8 minutes reading time United States
Puerto Rico has always been a postcard-perfect holiday destination in the Caribbean, popular for its fine sandy beaches, diverse marine life, entrancing waters, rich culture and warm tropical weather. Called Isla del Encanto or the Island of Enchantment, Puerto Rico has the charm that lingers in the heart and mind of locals and foreigners alike.
Nestled between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, it is easy to see why the archipelago of Puerto Rico, a United States territory, is a favorite of holidaymakers. For one, Puerto Rico is easily accessible from the US (most visitors from the US jump off from Miami) and other Caribbean islands like the Dominican Republic on the west and the British and US Virgin Islands in the east. In addition, tourism is an important part of Puerto Rico’s economy so tourism infrastructure is intact as seen with the almost four million visitors in the islands each year. Though most parts of the island had been damaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, rebuilding efforts have paid off and Puerto Rico continues to thrive to this day.
Sunworshippers and adventure seekers flock to Puerto Rico between December and May, which makes accommodation rates here go up. Though prices are high during peak travel season, these prices are still lower compared to other Caribbean islands. The sunny and breezy spring also entices visitors as prices dip a bit more. June may be the hottest time on the island but it is still worth visiting as several festivals are held throughout the islands around this time. Summertime is its off-season so prices are cheaper and fewer tourists are around, just be aware of the caveat that there are possibilities of hurricanes between July and September.
It is good to note that most attractions here — may it be forts, beaches, caves or falls — have entrance fees that are cheaper for the locals compared to fees for those who are not residents of the islands. Also, when exploring the rest of Puerto Rico outside of San Juan (it is a walkable city and there are public buses that go around it and the nearby beaches, too), the best option is to rent a private car to have the freedom to explore the sights. Just be aware that when going to different areas of Puerto Rico, one needs to pass the toll roads, which will make your trip a little more expensive.
There is so much to learn about Puerto Rico’s traditions that are molded by its rich culture. What makes it unique from other Caribbean islands is its sights and sounds inspired by Tainos (indegenous people of the Caribbean), European, African, North American and South American. Plus a large number of Cubans and Dominicans have relocated to the islands in the past few decades. All these mashed up influences in Puerto Rico can be seen in its food, architecture, music, and its people.
As one steps in Puerto Rican soil, there is a deluge of palpable energy that will take one for a ride in a vibrant parade of colors, starting with the amazing food. Its cocina criolla cuisine has roots from Spain, Africa and native Tainos. Probably the poster child of cocina criolla is Mofongo, which is a mashed green plantain that has fish chicken or chicharron (fried pork rind) filling. It’s not hard to find Mofongo as it is mostly available in restaurants and food trucks.
Another dish predominantly made of green plantains is Tostones, which are sliced, fried, flattened and then fried again. Don’t miss out on tripleta, a sandwich with steak, pork and chicken, served on a sweet potato bread. As it is near the sea, Puerto Rico has access to the best seafood in the Caribbean so make sure to try their seafood. In tourist areas, food can go from $15 to $25 for a nice size meal with a drink. Just drive away from the touristy areas and one may find a meal for less than $10.
In the capital of San Juan, one will see the different cultural influences and Spanish colonial and Ponce Creole architecture like on Ashford Avenue that gives off a Miami vibe with its Art Deco buildings, shopping centers, and hotels. Just a stone’s throw away from Ashford Avenue is the tourist-friendly Condado beach.
Just a few minutes walk from Ashford Avenue is La Placita on Calle dos Hermanos in Santurce neighborhood, where a street party happens every weekend, especially Friday nights. It is a favorite local spot because of its relaxed but fun atmosphere, plus, food and drinks here are moderately priced.
During the day, its main building serves as a farmer’s market. But towards the late afternoon after the building closes, the colonial-style plaza starts to come to life as restaurants and chinchorros (open-air bars) open to the sound of inviting beats of reggaeton and salsa. Along La Placita are kiosks selling Puerto Rican favorites like alcapurrias (deep-fried stuffed fritters), bacalaitos (fried codfish fritters) and chicharron (pork skin rind).
For some art fix, the vibrant Santurce neighborhood is the place to be. Not many know that this neighborhood has gained the reputation of being the capital of art in the Caribbean. Similar to the artsy Wynwood District in Miami, Santurce has a fair amount of street art (most of them can be spotted along Calle Cerra), impressive galleries and museums. Santurce es Ley Festival (Santurce is Law), which is usually held every August, is a cultural a gathering of the world’s most talented street artists where they decorate and “fix up” dilapidated structures in the neighborhood with large-scale murals.
Just 10 minutes away from Santurce is Old San Juan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that boasts colorful colonial buildings, centuries-old forts and historical landmarks. A main spot for local tourism, Old San Juan is also a port of call for cruise ships, so the best time to stroll its cobblestone streets is in the morning.
A must-see here is El Morro, a 14th-century fort, which has great views of the San Juan harbor, and Castillo San Cristobal. There is a $7 entrance fee for those two attractions, just make sure you keep the receipt that will gain you access to either of those two national parks. Old San Juan is equally beautiful at night with bodegas, chinchorros, and cafes. Grab a drink or two here with a friendly local. English is widely spoken in Puerto Rico but knowing a bit of Spanish will also endear the locals to you, they might exclaim ¡Wepa!, a general expression of joy and happiness.
For many, Puerto Rico is a tropical playground. It has a bounty of natural beauty and most of these are within arms reach. Those who love to swim or just laze on the sand, there are a lot of beaches here to choose from.
Just less than 30 minutes away from San Juan is Vacia Talega, a free beach which is devoid of tourists at times. If you love a quiet time, this is the best place to chill and relax. About 30 minutes east of Vacia Talega is Luquillo Beach, known as “La Capital del Sol” (Sun Capital). It is one of the favorites in Puerto Rico because of its crystal-clear waters and lagoons. Relax on its sandy beach while enjoying a piña colada or paletas (homemade popsicles) on hand. There is a $5 entrance fee for this beach. Another known free beach is Crash Boat on the western shore, about two-hour drive from San Juan. Water activities are popular here like scuba diving, paddle boarding and snorkeling.
A must-experience in Puerto Rico is the magical bioluminescent Mosquito Bay, located in the island of Vieques. The blue glow of its waters at night comes from organisms called dinoflagellates that inhabit the bay. To take your experience to another level, rent a kayak and see the water glow up close.
There is still so much to do even far out of the lovely waters and beaches of Puerto Rico. At the mountainside are coffee plantations, where one can visit and learn about why locally grown coffee was once the most important agricultural product of the islands. Today, Puerto Rico is among the Top 10 coffee producers in the world. Hacienda Buenavista in Ponce, Hacienda San Pedro in Jayuya or Hacienda Munoz in San Lorenzo are the places to start.
Meanwhile, in Arecibo is Cueva Ventana (Window Cave), a large cave atop a limestone cliff. Entrance fee for locals is $11 and $21 for non-residents of the islands. The fee includes a tour guide, a flashlight and a helmet. To get to the cave, there is an easy one-hour-and-a-half hike. At the end of the hike, an amazing view of the Rio Grande de Arecibo Valley is totally worth the money and effort.
Puerto Rico is rich in natural wonders but its most precious gems are its people — with their warm hospitality, friendly demeanor and pride in their culture. Puerto Ricans’ lively hand and facial gestures are important forms of communication but those may also be what may endear you to them. They are a resilient people. With every disaster that went their way — they pick up the damages and get back up. With the help of each other, they prevail.
The allure of Puerto Rico comes from its sun-soaked islands, inviting waters, amazing cuisine, centuries-old historical sites and its wonderful people. Isla del Encanto lives up to its moniker — enchanting and entrancing.
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