El Yunque Rainforest is the only tropical rainforest under the protection of the US Forest Service and also the largest nature reserve in densely-populated Puerto Rico. It is situated in the mist-wreathed Luquillo Mountains where year-round precipitation ensures lush, green landscapes and a healthy diversity of animal life. This includes mongooses, non-venomous snakes, the rare Puerto Rican Parrot and the Coqui frog whose distinctive croak provides El Yunque’s soundtrack.
El Portal Rain Forest Center provides a good introduction to the area. There you can pick up a map and set out on well-defined walking trails which will take you past such sights as the La Coca Falls and the observation points of Yokahú Tower and Mount Britton Lookout Tower.
Playa Flamenco is a stunningly scenic beach that is an ideal day trip for those vacationing on Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. Playa Flamenco isn't actually located on the main island of Puerto Rico, though. Instead, you'll have to take a short boat ride to the smaller island of Culebra.
It is worth the trip as Playa Flamenco has a wide, white sand beach that is bordered by clear aqua sea water on one side and bright green hills on the other. High quality food stands line the beach serving a variety of treats, ranging from ice cream and fruit smoothies to ceviche and empanadas. Bathrooms are available onsite and there are also beach chairs and umbrellas you can rent to use for the day. Playa Flamenco also holds remnants of Puerto Rico's military past; on the northern edge of the beach are two old military tanks which are worth an amble along the beach to see.
By day, Fajardo’s famous “Bio Bay” looks like a regular Puerto Rican coastline. By night, however, the bay becomes an eerie lagoon that literally shines a fluorescent hue with every movement or splash. Due to the presence of microscopic plankton that thrive in the shallow waters, every stroke of a kayak paddle creates a trailing ribbon of light. Officially known as “bioluminescence,” there are only a handful of places worldwide where the phenomenon is consistently found. One of those is here at Laguna Grande just off the shores of Fajardo, where kayak tours literally allow visitors the chance to set the water aglow. For as eerie and almost unnatural as that sounds, watching the water glow on your fingertips isn’t the spookiest part. Rather, that would be kayaking through dense mangroves under a total canopy of darkness, where every creak, groan, and jungle sound reminds you’re not indoors.
Picturesque Flamenco Beach is ranked number three among the top 10 most exotic beaches in the world, thanks to its white coral sand, crystal clear water and breathtaking arid tree lined hills. But there are more sandy shores to see on Culebra Island than just this spot for sun and surf—the island itself is a true paradise for beach bumming travelers.
Visitors can access smaller island destinations like Culebrita and Luis Pena (after obtaining a permit) by using a public water taxi from the main town. These tiny landmasses off the coast of this picturesque island are ideal for hiking, photography and scuba diving. Since rivers and streams don’t run into the ocean waters here, so the surrounding seas are unusually clear making for perfect underwater wildlife viewing.
When you first set foot on Cayo Icacos and take a look around, it looks exactly like a deserted island you’d see in a Hollywood film. White sand rings a forested grove at the center of the tiny island, and the sound of waves and gusting wind is the only break in the silence. Then, when you turn around and notice the boat that brought you there is gone, the reality of being on a deserted island suddenly begins to sink in.
Despite being only 15 minutes from the mainland town of Fajardo, Cayo Icacos is an undeveloped island that feels like the middle of nowhere. It isn’t the isolated seclusion, however, that draws visitors to Icacos; rather, it’s the pristine snorkeling and offshore reefs where schools of colorful, tropical fish all flit and sway with the waves. If you don’t want to simply be dropped off on shore and left to fend for yourself (until the boat comes back, of course, a few hours later), there are snorkeling cruises to Cayo Icacos that make the trip more comfortable.
Old San Juan sits on a small island guarding the entrance to the Bahía de San Juan, the “rich port” which gave Puerto Rico its name. Its strategic position was backed up by fortifications include the forbidding San Felipe del Morro fort at the tip of the island, as well as San Cristóbal fort and La Fortaleza, now the Governor’s residence.
Inland, the compact grid of hilly, narrow streets, with their colorful houses and elegant wrought-iron balconies, represents one of the oldest and best-preserved town centers in the Western Hemisphere. Two historic houses of worship bookend the center: in the north, the simple white exterior of the San José Church and the comparative grandeur of the older Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, built in 1521, in the south. The latter contains the tomb of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León.
Also known as Balnearnio Montserrat, Luquillo Beach is beautiful tranquil crescent of powdery sand famed for its palm trees and long stretch of fine yellow sand. A fringe reef protects the beach from raging surf and calms the water to tranquility, so families find it a popular stop to bring young kids who are often found frolicking on the shore. The fried food kiosks that dot the area are well-liked for beachside eating, though locals often bring their grills to set up and do a little beachside bbq-ing. With El Yunque National Forest blooming in the background, Luquillo Beach is some of the best of San Juan beaches.
San Juan is the home of world famous Bacardí rum. Even if you’ve never given much thought to how this Caribbean staple gets from the cane fields to your mojito, the Casa Bacardí Visitor Center offers a surprisingly interesting experience. See the distillery, bottling plant and a museum which traces the company’s origins in Cuba to its current global domination.
Naturally it would be cruel to lead you all the way through this grown-up version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and not let you sample the wares, so pure rum and cocktails are handed out towards the end.
Quite literally meaning walkway of the princess, Paseo de la Princesa does indeed have enough romance and beauty fit for royalty. A perfect spot to enjoy the Old World charms of San Juan – strolling through this romantic 19th century avenue is perhaps one of San Juan’s most romantic escapes – and yet it’s located just outside the city walls. Lined with antique street lamps, shade trees, and fruit cart vendors – walking the Paseo de la Princesa embues a leisurely sense of ancient romance and serene beauty. With the impressive Old San Juan fortifications towering above you and the glistening San Juan Bay on your left, the Paseo de la Princesa stands a good chance of being your favorite simple escape while in San Juan.
By itself, kayaking at night beneath the stars is an adventurous and romantic experience, where the only sound is that of your paddles slowly breaking the surface of the water. Crane your neck skywards to look at the stars and navigate only by the moon, as the only sight is the faint bit of lining shining down from the dark sky above. Here off the island of Vieques, however, at Bioluminescent Bay, the adventure is ratcheted up a notch by water that glows when you touch it. Thanks to microorganisms that are best known simply as “dinos,” when you swirl your paddle or fingers in the water of this famous Puerto Rican bay, a flash of neon blue and green will burst right next to your kayak. It’s an experience that runs counter to all your senses, since touching doesn’t usually mean seeing, and a sight that continuously manages to surprise with you with every stroke that you take.
The Wedgwood blue and white Santa Catalina Palace was built in 1533 and makes an impressive sight as you approach through a narrow Old San Juan street. While the building exudes an air of calm authority, it occupies a site that was long one of the most contested strategic positions in the Caribbean: La Fortaleza. And you can still see stone fortifications built by the Spanish, brooding above the waves.
Just north of the Old San Juan district, within the San Juan National Historic Site, lies Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 16th-century citadel, or fortress.
It is a World Heritage-listed site on the northwestern tip of the islet of San Juan – a perfect spot to keep watch over the Atlantic Ocean and protect Old San Juan and the Bay of San Juan from incoming enemies. Its more recent history includes the American military, which occupied the site from 1898 to 1961.
The citadel, surrounded like it is by an expansive green lawn and the dramatic rocky coast, sits on quite a beautiful spot; the imposing fortress walls create an interesting contrast to the sparkling blue sea. When the wind blows, the lawn that connects the citadel to the town is a popular kite-flying spot.
Built in 1521, The San Juan Cathedral (aka La Santa Catedral San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico) is one of the highlights of any trip into Old San Juan. The second oldest cathedral in the Americas, this historic landmark lies right in the heart of Old San Juan and boasts an impressive array of religious and historical artifacts including the tomb of notorious Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon and the mummy of St. Pio. An operational cathedral, you can attend mass here Saturdays at 7 pm, Sunday at 9 and 11 am, and weekdays 7:25 am and 12:15 pm. And experience a traditional catholic mass, or, when service isn’t being conducted, you can wander the nave free of charge, gaze at the huge stained glass windows, or marvel at the construction of the oldest church on U.S. soil.
Most caves aren’t the types of places that also come with a view; by their very nature, caves are dark, musty holes full of rocks, stalactites and bats. But at Cueva Ventana, about an hour outside of San Juan, the dark cave opens to up to Puerto Rico’s best view.
Ensconced in cliffs towering high above the Rio Grande Arecibo, Cueva Ventana is where subterranean suddenly meets surreal. Though there was once a time when it was free to visit, the area today is privately administered to protect against damage and decay. The downside, of course, is the added cost, but the upside is the fact that the ticket price now includes a local guide. Here you’ll hear history of native Taino who left their marks on the cave, and be presented with flashlights for navigating the depths of the dark, guano-filled room.
The Arecibo Observatory has earned a reputation as the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world. It features the William E. Gordon telescope as well as a visitor and public outreach center and scientific research community. As more than 1,000 feet in size, it is the world’s biggest single aperture telescope. It is known also as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) and is run largely by the National Science Foundation. It was constructed in the mid-1960s in the space left in the ground from a karst sinkhole.
With three radar transmitters, it has the largest electromagnetic-wave-gathering capacity in the world, within a forty-degree cone of visibility. Many breakthroughs and discoveries have been found by scientists from around the world in the facilities here, including the rotation rate of Mercury and evidence that neuron stars exist. The observatory was listed on the American National Register of Historic Places in 2008.
Established in 1949, The San Juan National Historic Site is home to some of the city’s most famous attractions. Visitors can climb to Castillo San Felibe del Morro, overlooking the San Juan Bay, for an up close look at military efforts more than 250 years ago. Travelers can learn about historic battles that took place against the English and Dutch while visiting the restored lighthouse, chapel and vintage cannons.
History buffs will also love Castillo San Cristobal, near the gate of Old San Juan. While El Morro protected Puerto Rico from seaside attacks, Castillo San Cristobal was designed to stop intruders approaching by land. With grounds stretching some 27 acres, this is Puerto Rico’s largest fortification site, as well as the biggest built by the Spanish after discovering the New World.