I’ll just start off by saying I had no idea what to expect from this little island. Growing up in Orlando where there is a large Puerto Rican minority dominance, the culture was always loudly prominent. Yet, I didn’t realize how little I actually knew of the U.S. territory until I peaked through the window by senior year spring break as the plane shifted to it’s landing gears to see sprawling mountain ranges. Wtf. Puerto Rico has mountains?
While I will admit some parts of this adventure are blurry thanks to a delightful Puerto Rican rum called Don Q that dates back to 1820, it was the best introduction to the Caribbean a gal could ever ask for.
WHERE TO STAY: Airbnb in Old San Juan
PRICE POINT: $
FOOD TO TRY: Asopao de Pollo
DOWNTOWN SAN JUAN
One of the best things about this island getaway is that it’s easy. For U.S. travelers you can escape to paradise by simply hopping on a quick plane ride over the Caribbean, no passport nor currency exchange required. Most speak English or a variation of Spanglish and your treasured phone data will mostly work so you’ll still be able to catch that Squirtle or rare Holographic Charizard in the middle of the road. (Note to self, delete line once Pokemon becomes irrelevant again.)
Having a member in our vacation squad who’s a Puerto Rican native was a godsend. Not only did we have the luxury of having her magnificent tía drive us everywhere (DISCLAIMER: Puerto Rican drivers will have you praying for your life no matter what god or lack of god you believe in – proceed with extreme caution if renting a car), another one of her family members surprised us broke college kids by booking us 4 nights at the Best Western in Condado. It was cheap, clean, offered free breakfast, at the heart of everything we wanted to do in downtown San Juan and just steps away from the beach.
Downtown San Juan was eh, veryyy touristy. The beaches there were nothing to brag about, not to mention the rip tide almost mangled our group into a jetty of bone crushing rocks. (Thank you kind sir on the beach who flapped his arms vehemently finally getting our attention of the impending doom ahead.)
Nights in San Juan though, now those are some good times. We somehow always ended up closing out the night at the Heineken or Moon Bar with the group of college frat bros on spring break like-minded travelers we met our first night there. TIP: Catch a killer sunrise at one of the beachfront hotel pools — if you don’t have the privilege of staying at one of those hotels, do what we did. Act like you belong and you’ll be golden.
OLD SAN JUAN
Day vs. Night
There are two different Old San Juan’s: one that exists during the day, the other at night. The daytime Old San Juan is everything you’d want out of a historical island downtown. Think charming Spanish colonial architecture coated in a pastel rainbow intertwined by narrow, cobblestone streets. Gift shops selling everything from sarongs to cigars to voodoo dolls dotted every corner of the 7 square blocks.
Then there’s Old San Juan by night. Head out there on a Friday as it’s known to be more of a locals night. Order a Cuba Libre and go through the maze of doors that connect the bars and lounges. For all you females (or whoever else) who like to strap on heels to feel fancy, just don’t.
Cobblestone + heels + cocktails = no bueno.
ISLA DE CULEBRITA
Another treat to having a native in our group was a (metaphorical) ticket aboard her family’s catamaran to the highly acclaimed Isla de Culebrita – not to be confused with the more popular Culebra. While both offer award-winning sprawling sandy beaches and twinkling turquoise waters, Isla De Culebrita can only be reached by private boats and charters. Oh la la.
After a 2-3 hour ride from the marina, we arrived at Isla de Culebrita just east of the more touristy – yet still undoubtedly exquisite – mainland. This small, uninhabited island had everything you’d want in a tropical paradise. From waters that resemble Brita water to rocky tide pools teeming with life, this is one area you cannot miss.
While half our crew was content with staying on board to soak
burn in the Caribbean sun, the other half of us dwindled away the day kayaking, snorkeling, paddle boarding, and playing volleyball alongside the coconut laden palm trees perfectly lining the horseshoe shaped bay. To top off the full day of margaritas, we were fed some of the most finger lickin’ homemade kabobs I have ever had the pleasure of stuffing my face with. Kinda drooling right now thinking about them, tbh.
EL YUNQUE NATIONAL FOREST
As the only national tropical rain forest in the United States, take a break from the surf and sand to head over to El Yunque National Forest. Home of one of the most biologically diverse forests, hike through the ferns and towering greenery to La Mina Falls and continue the trail to
Yokahu Tower to catch some of the most breathtaking views of the island amongst the rainforest canopy.
Want to make a whole day of it in El Yunque? Book a horseback riding tour. Doing this not only allowed us to see more than we would have achieved by foot, there was something nostalgic atop horseback in the rainforest…minus the lunch lady hairnets they made us wear under our helmets. Tip for Females: Do NOT wear a bathing suit top. Throw on a sports bra and thank your lucky stars you were warned of the extremely bumpy ride – unlike us.
LUQUILLO FOOD KIOSKS + BEACH
As we left the rainforest, the majestic mahogany, teak, and rosewood trees getting smaller and smaller in our rearview mirror, a row of bright pastel kioskos emerged on the side of Route 3. Here you’ll find a food connoisseurs wet dream – 60+ shacks offering only the most authentic of Puerto Rican grub. After you fill your belly full of plantains or asopao de pollo (<- Find the recipe here!), hop to the other side of the road and relax on the blissfully less crowded sands of Luquillo Beach.
Although my time on the island was short yet oh so very sweet, I’ll be seeing Puerto Rico again at some point I know. But this time I’ll be checking off new adventures like kayaking the bioluminescent bay, exploring 400 year old forts like the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, hike through caves at Las Cavernas De Camuy, and starfishing on a beach towel on Palomino Island in Fajardo.
Adios my friend, ’til next time Puerto Rico.