Poor Puerto Rico. Despite being blessed with white sand beaches, a huge national forest, tropical weather and a historic town centre, the majority of tourists only spend a day here. Why? Because it’s all about the cruise ships. Besides Florida, Puerto Rico is one of the busiest ports for ships sailing the Caribbean, which means many travellers arrive in San Juan the night before or day of their cruise, then fly out again as soon as it docks. It’s really a shame, since you could easily spend a week exploring the island. If you don’t have that luxury, here are a few ways to make the most of your time.
If all you want to do is relax, you’ve come to the right place. Try and check in to one of the high-rise hotels in either Condado or Isle Verde, which line the long beaches. While most are about 10 kilometres away from the city centre, you are in the heart of the nightlife action.
Spend your day watching bronzed bodies stroll along the beach, or jump in the turquoise water for some snorkelling. Grab a cocktail (made with Bacardi, which is produced here!) before patio-hopping down the strip. End up at the trendy San Juan Water and Beach Club Hotel, which has a rooftop pool and comfy white sofas—great for taking in the sunset.
Old San Juan
The best place to learn about the great history of Puerto Rico is with a trip through Old San Juan. Established in the 1500s as a settlement, the town is fortified by huge stone walls, perched over the ocean. There are two forts that most visitors flock to: Fort San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) and Fort San Cristobal. There are two guided tours available of Fort San Cristobal, including an hour-long one of the tunnels, and another that takes you around the outside of the property.
El Morro is the more popular of the two forts, as it affords some incredible views and photo ops. At six levels high, there is lots to explore including a lighthouse and sentry boxes which are located all around the property. Opt for the free orientation, or explore the site yourself with the map you’ll be given after you pay your entrance fee. Admission is $3 for people age 15 and up, or you can buy a combo ticket that gets you into both forts for $5.
After you’ve seen the forts, wander around the city and stop in the artisan shops to pick up souvenirs, or head to a tax-free factory store to freshen up your wardrobe. Be sure to wear comfy shoes to combat the cobblestone streets and hills that trip most travellers up, or jump on the free trolley.
As for accommodations, a great spot to stay if you just want to tour Old San Juan then hop on your cruise ship is the Sheraton Old San Juan. The hotel is just steps away from the action, and the closest to port.
If getting in touch with nature is more your style, book an excursion to the tropical rainforest El Yunque. About an hour’s drive from San Juan, it’s made up of 28,000 acres of lush green foliage, waterfalls, mountains and streams. Most visitors come as part of an excursion, but it is possible to do as a day trip on your own as long as you have a way to get there. The park is open from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. which makes for a full day of hiking through the many trails, including a trip up the Yohaku observation tower and a trek to La Coca Falls.
A trip up the tower will see you brave hundreds of steps to get to the top, but the view is worth it.
You’ll get a panoramic view of the jungle below and the imposing mountains in the distance. One thing to note is that the paths through El Yunque aren’t particularly strenuous, so this will likely be your only workout.
The trip to El Yunque is really only worth a few hours of your time, as it’s not like you’ll be scrambling up mountainsides or have any wildlife encounters. Most cruise ships and tour companies offer this excursion as a half-day trip, and you can expect to spend about $50 and up per person. It is a great way to see a different side of Puerto Rico, and can be a welcome break from the city grind—plus you’ll get some great pictures!
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