Unforgettable Places to Visit in Puerto Rico (Besides San Juan)
Memorable family vacations on my motherland were often made on the road. San Juan is a wonder unto itself, but to truly experience Puerto Rico’s vibrant culture -- road-tripping down the famed Pork Highway, anyone? -- get out of the comforts of the metropolitan capital and take in all the island offers.
Measuring about 110 miles long and 35 miles, it'd take about six hours to traverse the island, but why rush things? Linger over a glowing ocean at one of three world-famous bioluminescent bays. Stuff your face with Borinquen fried goods from pork rinds to plantains. Get airborne over the United States' only rainforest in the national park system. Launch yourself above crystalline Caribbean waters in some of the world's best surfing swells. In Puerto Rico, it can all happen.
At Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) and Rafael Hernández Airport (BQN) in Aguadilla, you’ll find all the major car rental operators with competitive pricing. Do your homework ahead of time to reserve by the hour or by the day. While you’re at it, opt for a jeep or four-wheel drive to navigate rough terrain and coastal roads -- though city bus lines, ferries, cabs and private cars (including Uber) are on-hand, road conditions around the island vary, so better safe than sorry.
Puerto Rico isn’t called the Island of Enchantment for nothing -- why limit yourself?
Kayak through an enchanting natural phenomenon
1-2-hour drive (and boat ride) east of San Juan
Puerto Rico has the distinct honor of having not one, but three bioluminescent bays, the natural nighttime phenomenon of microorganisms lighting up like a starry sky in calm waters. Whether you head to Laguna Grande at Cabezas de San Juan near Fajardo, Mosquito Bay in the nature reserves of Vieques (a tiny island home to about 10,000 residents), or La Parguera farther in the southwest region of Lajas, you’re in for a near-magical treat, as the waves and wakes kick up eerie-yet-calm bluish light. The brightest, Mosquito Bay, has the strictest protections -- no swimming! -- while La Parguera suffers from light pollution and fewer microorganisms in the water. It’s a matter of convenience -- visiting Vieques’ waters require an overnight stay, as the ferry stops running early evenings. In each of the bays, mangrove trees grow in abundance, with on-site environmentalists working to protect these special areas.
Pro tip: Marine biologists-turned-tour guides like Alelí near La Parguera advise visiting during a new or crescent moon in the evening for smaller crowds, the brightest sights and least disturbance to the area. In Mosquito Bay, kayak tour operators help ensure the bright waters are minimally disturbed for maximum effect. Consult the lunar cycle before you visit, and bring bug spray.
Hang 10 in some of the world’s best surf
2-3-hour drive west of San Juan
Thanks to tempting 80-degree year-round temperatures, warm tropical waters, and notable big wave competitions, beach lovers and surfers dominate the northwestern coastlines of Puerto Rico in and around Rincón. Head two hours west of San Juan for a day at Surfer’s Beach and Crash Boat in Aguadilla, Jobos Beach in Isabela or Tres Palmas in Rincón. While these waters can be choppy, waves range from waist level (ideal for beginners and boogie boarders) to contest-level swells. Rideable waves are aplenty, and -- surprise! -- the surroundings are even better. You’re in paradise, after all, complete with endless stretches of clear blue and turquoise, and rows of palm trees dotting the shores. Whether you’re a newbie or a pro, experts at surfing schools like Surf 787 and Rincón Surf School (both operating in Rincón) will have you hitting the waves in no time, providing everything from wave forecasts to board rentals and surfing instructions.
While you’re at it, follow the northwestern coast south to Punta Borinquen, a designated World Surfing Reserve protected from man-made developments threatening the surf zone. California nonprofit Save the Waves is behind the conservation efforts of this area between Surfer’s and Crash Boat beaches, partnering with Puerto Rican environmental, economic and community leaders to preserve the land for years to come.
Not quite surfing, but two hours west of San Juan along the northern coast is Steps Beach, so-called for some widely Instagram’d concrete steps by the shore. Here, divers can enjoy the underwater serenity of pastel-colored coral reefs, sunken ships, underwater caves and tunnels, all within arm’s reach in these shallow waters.
Pro tip: Look up surf and weather conditions ahead of time before diving into the waters.
Head to the rainforest for coffee and adventure
1-2-hour drive south of San Juan
You may not have grown up with Café Bustelo but Puerto Ricans are serious about their coffee, and are now more dedicated than ever to sustaining its agricultural roots. Head inland to meet and greet local farmers who prioritize growing, harvesting and selling coffee 100% hecho en Puerto Rico, resulting in a rich farm-to-cup experience.
An overnight stay in the mountains of Utuado at eco-lodge Hacienda Horizonte includes a tour of the 100-acre working coffee plantation, which proudly grows pesticide- and chemical-free coffee. The perfect energy boost for a next-day hike, horseback ride, or zip line, if you ask us.
West of Utuado is the 20-acre family-run Hacienda El Jibarito in San Sebastian. The former sugar cane farm is now a coffee roaster and eco-villa with multiple on-site greenhouses and a sister restaurant. Don’t skip a swim at the epic Gozalandia Waterfalls -- a pair of hidden waterfalls just a 15-minute drive away.
Embrace your inner thrill seeker at a zip line park with birds-eye views of El Yunque, the US’s only tropical rainforest. The ever-shifting forest floor below speeds by at Toroverde, Guinness World Records’ longest zip line on earth (if Jimmy Fallon can do it, so can you!). Rather opt out? Get grounded in reforestation efforts volunteering with Para La Naturaleza while you’re in town.
Pro tip: El Jibarito provides transportation to and from its premises, but be prepared to hike through craggy paths before rewarding yourself with a rope swing jump at the falls.
Hit the Pork Highway for the best in Borinquen roadside snacks
1-hour drive or less east/south of San Juan
No visit to Puerto Rico is complete without a deep-fried roadside snack. Locals may argue over their favorite kioskos (open-air huts), but you’ll also find them eating, drinking and dancing their way through chinchorro routes on most weekends.
Take a break from outdoor excursions for a #treatyoself day in fried food heaven. As you adventure for myriad handmade goodies, you’ll find old-school family joints, Afro-Caribbean traditions and lively music on deck -- the makings of a good time. Major plus? It’s the most delicious way to support small businesses get back on their feet post-hurricane.
For the full circuit, start early at Piñones, a beachfront town 10 minutes outside San Juan airport along Route 187. Stop, snack, repeat. Hop back in your ride and continue 20-30 minutes east to Luquillo on the eastern coast, continue scarfing, and eventually end your day at El Guavate south near the mountains of Cayey. (Of course, if you want to take a snail’s pace, you could easily spend all day at each of these spots. The choice is yours.) Be warned: Every local will have their own recommendations -- even my family fights over their favorites!
Savor plantains in masa dough when biting into alcapurrias and pastelillos, fried dough turnovers stuffed with meat or mariscos (seafood). Grab a pancake-sized bacalaito (salted cod fritter) while overlooking the ocean just a few feet away. Hear the crunch of fritters like chicharrones (fried pork cracklings) or chicharrones de conejo (fried rabbit). See why pernil reigns king as you pass by rows of golden-brown, whole spit-roasted pigs ready to be chopped and served crisp alongside traditional sides like morcilla (blood sausage) and arroz con gandules (yellow rice and pigeon peas). Don’t forget to top with the island’s signature garlicky mojo sauce.
Pro tip: These small, but legendary, food shacks are the perfect fast-casual spots to taste unique textures and flavors distinct to each region. When you find one that you like, knock back an ice-cold Medalla or two (the local beer), play a game of pool or enjoy salsa music blasting around you. Bonus? No dress code required.