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Puerto Rico is graced with a wealth of fantastic beaches, year-round sun, limestone caves and opportunities for diving, snorkeling and surfing as well as a multitude of cultural experiences, not to mention amazing food and world-class rum. If you plan on visiting this lush U.S. territory in the northeastern Caribbean, be sure to visit its very best places, including these.
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Speaking of stunning beaches, Playa Mar Chiquita, located on the north coast, is one of Puerto Rico’s most spectacular destinations. The secluded, shallow cove is almost totally blocked off from the sea by two massive coral formations. As the Atlantic waves crash against them, the water is sprayed across the coral, cascading in a thousand miniature waterfalls into brilliant blue pools below. On a nice day, you can enjoy snorkeling and swimming in the cove’s often calm waters, though you’ll want to beware of strong currents.
Flamenco Beach, regularly found in Top 10 lists of the world’s best beaches, is located on the picture-perfect Culebra Island. The island lies 20 miles off the northeast coast of Puerto Rico and doesn’t offer any luxury resorts, casinos or elegant restaurants, but it does offer a tranquil experience minus the traffic, crime and crowds. The soft, white sands of Flamenco stretch along the entire bay and are lined with palm trees gently swaying in the breeze. The gorgeous, shallow turquoise waters are ideal for snorkeling and swimming, and the entire scene looks as if it stepped right out of an ad for Corona. As the U.S. military used it for decades, it kept developers at bay while leaving the beach with abandoned tanks that are now artfully decorated in colorful Caribbean patterns.
Fort San Cristobal, also known as Castillo San Cristobal, was built to protect the city from land attacks. A top attraction in Puerto Rico, it’s well worth a visit with its significant history and amazing views. History buffs will love checking out the dungeon, walking through the tunnels and simply standing in the courtyard, imagining what it would have been like to be there while it was in use. It was the largest military structure built by the Spanish in the Americas and rises nearly 150 feet above sea level. The massive structure was built over two decades, between 1765 and 1785, and from an architectural perspective, experts say the design was ingenious. Made up of several layers, each is walled and stoutly fortified to frustrate and slow an enemy a number of times.
No trip to Puerto Rico would be complete without wandering Old San Juan’s cobblestone streets, lined with grand fortresses and pastel-painted colonial buildings. With 500 years of Spanish history leaving their mark, Old San Juan is oozing with charm and character throughout. Its timeless magic makes it one of the most enchanting destinations, not only in Puerto Rico but across the Caribbean. Be sure to hit Fortaleza Street for at least one meal, known as a “Restaurant Row,” it’s here you’ll find some of the very best eateries in town. To enjoy a glorious sunset, take a stroll along Paseo la Princes just before dusk. This wide promenade stretches from the docks at the foot of the city to the pretty Raices Fountain. Along the way, you might catch a free cultural performance, and on the weekend, a variety of stalls line the road.
Experiencing this bioluminescent bay is another must-do. In rare bays around the world, the right set of factors, including high temperatures, nutrient-rich waters, shallow depth and low circulation, create the ideal conditions needed for the proliferation of incredible, tiny creatures known as dinoflagellates. While it’s difficult to capture on film, when agitated, they release a spark of brilliant blue light that creates a constellation of stars in the dark waters of the lagoon on Vieques Island. There are few experiences like this on the planet, inspiring goosebumps while floating into the inky waters, underneath the star-filled night’s sky. The best way to visit is to take a kayak tour, especially during a full or almost full, moon.
Rincon is a small beach town tucked away on the western coast of the island. This is its surfing capital, and one of the best places to catch a wave in the northern hemisphere. After the Surfing World Championships were hosted here in 1968, it became a haven for those who would rather ride a wave than endure the corporate life, with many arriving only to never return home. Even if you don’t surf, you’ll appreciate the opportunity to watch some of the best sunsets in the world, strolling the waterfront while sipping a pina colada served from the town’s “ultra-chill surfer hang,” Tamboo Tavern. Rincon and its stunning surrounds offer an incredible assortment of activities for all, including thrilling zip-line rides, scuba diving “The Wall” at La Parguera, hiking and beach yoga.
Cueva Ventana translates into Window Cave, and one look explains exactly how it got its name. This little-known, large natural cave can be found in Arecibo, sitting atop a limestone cliff overlooking the impressive Rio Grande de Arecibo valley. Peering from the window, the view is sure to take your breath away. The cave has lots of beautiful formations, with stalactites and stalagmites as well as a number of other smaller caves, tunnels and hiding spots, but the highlight is the window. The cave isn’t that deep, and you don’t need a high level of fitness to explore it, though you may want to go with a guide, who will give you a flashlight, walk with you through the cave and provide an interesting education as to how it was formed, and what lives inside.
Gilligan’s Island is a tiny island considered a must-do day trip, sitting about a mile off the coast of Guanica on Puerto Rico’s southwest coast. Named after the popular TV show, it’s part of the Biosphere Reserve of Guanica, and is one of the few true hidden gems, with few tourists traveling here to enjoy the relaxing haven that awaits. Even during the busy winter travel season, there are few if any crowds to be found. You can get to Gilligan’s Island by ferry, or kayaking over (rentals are available on the mainland) with the trip taking only about 20 minutes or so as the water tends to be calm. When you get there, you can even swim around the island with little effort, with the current slow and gentle, and the bottom soft and sandy. There are picnic tables, barbecue pits and shaded areas, and as the island has a healthy mangrove system that surrounds it, it’s a snorkeler’s haven, with crystal clear waters filled with all sorts of tropical fish and even live, healthy coral.
Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve is a 316-acre nature preserve located on the extreme northeast tip of Puerto Rico. It protects the Laguna Grande bioluminescent bay as well as a lush rainforest with trails and boardwalks, rare flora and fauna, and an important scientific research center. Animal species that forage here include fiddler crabs, big iguanas, a multitude of insects and all types of birds. The only way to explore the reserve is through a tour, or by booking in advance. Tour guides will take time to stop so you can get a close-up look at the wildlife, as well as the bioluminescent lagoon, though those intense blue sparks can only be viewed after dark. In the mangrove forest, you’ll walk around a swamp on a boardwalk, learning about the different types of mangroves as well as other plants and animals found here. At the tour’s end, you’ll see a working lighthouse that was restored to its former glory and features a number of exhibits like fish, crabs and iguanas, bones of whales and manatees, and exhibits on the history of the lighthouse.
Located between the towns of Aibonito and Barranquitas, picturesque San Cristobal Canyon cuts dramatically through the Central Cordillera Mountains. Named a top natural wonder of Puerto Rico, it’s the island’s only canyon, and boasts a number of fast-flowing waterfalls and crystal clear pools, set among diverse vegetation that tenaciously clings to cliff sides. The highest waterfall in Puerto Rico can be found here, Neblina, a 240-foot fall, plunges into a series of narrow streams, over a cliff and into a pool below which offers a perfect spot for a swim with its pure, clean water. Hikers can explore the canyon without a guide, but the less-experienced may want to take advantage of the knowledge of a local guide, who knows the routes and can also point out interesting fauna and flora along the way.
Don’t leave Puerto Rico before you’ve descended into the depths of a million-year-old cave at Camuy River Cave Park. There are few cave systems on the planet that are as vast or dramatic as the caverns in Rio Camuy Cave Park. This is the third-largest underground cave system in the world, and Rio Camuy runs right through it. Accessible by tour only, your exploration begins by riding a trolley through the picturesque park to the cave entrance. Once there, your guide will safely take you into the cave system, walking through spectacular stalagmites and stalactites as well as magnificent works of art formed by the river over thousands of years. You’ll even feel the heat of thousands of sleeping bats along the way and have the chance to sip water from a natural spring. After your tour, you can enjoy the park’s walking trails and wooded area with picnic pavilions, dine at its little restaurant and find that perfect souvenir at a gift shop.
Visiting El Yunque National Forest is also a must-do in Puerto Rico. This subtropical rainforest in the northeastern region of the island is made up of just 28,000 acres, but it makes up for its relatively small size with its tropical splendors and natural diversity. While hiking through the misty, forest-covered hills, you’ll discover gorgeous waterfalls, overgrown gulches and canyons, and probably, more exotic animal and plant life you’ve ever seen in one spot. It boasts 150 native fern species, 240 tree species, including 23 of which are only found in this forest, as well as small animals that can’t be seen anywhere else on the planet, including the pygmy anole, the Puerto Rican parrot and the coqui tree frog. The forest offers miles of hiking trails, ranging from short and easy to expert level, with the most popular being the La Mina Trail which leads to La Mina Falls. This is the place to go on a hot day, as it’s the only one where you can enjoy a refreshing dip, diving under the cascading waters.
Of all the lighthouses constructed by the Spanish in the late 19th century, Los Morillos in Cabo Rojo, situated on the southwest corner of the island, is considered the finest. Perched atop 200-foot limestone cliffs, the recently restored towers sparkles over the Caribbean and offers awe-inspiring views of the sea and surrounding coastline. Inside the lighthouse, you can walk up the spiral staircase which leads to an observation deck on the roof, where you can enjoy panoramic vistas. Though the lighthouse is interesting, the highlight is really the incredible views from the limestone cliffs – and nearby, is one of the best beaches in the Caribbean, Playa Sucia, which can be seen from the top of the lighthouse. Walk down the trail to this magical stretch of sand where the turquoise waters invite you to jump in.
La Parguera Nature Reserve is about as far away from San Juan as you can get. Located at La Parguera, a fishing village in Lajas on the island’s west coast, this is one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in all of Puerto Rico. It’s a collection of mangrove forests, primarily red and white mangroves, some of the most extensive, well-developed coral reefs, salt marshes and tiny islands that are scattered across an expanse of glistening cerulean water. Dolphins, manatees and turtles are often spotted here, particularly while snorkeling – the calm waters of the reserve are ideal for a relaxing paddle through magnificent reefs. Kayaking or paddleboarding are also great ways to explore the mangrove channels, and at night, you can even experience the glow of a bioluminescent bay.
Caja de Muertos is an uninhabited island off the southern coast from the city of Ponce and one of Puerto Rico’s most underrated places. Even most Puerto Ricans have never stepped foot on the island, though it’s home to Playa Pelicano, which has won the Blue Flag award for many years. Just one-and-a-half miles long and about a half-mile wide at its widest point, it’s filled with beautiful beaches, hiking trails, a cave and a lighthouse. You can get here via ferry or charter boat and then enjoy a full day of soaking up the sun and the sand, snorkeling in clear aquamarine waters, beachcombing and hiking.
If you like history, don’t miss taking a stroll on the cobblestone streets of San German, Puerto Rico’s second-oldest town after Old San Juan. It offers old-world charm with a colonial atmosphere, a warm Puerto Rican feel, friendly residents, and it’s one of the best places to take in the island’s architectural heritage. The Porta Coeli (Gate of Heaven) Church is the town’s most famous building and overlooks one of its two plazas, dating back to 1606 as one of the oldest churches in the Western Hemisphere. Restored by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, the little church has been transformed into a museum containing Mexican colonial paintings, religious objects and more. San German, located in the island’s southwest region, is also a center for needlework and art and is known as the hometown of a number of famous actors and poets from Puerto Rico.