Puerto Rico has a rich history. San Juan, the capital, is the second oldest European founded city in the Americas after Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Columbus discovered this lovely port town in 1493. Puerto Rico became a welcome port for the Spaniards crossing the Atlantic to the New World. Nowadays, San Juan is a popular cruise port and is home to as many as 18 cruise liners and 500 cruise ships.
Puerto Rico’s highlights
Old San Juan
This charming little area made up of colorful homes lining the steep streets is reminiscent of Europe but with a Caribbean vibe. Much of the old city is well preserved and/or restored and very easy to visit on foot but for those who would prefer an alternative there is a free tourist shuttle (train) to get around Old San Juan.
The old fortress walls border the city and its two principle forts date from the 1500s and 1600s.
- Castillo San Felipe del Moro dates back to 1540 and it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is very impressive and is located at the mouth of San Juan Bay offering spectacular views. Every hour, they do a reenactment of what it was like in wartime and fire off vintage muskets and a cannon, don’t be alarmed but do arrive on time to see the show.
- Castillo de San Cristóbal dates back to 1634 and is a National Historic Site. Amazing vistas are visible from the top of the fortress.
Tip: Walking along the wall from Castillo de San Cristóbal to Castillo San Felipe del Moro will reward you with breathtaking views over the Caribbean Sea and of La Perla, a historical community, although it’s probably best not to venture down into this area on you own.
Paseo de la Princesa
This pedestrian walkway is especially lovely at sundown and can get quite animated in the evening with vendors and crowds. Watch your belongings carefully but do enjoy the sunset here.
There is even a beach in the heart of the city!
Located in the Escambrón Marine Park in San Juan. This protected area is easy to park at and has a great beach for swimming, snorkeling and perfect for scuba divers interested in doing a shore dive.
Tip: Easy entry, but the visibility isn’t that great. Currents can pick up outside the ruins of a fallen bridge (which was destroyed in a hurricane)
El Yunque Rainforest
This National Park is located approximately 1-hour to the east of the airport and this visit is well worth a few hours. Roads are great and rental cars easily available but alternatively most hotels offer organized tours. At the visitor center there is a good video and knowledgeable guides or naturalists ready to show some of the local vegetation and explain some of the indigenous customs. There are also panels with information on the local fauna and flora. You are sure to encounter birds and little lizards, and if you are lucky you might see more of the park’s resident animals.
Tip: Bring a raincoat or umbrella; it’s the Rainforest after all!
Much of the park can be explored by car with some of the nicer parts requiring a short hike. Getting to the Mina falls was only a short ½-hour hike on well-made trails (paved most of the way) easily walkable.
Other points of interest with easy access within the park are the Coca Falls and the Mt. Britton lookout tower.
Tip; Make sure to climb the tower for a spectacular view.
This protected cove has a beautiful sandy beach and is well maintained. There are facilities and plenty of parking. You will find it a pleasure to swim here and walking up along the beach is a nice treat.
Tip: Lockers are available with changing rooms (was 1$). You can see some of the more distant islands from the beach and we were told that these were great scuba spots.
There is one located in Fajardo. On a dark night when the water gets disturbed the bioluminescent organisms light up the bay. Many companies offer boat or Kayak trips into the bay. One takes multiple passengers with an electric boat.
Tip: Plan this part of your trip with the phase of the moon. The bioluminescent creatures can’t be seen when there is a full moon.
On the west side of the island there are a number of caves. The most famous sites are Camuy Caverns (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) and the Aventura Cueva Ventana, also known as the Window Cave, which has a guided informative tour. Bats hang from the ceiling and there is a possibility of seeing boas dangling as well, since they hide in the ceiling waiting for the unsuspecting prey.
Things to try for foodies
- Moffongo, a baked bread bowl-like creation made of spiced mashed plantains filled with a choice of meats and covered with a creamy sauce.
- Pastelito, a deep-fried turnover-like flaky pastry filled with octopus, crab and other things like conch, etc.
- Dulce de leche, a sweet cake with a caramel taste.
Our experience: A few days around San Juan, Puerto Rico