Puerto Rico is more than beaches. It’s an ideal, nearby getaway for New Yorkers in search of winter sun, glittery nightlife, history, culture, and adventure. It’s all less than 3 ½ hours away, with no passport required.
Whether you’re going for just a long weekend or much longer, you’ll find plenty to do and see in this cluster of islands. Surprised to hear it described as a “cluster”? Puerto Rico is actually three islands — the pineapple and plantain-rich main island and two others, Vieques and Culebra, just eight miles southeast.
If this is your first time visiting Puerto Rico and time is limited, you may want to stick to the main island and situate yourself in the Isla Verde or the Condado areas, within easy reach of historic Old San Juan and other great sites.
Vieques and Culebra are more remote, and less developed commercially, which is part of their attraction. Culebra is known for its access to snorkeling reefs from such beaches as Melones and Carlos Rosario.
Here are four places worth seeking out in Puerto Rico:
Castillo San Felipe de Morro (El Morro): To protect their “rich port” (or Puerto Rico, in Spanish) from foreign invaders, the Spanish began construction of this fort in 1539 as a simple tower that became part of a massive defense system. View the sentry boxes along the fortress walls; they served as sheltered lookout posts, and cut dramatic silhouettes against a blue sky.
Old San Juan: We recommend either an informal or formal walking tour of this old city to learn the history of this area designated a National Historic Zone in 1950. Grab a map, and wander the cobblestone streets. You can begin at El Morro, and continue on a path along the Bay of San Juan to La Puerta de San Juan (San Juan Gate). View La Rogativa, a life size sculpture of a bishop and three female prayer companions, who, carrying torches and singing, are said to have scared off the British during a1797 attack.
Bioluminescent Bay: Microorganisms called dinoflagellates cause the water off the southern part of the island of Vieques to glow in the dark. This amazing natural phenomenon is worth seeing, especially for the more adventurous. Book a kayak trip on the bay at night and watch the water (and your oars) shine.
El Yunque: Located on the main island, this 28,000-acre tropical rain forest, the only one in the U.S. Forest System, is under consideration as one of the new seven wonders of nature. There are 240 species of native trees as well as 5O species of orchids. Reptiles, amphibians, and birds, including the endangered ‘Higuaca,’ or Puerto Rican parrot, dominate the animal life here.
Know Before You Go:
Currency: U.S. Dollar
Getting to the main island: Most travelers fly into Luis Muñoz Marín (LMM) International Airport. From New York, Continental flies nonstop from
Newark Liberty; American flies nonstop from JFK, as does JetBlue.
For the best price, use farecompare.com.
Getting to Vieques: Either take an hour to 90-minute ferry from Fajardo, situated on the main island’s east coast, or, better, take a 20-minute flight from Isla Grande Airport to Vieques. From Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, the flight to Vieques is approximately 30 minutes.
Getting to Culebra: Take the approximately 85-minute ferry from Farjado or take Vieques Air Link from Isla Grande Airport to Culebra, approximately 30 minutes.
Our Puerto Rico hotel recommendations:
If you stay in Isla Verde on the main island, accommodations range from two- to five-star hotels, including the renowned El San Juan Hotel and Casino (elsanjuanhotel.com), part of the Waldorf Astoria Collection, a five-star property, home to Koco restauarant. The last time we were at the El San Juan, music from a jazz combo filled the lobby at night.
If you stay on Vieques, consider the W Retreat and Spa-Vieques Island (wvieques.com) that opened within the last year. There are also less expensive hotels throughout the islands including major brands.
If you stay on Culebra, try Club Seabourne (www.clubseabourne.com), a boutique hotel with 12 villas and its own restaurant.