Do yourself a favor. Rent a car, get out of San Juan, and explore some of the island. Puerto Rico is filled with so many surprising and delightful charms that are just a short drive away, it would be a shame to miss them.
Spend the day exploring miles of primitive beach, riding bikes along Paseo Piñones Bike Path, kayaking in Laguna de Piñones or Laguna la Torrecilla, and dining on freshly made fritters at Boca de Cangrejos. Be sure to pack bug spray. Sand fleas are ferocious here in the afternoons. Piñones is 12 miles east of San Juan, just past the international airport. Traffic can be excruciatingly slow and congested on weekends and holidays, so go early.
Give the sun and sand a break and spend the day exploring the rainforest at El Yunque Caribbean National Forest. First, grab picnic supplies from Kasalta Bakery in Ocean Park and then head to El Portal Tropical Forest Center for a briefing on the area. Drive into the forest, stopping at La Coca Falls and Yokahu Tower along the way. Put on your hiking shoes and hit one of the trails, like La Mina Trail, a moderate, 0.5-mile hike ending at La Mina waterfall, or El Yunque Trail, a strenuous 2.5-mile trail through the cloud forest ending at the top of El Yunque. Afterwards, stop at Coqui International in Palmer and shop for locally made arts and crafts. Río Grande is 27 miles east of San Juan along roadways that are often heavy with traffic.
Work on your tan and go for a dip in the tranquil waters of one of Puerto Rico’s finest public beaches, Balneario La Monserrate, commonly called Playa Luquillo. If that’s too tame, rent a surfboard and ride the waves at La Pared. When hunger pangs strike, hit a couple of vendors at Luquillo Kioskos and dine on a wide variety of fritters and traditional Puerto Rican dishes, or try one of the new upscale kiosks serving creative Caribbean cuisine. Luquillo is 33 miles east of San Juan along roadways typically thick with traffic, especially on weekends.
Prepare to spend the day at sea, sailing and snorkeling around the small islands that make up Reserva Natural La Cordillera. Dine on charcoal-grilled fish and shrimp at La Estación, and then take a nighttime kayak tour of Laguna Grande, the bioluminescent bay in Reserva Natural Las Cabezas de San Juan. Fajardo is 40 miles east of San Juan along congested roadways.
Caguas and Cayey
Spend the morning strolling through the lovely landscaped grounds of Jardín Botánico y Cultural de Caguas. Then head south into the foothills of the Cordillera Central to the Guavate neighborhood of Cayey to chow down on moist, flavor-packed pork, cooked whole over open fire pits at any number of the lechoneras that line the streets. Afterwards, you can walk it off along the wooded trails at Reserva Forestal de Carite. Caguas is 20 miles south and Cayey is 33 miles south of San Juan, and it’s highway all the way.
Drive along La Ruta Panorámica, a scenic route through the heart of the Cordillera Central to Jayuya. Visit Museo del Cemí to see the Taíno artifacts and Casa Museo Canales, a reconstruction of a traditional criolla-style house. Walk down to La Piedra Escrita to see the Taíno petroglyphs carved in stone and go for a dip in the natural river-fed pool beside it. Dine on traditional Puerto Rican cuisine and pit-cooked pork at El Lechón de la Piedra Escrita. Jayuya is 61 miles southwest of San Juan along winding mountain roads.
Mirador Orocovis-Villalba is one of the rare spots in the Puerto Rican landscape where you can see both the north and south coasts at the same time, and it’s easily accessible by car. For something more adventurous, strap yourself into a harness and fly through the trees on the canopy zipline tour at ToroVerde, a nature adventure park. Afterwards, stop by Casa Bavaria, where it’s Oktoberfest every day. Dine on schnitzel and bratwurst while admiring the mountain views from the patio. Orocovis is 54 miles southwest of San Juan along winding mountain roads.
Tour the fabulous Castillo Serrallés, a four-story Spanish Moroccan mansion built in 1934 and filled with exquisite furnishings. Across the street is Cruceta del Vigía, a 100-foot-tall cross with observation deck. Enjoy a seafood lunch overlooking the ocean on the patio at Pito’s Seafood Café and Restaurant. In the afternoon, tour the ceremonial grounds at Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes or the 19th-century coffee plantation at Hacienda Buena Vista. Ponce is 72 miles southwest of San Juan, and it’s highway all the way.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Puerto Rico.