Puerto Rico is a corner of America that too often goes unsung. Old San Juan’s cobbled lanes and brightly colored houses, forts, and churches offer a glimpse into the El Carib colonial past of the island. Beyond the cities and towns, lush rainforests, craggy mountains, and white sand beaches abound. You can hike to waterfalls, dive reefs, zip line through forest canopies, or just savor a little rum while bobbing in the ocean.
Of course, it’s impossible to escape the fact that Puerto Rico was smashed by a hurricane last year. In the months since the storm subsided, Hurricane Maria has spiraled into one of the deadliest natural disasters in US history. But though parts of the island took a severe blow, most businesses were open within weeks. These days, the tourist infrastructure is completely on track, and the locals need your tourist dollars to help support the rebuilding efforts in heavily affected areas and keep the economy on track.
It’s worth noting here, that Puerto Rico is also very much America — if you’re into that sort of thing. Every town has a CVS or Walgreens right alongside a Wendy’s or Starbucks, often right next to an absurdly beautiful beach. This gives the whole place a familiar tone while still feeling far away and exotic. So go! Drink too many piña coladas. Relax an entire week away. Meander Old San Juan. Eat all the lobster. It’ll be a blast.
LA FACTORIA IN OLD SAN JUAN
Old San Juan is a pleasant stroll. The two-story houses are painted to catch the eye. There are ancient-feeling churches, fortified castles, and dusty museums. In between, shops hawk touristy talismans and bars offer discounts on beer and frothy Caribbean drinks. Within the tourist fray, you’ll find a temple to booze that can easily stand amongst the best of them around the world: La Factoria.
During the day, you can chill in the well-staffed bar on the corner of Calle San Sebastian and Calle San Jose. The huge windows and doors will be thrown open to the streets and you can sip on a perfectly crafted cocktail while you watch the world go by. At night, several other on point bars open inside. Wine bars, salsa bars, and discos create a uniquely Puerto Rican atmosphere that’ll keep you hyped and leave you hooked.
FLAMENCO BEACH (CULEBRA)
Flamenco Beach is almost too idyllic. There’s a coral reef for snorkeling. There’s a mile-long white sand beach that looks like a postcard. The water is bathwater warm and crystal clear. And, since tourism numbers are lower than usual, it’s not overcrowded at all right now. That’s not to say you’ll have the place to yourself, but you’ll definitely have plenty of space to do your thing.
The beach is off-island, on the isle of Culebra. So you’ll either have to be a baller and charter a small plane from San Juan or make your way to Fajardo and jump on a boat. If you take the boat option, you’ll get a decent lunch, diving gear, and an all-day open bar while aboard.
EL YUNQUE NATIONAL FOREST
As much fun as it sounds lounging on the beach all day and sipping rum, there’s a massive amount of outdoor adventure to be had in Puerto Rico. The best place to start is El Yunque. The national forest has tons of trails through the dense rainforest, which often end up at killer waterfalls or amazing overlooks.
The paths are very well marked and mostly mid-level to easy. So you don’t need to be an expert with a whole bunch of specific gear to trek through the park. You just need a little time, a bottle of water, some nourishing snacks, and a desire to explore.
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THE PORK HIGHWAY
We know this is cliché but if you seek out one place to eat in Puerto Rico, let it be the Pork Highway. La Ruta del Lechón is a three-mile stretch of Route 184 around Guavate in the highlands. There are about a dozen spots selling very slow-roasted whole hog alongside local sides, sausages, and ample amounts of cold beer.
It goes without saying that the food is outstanding. What really makes this an experience is the community and culture around the Highway. Each pork shack has their own style and spices. People have their favorites and small gatherings tend to break out in parking lots once the rum and beer start flowing. You get a taste of Puerto Rican life, family, food, and drink all in one stretch of highway. And, yes, you will get the pork sweats.
Observatories are cool. They’re a testament to our humanity; a monument to our basic human need to reach out and explore. Arecibo is a wondrous sight to behold. The massive dish and receiver built into a mountain are just huge.
This isn’t a big tourist spot and a lot of people who come here do so due to the location’s appearance in a James Bond film. Still, it’s a unique point of interest that you just don’t get anywhere else. That makes it well worth it.
Cayo Icacos is a stretch of low-lying islands off the eastern coast. They are, to be simple: Straight up uninhabited paradise. The white sand beaches, rocky outcrops, coral, and clear waters are something out of a dream.
Icacos is a protected chain of islands. So there isn’t any infrastructure here. You’ll have to bring your own provisions and take everything out with you. Please be respectful of this pristine natural wonder.
CUEVA DEL INDIO
Cueva del Indio has a fascinating duality to it. In one respect, it’s a relic to the Taino people. The site has rock carvings dating back over a thousand years which represent the Taino’s spiritual affinity for the place. The site serves as a solemn reminder of the European decimation of millions of Taino in about three decades of disease, slavery, and warfare.
In another respect, this is a stunningly beautiful and unique corner of the island. The seaside caves and cliffs are worth the trip alone. It’s a great place to reach into the past and find some indigenous culture, while also being awestruck by the beauty of this planet.
CONDADO VANDERBILT HOTEL
Back in San Juan, you’re gonna need a place to crash. You can easily score an Airbnb for your stay to save cash. It’s a smart move. But we highly recommend spending at least one night in the lap of luxury at the Condado Vanderbilt.
The hotel is right on the beach, has amazingly plush rooms, and one of the best restaurants in San Juan. The pool is amazing. The bars are on point. The spa rocks. And, you know what, sometimes — if only for a night — it’s fun to be a baller.
TOROVERDE ADVENTURE PARK
Toroverde boasts of having the biggest flying zip line (that’s the one where you’re doing the Superman through the sky) in the Americas. The Monster, as they call it, stretches through 1.5 miles of rainforest and hits a flight speed of 95MPHs. That’s crazy fun. It’s also a great way to see the beauty of the rainforest while supporting a local business. All wins.
The park also has rappelling walls, rope bridges (don’t look down), and classic zip lines. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon before heading back the tranquility of a poolside piña colada.
Out on the western end of the island, you’ll find a brilliant hiking area. The Gozalandia hiking trail leads you through dense forest to a spectacular waterfall and swimming hole.
This is an easy hike that anyone can do. There’s a small shack nearby for lunch and beer. A trip to the falls is the perfect way to cool down on a hot and humid summer day. Take your time to climb up to the top of the falls and take the leap into the swimming hole. It’s a rush you won’t soon forget.
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