Article and photos courtesy of guest writer, Katina Marguerite
Puerto Rico – the most foreign you can get while still being part of the United States! Surprisingly, not many people know Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. Yep, that means you can travel there without a passport, and they use American currency. Even better, almost everybody can speak basic English. So, if you haven’t shaped up on your Español, you’ll still be totally comfortable traveling there.
Let me preface by saying – my own trip to the magical place we call “the P-R” was a bit more than your typical tourist adventure because I was accompanied by my lovely Puerto Rican boyfriend, who was born in San Juan, and lived there until he graduated college. But I’ll let you in on all the hidden gems I found out about, and how to best spend your time and money in the sun.
Puerto Rico is an island, and it’s large enough that you’ll want to visit enough places that are out of the way of the capital city, San Juan. Renting a car is the only way to go. There is some public transportation, but it is rather tedious.
Hotels are not as expensive in Puerto Rico as you may think. If you’re staying in the capital, you can expect your typical $100+ a night prices. However, if you’re renting a car and are willing to stay even 10-20 minutes outside of San Juan, you’ll easily find places closer to $40-$60 a night.
Here is my list of all the different kinds of Puerto Rican cuisine that you must try! “Kiosks” are small huts/food carts selling popular fried food and snacks that are always cheap and amazing quality:
- Alcapurrias – typically referred to as “banana dumplings”. Made from fried plantains and dough that are filled with usually some type of meat such as pork, chicken or even seafood. Can be found in hole-in-the-wall kiosks $1-2
- Empanadillas – fluffy and crispy fried dough with a meat or seafood filling (yes, these are basically Emapandas) Found in kiosks $2-4
- Pasteles – typically made during the holidays. Usually pork and beans made into a stew-like mixture and cooked in the leaves of plantains. These are harder to find in kiosks, and you’ll more likely find this at a restaurant. $10
- Mofongo – fried plantains that are mashed together in a pilon with garlic and herbs, and then pushed into a mound that is filled with meat or seafood and topped with a salsa criolla.
- Bacalaitos – Fried cod fish fritters. Found at kiosks. $1-3
- Tostones – Fried plantains found at almost every kiosk or $1-5 depending on quantity
- Piraguas – Snow cones, but you need to try the more exotic flavors such as Tamarind. There are designated “Piragua Guys” $2-3
- Sorullitos – Fried cornmeal fritters. Kiosks. $1-3
- Pork – Some of the best fresh pork can be found on the island. It is often seasoned, cooked on a spit for several hours, and then chopped up and served by the pound with beans and rice. It’s harder to find, but they are usually in larger kiosks that roast the pork outside and then sell it. $5-10
Old San Juan
This vibrant and colorful city is still flourishing with history. You can easily spend more than a full day walking around the town and enjoying the sites. The brick streets and colorfully painted buildings surround you with a sense of joy, and the hundreds of feral cats will make you feel as if you’re in an outdoor cat shelter. Here is a list of things NOT to miss:
- Castillo San Cristobal/Castillo San Felipe del Morro: You can enter both of these old military forts for just $5. If you pay for one, it will give you access to the other for use at any time during the span of a few days. It’s worth the money and time. The military bases are full of interesting history and spectacular views of the city. You can easily spend an hour or more at each site.
- Paseo la Princesa/Passage of the Princess: This beautiful waterside walk is one of the most famous and beautiful strips in Old San Juan. It takes you through beautiful sculptures, waterside views, and is wonderful for an evening sunset walk.
- Old Harbor Brewery: I mention this restaurant for all my fellow craft beer lovers out there. Old Harbor is the only craft brewery in the city, and probably all of Puerto Rico. If you want to spend your money on a delicious fancy dinner this is the place, it has everything from steak to more traditional Latin fare, like Mofongo. You can even take their own beer home with you!
- Tourist-trap gifts: On almost every corner, there is a tourist retail store offering hundreds of cheap PR t-shirts, magnets, postcards, etc. If you’re looking for something more unique and special, there are usually lots of tents featuring local artists’ work. It’s typically more expensive, but worth the price of original art.
- La Casa Blanca/Ponce De Leon House: This house is free to explore on the outside. It has beautiful architecture and lots of friendly feral cats hanging around. The inside is a self guided tour and is a great depiction of a typical 16th century house.
Rio Piedras and other ‘Metro’ hangouts:
If you’re looking to spend some time in hip areas that are not too common for tourists, then the college town of Rio Piedras is the place to do it. Like every college town, Rio Piedras is full of history, cultural significance and a variety of nocturnal hangouts. It’s full of “chinchorros” (dive bars) of all kinds. El Refugio is one such bar tucked back in the student ghetto. Chinchorros in general are known for being very inexpensive. So if you’re looking to get loosey goosey and not empty your wallet, this is a great place to do it.
The town also has great street food, places to dance and even some karaoke (try El Local). Keep in mind this is local territory. If you don’t speak Spanish, try to have a local buddy or brush up on some basic Spanish so you feel comfortable entering a bar and ordering a few drinks without speaking English. Thursday and Friday nights, the streets are flooded with college students who are famous for starting the party at midnight and ending when the sun comes up.
If you are interested in culture, check out the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico. It’s located in Santurce which is another area close to Rio Piedras. It costs only $6 to get in and see some beautiful art and a lovely garden.
The island of Vieques can be easily accessed by ferry via the port in Fajardo, which is about a 2 hour drive from San Juan. Tickets are only $2, and take you directly to Vieques within an hour and fifteen minutes. The beautiful unspoiled island is home to something very unusual – wild horses.
Although we did not have time to visit Culebra, my boyfriend has been there. It’s an even smaller version of Vieques. It’s basically an unspoiled small island that is just perfect for a day’s worth of basking on the beach, riding a horse on the coast and enjoying some local grub. It’s small enough that you can get around without a car. You can either rent a bike or a motorized scooter to get around.
OTHER PARTS OF PUERTO RICO
San Sebastian is about 2 hours away from San Juan on the mid-west area of the island. It’s not coastal, and it’s closer to the mountains and a freeway dubbed “The Panoramic Route,” which stretches from almost one side of the island to the other, full of beautiful scenery. In the town center, there is a very old church full of murals and rich history. One of the best ice cream shops in town serves up maize (yes, CORN!) ice cream topped with cinnamon.
This charming little town is home to a hidden gem called Gozalandia Falls, a natural pool that is hidden in the back of a private area of land. The gentleman that owns the land will let you park on his property for $5, and then you can walk down to the falls and enjoy the beauty of the natural pool and swim as long as you like.
If you’re going to Puerto Rico, you have to make a trip to visit El Yunque Rainforest. It’s on the east side of the island, and can give a full day’s worth of basking in nature. Best of all, it’s FREE. Plan an entire day to travel there. It takes about an hour and a half driving from San Juan. Once you arrive, there is a lot of winding paths before you reach the visitors center.
If you’re an avid hiker, I suggest stopping at whatever observation points interest you, and then taking one of the two trails that lead to the peak. One of the best trails to take is the La Mina Falls trail, which leads to one of the natural pools you can go swimming in! There are various trails that all lead to the peak, which is 3,461 feet high. Some take longer than others, depending on where you stop, but the most basic one is an hour and a half hike up. Plan your time wisely – the park closes at 6:00pm and if you aren’t camping, there’s no way out. Pay attention to the signs and trail markers, because the maps are not the most helpful, and people (including us) have gotten lost in the rainforest before. Go earlier in the morning and make your descent from the peak in time to hit one of the food kiosks on the highway back. They are infamous for the best cheap and fried goodies, such as empanadillas and acapurias.
Katina Marguerite has traveled all across the globe, most recently Puerto Rico. But her favorite place so far will always be the beautiful country of Greece where her family is from! Katina currently lives in Chicago, IL and works in the city’s theatre industry