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Yvonne, of Hello Wander World, recently went to Puerto Rico and here are her practical travel tips. She’s also written about Iceland, Costa Rica and Bangkok in the past. As as aside, we are sad to see that American is ending its nonstop service between New York and San Juan this upcoming August – we’ve have used that flight many times for quick beach getaways.
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Puerto Rico is an underrated travel destination. The capital of San Juan oozes charm and history while a quick drive out to the smaller cities invites adventure and breathtaking natural wonders. Many of which are free or inexpensive attractions. When you arrive, you’ll most likely be landing in San Juan (east side) or Aguadilla (west side). This article will be focused on the San Juan/Eastern region of the country because the area is more frequented by tourists.
- A passport isn’t needed, if you’re coming from the States!
- Your mobile service provider should cover data service and texting here for no extra charge, although speed might take a hit.
- When traveling outside the main cities, wear bug repellent. Zika virus is still an issue, so pregnant women should especially be prepared with bug repellent. For more information, refer to the Center for Disease Control.
How to Get Around
The San Juan airport (SJU) is about 20 minutes from Old San Juan and 15 minutes from Condado. Taxis are the easiest way to get into town and will cost you about $20 – $25. They may add extra fees for extra baggage or late night pick-up. With that said, if you do come in at an early hour, they are available.
Renting a car during your time here is the best option if you’re planning on exploring beyond the city you flew into. There are chain car rental companies at the airport and local rental companies scattered throughout the San Juan area. You’ll want to reserve your rental car before your trip to ensure you get the car of your choice – this can be easily done online. The roads are easy to drive and navigate. There’s a main highway that basically connects you from San Juan to all the major points of attraction directly. Google maps was our go-to navigation and exits and attractions are obviously marked on the highway.
If you’re exploring Old San Juan, you can walk to everything you need. There’s also a free trolley that circles the city. The city is only about 2 miles from end to end and holds everything from cute bakeries to historical forts. Driving in the heart of the city is a little difficult because of the small streets and number of pedestrians, but if you need a car in the city there are cheap parking garages along the outer areas of the city that you can drop your car off before having to battle the traffic. People may offer you a random spot on the street for a small fee, but remember to use your best judgement here.
If you’re staying within a short distance of your points of interests, Uber is the cheapest and most convenient. Be aware that taxi drivers and Uber drivers don’t really get along, so try to get picked up away from taxi stands.
Where to Stay
San Juan a great home base if you’re planning on exploring places around the island because of its central location. If you’re interested in staying in historical Old San Juan, Airbnb’s are your best option to experience a local stay right in the heart of the action. Many of the locals generously open up their home and you’ll instantly notice that each home has a colorful personality of its own. There aren’t many hotels or hostels within the city, but just outside, in the beachy Condado area is a collection of beautiful hotel and resort getaways. Some of these resorts offer enough activity to keep you busy for your whole trip!
For the widest selection of resort options, the east coast towns of Fajardo, Rio Grande, and Ceiba, offer luxurious escapes. This is where you will find your resort pools, golf courses, private beaches, and beach villas. These towns offer easy access to the main attractions of the East coast.
If you’re looking for budget options, stay closer to the airport outside of Old San Juan.
Things To Do
You could spend all day at any of the beaches in San Juan’s close vicinity. Almost all public beaches are free, not including the occasional minimal fee for parking. Off the east coast of the mainland, there are two islands, Culebra and Vieques, home to some beautiful beaches. Culebra Island is home to one of the top beaches in the world.
Puerto Rico has some of the largest caves in the world just asking to be explored. For an easy hike, head a little west to the Window Cave (pictured). This visit takes about 1.5 hours with tours running at the top of the hour. For a more adrenaline pumping activity, try a full day of caving, rappelling, and tubing through cave channels. These excursions can be reserved through local tours and usually include transportation.
A unique experience on the coast of Puerto Rico is the Bioluminescent Bay, a lagoon filled with microorganisms that glow on touch. Although the glow has decreased dramatically the past few years, it is still a wonderful sight to see what sparkles in the water. Swimming is no longer allowed in the bay to help in its conservation. You can only get to the bay with a tour and there are two tour options – by kayak or boat – both lasting about 2 hours in the evening and costing about $40-$60.
Rum Distillery Tours
The largest rum distillery factory in the world is located near San Juan and it belongs to Bacardi, proudly named Casa Bacardi. They offer different levels of packages depending on how many drinks you’d like – the cheapest one being only $15 for a welcome drink and a tour. You can get to the distillery easily by car or by ferry from Old San Juan.
El Yunque Rainforest
El Yunque Rainforest is the only rainforest in the United States National Parks network and it’s free to enter! You can easily spend a day here, hiking the different trails, taking a dip in the waterfalls, or finding breathtaking vistas. There are two big waterfalls and a few smaller ones that allow swimming – arrive early to avoid the crowds! There are small food huts for mid-day refueling. It is located close to the Northeast coast.
The fish is very fresh and oftentimes served fried and whole. Coffee shops are abundant and serve delicious, aromatic coffee. Mofongo is a local dish of fried green plantains mashed with salt and garlic that all visitors should try. This dish pairs well with the famous piña colada.
The currency used is US Dollars. There are abundant ATMs on the streets. Visa is accepted in almost all taxis, restaurants, and tourists attractions; American Express and Discover are accepted almost nowhere. Cash is still needed for small stores and tips for taxi drivers. Tipping is similar to practices in the US mainland: 15-20% in restaurants, 15% for taxis. Check for pre-added tip if you dine in a touristy area, regardless of the size of your group.
Puerto Rico is one of the capitals of salsa dancing, so bring your dancing shoes, even if you have two left feet. Lots of clubs offer free dancing lessons Thursday – Saturday nights. There are also a lot of bars specializing in craft cocktails.
If you’re a fan of rum, take this opportunity to taste local Puerto Rican rum, some of which can’t be exported to the mainland US.
Stay safe by keeping jewelry and other obvious valuables at home. Like any city, there are precautions to take, but tourists aren’t a target, so don’t be deterred from visiting – just stay vigilant. Travel in groups at night and stay in lit areas. If you do run into any issues, dial 911.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit is during the dry season – fortunately that includes all months outside of July – September. Luckily, Puerto Rico is affordable all year round, but if you want more space and less lines, avoid December, the peak of the high season. Basically, there isn’t a bad time to visit Puerto Rico – the weather is nice all year round and with a little planning, you can get a great deal on flights and lodging.
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