There are two big attractions in Puerto Rico that I knew about long before I got there- Old San Juan, and El Yunque, representing the rich history and natural beauty that La Isla del Encanto has in spades. For anyone staying in San Juan, they are both very accessible as well, since El Yunque is only about an hour away and there are plenty of tours to get you there if you don’t have a car. Both are expansive enough to spend an entire day, depending on what you like doing, so research both and plan accordingly.
Old San Juan is home to two major forts that are part of the US National Park system- Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristobal (as well as Fort San Juan de Cruz across the bay). These were our first stops during our visit to the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States. It can be a little tricky to find parking in this area, so I would highly suggest trying to get there a little early in the day. Also, if you park in a parking garage and happen to come out and find a car parked behind yours, just look for a parking attendant. They really make good use of all the space they have in those parking structures, but from what I saw, I don’t think they will leave you penned in by other parked cars. Both of the main forts are covered by a single ticket, and have a tram that runs between them and into the city for anyone who needs a lift.
While I am not a huge history buff myself, both Castillos were so well maintained, expansive, and all-encompassing that I really found myself feeling like I had been teleported back in time. This is a truly inspiring place, and it is just amazing to see what was built to protect Puerto Rico’s main port in the days of European powers scrambling for footholds in the New World. The views of the city, the ocean, and the island itself are also just breathtaking from the National Park. It was more spectacular than I could have guessed, even though this was something that I have been looking forward to seeing for a long time.
Outside of the national park, Old San Juan has a variety of museums, historic buildings, shopping, and delicious dinning opportunities. Like I said, it is the kind of place where you could spend all day. We stopped at a little Jamaican restaurant on a side street for lunch, and enjoyed a large, Caribbean lunch in a cramped, but welcoming little building who’s age I could only guess at. Afterwards, we wandered
around, enjoying the architecture of this part of the city. The buildings here are not only beautiful in a way that only historic buildings can achieve, but they were all the colors of the rainbow, and a clear inspiration for the setting of Pirates of the Caribbean. During our time exploring, we happened upon Casa Blanca, the first fortification on the San Juan islet according to Wikipedia, and one of the oldest, still-standing buildings in the Americas. Entry was free, and the area was tucked away enough that most of the crowds appeared to be elsewhere. We took our time exploring the rooms, and looking at the colonial furniture and technology… imagining life in another time. Despite its age, it would still be an enviable house today, as it has remained lovely and airy, and has some fantastic views of the bay.
Besides Old San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital has other great places to visit, including beautiful beaches, modern shopping and dinning areas (including Plaza Las Americas the 13th largest mall in the US), and some great cultural experiences like bomba dancing in Loiza. To top it all off, the public transit in the city is fairly expansive and easy to use, and San Juan even has a very nice train that runs through the center of the city. While it doesn’t currently connect to Old San Juan, it does have an extensive bus network that it can get visitors to.
Finally, last but certainly not least, one of the most beautiful places to visit in Puerto Rico is El Yunque, the great rainforest of the eastern side of the island. The visitor center here, as a gateway into the park, made me feel like I was entering Jurassic Park (can you tell I am a nerd yet from this entry?). The forest is dense and feels like the setting of a movie, rather than reality. It is just that beautiful. The buildings of the visitor center kind of play into the whole Jurassic Park feel as well, but that is neither here nor there. The main attractions of El Yunque are up from the visitor center in the mountains. There is enough hiking here to spend the whole day exploring, and trails for all different skill levels. There are also two main waterfalls – La Coca and La Mina, and a historic observation tower to explore. There are also restaurants and little places to buy snacks and refreshments along the road, that shouldn’t serve as your primary source of water while exploring, but are wonderful places and recharge and cool down after hiking in the heat and humidity.
My sole complaint about El Yunque is its popularity. It
is out of this world, so as soon as you get there, you can understand why it is so crowded, but some of the more popular areas can be a drag to negotiate. First, parking can be a real problem. In order to hike to La Mina, we had to park about 0.5 miles away and walk up the road to the trailhead. The trail itself was so busy that sometimes it felt like we were waiting in line, and once we got to the waterfall, we didn’t even bother staying because it was swarming with people. I was happy to be there, and it is definitely a place that I would suggest to anyone who likes hiking and natural beauty, but it is good to go with some expectation for how crowded it can be there. If you would like to avoid the crowds, come during Puerto Rico’s slow season, arrive at the park early, or drive up to the very top of the road and explore one of the more difficult and remote trails.