The Spanish word Encanto has been brought to the attention of many non-Spanish speaking people with the recent release of the Disney movie of the same name which takes place in the country of Columbia. But did you know that Puerto Rico is known as “La Isla del Encanto” which in English translates to “The Island of Enchantment”. And after visiting Puerto Rico, I could not agree more with this.
The island of Puerto Rico is located in the Caribbean and is a territory of The United States of America. This makes it a very easy destination for US visitors as passports are not required. But this beautiful island is more than just tropical beaches and relaxation. It’s full of history, culture and outdoor activities.
Old San Juan
When flying into Puerto Rico, most will fly into the capital of San Juan. While visiting a tropical climate, you may be eager to spend your week at the beach or the pool at your resort, but Old San Juan is definitely worth taking a half day or full day away from the beach.
Old San Juan is the historic district in San Juan. While Caribbean islands may not be the first places that come to mind, did you know that San Juan is the second oldest city in the Western Hemisphere? In the US, most of us have heard of Juan Ponce de Leon who discovered Florida while searching for the Fountain of Youth. Prior to discovering Florida, he discovered Puerto Rico and became their first governor. One of the historic attractions you can visit in Old San Juan is Ponce de Leon’s mansion.
The most popular of historical attractions in Old San Juan though has got to be the San Juan National Historic Site. Visiting this historic site, will take you back 500 years in time. On this site, you can see the remaining city walls along with two forts, Castillo San Felipe del Morro (commonly referred to as El Morro) and Castillo San Cristobal. These forts took 200 and 150 years each to be built. Both forts were used to defend the island of Puerto Rico and during World War II, El Morro was used by the USA to keep watch on German submarines in the Caribbean.
The park is open daily (except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Years Day) from 9:30am – 4:30pm and admission is $10. You can tour the forts on your own but look out for the ranger talks going on in the fort while you are there to learn more about the history.
While at the San Juan National Historic Site, make sure to check out the beautiful views of the surrounding area, they are certainly breathtaking!
Seeing El Morro from the outside by the water is also a beautiful experience. Take a walk along the Paseo del Morro which follows along the coast. The walk does dead end at the fort as seen in the photo below, but it’s not a long walk and the views are worth seeing again on the walk back.
Paseo del Morro connects to another great walkway in Old San Juan, Paseo De La Princesa. This beautiful walkway also offers stunning coastal views. Along the Paseo De La Princesa, you will come across street vendors and the Fuente Raices (Roots Fountain). This fountain is in honor of the 500th anniversary Spain’s discovery of the New World.
These two walkways are not the only great places to walk in Old San Juan. Walking the historic streets is definitely quite the treat. Old San Juan is full of colorful buildings that are just stunning to see as you walk thru the historic city streets.
My favorite thing I saw while walking around Old San Juan was located on Calle San Jose. There I found the famous door painted as the Puerto Rican flag. This is definitely an Instagram worthy location for your Old San Juan visit.
Along with all that I mentioned, Old San Juan also has many great shops and restaurants. You could definitely spend a good portion of a day here.
Of course, no vacation to somewhere in the Caribbean would be complete without some beach time. Just like other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico is full of beaches. Right outside of San Juan there are many beaches, the three most popular being Condado Beach, Ocean Park Beach and Isla Verde Beach. If you are staying in a hotel or renting a house or condo near San Juan, chances are you will be right near one of these beaches. All of these beaches are great for relaxing, swimming, taking a walk and watching the sunset.
The most beautiful beach that I visited while in Puerto Rico was Luquillo Beach. Located about 30 miles from San Juan, Luquillo is known as the la Capital del Sol (the Sun’s Capital) which is probably why this beach is just so perfect. This beach looks like it’s straight out of a postcard and is the perfect spot to spend a relaxing afternoon.
While you could bring a picnic to the beach, I highly recommend visiting Los Kioskos de Luquillo while at this beach. These beachside kiosks feature restaurants, bars and gift shops. It’s the perfect spot for some authentic Puerto Rican food like Mofongo. If you are unfamiliar with Mofongo, it’s mashed fried plantains with garlic and olive oil and can be accompanied by meat or seafood. I had never heard of Mofongo before I visited Puerto Rico, but I definitely fell in love with it while I was there, so delicious!
El Yunque National Forest
Located about 5 miles from Luquillo Beach is the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Forest Service, El Yunque National Forest. This rainforest gets on average 120 inches of rainfall each year. Oddly enough after running a half marathon in tropical downpours and getting stuck in tropical rain on the beach for two days straight, the day I visited the rainforest was the first day I didn’t see rain in Puerto Rico, go figure!
Like many National Parks in the United States, El Yunque National Forest has moved to a reservations system to visit the rainforest. Reservations can be made up to 30 days in advance with timed entry during a 3-hour time frame. One reservation per car is required and there is a $2 reservation fee.
El Yunque is full of gorgeous views, waterfalls and hiking. Climb the Yokahu Observation Tower to view the lush rainforest from above. The tower is located at 1,575 feet and is 69 feet high. The views from the tower are stunning and on a clear day you can even see all the way to the Virgin Islands.
Being a rainforest, El Yunque has many waterfalls to check out. One of the easiest ones to see is La Coca Falls. This waterfall is located right by the road, so no hiking is necessary. These 85-foot falls are stunning to see and definitely make for a great photo op.
The most popular waterfall in El Yunque is La Mina Waterfall. This waterfall is 35 feet tall and offers a pool at the bottom that you can swim in. There is a 3/4-mile hike to the waterfall along La Mina Trail. While this trail is short, it is rated as moderate to difficult due to the 500-foot elevation you will gain on your way out of the waterfall. The trail follows along the La Mina River and there are stairs at points along the trail. Be prepared for crowds as this is the most popular trail in El Yunque.
Since the damage from Hurricane’s Irma and Maria in 2017, the trail has been closed. Make sure to check the website to see if it has reopened.
An often-overlooked attraction in Puerto Rico is Cueva Ventana. Located about an hour east of San Juan, this hidden gem is worth the drive. Cueva Ventana translates to Window Cave in English. The view out the window of this cave of the lush landscape below is absolutely stunning.
Cueva Ventana is open from 10am – 4pm daily and guided tours are offered frequently throughout the day. The tour takes you thru the cave giving you a little history of the cave and surrounding area and gives you plenty of time to take photos of the window.
Make sure to dress appropriately, leave the flip flops and sandals at the hotel and wear either hiking boots or sneakers. Hard hats and flashlights are provided for the tour.
While in the area, make sure to drive thru nearby Arecibo. This coastal town has some stunning views that are worth the short detour.
If you are looking for a great hotel to stay in, I highly recommend the Caribe Hilton. This beautiful resort is located just outside of San Juan and is set on a beautiful private beach. But even if you are not staying here, it just might be somewhere you may want to visit as it’s the home of the Pina Colada! That’s right, in 1954, a bartender at the bar at the Caribe Hilton created this delicious tropical drink and since 1978 it’s been Puerto Rico’s national cocktail. Everyone wants a tropical frozen drink while traveling in the Caribbean, why not enjoy one at it’s birthplace.
Puerto Rico is a beautiful island to visit and as you have read above, there is so much more than just the beach. Is this Caribbean Island now on your bucket list?
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