February (which is usually the dead of winter in Minnesota) always seems like the perfect time to head somewhere tropical. This year we didn’t even need passports, as we found a great tropical getaway in the USA territory of Puerto Rico.
A two-week Puerto Rico road trip
Since this was our first visit to Puerto Rico, we wanted to see as much as possible without rushing too much. We thought two weeks would give us enough time to see much of the main island and one of the smaller islands.
Like many cruise passengers, we began in Old San Juan. Unlike them, after a few days we rented a car and headed out of town on an island road trip. We quickly discovered the joys of a Puerto Rico road trip: bucolic rural landscapes, beaches, colonial cities, wilderness areas, great food, and friendly people. For a small place, Puerto Rico is packed with vacation options. And we didn’t even really get into the mountains or to the island of Culebra, so I know there is a lot more to explore!
At 110 miles long from east to west and 40 from north to south, Puerto Rico is the perfect size for a road trip. Because nothing is too far away, we could spend at least a couple nights in each “corner” of the island. That gave us at least one full day to explore each area more fully, venture further afield on day trips, or just relax.
Below is a list of what we did, where we stayed, and restaurants I either recommend or want to warn you about. (A few “meh” restaurants aren’t listed.) Eventually links will lead to posts with more information on specific sights.
Days 1-3: Exploring Old San Juan
Like most tourists, we started with a few days in San Juan. An apartment near San Cristóbal fortress in Old San Juan made it possible to begin our Puerto Rico road trip without a car. Staying in the historic heart of San Juan allowed us to walk or take the tourist trolley to most historic sites and museums.
We did most of our exploring during in the morning or late afternoon, avoiding both the worst of the cruise ship crush (San Juan is a major cruise port) and the midday heat. We also explored areas not visited by many tourists. Since many visitors are on guided tours, they stick to a specific path with a limited number of sites. Once you get off that path, the city becomes much less crowded! In less-touristed areas, we were warmly welcomed into architectural gems like the Art Deco Banco Popular and the colonial city hall. In both of places, building security came out and encouraged us to come inside instead of just taking pictures from the street. It’s testament to the friendliness and pride of Puerto Ricans, but it also shows how few people get beyond the major tourist stops.
- Walking the blue streets of Old San Juan (Yes, the original streets really are blue, paved with blocks produced in Spain with slag from iron foundries and hauled to Puerto Rico as ballast.)
- El Morro fortress and seaside San Juan cemetery
- San Cristóbal fortress
- The Paseo de la Princesa
- San Juan Cathedral
- Around the Plaza de Armas and Alcaldia (Ciy Hall)
- The Museum of San Juan (Museo de Arte e Historia de San Juan) apparently had only one room open when we visited. It featured a show by Arnaldo Roche. We were unfamiliar with Roche and enjoyed seeing his work. However, we were disappointed that we didn’t get to see some of the museum’s permanent collection.
While we walked much of Old San Juan, there is still plenty we missed. On our list for next time: the National Gallery, La Fortaleza (the city’s first fortification and governor’s residence), Casa Blanca (constructed as a residence for Ponce de León, although he never lived there), Inglesia de San José (currently being renovated), the Museum of the Americas (which has a good collection of santos), and the botanical garden.
Most visitors to San Juan stay in Condado or Isla Verde, where large developments line the beaches. However, these are not within a reasonable walking distance of Old San Juan.
We wanted to be in the heart of the old city so we could easily explore on foot. That’s a challenge: Despite the fact that the cruise ship terminal is in Old San Juan, hotel options are rather limited. That led us to book a basic apartment through Airbnb. There are also few boutique hotels in Old San Juan (including the lovely Hotel La Terraza, which also owns the Airbnb unit we rented), but they tend to be more expensive and fill quickly.
There are fewer restaurants in Old San Juan than I anticipated, and many are located nearer the cruise port. Fortunately, we found El Jibarito our first night in the city. That guaranteed we could get a great dinner even if we felt too lazy to go very far from our apartment!
- El Jibarito is a local family favorite that serves delicious traditional Puerto Rican food. It was conveniently located just down the street from our Airbnb, making it easy to return to. (Because the menu changes each day, you can pretend you are at a different restaurant each day.)
- Triana Tapas and Flamenco was absolutely empty when we came in for an early dinner on a weekday, but the Valencia-style paella was lovely. This is the one restaurant we visited that was fairly close to the cruise terminal and it did feel more like a tourist restaurant. However, our meal was excellent and it appears the restaurant is packed on weekends when they have a flamenco show.
- Hotel La Terraza serves breakfast and lunch on their rooftop patio. We ate breakfast there and found the food to be pretty average. However, the view over the neighborhood makes up for the food. This would be an awesome place for drinks at the end of the day, but the rooftop bar never seemed to be open at night while we were there. It’s worth checking though. (If you stay at the hotel or one of their Airbnb units, you may decide to spend the whole day relaxing here, as the view from the plunge pool is amazing.)
A car is an expensive nuisance in Old San Juan, where the streets are narrow and parking is extraordinarily expensive where it exists at all. The whole area is walkable and, when you get tired of walking, you may be able to catch the free public trolley. The trolleys run on a regular route and schedule throughout the day, but when multiple cruise ships are in port there simply isn’t enough room on the trolley for everyone who wants to use it.
Days 4-6: Northern Puerto Rico
After what seemed like too little time in San Juan, we picked up a rental car and headed west on the first leg of our Puerto Rico road trip. We (mostly) followed the main highway until we got to Barceloneta. At that point we cut over to the coast on a (gorgeous) little road that took us along the shore until we reached Arecibo.
- North coast beaches
We found lodging along the beach west of Isabela in an area that is still mostly undeveloped. However, instead of hanging out at the beach, we used most of our time to explore farther inland. An easy day trip took us to the Camuy Caverns and through a bit of the karst landscape south of Arecibo.
- Montones and Jobos beaches
- Camuy Caverns
- Karst country drive and the Guajataca Forest Reserve (Bosque Estatal De Guajataca)
We wanted to stay far from the big resorts of Dorado. Fortunately we ended up at an Airbnb along Monotones Beach west of Isabela. It was the perfect location for us, a low-rise condo complex at the end of the road and 30 seconds (walking distance) from the beach. With just one small resort (the enticing Villas de Mar Hau) nearby, it felt pretty undeveloped and low-key.
You’ll probably find the most options for lodging along northwest coast beaches through Airbnb. However, TripAdvisor (referral links) will bring up some wonderful-looking small hotels, resorts, and guesthouses. Search for Isabela on either site, but use the map function to find options along the coast in either direction away from the city. The beach in Isabela itself is heavily developed and the city is a pain to drive in, so I’d avoid it.
While Villas de Mar Hau has a restaurant, those not staying at the resort can only access it via the beach. Yeah, you can walk to it, but not drive. Because I was trying to keep excess sand out of an open cut on my foot, I didn’t want to walk that far on the beach. Instead, we drove a couple minutes to nearby Jobos Beach where there are a number of bars and a few restaurants.
- Uma’s is said to be one of the best restaurants around Jobos Beach, but the food is odd and poorly prepared. (The tostones were inedible.) However, the location and the creamy coconut lime mojito are killer. Unfortunately, the service is even worse than the food (unless you are a male surfer). On our second visit (I wanted another one of those mojitos) we ended up giving up and walking out. (Yes, I walked out without getting another one of those mojitos.) More accurately, we finally determined that no one was ever going to look at us, let alone get us a drink or more bad food, so faced reality and left. ) Do not go here.
- We ended up at Caracol after being ignored at Uma’s. What a lucky turn of events. Caracol is a pleasant spot right on the water with excellent food and service. They didn’t have that coconut lime mojito, but the food and service more than made up for it.
We had a bite to eat while out touring the caves and karst country too.
- Lechonera Rancho T in Lares is exactly the sort of local roast pork place I wanted to find in Puerto Rico. It’s in an odd location thanks to the new highway interchange, but I’m glad we didn’t give up the hunt. This is a place where you choose your cut (it’s all roast pork) and pay by the pound. A variety of side dishes are also available. It’s similar to the more informal BBQ places in Texas where you lineup to get your food and then go find a picnic table
- Fabulous corn ice cream (and more common fruit flavors) is available at a Tainos Helados cart at Camuy Caverns.
For a place of its size, there are a lot of cars in Puerto Rico. When compared with countries around the world, some lists put the territory of Puerto Rico at number five for vehicles per capita. Whatever its ranking, Puerto Rican cities are infamous for their congested highways. Unfortunately, transit isn’t an option in most parts of Puerto Rico, so driving is essential outside Old San Juan and a few resort areas. The good news is that driving in Puerto Rico isn’t nearly as bad as everyone claims.
We rented our car from Avis because we could pick it up in San Juan and return it in Ceiba.
We avoided the worst of San Juan’s traffic (and saved some money) by using the Avis at the Sears store in the Plaza of the Americas (Plaza Las Americas) instead of the one at the international airport. The service at the Sears location was fabulous (friendly, helpful, and without any up-sell). Best of all, the Avis parking area is literally one block and two turns from the highway
Days 6-9: Western Puerto Rico
After a couple of days in the northwest, it was time to head south. We continued our Puerto Rico road trip by traveling south along much of the west coast. Our first stop was Ricón. I expected to fall in love with Ricon, but found it hard to navigate and way too developed for my taste. (Maybe we needed to spend more time there.) We quickly moved on and my love for Puerto Rico’s coast returned when we reached Joyuda’s seafood shacks. From there things just kept getting better, with too-busy but fun beach towns, mangrove forests, and miles of beaches. Inland, I was charmed by quaint San German
- Rincón lighthouse (Faro de Punta Higűeras)
- West coast beaches
- Boquerón bird refuge (Refugio de Aves de Boquerón)
- San German
We booked an Airbnb in in Boquerón, staying in a large, basic apartment at the north edge of town. It was a perfect base for exploring the area – close to everything, but in a quiet neighborhood.
There are lots of lodging options along the west coast from Rincón all the way south. This area is filled with small beach towns, so you can choose to stay in a fun little town, along the beach, or a bit inland in a quiet rural area. Check both Airbnb and TripAdvisor (referral links) for a variety of options along the west coast.
Dining in Joyuda:
- Vista Bahia has a lovely view over the water and wonderful fresh seafood to match. I had a perfectly prepared lobster dish here.
Dining in Boquerón:
- We loved upscale Mar Azul, a Spanish/Mediterranean fine dining spot with huge portions of amazing, perfectly prepared food. It might look expensive, but the servings are enormous. (For two people, two orders of tapas is enough for a light dinner.) There isn’t a beach view, but eat here anyway.
- I could have eaten breakfast at Los Remos every day. (And would have, but they aren’t open for breakfast every day.) This pirate-themed bar serves to-die-for French toast inside or outside along the beach. The rest of their menu is said to be good too.
- We didn’t really eat at Galloway’s, but it was a great spot to have a few drinks and watch the sunset.
Dining in Combate:
- Annie’s Place offers good food with great views over the water. Fortunately, the dining area with the great view is located far across the room from the Karaoke machine. (Although evicting the Karaoke machine would have been even better.)
Days 9-11: Puerto Rico’s south coast and Ponce
I had a hard time deciding where to stay along the south coast. Did we want more beach time, another colonial city, or should we venture into the mountains and coffee country? In the end we went with the colonial city, staying in the heart of lovely Ponce and spending most of our time there. We visited the cathedral, the history museum, and the cultural center. Mostly though, we just wandered the streets, sometime lamenting the fact that many of the city’s attractions are not open the first half of the week (when we were there).
- Ponce, the Pearl of the South
- Ponce Cathedral (Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe)
- Museum of the History of Ponce (Museo de la Historia de Ponce)
- The Ponce Cultural Center (Centro Cultural de Ponce Carmen Solá de Pereira)
Along the way to Ponce, our Puerto Rico road trip took us through some stunning coastal scenery. We even got to see some of it twice, as we discovered that roads through Bosque Estatal De Guánica generally come to a dead end at some point no matter what Google maps says.
- Bosque Estatal De Guánica, where all of the roads seem to come to a dead end, but the scenery is fabulous
- Aguirre is not a ghost town
The Ponce Plaza Hotel (and Casino) is located right along the plaza in the heart of the historic city. This is an old colonial building that has been turned into a hotel and then expanded by incorporating a former modern hospital building in the back. The hotel has nice public spaces and the newer section (where we stayed) has standard hotel rooms. It seems to be the best choice for staying right in Ponce.
Check TripAdvisor (referral link) for reviews and other options in Ponce. Those options will likely be fairly limited, as there isn’t a lot of lodging of any type along Puerto Rico’s south coast. Check the location of all hotels on a map, as many hotels listed as being in Ponce are actually pretty far from the city.
Ponce has a number of restaurants, cafés, and coffee shops, so we had plenty of options near our hotel.
- Lola Eclectic Cuisine is the delightful fine dining restaurant at the Ponce Plaza Hotel. I highly recommend it. It isn’t cheap, but the food is wonderful and well worth the cost.
- Sabor y Rumba isn’t as fancy, but it is a great option for traditional Puerto Rican food. Try the sweet mofongo with steak.
- The Ponce Plaza’s café/coffee shop serves a really nice breakfast.
- There is an ice cream truck between the fountain and the cathedral that has locally made fruit popsicles. The coconut ones are wonderful.
Ponce has a tourist trolley that takes visitors through the city, but it was awaiting repairs when we visited. Had it been running, we would have seen more of the city since we decided to get around without our car while there.
Days 11&12: Eastern Puerto Rico and El Yunque
We ended our Puerto Rico road trip in the northeastern part of the island. While there are lovely beaches here (some of Puerto Rico’s finest), the coast along here is heavily developed area. We chose to skip the beaches. Instead, we spent our time touring a bioluminescent bay and the tropical rain forests of El Yunque National Forest.
- Punta Tuna lighthouse: The lighthouse wasn’t open when we visited, but there are always lovely views over the water.
- Laguna Grande bioluminescent bay: Most people (hundreds at a time) visit the bay every night via kayak. The bay is accessed via a long paddle through the mangroves. That didn’t sound like a lot of fun at night with lots and lots of people who have never been in a kayak before. Instead we toured it on an electric boat with Bio Island Tours. I think the boat was the better option.
- El Yunque National Forest, like many of the parks in Puerto Rico, is only partially accessible because various roads within in it have washed out or been buried in rock slide and never restored. Still, what remains is gorgeous, with towering trees and rushing waterfalls. Because it is close to San Juan, it is always busy.
Farajdo gave us the best access to the coast, El Yunque, and the Ceiba airport. However, much of this area is heavily developed. Most people stay in a development along the beach. Instead, we choose a basic Airbnb room in a less-developed residential area near the bio bay preserve, a prime beach, and a number of restaurants. Either way, there are lots of options available on both Airbnb and TripAdvisor (referral links).
- Las Vistas Café is a rooftop breakfast and lunch spot with wonderful fresh food. This was a convenient spot for us because it was located at the top of our Airbnb, but is very worth seeking out. It has great food with a great view.
- El Pescador is amazing. It’s not cheap, but it is totally worth the price. Go there. (And try the Yunque Snow if you like strong, fruity, coconut drinks.)
We returned our rental car to the tiny Avis office in Ceiba. As a full-service car rental office, the friendly rental agent checked our car in, locked the office door, and gave us a ride down the road to the Ceiba airport.
Flying is much more expensive than taking the ferry, but it is also much more reliable. That’s especially true on weekends when the ferry can fill to capacity. To ensure we actually got to and from Vieques, we booked flights on Vieques Air Link (VAL).
Flights from Ceiba are ridiculously cheap (we paid $36 for the flight to Vieques), although our return flight to San Juan was twice that. (And we did pay a little extra because our bags were heavy.) We flew on an eight passenger plane that (despite my fears) had plenty of space for our bags to travel along in the tail without a problem.
Days 13-17: The island of Vieques
We continued our Puerto Rico road trip on the island of Vieques. Here our road trip changed to travel by foot or golf cart. However, even with just a golf cart, we saw a lot of the island. (Vieques is only about ten miles long and five miles wide, so a golf cart will do.)
- Beaches and sunsets
- Playa Grande sugar mill ruins
The first lodging I booked for the entire Puerto Rico Road trip was an Airbnb in Vieques. Shortly after we arrived in Puerto Rico, that booking was canceled by the host. However, she did take responsibility for finding me another place. The place she found, the Vieques Guest House, was one I had initially considered, and it turned out to be a really good match for us.
The Vieques Guest House is located at the edge of “downtown” Esperanza. It’s not right on the beach, but you can see the sea from the higher levels and it’s a quick walk to town or to a lovely strip of sand. Because it’s not right in town, it’s actually quiet at night – even on the weekends. Our room was basic, but was clean and had everything we needed. Each room is a little different – some are fancier, some have balconies, some have kitchens, but all have access to outdoor space for relaxing. Owners Steve and Niki are really nice and very helpful – they will direct you to great hidden beaches or whatever else interests you. They also rent electric bicycles and gear to help you make the most of your time on the island.
There are no big hotels in Esperanza. There is a much broader range of options on the other side of the island in and around Isabel. However, Esperanza’s a better place to stay. Check Airbnb and TripAdvisor (referral links) to find the right spot for you.
- Bananas quickly became an island favorite. I liked everything I tried. My husband liked the wonderful fish served with the fish and chips so much that he ordered it both times we ate here.
- Bili is a fine dining restaurant with wonderful food. It’s a little more expensive than Bananas, but it is also a little more up-scale. We would have returned here too, if we’d had more time on the island.
- There is a wonderful bakery/café called La Dulce Esperanza next to a little grocery store in the residential neighborhood north of the Malecon near the west end of Esperanza. We tried the baked goods, and they are highly recommended. The location on my map is approximate – you won’t find it on Google maps, so ask around if you can’t find it.
- Isla Nena Café at the Vieques airport isn’t your standard airport restaurant. It isn’t the usual Puerto Rican restaurant either. This outdoor bar and café is noted for homemade Chinese dumplings served either fried (fast-food style) or steamed (for those with a little more time). The dumplings aren’t always available, but it’s worth checking.
Vieques is large enough that visitors usually want a vehicle. The most popular vehicles on the island are jeeps and oversized SUVs, but you don’t really need anything that big. A small car will do, or, if all the vehicles are already reserved (there are only so many vehicles on the island and sometimes they are all rented), a study golf cart will work. We used a golf cart and it generally worked well enough – it was just a little dusty getting to some of the beaches.
Our Vieques Air Link flight from the island (another eight passenger plane) took us from the tiny airport in Isabel to the Isla Grande airport in San Juan. (It’s cheaper to fly into Isla Grande than the international airport and it was closer to our lodging too.)
Days 17 & 18: back in San Juan, Condado
We ended our Puerto Rico road trip with a final day back in San Juan. This time we stayed in Condado to get a feel for a part of the city where many visitors stay. This is a big area for nightlife, which isn’t really our thing. There are a few big hotels, casinos, and condos along the beach and a few homeless people and drunken partiers on the streets. We didn’t do a lot here, but we found a few cool Art Deco buildings tucked between the high rises, watched the sea (and some tenacious crabs), and ate some good food. We also ventured a bit out of the neighborhood to visit the fabulous Porto Rico Museum of Art.
- Along the beach
- Museo De Arte De Puerto Rico
Hotels can be expensive in Condado. We ended up a block off the beach at the Best Western Plus Condado Palms. It was a little worn, but generally in good shape with big, bright, comfortable rooms. It was a good value for the price. The location was also good for exploring the area. Best of all, they gave us a late check-out with an additional charge.
Unlike Old San Juan, there are lots of hotels and condos available in Condado,as well as farther out in Isla Verde. Both Airbnb and TripAdvisor (referral links) should have lots of reviews and lodging options.
- Di Parma Trattoria has wonderful food, great service, and a lovely location along a park near the beach. The outdoor dining here can’t be beat.
- Buenos Ayres is a casual spot with Argentinian meat dishes.
We traveled in February 2017
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