West is best – at least as far as those quintessential snapshots of Puerto Rico go. Here the languid, azure ocean takes on a visceral palpability because this is the place to get in it: paddling like mad to catch a ride on one perfect wave after another, or swimming off sandy shorelines that regularly grace 'world's best beach' lists.
Ponce & South Coast
The Caribbean-facing south coast offers the opportunity to unplug, escape the cruise-ship crowds and take a DIY journey into Puerto Rico’s tempestuous, piratical past. The proud southern capital of Ponce – the so-called Perla de Sur (Pearl of the South) – stands in elegant disrepair, where haute eateries neighbor slouching colonial facades.
El Yunque & East Coast
The east coast is Puerto Rico shrink-wrapped; a tantalizing taste of almost everything the island has to offer squeezed into an area you can drive across in a couple of hours. Sodden rainforest teems with noisy wildlife and jungle waterfalls at El Yunque National Forest, the commonwealth’s tropical gem.
Measuring 21 miles long by 5 miles wide, Vieques is substantially bigger than Culebra and distinctly different in ambience. Though still a million metaphorical miles from the bright lights of the Puerto Rican mainland, the larger population here has meant more choice of accommodations, hipper restaurants and generally more buzz.
Veering from a manicured coast of plush golf resorts and posh surf spots, this region rears up into the less-visited vine-tangled crags of karst country, where landscapes seem positively prehistoric with yawning cave systems, mogotes (vegetated, steep-sided hillocks) and lonely spreads of forest.
Those who explore these winding roads gain a dramatically different perspective on the island and a chance to commune with Puerto Rico’s old soul. Rough around the edges and best approached with a flexible agenda, this is a place of Taíno legends and sugarcane moonshine, muddy hillside towns and misty afternoons.
Fajardo & Around
Fajardo sprawls like an untidy suburb between the El Yunque foothills and the sea. It has many personalities: downbeat ferry port for the highly recommended islands of Vieques and Culebra; upscale yacht harbor; nature preserve; beautiful beach escape; and more. Fajardo also reigns as one of Puerto Rico’s biggest water-activity centers.
Like many of Puerto Rico’s midsized cities, it takes some digging to discover the charm of Mayagüez. The ‘Sultan of the West’ is largely a transportation point for visitors to the west or those making the weekend junket to the Dominican Republic. The commonwealth’s third biggest city, behind San Juan and Ponce, it has few comparable attractions.