If you’re keen on releasing some stress, eager to improve your heart health, or in need of a warm winter escape, a vacation could be your ticket to wellness. For a self-care retreat, head to an exotic territory that flies under the American flag: Puerto Rico.
Even if you spend only a few short days in this paradise, you’ll understand why its people are passionately loyal to and proud of the islands they call home. This land is overflowing with misty mountains, sparkling white beaches, dense green forests, sunny skies, and colorful city streets, each promising unforgettable experiences. So how can you get the most out of your trip? Build your Puerto Rico travel itinerary around these five must-see locales, each of which captures the sunny, fervent spirit of this Caribbean delight.
Puerto Rico actually isn’t just one island but an archipelago with dozens of islands and other land formations. Vieques, one such islet sitting just a stone’s throw away from the eastern coast, is a secret getaway for locals who adore its less frequented beaches and plentiful water sports excursions. Rent a bike to ride along the shore, snorkel alongside intriguing Caribbean sea life (including four species of sea turtles), kayak around the island’s perimeter, take a fishing charter, or even book a sailboat that can take you as far as the US Virgin Islands to the east. However you decide to spend your day, be sure to linger after sunset to see a natural wonder at work—Vieques is home to the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay, where microorganisms produce natural light that makes the water glow.
El Yunique National Forest
Set aside one morning for a hike in the United States’ only tropical rainforest, El Yunque. Sitting in the northeast portion of the mainland, this impossibly green paradise boasts mountain rivers that stream clear waters, an incredibly biodiverse landscape, and unique wildlife like the locally beloved coquí frog, which only lives in this forest. Prepare to get some exercise because El Yunque is best enjoyed either on foot or from the air via a hang glider. For a daring adrenaline rush, cliff-dive into one of the many natural pools throughout these lands. Just be sure to book your admission in advance on the USDA Forest Service website. To learn fascinating details about the delicate balance of wildlife and the efforts to conserve these lands, follow up your visit with a tour of the San Juan Botanical Garden.
Puerto Rico’s pristine beaches are worth a dedicated trip, but with 270 miles of coastline and almost three hundred public beaches, you may struggle to decide where to lay your beach towel. Start your island retreat at the local favorite, Playa Aviones, which sits on the northeastern shore of San Juan, the capital city. This palm-lined beach welcomes you with its soft sands, warm waters, and energetic waves that typically rise up to four feet, making it a surfer’s paradise. When you’ve finished your water sports, game of beach tennis, or latest beach read, walk right up to the food vendors at Kiosko el Boricua for a mouthwatering treat like alcapurrias, deep-fried plantain fritters that are an island favorite.
Viejo San Juan
A convergence of Spanish colonial and militaristic efforts resulted in what is now called Viejo San Juan, a historic neighborhood of Puerto Rico’s capital city known for its breathtaking mix of pastel facades, monumental statues, and steadfast stone walls lining the shore. The celebrity of this district is El Morro, a sixteenth-century citadel fort and modern-day museum that’s a tourist favorite. Check out the cannons and dungeons peppered throughout the grounds, then take a scenic walk to La Fortaleza. Completed in 1540, this azure colonial mansion is now home to Puerto Rico’s governor, and it maintains its historical charm through touches such as candlelit dining rooms. Just off the mansion’s prominent plaza is Calle de la Fortaleza, an art-and-eatery-lined promenade known for its multicolored structures. Embrace the freedom of getting lost in this district; there are dozens of other historic sites to encounter, from medieval cathedrals to structures designed to fend off pirates.
La Calle Cerra
When the sun sets on the shores, the locals let loose at the proliferation of music venues and late-night restaurants throughout the island. As with Puerto Rico’s beaches, the nightlife offers an impressive number of choices, so start with an evening at Calle Cerra, a popular district in the youthful Santurce neighborhood of San Juan lined with imaginative street art. This spot is not for the shy traveler; you will quickly be wrapped up in conversation (and potentially led into an impromptu dance) with the locals who fill the streets. You may also find yourself enjoying a meal or drink with the local bar owners, who customarily socialize with their patrons. Some may even introduce you to secret spots around the island to eat, dance, or see local artists.
When the day breaks, continue living as the Boricuas, or local citizens, do at La Placita, a market where you can shop for fresh tropical produce and partake in the islands’ favorite dishes. Some classics unknown to many on the US mainland include arroz y habichuelas (a rice-and-bean dish), encebollado (steak and onions), lechon (slow-roasted pork), and family recipes of staple ingredients like plantains. In the more than one hundred years since La Placita was founded, it has become a local landmark for both food and enjoyment, especially when the night market hosts indulgent treats like fried empanadillas (savory turnovers filled with meat and vegetables).
More to discover
If you have the time, there are dozens of other sites on this tropical escape that warrant a visit. The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico hosts thought-provoking works from revered Boricua artists and up-and-coming names alike, while birdwatching tours seek out colorful wildlife native to this paradise. The salty sea air and active lifestyle here invite you to take in its many sights on foot, but it also has many appealing spots to lie back and take a breather. Either way, you’re sure to restore a sense of calm and exhale your worries away in Puerto Rico.
For more info, visit discoverpuertorico.com