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Puerto Rico, the beautiful island oasis that was my first solo, international trip. I choose Puerto Rico because one of my college roommates grew up on the island and told me of the island’s intoxicating, vibrant atmosphere. Over the years, she dubbed me an honorary Puerto Rican due to my spicy personality and I had to check out the island for myself.
With a little research, I soon discovered that the island was an adventurous haven for adrenaline junkies and beach bums alike. In true, Quirky Globetrotter fashion, I rented a car to get outside San Juan (which I highly recommend!) and explored the untouched parts of the island. Here are all the hidden gems that I saw in Puerto Rico on my two-week road trip:
Once I landed at the San Juan airport, I took a taxi to my accommodation. A good tip to know is that Uber drivers can drop you off at the airport in San Juan, but they cannot pick you up. A taxi ride to my accommodation cost $20, which is not terrible expensively.
I stayed at the Mango Mansion Hostel which was located in the heart of Condado. The hostel is located close to Condado Beach, Ocean Park and La Placita. All great places to soak up the Caribbean sunshine and grab an ice cold Puerto Rican beer.
After traveling for 20-plus hours though, I was thankful to retire to a bed and have an early night sleep.
If you have free time on your first day, definitely check out Condado Beach and Ocean Park during the afternoon. You may able to catch some surf. In the evening, strut your finest and head to La Placita where the best salsa, reggaeton and Puerto Rican beers are.
I woke up early the following day and took an Uber to San Juan’s Castillo San Cristobal. The fort overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and is a great way to spend an afternoon. The fort itself takes a few hours to explore if you take the guided tour. Below the large stone walls is a small dirt pathway that weaves near the Atlantic coastline. There are fabulous views from here and you should spend some time letting the salt breeze mist your face.
This evening I would be staying at the Casa de San Francisco nestled in the heart of Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan). In front of the hostel is a little square that is home to a smattering of vendors until the sun goes down. Once the sunsets the vendors pack up and make their way home.
This was also the day I became addicted to mofongo. Two bites of the plantain-based entree and my drooling mouth dreamt of nothing else for weeks. I would regularly be engorging on mofongo for the rest of my trip.
I capped off the evening by enjoying the most beautiful view of the San Juan skyline. Castille San Felipe del Morro hugs the northern coastline of San Juan and offers a pristine view of the airport and the sparkling city lights. You can hear the ocean waves crashing on the rocks below. There’s no whir of traffic drowning out the natural beauty that surrounds the blank century fortress. Be careful of fire ants though, I definitely wasn’t and regretted it.
This was finally the day that I explored San Juan’s most Instagrammable spots. I started in Viejo San Juan. This the capitol’s picturesque neighborhood with brightly-colored, Spanish-inspired, stucco buildings.
The streets of Viejo San Juan and within walking distance of the fort and the pier. Even if you’re in San Juan only for a day you can easily find your way around the city and explore.
I found this lovely cafe where the starving artists swarm and was even mistaken as a poeta myself. I wandered the cobblestone streets down to the harbor where the cruise ships come in. It was humid morning and I stumbled across a quaint city park. This was the perfect spot to jot for a few hours in my journal and absorb the Caribbean sun.
Nestled in the back of the park was a small walking trail. With no map or sign announcing the path’s destination I decided to take a leap of faith and hope I didn’t end up trespassing.
I won’t lie, the walking trail smelled like cat due to to the feral felines that lived there. Locals have built little houses for the cats and set out food for them to enjoy. During my little walk, I encountered at least 30 friendly meowers.
The walking path skirted the city walls that protected Old San Juan from pirates and other foreign enemies. This path boasts many great picture opportunities. The walking trail ended at El Morro, where I gazed at the stars the night before. I’d highly recommend this little walk.
I meandered through the streets of Old San Juan the rest of the afternoon and snapped photos to my heart’s content.
When the skies turned a twilight purple I made my way to Ocen Park beach where the waves serenaded me. Locals had Latin music booming from their car stereos and I danced the night away on the beach.
At my new hostel, I was roughly four blocks away from the beach. That meant that today should be nothing more than a beach day where I lap up every ounce of relaxation that I can get. I surfed the waves and ate delicious street food in the Carolina district.
Every morning, I walked past the delectable pizza shop on the corner. I was only a few blocks away from the bakery where President Barack Obama ate during his visit to Puerto Rico a few years prior. This hostel was the perfect place for me to be close to the beach and relax. The hostel was nestled in a residential area so the streets were quiet as well.
In the evening, I met up with my former roommate and heading to Dorado — a small fishing town west of Puerto Rico. Dorado is a beautiful little city with a water mill right on the northern coast of the island. Travelers flock to the city to explore nearby Balneario El Ojo del Buey, an ox-shaped rock shaped by the forces of nature.
I arrived after sunset, so I was unable to fully explore the area. The glimpse I caught was quiet stunning.
For dinner, stop at El Ladrillo Restaurant, a restaurant that exudes a homey Italian and Latin vibe. The restaurant celebrates Puerto Rican painters and displays their work throughout the stone-faced restaurant. Not only does the local serve up delish seafood, but it also dubs as a Puerto Rican art gallery.
I woke up with a craving of eating lots of seafood and exploring the more authentic, more rural side of Puerto Rico. I drove to Piñones in the Loiza district. The road here became more pothole-ridden and heavily populated with daring iguanas who dashed into oncoming traffic.
The apartment building and skyrises melted into the rearview mirror and replaced with island brush. Nestled in the brush were local Puerto Rican eaters and roadside kiosks. This is when I indulged in my first coco frio (fresh coconut water). The man’s rusty machete flashed in the bright sunlight as he sliced the top of my coconut off and headed it to me with a straw.
With my coconut in hand, I meandered to the beautiful beach. Large palm trees shaded me on that hot afternoon. I soaked up the sun as I drank in the secluded beach’s beauty.
When my stomach rumbled after my refreshing coco frio, I adventured to a nearby eatery. I indulged in a Puerto Rican seafood platter with octopus, local fish, shrimp and crab.
After many days of relaxation, I was craving some adventure. I ventured west of San Juan and headed to the Caves of Rio Camuy. The early morning air was thick and sticky with humidity. Headed down to the caves, the air only thickened and the smell of wet rock was fragrant in the air.
My expectations were high because the park is one of the world’s largest cave networks. The tour is offered in Spanish and English is guided through your own personal headset. We boarded a rickety tram that drove up down the windy paths to the cave’s entrance. As the tram dips deeper into the thick brush, you begin to experience Puerto Rico’s rain forest and jungle-esque climate.
Inside the cave, vines and vegetation grew out of a sinkhole exposing the cave to the outside world. Water trickled down and my hair immediately frizzed up due to the high humidity. It was serene and eye-opening. Looking at the massive underground cavern in front of me I was experiencing something new and unique.
By it wasn’t the underground stalagmites and stalactites that commanded my attention. It was how the cavern opened suddenly. The stark contrast of the bright Caribbean sky and the dark cavern was as if peering into the heavens.
For the rest of the day, I decided to stay above ground. I made my way to Crash Boat Beach in Aguadilla to soak up some sun on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The beach resembled nothing short of a spring break party festival. Families were playing sand volleyball and barbequing on the beach. Courageous and daring teens were jumping off the bridge and high docks into the rough waves below. The atmosphere was bustling.
Last, but not least, I watched as the iconic wooden colorful boats made their way onto the shore. Revving their motors to high speeds and crashing into the beach to bank themselves. Children squealed and clapped as the fishermen and sailors beached their rainbow vessels.
The smell of Puerto Rican food wafted from the small stalls skirting the boardwalk. I bought a skewer of chicken for $3 and watched as everyone enjoyed the hot Caribbean sun.
Before sunset, I made my way to Aguada where I stayed in the Surfers House. It was a hostel located just north of Rincon, a surfing paradise. The harsh waves battling the rocky shoreline lulled me to sleep.
Bright and early I woke to explore the Western more rocky shores of Puerto Rico. I headed towards the surfing capital Rincon to check out what all the fuss was about. On my way, I made a pit spot at the El Faro de Punta de Heiguero (Rincon Lighthouse), which offered a beautiful view of surfer’s crusading the waves.
On a clear day, viewers can see islands dotting the horizon. You can’t help but feel like an explorer who has just discovered a new civilization. If you’re lucky, you can spot whales on this side of the island.
I wasn’t alone at the lighthouse though. Dozens of iguanas ran across the cobblestone and hid in the bushes as I watched the ocean’s waves.
My next mission was to see the pink water salt flats in Cabo Rojo. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t get there.) I had to abandon my plans for Cabo Rojo, enjoying the pink water and exploring the beautiful beaches nearby. No worries, I headed eastward to La Parguera to snorkel at sunset and then see a bioluminescent bay that evening.
Sunsets in Puerto Rico are heart-attack-inducing. Sunset was the optimal time to snorkel in the later afternoon to avoid sunburns and to see the wildlife become more active. My snorkeling guides gave us a first-hand experience in the water. I became well acquainted with the sea creatures in the Caribbean waters. The guides were excellent and let everyone explore at their own pace.
After getting back on the boat and eating some delicious, homemade chicken empanadas, we set out to sea. We anchored in the bioluminescent bay and learned about the microorganisms that are responsible for sparkling green in agitated water. Hyptonized by the sparkling green water and the celestials giants above, hours slipped away.
I decided to unplug during both my sunset snorkel and my bioluminescent bay tour, which is something I would highly recommend. Both experiences completely captivated me and wouldn’t be as special if I had a lens glued to my face.
I decided to venture off the beaten path and scout out La Soplaera Waterfall, nestled in Puerto Rico’s central mountains. Unlike any other mountains that I explored, these mountains were a haven for rain forest foliage and stank of sweet, tropical nectar.
The foliage was autumn hues in the February heat. The hairpin roads tunneled through the dense foliage and were well hidden. Make sure to pull off safely to admire the untouched parts of the island. If you look closed enough you can see colorful leantos where locals live.
La Soplaera Waterfall was a windy 40-minute drive off of Highway 2, the main highway on the south side of the island. The miles of hairpin turns and terrible potholes are definitely worth it. Maybe you’ll luck out like me and have the entire place all to yourself.
After enjoying the cool emerald waters, I headed to the Pearl of the South — Ponce. Ponce is the art and culture capital of Puerto Rico. With several museums to peruse and streets upon streets of Spanish-styled architecture to please the eye, Ponce is a must-see stop on your Puerto Rico road trip.
Unfortunately for me, the town was desolate and all the museums were closed. I ventured around the city’s central square where you can peer inside Parque de Bombas (The Firefighter Museum). The iconic red and black striped museum has an open lobby where several color lion statues stand guard. It’s a great Instagram opportunity. The museum once served as the headquarters for the Ponce Peace Corps and as a firehouse for over 100 years.
Take your time to meander around the main square, Plaza Las Delicias. The lush trees offer ample shade on a hot sunny afternoon and serve as a prime spot to people watch. In the square, there are several statues and ornate fountains that’ll catch your eye. Cool off before getting back into your car to jet off to your next stop: Bosque Estatal De Toro Negro.
Bosque Estatal de Toro Negro (Toro Negro State Forest) is the highest cloud forest in Puerto Rico. Make sure you embark for the park earlier in the day to make sure that you are not high in the mountains when it becomes dark. I neglected this in my itinerary and had a slight scare while in the park. During my visit, I also completely missed the visitor’s center and drove aimlessly through the mountains hours lost. Lesson learned, hit up the visitor’s center first — always.
Regardless, the views in this cloud forest are remarkable. Its beauty cannot be captured properly with any paintbrush or camera lens. This is my sad attempt.
I then made my way back northward to stay in Hatillo.
After perusing Instagram for some inspiration on where to explore in Puerto Rico, I stumbled across Cuevas del Indio (Indian Caves). These are caves that have petroglyphs from the Taíno Indians, one of the original tribes in Puerto Rico.
It’s been rumored that Cuevas del Indio has been closed. As of January 2018, the caves seen to be operational. Discussions online have said that the ladder that was in place during my adventure in Puerto Rico has since been removed for safety purposes.
This cave is located in Arecibo and thought it is a hidden gem not covered in guide books, its starred in huge blockbusters such as Treasure Island and Pirates of the Caribbean.
You’ll park in a sandy lot and pay $5 to see the caves. After a short hike through island brush, you’ll see the large porous rocks spring in front of you. Climb to the top and 360-degree views await you.
To the right, visitors can climb down a rickety ladder to see the Taíno petroglyphs up close. The cave has a sandy floor bottom at the entrance which soon gives away. A few meters away waves from the Atlantic surge through the cave covering the floor. Visitors will have to crawl and navigate through way over the wet boulders to explore the cave further. Be careful of the ebb and flow of the waves. Large waves will quickly fill up parts of the cave and the current is strong. Use your best judgment when exploring the different caverns.
Make sure you enjoy the view from the caves. Whether it’s perched directly above the caverns or elsewhere, the view is impeccable. Cruise ships frequent the waters nearby, so keep your eye out.
After enjoying the view, I made my way to Cueva Ventana — an iconic Puerto Rican landmark. Cueva Ventana, which translates to Window Cave, is as if you’re peering through a pane of glass into the ordinary lives of Puerto Ricans.
The cave mouth opens on top of a large limestone cliff. Through the opening visitors get an iconic and breathtaking view of the Rio Grande de Arecibo valley. During my visit, the view was so clear I saw horses drinking from the river below and saw locals tending to their crops. If you are one for worldly views, this is definitely a stop for you.
Even after my slight mountain scare, I decided to venture back into the mountains to Jayuya. Hours behind the wheel and being tossed about by deep potholes I arrived at my accommodation for the evening. Again, as a lover of evangelic views, I can say that this view did not disappoint. I spent my evening reading and listening to coquis (Puerto Rico’s small frogs) croak.
I embraced my full mane of hair and made my way eastward to El Yunque National Forest — the one registered tropical rain forest in the United States National Forest System. El Yunque is another landmark that visitors flock to during their stay on the island. Entering the park is free unless you stop at the visitor’s center where you’ll be charged $3.
My first stop was the Yokahu Tower. Climb the dizzying, circular staircase to the top and indulge in a view that extends for miles. The tower offers a 360-degree view of the island. From the top of the tower, visitors can see to Fajardo a nearby city well known for its ferry port. On the other side, visitors can see the clouds and mist that hang in the thin air around them. The lush rain forest brush grows thicker and visitors can see is cover the rolling mountains that surround them.
In addition to the Yokahu Tower, there is another observation tower in the park called Britton Tower. This is nestled deep in the rain forest, requiring a strenuous hike. The few it often obscured by the heavy fog and mist that blankets the rain forest canopy. This is a hike only for those who are experienced and have proper hiking gear.
There are several natural wonders that are located near the main road in the park that visitors can see. If you are looking to immerse yourself in the rain forest, I would recommend hiking the La Mina Falls trail. The trail is a little over a mile and takes about 45 minutes to hike.
Make sure to wear proper shoes during your hike. The walkways are slick with rainwater and are uneven terrain.
During your hike down to the falls take your time and listen to the sound of the rainforest around you. You’ll hear tropical birds squawking and coquis calling back. It’s a musical lullaby unlike another I’ve heard in the Minnesota wilderness.
La Mina Falls was crowded when I arrived. There were several swimmers who dared to soak in the pool and see how long they could last the water’s numbing properties. To avoid crowds, hike down early and take a morning dip. The robust crowds definitely detached from the rain forest’s innate beauty.
Due to Hurricane Maria, parts of El Yunque National Park are closed. Make sure to check their website to see what areas are accessible and safe to explore.
During my last night in the rain forest, I decided to stay at an eco-lodge nestled nearby El Yunque. I indulged in mofongo before being lulled to sleep to the cries of the rain forest.
After several days of trekking in the rain forest, I decided to trade in my hiking shoes for sandals. I drove to Fajardo and decided to catch the ferry to Vieques, a small remote island off the eastern shores of Puerto Rico.
I feasted on my surrollos con maiz for breakfast in a bright cyan blue and tangerine roadside kiosk. Of course, I didn’t forget the mayo-ketchup.
After my half-hour ferry ride, I arrived in the bustling ferry terminal. I grabbed my pack and walked to my home for the evening. The taxis in Vieques are all white, large, cargo vans with treacherous drivers. This is when I met Georgie — both a blessing and a curse.
Georgie drove me to the other side of the island where I relaxed on the Sun Bay beach — a quieter and more remote beach. This beach is also nearby Vieques’ famous wild horses. After bumming on the beach all day, I made my way to Esperanza’s boardwalk where I watched the sunset before heading home.
Due to the previous day’s commotion, I awoke early to avoid the crowds. I made my way to town and explored the streets of Vieques. It seemed as if I was the only person awake at 7:30 a.m. that morning. Everyone else was on island time. During my exploration, I stumbled across a family of wild horses also roaming the cobblestone streets. After enjoying a fresh island paradise breakfast, I boarded the first ferry back to the mainland.
I ventured back to San Juan and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on Isla Verde’s beach. The beach was full of families and couples who stayed in nearby highrise hotels. Hundreds of swimmers dotted the water and tourists explored other water sports such as jet skiing and parasailing.
I cleaned off the sand and enjoyed a fine meal at Platos full of local flair yet sophisticated. With my glass of wine, I ate my mahi-mahi with intoxicating coconut and passion fruit glaze. With a hearty side of mashed local root vegetables.
I returned to my favorite hostel, The Mango Mansion and made plans with newfound friends to explore the city together.
During my last days in Puerto Rico, I focused on experiencing my favorite foods and relaxing to my heart’s content. I spent most of my time bumming at the beach and indulging in obnoxious amounts of mofongo.
Located near the beach was Orozco’s Restaurant. The restaurant boasted that its representation of mofongo was not only superior but authentic. Being nearly an expert on mofongo by this time in my trip, I would agree that the mofongo was spectacular! They also offered many varieties. My group tried four different varieties and each packed a flavorful punch.
I washed up and put on my dancing shoes. It was time to shake it again to some Puerto Rican music. I made my way to La Placita.
La Placita is central local for drinks, dancing and partying in San Juan. Drinks and dancing flow into the streets and ignite the night. The Caribbean vibe entices visitors’ worries to melt away and to enjoy the evening.
When you’re a solo traveler and get a free photographer for the day, you don’t pass up that opportunity! I ventured to Viejo San Juan once again with some of my hostel friends. There weren’t enough beautiful, stucco buildings to take pictures in front of. Even if you aren’t a photographer, I recommend taking the time to explore Viejo San Juan slowly so you can absorb the beautiful details.
Make a pit spot at Viejo San Juan’s Barrachina Restaurant — the birthplace of the Piña Colada. Their lofty claims are rivaled. The interior of the restaurant is a picturesque Spanish patio. With an open courtyard and colorful macaws and parrots squawking in a nearby corner, it’s evident you’re not far from paradise.
With Puerto Rican beers in hand, I made my way to the beach with new friends to take in the ocean waves at dusk and enjoy the sea salt spray.
On my last day in Puerto Rico, I made my way to the beach to enjoy some final hours of fun in the sun. On my way to the beach, I stopped at browsed the small outdoor library on the streets of San Juan. I picked out “The Savage Garden” to read on my plane ride home. It was a bittersweet way to say goodbye to the Caribbean paradise I’ve called home for the past two weeks.
What I would’ve done differently?
Ideally, I would keep the same path — traveling counterclockwise around the island. Highway 2, which wraps around most the island, was manageable at the beginning of my trip. The roads weren’t populated with potholes and were cruisable. When I ventured to the mountainous region of Puerto Rico is when my planning skills were outmatched. Prior to my trip to Puerto Rico, blogs about Puerto Rico and what to do was sorely lacking. Many of the hidden gems I saw were mere accidents or at locals’ recommendations.
Ideally, I would’ve liked to spend the night in the mountains and visit a coffee hacienda (coffee plantation) in the mountains. Again, the days that I was in the area the coffee plantations were not open for tours. I planned on visiting the Cafe Hacienda San Pedro in Jayuya or Hacienda Monte Alto in Adjuntas.
Also on this trip, I was unable to visit Culebra, another small island off the eastern side of Puerto Rico. Culebra is known for it’s world-famous beautiful, white sand beaches and the art deco, deserted tanks which are the perfect backdrop for an Instagram photo.
Furthermore, I wish that there were free walking tours available in San Juan so I could learn more about the city. While I was visiting, walking tours were not yet available. Now visitors can be guided by a local and learn first-hand why San Juan is so vibrant and what makes it special.
Finally, I wish I had indulged in mofongo another 15 times! The rich, sensory-stimulating dish trolls my dreams. If you’re heading to Puerto Rico soon, make sure to have a plate — or five — for me!
This trip was taken before Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island. Certain pictures may portray a different reality than what currently exists. Please do your due part and research and educate yourself on the island’s current conditions. I have done my best to denote if any of these areas of interest have changed drastically. This post will continue to be updated.