Puerto Rico road trip 2017 itinerary

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

Puerto Rico Old San Juan collage - ExplorationVacation.net

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.

Days 4-6: Northern Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico North Coast Road Trip collage - ExplorationVacation.net

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)

Days 6-9: Western Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico west coast road trip - ExplorationVacation.net

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)
  • Historic San German

Days 9-11: Puerto Rico’s south coast and Ponce

Puerto Rico south coast road trip - ExplorationVacation.net

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

Days 11&12: Eastern Puerto Rico and El Yunque

Puerto Rico east coast road trip - ExplorationVacation.net

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.

Days 13-17: The island of Vieques

Puerto Rico Road Trip Vieques - ExplorationVacation.net

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

Days 17 & 18: back in San Juan, Condado

Puerto Rico San Juan Condado collage

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

We traveled in February 2017


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