Explore Secluded Beaches, Tropical Rainforests and Award-Winning Cuisine in Puerto Rico

Swooping palms, Caribbean waters, and a steady supply of fried plantains and rum are a quick (domestic) flight away in Puerto Rico. 

Sandy beach with palm trees in Vieques
Vieques. Photo: Courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico

The sun is slipping away on a balmy evening in San Juan, but La Placita de Santurce is just heating up. A steady stream of people trickle into the 100-year-old market square, until every corner thrums. When the streetlights flick on, so does the music. Groups of friends sway to salsa, rum drinks in hand. Others snack on carne frita (fried pork chunks) or fresh octopus salad at the chinchorros (casual bar-restaurants) surrounding the square. It's six years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, and Puerto Rico feels very much alive.

People on porch of historic building in La Placita at nighttime
La Placita de Santurce. Courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico, occupying a slot of the Caribbean archipelago between the British Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic, offers all the perks of an international vacation, but as a U.S. territory, it's easy to get to and even easier to manage. There's no money to be exchanged, English is used widely, and even the mail carriers wear USPS worker uniforms.

"We wanted to experience another culture with our kids," says Kristyn Arnold, who has traveled to Puerto Rico from Iowa three times in the last four years. "In Puerto Rico we can do that, and also explore beaches, rainforests and new foods—and we don't even need a passport!"

On the island's coasts, blue-green water laps at whites and while tall palm trees rustle above. Head inland to get lost among the lush foliage of a tropical rainforest, where frothy waterfalls cascade into azure pools. In San Juan, the capital, candy-color buildings house century-old businesses, award-winning restaurants, handicraft shops, and plenty of bars slinging sangria and muddling mojitos.

Consider breaking your trip into regions. First-timers should check off San Juan, as well as Fajardo's famous bioluminescent bay on the east side of the island; repeat visitors may want to explore the less-touristed western side. Locals are always good sources when looking for the best mofongo (smashed garlicky fried plantains), the quietest beaches—or just a warm smile from a fellow citizen.

Colorful buildings lining a street in Old San Juan
Old San Juan. Courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico

Metro and East

The stretch from San Juan to Fajardo is a perfect trip for first-timers.

You'll likely fly into San Juan, so start your trip here. Many of the capital's iconic landmarks and sites are in Old San Juan. Stroll through Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a historic fort overlooking the ocean. From there, you can wander the neighborhood's narrow streets. Seek out El Jibarito for lunch, a long-running spot for typical cuisine like mofongo and chicken criollo. (You'll be tempted to ask for a bottle of the garlic sauce to take home.) After shopping, cool down with a Manchego ice cream from La Crema Heladería or a piña colada from Barrachina, which claims the drink's invention in 1963. For a beach day, El Escambrón, just outside of Old San Juan, is a local favorite. Shoreside shacks sell beers and frituras (savory fried treats).

Head to downtown for a meal at Cocina al Fondo; chef Natalia Vallejo took home the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South this year. Lote 23 is a cool outdoor food park with kiosks selling flautas, burgers, mezcal and even Chicago deep-dish. At nearby La Tigre, you can design a custom-made guayabera, a traditional men's shirt. In the popular Condado neighborhood, beach resorts line the shore, such as Condado Ocean Club. Chocobar Cortés sells divine bean-to-bar frozen hot chocolate. You can also try a Mallorca Iberica here, a breakfast sandwich found in many cafes that includes ham and cheese on soft sweet bread sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Couple taking a photo with Casa Bacardi sign
Casa Bacardi. Courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico

If you rent a car (the roads are easily navigable) or book a taxi, several day trips await. Casa Bacardí is 25 minutes outside of San Juan in Cataño. After touring the rum factory, you can personalize a bottle or enjoy a cocktail at the outdoor bar. Head an hour east of the city to Luquillo, a popular beach town with calm waters and a lively street-food scene. It's not far from El Yunque National Forest, well known for hiking and waterfalls. Explore the rainforest on your own (El Angelito is a popular trail to a swimming hole) or book a guided tour. About 15 minutes east of Luquillo is Fajardo and its bioluminescent bay. Book a tour with Kayaking Puerto Rico; your paddle begins after dark through a narrow mangrove channel before spilling out into the bay. Drag your hand in the water to create a trail of sparkling blue stars.

Cove of blue-green water surrounded by beach
Mar Chiquita. Courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico

North and West

Head west from San Juan to find secluded beaches, popular surf spots and scenic waterfalls.

Just an hour outside the capital is Mar Chiquita, a mushroom-shape cove. Water funnels through volcanic rock formations into its mouth, forming a natural wave pool. An hour west of that is Playa Puerto Hermina, an old pirate's haunt, now a low-key, year-round surfing spot. Rincón, on the westernmost tip of Puerto Rico's nose, has some of the island's most famous surf—and best sunsets. Stay in Sandy Beach, where you can walk from sand to shops and sips.

Lighthouse in Puerto Rico
Punta Higüera Lighthouse. Courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico

In winter, Domes Beach is one of the best surfing spots in the Caribbean—and it's a great time to spot whales. You can also peep the migrating humpbacks through the telescopes at El Faro Park, home to Punta Higüera Lighthouse, built in 1892. Rincón has an emerging arts scene; find handmade items and fine art at galleries or during the weekly Art Walk on Thursday evenings. Snag a table for sunset at The Beach House and be sure to ask about the day's catch.

An hour inland from Rincón, Cascada Gozalandia (also called El Charco de la Leche) is a series of waterfalls and pools where locals cliff jump, swim and plunge from a rope swing. In the nearby town of San Sebastián, you can visit the unique Museode la Hamaca, which traces the history and evolution of the hammock, invented by the Taíno Indigenous people.

Nearby Islands

Two smaller islands sit just off Puerto Rico's eastern shore. Most travelers take a ferry from Ceiba; arrive early to secure tickets. (Regional flights from Ceiba or San Juan are a spendier option.)


Known for its snorkeling, Culebra is the smaller of the two islands and ideal for a day trip. Your chances are good to spot sea turtles munching seagrass near the shore. Some tour operators, like East Island Excursions, will take you to Culebra via catamaran, while others, like Kayaking Puerto Rico, have tours that include ferry tickets. After a splash, relax on the white sand of Flamenco Beach—mountains rise on both sides, hugging cyan water.

Balcony on modern hotel overlooking city
El Blok Hotel. Courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico


For years, Vieques was a U.S. Navy bombing test site before protests in the early 2000s shut it down. Today, half of the island is preserved as a national wildlife refuge; diverse beaches pepper the coasts. Book a room at the architecturally stunning El Blok hotel in Esperanza, walkable to several beaches and open-air restaurants like Duffy's. On the west end of Vieques is Monte Pirata, the highest point on the island with sweeping views from its observation deck.

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