East End Puerto Rico, the perfect San Juan alternative
The East End of Puerto Rico is home to the verdant beauty, catamaran day trips and kayaking in bioluminescent bays. It's the perfect alternative destination to the ever-popular San Juan. Here are the best places to eat, play and stay in the East End.
What to do
Puerto del Rey Marina
East Island Excursions offers catamaran trips to all three islands. Culebra, an island of just under 2,000 residents, is a popular destination largely due to the stunning, horseshoe-shaped Flamenco Beach. Culebra is dotted with beach bars and shops to explore and enjoy.
Those looking for a more elusive deserted island vibe sail to Icacos. There are no residents or facilities, but a short stroll rewards you with a secluded private beach perfect for shell collecting or watching fish dart around tidal pools.
Both tours began with a 45-minute boat trip and a buffet lunch with unlimited rum drinks. During the excursion, the captain will take you to another snorkeling spot before the return trip; don’t be surprised if a rum-fueled raucous dance party ensues on deck. Tours depart daily from the marina around 9:30am and return around 3:30pm. Prices start at USD$75 per adult.
Fajardo Bio Bay
Fajardo Bio Bay, a 20-minute drive north from Puerto del Rey Marina, comes alive at night thanks to the phenomenon of bioluminescence. Microorganisms that emit specific molecules and enzymes that make the water glow are abundant here.
Due to the effects of climate change bio bays around the world are dimming, but Puerto Rico remains one of the top spots to see this rare magic trick. Kayaking Puerto Rico is just one of many places to book a guided evening tour. Prices start at $52 per person (plus taxes and fees).
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El Yunque National Forest
Encompassing 28,000 acres, El Yunque National Forest is Puerto Rico’s largest block of public land. Its lush green backdrop also served as the setting for the classic movie Jurassic Park.
Post-hurricane Maria restoration efforts continue and though camping is currently prohibited, there are still plenty of opportunities to explore the native flora and fauna. Entrance to the park is free, but the El Portal Visitors Center charges a fee – $4/adult, $2/senior and kids under 16 free. With so much land to cover, it’s smarter to book a tour operator who will also provide transportation from your hotel.
To truly get a sense of your surroundings, climb the 98 steps of the Yokahu Tower, one of two observation towers in El Yunque (the one with the better views) and take in the sights and sounds of the rainforest. On a clear day, you can even see the islands of St. John and St. Thomas.
For the freshest sip of water you’ve ever had, visit La Coca Falls. The 85-foot cascade is filtered through mineral-rich rocks, making the water unbelievably pure. Look for a pipe jutting out of the rocks on the right-hand side, fill your reusable bottle and enjoy.
A 10-minute drive from La Coca Falls brings you to the Angelito Trail Head (accessible on Road 988 at kilometer marker 3.5) where, during the moderately-difficult 20-minute hike, you’ll spot swaying bamboo, massive ferns, fragrant sleeping hibiscus, yellow ginger and flamboyant trees, that come alive with fiery red-orange leaves in summertime.
After a 15-minute walk on the Angelito Trail, you’ll encounter Las Damas pool in the Mameyes River, whose clear cool waters are perfect for a dip. The water shimmers with flecks of real gold and schools of fish swim right up to your feet. Look for colorful stones on the riverbed to wet and scratch on the rocks, releasing intense pigment that’s been used by indigenous groups for centuries for body paint, makeup and clothing dye.
For a bird’s eye view of the El Yunque canopy, zip through eight lines between the trees with Rainforest Zipline, one of the many outfitters in the area. Prices start at $99 per adult and $79 for children aged 8 to 15.
Cap off the adrenaline rush with a stop at a roadside stand to rehydrate with fresh coconut water served from the shell or hit up a convenience store for a cold can of Coco Rico, the island’s beloved local coconut soda.
Where to eat
Kioskos de Luquillo
Set next to a beckoning sugar-sand beach, Kioskos de Luquillo is the coolest food court you’ve ever seen. Located on the northside of Route 3 near Luquillo Beach, the kioskos are a foodie’s delight (don’t be fooled by their unassuming sheet metal façades).
The food stalls are conveniently designated by both a name and a number; most people order a few bites and a drink at one kioskos then grab a table out back overlooking the beach and later, move on to do the same at a few other spots.
The signature dish at the Peruvian-owned Ceviche Hut (#38) is made with red snapper; Jibaro’s (#22) specializes in churrasco; Terruno’s (#20) grills fresh mahi-mahi and grouper and has more than a dozen varieties of mofongo and La Parilla (#2) offers more upscale dishes like grilled lobsters and filet mignon with chimichurri.
Most kioskos are dedicated to Puerto Rican and Caribbean cuisine, but if you’re peckish for pizza or have a hankering for a hamburger you can find those too.
The kioskos are at their liveliest on weekends, when locals (and visitors in the know) rent private buses to do an evening crawl, listening to live music with a mango mojito and plate of alcapurrias de masa (ground beef-filled fritter) in hand. (Hours vary, but a few are open 11am to 10pm daily.)
Where to stay
Not only was the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar the first property in the area to reopen after Hurricane Maria, but management also allowed relief workers to stay there during the renovation and gave staff members paid time off to spend with their families.
Top among the 10 dining concepts at the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar is Iguanas Cocina Puertorriqueña, which offers modern, elevated takes on Puerto Rican dishes overlooking one of two golf courses. Order mofongo stuffed with garlic shrimp and chorizo cooked in agave and red wine. Save room for the creamy coconut flan studded with chocolate pearls.
Caicu Bar is a tapas bar with a focus on the island’s signature spirit, rum. Design your own flight among 15 options (including Puerto Rican brands Don Q, Barrilito and Bacardi), handsomely presented on a wooden board with cards describing their production and flavor profile; swirl and sip while noshing on veggie empanadas with recaito aioli.
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Kelly Magyarics traveled to Puerto Rico with support from Wyndham Grand Rio Mar. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.