Puerto Rico: a little bit of the United States, a LOT of Caribbean bliss

By | Category: Travel destinations

Irene is all smiles following a trip to Puerto Rico – aka the Caribbean’s best kept secret

Puerto Rico is the most accessible island in the Caribbean, with dozens of daily nonstop flights from all over the world. But too few visitors explore this gorgeous, lush island beyond the sizzling nightlife and action-packed casinos of the capital city, San Juan. And yet, it is so simple – you can actually loop around the entire island in just a day. Beyond the main isle, the nearby islands offer an even more laid-back atmosphere and beautiful, pristine beaches.

Start your exploration of the island with a visit to Old San Juan. This area is a magnificent seven-block historical city centre with cobblestone streets, well-preserved homes, government buildings, parks, plazas, a castle, a fort and a cathedral – all dating from the Spanish colonial period of the mid-1500s to 1700s. Linger and enjoy street performers, sidewalk cafes, trendy ‘Nuevo Latino’ restaurants and art galleries. If you’re lucky, you might catch a Puerto Rican-style wedding or frilly-dressed First Communion celebration.

Known as the ‘Cathedral of Rum,’ the Puerto Rico Bacardi Rum Distillery was built in the 1950s and is one of the world’s largest plants, producing up to 100,000 gallons of rum a day. The 45-minute tour of the museum and distillery includes product samples – try a Cuba libre (rum, cola and lime juice,) a daiquiri or a minty Cuban mojito.

Venture about 42km southeast of San Juan and you’ll find yourself in El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest within the United States National Forest system. It measures 69sqkm and receives 240 inches of rainfall annually. Officially known as the Caribbean National Forest, El Yunque offers 13well-marked trails where you can glimpse waterfalls, rushing streams, bamboo groves, lush ferns, wildflowers, 68 species of birds (including the endangered green parrot,) numerous animals and 1,200 species of trees and plants, including 50 types of orchids. Suffice to say you could easily spend an entire day here, before returning to San Juan for the evening’s festivities.

From the capital city, you can also head in the other direction – 89km west to Arecibo. Founded in 1616, Arecibo is a popular side trip because of its internationally famous observatory and the Camuy Caves. The Arecibo Observatory, operated by Cornell University, houses the world’s largest radar-radio telescope, a 20-acre dish that lies in a 563-ft deep sinkhole, with a 600,000kg suspended platform hovering above it. Each year, hundreds of scientists and students from around the world visit the site to observe and study planets in our solar system and beyond.

The 268acre Parque de las Cavernas del Rio Camuy contains one of the world’s largest cave networks and the third longest underground river in the world. Cueva Clara is a 170ft high cave with large stalactites and stalagmites and blindfish found only here. Hour-long guided bilingual tours lead you through the caves on foot and end with a tram ride to a 400ft sinkhole.

Then there’s Fajardo, 55km southeast of San Juan, which is a hub for yachts, sailing and diving. It’s also popular for day-trippers traveling by catamaran, ferry or plane to the offshore islands of Vieques and Culebra. Fajardo is home to the Reserva Natural de las Cabezas de San Juan, a 316 acre nature preserve with boardwalks that presents seven ecosystems.

Laguna Grande is a mangrove-lined bioluminescent bay, where water-based microorganisms glow at night, creating a supernatural aura around all that moves—paddles, fish and, most delightfully, you. On Vieques Island, Mosquito Bay (actually not named for the biting bugs) is considered the world’s finest example of this rare, naturally occurring phenomenon.

Laid-back and uncrowded, Vieques and Culebra islands are without a chain store, asphalt parking lot or high-rise in sight. Vacated by the U.S. Navy in May 2003 after 60 years of training, the islands offer immaculate, golden-sand beaches, clear waters, mangroves, coral reefs and tranquility that are more seductive to tourists than ever.

Vieques, also called ‘Isla Nena’, or Girl Island, lies six kilometers east of Fajardo. At six kilometers wide by 34km long, the island maintains a population of about 9,000. Visitors to Vieques will be hard-pressed to leave the lure of its exquisite beaches—their calm, crystalline waters are made for relaxing swims and world-class snorkeling and diving. Dense palms and sea grapes lead up to rippling stripes of clear-as-glass azure water and silky sand while the green mountains of mainland Puerto Rico rise in the distance.

Tiny Culebra is almost six kilometers wide by 11 kilometers long. Founded in 1880, this serpent-shaped island is located 27km east of Puerto Rico and 19 km west of St. Thomas.

With only 1,700 residents, Culebra is part of a mini-archipelago of 24 islands that were used by pirates as hideouts during the 18th century. There are dozens of spectacular pale-sand beaches, and Culebra’s snorkeling and scuba diving are considered by many to be the best in the Caribbean. An especially exquisite beach is mile-long Flamenco, with brilliant turquoise water and pure white sand. Culebra’s other beaches are also awe-inspiring, boasting scalloped bays and coves fringed by lush, irregular peaks. The island’s pleasures are simple and nature-oriented. A whopping 85 percent of the land – 1,580 acres—is protected by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as a nature preserve.

To visit the off-islands, most people take small planes from San Juan or from Fajardo. The ferry from Fajardo is a 90 minute trip over sometimes rough seas. The small planes can also feel rough to those of us who suffer from motion sickness – in short, take Meclazine or some other motion sickness medicine before boarding either transport! If you plan to reserve a rental car, reserve early as demand may exceed supply.

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