Que Rico, Puerto Rico was written by Tito Mendez, a Puerto Rican native and travel writer. Tito's social media profile can be found here.
Puerto Rico is easily on top of my favorite places to visit. Given that I was raised there doesn’t make me biased, yet it makes me wonder - how can you live someplace for the majority of your life and still want to continuously visit? That’s easy, because living somewhere doesn’t mean you have seen it all and when it comes to this Borinquen island there is no exception.
What you will read will contain two parts, one from the eyes of a traveler and the other from the eyes of a local. I hope you enjoy and book a ticket before you reach the end to see all of the great places of interest in Puerto Rico!
Puerto Rico is only 100 miles long by 35 miles wide and is the smallest and the most eastern island of the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola, Jamaica and Puerto Rico). However, this doesn't mean you can see the sites Puerto Rico has to offer on a week-long vacation. The inner parts of the island are incredible sites that you only usually see on a promotional travel commercial, as without the aid of a local the typical "tourist" never ventures this far inward. Before we get into the meat of what the island offers, however, let’s talk a bit about those traditional tourist spots and some twists along the way.
Despite the depth of Puerto Rico, you can still experience much of the culture and vibe of what is offered from a standard tourists' travel.
For your traditional feel of what Puerto Rico truly is, you would ideally be staying in San Juan, Bayamon, or Old San Juan (by far my favorite). If you are staying in any of the following places I mentioned above, you are bound to have a great time.
So what do these areas have to offer?
Old San Juan was established in 1509, and it unquestionably shows it. The roads are mainly cabo stones that are beautiful to walk on but a little slippery after it rains (side note, Puerto Rico is a tropical rain forest so expect it to rain 1-2 hours daily). It also offers classic apartments, homes, churches and other fascinating architecture that may seem very different yet flattering. I suggest AirBnB to get a place that is within the city, most of which will be beautiful and contain hundreds of years of history, in opposition to traditional hotels with a cookie-cutter, tourist feel.
You can walk Old San Juan in a day, see much of what needs to be seen, and truly get to experience beautiful sites such as El Morro. This fort, built in 1589, boasts walls 18 feet high with thick, fortified stone. You are allowed to enter both sites (Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristobal) with a cheap ticket price, and both are worth the time. Here you will be able to experience what it looked like for soldiers to fight and keep watch over the island, giving you a feel of what life was like for the defenders of the island hundreds of years ago.
You will also be able to visit “La Fortaleza ”, Old San Juan’s original defense fortification before the construction of El Morro, Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, the second oldest European settlement in the west hemisphere, San Juan Gate (built in 1749), and Paseo de la Princesa, a trail that dates back to 1852 where you will find cafes, benches, musicians, and vendors.
Venturing out of Old San Juan there are a few gems to keep in mind when you visit. Those are the Bacardi factory (even if you're not a drinker, you simply need a tour of this facility) and El Yunque, a tropical “Rain Forest” that is the largest mountain in Puerto Rico. You will be allowed to walk up the mountain to the very top, while gaining some history and beautiful views of animals, rivers, and waterfalls. One story you will here often is, “according to ancient Indian Legend, a good spirit ‘Yuquiyu’ (or ‘Yokahu’) reigned on his mightily mountain-top throne, protecting Puerto Rico and its people.” The feel atop El Yunque seems to give this story reality.
Once the historical aspects of Old San Juan grow long on you, you would be wise to enjoy some of the more popular beaches in the San Juan area. These beaches not only offer amazing scenery but also great street food that is cooked traditionally with firewood right in front of you.
These beaches include:
• Ocean Park – It attracts more adults and less of the family fare. The wide beach, lined with palm and sea grape trees, fronts a residential neighborhood of beautiful homes, free of the high-rise condos that line other San Juan beaches. Expect to find more beer than kids in this idyllic location.
• Luquillo Beach - (My wife’s favorite beach) 30 miles east of San Juan, has better sands and clearer waters than most in San Juan. The vast sandy beach opens onto a crescent-shaped bay edged by a coconut grove. Coral reefs protect the crystal-clear lagoon from the often rough Atlantic waters that can buffet the northern coast, making Luquillo a good place for young children to swim.
• Pine Grove Beach -Near the airport, it is a crescent-shaped, white-sand beach whose tranquil, blue waters are protected by an offshore reef from the often-rough Atlantic current.
For bars and drinks there really isn’t any that you can go wrong with, each bar bringing a unique approach to specialty cocktails. My advice is to stay open minded, try something you haven't heard of before and don’t be afraid to take the advice of a local! I can assure you that most are naturally made and delicious. We'll cover more of that in Part II, however...
Until then, have fun y hasta luego!