People often ask me where to go for someplace “a little different”. After asking a couple of qualifying questions, I usually say, “Puerto Rico!” Inevitably they respond, “I never would have thought of that!” Upon their return, also inevitably, they tell me it’s the best vacation they ever had.
Since Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the US, they use the US dollar, speak English (not their first language) and they don’t require a passport for entry. So it is an easy trip to experience the Caribbean without needing a passport. Plus, Puerto Rico not only has great beaches it is great for adventures. For me, adventure doesn’t mean bungee jumping or parasailing. Adventure is seeking new experiences and having stories and memories to share that are unique to the place we’re visiting. For that reason, we’re not likely to be found on a tour bus or at Margaritaville. We’re more likely to be found mixing it up with locals at a public park or beach, eating from roadside stands or tooling around in our rental car. And Puerto Rico is THE place to do all of those things!
Here’s my list of the best Puerto Rico day trips, all within easy reach of San Juan.
Old San Juan
Also known as “La Ciudad Amurallada”, the walled city, because of its original purpose as a military stronghold, San Juan is the oldest city under the US flag and one of the oldest cities in the Americas. Fittingly, it is comprised of hundreds of beautifully maintained and restored Spanish colonial buildings along mostly blue cobblestone streets. Exploring by foot is best, given the steep and winding streets that lead you, often unknowingly, to treasure after treasure. We loved stumbling upon the many plazas, lined with statues, street artists and fun cafes, and parks, like the Parque de Palomas, with a breathtaking view of the harbor and city, and exploring the forts.
El Morro is an absolute maze of hundreds year old tunnels and ramps with dozens of rooms that were used as barracks, holding cells and lookouts. We stuffed ourselves by stopping at the buses that have been converted into rolling kitchens for arroz y habichuela (rice and beans) and homemade helados (ice cream).
Puerto Rico is home to the El Yunque rain forest, which is the only rain forest on US soil. It’s an easy 45 minute day trip from San Juan into the mountains and once there you can hike or horseback to see hundreds of tree, flower, bird and mammal species, including many endangered species and species that are found no where else on the planet. Definitely expect a wet day. Not only can you splash and swim in clear, cold rivers and waterfalls, but 100 billion gallons of rain falls annually in El Yunque. Yes, a billion – with a “b”. Heading back for the day, stop at any one of a number of roadside food stands where you can buy cold, local Medalla beer for a dollar and meat pies, fish tacos and pinchos (meat or fish kabobs) that have been grilled over 50 gallon drums. We ate this way almost every day (it was actually the highlight of the trip for my son Nathan) and none of us got sick even once.
The island of Culebra is accessible by ferry either from San Juan or from Fajardo on the east coast of the island. We chose to drive to Fajardo, because it allowed us to see the north coast of Puerto Rico with a stop at the amazing Luquillo Beach for a swim and snack. From Fajardo, we took a car Ferry to Culebra and drove a few miles to the spectacular Flamenco Beach. Flamenco Beach is consistently ranked among the world’s most beautiful beaches by all of the well-known travel publications. Sometimes is packed with locals, but often you can almost have the entire beach and bay to yourself for safe snorkeling, boogie boarding and sun worshipping. You can eat at one of several restaurants in Culebra’s main town of Dewey, or you can pack a lunch or, yes, you guessed it, you can choose from several food stands and shacks that open at about 10 in the morning and stay until the people are all gone for the day. One lady sells some of the most amazing fresh fruit smoothies I’ve ever had!
Heading along the north shore from San Juan and along the west coast for a short time, you will bump into a town called Rincon, which is also known as Pueblo del Surfing – need I translate? The beaches near Rincon during the winter are a great place to watch some really good surfers practice their skills. It also boasts stunning sunsets and humpback whale watching during whale migration season. We’re planning to trip back in the near future solely to learn to surf and have decided to make our home base the very charming Lazy Parrot Inn, located just a few miles from the most popular beaches in the area.
In addition to these day trips that we enjoyed, there are several other Puerto Rico must sees that we simply didn’t have time for…this trip. The highlights include the Arecibo Observatory, which is home to one of the world’s most powerful & largest radar-radio telescopes, the Rio Camuy Cave Park, the world’s 3rd largest cave system, and Cabo Rojo, home to the spectacular Cabo Rojo Lighthouse, the Bay of Boquerón, including a phosphorescent bay and the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge, for nature lovers and bird watchers.
-Susan from Delta Vacations