Puerto Rico

Close your eyes and imagine a tropical island where the sun paints a watercolor palette across the sky, and birds and frogs sing you to sleep. You wake to a turquoise-blue ocean at your feet. You sip water from a fresh coconut and snack on seafood-filled empanadillas. You’re envisioning the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico—the island of enchantment, with a rich cultural history and geography begging to be explored. The wonders of this island can only be described by the phrase, “the heart and soul of the Caribbean.”

Two buildings in Puerto Rico. On the left, a pink building with white tripm and on the right an art-deco style blue building with a person passing by on a bike.

Photos by Michelle Heimerman


When’s the best time to go to Puerto Rico?

The best time to visit Puerto Rico depends on your island agenda. The “tourist” season is fall/winter (end of October through April) when waves on the west coast beckon to surfers and the tropical rain forests come to life. The beaches will be more crowded, but all the shops, restaurants, bars, and hotels are in full swing. Everything the island has to offer is at your fingertips. Summer is also a great time if you would like to just relax without all the nightlife and day trips. If you want the beach to yourself—plus a few vacationing Puerto Ricans—then head down between May and August for seclusion, but be aware these are also the hottest months of the year.

How to get around Puerto Rico

You have two options for travel to the island—airplane or cruise ship. The cruise ships stop at San Juan, a must-see city destination (though to really experience the island, you must travel beyond the capital). SJU is the biggest and most modern airport in the Caribbean. From the East Coast of the U.S. mainland, try JetBlue, Spirit, or Southwest. From everywhere else, there is Delta, American, or United. A perk for U.S. citizens: This is a passport-free destination.

For daytime travel, public transit services exist within individual cities, but they are limited. Taxis are clean and reliable—look for white cabs with Taxi Turístico on the front doors. The shared cab (public) system goes around the island for a small fare, but it takes a long time due to the numerous stops along the way. Rideshares like Uber are available in various towns, especially those close to the metropolitan region.

Most travelers rent a car for the duration of their stay. The currency is U.S. dollars, and the road system resembles that of the mainland. There are two exceptions: Distances are measured in kilometers, while speed is measured in miles per hour. Additionally, gas is represented in liters, and prices are competitive with those on the mainland. One roadway custom worth mentioning is that police and ambulances drive with their lights flashing. Still, unless they also blast their sirens, there’s no need to pull over or move aside.

Can’t miss things to do in Puerto Rico

Visit the Cueva Ventana cave in Arecibo. A short trail takes you through two natural caves, climbing down under the roots of a tree and opening up to the mouth of another cave that expands to show you a picturesque view of the center of the island. It’s breathtaking.

Another must-see place is El Yunque National Forest, the only subtropical rain forest in the U.S. Forest Service. Become one with nature as you wander through the walking trails and explore the mesmerizing waterfalls, as well as the endemic flora and fauna.

You can’t leave the island without experiencing the enchantment of a bioluminescent bay. There are only five in the world, and Puerto Rico is home to three—including the brightest one: Mosquito Bay in Vieques. Kayak through the glow-in-the-dark, shimmery water for a magical, one-of-a-kind adventure.

Food and drink to try in Puerto Rico

Local cuisine is available on every corner, along every major road, and at all places in between. This is the best island for people who are always hungry—there is something to eat, everywhere! Puerto Rican cuisine is varied but full of staple, hearty dishes. The most famous one is mofongo, made of deep-fried mashed plantains and served with a side of seafood or meat. And of course, you can always accompany any dish with a side of abuelita’s-style rice and beans.

Pinchos and empanadillas are roadside favorites, and it’s easy to tell which spots the locals love because the lines will be long and the stands sell out early. It’s worth trying a few during your stay, as each place will have its spin on a classic dish. You can also find Thai, sushi, continental, Mexican, Indian, German, and Italian cuisine in various cities around the island.

Culture in Puerto Rico

The island was called “Borinquén” before the Spanish arrived; they changed the name to Puerto Rico. (The burial ground of the Spanish conquistador and first governor Juan Ponce de León is said to be in San Juan.) You might hear native-born Puerto Ricans refer to themselves as “Boricua,” derived from the original island name. The indigenous Taíno people were present when the Spanish came, and Africans were brought to the island by the conquistadores. The mix of these three cultures gave way to a new identity: Puerto Ricans. There are Puerto Ricans alive now who are distant relatives of the original islanders. You can still find well-preserved pictographs of Taíno artwork in caves and rocks and visit towns like Loíza, which preserve the African heritage today

Local festivals are worth attending to give you an authentic taste of Puerto Rican customs and lifestyle. If you’re interested in food, visit the National Plantain Festival in Corozal (October), Saborea Puerto Rico at Escambrón Beach (May), and the Coffee and Chocolate Expo in San Juan (September). For culture, try the Hatillo Masks Festival in Hatillo (December) or the Rincon International Film Festival, Puerto Rico’s largest film festival (April). And for the biggest street party of the year, come experience the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián in San Juan, commonly referred to as “la SanSe, ” celebrating St. Sebastian, in January. To find more festivals, just ask the locals. Puerto Ricans always know where to find the party.

Local travel tips for Puerto Rico

While GPS systems work fine on the island, the perfect navigation set for any local is . . . the Puerto Rican GPS. Stop anywhere in town and ask any local for directions, but it’s best to speak in Spanish.

Read Before You Go
Consider these 51 beautiful places found across the country—including Puerto Rico—for your next trip
Resources to help plan your trip
Outside of the cities and beaches, Puerto Rico’s beautiful waterfalls, underground caves, and rivers are not to be missed. If you’re ready for an adventure, be sure to plan a day trip to hike to one of these beautiful waterfalls, go tubing down a river, or crawl through a cave.
From the island that brought you the piña colada, could you expect anything short of fabulous for Puerto Rico’s other refreshing drinks? Natural and exotic fruits grow year round in Puerto Rico’s lush tropical habitat. Coconuts galore, homemade fruity ice cream frappes and so much more. Here are Puerto Rico’s best smoothies, snow cones, just-roasted coffee, and all sorts of local sips.
Any trip to Puerto Rico must include at least one perfect day in the old city of San Juan. The island overflows with a rich culture and history that you can first experience here in San Juan right after stepping off the plane. Spend a day roaming the old city, exploring cobblestone streets with hidden gems and restaurants, art galleries and shops. These are the must-see places to complete your perfect day in San Juan.
Vieques, off Puerto Rico’s east coast, is known for its quiet island life and tropical vibe. Get away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland and enjoy a relaxing day riding horses, kayaking in the bioluminescent bay, and dining on local tapas, even if you only have one day. Often overlooked by visitors who seek the mainland comforts, be sure to take some time to explore this tiny island and its secluded tropical vibe. A day trip to Vieques will not be forgotten.
(The venues on this list have been confirmed reopened since Hurricane Maria.)
Although every view in Puerto Rico can be considered the “best”, be sure you have your camera with you when traveling to these gorgeous sites. This island is full of postcard views from every angle! Tour the island for a couple days to encompass all these sights. Here are the best views of the island, its structures, and the ocean—all from different perches on this small paradise.
The fresh tropical fruit and smooth rums provide some excellent raw materials for drinking in the Caribbean, and the bars and cafés of Puerto Rico take full and delicious advantage of the island’s natural resources.
You want variety? Puerto Rico’s shops and boutiques have got variety! Cigars, ice cream, must-haves for the beach, handicrafts, vintage clothes, antiques, housewares—shoppers beware.
The vivid flavors and colors of Puerto Rico cannot be ignored. Wander San Juan’s candy-colored streets, explore El Morro and the trails of El Junque, and linger on the inviting beaches: A weekend is just long enough to fall in love with this island.
From roast pork, empanadillas, and plantains to street snacks, seafood, and freshly-made ice cream, Puerto Ricans enjoy many hearty local flavors. To really experience local culture and customs, you must take time to try each region’s culinary specialty. These foodie delights could be a unique twist on non-Puerto Rican food, or a delicious concoction of fruit and juices, to sandwiches stuffed with three kinds of meats. Locals love the flavors, and you will too!
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