The roads of Puerto Rico serve as a stage.

The performers are the rolling hills dotted with little country houses, the wild horses roaming freely through the forests, the fishing villages and beaches with tiny bars by the water. Travelers find these enchanting sights when they dare to venture outside of San Juan and into the island’s core.

From Salinas and Ponce to Luquillo, experience Puerto Rico's raw beauty and culture with these incredible day trip destinations less than two hours from the capital.

1. Luquillo's beaches are an easy drive from San Juan

Travel time: 1 hour

Located on the east side of the island, take this pleasant and easy drive from the capital, and Luquillo will soon materialize, tempting you to the shore with its blue-green waters and lines of the tallest palm trees around.

Head to the easily accessible Balneario La Monserrate, also known as Luquillo Beach, if you want serene scenery and soft sand. Drive a little further and stop at La Pared Beach for a more rugged coast, a favorite among surfers who come here to catch the decidedly gnarly waves.

After a day at the beach, just follow the locals, who are inevitably drawn to the local beach-side kiosks to find delicious dishes and cold beer. You'll find many fried staples such as alcapurrias (stuffed fritters), as well as other more filling dishes such as roasted pork with rice and beans.

How to get to Luquillo from San Juan: Take PR-66 heading toward Rio Grande and then transfer to PR-3 South. The drive takes about an hour. Públicos (public minibuses) run from the Río Piedras terminal in San Juan to Luquillo's central plaza from Monday to Saturday. Trips take from 2½ to 3½ hours, depending on the traffic.

A wooden boardwalk dusted with white sand leads down to a beach where people relax under colorful umbrellas on the island of Culebra, Puerto Rico
Find your very own spot of paradise on the islands of Culebra and Vieques, just a short flight from San Juan © shakzu / Getty Images

2. Experience island life on Culebra and Vieques

Travel time: 2 hours 30 minutes

Simply put, the islands of Culebra and Vieques are paradise defined, home to swathes of ivory sand lapped by calm, blue ocean and slim dirt roads snaking through dense tropical forests.

Whether you decide to fly or drive and take the ferry, any method of arrival will soon have you swooning over bright white sands like Culebra's Flamenco Beach or Navio in Vieques. But it’s the laid-back, friendly local attitude that will leave the biggest impression on your trip – life is definitely sunnier, saltier, and easier on these welcoming islands.

How to get to Culebra and Vieques from San Juan: Hop on a 30-minute flight in San Juan, or you can turn it into a road trip by driving to Ceiba and then traveling, like the locals do, via a 90-minute ferry ride. Be sure to get to the terminal early to snag tickets.

3. Explore the coast near the fishing town of Fajardo

Travel time: 1 hour

Fajardo is a prime spot for tropical escapism. Just one hour from San Juan, the fishing town sports an immaculate stretch of sand called Seven Seas Beach and some of the best arepas rellenas (white corn pocket bread) on the island.

Head over to the village of Las Croabas for local dishes, drinks and music by the sea. If you're feeling active, rent a kayak or a paddleboard in Seven Seas and explore the peaceful coast. Or hike to to Playa Escondida, a stunning hidden beach with views of Luquillo. Fajardo is also home to El Conquistador Resort - possibly the biggest and most famous resort on the island - and the pristine isles of Icacos and Palomino, only reachable by boat.

How to get to Fajardo from San Juan: Head east on the roads out of San Jaun. The drive to Fajardo takes around an hour.

A smoked meat dish accompanied by a bowl of rice and mac and cheese on a wooden table in a busy restaurant
Eating along La Ruta del Lechón 9 is considered the best way to experience Guavate's famous suckling pig © Lonely Planet

4. Try Puerto Rico's best pork dishes in Guavate

Travel time: 50 minutes

Guavate in the mountain town of Cayey is known as the home of the highly touted spit-roasted suckling pig, a local delicacy. This is not a dish you get at just any restaurant on the island, though, and many locals consider it mandatory to drive to Guavate to eat their way along the suckling pig route. Officially known as La Ruta del Lechón 9 (or Carretera 184), this hilly rural road in the Central Mountains became an even bigger attraction thanks to visits by celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern.

Along the route, culinary enthusiasts will find plenty of different lechoneras (restaurants), including El Nuevo Rancho, El Mojito and Los Pinos. The celebrated roasted pork is usually served with rice, pigeon peas and a savory slice of cuerito (pork rind) on the side.

How to get to Guavate from San Juan: Follow Expwy 52 to exit 31, halfway between Caguas and Cayey. Turn east onto Hwy 184. The journey takes around 50 minutes. 

A red car drives down a street lined with pastel-colored buildings in the city of Ponce, Puerto Rico
The city of Ponce is packed with a unique blend of architectural styles © Maremagnum / Getty Images

5. Take a scenic drive to Salinas and Ponce

Travel time: 2 hours

The Luis A. Ferré highway is a gorgeous drive that takes you to the south of Puerto Rico by crossing ridge after ridge, and the road itself is elevated enough that you can see the ocean through the mountaintops.

The first stop will be Salinas, known for the food kiosks by the road on Hwy 1 and the ocean-front seafood restaurants on Camino de Playa (or PR-701). Another popular stop is Aguirre, a picturesque 19th-century sugar mill village now partially in ruins. It's home to turn-of-the-century cottages, the island’s oldest golf course and a natural reserve.

Around 40 minutes away, you’ll find the second-largest city in Puerto Rico: Ponce. Dubbed the “Pearl of the South,” Ponce has a little of everything: coffee plantations such as Buena Vista and Pomarrosa, paradisaical beaches on nearby islands like Caja de Muertos, and renowned art museums.

The city’s historic town features a number of architectural marvels: the Ponce Creole style, a unique mix of neoclassical and Spanish Creole architectures, can be seen in over 1,000 well-preserved residences all over town. Locals say that “Ponce is Ponce," meaning the city is a class apart. Visitors tend to agree.

How to get to Salinas and Ponce from San Juan: Salinas and Ponce are about 40 minutes away from each other, and less than 90 minutes from San Juan. First, take the tolled Hwy 52 from San Juan towards Salinas. From there to Ponce, continue on Hwy 52, a partially toll-controlled highway called the Autopista Luis A. Ferré. Driving in central Ponce is not recommended. 

This article was first published July 2017 and updated November 2023

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