I spent five days in Puerto Rico in March of 2019. My stay was especially charming given the blend of tropical weather, pristine beaches, and a vibrant, buzzing atmosphere in Old San Juan. Some highlights not to be missed for a visit are: a catamaran ride to Culebra Island, walking the length of Flamenco Beach to see abandoned tanks, kayaking in the dark to a bioluminescent bay, and trying your own hand at making mofongo, a plantain based native dish.
Oh, and did I mention 85% of the world’s Bacardi rum is produced here, at their distillery on the island?
If you’re staying in San Juan, chances are you hotel and/or Airbnb will be close to the Condado beach area. Honestly a great place to stay, though the beaches may get crowded during the day.
A must-see on the island is Old San Juan, steeped in hundreds of years of history and home to a variety of good eats, sights to see, and things to do.
Whether you’re here for a meal or simply wandering the streets, be sure to stop by Fortaleza Street (you probably won’t miss it). The street is covered with colorful umbrellas, though they were all pink when I was here to raise awareness for domestic violence.
First settled in the 1500s, Old San Juan is the original colonial site of the many countries who have claimed it over the past centuries.
Even today, there are still plenty of streets that were laid with the original stones used to weigh down the ships from the Old World. Upon arrival in port, these ships would unload their weights before setting off again, and cobblestone pathways were laid with the rocks left behind.
The vibrancy of Old San Juan can also be seen through the colorful colonial houses that line its streets. Every twist and turn presents an opportunity for variegated photos of the town.
Next up, a few not-to-be-missed eats in the area. Cafe el Punto serves up a tasty empanada filled with beef. Walk into the alleyway and there is also a favorite ceviche joint waiting for you as well.
A classic dish native to Puerto Rico - mofongo can be found on nearly every menu of any joint that claims to serve local cuisine (and if not, you might want to reconsider eating there).
Making my own mofongo (who said I couldn’t cook??)
The dish is primarily made up of mashing plantains with garlic, and adding in some form of protein. Usually it’s also enjoyed with rice & beans (surprise!) on the side.
Yes, this is the Carribbean, which naturally means it will be warm. With warmth comes a proliferation of outlets peddling your ice-creams, gelatos, and other cold treats. But one icy delight not to be missed in San Juan is Señor Paleta, if the usual line out the door doesn’t tip you off. These popsicles are made with real fruit - try the passionfruit one for unabashed sweetness with a delightful sour kick.
Finally, if you’re looking for a more decadent dessert experience in Old San Juan, look no further then Chocobar Cortés. Not to be missed are their cups of hot chocolate, with consistency reminiscent of their Catalonia counterparts. Thick, creamy cups of goodness, paired with churros (of course), or, wait for it - cheese.
If, after all that food, you need a bit of a hike - stroll to Plaza de Armas - supposedly site of the original tinder. Long ago, matching making would occur in the square during Sunday markets. Conservatism at the time dictated that young women couldn’t speak directly to men, so daughters would indicate interest to their accompanying fathers as they potential bachelors passed by. The fathers would then take note and set up the appropriate introduction. At the time, a fan was used as the signaling tool - if the girl fans herself on her right side, it was an indication of interest, and if on the left, you guessed it, that was a pass.
Today, the square is also home to performing artists as well.
101 Calle Tetuan
Once the narrowest house in the world at ~64 inches wide, now this tiny dwelling stands at #2 in global ranking of narrowest houses…
Once prized as a easily defensible and centrally located gateway to the rest of the Caribbean, many battles have been waged over this valuable settlement, and two major forts constructed as a result.
One such fort, the larger of the two, is Castillo San Felipe del Morro, known as El Morro for short. See below for view of the sort from afar. The large open field in leading up to the fort is also popular among locals for kite flying. If you’re tempted to give it a go, kites can be purchased at the souvenir shop located next to the restrooms on the right side of the field.
There are three main areas to the fort, the main plaza which greets visitors upon entry, and the upper and lower levels. On the upper levels looking towards Old San Juan, there is a fantastic view of the San Juan Cemetery and the bay (see below).
One activity I highly recommend, and extremely popular in P.R. among tourists, is kayaking to a bio-luminescent bay to see glow in the dark algae. Sounds weirdly specific, I know.
There are three places on the island to do this, with Mosquito Bay being the brightest but farthest away from San Juan - on the southern shore of the island of Vieques. We opted for proximity and went to the second brightest: Laguna Grande on the Eastern edge of the main island, in Fajardo.
We arrived to a shallow bay area to embark on the rest of our journey by canoe. Though one can’t see it, the ones lined up in the distance have glass bottoms - though truth be told, the clarity is closer to scratched plastic (which it probably is).
A little instruction before it’s go time. Not going to lie, the distance between the bay and the lagoon, especially avoiding the dense mangrove branches on the way, is rather tough.
PSA: You can’t be more than 190 lbs and use one of these canoes. They are strict about this because the ‘glass’ bottom ones will sink under extra weight - as you can kind of see in the photo below.
Finally, after what felt like hours of paddling, we arrive into the open water and glide into the lagoon, moments before sunset.
Even at the peak of the luminescence, the dream like glow in the water, of the water, I should say, is near impossible to capture on camera. The following video out of my multitude of attempts gives you a glimpse, and is best seen in dark room with brightness turned all the way up.
Culebra Island boasts what is arguably Puerto Rico’s prettiest beach. Many tours and boat charters will take you to the island, stopping nearby to snorkel first.
To get to Culebra - we opted to take a catamaran (with an engine). This is a picture of the dude driving it. Note that even on a calm day, it can be a bumpy hour-long ride there from the mainland, so keep that in mind if planning to go.
Though the variety of fish and coral don’t compare to places like Hawaii and the Great Barrier Reef, it was a fun few hours of peeking underwater nonetheless!
This was a giant fish (I think it might be yellowtail) that was under our boat when it was anchored by Flamenco Beach. One member of the crew fed it…slices of ham (!)…
Flamenco Beach is widely regarded as the most pristine beach in all of P.R. - and truthfully, it’s not difficult to see why.
Previously used for weapons testing by the US Navy for 30 years, the beach is known for two rusting M4 Sherman tanks left abandoned when the area was no longer in use in 1975. On the eastern edge of the beach - today it’s an incredibly popular spot for photos - as you may have guessed.
Also, with the locals, the beach seemed to be a popular spot for fishing.
A dinner spot highly recommended in the Condado Beach area where we were staying was Cayo Caribe. Definitely worth a try for dinner - come early, however, or risk waiting in line!
Prominently displayed near their entrance - snapper is incredibly popular on the island - and lightly fried seems to be the cooking method of choice. See before and afters below.
Now this I highly recommend: seafood salad ft. conch and octopus. Ceviche-like and soaked doused in a glorious mixture of olive oil, lime, and other spices, we must’ve ordered 3+ during our time here.
Seafood paella - another recommendation. Fried plantains on the side. Try it with the avocado salad. Which, as it turns out, is just one large, sliced avocado with some onions, tomatoes, and lettuce. No complaints here.
A stop not to be missed, (and usually not missed), is the Bacardi Rum Distillery across the bay from Old San Juan. The expansive production facility here on the island boasts an in-depth tour of the Casa Bacardi grounds and creation process - complete with shuttles, guides, and complimentary welcome drinks.
Originally founded in Cuba, the company today is the largest family-owned spirits company in the world, headquartered in Hamilton, Bermuda. The majority of the brand’s eponymous rum, however, is produced right here in P.R.
Now the part everyone was waiting for: the tasting. We were given five samples of the brand’s signature rums, including a few sips of their more expensive bottles. Disclaimer: I say ‘samples’ - but in reality, they were more like full fledged servings of alcohol. Not that I’m complaining - but you’ve been warned!
Don’t forget to cash in your complimentary drink token that comes with every tour for a drink at the outdoor bar.
What’s a visit to a rum distillery without at least one mojito on the premises, right?
Now for the biggest surprise Casa Bacardi had on offer that day: a wild iguana spotted on the premises. And though this was after a few servings of rum, I promise you - it was real! See for yourself below:
All in all, a really great 5 days spent in P.R. Highly recommend for anyone looking for a tropical destination in the Caribbean that’s reasonable priced, only a few hours of a flight away, and has plenty of activities to do.