Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island with an European soul, is fondly called the ‘Island of Enchantment’ and not without reasons. Heavenly with huge white sand expanse on its beaches, home to Pina Colada and a great inspiration for Salsa, Puerto Rico is a perfect medley of old and new world. After four centuries of colonial rule, the gorgeous archipelago with mainland Puerto Rico is more Spanish than American. Discovered by Cristopher Columbus in 1493, the island remained under the Spanish rule for hundreds of years, receiving the culture, tradition and language in return. Originally, home to Taino people, today the island has a beautiful confluence of cultures with European, African and Indian influences. Pack your bags, book the tickets and head to Puerto Rico if you intend to have loads of fun along the ocean but with a glimpse of the glorious past. Here’s a Puerto Rico free travel guide for you.
Places to see in Puerto Rico
Old San Juan
The historic colonial settlement within the capital city San Juan, Old San Juan is the place where the Spaniards first came and settled. A National Historic Landmark District, Old San Juan rests peacefully in a tiny, narrow island and is connected to the mainland via three bridges. The beautiful city is a picturesque sight with blue cobblestone alleys, the gorgeous 16th and 17th century stone edifices and a palace ‘Casa Blanca’ which belonged to the family of the explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, famously associated with the ‘Fountain of Youth’ legend. Gaze upon intricacies of the historic monuments, sip the country’s world famous coffee at an open air café, shop around in countless shops, and in the shadow of tree-shaped plazas admire the beauty of Old San Juan’s colonial treasure.
Playa Flamenco, Culebra
Living up to the expectations from a Caribbean beach, Playa Flamenco is not just Culebra’s but Puerto Rico’s finest beach location. Some beach lovers claim it to be the Caribbean’s best too. Stretched for about a mile, in the shape of a horseshoe with white sandy shore and sawing palms, Playa Flamenco is a popular tourist site in Puerto Rico. Bordered by the National Wildlife Refuge of Culebra—one of the oldest wildlife reserves of Wildlife and Fisheries unit of the U.S., Playa Flamenco is a must-visit.
If you are a 007 fan, Arecibo Observatory will thrill you because the antenna and the saucer-shaped dish of the world’s largest radio telescope was a part of the 1995 release Goldeneye. This famous radio telescope has also been registered on the American National Register of Historic Places. A popular tourist site, the observatory’s resemblance to an extraterrestrial spaceship is what makes it an exciting thing to see.
Once a sleepy backwater and hermitage, Ponce is now Puerto Rico’s second most populated city carrying the imprints of the island’s golden years. Providing a glimpse of vintage Europe, Ponce has an exquisite heritage of buoyant old buildings, majestic mansions, alluring art and poignant museums. Don’t miss the lavish mansion named ‘Castillo Serallés’, which was home to the founder’s family of the world famous Puerto Rican rum empire ‘Don Q’.
Named after Germaine de Foix, the second wife of Spain’s King Ferdinand, San Germán might not be popular among tourists for various reasons, however, the colonial heritage of the second-oldest city of Puerto Rico is no lesser than of Old San Juan or Ponce. Today the best preserved old city of the Caribbean commonwealth, San Germán had also been a stomping ground for the swashbuckling French Corsairs. Take a stroll down the city for some great relics of the colonial past.
El Yunque National Forest
United States National Forest System’s only tropical rainforest, El Yunque is a green oasis with lush forests, cascading waterfalls, rivers and craigs. The national forest offers small trek options, hence it is frequented by tourists and locals alike.
What to do in Puerto Rico
Visit Coffee Plantation at Hacienda San Pedro: If you want to decode the secret of famous Puerto Rican coffee, head to San Pedro—a small, working coffee farm with an attached museum and also a tasting room. Get a fascinating insight into the coffee-making process and be a part of coffee’s journey from green bean to dark-roast espresso.
The six-storey distillation tower of the Bacardí Rum factory is called the ‘Cathedral of Rum’. Bacardi needs no introduction and all the Bacardi lovers, don’t forget to pay homage at Casa Bacardi.
Travel Tip: You need to book in advance to visit the distillery.
Learn Salsa: Puerto Rico’s influence on Salsa is no secret to the world. Take a Salsa lesson or visit a salsa club. You just can’t depart from Ricky Martin’s home and the land of El Cantante and Gran Combo without learning a move or two of Salsa.
Drink Pina Colada: Go anywhere in Puerto Rico, you can’t escape Pina Colada. And why must you even try to avoid it? Nowhere else will you find a more sumptuous blend of rum, pineapple and coconut than in this island where it was created first. The Pina Colada has also been Puerto Rico’s national drink since 1978.
Water Sports: Visiting a Caribbean island and not getting deep into the sea for aquatic adventure is like going to Pisa and not seeing the leaning tower. Enjoy diving, snorkeling, and surfing along with many other water sports and explore the underwater paradise.
Entertainment: Although, there are bars, nightclubs, LIVE bands and various other entertainment options, Casinos are hugely popular and are in good numbers in Puerto Rico. Head to luxury hotels in San Juan for the most dazzling nightlife experience with casinos compared to those in Las Vegas. Visit La Placita de Santurce, San Juan’s most popular food and nightlife partner neighbourhood. Thursdays and Fridays are simply not to be missed if you love street parties. Based at a centre plaza and surrounded by a string of cafes and bars, La Placita de Santurce is the place to let your hair down to the beats of salsa band.
Travel Tip: Dress to impress.
Shopping: Like any other tourist destination, Puerto Rico also has plenty of souvenir shops in each city. There are some factory outlets selling expensive brands in much cheaper price. However, the best is the artisan’s fair in San Juan where you get local items including handmade cigars. You can get some great deal and unique pieces of wooden carvings, ceramics, lace, musical instruments, hammocks, masks and basket-work.
If you are a foodie, God has answered your prayers and sent you to Puerto Rico. But, if you are a vegetarian, you are in a trouble. Plantains and pork define the Puerto Rican cuisine. There are restaurants, but a sit-down meal is expensive. Restaurants for locals may not be cheaper, but you will get better quantity. If possible, take a local friend along to be charged fairly. Roadside, deep fried food is common, but be a little observant if you don’t want to eat Octopus or any other similar creature. There are also fast food chains like McDonald. For the best dining options, head to a 4 or 5-star hotel in the metropolitan area of San Juan. You can drink the tap water, it has even been regarded among the best tap water qualities in the world.
Travel Tip: Most restaurants are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Accommodation: Lodging options in Puerto Rico are in plenty. There are approx 12000 hotel rooms in the island, however, the majority of them are in San Juan. The beachfront resorts will give you the best holiday experience, but security can be a concern. The international hotel chains like Ritz, Westin, and Marriott have their properties in Puerto Rico. Great service is the highlight of Puerto Rico hospitality, be it a 5-star hotel or a budget resort. Hostels have just started to get more affordable in Puerto Rico. The vacation rentals or fully furnished houses on rent are the best staying options in the island. These are owned by trustworthy people and safety will not be an issue.
Transport: Local transport in Puerto Rico is bad. The roads are broken and potholed. Buses are irregular and there are no scheduled trains. In many places, you will not even find parking spaces. Cars or taxis are the best way to travel around. Taxis are clean and reliable. Look for the official logo on white taxis and Taxi Turístico written on the front doors. Let a local driver take you around because driving in Puerto Rico is a great pain. If you are travelling on a budget, take Público (shared taxi).
Things to remember: Crime rate in Puerto Rico is very high. Be safe. Mugging, carjacking, theft are prevalent all over the island.
Kissing on one cheek is the formal way to greet a woman but not a man unless he is a close relative. If you wish to look like a local, ditch your shorts and Tees with slogans or logos. Stick to khakis or jeans with plain or polo shirts. Shorts are only meant for kids and tourists in Puerto Rico.
If you are a woman traveller, ignore loud compliments, catcalls and whistles as these are pretty harmless. Learn a little Spanish and be polite to win hearts of locals in the ‘Island of Enchantment.’
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