Puerto Rico’s nickname is the “Island of Enchantment” and I’ve also heard it described as “Latin America for beginners”. I think both are true, and great reasons for visiting. You can get a feel for Latin America–the colorful art, welcoming culture, upbeat music, tasty food–without having to be fluent in Spanish, think about currency conversions, get a passport, or worry about avoiding drinking the water or flushing the toilet paper! And for being such a small island (almost all the other cities on the island are a two hour drive or less from San Juan), there are so many awesome things–forts from the golden age of piracy, Spanish colonial architecture, El Yunque rainforest, art museums, the world’s largest radio telescope, coral reefs and beaches, caves full of pre-Columbian Taino carvings, bioluminescent bays… I could go on, but basically it really is the la Isla del Encanto.
This was really hard to narrow down but we came up with our top five from our trip! (Oh, and you can read more about our honeymoon in Puerto Rico here–and see more pictures!)
1. Old San Juan
You can experience awesome colonial architecture, great views of the sea, delicious restaurants, and an abundance of shopping here. A visit to Old San Juan also wouldn’t be complete without exploring the San Juan National Historic Site, which encompasses two old forts–El Morro (1589) and Castillo San Cristobal (1783)–and the old city walls.
2. El Yunque National Forest
This is the only rainforest in the US National Park system, and it’s free to visit! It’s only about a 45 minute drive from San Juan. If you stop in the visitor center along the way, it’s a $4 charge per person, but it’s worth it to get a map, information on the trails, and learn a little more about the forest. You can see La Coca Falls right along the drive down Hwy 191 into the forest, and we hiked the trail down to La Mina Falls–a large waterfall with a pool you can swim in at the bottom.
3. Bioluminescent Bay Kayak Tour
There are several bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico, but one of the easiest ones to get to from San Juan is the one near Fajardo (about one hour from San Juan). These kayaking excursions leave from Las Croabas, and you paddle through a canal surrounded by mangrove trees and out onto a bioluminescent lagoon. Seeing the water glow and sparkle as your paddle or hand disturbs the dinoflagellates in the water is a truly incredible and ethereal experience, and definitely something I recommend while in Puerto Rico!
4. Cueva del Indio
We took a day trip to Arecibo to see the world’s largest telescope at Arecibo Observatory, and while in the area we decided to visit Cueva del Indio as well. This area more than exceeded our expectations. It’s just beautiful there, with the bluest ocean crashing against the rocks, and natural arches and rock formations, but the most incredible part is being able to climb down the ladder into the cave and see rock carvings made by the Tainos, possibly even hundreds of years before Columbus set foot on the island.
5. Plaza las Delicias & Museo de Arte de Ponce
The Plaza las Delicias in Ponce, Puerto Rico, is a really fun plaza. There’s a cathedral and the famous Parque de Bombas building, multiple fountains, and 16 lion sculptures, painted by local artists. While there be sure to get some delicious ice cream of a tropical variety (coco – coconut, parcha – passionfruit, almendra – almond) from King Cream, a great little place near the plaza. A three minute drive away is the Museo de Arte de Ponce, probably the best one in the Caribbean, and the home of many Puerto Rican works of art, as well as the beautiful “Flaming June” by Sir Frederick Leighton.
We were really surprised by how awesome Cueva del Indio ended up being–especially for how cheap it was! It was quite an adventure climbing down the 20-25 foot ladder into the cave and seeing the hundreds of carvings on the wall! The area around it is just gorgeous too, with lava rocks, natural arches, and the bluest ocean I’ve ever seen!
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
The city of Ponce was probably our favorite day trip–we hiked in nearby Guanica Dry Forest, checked out Plaza las Delicias, visited the Museo de Arte de Ponce, and even ate the famous lechon asado on the Pork Highway on the way back!
The whole trip was memorable, but one of the most unique experiences was the bioluminescent bays–it’s hard to photograph or record and really needs to be experienced. It was so amazing sitting in a kayak, the moon reflected in the lagoon, and raising my cupped hand from the water to see the little blue sparkles in it. Definitely a must-do!
We were hoping to really see how rum was made at the Bacardi factory, or go inside the Cathedral of Rum, but the “factory tour” didn’t allow either of those things. It was still pretty fun though–we did learn how it was made and each got two free drinks–so it wasn’t too much of a disappointment. 🙂
We had so much good food in Puerto Rico–pretty much all containing pork and/or plantains! Ryan says his favorite thing we ate was carne asada at Gustitos Criollos in Arecibo. My favorite has to be a tie between the churrasquitos at Punto de Vista restaurant or our daily mallorca breakfast at Cafeteria Mallorca, both in Old San Juan.
We brought back a bottle of Don Q rum, actually only buying it on a whim at the airport before we left, and it turned out to be one of our favorite rums that we’ve had! Of course I also love my vejigante mask and a freshwater pearl bracelet I made from pearls bought at a bead store in Old San Juan.
WHY YOU SHOULD GO
Puerto Rico offers a variety of cultural, historical and natural attractions, as well as great food and people, and it’s so easy and cheap to travel there from the US! No passport or customs, cheap flights, and I barely used my Spanish at all. Someday it might even become a state, and then maybe it will finally receive more recognition as the fantastic tourist destination it is!