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Scented by slow-roasted pork and sea breezes, colored by swashbuckling history, this sun-washed medley of Spanish and American influences is a fusion of Caribbean delights.
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El Yunque National Forest is one of Puerto Rico’s crown jewels with nearly 29,000 acres of lush, mountainous terrain scattered with waterfalls, rushing rivers, towering trees and bamboo groves, all opening up to spectacular ocean views. The only rainforest in the US National Forest System, El Yunque (named after the Taíno god, Yúcahu) has 25 miles of trails to suit all hiking abilities. Some are short and paved, others long, steep and overgrown. Almost all gain some elevation; one of the toughest is to El Toro, around 3500ft above sea level. El Yunque has two entrances: the northern side, 25 miles east of San Juan, receives the majority of visitors, while the southern side close to Naguabo retains a wild pristine feel. Due to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017, check the website for up-to-date information on the trails’ status. Embark on hikes (short and sweet, with information boards and tourist hoards, or long and lonely, with coquí frogs for company) through the oxygen-rich mist and gawk at Jurassic-sized ferns. Bring a raincoat and binoculars, too; of the 26 species found here and nowhere else on Earth, you’ll want to keep a sharp eye out for the Puerto Rican parrot, one of the world's 10 most endangered birds. El Yunque National Park's northern side has an array of maintained trails © Infinite_Eye / Shutterstock How to get to El Yunque Since there’s no public transportation to El Yunque, you will need to get here with a private vehicle or on a guided tour from San Juan or Fajardo. Driving from San Juan, there will be signs directing you from Hwy 3 to Hwy 191. Turn south at Palmer and follow the signs to El Yunque National Forest. Take note that some maps still show that you can traverse the forest on Hwy 191, or access El Yunque from the south via this route. However, Hwy 191 has been closed south of Km 13 for years and there are no plans to reopen it. Some road maps also suggest that El Yunque can be approached via a network of roads along the forest's western border. Don’t try it: these roads are unmaintained tracks that often dead-end in serious jungle. Be sure to check the latest conditions of El Yunque's roads before heading out. There's a northern entrance near Luquillo and a southern entrance near Naguabo, both off Hwy 191. The El Portal Visitors Center reopened in 2022 after sustaining structural damages due to hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017. The northern side is more visited and has lots of well-marked trails and parking areas; the southern side is wilder and less developed, making for beautiful off-the-beaten-track experiences. Make sure to secure a reservation before heading out. Best time to go to El Yunque El Yunque National Forest has year-round trails but the best time to visit is from mid-April to June to avoid the winter rush and the wet summer. Hurricane season – June through late November – can bring sodden conditions to El Yunque National Forest, with the possibility of trails being closed due to mudslides and flooding, so always check the trail status before you set out. But it’s called the rainforest for a reason – you can expect showers every day. El Yunque's operating hours El Yunque is open from 7:30am-6pm (except on Christmas). There’s no entrance fee, however some attractions inside the park require payment. Attractions in El Yunque There’s more to do at El Yunque then hike. Get that adrenaline pumping by soaring through the verdant canopies on a zipline. Carabalí Rainforest Park offers horseback riding, go-karts, ATV tours and hayrides. There's a host of native flora and fauna at El Yunque National Park © Christian Ouellet / Getty Images Guided Tours to El Yunque There are many San Juan and Fajardo-based tour operators offering day trips to El Yunque. All will transport you to and from the park, highlight the main sights and provide you with a mine of interesting information about its flora and fauna. Camping in El Yunque There are no developed campgrounds or designated camping areas in El Yunque. Primitive camping is allowed along most roads and trails except closed areas, but at the time of research, camping was off-limits until 2021. Check the El Yunque National Forest website for up-to-date information. Normally, tents must be located at least 30ft away from any trail or body of water and at least 50ft from roads and developed picnic sites. Most importantly, campers need a free permit that must be obtained at least 14 days before their visit. Nearby hotels There are several boutique accommodations like Casa Flamboyant, Dos Aguas and the Rainforest Inn on the fringes of El Yunque National Forest, which still feels very wild. Proximity to the rainforest means you’ll be lulled to sleep by the sound of chirruping coqui frogs and wake to tropical birdsong. Lodging to the north means easy access to Luquillo's beaches – the south is more isolated but both areas are within reach of Fajardo and the Bio Bay. Nearby restaurants Palmer, the colorful strip where Hwy 191 heads south from Hwy 3 toward El Yunque, has some good eating options like Degree 18 Juice Bar, Lluvia Deli Bar and Mi Vida Café & Burger. Inside the park, there are a few cheap-and-cheerful roadside stands and the visitors center will have a cafe.
Stretching for a mile around a sheltered, horseshoe-shaped bay, Playa Flamenco (Flamenco Beach) is not only one of Culebra’s best beaches, it also makes a regular appearance on the world's best beaches lists. It gets its name from the nearby lagoon, which attracts flamingos in winter. If you plant to visit during this time, you’ll feel like Robinson Crusoe contemplating the clarity of the water. Backed by low scrub and trees rather than lofty palms, Flamenco gets very crowded on weekends and holidays, especially with day-trippers from San Juan, so plan a weekday visit. Alone among Culebra's beaches, it has a full range of amenities. Facilities Services include a collection of kiosks (selling snack food, lunches, rum punches and beer, and renting beach gear), toilets, outdoor showers, lockers, lifeguards, picnic tables and an often jam-packed parking lot. Camping is allowed. The M4A3E8 Sherman tank at Flamenco Beach on Culebra Island is an iconic photo opportunity. ©cdlutez/Budget Travel Tank on Playa Flamenco The iconic rusting tank is at the Playa Flamenco's western end, a legacy of when US troops practiced invasions here. Its swirling green and yellow stripes, the work of local artist Jorge Acevedo, represent a dancing fish. Ferry to Playa Flamenco The most popular – and cheapest – way to Culebra from the mainland is on the Autoridad de Transporte Marítimo ferry service from Ceiba ($2.25 for adults). The service is reasonably reliable, but delays often occur. Buy your ticket and check times at www.porferry.com and get to the ferry terminal at least an hour early. Schedules vary but there are usually at least five round-trips a day; journey times are 45 minutes. On busy weekends, especially during summer, travelers may get bumped by island residents. Playa Flamenco is 2.8 miles (4.5km) from the Culebra ferry terminal and is a straight shot from Dewey. The road is paved and has some inclines, but the destination is idyllic. The main road leading out of town becomes Hwy 251, passes the airport and ends at the beach. By car, the trip takes about 15 minutes; by foot, plan on 40 minutes. Públicos have one route on the island, from the ferry terminal to Playa Flamenco (per person around US$4). As long as there's room, passengers can flag them down anywhere along the route. The fare remains the same, regardless where you get on. This could be the view that greets you each morning at Flamingo Beach. ©cdwheatley/Getty Images Can I stay on Playa Flamenco? So far, Culebra has shunned the advances of any major hotel chains, so the island offers apartments or homestays rather than hotels and resorts. There are a few good accommodation options close to Playa Flamenco itself. Camping Culebra Playa Flamenco is the only place you can legally camp in Culebra. Campsites are in five zones: A is closest to the food kiosks while E is closest to the beach and therefore the most popular. Outdoor showers have limited hours; bathrooms are open 24/7. Reservations aren’t typically necessary and camping gear can be rented. Villa Flamenco Beach Gentle waves lull you to sleep and you wake up to one of the best beaches on the planet just outside your window: this six-unit home-away-from-home is an absolute winner. There are self-catering kitchen facilities and inviting hammocks, and friendly owners Violetta and Juan are on-hand to offer island advice. Closed from the beginning of October to mid-November. Culebra Beach Villas This is the only accommodations complex on Playa Flamenco. There are 33 self-catering apartments with kitchens for two to eight people. Each villa is individually owned, decorated and maintained and some are in a better condition than others. The setting is stunning, of course, though you’ll want to stock up on provisions in Dewey. Wi-fi in the reception area only.
If you need a reason to hire a water taxi, Isla Culebrita (Culebrita Island) is it. This small island, just east of Playa Zoni, is part of the national wildlife refuge. With its six beaches, tide pools, reefs and nesting areas for seabirds, Isla Culebrita has changed little in the past 500 years. The north beaches, especially the long crescent of Playa Tortuga, are popular nesting grounds for green sea turtles – you might even see them swimming near the reefs just offshore. The Isla is also home to Faro Culebrita. Built in 1886, it was one of the oldest operating lighthouses in the Caribbean when it was shut down by the US Navy in 1975. Currently in ruins, it is earmarked for extensive repairs. A well-marked path leads you there – the lighthouse itself is off-limits but the vistas are picture-postcard perfect. Bring a lot of water, sunscreen and a hat if you head for Isla Culebrita – there's little shade here. And don't forget snacks and snorkel gear! How to get to Isla Culebrita Unless you've chartered a boat (or have your own), round-trip water taxis from Culebra are the only way to see Isla Culebrita. These cost around US$65 per person, including beach gear, hammock and snorkel set. Water taxis There are a number of reliable water taxis who will take you to Isla Culebrita, but if they are booked, you'll often find captains along Dewey's waterfront. H2O Water Taxi Captain German offers round-trip boat service to Culebra's nearby cays. Beach and snorkel gear often included in his rates. Phone 787-685-5815 or email email@example.com. Cayo Norte Water Taxi Licensed Captain Louis Padrón offers tours and water-taxi services to Isla Culebrita, Cayo Norte and Cayo Luis Peña. Phone 787-376-9988. Can I stay on Isla Culebrita? As Isla Culebrita is uninhabited, there are isn't anywhere else to sleep on the island. The nearest hotels are on Culebra. Beaches There are several beaches on the island, though most people will only visit one or two in a day. West Beach This is where the majority of water taxis from Culebra Island will moor up. It's a lovely narrow stretch of twinkling sand on the west of the island. Playa Tortuga (Turtle Beach) The diamond-dust sands of this crescent-shaped beach on the north coast is used by sea turtles as a breeding ground, hence its name. At the head of the beach are a number of rocks which absorb the waves and create warm tidal pools, known locally as the Jacuzzi. Trash Beach Strong winds and undercurrents can mean that Trash Beach lives up to its name — it's where flotsam, jetsam, driftwood and plastic tends to end up if the conditions are right. However, this isn't always the case. If you're lucky, it's a glorious stretch of isolated sand on the east of the island where the waves can boom theatrically. East Beach Although it's close to Trash Beach, this smaller slice of paradise doesn't suffer from the same issues and has a decent pedigree among snorkelers. You'll also find two of the lagoons nearby. South Beach This secluded stretch of shoreline is the least visited, but affords some of the best snorkeling. Cayo Luis Peña It may be less visited than Isla Culebrita, but Cayo Luis Peña can be a good, cheaper alternative. You’ll pass this small cay of peaks, rocks, forests and coves just a few minutes before the ferry arrives at Culebra’s dock. This island is part of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge and has a collection of small sheltered beaches and snorkeling all around the island. Luis Peña is a short kayak or water-taxi trip (fares from US$40 per person) from Culebra.
Locals claim that the magnificent Bahía Mosquito (Mosquito Bay), a designated wildlife preserve located on the island of Vieques, about 2 miles east of the town of Esperanza, has the highest concentration of phosphorescent dinoflagellates (algae) not only in Puerto Rico, but in the world. When movement disturbs these creatures, a chemical reaction takes place in their little bodies that makes a flash, a trait scientists speculate that dynoflagellates have developed to ward off predators. As such, a trip through the lagoon is nothing short of psychedelic, with the movement of your kayak, paddle, electric boat, even fish, whipping up fluorescent-blue sparkles below the surface. Touring the Bahía Mosquito (Mosquito Bay) You can drive east on the rough Sun Bay road from Esperanza and stop for a view (parking well back from the water and mangroves). However, an organized trip will give you far more opportunity to really take in the spread of phosphorescence. Guides offer a wealth of information on the phenomenon as well as the flora and fauna. Look for birds including pelicans, frigate and cuckoos. In the waters below, small sharks and rays are among the fish stirring up the light show. Abe's Snorkeling & Bio-Bay Tours and Aqua Sunset Tours – the latter offering trips in a crystal-clear canoe, which makes an already magical experience extra-special – are two good outfits. Ensure to book tours with operators who only use kayaks or electric motors, as anything else will damage the bay's fragile ecosystem. Reservations for tours are essential in high season, and the best time to go is at new moon. There’s another inlet to the east, Barracuda Bay, that’s also filled with dinoflagellates, but tour operators don’t venture out that far. Swimming in the Bahía Mosquito is illegal. Hotels near Bahía Mosquito (Mosquito Bay) The island of Vieques has plenty of accommodation options for travellers. For Bahía Mosquito, the town of Esperanza, just 2 miles to the west, makes for a great base, which boasts boutique hotels in the hills and guesthouses lining oceanfront Calle Flamboyan. For proximity to the Bay, Acacia Guesthouse and El Blok are two good options, both a 40-minute walk (or 7-minute taxi ride) away. Those counting the cents might alternatively consider Bananas, Esperanza’s original budget guesthouse.
Sometimes a little piece of paradise lies in store in the least obvious of locales, and Gozalandia is San Sebastián's: a flurry of dramatic cascades, three miles (4.8km) north of town that tumbles into some inviting plunge pools. The crashing river here is backed by steep forest and is a truly beautiful spot to spend some hours soaking up the quietude. There are two key cascades. At the lower one it is possible, with care, to climb behind the waterfall, whilst at the upper, there is a rope swing. Near the parking area, Sha's restaurant rustles up great cocktails using fresh fruits, and it is rarely crowded. How to get to Gozalandia The owner of the land on which the cascades are found still advertises the place as La Cascada del Guama even though most know it as Gozalandia. To get here, follow Route 111 north from San Sebastián and turn right onto Route 446 (the intersection next to the Total garage). After around 0.74 miles (1.4km), turn right onto Sec Lechuza and across the bridge. You'll need to then drive for another three minutes or so until you see a large gate on the left and a sign for car parking. It costs $10 to park. The walk then to the falls takes around eight minutes. Opening times Gozalandia is located on private property. It's open from daily from 9am-6pm. Think before jumping Be wary if jumping in from the top of the waterfall. There have been reports of at least one death here.
A nodule of land on Puerto Rico’s northeast tip, this Para La Naturaleza–run reserve protects the Laguna Grande bioluminescent bay, rare flora and fauna, mangroves and lush rainforest, and is home to an important scientific research center. At the time of research, the reserve was closed due to post-hurricane repairs and maintenance, with no reopening date scheduled. There are no tours of the reserve or its lighthouse, but you can volunteer to help with tree nursery maintenance. Despite its diminutive size, the reserve shelters seven – yes, seven – different ecological systems, including beaches, lagoons, dry forest, coral reefs and mangroves. Animal species that forage here include big iguanas, fiddler crabs, myriad insects and all kinds of birds. Such condensed biodiversity is typical of Puerto Rico’s compact island status and Las Cabezas is highlighted as an integral part of the Commonwealth’s vital threatened Northeast Ecological Corridor. A historical highlight amid the natural beauty is the splendidly restored 1882 El Faro de las Cabezas de San Juan, Puerto Rico’s oldest lighthouse. With a well-conceived nature center and spectacular views of the north and east coasts, it's a highlight for many tours of the reserve. There are about 2 miles of trails and boardwalks that lead through the park, but you can’t follow them on your own: you must take a guided walking tour (adult/child US$12/10). It lasts more than two hours and includes a short tram ride through the dry forest section. Tours depart through the day, but most are in Spanish; the English tour is usually at 2pm. Other tours include a bike tour (US$22) and a birding tour (US$14). Night tours (adult/child US$24/14) explore the grounds, lighthouse and bioluminescent bay. Reservations are required for all tours. You can get a glimpse of some of the reserve by simply walking east down the narrow beach from Playa Seven Seas. Better yet, take a kayak tour with a tour operator at sunset and explore Laguna Grande after dark for the blue-glowing, underwater ‘fireworks’ of bioluminescent micro-organisms.
A star of Old San Juan, brooding El Morro sits atop a headland, deterring would-be attackers. The 140ft walls (some up to 15ft thick) date to 1539 and it's said to be the oldest Spanish fort in the New World. Displays, a short video and weekend tours document the construction of the fort, which took almost 200 years, as well as its role in rebuffing attacks on the island by the British, the Dutch and, later, the US military. At a minimum, try to make the climb up the ramparts to the sentries’ walks along the Santa Barbara Bastion and Austria Half-Bastion for the views of the sea, the bay, Old San Juan, modern San Juan, El Yunque and the island’s mountainous spine. Wear comfortable shoes for the long walks and countless staircases. On weekends, the fields leading up to the fort are alive with picnickers, lovers and kite flyers. The scene becomes a kind of impromptu festival with food carts on the perimeter. The gray, castellated lighthouse on the 6th floor has been in operation since 1846 (although the tower itself dates from 1906), making it the island’s oldest light station still in use today. After suffering severe damage during a US navy bombardment during the 1898 Spanish–American War, the original lighthouse was rebuilt with unique Spanish-Moorish features, a style that blends in surprisingly well with the rest of the fort. The National Park Service maintains this fort and the small military museum on the premises. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1983.
The city's second major fort is one of the largest Spanish-built military installations in the Americas. In its prime, it covered 27 acres with a maze of six interconnected forts protecting a central core with 150ft walls, moats, booby-trapped bridges and tunnels. It has a fascinating museum, military archives, a reproduction of military barracks, a store and stunning Atlantic and city views. Hour-long free guided tours in English roam the tunnels at 10:30am on Saturdays (Sundays in Spanish); first-come, first-served. The fort was constructed to defend Old San Juan against land attacks from the east via Puerta de Tierra. The imaginative design came from the famous Irish mercenary Alejandro O’Reilly and his compatriot Thomas O’Daly (hired by Spain). Construction began in 1634 in response to an attack by the Dutch a decade previously, though the main period of enlargement occurred between 1765 and 1783. Seven acres were lopped off the fort in 1897 to ease congestion in the old town and the following year the Spanish marked Puerto Rico’s entry into the Spanish-American War by firing at the battleship USS Yale from its cannon battery. The fort became a National Historic Site in 1949 and part of the Unesco World Heritage site in 1983.
This museum presents an impressive overview of cultural development in the Americas, including indigenous, African and European influences. Four permanent exhibits integrate art, history and anthropology in thoughtful and provocative ways; the coverage of slavery is particularly moving, including the recreation of travel on a slave ship. Audiovisual highlights and knowledgeable guides enrich visits. There are interesting temporary exhibitions, along with a store stocking books, jewelry and art. Every Saturday at 2pm, workshops (US$1) are offered to introduce the public to various forms of folk art of the Americas. Though geared toward children, all are welcome; reservations recommended. If you're interested in buying folk art, the museum also hosts Domingo de Artesanos the first Sunday of every month, where local artists showcase and sell their works.