Enjoying pristine beaches and mystical lush mountains aren’t the only options for tourists visiting Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is an island of surprises.
Visitors are often amazed to find exceptional food, well-crafted cocktails, and an island filled with a rich history and vibrant culture. Tucked away from the coast, in the middle of the island, is la Cordillera Central (Central Mountains), an ideal region for coffee plantations. You get an opportunity to have the freshest coffee, literally, a farm to cup experience.
You’re missing out if you’re going to Puerto Rico just for the beaches. Trippy user Fritzi from San Francisco knew that. Before her two-week vacation in Puerto Rico, she posted this question:
I am planning to take my husband and daughter on a family Easter break vacation for two weeks to Puerto Rico. I would love to be at an affordable beach property (budget, not all-inclusive or too isolated). We want to photograph the old architecture, see the bioluminescent caves, and explore the island. Any suggestions would be most welcome, especially if we could afford to stay on the beach. We plan to rent a car, but we will also consider a guide for a day or two. I don’t want a super fancy resort, just something modest, but with beach access, a pool, and not too far away from the main attractions. I have studied Mexico destinations and observed that most resorts there are isolated from the people, and that does not appeal to me; I want to be able to easily access the town.
Regions in Puerto Rico
Visiting Old San Juan is a must when vacationing in Puerto Rico. That’s where you’ll discover the 500-year-old Puerto Rican history, see the colorful colonial buildings, walk on cobblestone streets, and have delicious meals.
After spending a few days in San Juan, you can venture out to other parts of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico is divided into seven regions:
- North Coast
- Metro (San Juan)
- East Coast (and El Yunque)
- South Coast (Ponce)
- West Coast
- Central Mountains
- Culebra & Vieques
Puerto Rico is the same size as the Big Island (Hawaii), so it’s small enough to stay in one spot and take day trips from there with your rental car. It only takes about 2.5-3 hours to drive from one end of the island to the other.
Puerto Rico is not the same as Mexico or some of the other Caribbean islands – it’s not particularly known for its beaches, so there are few all-inclusive resorts that are “isolated from the people.” It’s very easy to stay in a nice place and be able to easily access the culture.
Here’s how you can spend two weeks in Puerto Rico:
1. San Juan
Old San Juan is absolutely beautiful. Lots of history and old buildings. Great view of the ocean too!
There are over 400 restored buildings in Old San Juan from the Spanish colonial times, from the 16th and 17th centuries. History and architecture enthusiasts will find Old San Juan’s cobblestone streets lined with old Spanish colonial buildings intriguing. Check out the following sights:
- San Juan Gate
- San Juan Cathedral
- City Wall
- Hotel El Convento (was a Carmelite Convent built in 1651. Known as the Monastery of Our Lady Carmen of San Jose)
- Plaza de Armas
- Christ Chapel and La Rogativa
- Paseo de la Princesa
- Calle de la Fortaleza (shopping street)
Spend time exploring El Morro or Castillo de San Felipe del Morro. It’s a six-level fort built by the Spanish in the late 1400s to protect San Juan Harbor. You can also visit Casa Bacardi distillery to learn about rum and enjoy rum tasting.
Trippy user Gary recommended Carli’s Fine Bistro & Piano in San Juan. He said:
It’s a jazz club owned by Carli Munoz, who used to play keyboard for the Beach Boys in the ’70s.
Where to stay in San Juan
Where you stay is important when visiting a place. Eric from Tampa wrote:
You might actually be better served by splitting the trip into two parts – one week in old San Juan, and one week elsewhere. Puerto Rico is more or less 125 miles by 40 miles, so it covers a lot of areas, but with not a lot of population. So most resorts aren’t actually that isolate from the small towns.
1. Caribe Hilton in San Juan
Janelle recommended staying Caribe Hilton when in San Juan. She said:
I’d recommend staying in San Juan as it’s only about 45 minutes from the marina with the boats going to Bioluminescent Bay, and it’s the hub of the island in every respect. I’d recommend the Caribe Hilton – it’s the nicest place in town in my opinion, but there are good deals to be had if you book in advance. The beach is meh, but the pool is decent, and it’s located just a 15-20 min walk away from Old San Juan, where the best Spanish architecture is. And for your day trips elsewhere on the island, it’s located close to PR’s main highway. If you want something a bit more quaint and rural, then I’d recommend staying in Rincon (Puerto Rico) on the west side of the island.
2. Hotel El Convento
You can often find a deal for the five-star Hotel El Convento during the off-season. This historic hotel is a tourist attraction, and I recommend it because of its location, history, and super-friendly service. It’s located steps from San Juan Gate and the cathedral.
3. La Concha Renaissance
For a beach vibe, stay at La Concha Renaissance, a beachfront resort in Condado district, located just 15 minutes from Old San Juan.
4. Apartments in Ocean Park
Suzanne, a Puerto Rican, suggested staying like a local in an apartment. She said:
I am Puerto Rican, and I would love to help with your questions. Areas you can check to rent a beach property is the area of Ocean Park (in San Juan). I suggest Ocean Park as is in the capital and you´ll be easy access to visit Old San Juan and all the capital attractions. But If I can suggest something better, it is better if you rent different places to stay during your trip.
You can check out apartments via booking.com and Airbnb.com.
2. El Yunque National Forest
While in San Juan, you can take a day trip to El Yunque National Forest. Located on the east coast, El Yunque is the only subtropical rainforest in the U.S. There are waterfalls, hiking trails, viewpoints, and places where you can join extreme canyoneering.
Trippy users Jessica, Gary, and Evan highly recommended a day trip there. They wrote:
City wise you should go to Old San Juan. Spend a day or two there. Definitely go to El Yunque National Forest and go for a hike and enjoy the waterfalls.
The El Yunque National Forest is also home to the biggest rainforest in the US.
During a recent trip to Puerto Rico, my wife and I left with the highlight being El Yunque National Forest. It’s definitely a spot for nature lovers, AND you might even get to swim in a waterfall. Yeah, it was awesome. I also cannot say enough great things about our tour guide, Robert, with Sunset Tours. Seriously, look at his reviews on TripAdvisor! It’s basically a semi-private tour from a local who knows his stuff. When we go back to Puerto Rico, Robert is the first guy I’m going to call. After the tour, we at lunch at the Luquillo Kiosks and then hung out at Luquillo Beach.
Luquillo Beach is one of the best places to sample local food and freshly caught fish.
Fajardo is the gateway to Vieques and Culebra Islands. It’s also where you can spend a day exploring the beaches and eat local food. When night falls, join a kayaking tour on Bioluminescent Bay. Puerto Rico has three places, including one in Fajardo, where you can see the fluorescent single-cell organisms at night.
You can take a day tour to Fajardo, or stay a night in one of the hotels in Fajardo as suggested by Eric from Tampa:
There are 3 separate bioluminescent bays (plus quite a few non-bioluminescent caves). You’ve got Vieques, which is the brightest of the 3, but as you can see on the map is remote. For visiting there, you have to spend the night at a hotel on the tiny island, as the ferry back and forth to the mainland stops at 8 pm. Then there’s Fajardo where for around $75 a person, you can do a kayak trip to the bay. But in some ways, the best (and the worst) is La Parguera. It’s in the middle of roughly nowhere; you’ll find a lot less English speakers than elsewhere on the island but… for $8 each you can go out on a small boat and actually swim in the water, or for the $75 a person you’d pay in Fajardo you can if you book enough in advance do a snorkeling trip that includes food. It’s a good 3 hour + drives from old San Juan, though. There are several hotels and cozy inn type places in Fajardo, but it is far from most everything else.
Trippy user Lynn suggested a visit to Culebra Island and Vieques when in Fajardo:
If you have time to take a small plane or boat over to Culebra Island and Vieques, they are worth the trip. I highly recommend a night-time excursion on the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay on Vieques, if you have a clear, dark night (no moon). If you can’t get there, Fajardo has a bioluminescent lagoon for a lovely nighttime kayak trip.
Known as the best-kept secret places in Puerto Rico, Vieques and Culebra islands are just a short boat ride from the mainland. It’s home to top Puerto Rican beaches and the bioluminescent bay. Spend a week at the beaches in Vieques and Culebra, away from the crowd like Trippy users Melanie, Alyra, and Janet. They wrote:
Melanie from Oregon:
I have traveled to Vieques and absolutely loved it! I stayed at a little hotel called The Birdsnest Inn, and it was delightful. The beaches are amazing and much less crowded than those on the main island. I highly recommend doing the Bio-Bay tour (bioluminescent bay) where you will kayak at night out into a bay filled with microscopic critters than glow neon green with any movement. Its an experience not to be missed. Not sure if he is still guiding, but ask for Abraham…he looks like a pirate, so you’ll know it’s him! I’m happy to answer other questions if you have them.
Alyra from Puerto Rico has visited Vieques quite often as her dad lives there part-time:
I live in Puerto Rico, and my dad lives in Vieques part of the year. There are many beautiful beaches in Vieques! But our favorites are the ones that are secluded like Secret Beach or Pata Prieta Beach, Caracas (Red Beach), Sun Bay Beach (horno), Media Luna, and Navio Beach. You can also try Tin Box (a new place for relaxing hangout & eating), Duffy’s for eating, and Lazy Jack’s for a good time, and they have a few things to eat, all this at La Esperanza. I always recommend Casa de Tortuga to stay on your visit to Vieques.
Janet has been to Puerto Rico four times:
Culebra is one of my favorite places to visit there. You can get there by small plane or ferry and then rent a golf cart to run around the island and swim with the turtles. If you want to see clear water, you will have to venture out to one of the islands mentioned above or take a snorkeling trip. That is probably the biggest shocker to friends and family when they come to visit. Two of our favorite excursions are ATV through the foothills of the rain forest and taking a small rubber boat over to some of the islands snorkeling. Enjoy!! Have a great adventure.
Where to stay in Vieques and Culebra
This family-friendly hotel has 17 rooms and is just minutes from the beaches.
Hix Island House
If your daily routine includes a massage and yoga, you must check out the Hix Island House. It is eco-friendly and has a 13-acre of natural land. The lofts have outdoor showers and offer views of the Caribbean Sea.
Rincon is on the West Coast of Puerto Rico. It’s the place for the most beautiful sunsets in Puerto Rico. It’s where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. There are so many exciting activities to experience in Rincon, including surfing, snorkeling, paddle boarding, fishing, mountain biking, and, of course, relaxing at the beach.
Jessica suggested all her favorite places in Puerto Rico, including Rincon. She wrote:
You should go to El Farro in Rincón (Puerto Rico). La Parguera in Lajas. Bar hopping in Mayaguez. Crashboat Beach in Aguadilla. There’s a lot to do in Ponce. You should take a ferry to Culebra, Vieques, Gilligans Island, and Caja de Muertos Natural Reserve. Those are my favorite little islands. You should enjoy the nightlife in San Juan, especially in Viejo San Juan. There are tons to do. I can keep on going.
Eric was suggesting spending a week in San Juan and a week either in Rincon or Aguadilla. He suggested:
So spending a week in San Juan at say the Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel & Casino(around $125 a night) and then spending a separate week in Aguadilla or Rincón (Puerto Rico) might suit you better. It will make it so that you’ll have a good central spot for each week to visit a lot of the island without spending hours driving daily. And trust me, the traffic can be horrendous. I haven’t stayed anywhere in Rincon, but the Casa Verde Hotel at least has very nice food + friendly staff at their Saltaire restaurant, which was named the best place to eat in western Puerto Rico 3 years in a row. Those are awesome beaches and put you in a spot that is better for exploring the western half of the island.
Where to stay
Janelle also recommended Casa Verde Hotel. She said:
The Casa Verde Hotel and Rincon Beach Resort are nice places with beaches as good as you’ll find in PR, and again there are deals to be had.
6. La Cordillera Central
Coffee lovers should visit the coffee farms along La Ruta Panoramica in La Cordillera (Central Mountains). Visit Hacienda San Pedro, located close to Jayuga, at an elevation of 2,000 feet. This over 200-acre coffee farm was started by Emeterio Atienza at the end of the 19th century.
Visit the plantation and the small museum, learn the history of coffee in Puerto Rico, discover the process of producing coffee, and drink the best coffee while you’re in Puerto Rico.