Puerto Rico, affectionately known by locals as La Isla Del Encanto (the Island of Enchantment) or Borinquén (native indigenous name), has shown me just how enchanting this tiny dot in the Caribbean can really be. Comparable to the state of Connecticut and bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island put together, the 100x35 mile island is far more diverse than you may think. With breathtaking mountains, relaxing rivers, sun-kissed beaches and crystal clear waters, you don't have to twist my arm to visit three times in six months. My American citizenship also gets me in passport and visa free, allowing for a tropical getaway close to home.
Official Language: Spanish and English, although Spanish is the primary language
Currency: US Dollar
Population: 3.5 million
Weather: A comfortable 82 degree average temp year-round
Affiliation: Territory of the U.S., Puerto Ricans are natural-born U.S. citizens
Relationship Status w/ U.S.: It's complicated. Many people tend to think of Puerto Rico as a college kid - kind of independent, kinda not. Puerto Rico is a territory, meaning it's not part of any state. Many Puerto Ricans favor statehood (61% actually, according to their latest vote) because the alternative (moving towards independence) may or may not be a failure - Puerto Rico’s economy is fragile at the moment. However, some think that becoming a state would result in a loss of Puerto Rican culture, even though some fear it's already declining. Still, others are tired of existing as American citizens denied their citizenship rights - Puerto Ricans can't cast a vote for President and yet are U.S. citizens.
Even with its small size, Puerto Rico consists of a whopping 1,125 beaches all with a unique latino touch. The below suggestions consist of less-touristy beaches full of the essence and culture of Puerto Rico.
Poza de Las Mujeres, Manatí
Located in the northwest region of the island (about 40 minutes from the city), you'll have to get all Steve Erwin, get out your machete and walk a couple of minutes through some vegetation to reach the beach. I'm being dramatic. There's a path through said vegetation and it's not treacherous at all. Locals love this beach for surfing and natural pools along the coast. Saturdays and Sundays bring the crowds so parking may be difficult since the access point is through a neighborhood. There are no restaurants within the beach area, so bring food/drinks and clean up afterwards!
Flamenco Beach, Culebra
Considered one of the Top 10 best beaches in the world, Flamenco Beach is exactly what you see when googling beach getaways. To arrive, choose one of three options: Ferry, flight through AirFlamenco or a friend with a boat. Never underestimate a friend with a boat. The Ferry takes about 2:30hrs one-way, so I suggest an early departure. Taking a flight is definitely the most convenient option since it takes 40 minutes from San Juan or 12 minutes from Ceiba. Snorkel or take a walk down the beach to witness two abandoned WWII Tanks (more history, yay!) Unlike Manatí, Flamenco provides snacks and beverages. Just remember: no glass bottles on the beach.
Locals say this is the best beach in all of Puerto Rico. I haven't visited all 1,125, but Culebrita is paradise in my book. After arriving to the airport to depart for Culebra (main land of the immediate area) at 6am dazed and confused, I left my ID at the security counter. A few minutes later, a couple of men walked through the gate asking if anyone was from Arkansas while waving my ID in the air. As you can imagine, I was the only one in the terminal from Ark, so I thanked them kindly for finding my ID and we got to talking. They were Puertorrican and the sweetest humans ever. After a quick flight and breakfast together, they invited us to Culebrita on their beautiful boat and the remainder of the day was heaven spent with locals while getting to know this stunning area in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, this is the only way to reach the remote island. Again, find a friend with a boat!
Crash Boat, Aguadilla
This is one of the most popular beaches on the west side of Puerto Rico. An abandoned pier used during WWII is the highlight here as it occupies the site of a former military port used to rescue downed air crews. Wahoo! Isn't history fun? Well, the real fun begins by jumping off the pier into the clear Caribbean waters.
For 60 years, the US Navy took control over this island, hindering its tourism development. Today, this has been one of the main reasons why it's such an untouched paradise. Lack of development means unspoiled and free of much commercial growth. Its claim to fame is the Bioluminescent Bay, considered to be the best example of a bio bay in the U.S.
Charco Frío-Río Las Tinajas, Fajardo
Known for its peculiar natural water slides, this river will turn you into a 7-year-old once again. From rope swings to high cliffs to crystal clear waters, the only necessity that remains is a cold beverage. Pack some for sure.
Gozalandia, San Sebastián
A favorite rivers for locals, Gozalandia boasts a 60ft waterfall with small caves that can be utilized to jump from and into said waterfall. It also has an underwater cave to the right side where you can dive in and explore. If any rain storms are in the forecast, please be conscious of river floods and return another day. This can be said for all Puerto Rican rivers!
Río Tanama, Utuado
Calling all extreme adventurers! From cave tubing to rafting to underground rivers to rappelling, Río Tanama is an adult playground. A tour guide is recommended.
Pico Rodadero, Yauco
Charge your phone because you don't wanna miss this photo opp. At 2,864ft above sea level, the entire southwest coast of the island unfolds before its visitors. Pro tip: Keep driving on Road 375 since the GPS will try to alter your route. Even with a local, this was a tough find but so.freaking.worthwhile. Sunsets here are everything.
Árbol Solitario, Cayey
After a 10 minute highway walk (sorry, dad), we finally reached the beginning of the hike. Unfortunately, visitors can't park by the entrance of the hike (only an emergency ramp exists) so parking by El Monumento del Jibaro"= is necessary. After the highway walk, the moderate hike takes about 35 minutes. Bring water and snacks since you'll want to spend some time at the top. The view is stunning and the tree swing makes for an insane photo opp.
Cueva Ventana (Window Cave) hike
Sitting on top of a limestone cliff, the window cave looks just like its name implies: a window from a cave looking out to the valley below. Puerto Rican residents pay $10 and non-residents pay $19 to take a guided tour beneath ground level to experience a breathtaking panoramic view of the valley of the Rio Grande de Arecibo.
El Yunque Rainforest
The 29,000 acre rainforest is a must-see while in Puerto Rico with waterfalls, outlooks and green peaks surrounding you.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro
The historic 16-century fort was built to protect the entrance to San Juan Bay and defend the Spanish colonial port city of San Juan from sea enemies. It sees over 2 million visitors per year, making it Puerto Rico's main attraction with ocean views and a manicured green lawn that hosts kite flyers, picnics and concerts.
My private yoga class with Laly from Ashtanga Yoga was on the beach during sunrise...and you really can't beat that. It's like natural hot yoga, no heaters necessary.
Surf in Rincon
Surfs up, brah. If you surf, surf at Domes Beach or Steps Beach (Tres Palmas to locals).
Set Sail with East Island Excursions
I took an Old San Juan Harbour tour during sunset and errrmerrrgerddd was it special. These boats go all around Puerto Rico for snorkeling excursions as well.
Meander around Old San Juan
Shop til you drop, drink til you're drunk, eat til you're stuffed, people watch until you're cross-eyed. Old San Juan is the historic center of Puerto Rico. The 8x10 block district boasts colorful buildings and cobble-stone streets that are full of action day or night.
Bars: La Factoria, Greengo, Mala Vida
Specialties: mofongo (mashed plantains with spices, chicharrón and optional fillings like shrimp, skirt steak, mahi mahi, chicken or fried pork), alcapurria (filled fritters made of yautia, plantains and ground meat), arroz con gandules (rice and peas, pork, chorizo, red peppers and olives), tostones (fried plantains)
Hotels: Ritz-Carlton Dorado Beach Reserve; The Vanderbilt; El Convento; La Concha