This Island Road Trip Is High on Adventure and Low on Drive Time

Explore some of Puerto Rico’s most underrated beach towns and beauty spots with this easy 5-day itinerary.

If you like road trips but hate driving, let us tell you about Puerto Rico: an island where you can stroll down a tropical beach, drive up into the mountains, ride back through the jungle, and end up in a desert—all in less than an hour.

Many travel-hungry Americans who flock to this US territory are content to just hit Old San Juan and that cocktail bar they saw in a Luis Fonsi video. Very few delve into the phenomenal natural beauty and rich culture the rest of the 100-mile-wide island offers.

Puerto Rico is an ideal road trip destination, where no drive is longer than two or three hours. You can embrace the island ethos of taking your sweet time at every beach bar and roadside fogón you like. That said, keep your wits about you: Signage can be poor, and road conditions are hit or miss. There’ll be some backtracking, and plenty of backroads driving, but this trip isn’t about getting from one point to another—it’s about discovering a place more deeply than most without having to spend hours behind the wheel.

lighthouse on a hill
Unsplash/Rafael Lopez

Day 1: Arecibo and Islote

Dip in a turquoise swimming hole and sunset drinks over the water
About an hour west of the San Juan Airport on Route 2, you’ll reach Arecibo, home to one of the most beautiful beaches in Puerto Rico and an ideal place to relax after a long flight. Float in turquoise water under towering limestone rocks at La Poza del Obispo Beach, stroll the golden shore, and check out some of the murals lining the beach. You’ll also find the Faro de Arecibo, a historic lighthouse from 1898 with daily tours and fantastic views.

Ready for a cold one? Amble along coastal Route 681 towards the town of Islote. Countless bars are set right out over the sea, ideal spots to watch the sunset with a beer. For dinner, get the mofongo at Carbon y Lena. The traditional mashed plantain dish and a cocktail won’t set you back much more than $20.

There isn’t a glut of great hotels in Arecibo, but if you’re OK with backtracking 30 minutes, the Hyatt Place Manati is right on Route 2 and makes a convenient stopping place.

combate beach
Christian Ouellet/Shutterstock

Day 2: Mayagüez and Cabo Rojo

Beach hop along Puerto Rico’s west coast
Grab some pastelitos or empanadas at My Sweet Bakery in Arecibo, then jump back on Route 2 and wind around the island's northwest corner. Optional: After about 1.5 hours, you can pull off at the boho beach town of Rincón if you'd like to join every American surfer with an unemployment check to burn. Do some scuba diving and food truck hopping, maybe even spot humpback whales between January and March. But if you want to stick to the sleeper hits, continue on south.

Down Puerto Rico’s west coast, the first sizable city you’ll encounter is Mayagüez, a popular beach getaway for locals. Make a lunch stop on the beach at family-run Che Che Colé for modern spins on traditional Puerto Rican fare and a spectacular wine selection.

After lunch, it’s time to hit some of the stellar beaches in the southwestern region of Cabo Rojo. Word to the wise: on the weekend, Puerto Rican families flock to these spots, so if you can, plan to go during the week.

Your first stop is Playa Buye, a narrow strip of sand abutting a colorful trailer park and beach bar. Grab a drink, then take a short walk past the trailer park to the Punta Guaniquilla Nature Reserve. A ten-minute stroll through the protected wilderness brings you to the ruins of a 19th-century sugar farm, and the trailhead to the mysterious limestone formations at Laguna Guaniquilla. Walking down to the still water and bizarre rocks is maybe a 75-minute diversion, and one of the best photo spots on the whole island.

Fifteen-ish minutes from Buye is Combate Beach, where perfect white sand, vibrant trees, and endless beach bars await. You won’t go wrong with any of these spots, but for the best meal, order up some seafood at Annie's Place, renowned for having the freshest stuff in Cabo Rojo.

Call it a night at the Combate Beach Resort, where you’ll have easy access to the sand for a morning run (or even easier access to the bars if running wasn’t part of your vacation plan).

Maremagnum/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Day 3: Bosque Estatal de Guánica and Ponce

Drive through the desert and into the heart of coffee country
Get an early start and continue east from Combate. You may notice the landscape shifting from lush, tropical jungle to arid desert. That’s because the winds blowing in from the southeast keep this part of Puerto Rico perpetually dry; in total, it only gets about 29 inches of rain per year.

The best place to immerse yourself in the landscape is at Bosque Estatal de Guanica, or the Dry Forest of Guanica. Hike about an hour each way to a stunning lookout over the town, which gives you a good sense of the ecosystem with a nice payoff at the end. Just make sure to do it in the morning when it’s still cool, and bring twice as much water as you think you need.

Stop for lunch in Ponce, the largest city in Puerto Rico outside the San Juan metro area. The old town here is full of the same colonial architecture you’ll find in San Juan, minus the tourists. It’s also home to the south coast’s best brewery at Papa Rupe and fresh Puerto Rican seafood at Restaurante Alexandra. You can also stop here for the night if you want to take it extra easy and explore town.

Now that you’ve seen the beaches and the desert, it’s time to ascend into the jungle. From Ponce, head north about two hours along Route 149 to the small mountain town of Ciales, a tropical mountain city ripped from the opening of a coffee commercial. Puerto Rico’s capital of coffee boasts dozens of small plantations and a Museum of Coffee, where you’ll taste some of the best stuff on the island and get a little energy boost for the windy mountain drive ahead.

There isn't much in the way of hotels in Ciales, so your best bet for a night stop is Caguas, about an hour away if you backtrack through San Juan. But this road trip is about discovery, so channel the spirit of adventure and traverse the winding roads that run between Ciales and Caguas. You’ll journey through the heart of the Puerto Rican mountains, traversing tiny towns and roadside fogóns full of revitalizing lechón and pinchos. It adds an extra hour to the trip, and you’ll need to honk at every blind turn so oncoming cars know you’re there.

Relax after a long day with a cocktail and a few hands of blackjack at the Four Points Sheraton in Caguas, then hit the hay.


Day 4: Caguas, Luquillo, and Laguna Grande

Explore tropical lagoons, surf, and kayak the bioluminescent bay
Take a morning stroll through old town Caguas before loading up and heading east to the Humacao Nature Reserve. This former sugar plantation was flooded in 1979, refilling the once-dredged wetlands and creating magical lagoons perfect for kayaking. The reserve is your chance to experience the island’s coastal swamps by hiking, biking, or paddling through some of the most peaceful terrain in Puerto Rico. After, stop into Patria Bar and Restaurant just outside the reserve.Though you may be reaching your empanada lifetime quota, it’s the most convenient place to grab a decent bite.

Skirt the coast along Route 3 through Fajardo and onto Luquillo, home to one of Puerto Rico’s more unheralded surf spots at La Pared. You can easily rent a board or take a lesson, and though the waves aren’t quite what they are at Rincón, neither are the crowds. The food stalls in the town square are also not to be missed; though the choices can be overwhelming, we’ll recommend El Terruno, which makes a killer rabbit dish.

Tomorrow you'll explore the El Yunque rainforest, and if you’re looking for an overnight experience within the park, check into the Rainforest Inn. The boutique bed and breakfast isn’t luxe, per se, but it offers some of the most unique lodging on the island.

After check in, check off a bucket list experience at Laguna Grande, one of Puerto Rico’s famous bioluminescent bays. Based in Fajardo, Pure Adventure offers nightly kayak trips through the glowing waters along the bay. A tip: Plan your trip around a new moon so you have minimal light interference.

El Yunque national forest
Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock

Day 5: El Yunque to San Juan

Hiking El Yunque, eating from kiosks, and a perfect ending in San Juan
If you just have the morning to explore America’s only tropical rainforest, hit the El Yunque Trail, which takes you to the highest point in the park in just 2.6 miles. 

For a dose of culture before you head back to cosmopolitan San Juan, stop into Loíza where the beachside stands in Los Piñones have some of the best fried food you’ll ever try. If you need to do some last minute souvenir shopping, Loíza’s traditional vejigante masks—with their sharp horns and howling faces—are a treasure that will both delight children and terrify adults.

From here it’s a short drive into San Juan, depending on traffic. The city has no shortage of places to stay, but if you want somewhere near the airport that’s still got Puerto Rican charm, spend a night at the Fairmont El San Juan. The mid-century hotel was originally built for overnighting airplane crews, but was reimagined by legendary architect Morris Lapidus in the 1960s. The result is a lobby with ornate, wood-carved ceilings, a center bar with a multi-layer tilted chandelier, and a cabaret with live Spanish music every night.

You’ll also find a sprawling lagoon pool deck and private beach access, the perfect place to continue your feeling of isolation while still staying in San Juan. In the morning, you’re less than ten minutes from the San Juan Airport. And, sadly, a trip back to whatever not-as-enchanted place you call home.

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.