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Things to Do in Puerto Rico

While Puerto Rico is an unincorporated United States territory that recently voted to become the country’s 51st state, its culture is more attune to that of the Caribbean and Central America. Bone-white beaches, ancient history, and enticing emerald forests give Puerto Rico multifaceted appeal and provide a wealth of activities for foodies, history buffs, and thrill seekers. San Juan, the Caribbean island's capital, teems with cultural vibrancy. Take a walking tour of Old San Juan, replete with colorful facades and lookout points, and home to Fortaleza, built in 1533. History buffs also won’t want to miss San Juan National Historic Site and San Juan Bay, both full of monuments. San Juan also serves as a convenient gateway to El Yunque National Forest, a biodiverse expanse of tropical rainforest boasting La Coca Falls, the reef-protected Luquillo Beach, and the Bacardi rum distillery. The bioluminescent bay in Vieques—an island off of the mainland— offers one of the brightest displays of bioluminescence in the world: Opt for a kayaking tour for an up-close display. For exceptional snorkeling, take a boat tour of Culebra, another island off the coast, with stops at Flamenco Beach; or try the Cayo Luis Pena Nature Reserve from Fajardo. Or go ziplining, horseback riding, or hiking through the lush jungle surrounding San Juan—you’ll soon discover why Puerto Rico’s is often called the Island of Enchantment.
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Bioluminescent Bay (Mosquito Bay)
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Bioluminescent Bay (aka Mosquito Bay or Puerto Mosquito) is one of Puerto Rico’s three bioluminescent bays, located on the island of Vieques. A popular destination for nighttime boat tours, this bay is by far the brightest. The water is illuminated by dinoflagellates called Pyrodinium bahamense, tiny microorganisms that glow when touched.

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Laguna Grande
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During the day, Laguna Grande in Fajardo looks like other bays along the tropical Puerto Rican coastline. But come nightfall the bioluminescent lagoon glows fluorescent, thanks to pyrodinium bahamense, microscopic plankton that thrive in its shallow Caribbean waters and glow when disturbed.

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Old San Juan
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The cobblestone streets of Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan, lined with brightly colored Spanish colonial houses, lend themselves to aimless yet inspired wandering—but don’t let yourself pass by the neighborhood’s key attractions. From the UNESCO World Heritage-listed forts of Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) and Castillo San Cristobal to restaurants serving plates of aromatic rice and fried plantains, Old San Juan charms travelers at every turn.

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El Yunque National Park
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The El Yunque National Park is the only tropical rain forest under the protection of the US Forest Service, as well as the largest nature reserve in densely populated Puerto Rico. Situated in the mist-wreathed Luquillo Mountains—where year-round precipitation ensures lush, green landscapes and a healthy diversity of animal life—El Yunque is home to the rare Puerto Rican parrot and the Coqui frog, whose distinctive croak provides El Yunque's soundtrack.

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San Juan Gate (Puerta de San Juan)
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Named in honor of Saint John the Baptist, San Juan Gate (Puerta de San Juan) was originally one of five doorways to the city used to protect its streets from invaders and each gate has its own unique function. Today, this towering red and white entryway that’s tucked into the city’s surrounding stonewall offers a truly magical way to enter and explore Puerto Rico’s capital city.

Travelers who pass through this historic entrance will find energetic vendors selling traditional snacks and ice-cold piragua along walkways heading towards the historic old town. Ancient trees stretch high into the sky and provide cool shade for lovers on romantic strolls. Narrow cobblestone streets lined with restored Spanish colonial homes and ornate balconies add to the charm of this favorite San Juan attraction.

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Window Cave (Cueva Ventana)
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Most caves aren’t the types of places that also come with a view; by their very nature, caves are dark, musty holes full of rocks, stalactites and bats. But at Window Cave (Cueva Ventana), about an hour outside of San Juan, the dark cave opens to up to Puerto Rico’s best view.

Ensconced in cliffs towering high above the Rio Grande Arecibo, Cueva Ventana is where subterranean suddenly meets surreal. Though there was once a time when it was free to visit, the area today is privately administered to protect against damage and decay. The downside, of course, is the added cost, but the upside is the fact that the ticket price now includes a local guide. Here you’ll hear history of native Taino who left their marks on the cave, and be presented with flashlights for navigating the depths of the dark, guano-filled room.

Scrambling down rocks, tree roots and mud while weaving through dripping stalactites, the adventure is backed by a soundtrack of bats all squeaking in unison above. Thankfully the cave—since it’s open on both ends—doesn’t have much of a smell, and right when the enveloping darkness begins to feel a bit claustrophobic, light filters through the massive window to reveal a framed, panoramic view of the Arecibo Valley below.

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Luquillo Beach
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Puerto Rico’s Luquillo Beach (Playa Luquillo), also known as Balneario Monserrate, is a tranquil crescent famed for its coconut palm trees and long stretch of powdery white sand. Considered one of the island’s best public beaches, the calm waters here are perfect for swimming, wading, kayaking, and other water sports.

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Cueva del Indio
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Visitors to this popular natural wonder must scramble up rocky ledges, treacherous cliffs and ancient wooden staircases to access some of the region’s most impressive views. Stationed 700 feet above the Puerto Rican countryside, these beautiful caves are one of Arecibo’s most popular destinations and offer a unique taste of Taino cultural history, too.

While the hike to the top is somewhat technical, amazing views and ancient rock paintings known as petroglyphs make it worth the challenge. Less-skilled travelers will still find plenty to do nearby since relaxing beaches, easier trails and off shore fishing are all possible ways to spend an afternoon here.

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Pinones
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A beautiful boardwalk, picturesque beaches and an impressive local food scene are just part of what makes a visit to Pinones the perfect escape for gringos in search of a truly Puerto Rican experience. Travelers can rent bikes and cruise along the scenic coast, or head off road on a ride through the diverse ecosystems that line paths leading to shallow shores. Whether it’s sky-high palm trees or low lying sea brush the range of accessible plant life is astounding.

Travelers also love the wide variety of traditional island fare, like alcapuria, papa rellenas and pinchos, all served alongside strong, cold cocktails. A number of kiosks on the beach offer these local dishes, made fresh to order, making Pinones one of the best food destinations in Puerto Rico.

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San Juan Cathedral (Catedral de San Juan Bautista)
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Built in 1521, San Juan Cathedral(Catedral de San Juan Bautista) is one of the highlights of Old San Juan. The second-oldest cathedral in the Americas, this landmark in the heart of Old San Juan has an impressive array of religious and historical artifacts. The church is still operational, with services held throughout the week.

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More Things to Do in Puerto Rico

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

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Just north of Old San Juan, within the San Juan National Historic Site, stands 16th-century Castillo San Felipe del Morro. The fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the northwestern tip of the islet of San Juan, kept watch over the Atlantic and protected Old San Juan and the Bay of San Juan from incoming enemies for centuries.

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The Capitol of Puerto Rico (El Capitolio)

The Capitol of Puerto Rico (El Capitolio)

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This classic capitol in the heart of San Juan is home to the Legislative Assembly, House of Representatives, the Senate and a whole lot of Puerto Rican history. Visitors to this regal site, which officially opened in 1907, will find massive marble columns, ornate stonework and a brightly colored capitol dome, in addition to the Architecture and Construction Archives of the University of Puerto Rico. These include rare ink and cloth sketches, as well as the original 38 blue print plans for the structure. Visitors say this classic building is a major departure from the rest of the old city, but a few hours wandering the halls, learning about Puerto Rican history and politics is a worthy addition to any San Juan visit.

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La Fortaleza (The Fortress)

La Fortaleza (The Fortress)

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The blue-and-white Santa Catalina Palace (Palacio de Santa Catalina), otherwise known as La Fortaleza (The Fortress), is the official residence of the governor of Puerto Rico. Situated in Old San Juan, the UNESCO World Heritage Site occupies a spot that was long one of the most contested strategic positions in the Caribbean.

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Icacos Island (Cayo Icacos)

Icacos Island (Cayo Icacos)

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A small, uninhabited island located just a 15-minute boat ride from the Puerto Rican town of Fajardo, Icacos Island (Cayo Icacos) is part of Cordillera Keys Nature Reserve (Reserva Natural los Cayos de la Cordillera). Its white-sand shores, pristine waters, and colorful reefs make it a popular day-trip destination for snorkeling and diving.

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Gozalandia Falls

Gozalandia Falls

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This breathtaking waterfall is one of Puerto Rico’s top attractions thanks to its natural beauty, spectacular views, and cool waters that are perfect for a refreshing dip. A short three-minute walk from a public parking lot, a steep but well-marked trail takes visitors up a winding hill to the fall’s first tier. Travelers warn that while the trek is quick, water shoes or hiking boots are a must for rocky terrain.

An easier concrete walkway leads a second tier where a rope swing and towering cliffs offer opportunities for thrill seekers and adventures to dive into the falls far below. Visitors can swim in the Gozalandia’s natural pools and even duck into a nearby cave to escape the sun. The fall’s beauty and natural surroundings make it worth visiting for a few hours or an entire day.

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San Juan Bay

San Juan Bay

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San Juan Bay sits at the heart of the city of San Juan, with innumerable sites, neighborhoods and attractions ringing its shores. The most iconic spots on the bay are the pair of fortresses that face each other at the bay’s mouth. On the eastern side sits El Morro, flanked by the 500-year-old cobblestone streets of Old San Juan. Across the way, the Islas de Cabras National Park boasts the San Juan de la Cruz Fort. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but visitors can only walk around the outside walls of the San Juan de la Cruz Fort, as the inside in closed to the public. Just south of Isla de Cabras, you’ll find another icon of Puerto Rico overlooking the bay—the Bacardi Rum Visitor Center, where you can take a tour and enjoy a rum tasting.

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Paseo de la Princesa

Paseo de la Princesa

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Located just outside the city walls south of Old San Juan, the Paseo de la Princesa is one of the most pleasant and popular walks in the city. Dating back to 1853, the lovely pedestrian promenade is lined with trees, antique street lamps, benches, gardens, sculptures, and fountains, and offers wonderful views of San Juan Bay.

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Castillo San Cristobal

Castillo San Cristobal

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Standing guard at Old San Juan’s eastern gate is Castillo San Cristóbal. Built to protect San Juan against land attacks, the ancient Spanish fort is now part of the San Juan National Historic Site. It is the largest Spanish fortification built in the New World and offers spectacular views of the bay and nearby Castillo San Felipe del Morro.

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Chapel of Christ (Capilla del Cristo)

Chapel of Christ (Capilla del Cristo)

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The Chapel of Christ (Capilla del Cristo) is a small, 18th-century sanctuary tucked away at the end of a pedestrian street in a corner of the old walled city of San Juan. Built to commemorate what believers say was a miracle, the chapel has become a place to pray and leave offerings, which decorate the walls.

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Flamenco Beach (Playa Flamenco)

Flamenco Beach (Playa Flamenco)

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Forested white-sand beaches and sapphire-blue water make Flamenco Beach (Playa Flamenco) as picturesque as a Caribbean postcard. Hidden away on the island of Culebra, just off the coast of Puerto Rico, Flamenco is a hot spot for water adventures. With its colorful aquatic life, beachside bars serving up cocktails, and flamingo-filled lagoons, this strip of sand provides an ideal day trip for those looking to go beyond the bustle of San Juan.

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Bacardi Rum Factory (Casa Bacardi)

Bacardi Rum Factory (Casa Bacardi)

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The Bacardi Rum Factory (Casa Bacardi) is entwined with the history of the Caribbean itself, and the factory’s new visitor center traces the company’s early roots as a small distillery in Cuba through American Prohibition, the Cuban Revolution, and beyond. Today, Bacardi is a well-known brand with a global presence, and its factory in Puerto Rico is the largest premium rum distillery in the world.

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Palomino Island

Palomino Island

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Palomino Island (Isla Palominos) is a tiny tropical escape boasting clear Caribbean water, white-sand beaches, and a balmy breeze. With not much to do except explore the island’s coral reefs, seagrass beds, and craggy coastline, visitors come to Palomino Island—located east of Puerto Rico—for the ultimate in peace and relaxation.

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Crashboat Beach

Crashboat Beach

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Once the site of a military port that rescued downed aircrews, Cashboat Beach has since become a favorite ocean-side destination for travelers to northwest Puerto Rico. Clear turquoise waters and calm surf make it an ideal spot for families with small children, but visitors say the picturesque shores of Crashboat are perfect for just about any traveler.

It’s easy to spend a day relaxing on the sands of this quiet beach, with rocky cliffs perfect for jumping into refreshing waters. But visitors agree it’s worth staying until sunset, when the bright red sun tucks behind the deep blue ocean and local vendors come out to prepare traditional food over open fires. Crashboat attracts plenty of out-of-towners on holiday, but it’s the perfect beach for visitors looking to interact with locals and get a taste of contemporary Puerto Rican life, too.

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Ponce

Ponce

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Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second city and a complete change of pace from the capital San Juan. Ponce's low key charm speaks louder to architecture buffs than it does to party animals. Starting at the central Plaza Las Delicicas you’ll find two defining landmarks of the city, the twin-towered cathedral and the vivid scarlet and black stripes of the whimsical Parque de Bombas, once a fire station, now a museum of fire-fighting.

In the streets near the square you’ll soon come across the lemon-yellow Teatro La Perla and the delightful candy pink Museum of Architecture. Head north for the Castillo Serrallés, a Spanish Colonial Revival mansion which houses a museum relating to the island’s all-important sugar and rum industries. It’s just one of the imposing residences you’ll see throughout the city.

After all that visual richness cleanse your palate with the tropical Modernism of the highly-recommended Ponce Museum of Art.

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