A beginner’s guide to visiting Puerto Rico: Everything you need to eat, see and do

Feb 8, 2020

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Puerto Rico is beloved by travellers around the world, and for good reason.

From the bioluminescent bays to the friendly and welcoming locals — not to mention some of the most delectable food around — the colourful houses in Old San Juan to beautiful rainforests and beach resorts on the coastline, each part of Puerto Rico offers visitors a distinctly different experience. And there’s simply never a bad time to visit.

In short: Paradise awaits.

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For people concerned about the recent earthquakes, tourism officials assure us Puerto Rico is very much open and eager for travellers to continue visiting the island, which relies heavily on tourism. This, after all, is a small Caribbean island with a resilient culture and people who are incredibly proud of their home — people who know their hardships don’t define the island’s past, present or future.

San Juan, Puerto Rico.(Photo by Liz Hund/TPG)
San Juan, Puerto Rico (Photo by Liz Hund/TPG)

Last fall, I spent several days in San Juan and was blown away by my trip. While I understand why people might be on the fence about visiting, everyone I met wanted me to spread the message that Puerto Rico is a great place to go. And after a few days there, I can wholeheartedly attest to the same.

I recently sat down with the Brad Dean, CEO of the island’s official tourism guide, Discover Puerto Rico. He wants travellers to know that the island is “open for tourism”, saying, “the good news for visitors is flights [are] operating fully and have not been disrupted”.

“All three commercial airports are open and operational. The cruise ports are still open — there was a five-day period after the earthquakes where we had almost 60,000 cruise passengers disembark in Old San Juan”.

Visit TPG’s Caribbean destination hub for more stories about travelling to the region on points and miles, where to stay and what to do while you’re there.

Where to eat and drink in Puerto Rico

When in the Caribbean (or anywhere, really), you’ll want to skip the chain restaurants and opt for the local cuisine. Whenever I arrive at a new location, I’ll ask some of the first people I meet about their favourite places to eat. In Puerto Rico, my Uber driver from the airport enthusiastically explained the first dish I needed to try was none other than the island’s famous mofongo.

During our chat, Dean also recommended mofongo. “Wherever you find it, it’s been handmade”, he said. “So you’re getting a real taste of the Puerto Rican passion”.

Where to eat mofongo

Mofongo is a Puerto Rican speciality made of fried plantains and served with both fried meat and chicken broth soup. I tried it out for myself at Barrachina in Old San Juan, a colourful restaurant with a light-filled courtyard. My meal (a combination of mofongo-style beef, chicken and shrimp) came out steaming hot and covered in broth and gravy. The mashed plantains even reminded me of the yams I grew up eating at Thanksgiving. I topped off the meal with a piña colada (although I probably should have opted for a mojito).

Puerto Rican Mofongo made from plantains, garlic and chicharron served with meat and broth close-up on a plate on the table. horizontal
Puerto Rican Mofongo made from plantains, garlic and chicharron served with meat and broth close-up on a plate on the table.

TPG reader Liam C. recommended stopping at Piñones, near San Juan Airport (SJU) for authentic Puerto Rican food. When asked about what to try first, he suggested alcapurria, empanadillas, pinchos or bacalao.

“Pinchos are like shish kabobs”, he explained, “usually chicken, pork [or] beef on a stick, grilled and covered with garlic or some other sauce, and served with a piece of ‘pan sobao,’ [Puerto Rico’s] take on Cuban bread, but a bit softer”.

The best restaurants in Puerto Rico

Café Puerto Rico in Old San Juan is the perfect place to enjoy an appetizer (opt for the sorullitos de maiz — basically deep-fried corn meal fritters) as you watch passersby stroll through the Plaza de Colón.

And don’t even think about flying home without trying the crabmeat-stuffed tostones at Ropa Vieja Grill, located in the Condado neighbourhood of San Juan.

If you want to splurge, Puerto Rico has a handful of restaurants for you, too.

Marmalade, also in Old San Juan is a well-loved upscale restaurant with a five-star rating on TripAdvisor, and offers a four- or six-course tasting menu, complete with dishes like highly stylized dishes including pacific yellowtail poke, gnocchi and paella.

Frequent travellers also recommend Santaella in San Juan, where you can expect authentic Latin American cuisines such as alcapurria and calamares fritos.

En route to my hotel, my Uber driver emphasized the importance of exploring Puerto Rico’s food scene beyond San Juan, and many TPG readers agreed.

Located in Cayey (about 30 minutes from Caguas, in the centre of the island), Lechonera El Rancho Original has been serving the people of Puerto Rico for four decades. You come here to enjoy authentic Puerto Rican cuisine and dance late into the evening.

The Kioskos de Luquillo is a collection of Mom and Pop restaurants that are great for a casual bite after leaving nearby Luquillo Beach. You’ll be able to find seafood, barbecue and crack open a cold beer.

What to see and do in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has a ton of sightseeing that you’ll want to add to your itinerary, too. We even asked TPG readers to weigh in on some of their favourites so you don’t miss a single standout activity on your trip to Puerto Rico.

El Yunque National Rainforest is just 45 minutes from San Juan, and the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. It’s famous for its incredible hiking, abundance of waterfalls and endemic wildlife. Just be advised that some trails and recreational areas remain inaccessible despite ongoing hurricane recovery efforts. Airbnb Experiences has several affordable guided tour options if you’d rather not venture into the rainforest alone.

La Mina Falls in El Yunque National Forest,
La Mina Falls in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Alisha Bube / Getty Images)

If you’re a fan of the sciences, you’re going to love Arecibo Observatory, known for discovering that Mercury’s rotation period was only 59 days — not 88 as previously thought. Even if you’re more of a casual science enthusiast, visiting this museum is a fun rainy day activity. Just know it’s about an hour and a half drive from San Juan.

Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second-largest city. Located on the southern coast of the island, it’s full of history and a little more off the beaten path. Be sure to check out Plaza de las Delicias, which has a cathedral as well as an old firehouse that’s now a museum.

Travellers who are into swimming or snorkelling, the bioluminescence at La Parguera is “cooler than the kayak sites” according to one TPG reader. Another recommends using a tour company to organize a day trip to Bioluminescent Bay (also called Mosquito Bay) on the island Vieques, off Puerto Rico’s eastern shore.

If you don’t care much for night swims or glowing microorganisms, Puerto Rico is replete with gorgeous, sandy beaches. Near Luquillo, where you’ll find those Kioskos de Luquillo, La Pared, is an often deserted stretch of almost golden sand. The beach town of Naguabo, in the southeast corner of the island, also incredibly quiet, and palm trees frame the soft, sandy beach and turquoise water. On the stretch known as Suroma, you might find egrets and crabs.

Museo de la Música Puertoriqueña has a rich history dating back to the 19th century. Here, you’ll find traces of Taíno, Spanish and African influences. You’ll also learn about Puerto Rico’s musical history, which you can now hear throughout other parts of the Caribbean, the mainland and around the world.

Historic fire station, Parque de Bombas, in Ponce, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Bryan Mullennix / Getty Images)
Historic fire station, Parque de Bombas, in Ponce, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Bryan Mullennix / Getty Images)

Where to stay in Puerto Rico

I flew down to Puerto Rico at the end of October in search of a quick, cheap getaway. I had three criteria for a beach vacation: the flight needed to be under four hours, the destination needed to have Hyatt resorts and, overall, the trip needed to be reasonably affordable. I then narrowed my choices down to the Bahamas, Aruba and Puerto Rico, finally choosing the latter because of a fantastic Hyatt resort I discovered.

Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico

My stay at the Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico was the pinnacle of luxury.

During my stay in late October, the resort was pretty empty and I felt like I had the property to myself. Upon arrival, I received a complimentary upgrade — even without status! — from a king garden room to a room with a clawfoot tub. The room was stocked with luxury bath products and a Nespresso machine and was just steps away from the beach. If you’re a golf fan, you’ll also love the 18-hole course.

The best part of the hotel, though, is the price. As a Category 3 property, the hotel is just 12,000 Hyatt points a night.

I spent most of my time reading on the private beach and drinking mimosas at the swim-up bar. Cash prices hover around £255 a night, and I paid the equivalent of £158 per night. What a steal!

Since it was a new hotel, the service was still a little on the slow side, although very well-intentioned. The only major downside is how far it is from San Juan, as well as the lack of places to eat near the resort. If you stay here, you’ll likely want to rent a car, as it’s at least a 50-minute drive from the city.

Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort

The Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort is the only Hilton hotel located outside of the San Juan area, as well as home to one of the largest casinos in Puerto Rico. It has a 27-hole golf course, as well as a large pool and tennis courts.

While it isn’t the fanciest Hilton property in Puerto Rico, it’s a pretty good deal if you find yourself on the other side of the island. An oceanfront patio room will typically set you back 50,000 Hilton Honors points a night. Keep in mind that if you hold Hilton Honors elite status, you’ll enjoy a fifth night free on all award stays of five nights or longer.

Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino

The Sheraton Puerto Hotel & Casino, a Category 5 Marriott Bonvoy property, is located 10 minutes from San Juan Airport and just five minutes from Old San Juan. It features a world-class casino, spa, sundeck and infinity pool. It’s located right near the beach, too.

If you can find off-peak award availability, you’ll need just 30,000 Marriott points per night to stay here. Standard awards start at 35,000 points per night, and peak awards cost 40,000.

The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, Puerto Rico

St. Regis Bahia Beach Puerto Rico. (Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)
St. Regis Bahia Beach Puerto Rico. (Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort is, by far, the most luxurious on this list.

The sprawling, 139-room oceanfront property boasts an 18-hole golf course, spa and is close to El Yunque National Rainforest. TPG reviews editor Nick Ellis stayed there last year and loved it. TPG Lounge member Amy also highly recommends the resort. “As a [Marriott] Titanium Elite, we had free breakfast … and we had the most spectacular oceanfront suite,” she said.

The hotel is considered to be one of the island’s best, and it’s not difficult to see why. Although the resort closed for several months following Hurricane Maria, it’s back and better than ever, following a $60 million renovation that redesigned and refurbished the guest rooms completely.

Since it’s a Category 8 Marriott property, it will cost you 70,000 points per night for an off-peak award, 80,000 points per night for a standard award and 100,000 points per night for an award night during peak travel times.

Remember that you’ll get the fifth night free when booking an award stay with Marriott, even at luxury ones like the St. Regis.

Several hotels are currently in the works and scheduled to open this year, according to Brad Dean from Discover Puerto Rico. These include the Aloft Hotel at the Convention Center and Zafira St. Clair, a boutique property on Vieques. Several more hotels and resorts around the island have reopened since Maria, including The Fox Hotel in Ponce, Dorado Beach, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve and Boho Beach Club.

“Some islands and destinations might be somewhat limited, maybe more for a high-end consumer or another type of traveller. Puerto Rico runs the gamut of accommodation options”, Dean said, pointing out that travellers can also consider short-term rentals.

What to skip

If you’re pressed for time, you’re probably wondering what you can exclude from your Puerto Rico itinerary. The TPG Lounge had a few suggestions for that, too.

One TPG reader, Adam, called the Bacardi Tour “a simulated distillery.” Some travellers find the island of Vieques boring, yet it’s just as popular with others. As for me? It’s on my 2020 travel list.

My personal skip suggestion: Old San Juan. I know, I know. It’s beautiful. Stunning, really.

But I don’t recommend spending more than a day there. I didn’t expect it to be similar to Old Havana, which I loved when I visited Cuba three years ago, but I found it to be heavily commercialized with numerous chain restaurants and even a Marshall’s.

During my time in Old San Juan, I decided to focus on the history and culture. I went shopping at an Afro-Latino art store and visited the Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Juan Bautista, one of the oldest buildings in the city. The food was great — it’s where I had the fantastic mofongo, remember? — but I personally wouldn’t spend longer than a day here.

The details

Getting around

While you’ll find plenty of Ubers on the island, I found it to be a bit too pricey for my budget. Case in point: Getting from the airport to my resort in Rio Grande was £39 one-way. All told, I spent about £112 on Uber during the three days I spent on the island.

Most people I encountered spoke English, although it’s always helpful to know at least some Spanish. I did practice my Spanish with Uber drivers on the long drive from San Juan to the resort, and everyone helped me correct my verbs and accents.

(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

If you plan to stay in neighbourhoods like Old San Juan, you probably won’t need a car, Uber or taxi since the area is pretty walkable.

You can also take advantage of the Old San Juan trolley. This three-route tram runs Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. It stops at the famous castles, Old San Juan’s central shopping district and more. You’ll just want to be mindful of when the cruise ships arrive so you can plan ahead to get a seat on the trolley.

If you’re a public transportation geek like me, make sure the Tren Urbano is on your radar. It’s an 11-mile rapid transit system that serves San Juan, Guaynabo and Bayamón. The trip between Bayamón and San Juan is just 30 minutes and the one-line train system has 16 stops; it passes through the University of Puerto Rico as well as the Santa Rosa Shopping mall. It’s very affordable, too: A regular fare is just $1.50 and if you’re between the ages of 60 and 74, just .75 cents. Better yet, if you’re six years and younger or 75 and older, it’s free.

I briefly mentioned that I would rent a car next time I visit Puerto Rico, as the resort I stayed at was nearly an hour away from San Juan, and at least a 10-minute drive from the nearest grocery store. The major rental companies to consider include Avis, Enterprise and Hertz, all of which are located at the airport.

The best times to visit Puerto Rico

The majority of hurricanes in Puerto Rico typically occur between August and October, while hurricane season runs from 1 June to 30 November, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. Notably, Hurricane Maria made landfall on 20 September 2017.

Many people I spoke with on the island said “summertime is all the time” in Puerto Rico, with temperatures hovering in the high 20s daily. If you’re trying to avoid the infamous daily Caribbean rains, you’ll want to plan to visit between January and March, as precipitation is low.

Take a one-way cruise to Puerto Rico (Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)
Take a one-way cruise to Puerto Rico (Nick Ellis/The Points Guy)

If you want to avoid the hordes of people travelling during U.S. spring break but still want to visit before hurricane season kicks in, the spring is the best time to score flight and hotel breaks. As an added bonus, you’ll have the beach all to yourself.

Bottom line

Puerto Rico has come a long way since Hurricane Maria in 2017, and let it be known that the island is open for travellers — and eager for the business. From beach resorts to landmarks, excellent food and great hospitality, there’s something for everyone who makes the short flight down to visit.

Featured image courtesy of Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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