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Puerto Rico for Exploring Beyond San Juan

One of the main travel advice I am asked about is… “Where should I go in Puerto Rico beyond San Juan?” While many travel to the Isla del Encanto (island of enchantment), as the locals call it, many stay in San Juan. This native’s advice is to rent a car and discover the island! With no customs lines coming from the United States, it makes it an easy destination to land upon. Want to stock up on coffee and artisanal Puerto Rican products? You can mail them home via US Postal Service. Most non-stop flights are two to four hours long from the East Coast of the United States, making it the perfect long weekend escape.

Playa Sucia, Cabo Rojo
Cabo Rojo (Three hour drive from San Juan): If you love understated vibes, head to Cabo Rojo on the southwest point of the island. Make sure to visit Playa Sucia, Playa Combate or Playa Buye for calm clear waters, local vibes, and uncrowded beaches. See the town come alive on the weekends at La Parguera which is lined with bars, restaurants, and live music. Take a tour of the bioluminescent waters in the evening. If you are looking for an authentic experience with little outside tourists, this is the place for you. This past summer I got to explore much more of Puerto Rico beyond San Juan in preparation for my book, Dining Traveler Guide to Puerto Rico. I was immediately taken by the west coast, an area which I admit I don’t get to go that often as my family and friends are in the north and southeast part of the island.

Where to Stay: Cabo Rojo has plenty of smaller inns and apartment rentals. Must check out: the “jungalo” built by a German expat offered on AirbNb.

Crashboat Beach, Aguadilla
Rincon, Aguada, and Aguadilla (Two and a half hour drive from San Juan): These neighboring towns on the west coast of Puerto Rico have been gaining more attention due to mainlanders setting up shop because of its amazing surfing. Rincon has been a surfer’s favorite for many years and its neighbor, Aguada has been gaining attention recently with several hostels catering to surfers such as Grateful Souls Hostel. For those who love underwater adventures, Aguadilla is the place for you. There are several wreckages near the area you can dive or snorkel around. This local favorite is known for its colorful fishing boats which line the coast.

Where to eat: Local favorite Marullo’s Art Cuisine in Aguada has an inspired cuisine by Chef George who specializes in local seafood.

La Guancha, Ponce Puerto Rico
Ponce: Locals call it La Perla del Sur (the pearl of the south). A ninety-minute drive from San Juan, it’s the second largest city on the island. Take a trip back in time at its art deco town square (la plaza) with the black and red stripped antique firehouse and beautifully preserved buildings. La Guancha, a local favorite is known for its amazing sunsets, casual restaurants, and a marina in which you can rent paddleboards or kayaks and glide through the clear and calm waters.

Where to Stay: Hotel Belgica is a small boutique hotel built during the turn of the century located off the town square of Ponce. Many of its details have been preserved such as the lobby furniture, paintings, and dark wooden doors.

Pig in Guavate
Guavate (45 minute drive from San Juan): The mountainous center of Puerto Rico is where the traditional flavors of the island come alive. Route 184 can get busy on weekends when locals head to Guavate for lechon (split roasted pork). Have a Don Q rum cocktail (the rum of choice on the island) and enjoy live music at many of the lechoneras along the route. Once a month, my family would make a day trip of it, indulging in favorites such as arroz con gandules(rice and pigeon peas) and guineitos (poached green bananas) alongside the savory roasted pork.

Favorite lechonera: Lechonera Los Pinos.

Beach at Palomino Island
Fajardo, Rio Grande, and Luquillo: Those who prefer luxury travel, this area, less than an hour’s drive from San Juan is for you. If you stay in the Waldorf-Astoria El Conquistador, you have access to one of the most beloved outer islands, Palomino. The resort has exclusive access to it with a private ferry which shuttles hotel’s guests. One of my favorite beaches in Fajardo with easy access by car is Seven Seas. The clear calm waters makes it perfect for swimming and don’t forget to bring your snorkel as there are some small reefs close to shore. No trip to Puerto Rico is complete without a trip to El Yunque, the only rainforest in the US National Park Service. On a clear day, take a hike to the top of El Yunque for epic views of the east coast of the island. Tip: head there on a weekday in the early morning. During the weekends it is crowded with locals and tourist alike.

Where to stay: If you prefer a smaller property compared to the large resorts nearby, check out El Hotelito near the rainforest grounds.

Playa Flamenco, Culebra
Culebra: Less than an hour plane ride from San Juan or a two hour ferry ride from Fajardo, there is Culebra, one of the most stunning islands I have ever been to (no, I am not being biased). Playa Flamenco is an idyllic crescent shaped beach that has been voted many times as one of the top beaches in the world. With its white sand and clear blue waters, it is definitely a paradise. Although many visitors set up shop at Flamenco (there are camp grounds there as well), rent a jeep and discover the lesser known beaches. Bring your snorkels to Playa Tamarindo and become acquainted with the sea turtles or discover the quietness of Playa Zoni.

Where to Eat: Start your day with a ham, egg, and cheese sandwich at Pan Deli bakery.

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