It's prime time for this passport-free Caribbean getaway

Mar 6, 2024

Puerto Rico, with its rich Boricua culture, picturesque beaches and abundance of natural marvels, is an island with layers to explore. Traveling through its diverse regions, tasting its inspired cuisine and dancing to its Bomba anthems opens the door to understanding the optimism, passion and innate beauty of the place and its people.

For all these rewards, traveling to Puerto Rico is among the easiest and most affordable Caribbean getaways, period. Since Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., citizens don’t need a passport, won’t have to exchange currency and likely won’t need to pay extra on cell phone plans for service. Flight prices from the continental U.S. are less expensive, on average, than to any other Caribbean island. (Tip: Fares are especially good now through May.) Flights are also easy to come by, no matter where you live: 30 U.S. gateways offer regular nonstop service into San Juan, Aguadilla or Ponce.

With this ease of access, repeat trips are especially possible—and they’ll be necessary if you plan to see even a fraction of the island’s draws. Here’s a head start on your planning.

Get grounded: Puerto Rico's diverse regions

Essential Puerto Rico sightseeing no doubt includes visits to the magnificent seaside forts and Spanish colonial architecture of Old San Juan (now in its 502nd year, San Juan is the oldest capital city in the United States). The preservation of the city's prized landmarks—the imposing Castillo San Felipe del Morro and the 480-year-old, periwinkle-blue La Fortaleza (aka the governor's mansion), for example—speaks to the incredible construction of these buildings (the fort's walls are up to 25 feet thick, so that helps) and also seems to be a kind of metaphor for the people of Puerto Rico—culturally rich; improbably resilient.

El Morro in Old San Juan

These iconic sites fall within what's known as the Metro region, and it's a great place to start a Puerto Rico adventure—not least because the island's hardest-working airport is there. But there's much, much more to see across Puerto Rico's diverse regions. The East, for example, is best known for its secluded beaches and its lush, easy-to-hike El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the United States Forest System.

El Yunque in the East region

The South region is famous for its standout architecture—the backdrop for many frame-worthy photos—plus incredible art. In the West region, stellar sunsets and laid-back surf culture reign supreme, while the North region harbors intriguing cave systems to explore. The Central region is the island's mountainous agricultural hub; coffee lovers will want to drive in for a taste of home-grown java. Off the east coast, the islands of Culebra and Vieques are home to free-roaming horses, striking beaches and the brightest bioluminescent bays in the world. 

How can you see it all? The best way to get around is to rent a car, which you can do with your American driver's license. Flights and ferries are also available from San Juan to Culebra and Vieques. 

Dance & groove

The rhythms of Puerto Rico are a huge part of its identity—and the dance fever is contagious. Puerto Rico is, after all, the birthplace of Bomba—both a musical style and a dance with African roots. While salsa and merengue music (both of which are also popular here) are deeply intertwined with dances of the same names, too, this is infinitely more true with Bomba. Musicians and dancers respond to one another as they perform, drummers punctuating dancers' movements with driving beats, while dancers wave their skirts and improvise expressive gestures in time with the music. 

Bomba dance

Having your own Bomba experience during your trip is highly recommended. Head to Loíza, a town in the East region just outside San Juan, and one of the best places to dive into Puerto Rico's rich African heritage; many residents are descendants of Africans who were brought to the island as slaves and who have preserved many of their ancestors' cultural and culinary traditions. There, you can book a Bomba dance lesson on the beach with expert instructor Sheila Osorio and get swept up in the energetic, drum-fueled celebration.

San Juan nightlife

San Juan's buzzing nightlife also offers countless opportunities to dance. The Condado, Calle Loíza and La Placita Santurce districts harbor clubs, lounges, rooftop bars and street parties that all center around salsa and other dance. 

Find your surf sanctuary

That Puerto Rico has stunning beaches will surprise no one—but the volume and variety may. Over 300 stretches of sand ranging from secluded to rugged to bustling invite travelers to lounge, play and bathe in the warm turquoise sea (water temperatures hover around 80 degrees year-round). Here's a look at some standouts to build into your itinerary: 

Balneario Puerto Nuevo in the North region's Vega Baja is known for pristine waters and gorgeous natural landscape. Its half-moon-shape and picturesque limestone rock outcrops work together to create a calm swimming experience, protected from the potentially large swells of Puerto Rico's northern coast. All told, it's a postcard-worthy slice of beach heaven seemingly made for basking, plus it's got lifeguards during open hours and amenities like picnic tables, restrooms, parking, showers and food stands.

Balneario El Escambrón

Balneario El Escambrón, Old San Juan is evidence that you don't have to stray far from the city to find an exceptional beach. The arc-shaped, palm-dotted shore here gives a sense of seclusion, while the lifeguards, restrooms, gear-rental and snack stands offer the expected comforts of a municipal beach a stone's throw from Puerto Rico's capital. When you want to stretch your legs, take a short walk to the Bateria del Escambrón on the eastern end of the beach park for a dose of photo-worthy 18th-century architecture. 

Crash Boat Beach in Aguadilla

The West region is home to famously cool Crash Boat Beach in Aguadilla, a spot that gets its name from the bright blue and yellow pier that hearkens back to its former use as a U.S. Air Force marina. On shore, there's a festive scene complete with reggaeton music plus food and craft vendors. Colorful marine animals like to congregate here, too; bring your snorkel gear and you'll likely spot them hanging out by the pier's pilings. 

Tunel de Guajataca

For a novel beach experience, take a walk through the Tunel de Guajataca on the north end of the West region. This old railroad tunnel—built in the early 1900s for trains hauling sugarcane—now takes you to a lovely beach with scenic overlooks. Thanks to its rough currents, this is not a swimming beach, but it's a top spot for photo opps, picnics and walks along the gorgeously rugged shore.

Be sure to check for weather and water updates to ensure you have a safe day at the beach. 

Follow the trail to Boricua foodie bliss

Infused with the rich flavors of the island—plantains, fresh seafood, coconuts and many other tropical fruits, for starters—Puerto Rican cuisine is hearty, tangy, comforting, refreshing, colorful and full of variety. Garlic-laced mofongo (a savory cake of plantain mash, often topped with seafood or meat), satisfying arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas), chewy chicharrones de pollo (extra-crispy fried chicken), deliciously fried bacalaitos (salted cod fritters), rib-sticking pernil (Puerto Ricos' signature roast pork dish) and jiggly tembleque (a thick, sweet coconut pudding)—the list of must-try dishes goes on. Luckily, there are numerous ways to get a lot of eating done in one incredibly fun swoop. 

Mofongo

For example, meat lovers can fully express their carnivorous devotion by following "La Ruta del Lechón" (literally "the Pork Highway") in Guavate, a mountainous area about 30 miles south of San Juan. A drive along Route 184 will bring hungry travelers to lechonera after lechonera where the cafeteria-style restaurants will serve heaping portions of Puerto Rican classics—with slow-roasted, lovingly seasoned lechón taking center stage (though live bands and improvised dance floors often share the spotlight).

Cold cervezas (beers) and tropical cocktails poured at the onsite bars make the ideal accompaniment. Some lechoneras are open all week, but the weekends are when you'll find the real party atmosphere. Just be sure to get there early as traffic tends to "hog" the road by midday.

La Ruta del Lechón

There are more fun eating and drinking trails to travel in Puerto Rico, including the "Chinchorreo" routes (clusters of simple food and drink kiosks) you can hop along in Loíza's Piñones neighborhood or the coastal town of Luquillo (both in the East region). There's also a driveable 25-mile Chinchorreo trail extending between the towns of Bayamón in the Metro region and Barranquitas in the Central region on winding Route 152. Cups of pungent sangria, homemade lobster cakes and saucy baby back ribs are among the bites you can savor before hopping to the next hidden gem.     

Fruit stand in Piñones

Though there's arguably nothing better than a hole-in-the-wall that makes scrumptious, affordable food, Puerto Rico's also home to many incredible refined dining options, too. Cocina Abierta in San Juan offers an engaging 5-course tasting menu (with "ominivorous" and vegetarian options) with sustainable, biodynamic or organic wine pairings. Lola Eclectic Cuisine in Ponce—set just north of the city's scenic central plaza—sets the mood with its sleek black-and-white interior, a look that pairs nicely with its elevated menu (think coffee-rubbed flap steak with passionfruit butter with pistachio creme brulee for dessert).

Puerto Rican fusion cuisine at Lola's Eclectic Cuisine in Ponce

When out West, Aguadilla's MONA is a necessary morning stop, whether for thick slices of tropical-fruit-topped French toast or creative Puerto Rican fusion dishes like Mofongo Benedict (where churrasco, poached eggs and mofongo all mingle on a plate). 

Stay sustainably

Sustainability initiatives have become a central focus in Puerto Rico, helping the island to preserve its wealth of beautiful, yet fragile nature-given gifts while continuing to welcome visitors from around the world. Traveling in less busy seasons (April-June and September-November), choosing eco-friendly activities (taking a bike tour through San Juan; participating in a voluntourism activity at a manatee rescue and rehabilitation center in Bayamón; or taking a tour at a sustainable chocolate farm in Naranjito, for example) and opting for a sustainable lodging option are all ways to travel consciously on the island.  

Cacao beans

Some of Puerto Rico's greenest hotels are also the most buzz-worthy. Tierra Adentro Bed & Breakfast in Naguabo (near the south end of El Yunque National Forest), for example, is the first lodging of its kind on the island—it's constructed of recycled shipping containers and runs completely on solar energy.

El Pretexto Culinary Farm-Lodge in Cayey

At El Pretexto Culinary Farm-Lodge in the South region's Cayey, guests can enjoy a serene mountain landscape ("The views alone, especially during the pastel-hued sunsets, justify at least one night's stay," per Travel + Leisure) while forging a deeper connection to Puerto Rico's bountiful land. The lodge consists of four private villas set on a working farm. Guests can opt to turn their stay into an immersive, weeklong food experience, with hands-on cooking classes, encounters with local producers and chefs, visits to fishing villages and local farms plus local wine and rum tastings. If you're short on time, you can reserve a spot at one of the hotel's twice-weekly pop-up dinners instead—but do so in advance, as seats are limited. 

Hix Island House on Vieques

In the West region's Lajas—a seaside town known as a playground for watersports enthusiasts—Parador Turtle Bay Inn is a small, family-owned hotel that runs on solar power and emphasizes green practices, like minimizing waste and growing native plants in its onsite garden. For those looking for an even more secluded island getaway, Hix Island House on Vieques comprises four minimalist, eco-chic buildings designed in harmony with nature. One of them—Casa Solaris—is completely solar powered, while guests of all the hotel's lofts enjoy yoga and Pilates classes in a serene, forest-shrouded pavilion.


Ready to go? Check out the array of places to stay in Puerto Rico and start planning your getaway.

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