“Nothing is better for your soul than to visit Puerto Rico.”
– Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of Broadway’s Hamilton)
Walking along the seaside paved boardwalk in front of San Juan’s busy cruise port, you’ll encounter artisans selling their crafts and entrepreneurs trying to negotiate with you for anything from bottles of water to t-shirts to ice cream. A subtle breeze blowing in off the water keeps the heat from becoming unbearable. There’s not a lot of shade, and summer afternoons provide an especially hot and humid experience. Paired with the bright sunshine and hot, humid air is an increased probability of blistering your skin without proper sun protection. Situated much closer to the equator than most Americans are used to, it doesn’t take long before you regret neglecting to apply sunscreen before setting out to explore beautiful San Juan.
While Puerto Rico is much more than its capital, San Juan, its small size allows for visiting all island attractions using the vibrant city as a base. At only 100 miles long and 35 miles wide, it is possible to drive the entire perimeter of the island and end up back where you started in less than eight hours.
San Juan is divided into two main geographical and cultural sections, Old San Juan (also known as Viejo) and New San Juan, which is comprised of the rest of the city’s neighborhoods. The historic center happens to be the oldest city in the world flying under an American flag and is full of beautiful, old-world charm. As you’d expect, there is a treasure trove of Spanish colonial sites proudly restored to lure you, many situated on old, winding cobblestone streets. This neighborhood is home to the San Juan National Historic Site. New San Juan is equally impressive with its beautiful beaches, world-class hotels and resorts, museums, the famous Bacardi rum factory, wonderful restaurants, and an overarching tropical vibe. Outside the city, you’ll be seduced by the wonders of El Yunque National Forest.
To experience the best of what Puerto Rico has to offer, make sure to see and do the following:
Explore Old San Juan by foot to make the most of your time. This area of the city is easily walkable, and you are more likely to pick up on the local culture than riding in a tour bus. While there, be sure to visit the San Juan National Historic Site for an exciting look at two ancient fortresses, El Morro and La Fortaleza, and the neighboring majestic Castillo de San Cristóbal.
While taking in the neighborhood architecture, much of it dating from the 1700’s and earlier, stop and have a look at the former home of Juan Ponce de León now known as Museo Casa Blanca (or La Casa Blanca). Originally constructed in 1521, this house is certainly one of the area’s historical highlights. Make sure to catch the Governor’s Palace, San Juan Cathedral, Puerto Rico capital building, Fort San Cristobal and the Chapel of El Santo Cristo de la Salud (Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud).
Though there are many great restaurants in this quaint area, a great place for a cold drink in a fun atmosphere is La Vaca Enfurecida Bikers Bar & Grill. Don’t let the “biker” in the name fool you. This eclectic and somewhat eccentric pub serves fantastic drinks and typical bar food with a Latin flair (their mojitos are made with local rum and are delicious).
Leave the history behind and hit the fantastic white sandy beaches along the blue Caribbean waters of “New” San Juan. Choose from a multitude of hotels in every price range and enjoy some fun in the sun. Isla Verde Beach, the most popular city beach, lies in a close suburb town called Carolina. This is an active fun spot with available watersports, bars, restaurants, and shops, all within a few steps. Other wildly popular beaches are Condado, Escambron, and Ocean Park Beach. Also in the city are some great museums and the Bacardi Rum factory, which offers interesting and worthwhile tours, along with tastings.
For trips outside of San Juan, no place is better than El Yunque National Forest. Here you’ll find waterfalls, inviting swimming holes, zip line tours, the Yokahú Observation Tower, lookout points, and many hiking trails of various levels of difficulty.
The islands of Vieques and Culebra are known for their beauty and laid-back, friendly atmosphere. Both are accessible by ferry leaving from the town of Ceiba. While on Vieques, make sure to stay well into the evening and take a boat trip on Mosquito Bay to experience the brightest bioluminescence in the world.
By Lisa Osborne Blalock
Footloose Travel & Tours