In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, many of Puerto Rico’s business and hotels were forced to close – some for good.
Fast forward two years and the island (that Americans don’t even need a passport to reach) is back on the Caribbean travel map, with its promise of winter sun which won’t cost a fortune.
Here’s eight things you need to see, eat and do in sun soaked Puerto Rico.
Get lost in old San Juan
Old San Juan is arguably the jewel in Puerto Rico’s already overcrowded crown.
Expect charming cobblestone streets, pretty pastel painted colonial buildings, flower bedecked balconies, elegant plazas and majestic fortresses (step forward St Christopher’s Castle and El Morro) all juxtaposed against a backdrop of the sparkling Atlantic Ocean. Simply put: Old San Juan is sure to cast a spell over even the most jaded of travellers.
If all you want to do is laze on golden sand and top up your tan then rest assured, my friend, that Puerto Rico won’t let you down: the small island boasts some of the most spectacular stretches of sand found anywhere on the planet.
Take your pick from Playa Flamenco over on the island of Culebra (approximately 90 minutes from Fajardo), Playa Santa in western Puerto Rico which stands in front of a splendid 19th century lighthouse and Luquillo. The latter, celebrated for its surfing, is popular with sanjuaneros (San Juan locals) so, if you want to avoid the crowds, try to visit on a weekday.
Regardless of which beach you for, look forward to soft sand, rolling waves, and endless sunshine. What’s not to love?
Fill your boots
Puerto Rico’s food is the Caribbean’s best, a tantalising blend of influences, but if you only try one dish make it mofongo. This Puerto Rican staple is made from plantains that have been mashed and cooked with garlic, pork and plenty of spices. This delicious dish is so popular among Puerto Ricans that bananas are often imported in from the neighbouring Domincan Republic to meet the demand. A great place to sample mofongo is at Los Kioskos De Luquillo, Luquillo’s famous line of kiosks.
Locals are also mad about their meat and to say that they adore Lechon asado (roast suckling pig) is akin to calling Champagne a fizzy drink: a major understatement. Puerto Ricans’ passion for Lechon asado will see them make a pilgrimage to Guavate (at the edge of Bosque Estatal de Carite) at the weekend for a plate (or two) or pork.
Mofongo and Lechon asado are invariably washed down with, what else, rum… the island is, after all, the home of Bacardi (the world’s largest producer of rum).
Get ready to salsa
Jamaica may be famous for its reggae but Puerto Rico shakes it hips to a different beat… salsa.
The dance may have originated in New York (by Puerto Ricans living in the Big Apple) but the island – more specifically it’s colourful capital, San Juan – is the spiritual home of salsa.
Shake it like Shakira in nightclubs and bars where bands play until 4am (and not just at weekends) or, our pick, in La Placita de Santurce. The vibrant barrio’s most famous market, La Placita, particularly rewards a visit on Thursday and Friday nights when Puerto Ricans flock to the plaza to meet, eat, drink and dance salsa into the early hours.
Seek out the central mountains
For a different take on the island, away from the Caribbean beaches and condos, head up high into the central mountains to town of Aibonito (pronounced Ei-bo-nee-to) which is situated some 2,401ft above sea level and holds the record for the lowest temperature ever recorded in Puerto Rico so yes, be sure to pack lots of layers.
It was while in Aibonito that my friend Karen and I met two sisters who shared with us what life was really like – read no running water and electricity for two months – after Hurricane Maria struck describing it as “the scariest experience we have ever been through.” Their US based children sent constant supplies but alas, they were stolen in transit.
Close to Aibonito lies the dramatic Canon de San Cristobal, definitely one for the ‘gram.
Get a caffeine fix
While Puerto Rico (correctly) continues to be associated with salsa, the country is fast earning a reputation for producing some of the best coffee in the Caribbean.
Caffeine addict will, ahem, be full of beans about the prospect of visiting one of Puerto Rico’s historic coffee plantations which allow an insight into the various stages of the coffee production process, as well as offering the chance to enjoy a fresh cup of Joe.
Haciendas (coffee plantations) worth heading to include Hacienda Pomarrosa, Hacienda Tres Angles, Hacienda San Pedro, Hacienda Buena Vista.
Hike Reserva Forestal Toro Negro
Most travellers head straight to El Yunque National Forest, and for good reason: this soaking rainforest, which spans nearly 29,000 acres, is one of Puerto Rico’s top treasures offering both easy and arduous treks.
However if you’re after a quieter, less touristy alternative to El Yunque, we have the answer: take a bow the Toro Nego Reserve, home to the island’s highest peak (Cerro la Punta) and some of Puerto Rico’s most memorable hikes.
One caveat: Toro Negro lacks El Yunque’s finesse so don’t expect an army of staff, food stalls and toilets.
If you want to experience Puerto Rico like a local, make a beeline for the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan to catch a baseball game.
Puerto Ricans are crazy about baseball and the bleachers at beisbol (baseball) stadiums are invariably packed (perhaps helped by the fact that tickets are dirt cheap ranging from $5-18 with kids qualifying for a 50 per cent discount).
Teams play during the winter (from November to February) but, in San Juan, the two teams garnering all the headlines (and fans) are the Cangrejeros de Santurce (Santurce Crabbers) and Gigantes de Carolina (Carolina Giants).
Even if you aren’t a fan of baseball, going to a game is a great (inexpensive) way to meet locals. More than that, it’s worth watching a game for the raucous atmosphere alone.
Words and pictures: Kaye Holland