Candy hues in Old San Juan

Puerto Rico offers a little bit of everything for travelers: vibrant cities with beautifully preserved historic districts, gorgeous off-the-radar beaches, and a rich Afro-Caribbean-Creole culture. As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is not only easy for U.S. citizens to visit, but it’s also filled with (sometimes jarring) reminders of life back home – Popeye’s Fried Chicken, anyone?

We spent 14 days in Puerto Rico in early May, a visit that was part city explorations, part road trip, and generous servings of relaxing beach time and island adventures. We started our journey in Old San Juan and then traveled along the northern, eastern, and southern coasts to the historic cities of Rincón and Ponce. From Ponce, we drove back to the regional airport near San Juan and caught a puddle-jump flight to the island of Vieques. From Vieques, we took the ferry back to the “main island” and then another ferry to the nearby island of Culebra.

Here are our trip highlights, with plenty of tips for Puerto Rico travelers. (Usual note: Photos are in galleries – just click through to see bigger versions.)

Old San Juan

Founded by Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521, the capital city of San Juan became Spain’s most important stopover port for conquering the “New World.” Over the next three centuries, the Spanish fortified the city heavily to fend off repeated attacks by the English (including Sir Frances Drake in 1595) and the Dutch. San Juan finally became a U.S. territory in 1898 with Spain’s defeat in the Spanish-American War.

Today, visitors flock to Old San Juan to gaze upon the beautifully preserved colonial architecture, enjoy the fantastic restaurants and nightlife, and stand in awe of the massive stone fortifications – now designated National Parks.

Tips: The Old San Juan Free Walking Tour was well worth the time. And be aware that San Juan is a huge destination for cruise ships, so be prepared for crowds when the ships are in. Things calm down a lot when they steam out of town in the late afternoon.

El Yunque National Forest

Sited about an hour’s drive out of San Juan, El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. national forest system. We spent a day hiking there, a refreshing break from the heat and bustle of Old San Juan. Although we were caught in a huge rainstorm that socked in our view from atop El Yunque Peak,  we really enjoyed our dose of nature.

Tips: You need a reservation to visit El Yunque, available here.  We were able to use our Lifetime Senior Passes issued by the National Park Service to enter El Yunque, as well as the Castillo in Old San Juan. More info here. The Rainforest Cafe inside El Yunque is a nice lunch stop.

The Northern Beaches to Rincón

After four days in San Juan, we drove our rental car west along Puerto Rico’s northern border – stopping to explore the string of pretty beaches along the way. In the late afternoon, we reached the popular beach and surfing town of Rincón, where we spent another four nights.

South and Around to Ponce

From Rincón, we spent another leisurely day driving down and around Puerto Rico’s southwestern corner to the colonial city of Ponce. Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, Ponce is named for Juan Ponce de León y Loayza, the great-grandson of Juan Ponce de León. The city is filled with gorgeous old colonial and post-colonial buildings in various states of repair. Like all of Puerto Rico, Ponce is still struggling to come back from the triple-whammy curse of Covid, the devastating 2020 earthquake, and the disastrous Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Vieques and Culebra

Puerto Rico’s two most-visited nearby islands, Vieques and Culebra, are infamous for one sad reason: They were both used as bombing ranges by the U.S. Navy for many decades. After years of activism and protests by the locals, the Navy pulled out of Culebra in the 1970s – but Navy operations didn’t cease on Vieques until 2003. Today, both islands offer gorgeous beaches, friendly folks, and a laid-back vibe.

Vieques’ Bioluminescent Bay

Mosquito Bay on Vieques deserves its own call-out because it’s spectacular; in fact, it’s easily one of our most memorable travel experiences in recent years. By day Mosquito Bay is nothing special, but at night it comes alive with the glow of countless tiny light-emitting dinoflagellates. These little guys have made Mosquito Bay famous as the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay, dimmed only temporarily by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

The best way to experience Mosquito Bay is with an organized nighttime kayaking tour (we highly recommend the tour outfit we chose, Blackbeard Sports). And try to time your tour with the new moon to make sure conditions are as dark as possible. We got extra lucky with a cloudless night, which complemented the glowing waters with a spectacular display of stars and the Milky Way. It was truly unforgettable.

As the tour guides told us, trying to photograph the bioluminescence is pretty much a waste of time unless you have really sophisticated camera gear. We were too busy paddling our kayak and taking in the wonder of it all to even try. But this video does a great job of capturing the magic:

Other Tips

Getting Around
For our first couple of days in San Juan, we relied on Uber (it’s excellent there). For El Yunque and our trip around the western coast to Ponce, we rented a car from Enterprise and were very pleased with the car and the service. From Ponce, we drove the car back, straight up through the middle of the island, to the San Juan airport. Then we hopped a tiny plane to Vieques, operated by Vieques Air Link. (Note: Another option is to take an Uber or taxi to the ferry terminal and ferry over, but the cost is prohibitive – over $100 one way just for the ground transfer.)

Our Vieques Air flight

On Vieques, we rented a golf cart, which was not ideal given the hills and the longer distances we wanted to cover. A car or jeep would have been a better choice. There are plenty of options for all three on the island.

Getting from Vieques to Culebra was a little complicated, considering the islands are only 15 miles apart. There’s no longer a ferry service directly connecting the islands, so we had to take a ferry from Vieques to the “main island” and then another one over to Culebra. It was almost a full day of travel, but inexpensive. NOTE: the ferry can book up, so your best bet is to purchase tickets online in advance here.

On Culebra, we rented an almost-new Jeep from Carlos Jeep Rental, a first-class operation. We can’t recommend them enough!

Finally, we hopped an even tinier Cape Air flight from Culebra to the San Juan airport for our flight home.

Eating Out

The scene at Bacaro

In Old San Juan, Bacaro serves up beautifully imagined Italian food in an atmosphere that’s best described as “1920s Paris meets 1940s Havana.” But make a reservation; Bacaro is always booked up! We also enjoyed tapas, cocktails, and our balcony view of the street scene below at The Mezzanine, just two doors down from our Airbnb.

In Rincón, check out Bakku Japanese Eatery for yummy and creative sushi, The English Rose for a sumptuous breakfast and a panoramic view, and Taqueria Vatos Locos for decent Mexican food and live mariachi music. Make a stop into Tinto wine shop and chat up the friendly owner.

In Ponce, our favorite dining experience was at Mesa, an elegant restaurant with an eclectic menu and huge wine selection.

On Vieques, we had a great lunch and enjoyed chatting up the friendly bartenders at Duffy’s. Casa Nativo is another nice lunch stop. And check out The Rising Roost for a fantastic breakfast and friendly kitties.

One of the friendly kitties at Rising Roost

On Culebra, we had a great seafood lunch (and got back in touch with our sailing roots) at The Dinghy Dock. Also, you can pick up a pizza from La Jibera, made to order by two enterprising young guys just outside the ferry landing. Then take it across the street to the Sandbar and enjoy a mojito or two, while chatting with the friendly bartenders there. (This was a great solution for our first night there, when all the other restaurants were closed.)

Lodging
Of our five different accommodations in Puerto Rico, there’s only two we can recommend wholeheartedly. First is the beautiful Airbnb where we stayed in heart of Old San Juan. Located in a former colonial mansion, this one-bedroom apartment oozes with atmosphere, and it’s priced very reasonably. Second is Ulala, a small apartment complex on Culebra that feels almost brand-new with high-quality furnishings and a panoramic view from the patio. (Note: Most accommodations in Puerto Rico do not include breakfast, so having a full kitchen to make our own was a saving grace in both of these properties.)

Final Thoughts

Puerto Rico was expensive! Surprisingly so. That said, we enjoyed our trip there, but it left us with mixed feelings. This island has endured so much over the past decades: a devastating U.S. military presence (toxic cleanup is still ongoing on Vieques), corrupt and inefficient government, and the triple disasters of Covid, 2020 earthquake, and Hurricane Maria. We got the sense that Puerto Rico is struggling for identity, with its unique culture under threat (at times we felt like we could have been in any urbanized U.S. setting, with all the strip malls and fast food chains). That’s borne out by the numbers – at latest count, Puerto Ricans were essentially split 50-50 on the question of becoming a U.S. state or remaining a territory, with only 10% in favor of complete independence. Whatever happens, we wish Puerto Ricans all the best and hope that any decisions will help the island be better prepared for the future.

Next: The Magical Island of Dominica 

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29 Comments

  1. You guys have just inspired my wanderlust! I’ve been kicking around a trip to Puerto Rico and now I’m sold. We spend most of our travel time visiting US national parks – trying to visit all of them – but I think we would love Puerto Rico. Thank you for sharing this wonderful place. I will be saving your post for future reference.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Oh, great!! We look forward to reading about your adventures in Puerto Rico 🙂 I know you’ll have a great time there.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, dear friend! 🙂

  2. Your photos are amazing and your post brings back memories of our sailing life, of course. You had great weather by the looks of it. Ponce is remembered for their rule about our dogs needing muzzles when ashore, so we left again!

    We never made it to Vieques, unfortunately, but Luperon Bay in the Dominican Republic, where we spent five months holed up over hurricane season one year has amazing bioluminescence as well. So cool!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Liesbet! We would have loved to cruise to some of the places you visited on your sailboat. Dominica is our latest. 🙂 Ponce wasn’t our favorite place, but for different reasons. The bio bay made us think of all the times in Mexico and Central America when we could just jump off the stern of our boat at anchor at night, wave our hands around, and see sparks flying off them. Sooo amazing!

  3. Wow – you made Puerto Rico look gorgeous through your stunning photos at every stop! Steven and I have long wanted to visit and had hoped to do so back in 2021 but obviously our plans were scuttled. There are so many places, the colorful steps, the vibrant architecture, that make me want to hop on a plane now and discover what you did.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Annie! Hope you can visit Puerto Rico soon. It’s really special!

  4. This sounds like a complete trip! Old San Juan, a tropical rainforest, pretty beaches, an island getaway, and what seems to be one of the coolest things one can do: seeing bioluminescence up close. When the kayak glides over the water with the neon blue light around it, this scene reminds me of the movie Avatar. So cool!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Avatar, yes!! Good analogy. It was so tranquil and beautiful. Thanks, Bama – yes, Puerto Rico really does offer a little of everything!

  5. Everything is so pristine and colorful here! Although I’m American, I’ve never been to Puerto Rico. Which is a real shame, because it’s a great way to get that tropical island life without technically going outside of the US! Then again, I’m on the West Coast (and there’s always Hawaii), but one of these days, I’ll have to make it over for some fun!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Rebecca! Hope you can visit PR someday. We also loved visiting Hawaii when we lived in California. Hope we can get back there someday.

  6. What a beautiful post John and Susan! I couldn’t wait to read all about your travels to Puerto Rico 😊
    Your pictures are beautiful, I noticed you were able to get a picture of the Old Cemetery outside the Castillo (El Morro), I love the views there from La Perla!
    All of the things you mentioned about Puerto Rico struggling to come back from COVID-19, the 2020 earthquake, and Hurricane Maria were right on point. It will be a while before Puerto Rico fully recovers from all of this.
    I liked all the restaurants suggestions you made; I need to check them out next time I visit Puerto Rico. I also want to visit Vieques and Culebra, those are two places in Puerto Rico I still haven’t visited!
    I’m so glad you were able to experience Puerto Rico, I’m sure you were left with a lot of mixed feelings just like I was and it is my hope that whatever Puerto Ricans decide; become independent, a state or remain a territory, that it will benefit Puerto Ricans currently living in the island.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Liz. Sounds like you know San Juan and PR well. Vieques and Culebra are well worth a visit, even if only for a couple of days each. And we totally agree – the island really seems at a crossroads, and we can’t help but think becoming a state isn’t in their best interest. Time will tell, I guess.

  7. Puerto Rico has long been on our list of places we want to visit and this is a fantastic guide to it. I’m sending this to my hubby- hopefully this will be the year that we go visit this beautiful place 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hope you two can visit PR soon! It really is a spectacular place, and pretty easy to get to from North America.

  8. Byron Edgington Reply

    Amazing trip & pix, you two. Okay, I guess we add PR to our list. Beautiful, thanks for sharing.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, By! It’s super easy to get to from Florida. Hugs to you both! 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Henry! Hope you’re well. 🙂

  9. A very interesting place with an obviously mixed history, particularly recently. I actually didn’t know much about Puerto Rico until I read this post, it sounds a varied and absorbing place.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, you two. Puerto Rico has certainly had its challenges lately. Seems like the people are really struggling to figure out what they want to be – a U.S. state, an independent nation, or the thing in between that they are now. Governments have done them no favors lately (image of Pres. Trump throwing paper towels at people, just after Hurricane Maria, comes to mind). I hope that whatever they choose will help raise everyone up and make them better prepared for future disasters (which will come).

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks for your comment! Puerto Rico really is an amazing destination.

  10. Despite your misgivings it sounds like you enjoyed your time there, and found plenty to do and see. The beaches and colonial towns look wonderful, and I think I’d go if only for the bioluminescence. That sounds magical!.
    Alison

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Alison! That bio bay truly was magical. I don’t know when a recent experience has moved me as much as that one did. It really was the highlight of the trip. Hope you and Don are well!

      • We are thanks. Adjusting to the new normal with Don, but he improves every day, so day to day life is much the same as before, for which we’re both so grateful.
        Hope you guys are well too.
        A.

  11. I’d love to visit Puerto Rico but it hasn’t made its way to the top because as you said its expensive and also for us we lose on the Canadian dollar. It’s still on the list though and the dinoflagellates kayak story may have moved it up a bit 😊 Maggie

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Hi Maggie! The bio bay was worth the trip to Vieques. Hope you can visit PR someday!
      – Susan

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