San Juan and around

  • 3 Days

This 3-day itinerary whisks you into the thick of the action of San Juan, the island's capital. Labyrinthine Old Town gives way to beachy outer neighborhoods and the city is well-located for exploring some of the island's other key draws.

It's easy to get caught up in San Juan, one of the Caribbean's most versatile cities. Spend a lazy first morning and afternoon exploring historic Old San Juan, rounding off the sightseeing with the edgy – and tasty – wonders of Santurce in the late afternoon and evening. On day two, beeline for one of the urban beaches, such as Playa Isla Grande, and wind up with live music back in Old San Juan at Nuyorican. But there is plenty to see and do just outside the capital that will give you a much broader picture of Puerto Rico's diverse pleasures.

Day three: choice time. Consider joining one of the sailing day trips out to either Culebra or Vieques where you'll enjoy some sensational snorkeling, or head on a day tour up to the lush rainforest wonders of El Yunque. As you drive Hwy 191, you'll climb ever higher into the misty peaks where you can take your pick of waterfalls and nature hikes. Spend the night at a mountain retreat before returning to San Juan via Luquillo, with its natural wonders, beaches and scrumptious food stands.

Essential Puerto Rico

  • 1 Week

This week-long waltz around the island takes you from the capital out along the north coast, then down to the Central Mountains and Puerto Rico's culture-packed second city, Ponce, before spinning you back to San Juan via the tropical rainforest of El Yunque.

Touch down in San Juan and get to the beaches, exploring Isla Verde, Condado and Ocean Park. Spend the next day weaving through the Unesco treasures of Old San Juan and posing by the ramparts of El Morro. Finish up with an evening among the rollicking scene of Santurce's bars and restaurants.

Start early on day three and go west, stopping first at Dorado, where you can take in some world-class golf or hide out at nearby Playa Mar Chiquita, where you can picnic on inviting sands and watch waves explode over the coral reefs.

Keep along the coast road to Arecibo, a region becoming known for its bombastic monuments. First up, there's the tallest statue in North America, the gargantuan Birth of the New World Statue. Turn south, winding into the mountains up to Observatorio de Arecibo. If you're extraordinarily lucky, this might be the day this mountain-sized icon, the world's largest radio telescope, detects life on another planet. Bunk nearby at the remote TJ Ranch.

Next morning, meander south into coffee country around Jayuya and take full advantage with a tour of the bean-to-cup process at a hacienda here, such as Hacienda Gripiñas. Forge your way along the Ruta Panorámica, heading up toward Puerto Rico’s tallest peak, Cerro de Punta in Reserva Forestal Toro Negro. Come off your high and head to historic Ponce to dine and sleep. The next day start slow and enjoy the city's excellent museums, then head east to sample smoky pork at one of the famed roadside lechoneras (eateries specializing in suckling pig) in Guavate. Continue east to sleep at a beach house in Yabucoa. The cool, green interior of El Yunque and its magical rainforest starts day six, which finishes on the white sands of Playa Luquillo. At night, glide across the glowing waters of the bioluminescent bay at Laguna Grande.

Before returning to San Juan, have a meal from one of the famous friquitines (beach kiosks) at Playa Luquillo. Drive back via Loíza, where you can buy a vejigante (traditional horned mask), then pass the evening wandering the back streets of Old San Juan. Stop for a drink and join locals and other visitors doing just the same.

The grand tour

  • 2 Weeks

You won't miss any highlights with this best-of-the-best clockwise circuit of the island from San Juan.

Spend four days in San Juan and the surrounding areas, getting plenty of beach time and making sure to see Old San Juan. Spend at least one night listening to live salsa and taking in the dance-floor action at Nuyorican Café, the best live-music club on the island. Head to El Yunque for a day of hiking, then spend the night in Fajardo and experience the wonder of the bioluminescent bay at Laguna Grande.

The next morning head east aboard the ferry for Culebra – the more intimate cousin to Vieques. The next few days will go by too quickly, snorkeling and swimming at some of the best beaches in the world and taking a charter trip off to the abandoned white-sand paradise of Isla Culebrita.

Now that your batteries are fully recharged, get exploring. Make for the mainland and follow quiet roads past the sleepy sugar towns of the south coast toward Ponce. Spend a couple of days exploring the colonial buildings and excellent food in the so-called ‘Pearl of the South.’ Out of the center, you can also visit the impressive indigenous site of Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes or detour up into the Central Mountains to hike and sip the island’s famous coffee at dreamy stop-offs along the Ruta Panorámica.

Definitely allow one day (preferably with an early start so you can be done by midafternoon when the sun is at its hottest) for the rugged, bone-dry forest of Bosque Estatal de Guánica. After hiking, drive scenic Rte 333 along the south coast and stop to swim at tiny mangrove-enclosed beaches and spend the night in an isolated resort.

You can either spend the day swimming the turquoise water at Playa Santa in Refugio Nacional Cabo Rojo or head straight to the final destination, Rincón. The last few days of the trip will be spent surfing (or taking lessons) on perfect waves and soaking up the island’s best sunsets with an icy rum drink in hand, perhaps with some time spent in nearby Isabela. Complete the circuit, breaking up the drive with a stop in the mountains at either the gorgeous waterfalls of Gozalandia near San Sebastián or grabbing insights into the stars at Observatorio de Arecibo, before arriving back in San Juan for your final evening.

Escape to Culebra and Vieques

  • 10 Days

If you've come to Puerto Rico for dreamy tranquil islands – and everything that they might entail, from sun-worshipping to bioluminescent bay gazing – this itinerary is for you.

After time in the capital of San Juan, hightail it out of town for your island break. A trip to the islands of Culebra and Vieques displays Puerto Rico in its best light: perfect sand, laid-back atmosphere and ramshackle nightlife. Take a scenic flight to leave the capital: it’s affordable and saves you the hassle and expense of getting to the ferries at Fajardo, plus the daredevil approach to Culebra rivals the best thrill ride.

Start in Culebra, which doesn’t have much in the way of fancy resorts and clubs; the focus here is on the world-class beaches, reef snorkeling and wildlife refuges. With few cars on the island and long, deserted stretches of sand, Culebra offers the serenity that can be all too rare on the crowded Puerto Rican mainland. Visitors can soak in the expansive views of the ocean, breathe the fresh island air and explore beaches, from the renowned Playa Flamenco to the remote and enticing Playa Zoni. Save time for the beautiful snorkeling at Luis Peña Marine Reserve.

After dark, the little harbor at Dewey comes alive with affable expats whose love of karaoke crooning is only rivaled by their thirst for cold cans of Medalla.

Next up is surprising Vieques, the larger island just southwest of Culebra. You can take a ferry back to the mainland and another out to Vieques, but flying is vastly quicker and more fun. Once you touch down in Isabel Segunda, hang around this atmospheric town for a bit before heading south to Esperanza, the perfect place to enjoy the slow pace of the tropics while enjoying some fine places to stay, eat and drink. You may not want to leave. Spend the next few days exploring the wealth of south-coast beaches in the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. You will be hard-pressed to choose your favorite as you marvel at crowd-free coves and bays.

Save one night for the magically glowing waters of the bioluminescent bay, Bahía Mosquito, where you can paddle out in a quiet kayak or glide silently in an electric boat.

Exploring the mountains

  • 5 Days

Lovers of the little-known area will relish this five-day crash course in the island's least explored region, the densely forested Central Mountains.

Head south from San Juan to Bosque Estatal de Carite on Hwy 184 for a morning of beautiful hiking and swimming in icy pools (in nonholiday periods Carite is almost empty). On your way, grab lunch (if it's a weekend) from one of the lechoneras along the highway near Guavate. Head to Aibonito next and try to see both coasts of the island from the Mirador La Piedra Degetau, before tackling a descent, should you be up for the adventure, into the magical Cañon de San Cristobál. Bed down for the night in the prettiest mountain town of the lot, Barranquitas, which harbors insights into one of Puerto Rico's most infamous old families, the Muñoz clan.

The next day wind your way west along the island’s windiest roads toward the Reserva Forestal Toro Negro where you can rouse a park ranger (if you’re lucky) and set off on a couple of short hikes, or try your hand at mounting the highest peak in Puerto Rico. Few better bets for mountain accommodation exist than at Hacienda Pomarrosa just outside the reserve, on a working coffee farm.

Follow Rte 144 to the mountain town of Jayuya, where you can visit the surreal Museo del Cemí and stock up on coffee at the Hacienda San Pedro. Sleep in Adjuntas and – if your nerves can handle more blind corners – head north to Lares for the island’s best ice cream the next day. The last point on day three of this surreal rollercoaster ride is the Observatorio de Arecibo, the world's largest radio-telescope.

If you have made it this far, then this pocket of karst country is a tempting place to stay during days four and five: great lakes like Lago Dos Bocas and another beautiful forest park, Bosque Estatal de Río Abajo, might persuade you to linger a night or two, and here the nearby haven of TJ Ranch can oblige. The next day, come down the mountain and back to the capital.

Puerto Rico’s North Coast

  • 1 Week

Any point on the North Coast is but a nip and a tuck away from the island's capital, yet much of it, counter-intuitively, is quiet compared to the manic pace of El Yunque (and considerably less developed for tourism, which can also be a welcome break). Popular international destinations, San Juan in the east and Isabela in the west, are linked up on this one-week wander by some quirky, crowd-free spots.

San Juan makes a great hub for the first two days of exploring. Old San Juan, the beaches on Isla Verde and the SoFo dining district are vibrant introductions to Puerto Rican culture and history. A great day trip heading east will take in a wild diversity of island ecology at Cabezas de San Juan Reserva Natural ‘El Faro’ and allows time to pick up a souvenir vejigante from Loíza. On the third day, head west after breakfast, taking the vine-covered byways along the shore to Playa Mar Chiquita and lunch with the locals at a beachside kiosk. Next along the coast is the revitalized city of Arecibo, home to North America's mightiest monument, the enormous Birth of the New World Statue and, just inland, the world's largest radio-telescope, Observatorio de Arecibo. Next morning, you could choose to sign up for a tour of the colossal cave system of Parque de las Cavernas del Río Camuy or head straight for the moody breaks of Puerto Rico’s other surfing capital, Isabela. This balmy beach destination has ample fine dining, not to mention one of the North Coast's best golf courses, and there are a string of other activities to waylay you until it's time to hustle back to San Juan. Try horse riding along the sands, snorkeling off Playa Shacks, strolling along to the North Coast's best beach at Playa Survival or making the journey a few kilometers inland to the intriguing old hacienda of Palacete Los Moreau. Spend the last night downing mojitos until you get the courage to hit the dance floor to a soundtrack of live salsa: if you don't do it in Puerto Rico, when will you?