Wade from the sandy beach into the bay to discover an abundance of blue tang, sergeant major, and other brightly colored tropical fish. Watch for sea turtles munching on seagrass. When you’ve worked up an appetite, enjoy fresh-caught seafood with your toes in the sand at the beach’s open-air restaurant.
Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Rincón's Ideal Surfing and Scenic Vistas
Tucked into Puerto Rico’s northwest corner, Rincón lures adventure seekers with its famous surf breaks and breathtaking coastal scenery. While much of Puerto Rico’s coast faces south, Rincón points west, resulting in idyllic conditions for surfing. Offshore reefs create perfectly shaped waves beloved by surfers from around the globe. Even novice wave-riders can find gentle breaks, especially in summer when waters are calm. away from the tumultuous winter swells.
Rincón's diverse beaches offer waves suitable for every level. Beginners new to the sport can start at gentle Sandy Beach, where soft, sloping waves provide a safe spot to gain confidence standing up on your board. The relaxed atmosphere and sandy bottom make Sandy Beach ideal for families looking to try surfing.
Once you've mastered the basics, head to legendary Domes Beach, hailed as one of the best surf spots in the Caribbean. Shaped by offshore reefs, the powerful barrels demand sharp skills, attracting experienced surfers. Arrive early to stake out your spot for the day and watch the experts tackle the legendary breaks. The consistent waves rolling in from the west ensure surfable conditions 300 days a year.
For breathtaking scenery to go along with your surf session, travel 15 minutes south to secluded Tres Palmas Marine Reserve. Here the rugged shoreline gives way to turquoise waters ideal for snorkeling when waves lie calm between swells. Off the eastern point, dramatic Rincón Lighthouse stands sentinel over Mona Passage. End your day watching the sunset from the lighthouse viewpoint before sampling fresh seafood down in the village.
When the waves lie flat, Rincón's panoramic vistas steal the show. Drive up to the sweeping overlooks at Ojo del Buey and Three Palms for iconic postcard views over the coastline. Sunsets tint the seas in stunning hues of orange and pink.
Hikers can take in more scenery along the Mariposario Trail, set on a nature reserve protecting rare butterfly species. The two-mile rainforest trail winds past wild orchids and towering mahogany and teak trees. Keep an eye out for Puerto Rico’s exotic Palo de Rosa, recognizable by its fuchsia-hued bark. The route terminates at a tranquil lagoon perfect for a refreshing swim.
No stay in Rincón is complete without a visit to the photogenic Punta Higuero Lighthouse. Perched atop rugged cliffs at Puerto Rico’s westernmost edge, this historical lighthouse complex draws photographers eager to capture the iconic coastal vistas. After you’ve grabbed your photos, sit awhile and let the rhythm of the waves wash over you.
Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Ponce's Vibrant Arts and Culture Scene
As Puerto Rico's second largest city, Ponce offers a rich tapestry of arts and culture beyond the island's well-trodden tourist trail. Founded in 1692, the city packs history and heritage into an easily walkable colonial downtown ideal for savoring local flavor. From world-class museums showcasing Puerto Rican artists to celebrations of traditional music and dance, Ponce immerses visitors in authentic arts and culture.
Art aficionados flock to the Museo de Arte de Ponce, touted as one of the best art museums in the Caribbean. The impressive neoclassical building houses an unparalleled collection spanning 3,000 years of western culture. Wander hallways lined with masterpieces from European masters like Velázquez, Rubens, and Van Gogh. Yet the museum's highlight shines on Puerto Rico’s own great artists. Don't miss rooms dedicated to natives like painters José Campeche and Francisco Oller.
Another must-see is the Museo de la Historia de Ponce. Set in a brightly-painted red and black Créole-style residence dating from the late 1700s, the museum vividly outlines the city’s rich history. Browse intriguing exhibits like La Guerra Hispanoamericana, delving into Spanish colonial conflicts. Other galleries display relics from the region’s indigenous Taíno people and stories of African heritage. The well-curated exhibits make history come alive.
Architecture buffs will delight in Ponce's splendid historic buildings interwoven with contemporary design. The city takes pride in its lovingly-preserved colonial structures. Walking the cobblestone streets feels like stepping back in time. Especially photogenic is the Parque de Bombas dating from 1882 with its bold red and black stripes and Moorish-inspired towers. Today it serves as a museum of the city's firefighting history. Other architectural highlights include the Castro Residence, an elegant Victorian mansion housing the tourist office, and the imposing white neoclassical Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.
Beyond buildings and museums, Ponce celebrates its living culture through music, dance, food and festivals. To experience authentic bomba music and dance tracing back centuries, time your visit for the Fiesta de la Tradición in late April. The streets come alive with the pulsating beats of drums and maracas as dancers dressed in vibrant skirts twirl and tap their feet. Visitors can join in the dances at free workshops. The following week, the Festival de Bomba y Plena celebrates more traditional Puerto Rican musical styles interwoven with African roots.
Year-round, foodies can sample local specialties at eateries around Plaza de las Delicias. Venture into the Mercado La Guancha to taste authentic criollo fare like mofongo mashed plantains and asopao rice stew. Dulce de leche coconut candy makes the perfect sweet souvenir. Enjoy regional baked goods and coffee at family-owned Casa Amadeo, in business since 1912. For refreshing beachside ceviche and mojitos, dine al fresco at Jacinto Seafood while waves lap nearby.
Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Caves of Camuy's Mysterious Underground World
Puerto Rico’s wild northern karst country harbors one of the island’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders deep underground at the Caves of Camuy. This vast subterranean realm, stretching over 10 miles, ranks among the largest cave systems in the world. Descending into the caves’ shadowy depths reveals an alien landscape that seems surreal in contrast to the jungle terrain above.
As the third largest underground river system ever documented, Camuy Caves rightfully earned their designation as a National Natural Landmark. The caves contain more than 200 caves adorned with fascinating rock formations molded by the Rio Camuy cutting through the soft limestone over eons.
Walking through the caves almost feels like entering a cathedral dedicated to the handiwork of Mother Nature. Colossal stalactites hang overheard while stalagmites rise from the cave floor, some merging to form awe-inspiring columns. Striated mineral deposits in hues of brown, red and yellow ring the cave walls inabstract designs. Some passageways open into immense chambers shrouded in darkness and mystery.
While the caves’ immense rooms seem peaceful now, clues in the rock record raging torrents that once surged powerfully through these passageways during the Pleistocene era when much of the island was submerged. Ancient petroglyphs etched into cave walls provide evidence of indigenous peoples using these caves centuries ago.
Of the many wondrous formations, the massive Columbras stalagmite amazes visitors with its immensity, rising over 56 feet tall. In the dark depths of Catedral Cave, the reverent ambience imparts the aura of a natural sanctuary. One can only marvel at the centuries of dripping mineral-rich water needed to craft the intricate beauty.
Yet the Camuy Caves remain remarkably pristine despite their popularity and accessibility. Strict conservation policies protect the intricate cave networks from overcrowding. Self-guided cave tours follow designated pathways and require visitors to minimize touching surfaces or disturbing cave ecosystems. The caves remain home to rare species like the tiny blind fish Anableps and Rhinatrema bivittatum butterfly found nowhere else on earth.
Even viewing the caves from above ground impresses, where sinkholes perforate the jungle floor providing glimpses of the mysteries below. Hike the Kárstico Camuy trail along sinkhole edges for vertiginous views down into their green shadows. Observation platforms like Cueva Clara offer prime overlooks into cave interiors without the need to descend.
Guided night tours add another layer of drama, where inky darkness enhances the caves’ mesmerizing beauty. Exploring the subterranean landscape by headlamp requires sure footing on the steep passageways but offers rich rewards. The hypnotic flowstone formations glisten under artificial light. Seeing the caves both day and night provides very different perspectives on their enchantment.
Island Escape: The 9 Best Places to Visit in Puerto Rico - Fajardo's Exciting Watersports and Ferries
Nestled on Puerto Rico’s eastern tip, Fajardo serves as the gateway to the island’s famed cays. This lively port city provides easy access to offshore islands like Culebra and Vieques via regular passenger ferries. Yet Fajardo also tempts visitors to stay ashore with its wealth of watersports from sailing to snorkeling in the bioluminescent bay.
Serious sailors are drawn to Fajardo for its ideal conditions for cruising to the Spanish Virgin Islands. Gentle easterly trade winds provide comfortable sailing conditions for seasoned captains and newbies alike. Numerous marinas offer yacht rentals and sailing tours throughout the cays. Set sail for a day or embark on a week-long island-hopping journey, dropping anchor at pristine beaches.
For quicker jaunts, take a snorkeling day trip to Icacos Cay aboard the efficient catamarans of East Island Excursions. The cay’s protected coral reefs nurture diverse marine life, making for excellent snorkeling. Paddle amid vibrant parrotfish, angel fish, and green sea turtles in the crystal waters. Most tours allow time for sunbathing on Icacos’ unspoiled beach before returning to Fajardo.
Kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding through the bioluminescent waters of Laguna Grande delivers an even more immersive experience. As your boat glides across the glassy lagoon, trailing bioluminescent streaks of neon blue radiate from the bow. Gazing into the illuminated depths, it’s easy to become mesmerized by the ethereal aquatic light show.
Several Fajardo-based outfitters lead these magical glowing lagoon tours, taking great care to minimize ecological impact. However, kayaking independently at night is discouraged to avoid damaging the delicate dinoflagellate habitat. Joining a responsible guided eco-tour like those by Eco Action Tours better protects Laguna Grande’s fragile bioluminescence.
Of course, Fajardo also provides a gateway to Culebra, Vieques and beyond via passenger ferries like those run by Transportation Services Maritimes. Trips throughout the day connect Fajardo with Culebra and its world-famous Flamenco Beach. Ferries also access Vieques and quaint harbors on the Spanish Virgin Islands.
Travelers planning an extended independent island-hopping adventure can ferry their rental jeep or golf cart with them aboard the larger vessels. Exploration of Culebra, Vieques and beyond becomes easy breezy with your own set of wheels that can roll right off the ferry.
Back on the eastern Puerto Rico mainland, Fajardo’s windswept beaches like Playa Seven Seas create prime conditions for windsurfing and kiteboarding. Crisp cross-breezes propel you across the waters against a scenic backdrop. Lessons and equipment rentals are available for all skill levels to harness Fajardo’s ideal wind power.