Zae and I just got back from an incredible trip to Puerto Rico that rocked my world (that’s a rock pun because I GOT ENGAGED on day 2 of the trip!!! *squeals*). We shared a lot of our trip via Instagram and received so many questions about where we stayed and how we planned. Before going, I received tons of recommendations from friends and family, and spent hours meticulously scrolling through travel sites. My hope is to pass this info on to others planning their own trip!
We travelled to Puerto Rico for 10 days, but you can easily hit the highlights in half the time. During our trip, we hit 3 major areas: San Juan, El Yunque Rainforest and Vieques.
Why Puerto Rico?? For me, the island holds significance because of my family’s Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage. After leaving Cuba post-Castro in the early 60’s, the majority of my family relocated to Puerto Rico. It’s always been a place that is near to my culture and my heart.
Puerto Rico is a BEAUTIFUL vacation spot in the Caribbean that offers a mix of history, city life, stunning beaches and outdoor adventure. Puerto Rico is part of the United States, meaning you don’t need a passport and can enjoy the familiarity of safe food (cough Dominican Republic) or a quick Walgreens run.
A lot of people are hesitant to visit Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, but it’s actually one of the best things you can do to help in their recovery. Tourism makes up 10% of Puerto Rico’s GDP, so spending your money on the island will help build up the local economy (read more about this here).
We stayed in San Juan for a total of 4 days, which was plenty of time to explore. Because we planned beach days ahead in Vieques, we chose to mostly skip the beach in San Juan and just experience the city. However, if you’re planning a shorter trip to PR, you could easily see the city in one or two days and hit the beaches in between.
WHAT TO DO:
Walk through the streets of Old San Juan…We spent most of our time here because Viejo San Juan is home to the majority of the historic landmarks, shopping and restaurants. Be prepared for an aesthetic overload: the cobblestone streets are lined with the most bright and beautifully painted buildings.
Hit the landmarks…Puerto Rico was one of the first places Christopher Columbus landed in the New World and became Spain’s most important military outpost in the early 1500s. And long before colonialism, the Taínos infused the island with a rich native culture. With all of this incredibly history, there are so many great landmarks to visit while you’re in San Juan. Make sure you see the big hitters: El Morro, Castillo de San Cristóbal, La Fortaleza, Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, the Raíces Fountain and Paseo de la Princesa.
WHERE TO STAY:
The San Justo Loft via Airbnb | We loved this place. This classic Spanish style apartment is in a colorful building in the heart of Old San Juan. We were steps away from the best restaurants, shopping and landmarks. We were also a cheap (like $5!) Uber ride from Playa Condado, the main beach/resort area.
The Dreamcatcher | We spent our final night in Puerto Rico at The Dreamcatcher and WOWWW this place made it hard to leave. This boutique hotel felt like it was out of the pages of an Anthropologie catalogue. Tropical lounge spaces. Yoga classes on the beach. Delicious local breakfast made by their in-house chefs. Our specific room had an outdoor bathroom space that made me reconsider everything I’ve ever wanted in a future home. It was a MOOD. 10/10 recommend.
WHERE TO EAT:
I was given so many recommendations that I compiled them all in a Google Maps list (linked below). I like to use the Google Maps app for travel because (1) it organizes all the places in one spot where I can easily access restaurant info/directions (2) wherever I am in the city at the moment, I can pull up the map to see what saved places are nearby!
Bar/night out recommendations in San Juan (P.S. If you love a good night out, I recommend booking your trip around a weekend to get the most of San Juan’s nightlife)
Here were some of our favorite food spots:
La Bombonera — for a great bakery-style breakfast. Try their famous (since 1902) Spanish-style mallorca, which is like a pressed breakfast sandwich sprinkled with powdered sugar.
La Casita Blanca — for the best, most authentic Puerto Rican food we experienced in PR. The restaurant has a cozy, airy vibe that was perfect for lunch. Get the mofongo!!
Santaella — I hate to set high expectations, but…this was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. It was a lil pricey, but worth it for a nice dinner night out. The cocktails are incredible (try the Parchita), and we INHALED the starters (try the croquetas and the goat cheese quesadilla). For our main course, the pork belly and the sea bass had us genuinely jaw dropped for the first few bites. So. Damn. Good.
Visiting El Yunque was a must for me (did you know it’s the only rainforest in the United States??) It’s easy to schedule a guided day trip to El Yunque from San Juan because it’s only an hour drive away. But because I’m a nut for the tropical outdoors, we decided to rent a car and spend the night in the forest to maximize the experience on our own time. Worth it.
WHAT TO DO:
You don’t need to be some kind of expert to tackle El Yunque without a guided tour. It’s a U.S. National Park, so El Yunque is very much open to the public with easy trails, parking lots and park rangers on site to direct you around. We stopped by the visitors center to get a paper map and have someone tell us where to go if we wanted to see a waterfall (lol).
WHERE TO STAY:
We spent the night in the most quaint cabin in the forest— probably one of the highlights of the trip for me. Sue’s Place on Airbnb (her pics don’t do it justice) was tucked away at the end of a winding drive through the most beautiful tropical hills. The property is surrounded by lush plants and incredible views of the mountains…I woke up at sunrise to lay in the hammock and watch the morning rain. It was such a charming experience that really made us feel like we were comfortably glamping.
WHERE TO EAT:
As you could imagine, there aren’t a ton of restaurants up in the mountains. However, there’s a gem called the Luquillo Kiosks or “Los Kioskos”, which is a strip of about 50 food stalls that serve everything from pizza to Puerto Rican food. Picture a food truck experience, but open air restaurants with seating. Go at night if you’re up for a divey reggaeton bar scene.
After spending the night in El Yunque, we drove to catch the ferry to Vieques, a small beach island (still part of Puerto Rico) off the east coast of the mainland. The ferry only costs $2 and takes 30 minutes (you can buy tickets in person or online at porferry.com). We spent 4 days in Vieques, which was plenty of time to unwind and bask in the chill island life.
There is another (even smaller) island next to Vieques called Culebra that also has beautiful, top-ranked beaches. You could take another short ferry ride over, but we were told by a few locals that it was not much different from what Vieques has to offer. Maybe they were biased, but we listened and skipped Culebra for this trip.
WHAT TO DO:
When we arrived in Vieques, we picked up a rental Jeep. I highly recommend getting a car, specifically one that can withstand bumpy roads, to best experience Vieques. It’s a small island, but everything is spread out and Uber is not reliable.
Beach is what there is to do in Vieques. We visited in the off season (June), but even in the peak season (winter), Vieques is a sleepy island, perfect for a relaxing getaway. Our favorite beaches were La Chiva and Sun Bay— at some points of the day, we were the only people on the beach.
Vieques is also home to 3 out of 5 bioluminescent bays in the entire world. EPIC. One of the main attractions is taking a kayak tour to see the glowing bay. When you splash your paddles in the water, bright blue microorganisms light up the water. Make sure to plan your trip around the full moon— sounds silly, but if you go during the full moon, you won’t be able to see the glow in the water because the moon will be too bright. We were very unlucky and visited during the full moon. So. That sucked.
WHERE TO EAT
Vieques is a really small island without a ton of resources, so the food scene isn’t terribly exciting. However you can count on fresh seafood, which is really all that matters in this life anyway. Here are a few spots you should try, but be warned that the restaurants run on island time:
Arenamar’s Sun Bay Cafe — a little shack on Sun Bay beach that serves rum out of a coconut and fresh fish they caught on the boat that morning.
Isla Nena Crabwalk Cafe — If Anthony Bourdain were with us, he’d have a heyday with this little shack by the airport. It’s run by a Chinese woman who makes authentic NYC Chinatown-worthy dumplings.
Tin Box— We didn’t end up eating here because it was closed, but it’s a really cute space that everyone said serves good happy hour tacos and BBQ.
WHERE TO STAY:
We stayed at an Airbnb in the Esperanza area, which was super close to the main strip of restaurants in town. We didn’t love the property, but it did the job and allowed us to save a few bucks to afford the rental Jeep. If I could do it again, I would’ve stayed at the Hix Island House, which looked waaay cooler. I love the aesthetic and open air concept, but wasn’t sure about staying at the beach with no A/C (which I had read about in the reviews).
Day 1-3: San Juan
Day 4: Rent a car in San Juan and drive to El Yunque; spend the night in El Yunque
Day 5: Drop off car in Ceiba, then take ferry to Vieques
Day 5-8: Vieques
Day 9: Take ferry back from Vieques to Ceiba; Uber back to San Juan to spend the last night
Day 10: Final day in San Juan
Here are some additional resources to learn more about Puerto Rico before your trip: