Puerto Rico See And Do
If you're staying in one of San Juan's most popular oceanfront areas—Condado, Ocean Park, or Isla Verde—the beach outside your hotel will probably be all you need. The strips of sugary sand here are all wide and lined with swaying palms. The undertow can be strong in a few places, especially along the western edge of Condado, so be cautious when taking a dip; many beaches have no lifeguards.
There are also two gorgeous balnearios, or public beaches, just outside the famous resort areas. West of Condado is Balneario de Escambrón, with honey-colored sand and facilities including changing rooms and eateries. East of Isla Verde is Balneario de Carolina, a beach shaded by almond trees where you'll find restrooms, picnic tables, and barbecue grills. Just don't expect to have the beach all to yourself, especially if you're visiting between December and April.
About a 30-minute drive east of San Juan on Route 3, Balneario de Luquillo is perhaps the prettiest beach in all of Puerto Rico, with amenities that include restaurants and even bars. Just before you reach Luquillo you'll see a strip of kiosks selling freshly caught fish and all sorts of snacks. Stop and order an alcapurria (plantain fritter) stuffed with just about any kind of seafood you can imagine.
The most popular beach on Vieques is Sun Bay, just east of the town of Esperanza. While this crescent of fine, white sand is lovely, there are three dozen other named beaches (and many more that go incognito) that you will probably have to yourself. Of these, Red, Blue, and Green (named by the rather unimaginative U.S. Navy when there was a base here) are the must-tries. Red is the most accessible and family-friendly, Blue has panoramic sea views, and Green requires an off-road trek. Since all are quite a hike from the nearest convenience store, make sure to pack your own food, drinks, and sunscreen.
Beach aficionados will want to check out tiny Culebra's Playa Flamenco. The mostly unspoiled crescent of palm-fringed sand has often earned it a place on many "best beaches" lists. But don't overlook other stretches on Culebra, such as the long, walkable shore of Playa Zoni.
Vieques's rugged mountaintop and seaside trails make for supremely challenging off-road terrain. You can rent mountain bikes from Black Beard Sports (101 Munoz Rivera; 787-741-1892) or from Vieques Adventure Company (787-692-9162). The latter also runs bike tours for both newbies and experts on mud flats, winding trails, and beaches nearly unreachable by foot. Half-day tours start at $75 per person.
When the sun goes down—and before the moon comes up—head to Mosquito Bay, one of the world's brightest bioluminescent bays. When disturbed, billions of dinoflagellates (tiny, harmless organisms, more than 700,000 to the gallon) make the water sparkle. Dive in: You'll see your body outlined with a blue-green glow. Numerous island operators offer bio-tours. Island Adventures is one of the best, as its electrically powered double-pontoon boats don't pollute the water (787-741-0720).
151 Calle Cristo
Old San Juan
Puerto Rico 00901
Tel: 787 722 0861
The trompe l'oeil painting lining the inside of the dome makes the Catedral de San Juan Bautista worth a peek: Clever use of perspective makes the roof look twice as big as it really is. The cathedral is also home to the tomb of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. There's been a church on this site since 1520, but one of the region's savage storms blew away the original thatch-roofed building. It was replaced in 1540 by this sturdier structure, one of the prettiest houses of worship on the islandand one of the oldest churches in the Western Hemisphere.
Vieques may be secluded, but its sister island, Culebra, is even more remote. The best reason for a visit may be Flamenco Beach, a perfect crescent that is consistently named one of the two or three top beaches in the world. But there are plenty of other beaches without the P.R. campaign that are just as good or better. There are no longer ferries running between the islands, but most people travel with a five-minute flight on Isla Nena Air Service or one of the other small airlines. (It sounds extravagant, but it only costs about $70 round-trip; see our Vieques + Culebra Fact Sheet for more details.)
Old San Juan
Puerto Rico 00901
Tel: 787 729 6960
Its real name is Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, but locals just call this massive fortress El Morro. The name means "the promontory," and refers to its location on a rocky peninsula extending into the Atlantic. The breathtaking setting makes it the city's most popular attraction, so things can get crowded when cruise-ship passengers pack into its towers, tunnels, and turrets. (Getting here early in the day is a good idea—as well as escaping the crowds, you'll avoid the worst of the heat.) Every bit as interesting is the city's other fort, Fuerte San Cristóbal (Calle Norzagaray; 787-729-6960). The only thing it doesn't have is the crowds. Consider visiting this one, located on the eastern end of Calle Norzagaray, if you're here in high season.
Tel: 787 888 1880
The 28,000-acre El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System, lies about 25 miles east of San Juan. It has dozens of well-marked trails (graded for difficulty) that lead to waterfalls, observation towers, and swimming holes. Most hotels arrange guided tours, but the park is easy to explore on your own, as there's only one major road. For a decent map or to talk with rangers about which trails you might try, stop at El Portal, the information center at the park's entrance. You can also catch a documentary here on the cotorras, the endangered indigenous green parrots that are slowly making a comeback.
Open daily from 7:30 am to 6 pm.
Isabel Segunda , Vieques
Tel: 787 741 1717
Take in a dose of history in the port town of Isabel Segunda with a visit to this 160-year-old Spanish fort, the last built before the end of the colonial era. Today, it's an engaging museum that informs visitors about Vieques's colonial history and 40-year struggle to rid itself of U.S. military presence (up until 2003, the island was used by the U.S. Navy for target practice and training). There are rotating art exhibits as well as a fine collection of antique maps, flags, and indigenous relics. Most displays are annotated in Spanish.
Open Wednesdays through Sundays 10 am to 4 pm.
Tel: 787 722 5882
Tel: 787 284 7020
Once one of the island's largest coffee plantations, the 1838 Hacienda Buena Vista has been restored to give a look at rural life in the colonial era. The most awesome sight is the two-story-tall waterwheel, which is turned by a torrent of water diverted from a nearby river (when it's going at full speed, the sound is deafening). The manor house is also interesting to seeespecially the ingenious ways the family cooled the rooms and warmed the food before electricity arrived in these parts. The hacienda, now owned by the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, is just a miles north of Ponce, the island's second-largest city, and can be seen on a day trip from San Juan. Tours are given Wednesdays through Sundays only, and reservations are requiredcall ahead a few days in advance.
299 Avenida de Diego
Puerto Rico 00909
Tel: 787 977 6277
Until recently, most locals had little hope for San Juan's former general hospital. The historic 1920s landmark stood empty for years—until, in 2000, a $55 million head-to-toe renovation transformed the building into the Puerto Rican Art Museum. Preservationists insisted that the structure's original facade and shell remain in place, but behind it, architect Otto Reyes added an elegant, modern glass-and-steel annex with a whopping 130,000 square feet of display space. There's an impressive permanent collection of local and Latin American artists, as well as a 400-seat theater named after the actor Raúl Julia, the island's native son. Be sure to make time for a stroll through the complex's five-acre tropical gardens.
Open Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays 10 am to 5 pm, Wednesdays 10 am to 8 pm, and Sundays 11 am to 6 pm.
1 Calle San Sebastián
Old San Juan
Puerto Rico 00901
Tel: 787 725 1454
Juan Ponce de León—who took a break from his search for the fountain of youth to found San Juan—had a house built for himself in what's now Old San Juan in 1521. He died before he could move in, but his descendants lived in what was the city's first residence for the next 250 years. Now a museum, the Casa Blanca may be the city's best-preserved colonial-era dwelling, with a string of small rooms with eye-popping views of the harbor (a necessity, as the house also served as the city's first fortification). A cleverly concealed stairway below one of the bedrooms leads to an underground room whose original purpose is a mystery. The gregarious guides here are full of gossip and will tell you their theories about subterranean tunnels and hidden dungeons. The shady gardens, open to the public, are a great place to escape the tropical heat.
Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 8:30 am to 4:20 pm.
South of Arecibo
Tel: 787 898 3100
This stunning series of underground caverns, about 70 miles southwest of San Juan, encloses one of the largest subterranean rivers in the world. A tram takes you down a corkscrew trail to Cueva Clara, where stalactites and stalagmites resemble the fangs of some fearsome creature. Besides underground rivers and weird rock formations (including one a guide swears resembles Julia Roberts), there are otherworldly creatures like blue-eyed river crabs and furry-legged tarantulas. There are also more than 100,000 bats, but it's rare to see them during the day.
Open Wednesdays through Sundays 8 am to 4 pm.
Tel: 787 722 5882
This nature reserve about 35 miles east of San Juan is crisscrossed with wooden walkways that lead to mangrove forests and other ecosystems. One of the best walks takes you to a lovely colonial-era lighthouse. And if you can't make it to the bioluminescent bay on the nearby island of Vieques, there's one here that shines nearly as brightly. The only way to see the reserve is by joining a guided tour; call ahead for reservations.
Open Wednesdays through Sundays.
Tel: 787 274 1601
For locals, salsa is more than a dance—it's a way of life. Which is why the annual Congreso de la Salsa is so eagerly anticipated. Held at the Caribe Hilton every July, it lures thousands of participants and spectators every year for endless dance competitions, demos, and performances by salsa music orchestras from across the globe. Look for additional events at hotels and venues throughout the city.
Crystal-clear waters (even by Caribbean standards) make Vieques a scuba and snorkeling paradise. Among the best dive companies is Nan-Sea Charters, which takes you for a day of diving off beaches that can't be reached by car. The company, which operates a 28-foot dive boat, can arrange to pick you up at the dock closest to your hotel (787-741-2390).