Culture + Style

Leave No Cobblestone Unturned: Explore Puerto Rico Like a Local

Puerto Rico’s turquoise waters are irresistible to swimmers and anglers alike. (Photo: Alamy)

Small in size but larger than life — that’s Puerto Rico. You’ll soon discover the deep soul and great spirit of this happy, electric, can-do island. Sometimes it’s a sea of green waves and flat-as-a-board blue ocean beyond. At other times, it’s tropical drinks and cobblestone streets as far as the eye can see. Recharge, energize and let Puerto Rico take over your senses.

Shopping

Puerto Rico is a shopper’s delight, with massive centers, fine boutiques and a wealth of unique finds made only in the island. High-end designers and beachwear shops have storefronts in Condado, while Old San Juan is home to wonderful art galleries, shops with hard-to-ignore products and brand names galore. Outlet malls are also scattered throughout the island, including those in the town of Barceloneta and Canóvanas.

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Shop ’til you drop in Old San Juan. (Photo: Alamy)

Another great place to shop is at artisans’ fairs — big and small. Besides the ubiquitous rum and coffee you will definitely be taking home, there are also beautiful handmade decorations, jewelry and carved wooden figurines that can keep your visit to Puerto Rico close to your heart.

Sights and Attractions

You’ll want to manage your time well to take in all the sights on this action-packed island. If you start exploring the San Juan area, you’re in for a treat, as the beachfrontSan Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, the Courtyard Isla Verde Beach Resort, the Courtyard San Juan Miramar and the La Concha Reinassance San Juan Resort are all close to the major sights, including the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. Old San Juan, the island’s crowning jewel, is just a short drive from each of these hotels. This Spanish colonial city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lends itself to all kinds of photo ops. Its popsicle-colored buildings house residents, art galleries, shops and museums — like the Galeria Nacional and the Museo del Niño children’s museum.

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Dig into Puerto Rico’s history at the Castillo. (Photo: Alamy)

In Old San Juan you’ll also spot two of Puerto Rico’s most famous landmarks: the Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal — forts built centuries ago for protection against pirates. Not far is Casa Blanca, where famed explorer and former governor of Puerto Rico Juan Ponce de León once lived. Weave in and out of the cobblestone streets and you’ll find treasures at every turn: the former jail of La Princesa, the 16th-century governor’s mansion known as La Fortaleza, San Juan Gate and the Plazuela de la Rogativa and the cathedral. Every corner reveals something new.

On the western side of the island, near the Courtyard Aguadilla, you’ll find that there’s just as much to take in, but at a slower pace. Because the island is roughly 100 miles long by 35 miles wide, nothing is ever too far. You can easily drive to the Arecibo Observatory’s huge radio telescope and the adjacent museum; or to the city of Ponce, home to the world-class Castillo Serrallés Museum of Art and a firehouse that is more than 100 years old. You can visit San German’s Porta Coeli Church, one of the oldest in the Americas, then go to the Eugenio Maria de Hostos Museum in Mayagüez and end your day with a sunset boat trip off Aguadilla’s Crash Boat Beach.

Dining and Nightlife

You might have heard about Puerto Rico’s outstanding dining. You’ll find all your favorites here, but it’s hard to beat authentic Puerto Rican dishes, or cocina criolla — a heavenly combination of mostly Taíno, Spanish and African influences. From roadside eateries to some of the finest restaurants in the Caribbean, you will find new favorites here, including seafood dishes that will knock your socks off and of course, succulent lechón — spit-roasted pork. You can also sign up for some cooking lessons to learn how to make mofongo — a smashed-plantain bowl of yumminess — a typical mojito or artisanal cheeses enhanced with herbs of your choice.

Post-digestion, get ready for another kind of excitement. Nightclubs, casinos, bars, pubs and open-air plazas can all be a part of your next great night out, whether it’s spinning to salsa tunes on the dance floor or spending a rowdy night out with new friends.

Sports and Activities

Green or blue? Choose your color and go. Nature is the big player here, whether you’re visiting a coffee hacienda in the small town of Adjuntas, revving it up on an off-road adventure, tubing down the Tanamá River in Utuado or spelunking at Rio Camuy Cave Park. Skim the tree tops at Toro Verde, an eco-adventure park in Orocovis where hanging bridges, horizontal climbs and miles of zip-lines — including The Beast, one of the longest in the world — make for an exhilarating adventure.

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Slip and slide around Puerto Rico’s waterfalls. (Photo: Alamy)

Go deep into El Yunque’s lush jungle to get soaked in waterfalls and natural pools, inhale air recharged by giant ferns and get a front-row seat to one of the most enchanting natural concerts on earth — that of the indigenous tree frog known as the coquí.

Paddleboarding is hot these days, and the Condado Lagoon is a prime location to practice the sport. Kayaking is also quite popular throughout the island, but for an otherworldly experience, do it at night through Vieques, where bioluminescent Puerto Mosquito will light up your journey through the waves, especially on moonless nights.

You won’t tire of running into beach after beach, each with its own allure. Surfing aficionados will get a kick out of the waves at Isabela, Rincón and Aguadilla. If you’re in the San Juan area, the Condado Lagoon is great for a wind or kitesurfing morning. Got your adrenaline rush out of your system? Puerto Rico’s shorelines can also be a beach bum’s dream. Head to the sands of Isla Verde and Condado with a big hat and even bigger sunglasses for a dip and a nap.

Take a jaunt to the island of Culebra for great snorkeling and a day of zen at Flamenco Beach, regularly mentioned on lists of the world’s most beautiful shorelines. If you really love to snorkel, you might also want to consider a trip to Caja de Muertos, which is off the coast of Ponce.

Fishing is also tops here, with sailfish, dorado, wahoo and many other species at the ready. Deep-sea charters are available from coast to coast, departing from marinas in San Juan, Fajardo and Cabo Rojo, among others. From July through September, the aptly named Blue Marlin Alley on the north side of the island is teeming with its prize catches.

For those who’d rather swing away on land, more than two dozen golf courses designed by Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus and other golfing legends are at your disposal.