Explore Puerto Rico’s Gems
If there’s a best kept travel secret in America, Puerto Rico may be it. With sprawling beaches, a rich history waiting to be explored, and the perfect mix of adventure and relaxation, there’s something for everyone. Kit Graham of The Kittchen recently took a trip to the island and, after visiting San Juan & Vieques, has some highlights to share. Take it away, Kit!
Where should you go on vacation if you are seeking the sun but wishing to avoid the typical college spring break locations? Puerto Rico. It has just the right mix of culture, adventure, and beaches for travelers who have passed the spring break party phase of their lives. Plus, you don’t need a passport if you are traveling from the US, and most major hubs offer direct flights.
You will be flying into San Juan, the island’s capital. It is a vibrant city with brightly colored buildings, a rich history, and a culinary culture you need to experience. It is definitely worth spending a couple of days in as it is a place that begs to be explored.
Spend at least one entire day in Old San Juan, the historic section of the city. Start your day with a bit of food and a dose of history by joining a Spoon Food Tour. The morning walking tour takes travelers on a guided adventure through Old San Juan that mixes history and local cuisine. The guides also point out the best things to explore after the tour ends. We learned which Puerto Rican rum the locals drink, where to buy the best handmade Panama hats, and which local boutique is the best. Before the tour ended, we were given recommendations for where to dine throughout the rest of our vacation. The tour was a great introduction to the city and we felt like were getting the inside scoop on everything.
San Juan is a walled city with two fortresses overlooking the sea. This is a great afternoon activity for beating the heat since that area is so windy. Once you pay the small entrance fee to visit one fort, you can visit the other fort for free within the next seven days. The fort offers amazing views of the city, and signage throughout the fort teaches visitors about the area’s complicated history.
On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday San Juan’s fruit market turns into a party with people listening to music and drinking beer on the street. This is also home to two of the city’s most famous restaurants, Jose Enrique and Santaella. Santaella is the more formal of the two, and it does accept reservations. Regardless of where you eat, you need to stop in to Santaella of their frozen watermelon cocktail.
After some time in San Juan, you will be ready to hit the beach. Take a ferry or a charter flight to the island of Vieques, a small picturesque tropical island lined with beaches where wild horses roam the streets.
Vieques gives you the option of spending lazy days on the beach, or being more adventures and going paddleboarding, jet skiing, sailing, snorkeling, or horseback riding. You can find the balance of exploration and relaxation that is right for you.
Vieques has two towns: Esperanza and Isabel II. Esperanza is slightly larger and is the center of most activity, while Isabel II is a sleepy beach town. Upon arrival rent a Jeep so that you can explore the 20+ beaches on the island.
At night, go on a tour of the bioluminescent bay. There is a bay in Vieques that is home to a rare type of plankton that lets off a bright blue glow when it is disturbed. As you kayak through the bay, the paddles will stir the plankton and the water will glow bright blue. Due to the lack of light pollution in the area, the stars above shine brightly and the tour guide will point out constellations. It’s a rare once in a lifetime experience.
When it comes to food, some restaurants stand out as being the best. For lunch, stop at Sol Food. The small food truck is situated on the road leading to several beaches on the south coast. The menu changes frequently, the portions are massive, and the empanadas are not to be missed. Grab lunch and take it to the beach for a picnic.
Esperanza is lively at night, and there are several restaurants to choose from. El Blok, a freshly opened restaurant/hotel has excellent food and creative cocktails. The menu is small, but there are a handful of specials to choose from each evening. After dinner, head to Lazy Jacks, a laid back bar attached to a youth hostel. Just don’t be surprised if some chickens wander into the bar.
Spend an evening in Isabel II too, begin with sipping cocktails at Mar Azul while you watch the sunset over the ocean. Mar Azul is a no frills place, and a bit of a local hangout, and the location over looking the ocean and mountains can’t be beat. Once the sun sets, walk to Sabores for traditional local cuisine – the mofongo, a dish with fried plantains and meat, is great.
Puerto Rico is the perfect place for vacation. It is inexpensive, everyone speaks English, and it is a fitting location for a romantic vacation for two, or a bigger trip with friends. There is certainly something for everyone, and both San Juan and Vieques ooze charm, and you can’t complain about the fact that the weather is almost always warm and sunny.
Kit Graham is the writer behind recipe, restaurant review, and travel site The Kittchen. She is also the author of The Gourmet Grilled Cheese Cookbook, and a co-founder of the Windy City Blogger Collective. In her spare time, Kit likes to binge watch tv while sipping red wine.
She’s dishing more about Puerto Rico on her blog, so if you’re looking for more great suggestions, be sure to swing by!