There are so many cool things to do in Puerto Rico that I didn’t even know about before I got there. This Puerto Rico itinerary is for those of you that want to spend a small amount of time in San Juan and then get away from the city and explore all that the rest of the island has to offer.
Renting a Car in Puerto Rico
We rented a car right from the downtown area of San Juan. I prebooked a rental at Enterprise, which is well located if you are staying along the main hotel strip or around Ocean Park.
Alternatively, there are a few rental car companies that allow you to pick up from the airport. It is slightly more expensive to pick up at the airport since there is some sort of airport tax, but the taxis from the airport are insanely expensive ($21 USD as of April 2019), so it may be worth paying the fee for the rental if you plan to get out and explore as soon as you land.
I would also make sure to look for free onsite parking as you book your hotels/Airbnb around the island. Whenever I know I’m going to have a rental car, I always want to make sure that free parking is included and when possible, that it’s off the street.
What to Do in Puerto Rico on an Island Road Trip
When you are considering what places to add to your Puerto Rico itinerary, consider how many days you want to spend by the beach (hopefully a lot), how much you want to be driving, and how long you want to stay in each place. This list of what to do in Puerto Rico is beach heavy with a few other inland spots definitely worth checking out.
This is in the order of places that you can stop as you leave San Juan and head straight west along (and off of) highway 2.
Of course, no trip to Puerto Rico is complete without at least stopping in San Juan. There are so many ways to experience this city and I will be writing a completely separate one to explain all the best places to stay, eat, shop, and explore. If you don’t want to wait for that to be published, here’s what I recommend.
The area of Old San Juan is stunning. There are so many colorful buildings to wander around. I also loved both El Morro and San Cristobal, the two forts built by the Spanish to defend the island. If you go to both of them on the same day, you only need to pay once. The tickets are $7 USD and you can then show the same ticket when you visit the other fort.
For food, be sure to grab a decadent popsicle from Señor Paleta. The lunch I had at La Casita Blanca was the best meal I ate in all of Puerto Rico. Hipsters can’t miss all the food trucks at Lote 23 and foodies will love the tasting menu at Marmalade. I also loved the coffee at Cuatro Sombras. For great bakery foods, I really loved the sandwiches and empanadas at Kasalta and the breakfast and coffee at Coffeeteria.
I stayed at an Airbnb in Ocean Park, which is a gated community right on the beach (near Kasalta and Coffeeteria). You can see that listing here. It was a block away from the beach in one direction and two blocks away from tons of great food option in the other direction. It’s less than a $10 Uber to the airport and less than a $10 Uber ride from the Old Town. It was the perfect location for what I wanted to do in San Juan.
Cueva del Indio
This little cave is a great place to stop as you leave San Juan. It’s about an hour’s drive from the downtown San Juan area, so a good place to take a driving break before you get to Rincon for nightfall.
This cave is home to ancient Taino drawings. Tainos were the original native people of Puerto Rico (and Hispaniola, Jamaica, Cuba, and the Bahamas) and there are actually very few of these sort of places remaining in the Caribbean, so a visit to these is a must for history and culture lovers. It also has stunning views over the sea and the crashing waves against the rocks.
Another quick stop along the way from San Juan to Rincon, Guajateca Tunnel is definitely worth a stop to stretch your legs and take a short walk along the coast. The tunnel covers a short walkway that takes you from the parking lot to the beach where you probably don’t want to swim since the waters are quite rough.
It actually used to be a railroad tunnel and has now been turned into a tourist destination where you can enjoy the views. It’s not actually a very popular stop along the coast, so if you get there early enough in the day, you’ll likely have the whole place to yourself.
This is where I recommend spending at least the first night of your trip, if not more. Rincon is great because it has plenty of beaches around and it also has a big enough town so that you can enjoy Puerto Rican food, craft beer, and cold beer with a sunset and your toes in the sand.
Rincon is the place to base yourself if you literally just want to start the day with a good coffee, spend most of it swimming in the ocean and enjoying the sunshine and then finish the day with cold beers, good sunsets, and fresh seafood. I wish I had spent a few more days here because it was just such a relaxing place to be. This is where I saw the absolute best sunset of my entire life (slightly exaggerating, but only slightly, it really was incredible).
I stayed the night at this Airbnb which I absolutely loved. There are only four rooms in the hotel so it feels so much more like a chilled out homestay than a hotel. It’s literally 30 seconds from the beach, there are a few bars right nearby, a small shop, a seriously great coffee shop (Jake’s Java is a must!) and a short drive to the town for more food and drink options.
This is another great little beach town that I loved visiting. The downtown area has tons of little restaurants, cute shops where you can buy locally made clothes and jewelry. We ate fresh oysters from a street cart by the boat docks. We ate amazing mofongo and decent fish tacos (I’m biased living in Mexico, though!).
It also has one of the best beaches in the Cabo Rojo area (in my opinion). The water is very calm, so it’s great for swimming. It is beautiful here with turquoise waters and soft white sand.
If you want to stay in this area, I stayed in perhaps one of the coolest Airbnb places I’ve ever stayed in in the world! It’s not for those that dislike nature, but it’s almost like a treehouse. The kitchen and dining area are completely outside and the bedroom and bathroom are made from scratch by the owners. I spent two nights here and easily made day trips to a few more of the places that I mention below.
This beach is an easy drive from the above mentioned Airbnb or another great place to stop along your Puerto Rico road trip as you work your way along the west coast. The beach is narrow but very long, so keep walking to find a good spot. There’s also plenty of shade from all the trees that line the back area of the sand, so you don’t even really need to worry about an umbrella. The water here is nice, but what I loved best were all of the surrounding restaurants.
This is where I had some of my favorite seafood of the entire trip. There is a small restaurant right off of the beach called Fogata del Mar Bar & Grill. Their Medallas are ice cold and their Piña Coladas are deliciously sweet.
Salinas de Cabo Rojo & Cabo Rojo Lighthouse
You can combine both of these into one morning (or a full day if you have the time). Be sure to get an early start so you see the salt lakes at their best. We went around 9am and were able to see the pink lakes so perfectly. When we went past again around 2pm, they weren’t nearly as vibrant because the cloud cover was blocking the sun from shining against the lakes.
The Salinas de Cabo Rojo are a working salt farm where you can see the microorganisms and algae (that’s what makes the water pink). On a sunny morning it’s one of the strangest and most beautiful sights. Afterward, continue down the road until you can’t go anymore. Then follow the dirt walking track along the coastline for some seriously stunning views of the surrounding bay called Bahia Salinas. The track eventually leads to a lighthouse which is perhaps the least exciting part of this park.
At the far end of the parking lot is a beach which is very beautiful, but on weekends and during holiday weeks, gets incredibly busy. There is very little shade coverage here, but if you want to take a dip in the crystal clear waters to cool off, I highly recommend it.
This is the second largest city in Puerto Rico and has plenty of sights to explore if you have the time and need a break from the beach. The old town has some beautiful old colonial architecture. If you want to check out some art from Puerto Rican artists as well as some European art the Ponce Museum of Art is well worth a visit.
There’s also a really beautiful old castle, Castillo Serrallés for the history buffs. If you are just taking a short trip to the city to visit, head to the boardwalk, known as Paseo Tablado La Guancha, to wander along the water. This is where you’ll find tons of seafood restaurants and bars serving up ice cold Medallas.
Foodies can’t miss a stop along the pork highway. While it’s best to visit on a weekend if you can, especially Saturdays, it’s still worth stopping midweek if you have no alternative. I stopped here on a Thursday and enjoy a huge plate of pork, rice and beans, blood sausage, sweet potato, plantains, and a nice cold beer (I obviously have a thing for ice cold beers, who knew?).
The Pork highway is really easy to get to if you are coming from Ponce and heading back up north to go to San Juan or to continue to explore areas like El Yunque. To get there you are likely going to take either Highway 1 or the toll road which is Highway 52. Then head for the exit which takes you along Route 184. The easiest thing to do is just to set your GPS or navigation system to the first restaurant on the road, El Mojito.
El Mojito is one of the few places that is open most days of the week and is always busy because it’s the first restaurant you come to. Most people rave about it and I’m sure you’ll have a great meal. If you’re coming on a weekend and don’t mind driving a bit further, set your navigation for El Nuevo Rancho. There are live bands, the food is amazing, and it’s far enough away that you tend to get fewer tourists and more locals.
El Yunque is the national park here on the island and one of the most frequented destinations. It’s an easy enough day trip from San Juan if you leave early, and leave early is what you should do. The park has a limit to how many people can be inside at one time, so once that number is reached, you have to queue outside the park in your car.
When I went on a Saturday morning, we did a hike starting around 8am. We had no trouble coming in, finding parking and then doing the hike. There were way fewer people on the trails than when we were leaving around 11:30am. When we were driving out of the park at this time the line of cars was about 50 cars long. I can’t imagine how long they waited to get into the park.
There are definitely fewer visitors during the week, but I would play it safe and get into the park as early as you can.
There is also very little information available about what trails are open. Due to the hurricane a few years ago, the park is still working to clear the paths, which means most of them are still closed to the public. Hikes that are definitely open (as of April 2019) are the Mt. Bretton Trail which then leads you to El Yunque Peak. This is about 2.5-3 hours round trip.
For up-to-date information, I found Puerto Rico Day Trips to be a great website that is being updated very regularly. The park’s website is also updated slightly less frequently but has more accurate information. As a last-ditch effort, it seems they answer their Twitter pretty regularly, so maybe a few days before your trip you can ask which trails will be open.
This is where I based myself when I hiked in El Yunque. It’s less than 20 minutes to the entrance of the park and at night I could sit on the beach and drink fresh coconuts. The beach is really nice and if you really want to get an early start at El Yunque, it doesn’t get much closer than this.
I stayed at the Luquillo Sunrise Beach Inn. It was right across from the beach and has tons of rooms for under $150 – especially during the offseason. This was perfect for my friend and I to split and we got a huge room, two beds, plenty of towels and a secure parking spot. It also included a pretty sufficient breakfast: toast, bagels, hardboiled eggs, cereal, coffee, juice, and tea. If you want for $5 they will cook you up a full, hot plate of food.
Last but not least, it’s time to drop the car back off or to find a secure parking space at the ferry terminal so that you can get yourself out to one (or both) of the islands).
But Puerto Rico IS an island I hear you say. Yes, that’s true, but these are smaller islands with even more to see!
If you wanted to, you could get the first ferry in the morning to Culebra, spend the day at the famous Flamingo Beach, and then get the ferry back. This is what most visitors do. I opted to stay for two nights and nearly three full days and it was utter bliss. I stayed at Villa Flamingo Beach, a small hotel right on the beach (there are only two hotels on the entire beach!). We had immediate beach access and could walk along the sand to get to all the vendors and food near the parking lot at the other end.
This is also where you’ll find the colorfully painted tanks you may have seen on my Instagram or in the photos above. They are Sherman tanks that were left behind by the US Navy. Culebra used to be a weapons testing area for the Navy for almost 30 years. It wasn’t until 1975 that they left the island and every now and again, ammunition washes up on shore (don’t touch it obviously).
You can also swim with seaturtles here, take boat trips, go snorkeling, and visit a lighthouse. Most people rent a car because getting a taxi can be a bit of a hassle (not to mention at $7.50 per person per trip, it gets expensive, too!). You can rent a jeep near the ferry terminal or at the airport.
There are two ways to get to Culebra, take a ferry which you can prebook here, or take a flight which you can book here (they fly from the San Juan airport to Culebra). The ferry is obviously the cheaper option and the flight is the convenient and seriously stunning option. While I planned to take the ferry, I soon realized that trying to get to and from Culebra on Easter weekend was going to be a nightmare, so I booked a last minute flight instead.
It’s worth mentioning that the website for booking the ferry has only just been introduced (near the end of 2018) and they are only pre-selling 20% of the tickets for each boat. So if you see that it says “sold old” it’s not actually sold out, just the pre-booking 20% are sold out. You can then only buy a ticket one hour before the ferry at the terminal.
I didn’t actually visit Vieques. I simply ran out of days on my trip to Puerto Rico, but I would love to get back to visit. I opted for Culebra instead because I wanted to spend most of my time at the beach. Culebra is smaller, gets fewer tourists, and doesn’t really have a done “to do.” That’s exactly what I was looking for.
Vieques is larger, has more hotel options, has more ferry times, and has a fair bit more to do. While of course, there are still plenty of beautiful beaches on Vieques, they tend to be busier, especially on weekends.
The main draw for visitors to Vieques is the bioluminescent bay. It’s been called the brightest bioluminescent bay in the whole world and based on videos I’ve watched, it is pretty crazy and bright.
Similarly, you can book a ferry for Vieques online or try to find a good flight price in advance!
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