Puerto Rico is an island nation located in the heart of the Caribbean. The country is administered by the United States and consists of flavours of both the US and its Spanish colonial past. With a casual island vibe and stunning scenery, it makes a delectable travel destination with paradise-like beaches and pretty built up areas. After falling in love with the place, here are 15 of my favourite beautiful places to visit in Puerto Rico…
How to get to Puerto Rico
There are many ways to get to Puerto Rico with many with two international airports in Puerto Rico that offer flights to and from major cities in the United States, international destinations and other Caribbean islands. Also consider taking a cruise to Puerto Rico as there are a variety of different cruise lines which make stops in San Juan.
The Old Town of San Juan
Viejo San Juan aka Old San Juan lies at the very tip of the eponymous peninsula. The strip of land spreading between the deep waters of San Juan Bay and the open sea harboured the country’s first capital. The entire Old Town is rife with houses and structures of the XVI-XVII centuries. Today, the old quarters form the National Historic Landmark District and the main tourist sight. Old San Juan, just like an open-air museum, has collected buildings of the Spanish colonial era, many of which are considered the best-preserved examples of this style in the western hemisphere. The stone fortification walls stretch across the northern side of Viejo San Juan. Together with forts, they constituted a powerful defensive system designed to protect the town from corsairs’ attacks. At present, only the walls of La Muralla along with the ramparts of El Morro and Castillo San Cristobal remain intact but this is enough to assess the former greatness of this fortress.
Puerto Mosquito Bioluminescent Bay
Puerto Mosquito (Mosquito Bay) is situated on the southern shore of Isla de Vieques. It was officially declared the brightest bioluminescent bay by the Guinness World Records in 2008. Besides being the most glaring, it is also the biggest among its peers. The gorgeous Puerto Rico attraction contains up to 160,000 dinoflagellate algae per litre of water. While moving, these microscopic organisms emit blue-green light. There are other bioluminescent bays around the island but Mosquito Bay is the most prominent. The shallow entry into the bay prevents dilution of dinoflagellates while decomposing mangrove trees provide rich food for the microorganisms. Don’t miss your chance to drop by the stunning Puerto Mosquito while visiting Puerto Rico because you won’t be able to forget this magical natural wonder for a lifetime.
Puerto Rico surely doesn’t suffer from a shortage of beaches. In fact, you can find a stretch of coast satisfying every taste – with white and black sand, tranquil waters or raging waves, for family holidays or for outdoor enthusiasts. Playa Retollo has its zest too. Located in Manati, it remains a hidden (and undiscovered) gem for most tourists. On the other hand, it attracts those who enjoy solitary recreation and nudists. You’ll have to hike a bit to get to the spot but the beauty that awaits you is definitely worth it. The crescent shape, clear water, small bizarre cliffs protruding from the water, the mix of salt and freshwater (a small river flows into the bay) and lack of tourists make this beach special. The sand is incredibly clean despite no trash bins around.
El Yunque National Forest
The oldest reserve in the Western Hemisphere can be found 40 km from San Juan. This kingdom of pristine nature covers an area of 28,900 acres, which is divided into four areas. The Tabonuco is a dense forest with tall trees. Because of the thick crown, the sunlight barely penetrates the lower forest level. The Palo Colorado forest grows on gentle slopes and in valleys with swampy soil. The Sierra Palm Forest is represented by stunted trees growing on steep slopes at an altitude of about 450 meters above sea level. The fourth area, Dwarf Forest, features dwarf trees growing at 900 meters above sea level. This site is almost always shrouded in mist, due to which it is often called the elven forest. El Yunque’s landscape is diverse; it alternates rocks, valleys, waterfalls, and mountain streams. Due to the diversity of flora and fauna that inhabit its territory, the national forest received the status of a biosphere reserve and is protected by the United Nations.
Easily one of the most beautiful places to visti in Puerto Rico, this stunning beach is a must-see! 35 km east of Puerto Rico lies the small island of Culebra, which, together with Vieques Island constitutes the so-called Spanish Virgin Islands. The island accommodates about 2,000 people and you will not find any remarkable nightclubs or resorts there. That said, Culebra is a paradise for water sports enthusiasts, although the tourism infrastructure is still developing. One of the main points of attraction is the snow-white sand of Flamenco Beach on the north coast. It lures not only with its turquoise waters ideal for swimming and diving, but also with original landmarks – several tanks abandoned by the US military in the 1970s. Painted in bright patterns, these rusting giants have become original art objects.
Vieques National Wildlife Refuge
The Vieques National Wildlife Refuge, recognized as one of the best wildlife refuges within the entire Refuge System, is located on the second largest island in Puerto Rico. In the past, the reserve has been occupied by the US military that has used it as a storage facility and firing range. Today, Vieques National Wildlife Refuge is 18,000 acres of protected confines framed by beautiful beaches. It is noteworthy that the northern shores of the island facing the Atlantic are rocky, while the southern, Caribbean, are gently sloping and sandy. The southern edge of the island hosts beaches that are cherished by the locals and tourists alike – Playa Caracas, Secret Beach, Playa La Chiva, Playa Escondida, and many others. The world-famous Puerto Mosquito Bay abuts the southwest border of the Refuge.
Fajardo is a small town located in the northeast of Puerto Rico. A chain of mountain rivers and small yet picturesque hills smeared with mangrove surround it on three sides. The town has a fortified port and one of the most luxurious resorts in the country, El Conquistador. Despite its tiny size, more than forty beaches are arranged in and around the city. Almost all of them are fenced off from the ocean by coral reefs and rocks, so you won’t come across sharks or other dangerous marine inhabitants there. The local beaches are an excellent spot to meet beautiful sunrises lighting up over the Caribbean Sea. Perhaps, the most fascinating attraction of Fajardo is the Laguna Grande, one of the biggest bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico.
Parque Nacional Balneario Seven Seas
Seven Seas is a cosy crescent-shaped beach in Fajardo that adjoins balneario of the same name. The balneario is famous for its camping grounds. It has all the amenities required for a tranquil vacation – bathrooms, showers, barbecue facilities, as well as a lifeguard. The beach boasts calm and crystal clear water safe to swim and practice snorkelling. The soft white sand, almond trees and palms providing ample shade are favourable to a relaxing and peaceful pastime. Spend a few hours by the ocean, fill your lungs with fresh salty air, enjoy the beautiful views of green hills or try to make out a lighthouse in the distance. The beach received a prestigious Blue Flag status that ensures good water quality, safety, and service.
La Parguera Nature Reserve
The west coast of the Porta del Sol Island houses a small nature reserve La Parguera. It doesn’t boast an impressive size but it is among the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the country. The reserve takes pride in well-developed coral reefs, which became a playground for dolphins, manatees, turtles, and a variety of small tropical fish. Not only that, but La Parguera is known for two bioluminescent bays. Unfortunately, due to pollution, their glow is not as bright as it used to be. Nevertheless, luminous water still causes adoration and delight among tourists. In the daytime, you can go diving, snorkelling, kayaking, or hiking along the mangrove forests and salt marshes.
Playa Mar Chiquita
Mar Chiquita, or the Small Sea, is a neat horseshoe-shaped stretch of coast 40 kilometres west of San Juan. The beach is far from perfect for swimming – it is subject to significant ebb tides, strong currents can carry swimmers into the open ocean, and the bottom of the bay is dotted with underwater cliffs, which makes swimming dangerous even during the calmer summer months. Nevertheless, the spot is not deprived of attention because of the extraordinary view. It hides behind a rocky wall in a small cove, protected from the rough waters of the Atlantic. The wall was partially destroyed by the waves creating a passage of 25 meters. The water poured through the opening and formed a picturesque cove. The swelling in the cove often has a considerable height echoing powerful ocean currents. Tourists gasp for breath admiring mighty waves crashing on the rocks with rumble, spray, and foam.
Rio Camuy Caves
The Camuy River Cave Park, which is located in the north-east of the country, protects 268 acres of underground galleries and tunnels. This is the third largest karst area in the world. Thanks to the unique surreal limestone formations and a large number of various caves, the Rio Camuy Park has become an enchanting speleological centre. About 200 caves have been discovered in this region, many of which boast an impressive internal volume. The local Camuy River is one of the largest underground rivers in the world. Daredevils and thrill-seekers can go down the rope to the Cathedral Cave, dive into the so-called wells or raft down the Camuy River underground channel.
Ponce, the second largest city of Puerto Rico, has been known as a port since the end of the 17th century. It lies on the southern coast of the country, between the Central Cordillera Mountains and the coast of the Caribbean Sea. The city, often called La Perla del Sul (the pearl of the south) was founded by Spanish settlers in 1692. Nowadays, the central part of the city is recognized as a national treasure. The historical quarter is dotted with squares, churches, beautifully decorated old houses, and magnificent fountains of the colonial period. Here is located one of the oldest fire stations in the world. When visiting Ponce, be sure to stop by the cathedral de la Guadalupe, a small colonial-style park De Bombas, the Ponce Historical Museum, and the excellent Ponce Museum of Art, considered one of the best in the Caribbean.
Located in the Mona Passage, a small uninhabited Desecheo Island houses a National Wildlife Refuge and Marine reserve. The refuge conducts observations and studies of numerous species of seabirds, three endemic species of lizards, and rhesus monkeys introduced here in the late 1960s. The refuge itself is closed to the public but the coastal waters are a real temptation for diving enthusiasts. Fascinating stretches of coral reefs and unbelievably clear water (visibility reaches amazing 50 meters) are the merits that make the island popular among divers and anglers.
Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge
Established in 1974, Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge occupies more than 1836 acres on the peninsula of the same name in the south-western part of Puerto Rico. The highlight of this place is Salt Flats, i.e. lakes used to extract salt. Due to the agricultural past, most of the original species of plants have not survived. Now the reserve is covered with stile-leaved shrubs, mangrove marshes, and trees creeping in the wind. The main magnet of the wildlife refuge is birds. Some of the species stay here only during the winter months but most of the feathered inhabitants live here year-round. The Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge is a haven for doves, pigeons, and the rare yellow-shouldered blackbird.
La Cueva Ventana
La Cueva Ventana or “Window Cave” can be found near the town of Arecibo in the North of Puerto Rico. The cave is less popular among tourists than Rio Camuy Caves but it is rightfully in the top-10 of the most beautiful caves in the world. One of the cave’s entrances is located atop a limestone cliff and resembles a giant window. This ‘hole in the wall’ lends a breathtaking view of the Río Grande de Arecibo valley. You can visit the cave on your own by paying a small entrance fee or with a guide. Alternatively, you are able to join an excursion with biologists who will tell about the cave’s inhabitants including insects, bats, and snakes.