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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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Laguna Grande
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By day, Fajardo’s famous “Bio Bay” looks like a regular Puerto Rican coastline. By night, however, the bay becomes an eerie lagoon that literally shines a fluorescent hue with every movement or splash. Due to the presence of microscopic plankton that thrive in the shallow waters, every stroke of a kayak paddle creates a trailing ribbon of light. Officially known as “bioluminescence,” there are only a handful of places worldwide where the phenomenon is consistently found. One of those is here at Laguna Grande just off the shores of Fajardo, where kayak tours literally allow visitors the chance to set the water aglow. For as eerie and almost unnatural as that sounds, watching the water glow on your fingertips isn’t the spookiest part. Rather, that would be kayaking through dense mangroves under a total canopy of darkness, where every creak, groan, and jungle sound reminds you’re not indoors.

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Old San Juan
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Old San Juan sits on a small island guarding the entrance to the Bahía de San Juan, the “rich port” which gave Puerto Rico its name. Its strategic position was backed up by fortifications include the forbidding San Felipe del Morro fort at the tip of the island, as well as San Cristóbal fort and La Fortaleza, now the Governor’s residence. Inland, the compact grid of hilly, narrow streets, with their colorful houses and elegant wrought-iron balconies, represents one of the oldest and best-preserved town centers in the Western Hemisphere. Two historic houses of worship bookend the center: in the north, the simple white exterior of the San José Church and the comparative grandeur of the older Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, built in 1521, in the south. The latter contains the tomb of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León.
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Bioluminescent Bay (Mosquito Bay)
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By itself, kayaking at night beneath the stars is an adventurous and romantic experience, where the only sound is that of your paddles slowly breaking the surface of the water. Crane your neck skywards to look at the stars and navigate only by the moon, as the only sight is the faint bit of lining shining down from the dark sky above. Here off the island of Vieques, however, at Bioluminescent Bay, the adventure is ratcheted up a notch by water that glows when you touch it. Thanks to microorganisms that are best known simply as “dinos,” when you swirl your paddle or fingers in the water of this famous Puerto Rican bay, a flash of neon blue and green will burst right next to your kayak. It’s an experience that runs counter to all your senses, since touching doesn’t usually mean seeing, and a sight that continuously manages to surprise with you with every stroke that you take.

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El Yunque National Park
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El Yunque Rainforest is the only tropical rainforest under the protection of the US Forest Service and also the largest nature reserve in densely-populated Puerto Rico. It is situated in the mist-wreathed Luquillo Mountains where year-round precipitation ensures lush, green landscapes and a healthy diversity of animal life. This includes mongooses, non-venomous snakes, the rare Puerto Rican Parrot and the Coqui frog whose distinctive croak provides El Yunque’s soundtrack.

El Portal Rain Forest Center provides a good introduction to the area. There you can pick up a map and set out on well-defined walking trails which will take you past such sights as the La Coca Falls and the observation points of Yokahú Tower and Mount Britton Lookout Tower.

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Icacos Island (Cayo Icacos)
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When you first set foot on Cayo Icacos and take a look around, it looks exactly like a deserted island you’d see in a Hollywood film. White sand rings a forested grove at the center of the tiny island, and the sound of waves and gusting wind is the only break in the silence. Then, when you turn around and notice the boat that brought you there is gone, the reality of being on a deserted island suddenly begins to sink in. Despite being only 15 minutes from the mainland town of Fajardo, Cayo Icacos is an undeveloped island that feels like the middle of nowhere. It isn’t the isolated seclusion, however, that draws visitors to Icacos; rather, it’s the pristine snorkeling and offshore reefs where schools of colorful, tropical fish all flit and sway with the waves. If you don’t want to simply be dropped off on shore and left to fend for yourself (until the boat comes back, of course, a few hours later), there are snorkeling cruises to Cayo Icacos that make the trip more comfortable.

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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 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.

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More Things to Do in Puerto Rico

Culebra Island

Culebra Island

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Picturesque Flamenco Beach is ranked number three among the top 10 most exotic beaches in the world, thanks to its white coral sand, crystal clear water and breathtaking arid tree lined hills. But there are more sandy shores to see on Culebra Island than just this spot for sun and surf—the island itself is a true paradise for beach bumming travelers.

Visitors can access smaller island destinations like Culebrita and Luis Pena (after obtaining a permit) by using a public water taxi from the main town. These tiny landmasses off the coast of this picturesque island are ideal for hiking, photography and scuba diving. Since rivers and streams don’t run into the ocean waters here, so the surrounding seas are unusually clear making for perfect underwater wildlife viewing.

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Luquillo Beach

Luquillo Beach

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Also known as Balnearnio Montserrat, Luquillo Beach is beautiful tranquil crescent of powdery sand famed for its palm trees and long stretch of fine yellow sand. A fringe reef protects the beach from raging surf and calms the water to tranquility, so families find it a popular stop to bring young kids who are often found frolicking on the shore. The fried food kiosks that dot the area are well-liked for beachside eating, though locals often bring their grills to set up and do a little beachside bbq-ing. With El Yunque National Forest blooming in the background, Luquillo Beach is some of the best of San Juan beaches.

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Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

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Just north of the Old San Juan district, within the San Juan National Historic Site, lies Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 16th-century citadel, or fortress.

It is a World Heritage-listed site on the northwestern tip of the islet of San Juan – a perfect spot to keep watch over the Atlantic Ocean and protect Old San Juan and the Bay of San Juan from incoming enemies. Its more recent history includes the American military, which occupied the site from 1898 to 1961.

The citadel, surrounded like it is by an expansive green lawn and the dramatic rocky coast, sits on quite a beautiful spot; the imposing fortress walls create an interesting contrast to the sparkling blue sea. When the wind blows, the lawn that connects the citadel to the town is a popular kite-flying spot.

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San Juan Cathedral (Catedral de San Juan Bautista)

San Juan Cathedral (Catedral de San Juan Bautista)

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Built in 1521, The San Juan Cathedral (aka La Santa Catedral San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico) is one of the highlights of any trip into Old San Juan. The second oldest cathedral in the Americas, this historic landmark lies right in the heart of Old San Juan and boasts an impressive array of religious and historical artifacts including the tomb of notorious Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon and the mummy of St. Pio. An operational cathedral, you can attend mass here Saturdays at 7 pm, Sunday at 9 and 11 am, and weekdays 7:25 am and 12:15 pm. And experience a traditional catholic mass, or, when service isn’t being conducted, you can wander the nave free of charge, gaze at the huge stained glass windows, or marvel at the construction of the oldest church on U.S. soil.

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La Fortaleza (The Fortress)

La Fortaleza (The Fortress)

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The Wedgwood blue and white Santa Catalina Palace was built in 1533 and makes an impressive sight as you approach through a narrow Old San Juan street. While the building exudes an air of calm authority, it occupies a site that was long one of the most contested strategic positions in the Caribbean: La Fortaleza. And you can still see stone fortifications built by the Spanish, brooding above the waves.
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Bacardi Rum Factory (Casa Bacardi)

Bacardi Rum Factory (Casa Bacardi)

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San Juan is the home of world famous Bacardí rum. Even if you’ve never given much thought to how this Caribbean staple gets from the cane fields to your mojito, the Casa Bacardí Visitor Center offers a surprisingly interesting experience. See the distillery, bottling plant and a museum which traces the company’s origins in Cuba to its current global domination.

Naturally it would be cruel to lead you all the way through this grown-up version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and not let you sample the wares, so pure rum and cocktails are handed out towards the end.

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Gozalandia Falls

Gozalandia Falls

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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.
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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 or 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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Paseo de la Princesa

Paseo de la Princesa

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Quite literally meaning walkway of the princess, Paseo de la Princesa does indeed have enough romance and beauty fit for royalty. A perfect spot to enjoy the Old World charms of San Juan – strolling through this romantic 19th century avenue is perhaps one of San Juan’s most romantic escapes – and yet it’s located just outside the city walls. Lined with antique street lamps, shade trees, and fruit cart vendors – walking the Paseo de la Princesa embues a leisurely sense of ancient romance and serene beauty. With the impressive Old San Juan fortifications towering above you and the glistening San Juan Bay on your left, the Paseo de la Princesa stands a good chance of being your favorite simple escape while in San Juan.

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Flamenco Beach (Playa Flamenco)

Flamenco Beach (Playa Flamenco)

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Playa Flamenco is a stunningly scenic beach that is an ideal day trip for those vacationing on Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. Playa Flamenco isn't actually located on the main island of Puerto Rico, though. Instead, you'll have to take a short boat ride to the smaller island of Culebra.

It is worth the trip as Playa Flamenco has a wide, white sand beach that is bordered by clear aqua sea water on one side and bright green hills on the other. High quality food stands line the beach serving a variety of treats, ranging from ice cream and fruit smoothies to ceviche and empanadas. Bathrooms are available onsite and there are also beach chairs and umbrellas you can rent to use for the day. Playa Flamenco also holds remnants of Puerto Rico's military past; on the northern edge of the beach are two old military tanks which are worth an amble along the beach to see.

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Arecibo Observatory

Arecibo Observatory

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The Arecibo Observatory has earned a reputation as the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the world. It features the William E. Gordon telescope as well as a visitor and public outreach center and scientific research community. As more than 1,000 feet in size, it is the world’s biggest single aperture telescope. It is known also as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC) and is run largely by the National Science Foundation. It was constructed in the mid-1960s in the space left in the ground from a karst sinkhole.

With three radar transmitters, it has the largest electromagnetic-wave-gathering capacity in the world, within a forty-degree cone of visibility. Many breakthroughs and discoveries have been found by scientists from around the world in the facilities here, including the rotation rate of Mercury and evidence that neuron stars exist. The observatory was listed on the American National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

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Castillo San Cristobal

Castillo San Cristobal

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Standing guard at Old San Juan’s Eastern Gate is the Castillo de San Crisotbal. Built to protect San Juan against land attacks, the ancient Spanish fort is now part of the San Juan National Historic Site and a great opportunity to see the largest Spanish fortification built in the New World and see some spectacular views of the San Juan Bay and El Morro. The massive structure, which was built in the 18th century to compliment the El Morro fortification which was designed to guard the bay, rises 150 feet above sea level and occupies most of the northeast edge of Old San Juan. Proven to be an effective fortification which helped repel a 1797 land invasion by Sir Ralph Abercrombie, the Castillo de San Cristobal is one of the premier attractions of Old San Juan.

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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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