The first time I visited the enchanted island of Puerto Rico (la isla del encanto) was in 2004 with my then girlfriend, who would later become my fiancee, and eventually my wife. I wasn’t sure what to expect, beaches and blue water I guess. I didn’t give much thought to what the people would be like, other than my wife’s family, that majority of whom I had yet to meet.

Since that initial trip I’ve been back to Puerto Rico at least a dozen times. From its lush beaches to its mountainous interior, rain forest, and Spanish/Caribbean heritage, there is much to see and appreciate in this unincorporated United States territory. Here are my top things to do in Puerto Rico.

Head to the beach.  The below photo was taken on the 4th of July at Playa Puerto Nuevo (New Port Beach) in the town of Vega Baja along the north coast. As a US territory, our independence day is a national holiday in Puerto Rico as well.

 

Playa Puerto Nuevo, Vega Baja, Puerto Rico

Beach culture is alive and well throughout Puerto Rico.

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On busy beach days, even finding room to throw down a towel can be a difficult task.

Visit the island of Culebra. One place I try to make it back to every couple of years or so is the island of Culebra, which is 17 miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland. There are two options for getting there: by ferry or by plane.

The government owned/run ferries have lots of issues. You need to be very flexible with your plans if you intend to use the ferry system, as things can change quickly due to weather or maintenance issues. On the plus side it's cheap, about $5 round trip.

The government owned/run ferries have lots of issues. You need to be very flexible with your plans if you intend to use the ferry system, as things can change quickly due to weather or maintenance issues. On the plus side it’s cheap, about $5 round trip.

 

Flying to and from Culebra via San Juan is usually the most hassle free option. You can go gate to gate in just 30 minutes.

 

In this case, the term gate is relative…

 

 

 

 

Playa Flamenco.

Culebra is rich in beaches, and its most well known is Flamenco, which is consistently ranked as one of the 10 best in the world.

 

Playa Carlos Rosario is a 20-minute hike from the Playa Flamenco parking lot. To get there you first have to pass through this gate, which warns of unexploded bombs along the trail. The island was used a bombing practice site for the US Navy between 1939-1975.

Playa Carlos Rosario is a 20-minute hike from the Playa Flamenco parking lot. To get there you first have to pass through this gate, which warns of unexploded bombs along the trail. The island was used a bombing practice site for the US Navy between 1939-1975.

Playa Carlos Rosario

Those daring enough to make the trek are rewarded by this pristine view and clear waters.

 

There is plenty of marine life in the waters of Culebra, including carey, otherwise known as hawks billed sea turtles. I saw this little guy at Playa Carlos Rosario. He had plenty of friends and family around.

 

Eat lots of fried kiosk food. Puerto Rico is full of kiosks – little, open air restaurants which mostly look a bit shabby, but are great for folks who don’t want to lug a bunch of refreshments or a picnic lunch to the beach.  Those visiting Puerto Rico for the first time may not recognize much of what you’ll find on a typical kiosk menu. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Bacalaitos – these codfish fritters are ubiquitous not only to Puerto Rico, but throughout the Latin world. They’re a staple food at many a kioskito, and are a delicious, crispy and salty treat.
  • Tacos – tacos in Puerto Rico and tacos in Mexico (and tacos at Taco Bell, for that matter), are very different foods. On the island, they’re oblong flour tortillas stuffed with beef, chicken, crab, shrimp or other seafood, rolled into a kind of wrap and deep fried.
  • Alcapurrias –  typically filled with gound beef, these fried fritters are made from a mixture of grated yuca and green bananas. 
  • Pastelillos – the Puerto Rican version of a Mexican empananada, they’re essentially a turnover with a flaky crust and some sort of filling. And of course they are deep fried.
No travel article would be complete without a nod to the local food. Here we have typical fried beach fare.

No travel article would be complete without a nod to the local food. Here we have typical fried beach fare, including, left to right a papa rellena (stuffed potato), an alcapurria and a pastelillo de marlin.

El Fogon - a typical Puerto Rican kiosko.

El Fogon – a typical Puerto Rican kiosko.

Visit El Yunque. Covering 28,000 acres, and receiving more than 200 inches of rain per year, the El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rain forest in the US Forest System. Noted for its biodiversity, the forest is home to more than 400 different plant species, is a must visit if you’re staying anywhere near the San Juan area.

The northern coast of Puerto Rico, as seen from El Yunque in the island's center.

The northern coast of Puerto Rico, as seen from El Yunque in the island’s center.

Looking northeast toward Fajardo from El Yunque.

Looking northeast toward Fajardo from El Yunque.

Visit old San Juan. As with El Yunque, no trip to Puerto Rico would be complete without a trip to historic Old San Juan. Geographically and culturally distinct from the rest of the city, this eight by ten block district is a prime tourist destination filled with art galleries, restaurants, and night life.

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The Spanish colonial architecture of historic Old San Juan.

A veranda in Old San Juan.

A veranda in Old San Juan.

Located on the northwestern point of Old San Juan is Castillo San Felipe del Morro. The fortification, also referred to as el Morro or ‘the promontory”, was built to guard the entrance to the San Juan Bay, and to defend the city from seaborne enemies. Today it’s a World Heritage Site and prime tourist destination.

 

Sunset at El Morro.

Sunset at El Morro.

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Build a sand sculpture. All those beaches come with plenty of fine sand, which is great for making sand sculptures.

The author's wife creates one of her renowned sand sculptures.

The author’s wife creates one of her renowned sand sculptures.

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Puerto Ricans are known for their back sides.

Go golfing. If golf is your thing, you have plenty of options in Puerto Rico.

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The author lines up a put at Punta Borinquen golf course in Aguadilla.

These are just a handful of things to do and see in Puerto Rico, and there are plenty more. Ponce is a wonderful town on the south side of the island that is well worth a visit, Rincon is perhaps the island’s most renowned surf spot, there are the caves of Camuy, and lots, lots more. The most important thing is simply to get out there and experience the island for yourself. Don’t let the intimidation of a foreign language stop you – although Spanish is the primary language spoken on the island, many people speak English. In the end, it’s all an adventure!