This week Doug Stallings answers a request, submitted by our readers Dennis and Sarah, for help planning some good-old-fashioned R&R in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
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Four Nights in Puerto Rico
[M]y husband and I just booked a 4-night, 5-day trip to Puerto Rico and would love to learn more about this destination. We are typically relaxed people who enjoy adventure in the water (scuba, snorkel, surfing) followed by a calm meal overlooking the beach. –Dennis & Sarah.
Doug: I’ve always thought that San Juan was the best destination for someone going to Puerto Rico for the first time. Although the beaches aren’t nearly as nice as those on Vieques or Culebra, being in the city gives you access to a much wider range of options for dining and nightlife, not to mention hotels. But since you can be in El Yunque (the rain forest) in about an hour or Fajardo in less than 2 hours, it offers you a central location if you want to do some exploring around the island, either by rental car or on a tour.
Safety in San Juan
Q: I’ve heard staying in San Juan is dirty and not so safe. Is this true?
Doug: Yes, there is crime in San Juan, but I have walked around Condado at 2 AM and never felt the least bit unsafe. The same is true for Isla Verde. There are certainly some parts of San Juan where you would not want to walk, and the staff at your hotel will be able to tell you about the immediate surroundings. I would never recommend walking on the beach at night, and if you are the least bit unsure of whether you feel comfortable on foot, take a taxi. You can get almost anywhere in San Juan by taxi for less than $20. If you follow reasonable precautions, you should have no problems. With the economic downturn, crime in Puerto Rico is on the upswing, but few tourists ever become victims.
Good News about San Juan Hotels
Q: Would it be more bang for our buck to stay [outside San Juan]? I would love to stay in a safe neighborhood in a smaller hotel.
Doug: My main gripe with San Juan has always been that the hotels are exceptionally overpriced for what you get. Happily, that’s changing to some extent. The weak economy means that you can now find some good deals in San Juan, and since most of the hotels have received major renovations in the past few years, the quality of what you get has improved dramatically. The tired old El San Juan is now spiffy and new; La Concha (a Renaissance hotel) brings a bit of South Beach to San Juan; and the Condado Plaza is now a shiny new Conrad Hotel (Hilton’s upscale brand, equivalent to a Renaissance). You mentioned that you like smaller hotels, but at 232 rooms La Concha may work for you (just avoid the expensive and too-trendy restaurants, which aren’t really good enough for the price). The venerable Normandie Hotel (which has long been rumored to be on the fast-track to becoming the W San Juan) is also a great choice, though it’s on a small, man-made beach and requires a taxi to get anywhere. You might also like the San Juan Water & Beach Club in Isla Verde; it was one of the first boutique hotels in San Juan, and it has a beautiful beach right across the street. If you decide to stay outside of San Juan, the best choices are the Wyndham Rio Mar and El Conquistador resorts, though both are big, sprawling resorts that hardly have a boutique feel.
Seeing San Juan and Beyond
Q: I know so far that my husband and I would like to visit old San Juan. Is this a must-see? I would like to see the rain forest. Is this something you recommend as well? Finally, my husband thought about renting a car one day to explore the island. Do you think this is recommended, or is public transportation just as easy and cheaper?
Doug: Regardless of where you stay, you’ll definitely want to visit Old San Juan for its great restaurants and shopping but also to soak up the historical ambience. There are few places in the Caribbean that are better for strolling, and a visit is well worth your time; go back at night to enjoy one of the excellent restaurants. I can’t really recommend the bus in San Juan; it’s slow and inconvenient, so if you have only 4 days, a taxi is a much better and more direct option whether you are going to Old San Juan or someplace else in the city. Publicos offer “public transit” Puerto Rico style; though cheap, I doubt they would appeal to you.
El Yunque is a great destination if you like to hike. It’s just an hour east of San Juan, and you can go either in a rental car or on a tour. The way you go really depends on whether you want the freedom to stop and explore on your own. There are some nice little beachside restaurants in Luquillo as well as a nice beach, but you can also stop in Piñones, which is closer to San Juan. A great experience (if the moon isn’t too full) is a visit to the bioluminescent bay in either Fajardo or on Vieques. For that trip, however, I’d recommend a tour. I think that’s enough for a first-time visit; you’ll want to leave some time for relaxing on the beach.
Have a great trip!
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Do you have a question for me? Would you like some advice on your next vacation? Do you have a burning question about travel? Are you trying to decide if a particular trip is right for you? Are you having trouble finding a good deal to your vacation spot of choice? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.