The beaches are stunning.
Most Americans think of the beach when they think of Puerto Rico. The island offers 300 public beaches managed by the Puerto Rico National Parks Company. Lifeguards, restrooms, showers, chair rentals, and concession stands (that sell everything from ice to boogie boards) are widely available. Luquillo Beach is 30 miles east of San Juan and offers calm and swimmable waters that are popular with families. Just a five-minute drive from the airport, the sugary, white sands of Isla Verde Beach are good enough for the luxury Ritz-Carlton, San Juan and good enough for us.
The beaches aren’t to be missed, but the island’s diverse ecosystem offers a lot more than sand and shore. Julie Schwietert Collazo tells us, “I think what surprised me the most — and still surprises me today, in some ways — is how geographically diverse Puerto Rico is. The island is just 100 by 35 miles, yet it has a rain forest, a dry forest, karst formations, and one of the largest cave systems in the world, not to mention beaches and mountains and offshore islands and cays.” El Yunque National Forest offers visitors over 28,000 acres of hiking trails, waterfalls, and wildlife.
Puerto Rico is home to American chain restaurants (like The Cheesecake Factory, Señor Frog’s, and McDonald’s), and if that’s your thing, we won’t judge. But it would be a huge mistake to miss out on the island’s incredible and varied local restaurant and food scene. Schwietert Collazo suggests trying mofongo. She says, “It’s a mashed plantain dish, often stuffed with a meat or with seafood and then doused in a broth. It’s a guilty pleasure; I never eat it at home, but I will always eat it in Puerto Rico.”
When asked for her favorite restaurant, Pabon chose Cocina Abierta. She says, “My favorite restaurant is Cocina Abierta in Condado, an area of San Juan. It’s a gastrobar type of place with fusion Puerto Rican classics. I love to sit at their bar and go through ham croquettes and tuna tacos.”
While beachwear is fine for the actual beach, San Juan is actually quite metropolitan, and you won’t find a lot of locals wearing bikinis at restaurants. Pabon tells us, “Many Americans think you can wear flip-flops and shorts everywhere. While beaches and local dives are what we’re known for, cities like San Juan and Isla Verde offer a metropolitan feel with trendy places to have a glass of wine and a good meal. A lot of tourists don’t know that the island has that side to it and don’t come prepared to meet the dress code.” While you don’t have to wear a gown or a tux, visitors should dress respectfully off of the beach.
Schwietert Collazo advises, “It’s possible to cover a lot of miles on the island in a day, but traffic jams, which are all but inevitable, wouldn’t make that very pleasant. If you only have one day, stick to San Juan and explore Old San Juan, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s pedestrian-friendly, has plenty of restaurants, and offers both historical sites, like the El Morro fort, and cultural ones, including a number of museums.” Casa Bacardi is about a 25-minute drive from Old San Juan. The distillery is a tourist favorite for rum tastings and learning about how the sugar and rum industries — and slavery — shaped the island.
Puerto Rico is an island (obviously), but there are smaller offshore islands with gorgeous beaches, coral reef access, wild horses, and breathtaking beauty. Culebra and Vieques are arguably the most popular destinations. Twenty-mile long Vieques is known for a black-sand beach and Mosquito Bay, recognized as the brightest bioluminescent bay by the Guinness Book of World Records. Culebra lies 17 miles east of mainland Puerto Rico. Visit the Cayo Luis Peña Natural Reserve for snorkeling and diving.