Photo by Jen Ruiz
Photo by Tinapat B / Shutterstock
Cueva Ventana in Arecibo is one of many delights waiting to be discovered in Puerto Rico.
San Juan is just the beginning.
Located approximately 1,000 miles southeast of Miami, Puerto Rico is one of America’s most popular Caribbean islands. Leave your passport at home and head to year-round summer, piña coladas, and occasionally getting caught in the rain. It’s all part of the charm of being in the tropics.
Puerto Rico is best know for its abundance of places to unplug, unwind, and explore the unknown. The island is filled with secluded wonders, from beach coves and clear waters to tree swings with panoramic mountain views. It’s also a place to eat, drink, and be merry. A half dozen brands of local rum collectively back Puerto Rico’s claim to the title “Rum Capital of the World.”
If you want to discover Puerto Rico beyond the San Juan cruise port, consider renting a car or hiring a guide to reach lesser-known destinations. Here are several of the best things to see and do in Puerto Rico.
Ever thrown yourself down a waterslide carved into giant boulders by the flow of a river? Las Paylas is a series of natural slides and pools located in a resident’s backyard in Luquillo, about 45 minutes from San Juan. The slides are a short three-minute walk from the driveway turned parking lot. Spend the morning in nature’s playground, rope swing optional. Exercise caution and tuck in your elbows while going down the slides. If you work up an appetite, stop by the local kiosks for an empanada and chilled fresh coconut on your way back.
Cabo Rojo is only an hour from the airport in Aguadilla for those flying into the west side of the island. The city is a draw for its natural wonders, including salt flats that look like a vast span of pink lakes in the right light. While this phenomenon is not unique to Puerto Rico, it’s a rare sight and one that’s largely unobstructed and unmonitored here.
There’s a small, volunteer-run information center, but the salt flats are not officially labeled or advertised as a tourist destination. There are no designated entry points or tickets for admission. You can park by the side of the main road and enter for free. The salt flats are found en route to La Playuela, commonly referred to as Playa Sucia, a popular white sand beach surrounded by large cliffs on which you can hike or bike.
Unique flavors and community connection are family traditions at Heladeria Lares, a small ice cream shop nestled in the small town of Lares in the center of Puerto Rico. The recipes are created in-house and can range from sweet potato to cilantro flavored. The ice cream shop makes the perfect stop after exploring the nearby cave system at Parque Nacional de las Cavernas del Río Camuy, which just reopened for the first time since Hurricane Maria. Reservations are required.
Considered one of the world’s most recognizable paintings, this portrayal of a sleeping woman in a vibrant saffron dress by Frederic Leighton is found in the Museo de Arte de Ponce. Ponce is full of delights for art and architecture lovers; the Parque de Bombas is a visually striking former fire station and one of the island’s most notable landmarks, while Casa Weichers-Villaronga is a neoclassical mansion that doubles as an architecture museum.
“The Monster” at Toro Verde is one of the longest ziplines in the world. It’s hung between the trees in Orocovis, a mountain town toward the center of the island about 90 minutes from San Juan. The 1.57-mile-long line takes an adrenaline-packed two minutes to fly from one end to another, Superman-style. Other zipline options are available for those seeking moderate to mild thrills. Reservations can be made online; there is a restaurant and bar on site if you want a drink in celebration of your bravery afterwards.
Puerto Rico has no shortage of rum distilleries; the Ron del Barrilito factory is among the latest to open to the public, launching in February 2019. Guests have the option to tour the building, Hacienda Santa Ana, for $25, or attend a mixology class or partake in a premium tasting tour for $80 each. It’s here that you’ll find Ron del Barrilito 5 Star, a collector’s edition aged up to 35 years and priced at $750 per bottle.
You will also spot a special “freedom barrel” on your tour, undisturbed since 1942 and reserved for consumption by the people of Bayamon in the event Puerto Rico one day declares independence.
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Those looking to experience Old San Juan in a new way should consider a food tour around the city with Spoon Food Tours. The area is walkable and the tour includes history about the city’s plan and design. From freshly brewed coffee to pork stuffed avocado, you’ll taste the classics while simultaneously supporting small businesses.
The Tanama River in Utuado offers a twist on the traditional lazy river; it'll see you floating into a pitch-black cave. The reward at the end of this adventure, which accommodates large groups, is a free facial thanks to a large supply of river clay. The word “Tanama” is Taino for “butterfly,” so expect to see many of them on your visit.
There are three places to find bioluminescence in Puerto Rico: Fajardo, Lajas, and Vieques. Mosquito Bay in Vieques is the brightest of them all and several companies offer evening kayak tours on glass bottom boats. I recommend Bieque Ecotrips if you want a smaller group tour and Aqua Sunset Tours if you want a fully clear kayak versus a glass bottom. Plan your visit during the new moon to see the brightest contrast possible, and make reservations ahead of time as spots fill up quickly.
There are more than 2,000 caves in Puerto Rico but the view from Cueva Ventana in Arecibo is arguably the most photogenic. Aptly named the “window cave,” it features a sweeping vista of the Puerto Rican countryside, perfectly framed by the rock’s opening. The tour itself, priced at $19 plus tax, is comprehensive and well operated, teaching you about the wildlife in the cave and ongoing excavation throughout the island.
Cueva del Indio is about 25 minutes north of Cueva Ventana. If possible, aim to see both caves on one trip. Cueva del Indio is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s so scenic it’s been featured in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. There are a number of Taino petroglyphs on site dating back nearly a thousand years. Wear sneakers or hiking shoes as the terrain is rugged and explore at your own risk.
There’s a pork trail in Guavate that is a meat lover’s dream come true. Only 40 minutes from San Juan, the town is most active on weekends when you’ll also find live music and street vendors. There are lechoneras lined up one after another, small shops specializing in roasted pork—one of several essential Puerto Rico dishes to try. Pair your cut of choice with arroz con gandules, a yellow rice and pigeon peas side item that is a Puerto Rican staple.
>> Next: AFAR’s Puerto Rico Travel Guide
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