Vacations in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is the third cheapest island in the Caribbean but still costlier than the USA.
It is similar to Jamaica and the Dominican Republic in many ways other than easy flights and lowish living costs – all the islands are in a line in the central north Caribbean and belong to the Greater Antilles group (along with Cuba).
This country is actually an archipelago of islands, though only two other than the main island of Puerto Rico are inhabited full time and both of them are tiny, Culebra and Vieques.
All three islands are large compared to most in the Caribbean, they’re tropically hot, fertile and offer mountains as well as rainforest, waterfalls, coral reefs and substantial beaches washed at least partly by Caribbean seas.
The islands were all settled by the Taino people for a few thousand years then discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and subsequently almost wiped out by Spanish slavers and their diseases.
Flights are direct and inexpensive and the cost of holidays is low if you make an effort to find budget accommodation, either by going downmarket or renting your own villa/apartment and eat/drink in local restaurant/bars, which are, fortunately, interesting, tasty, cheap and easy to find.
The biggest advantage of Puerto Rico is that it’s US territory (unincorporated) so incoming Americans have no immigration hassles and will feel right at home. If Florida was an island this would be it.
Spanish is the first language spoken here, English the second.
In addition PR encompasses some unique wildlife in the El Yunque rainforest and superb surfing on the beaches of Rincón.
However, Puerto Rico is experiencing a number of crises: high levels of unemployment; high levels of crime; terrible damage from the hurricanes last year; and finally Sargassum Seaweed.
The USA connection is not all positive, as condo blight spreads across the island, traffic jams up LA-style and the culture is defiantly non-exotic American. There is some spark of old Puerto Rico and even ancient Taino here but tourists will need to be adventurous to find it.
Furthermore PR is experiencing an economic downturn so unemployment is up, businesses are closing and skilled workers are heading for the US mainland, especially Florida. In fact there are now more Puerto Ricans in the US than on the island.
Things to Do
Apart from hitting the beaches you could
• take day-trips via catamaran or similar to desert island paradises such as Icacos.
• go sport fishing, deep-sea fishing or even fly fishing off Vieques island.
• take scuba courses or dive trips out to local reefs or further afield. Isla Mona dives are recommended.
• try kayak ecotours of PR lagoons.
• hike in El Yunque rainforest, trails requiring a couple of hours or more. Go there by yourself or with a tour. Alternatively there are day-long hikes along the Cordilla Central’s Ruta Panoramica.
• do rock climbing treks on San Cristobal.
• join mountain biking tours or just rent a regular bike.
• go horseback riding.
• join zipline canopy tours out of San Juan.
• muddy-up on ATV adventure tours out of San Juan.
• golf at one of Dorado’s five 18-hole courses.
• take surfing lessons or hire the kit.
• take cruises ranging from sunset dinners to overnight trips to Culebra and Vieques.
• have windsurfing and kite surfing lessons or kit hire.
• stroll the many parks of San Juan, such as Central Park, Munoz Rivera Park (by the sea), Parque de las Palomas (panoramic views) of the mountains and city.
• head out to one of the world’s best beaches, Playa Flamenco on unspoiled Culebra island or try even less visited Vieques Island’s 40 brilliant strands.
• check out a ‘bioluminescent’ bays in Fajardo or Vieques Island, at night of course and preferably by kayak or electric boat for a more spooky effect. It’s a hoot! But a bit pricey. ‘Every paddle stroke becomes a thing of beauty, and you can see the fish darting about below the surface, leaving a trail of light behind them. ‘
• caving in Camuy River area’s huge 200 cave system. Excellent caves but too far from San Juan to visit on its own, the tour guides are bored with life and the audio guide is pathetic. Nearby is the Arecibo observatory and there is also a new attraction, a fine, high zipline across the river.
• hike/mountain bike the Guanica ‘Dry’ Forest (as opposed to rainforest). Plenty of diversity of birds and plants, with beaches en route. Go early and take lots of water!
Christmas in San Juan. Photo by FortheRock
San Juan Attractions
San Juan is the oldest city in the USA. These sights, apart from the rum factory, were all built in the 16th century
• El Castillo San Felipe Del Morro, UNESCO World Heritage Site, citadel in northwest San Juan.
• El Castillo de San Cristobal, a huge castle in San Juan, open 9am-6pm.
• La Fortaleza, Palacio de Santa Catalina, UNESCO World Heritage Site, mansion/fortress, San Juan Harbour (photo lower down the page).
• El Catedral de San Juan Bautista, the much rebuilt tomb of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon.
• Iglesia de San Jose. An outstanding church.
• Bacardi Rum Factory. Free tours of this massive ‘Cathedral of Rum’ 9am-4. 30pm daily.
Pine Grove Beach, Isla Verde, Puerto Rico main island, San Juan city. Photo by James Kennedy
Puerto Rico’s Best Beaches
Best on the main island
In San Juan city limits
• Playa Escambron (Balneario El Escambrón)
is an excellent Blue Flag beach, in San Juan, with space, showers, restrooms, disabled facilities, restaurant, kiosks and lifeguards. It’s beside the entrance to Old San Juan and Tercer Milenio Park jogging trail, Avenida Muñoz Rivera. Open 8. 30am to 5pm.
• Ocean Park Beach
A long and delightful stretch of reasonably clean sand lined with parasols, beach chairs, kiosks, bars, small hotel and apartment blocks. Public toilets are a little tricky to find and not as clean as some tourists are used to. Playa Ocean Park is used by all shape and size of locals, old, young, and canine and gets busy at weekends so try to visit during the week. The beach is patrolled by horseback police at the weekend. It is located between Condado and Isla Verde beaches, the listed below.
The adjacent park is also fine and popular with people exercising and kids playing. Sometimes body surfing and windsurfing is possible and if not there are paddle boats.
• Playa Condado
Adjacent to Ocean Park Beach, it’s also long, wide and lined with palm trees and high rise buildings, many of them hotels. It’s a very pleasant stretch of soft beige sand popular with both the the gay and straight communities; gays especially cluster around the Atlantic Hotel. Wind, waves and undertow can be brutal out of high season but in season the sea is placid and turquoise. Parking nearby? Fergeddit!
• Pine Grove Beach
Located in Isla Verde District, Pine Grove is another good chunk of city sand near Old San Juan as well as the international airport, a great beach for swimming. It is a safe, clean stretch lined with hotels, bars, casinos, restaurants, generally uncrowded and cheaper neighbourhood than Condado, probably because Jumbo Jets are landing and taking off just behind your beach towel!
Outside San Juan city
n. b. These rural beaches usually have car parking and charge about $5 a day for it.
• Playa Luquillo (aka Balneario La Monserrate)
30 miles (less than 50km) east of San Juan, Luquillo is a long Blue Flag beach with generally calm waters, backed by shady trees and bushes with plenty of useful kiosks behind the tree line.
It offers all the facilities you could wish for including showers, restrooms, cafés, camping, lifeguards, sun shades and sun lounger and is the best for families.
There are a number of watersports options such as kayaking, snorkeling, jet skis. It’s one hour’s drive east from San Juan, near the entrance to El Yunque forest. Open 8am to 6pm.
• Cabo Rojo
On Puerto Rico’s southwest side is for the best scenery as it has sensational sunsets and several terrific beaches, also along the Cabo has some great snorkelling spots:
• Playa Boqueron
This long soft sand beach lined with palm trees stocks all the usual facilities plus a kids play area, basketball court, lifeguard and accommodation in the shape of cabins for rent. St #101. For the peace and quiet, try some of secluded sandy coves along the stretch between Cabo Rojo and Ponce to the east, such as Las Paldas and La Jungla at Guanica.
• Playa Buyé
More picture postcard panoramas of bleached sand and dazzling seas, good for snorkeling.
• Playuela (Playa Sucia)
Located at the southern tip of Cabo Rojo, Playa Sucia is in a sheltered cove with white sand bordered by cliffs and lighthouse, making it one of the island’s prettiest.
• Crash Boat Beach
Near Aguadilla is a great beach for watersports including snorkeling, windsurfing, kayaking and fishing. It has all the normal facilities but gets very busy at weekends. Far northwest of Puerto Rico island, near Aguadilla, end of Rte 458.
• Seven Seas Beach
Seven Seas in Fajardo offers lots of space, trees, clear Blue Flag waters, soft sand, and all the necessary facilities including lifeguards, security, BBQs and camping zones for $10 per night. Due to its narrow shoreline and the gentle waves here, this beach is an ideal for kids, too. It’s just on the other side of the peninsula from the big ferry port. Open 8. 30am – 5pm. Fajardo St # 987.
• Vega Baja Beach (aka Playa Puerto Nuevo)
This beach offers an unusual natural saltwater pool that works well for kids and non-swimmers. Apart from that the sand is fine and beige and the sea is protected by a breakwater so very calm. Facilities are limited to food kiosks and guards. Maybe! Vega Baja St #686, between San Juan and Arecibo.
Surfers should head to the northwest coast, especially Rincón, the hub of surfing, as well as Isabela and Aguadilla, as the area is Puerto Rico’s best serfing site. Nicknamed as “Caribbean Pipeline”, winter waves can reach up to 6m high. The best beaches for the surf are Pool’s, Sandy Beach, Antonio, Tres Palmas and Domes in Rincón.
The best time to go surfing there is winter months from November to April.
Best Puerto Rico island beaches
Flamenco Beach, Culebra. Photo by Diueine Monteiro.
• Playa Flamenco, Culebra Island
Playa Flamenco, located in a wide sheltered cove surrounded by tropical vegetation on the small, unspoiled island of Culebra, 20 miles east of Puerto Rico main island. It is Bugbog’s choice of Puerto Rico’s Best Beach.
The sand is soft and pinky-white, while the mile-long beach has clean, well-maintained facilities such as showers, bathrooms, and a couple of kiosks behind the tree line selling food, drink, booze and renting umbrellas and sun loungers.
The water is calm and crystal clear in high season and has a very gradual gradient down, with masses of tropical fish enjoying the environment as fishing is prohibited here, though dolphin occasionally visit for lunch.
At each end of the beach are wide reefs that provide a lot of good, though not incredible, snorkeling.
For the best snorkeling, try Playa Tamarindo and Playa Carlos Rosario (though a 20-minute walk from Flamenco), with a barrier reef and a drop-off called ‘the Wall’ off shore in north.
For the best scenery go eastern end of the island to Playa Zoni, offers stunning views of Cayo Norte, Isla Culebrita and even St. Thomas.
Seeking isolation? Try an half-hour hike from the road to Playa Brava, a hidden gem.
About Culebra Island
Culebra is a National Wildlife Refuge – primarily for birds and turtles – so should never see much development. Turtles may be observed at night at certain beaches during late spring/early summer.
Culebra’s little town is half an hour’s walk away and offers a dozen guest houses and small hotels (max. 2*-3*), as well as camping beside the beach.
Happy campers should know that it can get chilly at night and bug spray is something to remember. Hammocks are a blessing, as well as sleeping bags!
Getting around Culebra
• Taxis. The island has a modest and reasonably-priced taxi service charging about $2 per person to get to Flamenco from the airport or ferry dock.
• Rentals. Scooters, cars and jeeps can be rented at the airport. Again, prices are not rapacious.
• Shuttle bus runs from the ferry dock to Flamenco.
How to get to the island?
• Ferry. Ferries to Culebra come and go, literally and metaphorically, as services rise and fall with regularity, so no guarantees these will be working when you arrive in Puerto Rico! Anyway, the last time we looked ferries left for Culebra from Fajardo (Puerto Rico island) at 6. 30am, 1pm and 5 pm daily, at least. Return trips at 9am, 3pm, 7pm daily, at least. Return price about $5. The journey is 20 miles and takes about 90 minutes. Beware those who get sea sick.
Fajardo ferry port is a 90 minute drive (an expensive taxi ride, possibly $100) from San Juan main airport, Luis Muñoz Marin, in heavy traffic. Backpackers may wish to take a colectivo public taxi, but this may take some time to find and even longer to get to the port .
Finally, at busy times the ferry tickets may be in great demand very difficult to buy with people lining up for tickets in the middle of the night! To be sure of getting to Culebra in high season take a flight .
• Fly from Luis Muñoz Marin airport or little Ceiba airport for around $60 one way, taking 30 minutes. Also flights from Fajardo, Vieques island or St Thomas island.
Sun Bay, Vieques Island
Playa Esperanza, Vieques. Photo by Katja Nemcok.
Sun Bay is one of the island’s best beaches, a mile-long strip of soft, creamy sands and turquoise waters backed by green palm trees. Balneario Sun Bay has good facilities such as restrooms, showers, café, lifeguard, parasols and camping. Open Wed-Sat and holidays 8. 30am – 5pm. It’s at St #997 very near Esperanza town on the south coast of Vieques.
Other recommended beaches in Vieques are:
• Orchid Beach (Playa La Plata) and Caracas Beach both inside Vieques Wildlife Refuge, accessible by boat or car via Ensenada Honda bay. Excellent snorkeling.
• Blue Beach (La Chiva), never crowded, long, calm and beautifully blue. . .
• Secred Beach, remote, small but pretty.
• Media Luna, remote, shallow water.
• Navio (photo below), a good for boads, rough road to get there but worth a trip.
• Green Beach (the west coast), a bit of hike, secluded, offers good snorkeling.
About Vieques Island
Isla de Vieques, also known as Isla Nena, has some quite compelling reasons to visit and one debatable reason not to visit.
At just 21 miles (34 kms) long and 4 miles (6kms) wide, Vieques is the epitome of an unspoiled, rural Caribbean island and is easily accessible from Puerto Rico’s main island as it’s just 8 miles to the east and ferries run there regularly. The popular tourist base is Esperanza town on the southern Caribbean side, while the bigger town, Isabel Segunda (Isabel II) is on the north coast near the port and airport.
Playa Navio, Vieques. Photo by Jaro Nemcok.
Things to Do on Vieques Island
Activities on Vieques are mostly about beach-hopping by bike or rental car around 40 gloriously simple, empty, beaches (the best are on the Caribbean coast), though don’t leave valuables around or in your rental vehicle as there are some light-fingered locals who believe in sharing the wealth. Specifically your wealth. Taxis won’t do remote beaches.
The number one thing to do on Vieques is night cruising bioluminescent bay, less romantically known as Mosquito Bay. The waters of the bay play host to micro-organisms called dinoflagellates that glow to scare off predators and on a dark night with silent transport – such as kayaks – these make for a magical and absorbing marine light show.
Tours of the bay in electric boats or kayaks are best on moonless nights. In fact it’s hardly worth going on nights with a decent moon and clouds make little difference. Tourists should not use bug sprays during the bioloony trip because it poisons the dinoflagellates. Or at least don’t use a DEET based spray and don’t immerse any spray-treated body part in the water.
Otherwise snorkeling and scuba tours are a popular attraction (Blue Beach snorkeling is recommended), as is camping, and all the necessities (including mountain bikes), can be rented.
Why you shouldn’t visit Vieques!
Apart from the fact that getting there is a bit of a pain and facilities and activities once there are very limited, there is a long-standing issue with US Navy weapons testing that left toxic waste on the island and in surrounding waters – nuclear waste originally and depleted uranium via bomb testing until 202.
Although various inquests by America’s EPA and ATSDR have found no evidence to support toxic substances claims and no danger to public health there are question marks about the validity of the findings, especially since thousands of tons of irradiated steel off a nuclear test target ship found in a shallow local bay has mysteriously disappeared and Vieques cancer rate is 31% greater than Puerto Rico’s main island.
A Puerto Rican environmental group reports that a study of the flora and fauna of Vieques ‘clearly demonstrates sequestration of high levels of toxic elements in plant and animal tissue samples’ and that ‘the ecological food web of the Vieques Island has been adversely impacted. ‘ The US Navy left the island in 2003 after extensive protests. More from Wikipedia
That being said, this kind of toxic waste, wherever or whatever it is, should not be a problem for short-term visitors, though personally, even after a lifetime of risk-taking, I wouldn’t go there with young kids or a pregnant wife.
A Short History of Puerto Rico
Columbus landed here in 1493, on his second voyage across the Atlantic a year after landing in Dominican Republic. The Taino people had been living in PR for several thousand years, but were forced into slavery and died off rapidly due to poor living conditions and exposure to European diseases. The survivors were freed in 1520 and Puerto Rico remained a Spanish colony for hundreds of years in spite of assaults from French, Dutch and British naval forces.
PR became United States territory in 1898 by treaty at the end of the Spanish-American War. The short war, triggered by Spanish atrocities in Cuba, resulted in the beginning of the end of the Spanish empire and the foundation of American colonial power.
Puerto Ricans became US citizens in 1917 but cannot vote in US presidential elections. In 2012 referendums on the country’s political future indicated a popular desire to become the 51st state of the United States of America.
La Fortaleza, San Juan. Photo by Jano Tazky.
The best time to visit is December-April, like most of the Caribbean islands, when the weather is calm and dry, with some showers, low humidity and mosquito-count. But this is the high season so prices are also high. Try November, May-June for special hotel deals and pretty good weather conditions. The north coast gets considerably more rain than the south coast.
The worst time is late August-October when humidity and mosquito-count is high, severe storms or even hurricanes are possible; heavy rain is probable September-October, seas will be rough, water visibility poor and beaches strewn with debris.
Temperatures year round don’t change much along the coastal areas, ranging from 70F (21C)-90F (32C) and averaging about 80F (26C), but in the mountains it’s naturally cooler and wetter.
Local currency is the US dollar, sometimes known as the dolar or peso.
ATMs are called ATHs in PR, derived from ‘a todos hores‘; they are convenient and safe to use though a few banks charge an outrageous ‘international’ withdrawal fee, so look out for that. Beware of remote ATHs at the weekend when they may run out of money.
Credit cards are accepted, even necessary for some activities such as car or waterbike rental. Visa and Mastercards are favoured. Carrying small amounts of cash is worthwhile for remote services and tips.
Tip 15-20% for most services unless it deserves complaint. Fast food nothing, baggage $1 per bag, hotel housekeeping, leave a couple of dollars per night when you check out, but not necessarily in budget hotels.
Puerto Rico has three international airports. Luis Muñoz Marin (SJU) in Carolina, near San Juan, is the largest airport in the Caribbean. Mercedita in Ponce; Rafael Hernández in Aguadilla, as well as 27 domestic airports.
Flights from the USA are frequent and take 2-4 hours from south and east coasts, 7 hours from the west coast, 4 hours from Toronto (Canada), 12 hours from London (England), and 7-12 hours from other European cities. Avoid jet lag and DVT
Ferries Huge, well-provided car ferries head for the Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo) daily from Mayaguez, taking about 12 hours.
Travelers coming from the USA can travel to PR like visiting any city in the US, just carrying some form of ID. There is no passport control or customs inspection.
However, those entering PR from outside the USA should treat visa requirements exactly as if it is USA. There will be immigration and customs control.
Urban transport in PR is remarkably sophisticated compared to other Caribbean countries, with an efficient public bus system and even a subway system in San Juan called Tren Urbano.
All around the island are ports and from some of them ferries run to other islands of the PR archipelago.
The bad news is that outside the cities there’s little in the way of public transport except shared taxis (colectivos/taxis públicos, with yellow license plates) since the USA exported its love of automobiles, highways, freeways and traffic jams to this little country; it’s easy enough to hire a car but not easy to find a cheap taxi.
Puerto Rico has a high crime rate but violent crime is mostly confined to shanty towns and public housing complexes, not tourist areas which are intensively patrolled by police. However, thievery does occur in tourist zones so take the usual precautions of not leaving bags visible in locked cars or unattended on the beach.
This being effectively the USA tap water is generally fine to drink and diseases generally are much less of a problem than on other Caribean islands. Medical facilities are excellent but expensive and favourite US stores easy to find.