The 10 most popular tourist attractions in Puerto Rico
As a tourist destination in the tropical Caribbean, Puerto Rico has it all, and then some. Beautiful palm-fringed beaches, some with calm, warm waters lapping at the golden sand, and others with huge waves and famous breaks attract all kinds of beach seekers, from couples and families to surfers. Home only to the rainforest of the U.S. Forest System and the nighttime wonders of Bioluminescent Bay , Puerto Rico also delights nature lovers. Add to that the culture and charm of historic San Juan, with its beautiful colonial architecture and old forts, and the picture is almost complete.
Puerto Rico is a complex island with a Spanish Caribbean culture and an obvious American twist. This is especially noticeable around San Juan, with some American chain restaurants and other amenities associated with the U.S. mainland. Going further out, visitors will find quaint towns, small villages, beautiful islands, caves and rough mountain interiors.
1 Old San Juan (San Juan Viejo)
Old San Juan (San Juan Viejo) | Photo by: Lana Law
Walking through the streets of Old San Juan, with its beautiful colonial architecture and imposing forts, is like stepping back into another era, but with a number of modern conveniences. More than 500 years old, and the second largest city in the Americas, Old San Juan is a blend of Spanish colonial history and modern Puerto Rican life. The entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with hundreds of restored colonial buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries. Today, visitors can dine, eat or even stay in some of these beautiful old structures.
The main attraction is Fort El Morro (Fuerte San Felipe del Morro), standing on a peninsula high above the ocean, just a short walk from the city center. Built in 1539, El Morro’s history, location, and preservation make it one of the country’s top tourist attractions. Although there is much to see in Old San Juan, some of the outstanding sites are Tiri; Castillo de San Cristóbal (Fort San Cristóbal); and San Juan Cathedral, which houses the tomb of Ponce de Leon.
Accommodation: Where to stay in San Juan
- Read more:
- The 12 most popular tourist attractions in San Juan City
2 El Yunque National Forest
El Yunque National Forest | Photo by: Lana Law
To experience the lush interior beauty of Puerto Rico, this is the place to visit. Spreading along the Luquillo Mountains, including Pico El Yunque, El Yunque National Forest is home to the only rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System. The climate here is much cooler than along the coast and at lower elevations, and it is noticeably wet. Walking on foot
trails wind through the forest, allowing hikers a closer look at some of the 240 tree species and hundreds of plant species (only 50 species of orchids), as well as an abundance of smaller wildlife. El Yunque Peak reaches 3,500 feet above sea level, and the forest covers 43 square miles, including three-quarters of the island’s remaining virgin forests.
The El Yunque National Forest is one of Puerto Rico’s most popular natural attractions, and is often visited on tour from San Juan. Some of the highlights in El Yunque National Forest include La Coca Falls , Yokahú Tower , Baño Grande , Baño de Oro , and La Mina Falls , Located next to the highway, La Coca Falls has an 85-foot cascade on boulder formations and is the first major attraction to visit in El Yunque.
The El Port Rainforest Center is a visitor center for those looking for information about the area. Nearby is the Yokahú Tower, a 1930s tower open to the public to climb, which offers a beautiful view of the rainforest.
3 Culebra Island (Isla Culebra)
Isla Culebra (Isla Culebra).
Although Culebra is often mentioned in the same breath as Vieques, this little island with its beautiful beaches and lush hills has its own unique character. The pace here is leisurely and the atmosphere relaxed. Eco-tourism is big on the island, and many of the tourist establishments are run by expatriates. About 17 miles east of Puerto Rico and 12 miles west of the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, Culebra is only seven miles long and three miles wide with 23 offshore islands. The area’s coral reefs are considered some of the best in the entire Caribbean.
Horseshoe Playa Flamenco is the most popular beach on the island and as close to perfect as possible. The water is clear with no surf, making it a good place to swim or dive, and the sparkling white sand is palm-lined. The Isla de Culebra National Wildlife Refuge is a well-preserved slice of nature that includes the entire Culebra coastline and more than 20 seashores. More than one-third of Culebra is designated as Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, which includes: Cayo Luis Peña , a small island just west of Culebra. Here the bays and rugged landscape make for interesting but challenging tourist opportunities.
Accommodations: Where to stay on Culebra Island
Vieques, eight miles from the mainland of Puerto Rico, has become a popular beach resort with small, upscale hotels, restaurants, stores and galleries. With the U.S. Army’s departure from the island in 2003, Vieques turned its attention to tourism. The beautiful beaches are now supported by a quality tourism infrastructure that attracts Puerto Ricans and foreign travelers alike who take the time to get to the island.There are no big hotels or upscale condo complexes. At 21 miles long and five miles, Vieques is the largest of the Spanish Virgin Islands, but still offers a small island feel.
The island is also known for the unique phenomenon of Mosquito Bay (also known as Bioluminescent Bay ), where large concentrations of phosphorescent dinoflagellates light up in the water at night. Visitors can take an excursion in a boat, canoe or kayak after dark to experience this natural wonder. Although there are other areas in Puerto Rico where this phenomenon occurs, this is the best place to explore it. Vieques can be reached by air or by ferry from Fajardo.
Accommodations: Where to stay in Vieques
5 Surf and whale watching in Rincon
Surf and whale watching in Rincon | Photo by: Lana Law
Often referred to as “Pueblo del Surfing” (“Surf Town”) and “Little Malibu,” Rincon is known to Puerto Ricans as “Gringo Paradise.” The dominant language in the area is English, with many foreign surfers and other immigrants making the town their home. It became a surfing mecca after the Surf World Cup in 1968, when images of Rincon and frequent 15-foot waves were broadcast around the world. Although the waves here are pretty big, there are beautiful beaches that are suitable for swimming, mostly south of town.
Rincon is also one of Puerto Rico’s main areas for whale-watching excursions. Whale-watching season is from mid-January through March, when humpback whales are in the area. Tours are easily located in town.
Accommodations: Where to Stay in Rincon
6 Luquillo Beach
Luquillo Beach | Photo by: Lana Law
For an easy escape from San Juan’s busy beaches, Luquillo is a terrific option. Just a short drive from the city, Luquillo Beach is a palm of golden sand that offers quiet tranquility without the surrounding high-rise buildings and development. The water is generally calm for swimming, and the beach stretches for nearly one mile, making it ideal for walking. The area, shaded by coconut palms, has modern restrooms, showers and locker rooms with lockers, and there are food vendors near the entrance. A stop at the beach can be combined with a day trip to El Yunque National Forest .
Accommodations: Where to stay in Luquillo
7 Arecibo Radio Telescope (Observatorio de Arecibo)
Radio Telescope Arecibo (Observatorio de Arecibo)
The Radio Telescope Arecibo has a 20-acre dish mounted in a hub. Here astronomers have proved the “music of the stars” (pulsars and quasars) and explored the Moon, Earth’s ionosphere and other planets. There is also a search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) at this site. Scenes from Jody Foster’s movie Contact, and others, were filmed at the observatory. It is amazing, and the complexity of Observatorio de Arecibo is so impressive that it is worth driving up the winding road to visit.
8 Caves of the Rio Camuy (Parque de las Cavernas del Rio Camuy)
Parque de las Cavernas del Río Camuy (Caves of the Río Camuy) by Tyler S. Miller / photo modified
Rio Camuy Cave Park has a huge cave system covering 268 hectares and is considered the third largest cave system in the world. A trolley takes visitors to a cave 200 feet deep, or sinkhole, which is now a protected area known as the Cueva Clara Empalme. The caves have various rooms, in some cases with extremely high ceilings, stalagmites and stalactites, and rivers rushing along the base. The tour leads visitors through Cueva Clara Empalme. In addition to the natural wonders represented by the cave system, it is also interesting to note that the caves have long been used by the indigenous population.
9 Historic Center of Ponce
Historic Downtown Ponce | Photo by: Lana Law
Although Ponce is a large city and generally not on the typical tourist route through Puerto Rico, its historic downtown is a delight, with 17th-century architecture and open plazas. Plaza Las Delicias is a good starting point for visitors, with cafes and park benches for comfortable people watching. The red-and-white-striped Old Ponce Fire Station , the town hall , and the much more recently built cathedral (Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Guadalupe) have a special place here. Ponce also has a large number of quality museums, the Ponce Art Museum.
Accommodation: Where to stay in Ponce
10 Isla Verde.
An exceptional crowd looking for great resorts and a decent beach within easy reach of a major airport, Isla Verde is just the answer. Here you’ll find everything you need for an overworked, sun-appealing, beach-going vacationer who can demand – minus the Puerto Rican culture. With calm waters lined with a white-sand beach and backed by palm trees and resorts, Isla Verde is a tropical garden with all the amenities.
The area is a suburb of San Juan, and those who want to escape the resort without getting too far away will find the historic streets of Old San Juan just a short cab ride away. By analogy, the El Yunque National Rainforest can also be done as a quick getaway excursion from the beach.