About 4 months ago, I read a book about a woman who upon being told she had cancer, decided to spend her last few days in Puerto Rico (for no specific reason except that she did not require a passport to get to PR from the US). While the book was quite an average read, a part of it stayed with me. The main character was wooed by a pilot who flew her on a 10-minute flight from Puerto Rico to Vieques on a date, to show her the magical bioluminescent bay. The woman in the book was wooed – and so was I. Fifteen minutes later I was on the internet researching about this bioluminescent bay. 20 minutes later I was on Kayak.com, checking flight rates. 30 minutes later I was plotting a plan to convince KD, my husband, on how this trip would be worth it and wouldn’t pinch our pockets. As usual, I was so right!
For a large part of the world (Asia in particular), the Caribbeans seem largely inaccessible- understandably so, with 20+ hour expensive flights with multiple stop-overs. But we would highly recommend anyone visiting the US East Coast, to consider taking 3-4 days off and visiting one of the Caribbean islands, like Puerto Rico. Return tickets from New York/Washington DC should be in the range of $250, and from Florida should be in the range of $100, a perfect getaway for a long weekend. If you enter San Juan from the US, its literally as if you are flying domestic, with no immigration, passport check etc on the port of arrival.
2 Minute Trip Planner
- Ideal Time: 4-5 Days
- Don’t Miss:
- Cocinita: Puerto Rican liquor (largely Coconut flavored Rum)
- Organic Fruit Sangrias (highly recommend the Guava Sangria!)
- Mofongo: Main Puerto Rican Dish ( we tried the veggie one at La Vista Punto, Old San Juan and it was quite nice)
- Acai Bowls (made from the fresh fruit and not from the syrup) available at almost all smoothie shops across PR
- Star Gazing and Bio-luminescent bay at Vieques (ditch Fajardo! – Vieques is worth the effort)
- Watch Leatherback Turtle nesting/hatching (May-July) (Walk into beach facing hotels, and ask the people at the reception them to inform you if a turtle comes to nest or if the eggs hatch – free of cost and most big hotels will inform you immaterial of whether you are staying with them or not. Else if you see a turtle nesting site cordoned off at the beach, call the number mentioned on the small notices/pamphlets attach, and request them to inform you of the nesting/hatching. A Leatherback turtle can be 6-8ft long!! Its an amazing experience by timelines are governed by mother nature 🙂 )
- Crystal clear Caribbean waters and snorkeling/scuba-diving to see live corals (We have never seen COLORFUL corals anywhere else)
- GENERAL TIPS
- Choose one base at Puerto Rico (preferably Condando/Old San Juan) and stick to it. Don’t change your base as you travel east/west of the island as all points are reachable from Old San Juan within 1-1.5 hours by car
- VEGAN TIPS
- PR has no dearth of eating outlets that serve vegan options.
- Verde Mesa, Old San Juan- Easily the best place we ate at in San Juan- do visit, irrespective of whether you are vegan or not
- Degree 18, El Yunque- Amazing smoothies and smoothie bowls. Their acai bowls and smoothie bowls are among the best we’ve tasted!
- You’ll be amazed at:
- The warm temperatures of the Caribbean Waters
- The dirt cheap car rentals (14$ a day!)
- Being able to see Jupiter and Saturn and identify a satellite from among a zillion stars at Vieques
- The magical Bio-bay!
- Trip Cost for 2 (including Airfare):
- ~750$ without the Trip to Vieques or Culebra
- ~1100$ with Trip to Vieques and Culebra
Day 1: Condando Beach
We set up base at an Airbnb at Condando Area. Condando Area is big and the parts near Condando Plaza, while having lots of places to stay, can be fairly crowded. If you are planning a short trip and do not have the time to explore PR’s secluded hidden gems, I would recommend entering the Condando Beach through Calle Loiza/ Calle Taft. This huge stretch is fairly secluded, very clean and has something for everyone (with one end being perfect for surfers and the other being great for people who prefer the ocean in its calmer mood). Additionally, some of the best eateries in Puerto Rico are in Calle Loiza with a pint of beer costing 1$ during happy hours (typically until 8:00 pm).
Day 2 First Half: Old San Juan
Think colorful narrow streets, touristy shops, reggaeton music, rum cocktails and pebbled streets..that’s Old San Juan for you. This is a DAY place, and pretty much all shops are shut by evening 7-8 pm, except for few restaurants and Salsa clubs (lots of fun, but mostly on Friday and Saturday nights).
We recommend eating at Verde Mesa (@verdemesa), for authentic Puerto Rican/French fusion cuisine for a lip-smacking meal.
Parking was raised as a major concern during my travel research and a lot of forums advised using the public bus to arrive at Old San Juan and the free trolley to travel within. However, if you are ready to shell out 1$ an hour, there is abundant parking available in designated parking lots which are barely a 0.1-mile walk from the main market. The trolley is infrequent and Old San Juan is best explored on foot. Try coming here at least twice during your stay to try out the amazing restaurants and cafes. Do visit the Spanish Fort for some breathtaking views and amazing pictures.
Day 2 Second Half: Vieques
Vieques was the highlight of our trip. A small island with less than 12,000 people, no traffic lights, freely roaming beautiful horses, and almost zero light pollution! Kayaking in the Mosquito Bioluminescent Bay was a surreal experience. Even with a GoPro Hero 5, we weren’t able to capture the experience, but it’s quite like what you see here.
Tip: Do not purchase mosquito repellent creams prior to the visit- most likely your tour will provide you a biodegradable au-natural cream that won’t damage the marine life if washed off. Ours provided it free of cost.
Equally enthralling was the star-gazing at Vieques. Even from the Himalayas, we had not seen a sky that looked as spectacular as it did at Vieques (of course, the bay is 99.9% light pollution free). The guide helps you identify planets like Jupiter and Saturn and various zodiac signs (if your birthday is around the time you visit). KD couldn’t get over the fact that he could identify an actual moving man-made satellite from a star! 🙂
The journey to and fro Vieques is no mean feat. The cheapest but the most stressful way is to take a ferry from Fajardo, which requires you to wait in early morning queues for 2-3 hours and tow your luggage to stay overnight at Vieques. Since we had no plans of staying overnight, we booked a day trip from Puerto Rico Desk, apparently, the ONLY company that will arrange the Bio Bay tour from your hotel and get you back to your hotel in San Juan the same night (pick up from Condando at 4:30pm and drop back by around 12:30am). Priced at $194 per person, while this may seem expensive at first, it was totally worth it and below opportunity cost shows why traveling via the ferry is not as inexpensive as it initially seems:
- $8: To and from cost from ferry
- $28: Car rental for 2 days to travel from San Juan to Fajardo
- $10: Car parking fee
- $60: Average cost p.p. to visit the Bio Bay from Vieques itself
- $15: Average cost of meal p.p. which is covered in the above tour
- $15-$20: Average cost of beverages which are unlimited on the above tour
- $14: Additional car rental at Vieques
Apx. 125$ per person to go via the ferry. Most importantly, if you are visiting on an extended 3 day weekend- the ferry can waste a LOT of time. The way we planned the travel, we had the entire first half of the day to us (until 4:30 pm), which we utilized in visiting Old San Juan.
Another option to travel to Vieques is via the small (and uber cute) planes, but despite searching for tickets 2-3 weeks in advance, they were expensive (120$ p.p. per side).
Day 3: El Yunque and Lo Quillo Beach
El Yunque rainforest is towards the east side of Puerto Rico, near Fajardo. If you do not want to spend 10$ extra per day for activating the ‘TOLL’ fees on your car rental, simply spend 5-7 minutes extra on road by selecting the ‘AVOID TOLL’ option on your Google maps. Once you enter the rainforest by car, drive straight to La Mina Falls, the most popular falls here. From the parking area, it’s a 30-minute trek each side- and a fairly easy one at that. The falls are great fun as is the rich variety of fauna. If you have the energy, hike to the top for another breathtaking view of the island.
El Yunque is best explored in the winters when there are no clouds and you can almost see the entire island from up above. Tour guides promise access to more secluded waterfalls- we went for the cheaper option and asked the local guards about some of the lesser known waterfalls. You may want to consider a tour guide if planning to visit on a weekend when La- Mina falls can be fairly crowded. There is no place to change so do wear your swimwear beneath your clothes. On the trip back from El Yunque, do stop at Degree 18 Juice Bar and try one of their smoothie bowls or the acai bowl, and try the local Cocinita and my favorite- Guava Sangria from the shop bang opposite Degree 18 Juice Bar
About a mile or so from El Yunque is the Lo Quillo Beach. This is the beach most locals head to, and hence is a great place to go to if you are traveling with kids. A bunch of local kids playing in the water, having a fun time on the beach, family barbecues, and music!
Day 4: Culebra and Flamenco Beach [Spanish Virgin Islands]
Parched throats, wetsuits, uncomfortable masks and fins – snorkeling and scuba diving are understandably not everyone’s idea of entertainment. We have snorkeled/ scuba dived in all the oceans of the world and our best experience has been at Puerto Rico. It is the only place where we spotted live colorful corals!
We snorkeled in Culebra, on-route to Flamingo beach. A key factor that made our snorkeling experience so amazing was that we have only 13 people on board with us. So when booking your trip (here or anywhere else in the world), check the number of people and the size of the boat, else it is not hard to mistake a fellow snorkeler’s fins for fish ;). We booked a tour through Sail Getaways as they had a much smaller boat that could accommodate not more than 25 people at a time
We spent the rest of the tour at Flamingo – touted as one of the Top 10 beaches in the world. The sand here is so fine that we were advised not to spread our towels on the beach as washing the sand off would be a herculean task. Honestly, we thought the beach was overrated. It was beautiful, yes, but a Top 5 beach..not sure?
Day 5: Condando Beach and Old San Juan
We relaxed on the last day spending the morning at the beach, the afternoon at Old San Juan and left for the US back in the evening.
Puerto Rico to us is synonymous with color! From the bright hues of the San Juan streets to the crystal blue waters…
Puerto Rico is a place you won’t regret visiting! Drop in a mail to your manager now for a day’s leave on the next long weekend and fly to Puerto Rico!!
Check out our Tableau-powered Itinerary below: