Explore Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico Travel Guide

Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island with a difference. It has the pristine beaches, tropical climate, crystal-blue sea and coconut palms characteristic of its counterparts; but along with its unmistakable Spanish colonial heritage, the island today is also part of the United States Commonwealth, meaning it has a first-world infrastructure mixed in with its traditional Latin American culture. Hamburgers are as endemic as island dishes like sancocho, and freeways connect shantytowns to strips of high-rise beachfront hotels. The second thing that makes Puerto Rico different to other Caribbean holiday Meccas is that it remains largely undeveloped, except for the coastal region around its capital city, San Juan. The island is edged with some magnificent beaches that are mostly uncommercialised, and which are easily reached from the capital and its large resort hotels because the island is so small and compact.

Exploring Puerto Rico, both around its coast and throughout its interior, is a delight. Roads are excellent and there are numerous interesting attractions and unrivalled experiences, from the world's largest radio telescope to the magical experience of swimming at night amongst tiny phosphorescent creatures on the offshore island of Vieques.

Historically Puerto Rico, like many other Caribbean islands, was originally inhabited by Taino Indians until the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the instigation of Spanish rule and settlement. The island's capital and larger towns have preserved their Spanish heritage as 'old quarter' tourist attractions, full of charm and interest. Puerto Rico is a hybrid of old and new which makes it an intriguing cultural destination, rather than just another tropical island paradise.

All passport holders must have an onward or return ticket and documents necessary for further travel. Entry requirements for Puerto Rico are the same as for the United States of America. When arriving from mainland USA there is no immigration control. It is highly recommended that passports have at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.

Bioluminescent Bay

Address: Fajardo

The water in Mosquito Bay sparkles like stars when disturbed due to the hundreds of thousands of bioluminescent dinoflagellates resident there. Of the bioluminescent bays all over the world, Vieques' Puerto Mosquito has been certified the brightest by the Guinness Book of World Records.

A trip to 'Bio Bay' (as it's locally known) is one of the best tourist attractions in Puerto Rico, and well worth the excursion from San Juan. Several tour companies offer kayaking and snorkelling in the magical water, often ranked as one of the most romantic places on earth. The bioluminescence is at its brightest during the full or near-full moon, and this is considered the best time to visit.

San Germán

Address: Ponce

A historic town with a colourful past, San Germán was the second city founded in Puerto Rico by the Spanish. Its mountainous location made it an ideal escape for artists, poets and revolutionaries, and present-day San Germán still carries that lively spirit. It has a number of pretty buildings dating back to the 16th century, including the Porta Coéli (Gate of Heaven) Church, and the San Germán de Auxerre Church.

Because of these, San Germán is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. There are also a few interesting museums, including the Lola Rodríguez de Tió Museum and the Ramírez de Arrellano y Rossell Museum. San Germán also hosts several religious and cultural festivals throughout the year.

Old San Juan

Address: San Juan

This area, encompassing about seven blocks, dates back about 500 years to the Spanish occupation when it served as a military stronghold that even withstood Sir Francis Drake's armies. The original cobbles on the streets are blue-tinged, and were originally used as ballast on Spanish ships. The ancient stones set off the more than 400 restored 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings that fill Old San Juan and draw thousands of tourists to walk the narrow, steep streets every day. The old town is enclosed in amazingly thick, high walls and features numerous attractive plazas bearing sculptures and memorials.

Fort San Felipe del Morro

Address: San Juan

The mighty six-level fortress of San Felipe del Morro, built in 1540, towers 140 feet (43m) above the sea on San Juan Bay, its 18-foot thick (5m) walls having proved a worthy defence against invasion. The largest fortification in the Caribbean, it is a maze of tunnels, dungeons, barracks, lookouts and ramps, offering spectacular views from atop its ramparts. Also in Norzagaray Street, Old San Juan, is El Morro's partner in defending the city, Castillo San Cristobal, built in the 17th century to a confusing and intricate modular design.

La Fortaleza

Address: Fortaleza Street, Old San Juan San Juan

The Fortaleza was built in 1540 as a fortress to guard the entrance to the San Juan harbour, but later became the official Governor's residence. During succeeding centuries the original structure has been remodelled and expanded, with a neoclassical façade being added in 1846 to leave the building with its palatial aspect. The current governor of Puerto Rico is in residence - the 170th Governor to live in the Fortaleza.

Museo de Arte

Address: 299 De Diego Avenue, Santurce San Juan

Puerto Rico's showcase art gallery opened just a few years ago at a cost of millions of dollars. The gallery is housed in a former city hospital in Santurce and offers a permanent and visiting exhibition. The aim is to highlight the island's heritage through the work of local artists, such as Francisco Oller, who studied in France with Cézanne, and Jose Campeche, a late-18th century Classical painter. The museum has been described as a 'living textbook of Puerto Rico', providing on overview of centuries of the island's history through the medium of art. The museum also hosts events like concerts and festivals throughout the year.

Caribbean National Forest (El Yunque)

Address: San Juan

The Caribbean National Forest, 35 miles (56km) east of San Juan, is the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Park system and was named El Yunque by the Spanish. Its 28,000 acres contain about 240 different species of tree and numerous other plants, from tiny, delicate wild orchids to gigantic ferns.

Visitors can start their visit at the El Portal Tropical Forest Centre where there are films, exhibits and interactive displays on the rainforest. Maps are available of the dozens of walking trails through the forest, graded according to difficulty. Nearby is Puerto Rico's best beach, Luquillo Beach, famous for its soft white sand and towering coconut palms.

Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve

Address: Fajardo

Located on three promontories on the extreme northeast corner of the island, Las Cabezas reserve is one of the most beautiful and bio-diverse natural areas in Puerto Rico. The reserve is close to Fajardo, a major marina and diving resort, located about an hour's drive from San Juan. The area offers pristine beaches ideal for snorkelling. The reserve contains seven different ecological systems including coral reefs, sandy beaches, lagoons, mangroves and dry forest. It is also home to several endangered species. Boardwalk trails provide easy access to the different natural sites. A restored 19th-century lighthouse, El Faro, is situated on one of the headlands and offers an information centre and observation deck.

Ponce Art Museum

Address: 2325 Avenue Las Americas Ponce

The 'Museo de Arte de Ponce' contains the largest art collection in the Caribbean, housed in a building designed by Edward Durrell Stone, who designed the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The impressive building is comprised of seven interconnected hexagons topped with glass cupolas. Inside are more than 1,000 paintings and 400 sculptures covering classical, ancient and contemporary works. Among the prizes of the collection are works by Velasquez, Rubens and Rodin. Puerto Rican art also features strongly.

Coffin Island

Address: Ponce

On weekends a ferry carries visitors from the pier at La Guancha on the Ponce waterfront to Coffin Island, a tiny uninhabited island five miles south of the city. The island, also known as Dead Man's Chest, is part of the Reserva Natural Caja de Muertos natural reserve, due to its native turtle traffic. There are five pristine beaches, including Playa Ensenadita, Playa Larga, Playa Blanca, Playa Chica, and the blue-flag designated Playa Pelícano. Beaches on the east side of the island are roped off during turtle-nesting season.

There are hiking trails throughout the interior of the island, and visitors can also explore the 19th-century Caja de Muerto Lighthouse, that has been restored and now houses a museum. Coffin Island is a great excursion for visitors to Ponce, and ranks as one of Puerto Rico's best tourist attractions for diving enthusiasts.

Museum of Puerto Rico Music

Address: 50 Isabel Street Ponce

This museum is dedicated to documenting the rich tapestry of the island's music history and pays tribute to Puerto Rican musicians. It explains the significance of the romantic danza music style, and the African-inspired popular forms of bomba and plenza. The museum features displays of Indian, Spanish and African musical instruments, and memorabilia of local composers and performers, all housed in the attractive former residence of the Serralles family, renowned rum producers. Displays are in both English and Spanish.

Museo Castillo Serralles

Address: 17 El Vigia Ponce

Perched above the city of Ponce on El Vigia Hill is the restored residence of the Serralles rum-producing family. The multi-level Spanish-revival hacienda, designed by Pedro de Castro and built in 1930, is a beautiful example of the island's post-World War I architecture. The house surrounds an elegant courtyard featuring fountains, and is renowned for its splendidly carved dining-room ceiling. The mansion is set in magnificent terraced formal gardens with breathtaking views, and makes for a wonderful day-trip destination from Ponce.

Culebra and Vieques

Address: Fajardo

Dubbed 'the enchanted isles', Vieques and her smaller sister Culebra are located off Puerto Rico's east coast, accessible from San Juan by air and from Fajardo by ferry. Both support a few thousand friendly, laid-back inhabitants who live life peacefully and slowly, enriching rather than impacting on the natural beauty of their environment. Vieques is 20-odd miles long and five miles wide, and consists largely of the biggest wildlife sanctuary in the Caribbean, protected by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service. Some of the world's most beautiful beaches, with azure clear waters and sugary white sand, are to be found in the sanctuary.

Visitors planning to see Vieques should consider stay overnight to experience its premier attraction, Bio Bay. On a moonless night the bay glows with the bioluminescence radiated by microscopic one-celled organisms called dinoflagellates, providing an unforgettable sight. Smaller Culebra, just seven miles long and three miles wide, is a few miles north of Vieques and is renowned for the clarity of the waters washing its shores. This is caused by the fact that the island has no rivers or streams causing run-off: the arid island has to have water piped from Puerto Rico via Vieques. This quiet, unspoiled island offers unrivalled snorkelling and scuba diving in its magnificent encircling reefs, as well as kayak expeditions and hiking trails for bird-watchers through the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge.

Casa Bacardi Visitor Centre

Address: Bay View Industrial Park San Juan

Undoubtedly one of the top tourist attractions in Puerto Rico, a trip to the Casa Bacardi Visitor Centre is a must for travellers to San Juan. Following their exile from Cuba in the 1950s, the Bacardi family moved to Puerto Rico and set up a small rum distillery on the outskirts of San Juan. Today, that small distillery has grown into the largest in the world - producing a jaw-dropping 100,000 gallons of rum per day, and 21 million cases per year.

Tours of the Casa Bacardi Visitor Centre last about an hour, as visitors are shown around a variety of exhibits (including vintage rum stills) and informed about the history of Bacardi rum (including a short movie). The tour culminates in a visit to an on-site, classically-styled bar, where a bartender will show you the 'proper' methods of preparing Cuba libres and mojitos. The best part? All visitors receive two complimentary drink tickets, which they can cash in on ice-cold Bacardi-based drinks. There is also a gift shop located on the premises, a perfect place to pick up some rum or Bacardi apparel for friends back home.

Isla Verde

Address: San Juan

Isla Verde ('Green Island') is San Juan's hippest area, and home to many of its best beach resorts and upmarket hotels. The area's name is inspired by the colour of the water in its bay: a rich, green-turquoise shade that will prove irresistible to swimmers and divers. While the beautiful crescent-shaped beach - with its soft sand and tall palm trees - is a tourist attraction in its own right, most visitors to Puerto Rico will seek out Isla Verde for its excellent beach resorts, plush hotels, international dining options, world-class spa treatment facilities and vibrant nightlife. Isla Verde is home to two of the island's best casino hotels and a wide range of raucous night clubs and bars, where live local music is often staged. A natural base for well-heeled travellers to San Juan, Isla Verde makes for a luxurious home away from home during your holiday in Puerto Rico. A fantastic winter sun vacation destination, Isla Verde sees most of its tourist activity between December and January, when days are warm and sunny and there is no threat of hurricanes or storms.

Mayaguez Zoo

Address: Mayaguez Ponce

Although located in Mayaguez on the east coast of Puerto Rico - and so rather off the beaten tourist track in Puerto Rico - the Mayaguez Zoo (also called the Dr Juan A Rivero Zoo) is a world-class establishment, and well worth a visit for animal lovers and for those who are passionate about wildlife conservancy. The island's only large-scale zoo, since its establishment in 1954 the Dr Juan A Rivero Zoo has been growing a collection of rare and exotic animals that now includes lions, tigers, jaguars, hippos, giraffes and rhinos, as well as many species of tropical birds and large and varied collections of butterflies, amphibians and snakes.

Central to the Zoo's growth has been a focus on conservancy, and several native species - including the Andean condor and the Puerto Rican crested toad - have benefited greatly from this approach. Featuring several recreated 'habitat systems' (including the tropical Spider Monkey Island), as well as numerous recreation areas, the Mayaguez Zoo is a wonderful place to take the kids for the day. Budget at least two or three hours to take it all in.

Golf

A links-lover's paradise, Puerto Rico is home to more than 20 golf courses, of which almost all could be considered championship-level courses. Puerto Rico's luxury resorts offer some of the best golf courses on the island. The Westin Río Mar Beach Resort and Country Club near San Juan features two world-class oceanside courses. Northwest of San Juan is the Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach Resort & Casino and Hyatt Dorado Beach Resort & Casino featuring four Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed courses and arguably the best golfing to be found on the island. The Wyndham El Conquistador Resort and Country Club and the Palmas Del Mar Resort & Villas in Humacao also offer two of the most breathtaking courses in the Caribbean.

Scuba Diving in Puerto Rico

Scuba diving and snorkelling, for beginners and experts alike, is the reason why Puerto Rico is often called the Caribbean's best-kept underwater secret. Off the southwest coast, from the village of La Parguera to the city of Ponce, lie some of the island's most extraordinary dive sites, including the Black Wall, home of the Caribbean's rarely seen black coral. Another noteworthy spot is Isla Mona, off the west coast of Puerto Rico, known as the Galapagos of the Caribbean. It is home to sea turtles, dolphins and various species of rare marine life. Scuba Diving Magazine readers regularly vote Puerto Rico as one of the top five destinations for shore diving, and the island is a mainstay in top-20 lists for overall diving. For visitors looking to get close to the water, but not necessarily submerged in it, Puerto Rico offers various other water sports such as world-class surfing, windsurfing, sailing, kayaking and deep-sea fishing.

There are no vaccination certificates required for travel to Puerto Rico, but travellers are advised to be up to date with routine vaccinations. Cases of dengue fever occur annually and mosquito protection measures are essential. Schistosomiasis is endemic and swimming in lakes, rivers and streams should be avoided. It is best to drink bottled water to avoid stomach upsets. Thoroughly wash or peel produce you buy in markets before eating it. Medical services are good but can be expensive; medical insurance is advised.

Social etiquette in Puerto Rico is typically Latin American, with some North American influences (such as a stronger sense of female independence, and a toning-down of the ideal of machismo). Western visitors to the country should feel comfortable, and 'at home', in most social situations. Hygiene, cleanliness and personal appearance are viewed as matters of self-respect, so travellers who've been 'on the road' for a little while might consider neatening up their beards or trimming their hair, especially if they want to make a good first impression. A final, important aspect of Puerto Rican social life, is the concept of relajo. Generally shy of direct confrontation and open criticism, relajo refers to the gentle, joking manner in which Puerto Ricans will bring up uncomfortable issues around each another. Visitors should be aware of this technique, as they may, on occasion, be required to 'read between the lines' to discover what locals are really trying to express.

Some restaurants and hotels automatically add a 10 to 17 percent service charge to the bill, if not a 15 percent tip is expected. Taxi drivers and bar staff also expect tips.

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