Last week, I told you about my trip back to Puerto Rico after years since my last visit – and shared the story of boricua female entrepreneurs who are pushing for a sustainable tourism industry.
In this second part, I share five places and experiences that I recommend you add to your Puerto Rico itinerary.
1. Old San Juan: Exploring through food and history
With its colonial architecture, historical sights and narrow cobblestoned streets, it’s not surprising that Old San Juan steals the attention of most visitors who come to Puerto Rico.
The question, then, isn’t whether to see Old San Juan but how to best see it right now.
The answer is by hopping on a three-hour morning food walk with Spoon Food Tours, making your way around the neighborhood’s wide variety of restaurants and coffee shops. Eat, see historical sights and monuments, eat, walk it off and repeat.
2. Santurce, San Juan: La Terraza de Bonanza
If you only remember one detail from this post, make it this one: plan your trip so that you’re in San Juan on a Monday night. At around 9pm, hop in your rental car or in an Uber and head to La Terraza de Bonanza in Santurce – a neighborhood in San Juan – for the most memorable night you’ll have on la isla.
This rustic outdoor bar and restaurant has a stage where over 10 musicians gather to perform live bomba or plena music and dance every Monday night. Check out this clip, showing the night of plena I got to experience. When it’s bomba nights, it’s even more entertaining as the audience gets to participate on stage and show off their bomba moves.
From a balanced mixed tourist and local crowd to the music and the unity I felt among strangers – it’s the best street party in the Caribbean I’ve experienced in the last 13 years. I’d say it’s closely followed by the Sunday night live salsa-son-merengue nights in Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone, and the gwo ka performances in Pointe-a-Pitre on Saturday market day.
I left that night thinking: imagine if we had weekly Afro-Caribbean live music nights of this magnitude in each Caribbean destination, showcasing that country or island’s African heritage?
3. El Yunque with Puerto Rico Tour Desk
No website you browse about El Yunque National Rainforest will prepare you for this breathtaking protected area.
Two years after being battered and shut down by Hurricane Maria, El Yunque is open in limited parts while recovery continues. This means there are more people concentrated in similar areas of the forest, but it is still a worthwhile visit to hike the only rainforest in the United States, to learn about its importance to the island’s biodiversity and to bask in its stunning landscape.
There are several tour operators offering half or full day excursions to El Yunque, as you’ll notice once you start your online search. I found it difficult to discern among them, until a friend recommended locally-owned Puerto Rico Tour Desk.
It was the perfect choice – our group was small, and our guide Frankie shared interesting pre- and post-Maria facts about Puerto Rico along the way. Our stops included the Yokahu Tower observation point – an easy climb for panoramic views over the forest – a 20-minute river dip, and a quick photo op at La Coca Falls.
After a typical local rice and beans lunch at a roadside restaurant (at our own cost), the afternoon ended at beautiful Luquillo Beach for piña coladas at one of its many kiosks and a swim.
4. Vieques and Finca Victoria
Aah, Vieques. It stole my heart from the moment our ferry docked and I spotted an uncrowded, part rustic and part lush island from the boat.
I don’t know which I fell in love with more – my cabin and the zen grounds at the new “casa botanica” Finca Victoria or driving around the island and hiking my way to remote, undeveloped beaches or protected bays.
All of it was bliss.
On my last night, I went on a glass-bottom kayak trip on Vieques’ bioluminescent lagoon. I’ll never forget seeing the tiny fluorescent particles flashing beneath me while my kayak partner and I were gliding under a dark sky. Vieques is pure magic.
5. COPI and Loiza, Piñones
In my mind, Loiza’s community center and non profit organization Corporacion Piñones se Integra – located at the mouth of this Afro-Puerto Rican town – is one of the best things that’s happening in all of Puerto Rico today.
Since 2001, COPI has been reviving Afro-Puerto Rican history, pride and identity through music and dance – all thanks to their own grassroots efforts and the support of visitors, fans and communities of Puerto Ricans.
Today, their hard work has paid off as they’re increasingly more visible and it’s wonderful to see. The energy you’ll experience inside COPI, whether you’re there for a bomba or drumming workshop or not, is priceless.
You can also rent a bike, and hit the road to stop at one or more of the numerous roadside cook shops serving Afro-Puerto Rican frituras. For the best mofongo in town, made from sweet plantain – some even say in Puerto Rico – go to Mi Casita.
Bonus tip: The tastiest mofongo I had was at the rooftop terrace restaurant Punto de Vista, inside Hotel Milano in Old San Juan; get there early to get a table first-come first-served, or stay at the hotel like I did and you’ll have unrestricted access to the restaurant.
In San Juan, Uber saved the day – getting around was easy and affordable, including to Loiza and back.
The ferry to Vieques and Culebra departs from Ceiba – it’s an hour and a half drive from San Juan, costing approximately $75 one-way via Uber if you’re not renting a car. Once there, you purchase your tickets at the booth. Demand is higher for Culebra than Vieques so plan accordingly, especially for holidays.
Have you visited Puerto Rico recently or planning to?
My trip to Puerto Rico was independently planned and funded for the most part. Sincere thanks to Spoon Food Tours, The Dreamcatcher, Finca Victoria, PR Tour Desk and COPI for their support and time.