So, you want to do a Caribbean vacation, but you don’t want to deal with getting a passport, adding an international plan to your cell phone, exchanging currency or the lines and hassles of customs and immigration. Do you forgo that Caribbean experience? Heck no! You travel to Puerto Rico!
Puerto Rico is the best of both worlds for Americans – it’s US Territory (and has been for the past 120 years) that also happens to be a Caribbean island! So, all of those deal breakers I listed above are not applicable to this destination!
I recently invited Francisco Blanch the Director of Leisure Sales of Discover Puerto Rico back to share more about Puerto Rico with us (you may remember we talked to him at the height of COVID-19 as well) and he was all too happy to share his passion for it once again!
So – pack your bags and your dancing shoes (you’ll see why later) – but leave your passport at home because you don’t need it here! You’re coming with me to a place that will mirror an experience of an international destination – but is actually a US territory and close to home. Let’s get started!
Getting There: Puerto Rico has what Francisco calls a privileged location in the Caribbean – meaning thanks to where it lies it is an average three and a half to four-hour flight depending on where you are coming from. And bonus – New York and most of the east coast have access to direct flights but don’t worry my Texas friends – it’s just one easy connection for us! There is also plenty of lift to get you there with a wide choice of airlines available for you to choose from. Once you arrive at the San Juan International Airport, you’ll find a modern facility that isn’t too big making it easy to navigate!
Transportation and Getting Around: Puerto Rico measures 100 miles long and just 35 miles wide so everything is within reach in a matter of just a two to three hour driving distance. And drive it you can – and should! First – all you need is your US driver’s license to rent a car then all the rest is the same as driving in your hometown – as it is a US Territory. Same signs, rules, road rage (ha – kidding!) – but you get the idea. Second – they have invested a lot of money into the entire island since Hurricane Maria hit three years ago causing extensive damage – and therefore the island is in top shape and – per Francisco – has one of the most amazing and modern network of roads you will ever drive on. His words? “The roads are impeccable”! (Now that sounds even better than driving on some of the roads in the continental US!)
What’s New: Speaking of Hurricane Maria – here are some stats Francisco shared with us regarding recovery efforts which he credits to being a US territory. They actually already had a great infrastructure of roads so that helped hasten their recovery. The other infrastructure improvements were thanks to over 20 billion in government funds that were spent on response and recovery efforts. IN addition:
- FEMA granted 100 million dollars to restore the power grid
- 413 million dollars was allocated to roadways, bridges and ports
- The FCC allocated 950 million dollars to communications infrastructure
- Hotels have invested millions of dollars in renovations and improvements
Language, Climate and More: First – Puerto Rico is the most advanced and up to date island in the Caribbean according to Francisco. As for language – both English and Spanish are widely spoken across the island. And the climate? It is tropical but thanks to the El Yunque Rainforest in the east and the Central Mountains region – Puerto Rico is a unique climate – temperatures stay at a range between 70- and 80-degrees Fahrenheit making it always feel like spring or summer.
Francisco told us he refers to Puerto Rico as a Continental Island – so – is it an island or is it continental? It’s both. Of course, it’s an Island but its offerings are very continental. It is not just all not just nature and recreation. it’s great for families too with plenty of museums including interactive ones for kids.
Breaking It Down Into Categories: This is certainly one of those “there’s something for everyone” destinations – and then some – just see below!
- Nature and Outdoor Activities: So very much to do here outside – making it another great place to social distance! Thanks to more than 300 miles of coastline Puerto Rico has more than 300 beaches with the result being that every single water sport you like to partake in is there for you – including scuba diving, snorkeling, water skiing and surfing. And then there is the golfing. More than 20 golf courses throughout the islands means no matter where you choose to stay there is guaranteed to be a golf course either on property or very close by!
- Luxury: Take your pick! There are spas at most of the major resorts. There are private services that both Francisco and I can arrange for you – from private transfers, a full-time driver, a helicopter tour, a catamaran cruise or you can even rent a yacht. Like to shop? Puerto Rico is home to two fabulous malls – the Mall of San Juan which is the most luxurious mall in Caribbean and the Mall of the Americas which is largest mall in Caribbean. Here you can shop for all the most well-known and top name brands and find stores for all types of budgets.
- Romance: You can have a destination wedding here quite easily as getting married in Puerto Rico means all the same US rules and laws apply. And if you bring your paperwork it’s even easier! To assist in planning – all hotels have wedding coordinators on site and there are great venues in the hotels or even out in nature if you prefer. Puerto Rico is also a big honeymoon destination and fun fact – there are numerous honeymoon songs written about Puerto Rico according to Francisco. The island is also very LGBTQ friendly – in fact, Francisco referred to it as “the capital for the LGBTQ community.”
Destinations: Just like the categories I broke it down into, so too can we break down each destination.
- San Juan is the capital in the metro area and Old San Juan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site lined with cobblestone streets and many memorable historic places making it quite authentic. It really has so much to offer and is so well kept. And the network of military architecture is amazing! It took 250 years to build their military network – from San Felipe del Morro to San Cristobal – and it was used right up through the mid-1940’s thanks to World War II. You will also find La Fortaleza here – which is the longest serving governor mansion in the Americas as well as the San Juan Bautista Cathedral which has the honor not only of being the second cathedral built in the Americans but also where the remains of Juan Ponce de Leon lie. (The first governor of Puerto Rico as well as the explorer who famously searched for the Fountain of Youth in Florida.) Fun Fact: Old San Juan is celebrating its 500-year anniversary next year as it was founded in 1521! So here is your fair warning if you want to take part in what is sure to be a fabulous celebration – the time to start planning is NOW! It will sell out. Trust me.
Also close by is the infamous Bacardi Rum Distillery which you can reach via a ferry that leaves from old San Juan and travels across Old San Juan Bay to the distillery. Here you can tour the factory and sample some of their wares. There are other distilleries to tour across Puerto Rico as well and another fun fact – 70% of all of the rum consumed in the US is produced in Puerto Rico. I’ll drink to that!
- Condado, Miramar and Isla Verde: These are three great neighborhoods outside of the San Juan metro area that offer so many different flavors! For my cruisers if you dock in Old San Juan you most visit one of these three towns as well.
- Condado is a very upscale and hip area. It has a lot of great restaurants and is great for families. I loved, loved, loved the great street food here – especially the scrumptious the Gaucho Burger!
- Miramar – a gorgeous spot – lies across the Condado Lagoon where you can go kayaking in if you like. It is actually full of things to do including shopping and many family activities as well.
- Isla Verde is the closest area to airport, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an airport location! It is an absolutely gorgeous beach and one of the most beautiful urban beaches in the Caribbean. Here you can also find the historical Fairmont El San Juan Hotel that features an amazing lobby bar.
- New Distrito District: This new site is a five-acre all-in-one hospitality and entertainment district that’s located between Condado and Old San Juan. It features hotels, zip lines, movie theaters, restaurants and bars as well as live performances – all in a convenient location that promises to be tons of fun!
- East Region of Puerto Rico: If you are into eco-tourism this is an eco-tourism haven as well as home to amazing adventures! The El Yunque Rainforest can be found here and is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest Service! It’s beauty must be seen to be believed and among its many treasures are waterfalls, trails, a unique species of parrot and the tiniest orchid – you need to use a magnifying glass to see it – that lives underneath leaves!
- Southern Region: This region is home to Ponce which is the second largest city in Puerto Rico. There is a lot of architecture and history to be found here including Parque de Bombas – a historic former fire station. It is a newer city – developed in the 19th century
when the French were running away from Haiti and the Spanish crown let anyone who was Catholic and wanted to invest stay. And along with them came their culture and architecture and most importantly – their coffee! In fact, there are many coffee haciendas around where you have the opportunity take a tour and to taste the delicious coffee. Side Note: Francisco suggests you definitely rent a car and drive the beautiful highway that crosses over the Central Mountains to get here – as the view coming over the mountains into the region is of the Caribbean Sea and is awe inspiring.
- West Region: Known as the Surfing Capital of Puerto Rico this area is much more relaxed and not so city like. It is definitely more beach like – with incredible beaches including Maria’s Beach – and a surfer vibe. You can also find excellent street food here along with some of most beautiful sunsets you will ever see! And I highly suggest a great inn on the beach in Rincon – featuring amazing views and local flavor!
- Central Mountains: The Central Mountains is THE place for great adventures – specifically the Toro Verde Adventure Park which is similar to parks in the Continental US – but completely focused on nature. The two biggest zip lines in the world can be found here – the Beast and the Monster and they are just totally exhilarating – it’s like you’re actually flying! The park also has hanging bridges and mountain trekking for more adventure or you can just sit in a restaurant and relax. There are coffee haciendas to be found here too – just imagine seeing them picking and harvesting and drying and roasting the coffee beans before your eyes! The end result is great organic, fresh coffee – some of the best coffee on the island! And if you choose you can stay at one of the haciendas for a night or two.
- North Region: This region has a different flavor and is definitely for explorers! You’ll find a lot of caves – actually a network of caves and underground rivers housing engravings and petroglyphs to be discovered. This is also where you will find Cueva Ventana or the Window Cave – which opens up high in the mountain and overlooks the scenic valley. On the North Region some parts of the coast have rocky formations that make natural pools – such as Mar Chiquita – which is a natural pool beach. They also have beautiful long beaches lined with coconut trees. And in Arecibo you can visit the magnificent Arecibo Observatory and radio telescope – it’s the largest radio telescope in the western hemisphere and has been featured in many movies.
Culture: For a small island Puerto Rico has a wide array of culture to offer its visitors. And you all know what that means – say it with me – travel as a living classroom!
From music to festivals to celebrations – 400 years of Spanish culture that lived there and developed traditions that are continued in present day. For instance – every town has their own patron saint and they each also have a festival honoring that saint. Did I mention there are a lot of festivals? And then there is the dancing – from the salsa to the bomba to the plena – which is African rooted – all of these dances along with the music and sounds make it an incredibly fun experience. Now do you see why I said to pack your dancing shoes? Whatever you do – don’t forget your dancing shoes!
Then there is it’s Pre-Columbian Culture. Being that Puerto Rico was so fertile and rich in resources the Taíno people – an indigenous tribe – chose to settle here. The Taíno Indians were actually still there when Columbus arrived. Not only can you find artifacts and engravings from them – but you can also find a lot of things that pre-date them – thus there are plenty of archeological sites and museums that are worth visiting to learn more about pre-Taíno and the Taíno native Puerto Ricans.
Gastronomy: There are more than 4000 restaurants in Puerto Rico so it’s safe to say you won’t go hungry! In fact – you’ll find all kinds of delicacies – and they want you to. That’s why you won’t find All-Inclusive properties here – they want you to get out and explore what they have to offer.
In fact – Culinary Adventures are plentiful here! There are even special roads – such as the
Pork Highway – where you will find one after another pork specialty restaurant lined up and people sampling each of them along the way! And just tasting all of the flavorful, marvelous foods is an adventure in itself – from churros to surullitos to empanadillas to arepas to alcapurrias and pionones there is a huge variety, and it is all so very delicious! Oh, and I can’t forget the pasteles which are made with a dough that is created from plantains then wrapped in banana leaves and filled with all kinds of meats and spices – yummy! And one more – mofongo. Mofongo is a staple in Puerto Rico and has become a major delicacy as now they’ll mix it with seafood or chicken or pork – your choice – making it right at your table and seasoning it however you want! If you haven’t had mofongo you are missing you!
The fertility of the island has paved the way for the farm to table concept to take root in Puerto Rico. So much so that as per Francisco – eating organic is a way of life – it’s there, it’s what they expect and they know nothing else. Some of the history of the food available includes the Taíno people bringing the Yuca Root which is a staple for many dishes to this day. In addition, when the Spaniards arrived they brought crops they gathered from other areas the visited including plantains, bananas and banana leaves – all of which play a strong part in the combinations of what existed before mixed with what the Spaniards brought.
Puerto Rico also boasts of its many celebrity chefs. As Francisco explained many of their chefs left the island and travelled to Europe and the US where they worked in fantastic restaurants – many of them Michelin-starred restaurants. When they returned to Puerto Rico, they would open up their own restaurants – taking the original food that is there and giving it their own signature taste – resulting in an abundance of new varieties and recreations of original dishes.
Accommodations: Puerto Rico offers all of the hotel brands you are accustomed to, but they also have Paradores. Paradores are small bed and breakfasts or small inns – think mom and pop type hotels. I always recommend that you stay at one of these properties in order to have a complete cultural immersion and experience the amazing local culture. Francisco also gave us the background on Paradores. The concept was brought to Puerto Rico by a tourism company about fifty years ago and the rule is they must be family run and those families must be Puerto Rican families as the idea was to develop the island AND allow the locals to deliver their hospitality to visitors.
Updated COVID-19 Information:
- As of December 22nd, 2021, those attending mass events (both indoors and outdoors taking place at theaters, amphitheaters, coliseums, stadiums, and convention centers) will be required to present proof of vaccination with an FDA or WHO-approved vaccine and also a negative COVID test taken in the 48 hours prior to the event.
- As of December 27th, 2021, all establishments serving food or drinks must require proof of vaccination or a negative test taken 48 hours prior to arrival.
- As of December 27th, 2021, all passengers arriving on domestic flights are required to show a negative test result taken within 48 hours before arrival time, regardless of vaccination status. Passengers arriving without a test will have 48 hours to take one upon arrival or be subject to a fine. Unvaccinated travelers must quarantine for 7 days after arriving, regardless of whether they have a negative test result.
- Until January 31st, 2022, those between 5 and 11 years old will be allowed to attend large indoor events by providing negative COVID-19 test results taken no more than 48 hours prior to the event. Starting February 1, 2022, this age range will be subject to the same guidelines as adults, requiring proof of vaccination and negative test results taken within 48 hours prior to the event upon entry. Children under 5 years of age will not be allowed to attend large-scale events, even with negative results, except when permitted by the Department of Health.
In case you thought it might be – I have to point out now that Puerto Rico is NOT just a pre or post cruise destination. It is so, so much more and if I am being honest, I recommend one and a half to two weeks to drive around this amazing island and see all of its nooks and crannies.
For more details on things to see and do, where to stay in Puerto Rico, it’s price and more – contact your Travel Guru! Oh, and if you need a payment plan to fund your travel adventure – we got those too!