Guest blogger Lindsay Taub is a freelance journalist who covers travel, lifestyle, culture, arts, food, health, and all facets that make life a journey. Learn more at lindsaytaub.com and follow her on Twitter @lindsaytaub58.
The beautiful island of Puerto Rico is known as the gateway to the Caribbean. Just 110 miles long and 35 miles wide, the capital city of San Juan is the center of it all with a marriage of new and old facilitated by its colorful building facades, vintage watchtowers, and cobblestone streets.
Venture off the beaten path a bit and you’ll find not only lush rainforests full of adventure, but also spirited locals eating, drinking, and dancing. More than anything, you’ll be surrounded by an aura of living in the moment, with residents and visitors alike enjoying the simple pleasures in life. It's the kind of local experience you dream to have when in a foreign land, and yet, you don’t need a passport or a 10-hour flight to get there.
Here are five great reasons to visit.
No Passport Required. Puerto Rico is still technically the U.S. (a commonwealth of the U.S. since 1952; residents have been U.S. citizens since 1917 under the Jones Act), but it doesn't feel like the U.S. No forms of identification are needed to enter beyond your driver's license or ID card. The island culture is pronounced and vibrant with a heavy Spanish influence that transports you to a place where the warm waters and tranquil beaches are king, and salsa dancing and serenity are queen.
Rum. There are myths and legends about which of two locations is the true inventor of the pina colada, but one visit to Barrachina restaurant in Old San Juan and the answer is clear: This is it. The plaque out front marks the spot where the coconutty creamy cocktail was born in 1963. Drink it with Barrilito, one of the best rums made on the island. Other island favorites include Serralles, Trigo, and of course, rum giant Bacardi, whose distillery is open for tours and tastings daily.
The Bio Bays. There are only eight known places on the entire planet where the bays become "bioluminescent" at night, and three of them are in Puerto Rico. Because of a high concentration of microscopic single-celled creatures called dinoflagellates, the luminescence occurs whenever the water is disturbed by motion such as splashing or paddling.
While you were once able to swim and "glow" in the water like a superhero, conservation efforts have ended that practice. Now, you can just run your hands and arms through the water to experience what looks like sparkly lights or diamonds twinkling over your skin like a reflection of the night sky in motion (and on high speed).
Laguna Grande in Fajardo is the biggest and one of the most magical, where you kayak through a canal of mangroves filled with fireflies that light the way to the bay. Alternatively, if you take a ferry or short flight to Vieques, Mosquito Bay is equally stunning. For ultimate brilliance, visit on moonless nights. During a full moon, tarps are used to block out the moonlight to achieve the full effect.
Note: Do not wear sunblock or bug spray, even though you’ll be tempted. One or two mosquito bites is not worth the amount of precious dinoflagellates that will perish as a result of such chemicals being introduced into the water.
The Beast. Located at Toro Verde in Orocovis, The Beast (“La Bestia”) is the newest zip line to hit the island. It also happens to be the world's highest at 853 feet above the ground, and the second longest at a 4,745 feet long (just under a mile). You "fly" headfirst, stomach to the ground, in a canvas cocoon-like harness, so all you have to do is take in the views and enjoy the ride. Even highly demanding adrenaline junkies will appreciate the rush of zooming above the gorgeous landscape below often through clouds if you’re lucky!
Pretending to be "superman," you can hit speeds up to 80 mph (guides advise you to keep your hands to your sides to stay as aerodynamic as possible). Also at Toro Verde are four canopy tours, including eight traditional zip lines and a challenging course of suspended bridges that put your mind and body to the test!
The Pig Highway. There aren't many places in the world where you can both party with the locals on the street all weekend long and eat just about every part of a pig on any given Saturday or Sunday. That is the pig highway, otherwise known as Guavate, about 45 minutes from San Juan.
Each weekend, vendors (lechoneras) slow roast more than 10 to 20 whole pigs (lechon), in addition to making morcillas (blood sausage) and numerous side dishes like rice and beans, rice with pigeon peas, tostones, mofongo (mashed plaintains), and more. Pina colada competitions are also fierce (think: "party in a glass" with fruit cocktail, whipped cream, and sprinkles added in and often served in a pineapple), and the Puerto Rican passion is plentiful.
Don’t be shy: Get out there and join in the salsa dancing and festivities for a true local experience. To get there, take Highway 52 south and take exit 32 (Guavate). Make a left and head up Rd 184. You will find lechoneras all along the route with some of the most popular around km 27.
If You Go. Hotels are abundant in the Carolina section of Puerto Rico, about 20 minutes from San Juan. Check out the San Juan Water Beach Club for a swanky, boutique Miami feel, the Ritz Carlton for beachfront elegance, or the Verdanza Hotel for a more traditional hotel experience where service is top priority. The Verdanza also features the island’s only wine bar, Di Vino, where Italian sommelier Dario Iovannone is always ready and willing to help you choose a vintage that suits your fancy.
However, if staying in San Juan even for a night, do yourself a solid and stay at The Gallery Inn, as President Obama and the First Lady did in 2008 while on the campaign trail. Independently owned and operated by a married couple, both artists (one Puerto Rican, one a New Yorker), the property is unlike anything you've ever seen. Walking into the gates of the sprawling 23,000-square-foot authentic colonial mansion feels like a cross between a Midsummer Night's Dream and Harry Potter.
It's a seduction of the senses where pleasant surprises are waiting to be discovered in every nook and cranny of the labyrinthine space, from the parrots and plants to the paintings and porticos. Highlights include an honor bar system, phenomenal dining room and gourmet menu, a private beach house, and a rooftop deck that boasts the highest point in San Juan with stunning views both during the day and night.
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