When you think about a vacation in the Caribbean, which destinations immediately come to mind? Maybe the Bahamas or Jamaica or the Virgin Islands? Maybe a resort in the Dominican Republic, or a beach escape to the Cayman Islands?
But what about Puerto Rico?
If you're like me, you may not have really considered Puerto Rico as a Caribbean destination before. Maybe it's because you've heard that Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States and figured it's not “different” enough. Or maybe you know of the territory's recent financial struggles. Or maybe it's just because you don't always hear a lot about Puerto Rico from travelers.
But let me tell you this: Puerto Rico has just about everything you could want in a Caribbean destination – and then some.
After spending some time on the island in early March, here are just a few of the reasons to add Puerto Rico to your must-visit list.
1. You don't have to leave the U.S.
Even though Puerto Rico sits by itself out in the Greater Antilles, it's actually a U.S. territory. For Americans, this is great news. It means you don't have to have a passport to visit, and don't have to worry about exchanging currency once you get there. You don't even have to worry about your phone, since your U.S. phone plan will work just fine in Puerto Rico.
And, even though Spanish is the dominant language on the island, most people (and especially people who work in tourism) also speak excellent English.
2. The Spanish culture and history is nevertheless strong
But, having said that, going to Puerto Rico FEELS like visiting another country. The Spanish culture is still strong in Puerto Rico, from the salsa tunes played in bars to the Latin dishes you can find in just about every restaurant (tip: try the mofongo!!). If you're looking to ease yourself into Latin America, Puerto Rico would make a great introduction.
The Spanish footprint can perhaps best be seen in Old San Juan and its UNESCO-recognized colonial forts. The forts offer great views out over the city and sea, and you can easily spend hours wandering up and down the colorful streets of Old San Juan.
Puerto Rico is another fantastic example of how truly diverse the United States is.
3. You can go on adventures
Puerto Rico isn't very big, but its landscapes are nevertheless diverse. Beaches, rainforest, mountains… it has it all. And you can reach all these different features in about an hour from San Juan.
My main adventure in Puerto Rico was trying out the breathtaking zip lining courses at Toro Verde Adventure Park in Orocovis, which is in the heart of Puerto Rico's mountainous center. Not only were the zip lines epic and adrenaline-inducing, but Toro Verde also has some of the best zip lining views I've ever seen.
If you go to Toro Verde, you have to make sure to brave The Monster, which is officially the longest zip line in the world at 7,234 feet.
4. Or you can just lounge on the beach
Adventure sports not really your thing? Don't worry – Puerto Rico has its fair share of beautiful beaches, too. One of the most-visited beaches is the Bioluminescent Bay in Fajardo, where are night you can sometimes see glowing plankton in the water. San Juan has some nice city beaches, too, where you'll often find locals every day of the week.
But to find the best beaches in Puerto Rico, you have to go to other nearby islands. Culebra and Vieques islands, both reachable by boat or short flight from the main island, have arguably the best beaches in Puerto Rico.
I was lucky enough to take a catamaran trip out to Culebra Island with East Island Excursions, which included snorkeling stops and a little more than an hour at Flamenco Beach.
Flamenco Beach often appears on lists of the best beaches in the world. And, while I was skeptical at first (because, how often do those “best” lists let you down?), I have to admit that Flamenco IS indeed one of the prettiest beaches I've ever been to. The sand was fine and almost pure white. The water was turquoise and warm. And the beach was surprisingly uncrowded.
Best beach? Possibly.
Others seem to agree with my assessment, considering that this video has been shared more than 58,000 times on Facebook.
5. There are also resorts, if that's your thing
Puerto Rico is easy to explore by car (though watch out for those aggressive drivers in San Juan), but also caters to the crowd who usually turns to the Caribbean for resort vacations. There are some full-on never-have-to-leave-the-resort type properties, as well as plenty of hotels with resort-like amenities.
I stayed at two Hilton properties in San Juan during my trip. The first was the Caribe Hilton, which is closer to your average resort. With a few restaurants on site and a beautiful pool and beach area, I could have easily hung out here for a day or two.
I also stayed at the Condado Plaza Hilton, which is a more contemporary, “urban” resort. The rooms were super nice, but the beach/pool area wasn't as exciting – if you stayed here, you would probably want to venture out into San Juan more.
On my next trip to Puerto Rico (because there will definitely be a next trip), I plan on staying at the El Conquistador Resort. It's a Waldorf-owned property about 40 minutes from San Juan, and is the largest resort in Puerto Rico. It boasts a huge pool area, a water park, a golf course, more than 25 restaurants on site, and its very own private island that guests have access to. THIS is the sort of resort that you might never want to leave.
I've never done a resort vacation, but visiting the El Conquistador has me inspired to give it a try the next time I'm in Puerto Rico.
6. It's easy to get to
Lastly, Puerto Rico is easy to get to, especially from the U.S. There are direct flights from cities all along the East Coast, and you won't have to sacrifice a full day to travel. San Juan is just a little over 2 hours from Miami, and less than 3.5 hours from New York.
Flight prices aren't outrageous, either – from where I live in Ohio, you can fly to Puerto Rico for cheaper than you can fly to the West Coast.
So are you convinced? When are you booking your trip to Puerto Rico?
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*Note: Thanks to the Puerto Rico Tourism Company for hosting me on this trip. As always, all opinions, tips, and photos are 100% my own. I would never recommend something to you guys that I didn't love myself!