Explore every facet of this small island that is so much more than beautiful beaches.
Puerto Rico may only be 9,104 square kilometers (3,515 square miles), but this island is packed with unique and memorable experiences. The U.S. territory is often seen as a nice beach getaway, but the island offers everything from great food to unforgettable natural beauty. This list covers the ultimate things to do for anyone who wants to see and experience every aspect of Puerto Rico. Need a place to stay while you’re visiting? We’ve got hotel recommendations.
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Day Trip to Culebra Island and Playa Flamenco
Culebra island is a short ferry ride from mainland Puerto Rico and is home to Playa Flamenco, a beach known for its white sand and stunningly turquoise water. The beach itself doesn’t offer many services outside of the overpriced drinks at the entrance, so it’s best to pack a cooler full of snacks and drinks for the day. Extra sunscreen is a must as well, as the UV rays are extra strong in this area and tend to catch tourists off guard. The fast ferry leaves from a port in Ceiba, Puerto Rico three times daily (at 6:00 am, 10:30 am, and 3:00 pm), and the trip takes around 45 minutes (the last ferry returns at 4:45 pm). There are no reservations, so if you want to make sure you catch a ride, arrive in Ceiba early and purchase a round-trip ticket to ensure your spot on the return ferry.
INSIDER TIPThere are two abandoned WWII tanks on Flamenco beach. They are colorfully painted and make for a truly unique beach shot.
Visit Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre de Culebra
This national refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and aims to protect animals such as the leatherback sea turtle, dark seagull, and white-throated whistle. Certain areas are open to the public and provide the opportunity to see the local flora and wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife office provides maps and information about current trail conditions, so make sure you stop by to ensure that you aren’t treading on any protected or restricted areas. The Refugio Nacional de Vida Silvestre de Culebra is a bird-watcher’s dream, as it is home to more than 50,000 birds of 13 different species. If you’re extra lucky, you might even spot a leatherback sea turtle or a nesting site. Just remember to be respectful of the animals and their space and never touch or approach them.
Surf in Luquillo
Surfers know that not all beaches are created equal. Luquillo offers waves that draw in surfers from around the world at beaches like Playa la Pared and Playa San Miguel—the most popular surfing beaches on the east side of the island. If you are new to surfing, don’t worry, the area is full of surf instructors who teach crash courses to small groups and help you catch some waves in calmer waters. The instructors often take children as young as eight years old, so this is a great activity for families as well.
Visit the Kioskos
The kioskos, or food stalls, of Luquillo are the perfect place to sample all of Puerto Rico’s favorite frituras (fried foods) and grab a cold drink. The kioskos are lined up in a row and most simply have a garage-style door that is thrown open, making it easy for tourists and locals alike to stroll in and out of the restaurants and bars. Many kioskos have beach-side patios in the back so that you can sip a cold beer and enjoy the salty breeze coming off the water. Each kiosko has its own unique vibe or theme, so you’ll find karaoke bars, family restaurants, gay bars, souvenir shops, and even a tattoo shop/bar combo all in the same place.
Surfing in Rincón
If you’re looking for somewhere to surf on the west coast, Rincón is the place to go. The town is famous for its beaches and packs several gorgeous and active surfing spots into a small area. The Punta Higuero Lighthouse marks the Domes Beach area, a popular beach for morning surf sessions because it is partially protected from the northeast trade winds. If you’re dying to catch a big wave, Tres Palmas consistently serves them up, while Indicator Beach is better known for great riptides. For a calmer, more beginner vibe, hit up Little Malibu or Antonio’s Beach.
Hike El Yunque National Forest
WHERE: Rio Grande
El Yunque National Forest is a tropical rain forest packed full of flowing waterfalls, cool rivers, and beautiful mountain views. The park contains a wide variety of hiking trails that cater to different difficulty levels (many still closed after Hurricane Maria, though cleanup is ongoing). Each one will allow you to see the local fauna and, if you’re lucky, help you spot a guaraguao (red-tailed hawk) or a tiny but noisy coqui frog. If you’re not much of a hiker, you can also drive through large parts of the park. Make sure you climb the Yokahu Tower—you’ll likely be huffing and puffing after the walk up the narrow, winding staircase, but the view on top is absolutely worth it.
INSIDER TIPOn days when the sun makes the ocean water feel more like a bathtub, the rivers of El Yunque remain refreshingly cool thanks to the heavy shade provided by the trees.
Kayak in Vieques Bioluminescent Bay
The blue, glowing waters of Puerto Mosquito, Vieques’s bioluminescent bay, are a truly incredible sight. On the southern shore of Vieques island, the waters of this bay contain organisms called Pyrodinium bahamense, a brightly glowing species that shines as the waters around it are agitated. So, as you slowly kayak through the bay, the water around you will actually glow. In fact, the bioluminescent Mosquito Bay was declared the brightest bio bay in the world. Tour guides take small groups out in kayaks to experience this natural phenomenon. The bay is brightest during a new moon phase, so if you can arrange your tour during a dark night, the glow will be that much more impressive. It’s not easy to photograph so know that any photo you see cannot do the real-life experience true justice.
Stroll Through Old San Juan
WHERE: Old San Juan
The colorful apartments and narrow streets of Old San Juan are iconic. Tourists swarm the area, but locals frequent the bars and restaurants as well. It’s full of very steep hills, so comfortable footwear is highly recommended, though the women of Puerto Rico are equally brave and stubborn, so you’re sure to see heels precariously teetering through the steep cobblestone streets every night. Simply wandering around while taking in all the picturesque balconies and colorfully-painted apartments is a great activity, but don’t miss the Paseo de la Princesa. The scenic walkway will take you by San Juan Bay, outdoor cafés, La Forteleza (the governor’s mansion), and the Fuentes Raices fountain. After sunset, the pathway lights up, casting a romantic glow over the area.
Take in the Views From El Morro
WHERE: Old San Juan
El Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, more commonly known as simply El Morro, is a fort that was first constructed in the late 1400s and still stands tall today. The beginnings of the fort were constructed during the Spanish colonization, built to protect San Juan from pirates and anyone looking to invade Puerto Rico. Over the next several hundred years, the fort was expanded upon until it became the massive castle-like structure it is today. Once inside El Morro, you can peek out through one of the sentries and take in breathtaking views of the shore. Most visitors do a self-guided tour, but the visitor’s center shows an informative film that will take you through some details of El Morro’s long history. While the interior is interesting, it’s the surrounding area that really makes El Morro impressive. Take a walk along the pathways built around the fort so that you can see both the towering walls and the waves crashing at its base.
Eat Fresh Fish in Boquerón
WHERE: Cabo Rojo
Boquerón is a beach town in Cabo Rojo and the perfect place to go out with friends for drinks and fresh fish. The area is somewhat of a boardwalk, spotted with food stands, bars, and restaurants. At night, music is playing and everyone is ordering rounds of beers. After you’ve imbibed a bit and worked up an appetite, it’s time to hit up the rows of food stalls. Here, you’ll see menu items such as shark nuggets, conch-filled empanadas, and arepas stuffed with shrimp. For a greasy local treat, try a bacalaito—a huge fried codfish fritter that food stalls love to use as their claim to fame, battling for who can make the largest and most delicious one.
Spend a Day Chinchorreando
Chinchorrear is a verb specific to Puerto Rico, derived from the dive bars along mountain roads called chinchorros. Dive bar might actually be a generous term, as many chinchorros lean more toward a shack with a pool table and maybe a few fans. Don’t let that turn you off, though—these mostly cash-only roadside bars are full of people who know the value of relaxing with an ice-cold beer. Chinchorreando is a perfect way to spend a lazy weekend, slowly making your way along scenic mountain roads while you pop into different chinchorros to chat with locals. Many are perched high on mountainsides with views of lush valleys or pristine beaches. Nothing beats a cheap drink with a view fit for a five-star restaurant.
INSIDER TIPWant to make friends with the locals? Order a round of Medallas and a caneca of chichaito. Medalla is the favorite local beer and chichaito is a strong mix of rum and anis liqueur. It’s common to purchase a “caneca” which is basically a fifth, and share shots with your drinking buddies.
Relax on the Beach
Seven Seas Beach in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, is ideal for mellow beach days thanks to its calm waters and semiprivate feel. A trip to Puerto Rico would not be complete without a day on the beach, but not all beaches are ideal for relaxing. Seven Seas offers the perfect lazy beach day vibe. A large coral reef prevents big waves from rushing into the shore, so you can easily set up a chair right in the water and let it lazily lap at you while you sip on a cocktail or read a book. The beach itself is narrow and covered in mangroves, which creep onto the sand and create what feel like little alcoves. If it’s not a busy day, you can scope out a small pocket of the beach and be partially shielded on both sides by trees. Just be careful as you are walking along the shore—it’s easy to get distracted by the calm waters and walk right into a low-hanging branch.
Visit a Local Coffee Farm
Hacienda Buenavista is coffee plantation located in the southern town of Ponce. Puerto Rico’s mountain regions and rich soil have made it an ideal place to grow coffee, and Hacienda Buenavista is an important part of Puerto Rico’s history in the coffee industry. The Puerto Rico Conservation Trust restored this former plantation into a museum that gives visitors a look into the evolution of living and working conditions at this site. You will walk by the waterfall that originally powered the machinery and learn about growing and processing coffee beans. While the farm has changed a bit over the years, Hacienda Buenavista still plants coffee and cacao, processing coffee in the fall and cacao in March. If you visit during a processing season, you’ll get to taste the end product during your tour, so plan your visit accordingly.
Take a Salsa Class/Go Salsa Dancing
Puerto Ricans grow up dancing salsa at every party, so if you want to keep up with the locals, you’ll need to pick up a few steps. If you’re brand new to salsa, sign up for a crash course class. Local instructors are great at getting you prepared for a night out. If you’re traveling solo, salsa is actually a great way to connect with locals. If you can manage a few steps, you can hang around a salsa bar and pick up dance partners on the fly. Don’t let your lack of salsa skills turn you into a wallflower, many Puerto Ricans never learned how to formally salsa, they just feel the music and improvise. All you need is a bit of confidence (and maybe a few drinks) and you’ll feel right at home on the dance floor.
Tour Ron del Barrillito Distillery
Ron del Barrillito is handcrafted Puerto Rican rum that isn’t often seen outside the island, but it is a well-aged local favorite. This rum has been around since 1880 and comes in three varieties: 2 stars, 3 stars, and the rare 5 stars. The varieties are differentiated by the amount of time they have spent in the barrel. Most places only carry the 2- and 3-star bottles, because the 5-star variety, which spends 35 years in oak casks, is extremely limited. The distillery only accepts visitors by appointment, so make sure you contact them ahead of time. Ron de Barrillito only produces about 14,000 cases of rum each year, so a visit to the distillery is a great way to ensure you take home a truly special Puerto Rican souvenir.
Spend a Night out in La Placita de Santurce
WHERE: San Juan
La Placita de Santurce, or simply La Placita, is a classic hub of San Juan nightlife. The area has a block party vibe that allows you to hop from one bar to another easily. The bars and restaurants within La Placita cover everything from sushi with fancy cocktails to bar food and cheap beers. Many establishments have patio seating that allow you to get in some quality people-watching. Music is everywhere and a variety of styles are covered so you’re sure to find a bar that is playing something you’d like to dance along to. La Placita is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so the party is always going. This is the perfect place to start or end a night with friends.
Explore the Parque de las Cavernas del Rio Camuy
This hidden gem is a massive network of caves that offers a completely unique experience. Most people think Puerto Rico is all about sunshine and beaches and have no idea that these caves even exist. However, Las Cavernas del Rio Camuy is the third-largest underground cave system in the world. While the caves are the main attraction, the park covers 300 acres. Trolleys take visitors along the mountainside and down into the cave entrance. Guided tours take you through the intricate cave system where you’ll see natural windows that let the sun shine brightly into the dark caves, along with stalagmite and stalactite formations that look like works of art. There are also waterfalls flowing inside the caves, whose rushing waters sound as beautiful as they look. Unfortunately, the caverns are still closed due to damage at the entrance during Hurricane Maria.
Visit the Arecibo Observatory
The Arecibo Observatory is a NASA facility that includes 3,500 square feet of exhibits. It may seem strange that a NASA facility is located in Puerto Rico, but the site was actually chosen for very specific reasons. The Department of Defense provided funding, so the location needed to be in a U.S. territory. It was also important that the site be close to the equator line so that radar could be used to study nearby planets that pass overhead. The Arecibo area was an obvious choice, as the landscape includes large limestone sinkholes that provide a natural space for the radio telescope. The observatory offers a bilingual educational experience that focuses on the functionality of the radio telescope at the observatory. Exhibits cover discoveries in fields such as solar system radar astronomy and radio astronomy. There is also an observation deck that lets you get a look at the truly massive Arecibo radio telescope. The “dish” is 1,000 feet in diameter, 167 feet deep, and covers around 20 acres of land.
Visit Desecheo Island
Desecheo island is an uninhabited island off the west coast of Puerto Rico. The island is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was declared a wildlife refuge after the U.S. military stopped using it for bombing practice. In fact, no one is actually allowed to step foot on the island because there may still be some nasty leftovers that could blow you up. Sounds like a paradise, right? While the land itself has a dark and dangerous history, the water around it is a scuba diver’s dream. Tour companies will take you just off the coast of the island to beautiful dive sites such as Candy Land, an area that got its name thanks to its resemblance to the bright colors of the board game. Divers are also treated to Ladder Reef and The Caves, two shallow reefs that are teeming with marine life.
Drive the Entire Island
It may sound crazy, but you can actually drive around the entire island of Puerto Rico in a single day. Of course, you could also take it slow and spend a night or two in a few cities along the route. A large portion of the trip will be spent on Highway 2, so it’s easy to stay on track. Most flights land in San Juan, so if you start from there you could head east towards the beach towns of Luquillo and Fajardo. From there you will go south down the coast until the road starts curving west, taking you towards the southern town of Ponce. Continuing west, you’ll arrive in Cabo Rojo before you start going north again towards Mayaguez. After you go about as far north as you can, you’ll head east towards Arecibo, and eventually end up back in San Juan. Along the way you’ll see beautiful beach views, green mountains, expansive valleys, and so much more.