Recently we went on a 5-day family trip to Puerto Rico, and I wanted to write a quick guide, hopefully useful to anyone who’s considering visiting this beautiful place.
Why Puerto Rico
We initially had a few Caribbean destinations in mind, but chose Puerto Rico because it’s close, affordable, and flying there is less hassle since the flight is a domestic flight with no international passport/customs clearance requirement. A couple of my friends went before, and said they would visit again, which is a good sign it’s worth going and checking out.
It’s a popular destination so getting a non-stop flight for a reasonable price (about 2 weeks in advance), was easy. Plus, there were enough places and things we wanted to see, so it would be a mix of relaxing time on the beach and activities (bioluminiscent bay, snorkeling, rainforest…).
We knew we wanted to definitely visit Vieques island to the east of the main Puerto Rico island, and also spend some time in San Juan area.
We flew JetBlue (our preferred airline to travel with), from JFK to San Juan, non stop. Then we had to get to Vieques, where we were spending first 2 nights.
There are 2 options of getting to Vieques from San Juan:
1) Flying there with one of the regional small airlines. We chose to fly because we were already at the airport and a 25-minute flight definitely seemed better than 3+ hours of alternative. One-way ticket with Cape Air was about $125 per person, but totally, totally worth it!
2) Taking a cab to the town of Fajardo, then taking a ferry to Vieques. Cab ride would be between $75 – $100, and take about 1 hour with no traffic. Then ferry costs $2 per person, and takes 1.5 hours, but note that they run on a schedule, so you might have to wait additional time for the next ferry.
I loved flying a litte Cessna plane to Vieques, the views were amazing, the experience was one-of-a-kind, and I’m not afraid of heights or small spaces, so for me it was a thrill :) Sean was a little concerned, but since it was only 20 minutes he fared well, and also agreed it was a great choice to fly.
Gorgeous birds-eye view of San Juan
We just flew this little plane!
On the way back we took the ferry, and the line was long, it was packed and slow, and the trip was not pleasant at all – because of the slowness of the boat, you could really feel it rocking side to side. So people prone to motion sickness would not enjoy it one bit. One cool thing thou – on the boat we saw a guy traveling with a pet albino hedgehog:
Vieques is famous for its beaches, quiet charm and the unique bioluminiscent bay (also known as Mosquito bay), where water glows neon-blue in the dark.
I would suggest to spend majority of your time in Vieques, it’s beautiful and the beaches are much better than in San Juan.
A rental car is a must-have, because you’ll want to drive to the beaches, and most rentals are jeeps that are great for getting there. We rented from Island car rental, which is located at the W hotel, they have nice new vehicles and they will pick you up from airport/ferry. We went at a busy time (Easter weekend/spring break), and only managed to get a car for 1 day, but it was so worth it! Our rental was $85/day.
We stayed at Hacienda Tamarindo, a small boutique hotel just outside of the main town of Esperanza. It was really lovely, quiet, with beautiful grounds and views. We really enjoyed our room (2 suite room with hammocks and pool right outside), the library, honor bar, beach umbrella and chair rentals, and of course their great breakfast. Room rates are about $200 and up, and include breakfast.
My cousin Max at Hacienda Tamarindo
We checked out 2 beaches: La Chiva (Blue beach) and La Plata, where we met our snorkeling guide. Both were really nice, bring your umbrellas, chairs, food, etc.
For activities we went snorkeling with the hotel-recommended Little Boat Sailing company. The tour is a ride on a tiny little catamaran with sails, where a maximum of 6 people and the guide, Jorge, go into the ocean, secluded beach, mangroves nearby and to the coral reef off-shore. We had less-than-ideal weather on our tour day, with lots of clouds, then wind and rain at the end, but we still managed to have a great time. Jorge was an excellent guide, the boat ride was a lot of thrill and fun, and snorkeling was awesome, especially because we saw a real big nurse shark sitting at the ocean bottom under a rock! Once we got to the beach, under the pouring rain and wind, we had to run back to the car and warm and dry ourselves up… but looking back it was an amazing experience, highly recommended.
This was the last time anyone saw my Aruba hat, because next minute a gust of wind blew it away. I told Sean now we have to go back to Aruba, so I can get a new one :)
We also planned to go kayaking at night at the bio bay, but due to weather and some of us feeling tired, we didn’t go. Well, it’s a reason to go back someday. I booked with Vieques Island Adventures, who offers clear kayaks and seem very professional, so I’d suggest booking with them.
As far as restaurants, we ate at Trade Winds on the main street in Esperanza, which had good food (albeit very slow service, but I guess it’s part of the “island vibe”). My friend also recommended Next Course (requires driving there), but we didn’t try it. I’d also warn people to stay away from a place called Tin Box, because Sean got stomach flu afterwards (we suspect from there), food was not good at all (raw meat in bbq chicken!) and service was pretty bad.
While eating at Trade Winds we witnessed a reenactment of Jesus’ assassination (it was on a Good Friday)
We spent the last 2 days in San Juan area, and it was more than enough time.
We stayed at Marriott Courtyard Isla Verde, they have the nicest beach, in my opinion, and the hotel is lively (compared to overpriced cold Ritz Carlton next door). Food was decent too, and the staff was very friendly. We had a bit of an emergency requiring a doctor, and the hotel called one up (came right up to our room), and even offered an option to charge it to the room. It was such a great relief, and bell guys were very nice too.
Sunset on the beach at Marriott hotel
Places to see: definitely visit Old San Juan one afternoon, and check out the old Spanish fort El Morro, with cool history, architecture and breathtaking views. I’d suggest going after 4pm, to avoid walking there in the hot sun during the day (it’s open until 6pm). Old San Juan is full of pretty streets, shops and restaurants. Our hotel recommended one called Vaca Brava (we didn’t end up trying it though), friends recommended Raices, both of which offer local cuisine. We had a quick bite at a sandwich shop called El Meson, which was fast, fresh and affordable.
Condado also seems to be a cool area for going out and restaurants. My friend lives there, and we had dinner at a place called Casa Lola one night, which was excellent.
So to sum it up, we had a great time, and would go back again. Hope the tips help fellow travelers, and please share yours – will be happy to add them here.