Puerto Rico is the fodder of many a Caribbean daydream for good reason: this natural jewel box can satisfy the lethargic beach bum, the sunrise rainforest explorer and the budding big-wave surfer – all in a long weekend. Its coral reefs host a riot of tropical fish, its limestone caves in the misty central hills resound with the chirp of coquí frogs, and its unique collection of forests – some of the wettest and driest in the Caribbean – harbor some of the rarest birds in the world.
Start your Puerto Rico daydreaming with our picks for the top 10 experiences for the traveler across the 'Island of Enchantment':
1. Mysterious Old San Juan
Even those limited to a quick visit find it easy to fall under the beguiling spells of Old San Juan’s cobblestone streets, pastel-painted colonial buildings and grand fortresses. From the ramparts of El Morro, the allure of this place is evident in every direction – from the labyrinth of crooked streets to endless sparkle of the Atlantic. By day, lose yourself in historical stories of blood and bombast; by night, float along in crowds of giggling tourists, rowdy locals and syncopated salsa rhythms.
This – the rub of sand between the toes, the brilliant sparkle of turquoise water and rhythmic shush of cresting waves, maybe the patter of your favorite record in the headphones – endows a visit to Puerto Rico with the qualities of daydream. From the golden, crescent-shaped heaven of Playa Flamenco (considered among the world’s best beaches), coconut oil-scented crowds of Puerto Rico’s little slice of Brazil, Playa Isla Verde, and the secluded, mangrove-shaded hideaways in the south to the roaring surf of the west, Puerto Rico’s unending beaches are dreamy.
3. Bioluminescent bays
Few experiences can inspire the spine-tingling awe of floating into inky waves under a canopy of stars and becoming a witness to one of nature’s most tactile magic tricks: the otherworldly sparkle of bioluminescent waters. Swimming or kayaking into Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays and seeing the jeweled flicker of water drip from your hands or illuminate a paddle stroke promises an experience of profound wonder. The bioluminescent waters in the bays of Vieques reveal the phenomenon at its most fantastic.
4. Catch some béisbol
The bleachers at island béisbol (baseball) stadiums reveal a lot more than nine-innings of play – it’s a vantage on the fickle Caribbean love affair with baseball. Puerto Rico’s zeal for the sport may never fill the oversized stadiums that dot the island, but the low-key games and dirt cheap tickets get béisbol fans right up in the action. Expect to witness a face off between upstart farm leaguers looking for their big shot and fading stars of the Major League Basketball looking to go out in a blaze of glory.
5. Rum cocktails at sunset
If there’s an elixir to help those sunsets imprint your memory forever, it likely comes in a tall, cold glass. From the piña coladas with toy umbrellas to the everyman’s Cuba libre (rum and Coke with a wedge of lime) you’d be remiss to leave ‘King Sugar’ without savoring a rum cocktail during a spectacular sunset. Find a comfortable perch in the west – maybe Rincón’s ultra-chill surfer hang, Tamboo Tavern, or the breezy, upscale comforts at Eclipse – and sip a taste of paradise.
6. Swimming & snorkeling
Many of the island’s most marvelous places for snorkeling and swimming lie out of the heavily traveled tourist corridors, on satellite islands off the main island’s east or south coast and coral reefs in the southwest. In the morning, waters off these areas are crystal clear and usually calm enough to paddle around for hours enjoying visibility up to 75 feet. And what a view – expect a riot of brightly colored fish, coral formations and, if you’re lucky, a lazy ray. The consistency clear waters of Isla Desecheo, off the island’s west coast, also top any divers’ wish list.
7. Museums of Ponce
Ponce, the so-called ‘Pearl of the South,’ boasts a wealth of museums with enough diversity to satisfy the most intellectually rapacious museum hunter. Those interested in the distinctive rhythms of the island should start with Museo de la Música Puertorriqueña before touring the lovingly restored plantation at Hacienda Buena Vista or the best art museum in the Caribbean, the Museo de Arte de Ponce.
8. Cuisine in San Juan’s SoFo District
When cruise ships shimmer like floating cities at the docks just off shore, the world-class restaurants of SoFo (short for ‘South of Fortaleza,’ naturally) rise to the occasion, impressing their international audiences with the most inventive plates of fine dining in the Caribbean. Recent years have seen a revolving door of hot restaurants in this corner of Old San Juan, but only the most creative survive. Expect the traditional, elemental essence of Puerto Rican flavors fused with preparations from across the globe.
9. Colonial architecture
If you tried to savor every single example of colonial grandeur – all the fountains and historic squares, every dignified plantation house or buttressed 19th-century town hall – Puerto Rico’s architecture gems would demand a month-long stay. But, if nothing else outside of Old San Juan earns time on your agenda, take a stroll around the Plaza Las Delicias in Ponce, a place downright littered with statues, lined by colonial edifices, and crowned by the regal Fuente de los Leones (a rescued relic from the 1939 New York world’s fair).
10. El Yunque tropical rainforest
The lush forests, verdant hills and crashing waterfalls of El Yunque are the only true rainforests in the US, a place to embark on a short hike through the oxygen-rich mist, explore waterfalls and gawk at Jurassic-sized ferns. You will get wet, so bring a raincoat, but bring binoculars too; of the 26 species found here and nowhere else in the world, you’ll want to keep a sharp eye out for the Puerto Rican parrot, one of the 10 most endangered birds on earth.