In Puerto Rico, you’ll find natural beauty alongside a diverse heritage involving Spanish, African and indigenous Taino influences, with a dash of U.S. style too. Its status as a territory of the United States means that American travelers don’t need a passport to visit.
Puerto Rico packs a lot of unique experiences onto a relatively small island that’s easy to explore. In this slideshow, you’ll discover a number of superlative-laden vacation options — including learning about space at the home of the world’s largest radio telescope, swimming in the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system and wandering through one of the biggest cave networks on the planet. You can also visit the former dwelling places of pre-Hispanic Taino people and one of Puerto Rico’s most famous rum dynasties as well as what was designed to be the home of the explorer Ponce de Leon.
Swim Under a Waterfall
The only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system, El Yunque is a must-see for nature lovers. And you can do more than simply wander the many paths that wind through this unspoiled paradise; you can actually jump in its waters for a cooling dip that’s better than any hotel pool.
To reach a postcard-perfect swimming spot, take a walk down the popular La Mina Trail, a somewhat strenuous route that follows a lovely river through lush vegetation, or the 0.7-mile Big Tree Trail, which is rated as moderately difficult. Both lead to Cascada La Mina (La Mina Falls), where you can swim in a natural pool at the foot of a 35-foot waterfall surrounded by dramatic rock formations. You can also camp nearby, allowing for even more time in this relaxing getaway.
Tour the Home of a Rum Dynasty
The Bacardi Rum factory near San Juan may be a common stop on lots of Puerto Rico vacation itineraries, but for an inside look at how the island’s most legendary spirit made one family very wealthy, head south to Ponce for a tour of the Serralles Castle Museum.
The Ponce-based Serralles family built its fortune on Destileria Serralles, producers of Don Q rum. The founder’s son, Juan Eugenio Serralles, constructed this stately mansion atop a hill overlooking the city in the 1930s. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the estate is now open to the public, with beautiful original furnishings as well as exhibits about the history of rum production and distribution in Puerto Rico. It’s one of the few opportunities you’ll find in Puerto Rico to wander the former home of a wealthy local family.
The Serralles Castle Museum is part of a group of nearby attractions that includes a pristine Japanese garden, a butterfly garden and the Cruceta del Vigia, a 100-foot, cross-shaped tower that marks the spot where Spanish colonialists once scanned the territory for invaders. The tower, as well as the gardens outside the Serralles home, offer some of the best views of Ponce and the Caribbean coast.
See How Coffee Is Made
Puerto Rico may not be as world-famous for its coffee as some other destinations, but it’s still a rewarding place to learn about local traditions while savoring a warm cup.
Hacienda Tres Angeles, located in the scenic inland hills of Adjuntas, offers a tour of its coffee plantation, from the fields to the mill where you’ll witness the roasting process before sampling the finished product.
Soar Through the Rain Forest
If simply admiring Puerto Rico’s natural beauty isn’t enough, then consider a visit to Toro Verde Nature Adventure Park, located in the town of Orocovis.
Toro Verde is designed to take your breath away in several different ways. One package deal includes a ride on the Beast, which at 4,745 feet is billed as one of the world’s longest single-run ziplines. You can combine the excitement of the Beast with other activities during an excursion called the Wild Bull, which consists of a fun-filled adventure with the zipline experience plus five suspension bridges and a rappel down more than 200 feet into the rain forest.
See Stars at a Radio Telescope
If you’ve seen the Jodie Foster movie “Contact,” you may recall an object resembling a gigantic radar dish. That 1,000-foot radio telescope — billed as the world’s largest and most sensitive — is located at the Arecibo Observatory in the town of Arecibo on Puerto Rico’s north coast. And it’s open to the public.
Part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center, the Arecibo Observatory is home to the Angel Ramos Foundation Visitor Center. Here you can learn more about the heavens above while exploring 3,500 square feet of exhibits on topics such as planetary radar, atmospheric sciences and other themes that sound complex but prove understandable with a bit of help from the experts at Arecibo. You can also, of course, gaze at the massive radio telescope from an observation platform that allows for great photo opportunities.
Explore a Cave Network
One of the world’s largest cave networks, the Rio Camuy Caves span a 268-acre national park that serves as gateway to a subterranean wonderland. Part of the fun is the tram ride down to Cueva Clara, where you’ll forge into a 180-foot-tall cave dotted with stalactites, stalagmites and wildlife including tarantulas and river crabs. At the Tres Pueblos sinkhole, you can look out over an underground river.
You can also picnic and even camp at the Camuy River Cave Park; it’s a good idea to arrive early though, as admission to the park is restricted to a small number every day.
Visit a Pre-Hispanic Settlement
It’s easy to find evidence of the island’s rich Spanish colonial roots, but for an authentic look at pre-Hispanic Puerto Rico, the best place to visit is the Tibes Indigenous Cultural Center.
Located in the hilly countryside outside of Ponce, Tibes offers a peek at island life in the years before the arrival of Christopher Colombus in the 15th century. Guided tours are the best way to explore this fascinating site, where you can wander among nine recreated ball courts, a plaza and a replica thatched-hut village. On display are artifacts from Igneri and Taino Indians that include stones with petroglyphs.
You may also be surprised to find the number of Taino words that have made their way into our own vocabulary, including canoa (canoe) and barbacoa (barbecue). Even more words have made it into Spanish.
Hit the Surf
Ever since the 1968 World Surfing Championship took place at Domes Beach, Puerto Rico’s west coast has been a must-do destination for surfers. You’ll find some of the island’s best waves here — especially along popular beaches like Domes, Maria’s, Tres Palmas, Pools and Sandy.
Surfing can be fun in Rincon year-round, although winter attracts the most visitors, and the hurricane season between July and November might require a bit of extra caution when making travel plans. The airport in Aguadilla is by far the closest point of arrival for visitors, but you’ll find more flights (and often better prices) if you fly into San Juan.
Not a surfer? No worries. Rincon Surf School offers lessons for beginners as well as people with limited experience. The company also rents out surfboards and other equipment, so you don’t have to worry about lugging all that bulky stuff on the plane.
Visit the Home of Ponce de Leon
One of the most famous of all Spanish explorers, Juan Ponce de Leon was the first governor of Puerto Rico. Legend has it that he may have also dedicated some time to a futile quest for the fountain of youth.
Tucked into a lesser-known corner of Old San Juan sits Casa Blanca, a lovely building that dates back to 1521. Built as a home for Ponce de Leon, it’s now a public landmark and museum, with historic furnishings and items from the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as detailed descriptions of Puerto Rico’s colonial history. Ponce de Leon himself died before getting to move in, but some of his descendents did live there, and it offers a fascinating glimpse of life and architecture from Spanish colonial days.
Eat Your Way Along the Pork Highway
Many foodies already know how good Puerto Rican cuisine is. For an especially mouthwatering introduction, sign up for a tour of the so-called Pork Highway, an unofficial route that runs along the Sierra Cordilla mountain range in the center of the island. It’s a chance to dig into some of the region’s tastiest and most authentic dishes — including lechon asado (roasted pig), a culinary tradition in Puerto Rico, as well as roasted chicken, turkey and hearty side dishes including rice and beans.
Charlie’s Custom Tours offers a four- to five-hour calorie-filled excursion that includes samples of lechon asado at some of the best little restaurants in the region, often accompanied by live music. For a slightly shorter experience, Countryside Tours offers a two- to three-hour private tour that also stops at local restaurants.
Best Time to Go to Puerto Rico
Talk about perfect weather. Yes, you have to be on the lookout during hurricane season from June through November, but storms are few and far between. Otherwise, you can expect pleasant temperatures year-round, with highs in the 80s (be mindful of the humidity, however). For a colorful taste of island life, time your visit around the many festivals held across the island, particularly those devoted to patron saints or during religious holidays.
Puerto Rico on a Budget
Hurricane season (June – November) brings the lowest prices. For the best of both worlds — fewer storms and crowds plus lower prices — savvy travelers opt for May and October, the shoulder seasons on the island. Consider staying outside of San Juan along the coast, where the rates are generally lower, or head west to Rincon (a surfing hot spot) for cheaper digs. Weekly house rentals near the coast are considerably less expensive than similar properties in the mainland U.S. El Yunque National Forest is the U.S.’s only tropical rain forest and provides miles of fee-free hiking; likewise, most of the island’s beaches are free. For a quick meal, head to inexpensive food kiosks and bakeries for authentic island chow.
–written by Mark Chesnut