Caribbean

Exploring Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island and U.S. territory

Ema Bakalova

Feb 15, 2023

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Downtown buildings of Puerto Rico
Downtown buildings of Puerto Rico

San Juan, the capital city of Puerto Rico, is a vibrant and historic destination known for its rich culture, stunning old city center, and beautiful beaches along its Caribbean coast. When you think of places in the United States, Puerto Rico isn't typically the first one that comes to mind. Puerto Rico distinctly sets itself apart from the other states in the United States, and this uniqueness is ultimately what convinced me to book a trip here.

Ocean Park neighborhood in Puerto Rico
Ocean Park neighborhood in Puerto Rico

Ocean Park

We opted for an Airbnb in the Ocean Park neighborhood of San Juan since Old San Juan didn't have any available accommodations during the time we were booking our trip.

The area turned out to be great for someone like me, who likes to stay active during the day. There are great routes for running and walking both through the neighborhoods and by the beach. All of our workouts and morning walks were done at the Parque Dr. José Celso Barbosa track, during the mornings and evenings.

Ocean Park neighborhood in Puerto Rico

Ocean Park walkway

Running and walking route from our AirBnb to downtown.

Despite Ocean Park being about 8 km away from Old San Juan, we found it quite convenient to explore the area by walking, running, biking, or even taking a quick ride to the downtown area. I liked that we didn't stay in the crowded downtown area of Old San Juan. Instead, we walked through different areas of Puerto Rico to get there, which gave us a better overall experience and we got to see more of the island.

Superfoods

We made it a daily ritual to walk to Superfoods, this tiny acai bowl shop for brunch everyday. By the end of our trip, we must've had at least ten of their incredible bowls. They've got a wide array of gluten-free options too, so I'd definitely recommend giving them a try. It's a tiny little shop, and since we visited so many times during our stay, we ended up having a chat with the shop owner, who shared his secret behind crafting the perfect acai bowl.

Acai bowl from Superfoods in Puerto Rico

The perfect acai bowl

For the best acai bowls, use minimal water and opt for frozen acai packs available on platforms like Amazon or Whole Foods. This ensures the bowl achieves a rich and thick consistency.

Acai bowl from Superfoods in Puerto Rico
Acai bowl from Superfoods in Puerto Rico

Catching a bird to Old San Juan

One of the biggest mistakes on this trip was not renting a car. However, we did take advantage of the scooter system on the island. It turned out to be the most fun, efficient and inexpensive way of getting around. It took us about 20 minutes to get from Ocean Park to Old San Juan. The only downside to taking a scooter is that you can easily get caught in the sudden tropical downpours that can happen anywhere on the island from one moment to the next. We ended up getting soaked a few times on our way there and back. On the bright side, the warm weather means you dry off in just a few minutes.

Running through a tropical storm in Puerto Rico

Tropical downpours

Pop-up showers can be localized, soaking one area while leaving another dry. Residents and tourists often encounter differing weather conditions in close proximity. One day, we had rain on one side of the road but not the other!

Running through a tropical storm in Puerto Rico

Tropical downpours

Pop-up showers can be localized, soaking one area while leaving another dry. Residents and tourists often encounter differing weather conditions in close proximity. One day, we had rain on one side of the road but not the other!

Travelling to Old San Juan from Ocean Park in Puerto Rico
Travelling to Old San Juan from Ocean Park in Puerto Rico
Travelling to Old San Juan from Ocean Park in Puerto Rico
Travelling to Old San Juan from Ocean Park in Puerto Rico

Old San Juan, a collage of vibrant pastel facades and narrow cobblestone streets

I enjoyed exploring the city center, walking through the cobble stone streets, looking at the different buildings and learning about them along the way. The tradition of painting buildings in vibrant colors in Old San Juan dates back to the colonial era. Spanish colonialists began the practice of using bright colors to differentiate buildings to designate their functions. For example, government buildings were often painted in bright shades of blue, while residences might be painted in various pastel colors.

Old San Juan
Old San Juan
Old San Juan
Old San Juan

Some interesting facts about the architecture in Old San Juan:

  1. Colonial and Spanish Influence

The architectural influence of Spanish colonization is evident throughout San Juan. Many buildings feature a blend of Spanish colonial and Caribbean styles, characterized by colorful facades and decorative elements.

  1. Modern Architecture

In addition to historic structures, San Juan also has some contemporary buildings, hotels, and shopping centers, particularly in areas like Condado and Isla Verde.

  1. Art Deco Influence

Some parts of San Juan, like Santurce, are known for their Art Deco architecture. The district features buildings with geometric designs that go back to the early 20th century.

  1. Tropical Elements

Given the city's tropical climate, many buildings incorporate design features to maximize ventilation and shade, such as louvered windows, verandas, and courtyards.

  1. Public Art

San Juan is home to a vibrant arts scene, and you'll find public art installations and murals adorning buildings throughout the city, adding to its cultural richness.

Cobblestone pathways weave through a historical display of vibrant buildings, decorated with wrought-iron balconies and wooden doors, showcasing the island's Spanish colonial influence. Every building, street and square has a captivating detail or unique architectural expression – be it lively plazas with statues and fountains, or concealed courtyards flourishing with tropical greenery.

Al fresco dining in Old San Juan

Al fresco dining

Many restaurants, cafes, and bars in San Juan offer al fresco dining. Whether it's a charming courtyard, a sidewalk table, or a rooftop terrace, you'll find plenty of opportunities to sit outdoors.

Al fresco dining in Old San Juan

Al fresco dining

Many restaurants, cafes, and bars in San Juan offer al fresco dining. Whether it's a charming courtyard, a sidewalk table, or a rooftop terrace, you'll find plenty of opportunities to sit outdoors.

Old San Juan
Old San Juan
Old San Juan
Old San Juan
Old San Juan
Old San Juan

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Castillo San Felipe del Morro, commonly referred to as "El Morro," is one of the most iconic and historic landmarks in San Juan. It's very easy to navigate through and it is characterized by thick stone walls, sturdy bastions, and a series of levels and platforms. Its intricate layout allows the visitors to walk through various pathways and openings within the fort.

We walked by the water's edge, following the fort's side wall until we reached a staircase leading to the fort's highest point. The panoramic views of the Caribbean Sea and the coastline of San Juan were the most impressive from there.

Garitas at the fort in Old San Juan

Garitas

Exploring the fort, we navigated through expansive courtyards, narrow stairwells, and winding ramps, passing the iconic sentry boxes, or "garitas," once occupied by guards overseeing the fort's defenses.

Garitas at the fort in Old San Juan

Garitas

Exploring the fort, we navigated through expansive courtyards, narrow stairwells, and winding ramps, passing the iconic sentry boxes, or "garitas," once occupied by guards overseeing the fort's defenses.

The fort at Old San Juan
The fort at Old San Juan
View of the Atlantic Ocean from the fort in Old San Juan

View of the ocean

The fort sits at the northernmost tip of Puerto Rico, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. As you walk along the fort's stone wall, you'll be able to enjoy vantage points that stretch out towards the Atlantic.

View of the Atlantic Ocean from the fort in Old San Juan

View of the ocean

The fort sits at the northernmost tip of Puerto Rico, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. As you walk along the fort's stone wall, you'll be able to enjoy vantage points that stretch out towards the Atlantic.

Historic and military architecture

If you enjoy historic and military architecture, you'll definitely find this fort fascinating. Standing tall at approximately 140 feet above sea level, it offers an impressive view over a huge part of the city.

Beside the fort lies the Old San Juan Cemetery. Beyond that, your view opens up to the vibrant houses of La Perla, the lively coastal community adjacent to the old city, as well as Castillo San Cristobal and some of the taller buildings of San Juan.

View of San Juan and the Castillo San Cristobal
View of San Juan and the Castillo San Cristobal
View of San Juan and the Castillo San Cristobal
View of San Juan and the Castillo San Cristobal

Toro Verde Adventure Park

Toro Verde is known for having one of the longest and highest zip-lines in the world. We embarked on an exciting full-day trip to Toro Verde Adventure Park in Orocovis on one of our days in Puerto Rico. This was one of the days where not having our own car was a challenge, but we managed to sort it out. We opted for an Uber ride from Ocean Park to Orocovis, a drive that lasted about two hours.

Toro Verde Adventure Park

Jimmy Fallon and "The Monster"

The video that really sold us on going to the Toro Verde Adventure Park.

Known as "The Monster," this largest zip-line stretches over 1.5 miles and reaches heights of about 853 feet, giving you the opportunity to fly over the forest canopy and surrounding landscapes.

Toro Verde Adventure Park

Getting to Toro Verde

Renting a car is a must for a trip to Toro Verde since ubers and taxis don't usually go that far into the island. Getting a return ride can also be difficult (thankfully, our uber driver kindly stayed and waited for us).

Toro Verde Adventure Park

Getting to Toro Verde

Renting a car is a must for a trip to Toro Verde since ubers and taxis don't usually go that far into the island. Getting a return ride can also be difficult (thankfully, our uber driver kindly stayed and waited for us).

Toro Verde Adventure Park
Toro Verde Adventure Park
Toro Verde Adventure Park

Wrist bands

Get the wrist bands that includes all of the zip-line rides, otherwise it won't be worth the long drive there and back for only one or two rides.

Toro Verde Adventure Park

Wrist bands

Get the wrist bands that includes all of the zip-line rides, otherwise it won't be worth the long drive there and back for only one or two rides.

Don't worry if you're afraid of rides, heights and the feeling of free falling, the zip-lines look much more intimidating than they actually are. The zip-line experience wasn't nearly as frightening as anticipated; in fact, it was surprisingly calming, contrary to what I expected. The highlight though, was the view from above during the ride. You are able to look down at the dense forests, rivers, and deep valleys below –a scenery that is really inspiring and humbling. The view from the zip-lines offer a unique perspective on Puerto Rico's natural beauty from above, that left me feeling well connected to the surrounding nature.

Toro Verde Adventure Park Ziplines
Toro Verde Adventure Park Ziplines

Something to note, is that your weight and body positioning play a crucial role in determining the speed of your zip-line. For example, extending your arms like a bird increases the air resistance, potentially slowing you down. At times, particularly on shorter and less steep zip-lines, you may come to a stop around 75% to 90% into the ride. If this occurs, no need to worry, there is staff tending to every station that will assist by pulling you to the platform along the line (although initially the feeling of dangling 843 feet above the ground can be unsettling).

Toro Verde Adventure Park Ziplines
Toro Verde Adventure Park Ziplines

Day at Luquillo Beach

We spent most of our last day at Luquillo Beach on the east side of Puerto Rico, which is around the halfway point between Ocean Park and the Ceiba ferry terminal. It was one of the nicest beaches in Puerto Rico –the water was warm, and the backdrop was spectacular. Tall palm trees line the beach against a backdrop of the vibrant green hills. You can get a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean and El Yunque in the distance, which looks incredible during sunset (I would recommend visiting during the afternoon/evening to catch the sunset at the beach). It is located very close to El Yunque National Forest (about a 13 minute drive), so you could combine both of these experiences into one full day itinerary if you wanted.

Palmtrees at Luquillo Beach
Palmtrees at Luquillo Beach
Palmtrees at Luquillo Beach
Palmtrees at Luquillo Beach
Palmtrees at Luquillo Beach

Good to know (Gnats!)

The beach is full of invisible gnats that hide in the sand. To prevent bites, I suggest not sitting directly on the sand but laying down a towel as a protective barrier beforehand.

Palmtrees at Luquillo Beach

Good to know (Gnats!)

The beach is full of invisible gnats that hide in the sand. To prevent bites, I suggest not sitting directly on the sand but laying down a towel as a protective barrier beforehand.

Sunset at Luquillo Beach
Sunset at Luquillo Beach
Sunset at Luquillo Beach
Sunset at Luquillo Beach

El Yunque (our unsuccessful experience)

Unfortunately, I don't have much to say about El Yunque, because even though we fully intended to explore the rain forest, we were turned away at the gate. Uber drop-offs aren't permitted inside the park gates at El Yunque, therefore the only way to get into the rainforest is by having your own vehicle, or by getting a tour with a local.

A ticket to the rainforest is really affordable though, the parking and entrance fee only costs $2.

El Yunque National Park

Tickets to El Yunque

Securing a ticket can be a real challenge as they sell out within 10 seconds of being released. To increase your chances, make sure to be on the website a few minutes before tickets are made available.

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