A territory of the United States, Puerto Rico is an archipelago in the northeastern Caribbean, which comprises the main island of Puerto Rico and a number of smaller islands. It’s amazing just how diverse and special Puerto Rico is. The natural beauty and history you find here are truly second to none.
Puerto Rico’s most prized natural treasures are its beaches and oceans. Regarded as one of the finest and cleanest beaches in the Caribbean, Playa Flamenco is an impossibly beautiful horseshoe of wide sandy beach. Framed by green hills and featuring dazzling, variegated blue waters, Flamenco is by far the biggest draw for tourists on Culebra Island.
Eerie but cool, Rio Camuy comprises a massive underground area with caverns, caves and an underground river. You will enjoy your trip to this subterranean wonderland into one of the largest cave systems in the world, sculpted and smoothed out of limestone in a journey to another realm that has been millennia in the making.
The magnificent Arecibo telescope is another attraction that gives Puerto Rico something else to be proud of. The observatory at Arecibo is in fact the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world. More than size, Arecibo is one of the world’s most important national centers for research in radio astronomy, terrestrial aeronomy and planetary radar.
Puerto Rico’s rich heritage is preserved in its artistic, cultural and historic institutions. Visit San Juan Antiguo to see traces of the old world in the new. There’s plenty to see and do here, starting with its marvelous fortress, El Morro.
Spend a day in the charming Puerto Rican city of Ponce. Recognized for its beauty and elegance, Ponce is a city that marches to its own beat. Quintessentially Puerto Rican while simultaneously utterly different from any other place on the island, Ponce is home to an old-fashioned tradition and pride that highlights the culture of old Puerto Rico.
For such a small island, Puerto Rico has no shortage of impressive attractions: the most bioluminescent bay in the world; a subtropical rainforest; spectacular beaches; and historic cities rich in culture and history. Spend your time wisely in Puerto Rico, for the island has a way of leaving a lasting impression that will have you thinking of when you can go back, even before you’ve left.
1. Puerto Mosquito
A bioluminescent bay or bio bay in short, is a rare and fragile ecosystem. While there is bioluminescence all over the world, only a few places can be classified as a bio bay. There are only seven bio bays in the world, three of which are in Puerto Rico. Of all of Puerto Rico’s bio bays, the one on Isla de Vieques is by far the most amazing.
A bio bay is formed by microscopic single-cell organisms known as dinoflagellates. When these little organisms get agitated, such as when an object comes splashing through the water, they release energy in the form of light. In other words, they glow, and when they do, anything that comes into contact with them also glows and that includes fish, people and even the oars of a canoe.
Puerto Mosquito is one of the most bioluminescent bays in the world. The bay features a very narrow opening to the sea that provides great protection from the tides and wind, and allows the dinoflagellates to thrive in a calm environment.
At Puerto Mosquito, there are more than 700,000 organisms per gallon of water and no other biobay comes close to this concentration. Moreover, the mangroves here are vital sources of nutrients for the organisms, with assistance from the temperate climate.
Dinoflagellates spark into action whenever they come into contact with an object, making it literally glow in the dark. You can also watch darting fish appear as streaks of lightning, and the oars of your canoe dipping into the water and coming out dripping neon green. This magical glow offers a breathtaking, beautiful and ethereal experience.
You can enter Puerto Mosquito via kayak, which provides a great way of experiencing the mangrove tunnels of the bay, as well as the full splendor of a nighttime excursion. That said, the electric pontoon boat offers a much more relaxed means of visiting the bay. Motor boats are not allowed in the waters of Puerto Mosquito to protect and preserve it by helping the dinoflagellates.
Try to go when there’s a new moon. Many tour operators do not offer a tour during the full moon as the effect becomes significantly diminished. A black night sky dotted with stars offers ideal viewing conditions. And should it begin to rain, don’t curse your luck as raindrops on water will resemble emeralds skipping along the surface.
2. Observatorio de Arecibo
A true marvel of science and technology, Observatorio de Arecibo is home to the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world. The observatory is part of the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Centre (NAIC), which is operated by Cornell University in agreement with the National Science Foundation, and which receives additional support from NASA.
The world-famous telescope is in operation 24 hours per day and 365 days in a year. What makes the telescope such an attraction is the fact that it comprises a massive dish or radio mirror. Just take one look at it and you will truly appreciate how special the observatory is.
Nestled in lush green hills, the dish measures a thousand feet, has a depth of 150 feet and covers an area of about 20 acres. It comprises of roughly 40,000 perforated aluminum panels, each of which measures 3’ x 6’. A true engineering marvel, a 900 ton platform is suspended 450 feet above the dish, hanging on 18 cables in mid-air.
From the perspective of science, the sheer size of this reflector is what makes Observatorio de Arecibo so very special. As the world’s largest curved focusing antenna, it is also the most sensitive radio telescope in the world.
Regarded as one of the most important national centers for research into radio astronomy, terrestrial aeronomy and planetary radar, the observatory is used by scientists from the world over in 3 key fields of research:
Radio Astronomy – Astronomers use the telescope for the detection of radio emissions from distant regions of the universe, which enables them to measure masses and distances of galaxies. The observatory has further enriched knowledge on pulsars.
Atmospheric Science – The observatory has been critical in studies on the densities, temperature and composition of the earth’s atmosphere.
Radar Astronomy – In addition to other experiments, the telescope has been used in the creation of surface maps of the moon, Venus and Mercury. It was here that the first detection of radar echo from a comet was made.
3. Parque de las Cavernas del Rio Camuy
Puerto Rico boasts a marvelous cave system that runs through the world’s third largest subterranean river, the Rio Camuy. On your tour, what you will see offers only a glimpse into the 10 miles of tunnel formed by the Camuy River.
One of Puerto Rico’s natural wonders, the ancient limestone cave system of Camuy is not to be missed. An easy day trip from San Juan, the caves feature beautifully lit caverns, stalactites and stalagmites that make for a memorable experience.
Your tour of the magnificent caves will begin with a short film about the cave with audio guides. A guide will lead the tour, while providing you with their knowledge of the caves and surrounding lands. Nocturnal tours of the caves are also available once every 3 months from 6pm to midnight. Be sure to call ahead before making your trip over, as the caves can be closed upon short notice.
The trail will take you past limestone caverns that have been formed over millennia. The easy-to-walk trek lasts about an hour and offers an abundance of ooh-aah moments from the awesome breadth of Cueva Clara to the curious natural formations left for your imagination to interpret. The Taino Indians once used these caves for shelter, and left traces of their occupancy behind.
4. San Juan Antiguo
San Juan Antiguo, or old San Juan, offers more than 500 years of history, beautiful colonial architecture splashed liberally with tropical colors and timeless magic that makes it one of the Caribbean’s most enchanting destinations.
Situated in the Puerto Rican capital and largest city of the same name, you could easily spend many happy hours just walking around this walled city, along the beautiful street of Calle del Cristo. But to experience the best of Old San Juan, visit the forts. Nothing captures Puerto Rican history more than the massive fortresses of Old San Juan.
It is for good reason that El Morro and La Fortaleza are among the island’s most visited attractions. For centuries, their ramparts, canons and layered defenses have guarded the walled city. Even La Fortaleza, the mansion of the governor is known as “the Fortress” as it was one of the early defensive structures on the settlement.
Dining out in Puerto Rico is usually a rewarding experience, whether you seek local classics or a delightfully inventive fusion of Caribbean and global flavors. Fortaleza Street in old San Juan has carved out a reputation as Restaurant Row, which features some of the best restaurants in town.
In fact, South Fortaleza or “SoFo” as it is popularly called even has its own bi-annual culinary festival. While you don’t have to restrict yourself to dining at Fortaleza Street to enjoy great cuisine in the old city, the quality and variety found here make it your best bet for a great meal.
Next, take a sunset stroll along the Paseo la Princesa, a broad promenade stretching from near the docks at the foot of the city, leading to the lovely Raices Fountain. During weekends, you may find a variety of stalls lining the road, or even a free cultural performance to watch. The best time to enjoy your walk is during sunset when there are gorgeous views of the bay from the fountain.
La Casa Blanca is one of the earliest structures in Old San Juan. It was both the earliest fortress and home to the earliest ruling family. It is famous as being the home of Ponce de Leon, the man who made his legacy the quest for the mythical Fountain of Youth.
Before he embarked on his search for immortality, Ponce de Leon built La Casa Blanca in which his family proceeded to live for 200 years. The home is one of the cultural highlights of San Juan Antiguo, which offers a wonderful trip back through the ages.
Old San Juan is a city famous for its active nightlife. Here you will find the chic lounge scene, funky and grungy bars, as well as multi-level discos. Once the sun goes down, old San Juan won’t feel so old. Salsa and Puerto Rico go hand in hand and visitors can enjoy great live salsa music in old San Juan. You can even take some group lessons at a local dance school before hitting the dance floor.
Of all the lovely sculptures in Old San Juan, La Rogativa stands out for the story it tells. Situated in a quiet corner of the city close to the San Juan Gate, the monument is in commemoration of one of Puerto Rico’s most evocative legends.
The story goes that in 1797, the British attacked Old San Juan. Outnumbered and facing defeat, a priest led a religious procession through the city. Mistaking the citizens for reinforcements, the British abandoned the attack.
Beautiful by day, old San Juan is truly magical by night. Go on a tour that shows you the city in a special way at night. You will be led into buildings you don’t normally get to see at night, and be regaled with fascinating stories from the city’s past. Other tours combine historical anecdotes with an opportunity to savor tasty dishes at various local restaurants.
Go shopping for Puerto Rico’s hand-crafted souvenirs. If you’re looking for something original, the island is home to wonderful arts and crafts, and old San Juan offers plenty of options. Grab some of the iconic vejigante masks found in many shops; the hand-carved santos or Panama hats. Shopping for souvenirs in San Juan is a treat because most of the best stores are situated in the old city.
You should also browse the art galleries at San Juan Antiguo. The old city is a haven for artists, which houses many art galleries that are truly worth the time of every art lover. Leading the list is the exceptional Galeria Botello, which showcases fine regional and local artworks.
5. Museo de las Americas
Also located in San Juan is the Museo de las Americas. Situated on the second floor of the Cuartel de Ballaja, the museum is dedicated to promoting the culture and history of the Americas. The museum covers art from pre-Columbian times to the present, including a variety of Puerto Rican and Latin American artists.
One of San Juan’s most absorbing museums, Museo de las Americas offers a thoughtful collection of art and anthropology. The museum was founded in 1992 and houses a number of interesting permanent collections that highlight the culture and history of Puerto Rico and the Americas.
These collections include: El Indio en America – the Indian in America: Surviving Conquest and European Colonization which covers the 22 ethnic groups that were able to survive conquest and colonization by the Europeans. These include the Tainos and other Indians from North and South America.
The collection is in tribute to those who, despite opposition and persecution, have been able to conserve certain aspects of their traditional culture some 500 years after their people were colonized. This exhibit features sculptures, recreated scenes and habitats and a theatre. The well-presented exhibits are embellished by bronze statues.
African Heritage, Conquest and Colonization: The Evolution of the Puerto Rican Nation is a collection that offers an illuminating look at the West African origins of the region’s black population, in addition to the horrific slave trade, with particular emphasis placed on Puerto Rico. The numerous slave rebellions that took place leading up to Puerto Rico’s abolition of slavery in 1873 are also depicted.
This collection also chronicles the history of Puerto Rico from the arrival of Ponce de Leon to the invasion by the United States.
The third collection, Traditional Art in the Americas offers an eclectic collection of traditional folk art from all across the Americas.
These permanent collections are augmented by a number of seasonal collections from both local and international artists, as well as museums across the Americas. The temporary or visiting collections are typically in the form of paintings and other artwork.
A variety of activities are also offered at the museum including film screenings, book presentations and recitals. On the first Sunday of each month, the museum hosts local artisans who display their art for sale.
The building that houses the museum is itself of historical value, so spend some time admiring its architecture before heading up to the second floor to visit the museum. Completed in 1864, the building once served as a barracks for Spanish soldiers and their families until 1898.
Big enough to accommodate more than 1,000 citizens, the 3-storey structure is the largest and last example of Spanish architecture in the “New World”. Its vast interior patio offers a striking example of the architectural prowess of the 19th century. It also boasts an impressive collection of carved saints.
Puerto Rico’s second largest city, Ponce houses some beautiful plazas, an eclectic blend of architectural styles, and one of the best art museums in the Caribbean. Every visitor’s first stop in Ponce should be the Museo de Arte de Ponce, the crown jewel of Puerto Rico’s second city.
This spectacular art museum is housed in a beautiful setting and showcases the very best works by contemporary Puerto Rican and Latin American artists, as well as houses a world-renowned collection of international art. Its European collection, which features an impressive array of Masters, is considered to be among the best in the Caribbean.
Ponce is famous for its artistic tradition, which places it at the forefront of the Puerto Rican arts scene. If your craving for art is not yet sated, head over to the Puerto Rico Fine Arts Gallery. This wonderful showcase of contemporary artists from Puerto Rico features paintings, sculpture, drawings, lithographs and more. Situated in La Rambla Office Park, the gallery offers a who’s who of Puerto Rican artists.
Also visit Plaza Las Delicias, the heart of the restored historic district of Ponce. Here you will find the splendid Fuente de los Leones fountain, and monuments to composers and firefighters. The fountain is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks which captures Ponce’s aristocratic elegance. Changing colored lights add a tropical splash to the fountain, while the cathedral offering a beautiful backdrop.
The square and its surrounding streets create a charming neighborhood that is worth strolling about in. For an experience steeped in the past, take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the square.
The beautiful square is bordered by two iconic buildings of Ponce: the white and blue La Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Guadalupe, with its elegant twin bell towers, and the Parque de Bombas, a funky red and black firehouse that was built in the 1880s.
The cathedral dominates the square and serves as a cultural focal point for the city. Dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Ponce, the cathedral was built in 1835. If you’re visiting in December, stop by to listen to thousands of locals who gather to sing the traditional Mexican Christmas song and celebrate mass.
Parque de Bombas is arguably the most iconic and unique building in Ponce. The red and black striped structure is a whimsical structure built in Victorian style with arabesque accents. Completed in 1882, the building was intended to serve as the main pavilion for that year’s Ponce Exposition Fair. Today, Parque de Bombas is a museum that honors the firefighter guard of Ponce.
Next, head over to Castillo Serralles, a beautiful Spanish-Moroccan style mansion, which was built in 1926 by the Serralles, the family behind the Don Q Rum and one of Puerto Rico’s founding families of rum production.
Visitors can tour the mansion and admire the well-preserved period furniture and artifacts. Also take a pleasant stroll outdoors in the lovely gardens. The mansion is perched on a rolling foothill that overlooks the city and offers panoramic views of Ponce.
With its meticulously preserved colonial beauty and impeccably manicured gardens, the mansion offers a unique glimpse into the lives of the island’s early aristocracy. The artifacts and furniture found here are all original pieces left by or donated by the family. A walk among its spectacular gardens will be well worth your time.
Go behind Castillo Serralles to the Vigia Cross which was set up in homage to both historic and modern Ponce. The towering concrete cross has an observation platform that you can ascend by elevator to enjoy a breathtaking view Ponce.
The modern cross stands in tribute to a wooden cross that once stood here and which was used as a lookout to notify the merchants of town of ships approaching Ponce’s port. The flag of the ship would be hung on the cross to signal the origin of the goods coming into town.
7. El Yunque
A tropical paradise awaits you at El Bosque Nacional El Yunque or “El Yunque” in short. Go here to enjoy a magical rainforest, commune with nature, swim, hike and relax beneath the lush forest canopy. You can also visit a lovely beach, historic site and local culinary institution.
To experience the wonder of El Yunque, go hiking. Take the La Mina Trail for an easy trek into the forest lasting an hour, which will bring you to La Mina Falls, a gushing cataract that is one of the few spots at which swimming is permitted. So dive right in and enjoy yourself. There are plenty of other trails in the forest, and depending on how active you wish to be, you may explore a few more before heading back.
During your hike, listen out for the sweet song of the coqui tree frog and allow El Yunque to impart its special mystique onto you. Appreciate the fact that for millennia the rainforest has remained almost unchanged. Also go on the Mount Britton Trail to a lonely tower at the peak of the unique and sacred mountain from where you can enjoy spectacular panoramic views.
Also venture outside the earthy embrace of El Yunque to enjoy the contrast from the moist rainforest shade to the sweltering, sunbathing heat of Luquillo Beach. Luquillo Beach is a pristine swathe of sea and sand framed by orderly rows of palm trees and calm, temperate waters.
Next, drive east to Fajardo and Las Cabezas de San Juan, a wonderful nature preserve built on the headlands of the eastern shore, and home to an old, picturesque lighthouse.
For dinner, drive back down to Route 3 and head east. You’ll come by a long string of roadside eateries. These are the famous kiosks of Luquillo and are a can’t-miss culinary tradition where you can sample finger-licking good Puerto Rican fast food. The kiosks offer a fun, casual destination that attracts a lively crowd and patrons blaring music. Be sure to try the tacos de jueye, frituras and cuchifrito.
8. El Morro
Any visitor to Old San Juan simply cannot leave without visiting El Morro. Officially known as El Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, El Morro fortress is one of the island’s most impressive structures, which encapsulates the role of Puerto Rico as the guardian of the “New World”.
Within its fortress walls, visitors will feel the power that the El Morro defense bastion once commanded. Here you can bear witness to almost half a century of military history that began with the Spanish conquistadors and ended with the Second World War.
The El Morro fortress is one of the most enduring symbols of Puerto Rico, which offers a visual tour of 400 years of military history, as well as breathtaking views of the ocean. Perched on the northwestern-most point of Old San Juan, El Morro took over 200 years to build.
From its beginning, the daunting citadel must have struck an intimidating sight to enemy ships. In fact, in its long history, El Morro was never defeated in a naval attack. The fortress only fell once in 1598 when it was taken over land by the Earl of Cumberland.
Once you arrive at the citadel, spend some time exploring its ingenious architecture. El Morro comprises 6 staggered levels which incorporate barracks, dungeons, storerooms and passageways. Walk along the ramparts where the cannons still face the ocean, and step inside one of the domed sentry boxes which are in themselves iconic symbols of Puerto Rico.
Look out across the bay where you will see El Canuelo, another smaller fortification. This was the partner of El Morro in defense of the island, as ships planning to attack Puerto Rico would be cut down in a barrage of crisscrossing canon fire.
After Puerto Rico became a commonwealth, 2 modern structures were added to El Morro: a lighthouse which stands out in stark contrast to the rest of the structure and a military bunker added during the Second World War. Today, visitors go to El Morro to have a picnic, fly kites and relax. On a clear day, the sky is full of kites which you can buy from a nearby stall.
9. Playa Flamenco
For many tourists, it’s not the architectural splendor, fortresses or forests of Puerto Rico that beckon – it’s the glittering beaches. With over 270 miles to pick from, the Puerto Rican beaches will leave you thinking “now that’s why I came to the Caribbean!”
One beach in particular stands out among the rest, and is the main reason why so many visitors skip the mainland and head directly to Culebra Island. When you first set your eyes on Playa Flamenco it will dazzle you with its numerous shades of green and blue water, the low green hills that encircle it, its deep, wide horseshoe of golden sand and almost no manmade constructions in sight.
Nirvana. Paradise. Heaven on Earth. These are just some of the terms used to describe Puerto Rico’s beautiful beach, Playa Flamenco. In fact, millions of awe-struck visitors who have come upon the place feel like they have arrived at bliss.
There are many reasons why Playa Flamenco is special. The visually stunning natural wonder is a perfect horseshoe framed by green hills and a stretch of land that disappears into the ocean. With this natural barrier, beach lovers are guaranteed the calmest waters. There are at least 4 shades of blue from beach to the ocean whose waters are so inviting, it’s hard to resist.
It is possible to visit Playa Flamenco, spend a full fun day here and leave without having seen its intriguing landmarks. To avoid missing out, take a stroll north along the beach and you will soon arrive at a vivid relic of the now-defunct military presence on the island.
Here you will see a partly submerged, rusted tank sitting in the sand. Colorful symbols and designs have been painted on the tank which remains a striking sight in the idyllic destination. Hidden behind the brush is a second tank, although not as colorfully painted. To get to it, you will need to walk through the campgrounds, along the sandy path.
Another trail will take you on a short hike from Playa Flamenco to Carlos Rosario Beach. At this point you may be wondering why anyone would leave Culebra’s, and possibly Puerto Rico’s best beach for another. Well, two reasons: one is that Playa Flamenco tends to get crowded with summer hordes, and secondly, Carlos Rosario offers what is regarded by many as Culebra’s best snorkeling opportunities.
Situated on the island of Culebra, Playa Flamenco offers the very best in Puerto Rican camping grounds. Located in a secluded area running parallel to the beach are many campgrounds, adjacent to each other although sectioned off. Excellent camping facilities are available here, just steps from the water. It’s no wonder then that some campers cannot bear to leave this beautiful beach for months at a time.
10. Casa Bacardi
You don’t have to be a fan of rum to enjoy a tour of Casa Bacardi, the world’s largest rum distillery. This is because the Bacardi family has crafted a free tour that is interesting enough to entertain any visitor. A day at this “Cathedral of Rum” is a great way to spend your vacation in Puerto Rico.
Situated in Catano, Casa Bacardi offers a great tour that tells the story of a spirit and the family behind it, which left an indelible mark in the Caribbean. Tours have been available since 1962, as part of an impressive tradition spanning over 50 years, of showing the Bacardi home to visitors.
While today the spirit calls Puerto Rico home, having registered their trademark here in 1909, the story of Bacardi began much earlier in Cuba in 1862. The founder of Bacardi was Don Facundo Bacardi Masso, a Spaniard who emigrated to Cuba in 1830. Along with his brother, Facundo learned to filter rum through charcoal to remove impurities and then age it inside oak barrels to give it smoothness.
The first Bacardi distillery comprised a simple structure whose rafters were home to fruit bats. It was from these bats that the iconic logo of Bacardi – which features a bat – originated.
However, it was Enrique Schueg, the brother-in-law to Facundo’s son who was the architect of Bacardi’s growth internationally. In the 1930s, Schueg began the production of rum in Puerto Rico. Today, Bacardi remains a family business presently in its fifth generation, in a family referred to as “The Kings of Rum”.
The most entertaining part of the Casa Bacardi tour is the interactive exhibit room with its recreation of the first Bacardi distillery, photos and heirlooms from the past, as well as rum displays which you can sniff to discover the different blends and varieties of the spirit.
During the one-hour tour, visitors also learn some of the steps involved in rum making. These include the 2 types of fermentation, the best types of rum for mixing and sipping, as well as what Bacardi does with byproducts of rum production. What you will not learn are the trade secrets relating to the proprietary process for blending, aging, distillation and fermentation.
A seasoned bartender will then demonstrate how to make 3 famous drinks, all of which are Bacardi originals: the Cuba Libre, the mojito and the daiquiri. The Cuba Libre is named after a Cuban toast; the traditional mojito is made with spearmint leaves; while the original daiquiri was not frozen, but comprised a simple mix of light rum, lime juice, ice and sugar, and is named after a Cuban iron mine.
After the tour, visitors are invited back to the pavilion where they can enjoy 2 free samples of a Bacardi cocktail. Here, you may order your favorite Bacardi drink or try something new. Be sure to sample the Mori Sonando or “I died dreaming”, which is a combination of Bacardi Orange, cream of coconut, orange juice and pineapple.
Visitors can also browse the gift shop where you will find fine Bacardi products on display, including the special “Reserva Limitada,” a 12-year old aged rum that is exclusive to the shop.