Puerto Rico is one of the best hidden gems the US has to offer. A quick 4-hour flight from NY and less than $300 for a roundtrip ticket and you are swimming in the crystal clear water of the Caribbean.
Here are a few tips for a great Puerto Rico experience.
1. Puerto Rico is a small island. You can reach every point in the island in less than an hour and a half of driving from its capital, San Juan. If you are short on time, make San Juan your base and explore the island from there.
2. It’s the Caribbean, baby! Flip flops and shorts rule. I would bring one pair of Jeans and nice shoes for looking descent when exploring San Juan’s nightlife. Otherwise, dress casualmente.
3. It’s a driving island as public transport will get you nowhere. Enterprise had the best prices I could find. Roads are good and driving is fun, albeit a bit chaotic (for example, after midnight, it is supposedly legal to ignore traffic lights as long as the road is clear.)
Note (for US citizens): I recently discovered that my Continental Chase credit card covers the CDW portion of the car rental insurance, as long as I rented the car using the card. It saves you about $18 a day.
4. Lodging is not as cheap as I expected it to be. Unless you are renting a place for a week or more (vrbo.com has a good collection of vacation rentals), expect to pay ~$100 for a descent hotel. Hotwire got us the San Juan Sheraton for $100 and Priceline got us a cool beach front hotel in Isla Verde for $80.
5. Guidebooks: I am a big Lonely Planet fan, and It’s Puerto Rico guidebook served me well (although it’s wouldn’t hurt to refresh a bit its restaurant data). Most businesses in Puerto Rico have simple websites with their phone listed, and I would recommend calling whenever in doubt.
6. Puerto Rico is part of the US Commonwealth, which practically means it’s part of the US (no passport needed for American travelers).
San Juan Area
1. Old San Juan is one of the most beautiful colonial cities I have seen, with a lively atmosphere and a great vibe. It’s relatively small – 4-5 hours of casual walking will cover most of it’s attractions, but it’s a magical little place with great restaurants and cozy bars. San Juan beaches (Isla Verda, Ocean Park or Candado) are only a 15 minutes drive away, so even if you stay in that area – you’ll find yourself returning to the old city for lazy afternoon strolls and nice dinners.
In general, if you plan to stay a couple of days in the San Juan area and enjoy its beaches, I would recommend staying close to the beach (in Isla Verde or Ocean Park), and driving to the old city for daily/night excursions.
However, staying in Old San Juan is a treat! It’s a walking city, and you can easily stroll between restaurants, cafes and bars. If you are in town only for 1-2 nights, I recommend staying in the old city. Da House is a great boutique hotel in an excellent location ($80-$140 a night); if you stay for five days or longer, you can rent a beautiful penthouse with 360 degrees view of the old city and the ocean. Email me and I’ll introduce you to the owner. It costs about $100 a night, has two bedroom and is by far the best place to stay in San Juan. You will not want to leave that place.
2. San Juan beaches – Isla Verde and Ocean Park are excellent city beach spots, only 10 minutes away from the airport and 15 minutes away from the old city. Ocean Park is nicer, and has a pretty descent local ‘scene’ in the weekends. Piñones is about ten minutes further, and is already a much more pristine experience.
3. Kite Surfing –
Ocean Park is an excellent place to kitesurf for beginners and experts, and if winds are good, expect to see a couple of dozens of kites up in the air. KiteBoardingPR has two live cameras and wind forecast, yet you are best to call the Airport’s weather infoline (Tel: 787-791-6200) for more accurate information.
Isla Verde is also a nice place to kitesurf, and the best place to launch a kite is from the beach in front of Beach House PR . There is a kite surfing school next to the hotel, and they will help you with wind information and anything you need. As usual, renting kites is expensive (I think it’s about $75 a day), so bring your own if you can.
4. Surfing – The best spots to surf in Puerto Rico are Rincon and Isabela. However, Isla Verde is a good spot for beginners, and more proficient surfers can continue driving east about 10 minutes to a pretty descent reef break in Piñones. Ask the locals – everyone knows where the good surfing spots are. Vela Uno is a local windsurf and surf shop with very friendly stuff – you can rent surfboards for $25, and receive great advice.
Thursday through Saturday are the strong nights, and the rest of the week is pretty mellow. Two good upscale lounges are located in La Concha, El San Juan Hotel (which has a nightclub that is supposed to be very good, as well as a casino for those of you who enjoy throwing away money). Old San Juan has a bunch of cute little bars, but they are pretty empty most of the time.
Highlights Around the Island:
1. Playa Jobos is a beautiful beach 1.5 hours west of San Juan. Paradar Villas del Mar Hau is the best place to stay in the area – ocean views and the sound of breaking waves under you window make this place a gem.
2. El Yunque is a really nice rain forest an hour east of San Juan. Makes for a good day trip (you can combine it with the beaches in Luqillio which are supposed to be pretty good).
3. Culebra is one of best islands I’ve been to – laid back and relaxed, almost frozen in time, with beautiful beaches and nightlife that consists of two bars that close up at 10pm, it is a great place to relax. Flamenco Beach is often named as one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world, and I tend to agree. The sand is golden and the water is magical.
An even more magical beach is on a small island called Culebrita, which is a quick boat ride or a kayak ride from Culebra. Ask the locals what’s the best way to get there, take water and food, and enjoy one of the best beaches the Caribbean has to offer.
Diving in Culebra: a diving excursions with 2 dives costs $90 and is a great day out, although the reefs are not that exciting and you don’t spot too many fish. Make sure you make a stop at Culebrita for a quick swim as part of the trip.
Mamacitas Guest House is a descent (yet simple; don’t expect luxury) place to stay for 1-2 nights, and it has the busiest restaurant and bar on the island (read: about twenty people dining quietly or sipping drinks at the bar; but then again, I was there in November and the season starts mid-December).
Culebra Beach Villas are the best place to stay if you want to be directly on the beach. They are fifteen minutes ride from town, without good phone signal and no Internet connection. It’s a great place but I would recommend staying there only if you rent a car or a motorbike- there is nowhere there to buy food and drinks. You would have to bring your own supplies from the city (the villas are equipped with kitchens). If you don’t have a car, getting in and out would require a taxi (an affordable $5 per person to the main town), or an hour and a half walk from town.
That’s it for now. There is many more things to do and see in Puerto Rico, and I have a myriad of additional recommendations, but writing this post took the best part of my afternoon, and the wind has just picked up.
I’m off kiting. Email me if you want some more advice.