Catch your breath on your Puerto Rico road trip at La Mina Falls in El Yunque rainforest. (Photo: Jessica van Dop DeJesus)
Want to experience the “real” Puerto Rico? Rent a car and explore the roads less traveled. Start your journey along the island’s east coast, home to stunning beaches lapped by turquoise waters and lush green rainforest. This stretch of coast is also the gateway to gorgeous outer islands such as Vieques and Culebra.
From San Juan, head east on Route 66 to Route 3. In less than an hour you will find yourself on the east coast of the island. Renting a car in Puerto Rico is easy, with the same requirements as the U.S. mainland. Grab the keys and hit the road to discover new beaches and roadside food stands and chat with locals for recommendations.
Stop 1: El Yunque
El Yunque is a must-visit, ranking as one of the most popular tourist destinations in Puerto Rico and the only rainforest in the U.S. National Forest Service system. From Route 3, drive the winding road PR 181 into the park, where you are immediately engulfed by the lush, green vegetation of the rainforest. There are several hiking trails to choose from, varying in length and difficulty (head to the visitor center at the entrance of the park for detailed maps).
No matter which trail you choose, expect to encounter waterfalls, tropical flora and the sounds of el coqui, a small frog beloved by Puerto Ricans. If you’re feeling adventurous, take the Mount Britton Trail to El Yunque Peak. On a clear day you can see most of the east coast of Puerto Rico.
Stop 2: Luquillo
After working up an appetite hiking El Yunque, head to Luquillo Beach, a 15-minute drive from El Yunque. Luquillo is known for its serene and shallow water, perfect for families. Mountains cloaked in rainforests serve as the backdrop to this sandy beach. While there, indulge in meals sold at the stretch of small stands that dish up everything from classic Puerto Rican roadside cuisine like fried empanadas to sit-down dining. Pro tip: Check out the El Terruno stand and make sure to order the rice with coconut. It’s delicious!
Stop 3: Fajardo
From Luquillo, drive 25 minutes southeast to Fajardo. Most visitors only travel to Fajardo to take the ferry to Puerto Rico’s outer islands, but they are missing out on attractions like Cabezas de San Juan. At this ecologically protected site, you’ll find the Fajardo Lighthouse, which offers spectacular views of coastal waters and surrounding mangroves as well as protected stretches of coral. In order to visit this area, you must book in advance. Para La Naturaleza offers a series of tours, ranging from climbing the lighthouse to kayaking on the bioluminescent bay.
Stop 4: An Outer Island
Several outer islands dot the coastal waters of Puerto Rico. The two most popular are Vieques and Culebra, home to some of the most epic beaches in the Caribbean, like Culebra’s renowned Playa Flamenco. From the port of Fajardo you can board a ferry to either island. Rental cars are not allowed on the ferry, but plan a day trip and leave your vehicle at the Fajardo terminal. Once you arrive on the islands, it’s possible to rent a jeep and reach pristine beaches such as Playa Negra in Vieques. Though a rental offers more flexibility, both islands also offer limited public transport vans that take visitors from the ports to the beaches.
Stop 5: Humacao Nature Reserve
The east coast of Puerto Rico not only offers beaches, but also beautiful nature reserves. For an active stop, head to the Humacao Nature Reserve, a 35-minute drive south from Fajardo. Rent a kayak and take a paddle through the lush mangroves that lead to the ocean. The reserve also offers bike rentals if you’d prefer to explore the trails, which have many interesting stops for bird watching and just observing nature. Keep an eye out for hummingbirds, egrets and orioles buzzing around the mangroves and hibiscus trees.
Stop 6: Inches Beach, Patillas
Inches Beach in the town of Patillas is one of the southernmost points of Puerto Rico’s east coast. This beach is a favorite of surfers thanks to its big waves during hurricane season (June through November) and calm, shallow waters the rest of the year. Hang out at El Marullo Bar and Restaurant, sipping a rum-spiked lemonade and watching the surfers in action.