September 1 2009 by Matthew Clyde
Puerto Rico has been a favorite island escape for travelers across many generations. The "Island of Enchantment" will feel both exotic and familiar to visitors from the continental U.S. Culturally, the island offers a rich blend of Spanish, Anglo, African, and native flavors that provide for a fun and diverse vacation.
Part of the tourist draw is that Puerto Rico enjoys year round summer temperatures, with an average annual temperature of 80°F. The peak tourist season is between December and April, so now is the perfect time to plan your next island getaway. Of course, if you like to travel in off-peak right now is the time to go, but keep in mind off-peak coincides with hurricane season in the Caribbean. My recent visit was in March, based on strong recommendations from my local contacts as the ideal time to visit - not too hot, not too crowded, not too much rain. Whenever you may plan to take your island hop, here are a few highlights you don't want to miss.
Old San Juan
With cobbled streets, immaculately restored Spanish colonial homes and churches, wrought iron balconies, and breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean, Old San Juan is one of the most romantic cities in the western hemisphere. While there, you should explore the amazing San Felipe del Morro, a 500 year old fort that guards the San Juan Bay. It is full of tunnels, dungeons, barracks, ramps and La Garita guard posts with famous dome shaped tops. There is a long list of other must sees in Old San Juan including the Castillo de San Cristóbal, guardian of the city from attacks on land; La Casa Blanca (The White House) which was the Ponce de León family's home, built in 1521; Palacio de Santa Catalina (also known as La Fortaleza), the oldest governor's mansion in the western hemisphere; Puerta de San Juan, the only remaining gate that allowed passage into the walled city; and the Paseo del Morro, a path that follows the old city wall and leads you to the Raíces Fountain, which is stunning at sunset and even more amazing after a tropical rain storm.
Bioluminescent Bays are rare phenomena caused by tiny microorganisms on the surface of the water that illuminate like pixie dust in the dark. There are several options to view the bioluminescent experience in Puerto Rico - one is at La Parguera, in the southeastern part of the island. The other is in Vieques, an island off the northeastern shore. You can also take an excursion from Fajardo. No matter where you take the journey, make sure you are going on a moonless night. In each location, you slowly kayak through the bay with a guide and as you glide through the water you see the water come alive with magical light. It is one of those singular experiences you really can't fully describe until you've experienced it firsthand.
There is only one tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest Service system: El Yunque. This is Puerto Rico's most popular attraction. It is home to 150 species of fern, 240 species of trees, and thousands of other native plants. One of the most popular hikes is the one to La Mina waterfall. There are smaller natural pools all along the route, while La Mina, the largest waterfall, feeds the largest pool. Visitors are allowed to cool off in the water, so take swimming apparel in case you want to join in the tropical forest water play.
Hacienda Buena Vista & Ponce
Coffee enthusiasts will not want to miss a visit to the Hacienda Buena Vista, north of Ponce. It was built in the early 1800's and has been restored as a working coffee plantation with authentic period furniture in the main house and farm animals roaming the grounds. This stop can and should be paired with a trip to historic Ponce - a charming city that houses one of the most unique fire stations ever built. It can only be described as "red and black."
Beach Bound & Culebra
Hopefully, by this point in your tour of Puerto Rico, you've found a beach or two. It is worth mentioning that the island has a most-beloved beach, Luquillo, which lies east of San Juan. Here you will find a long strip of golden sand, leading into the gradually deepening, crystalline and warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It is a very well equipped public beach with parking, showers, bathrooms, beach chairs, and umbrellas. For those who prefer to avoid the high cost of private beach resorts this is the perfect place to relax under the palm trees and enjoy some sun and sand.
Puerto Rico's most alluring attraction is Culebra. This sleepy island is one of the "Spanish Virgin Islands" and is quite undeveloped. It offers pristine beaches and easy access to reefs where you can explore marine life as you snorkel. But if Culebra is on your Puerto Rico to do list, remember, the main reason people come here, is to do nothing.