American travelers: Never pass up Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico
Playa Sucia in Cabo Rojo offers relaxation for beach lovers and hikes for fitness junkies, all in one place. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg

Next time you scan that glossy display of travel brochures at AAA, don’t let your eye wander from the one titled “Puerto Rico.”

Oft misunderstood and rarely given the attention is deserves once it’s sandwiched in between more well-packaged destinations like Oahu and Jamaica (we’re looking at you, Sandals), what it lacks in showmanship it makes up for with natural beauty and authenticity.

In short? If you want a real island adventure that’s still close to home, this is your trip.

Playa Sucia
Snorkel in the bright blue water on Playa Sucia, but beware of urchins. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg

Puerto Rico has the benefit of being a U.S. territory with just a four-hour flight from New York City, meaning you can visit sans passport, use the U.S. dollar, and most residents speak some English if they aren’t completely fluent.

To get the full experience, pick up a rental car, swap out sandals for sportier shoes, book a stay with the locals (we like AirBnB for affordable lodging options), and prepare to fight the urge to throw away your return ticket. Here are ten adventures to have while on the Island of Enchantment.

coconut
On your must-eat list: cold coconuts, empanadillas, and mofongo, a fried local dish. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg

Explore Old San Juan

Just 20 minutes from the airport, this colorful historical district offers plenty in the way of gift shops and sit-down dining, but we recommend paying $3 to experience the old fortifications at the tip of the city, where you can learn about the history of the island before you start exploring it. Not into history? Grab lunch at Waffle-era Tea Room, where you can taste savory gourmet waffles and a wide array of teas.

Go swimming at Crash Boat Beach

On your way to the Western End of the island, stop by Crash Boat Beach in Aguadilla to experience some local flavor. Snorkel the pier, swim in the ocean, order some fried food, and try to find the man with the flock of trained pelicans. Stick around for sunset—it’s a good one.

El Yunque
Hiking El Yunque rewards you with 360-degree views of the island. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg

Spend a day at Playa Sucia

At the southern end of the West Coast is Cabo Rojo—this is your chance to see more arid regions of the island, a beautiful lighthouse, and the most jaw-dropping white sand lagoon around. Playa Sucia backs right up to an actively mined salt flat, and the contrast in colors is worth the trip. Hike around the trails on the cliffs near the beach and take the trek up to the lighthouse if you have the time.

See the bioluminescence of Lajas

Don’t let the glaring blue water on the billboards around the island fool you—when you take a boat out to see Puerto Rico’s famous bioluminescence (small aquatic organisms that light up in the water), you’ll see a twinkle at best. It’s still an unforgettable experience that’s hard to come by, so grab a seat with Johnny’s Boats for $8 and take the night tour of the pitch-dark bay. Jump in the water at your own will—there will be jellyfish, and yes, they sting.

mahi-mahi
A fried mahi-mahi treat after snorkeling Tres Palmas is a must. Photo by Johnie Gall

Surf Maria’s Beach in Rincon

Get up early to beat the crowd—a solid mix of locals and tourists—that gathers here daily to enjoy the surf. Scout out the surfboard stand on the beach (rd2happiness.com) for a half-day rental—just be wary of the sharp reef bottom here.

Snorkel Tres Palmas

Just down the road from Maria’s Beach is the Tres Palmas reserve at Steps Beach (named after a set of concrete stairs left sitting near the water). If the waves aren’t rough, you’ll be able to rental a paddleboard at the food truck in the parking lot and paddle out to find some snorkeling. Waves too big? Chow down on mahi-mahi empanadillas and coconut smoothies instead.

Cueva Ventana
Cueva Ventana opens into a massive picture window overlooking the valley. Photo by Brandon Scherzberg

Take a tour of Cueva Ventana

Follow Route 10 South to KM 75 and park in the stone lot near the Puma gas station. To your right is the entrance for Cueva Ventana, our top spot in Puerto Rico. This massive but shallow cave system opens up to a picture window overlooking the valley. Take a guided tour and hear about the different species of bats, scorpion spiders, and snakes that live among the rock here.

Explore Cueva del Indio and the Seven Arches

This little gem is hard to find, but well worth the search. Located in Arecibo, you can climb down into this sea cave via a wooden ladder and explore—keep an eye out for bats, crabs, and African bees. After you’d had your fill of the cave, take a walk along the sharp rock and watch waves crash over the Seven Arches, stunning rock formations stretching as far as the eye can see along a pristine beach. The total cost? $2.50 for parking and 50 cents per person.

The Seven Arches
The Seven Arches juts up right to Cueva Del Indio, so you can kill two birds with one stone. Photo by Johnie Gall

Hike in El Yunque National Rainforest

The only tropical rainforest in the United States, El Yunque offers two great hikes with even better rewards. The 0.9-mile paved hike to La Mina falls brings you right to a waterfall ready for swimming under (so wear a bathing suit) while the 2.7-mile one-way hike up to the top of El Yunque offers 360-degrees views of the island.

Find a private beach near Las Cabezas de San Juan

Drive to Las Cabezas de San Juan and park on the side street near but not inside of the pay beach there. Walk to the sand and turn right, following the beach for about a mile. It’s here you’ll find yourself completely alone, free to snorkel out over a small reef where you’ll spot fire coral, elkhorn, conchs, and puffer fish. Cap off the day with some mofongo, a local dish made with fried plantains and your choice of meat.

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