A short plane ride from Florida will deliver you to San Juan, Puerto Rico, for a tropical paradise vacation.
Assuming you’re flying from the states, you don’t have to have a passport or a lot of money to taste the tropics in this American territory. But you’ll still feel a world away.
It starts at the airport, where you’ll taxi up to a 1960s-style building that’s all utilitarian and no frills. But somehow it adds to the experience as it tells you that you’re not in Kansas anymore. You’re officially on vacation.
After much research, I settled on a Alamo car rental as they had a location in the airport that had good reviews. After a warm reception by the Alamo folks, we were in our small car (you’ll want a small car if you plan to park anywhere in Old San Juan) and using a GPS (a must) to get us to our rainforest abode for the next several nights.
Roads are in relatively good shape in Puerto Rico, but certainly packed full of drivers who don’t hesitate to drive into your lane when they want to be there. Practice defensive driving skills, go slow and you’ll be fine. Other than a few questions regarding Spanish road signs, we made it to our cottage up in the mountains with few difficulties.
Now it’s time to relax and explore.
We discovered 5 things you should know about Puerto Rico (before you go):
1. Soak in the natural sights and sounds
Tropical birds trilling, tree frogs screeching, palm trees fluttering, waves crashing, waterfalls tumbling into natural pools below … ahh, the tropics.
Take the time to close your eyes and soak in the sounds.
Here’s a warning, though, when it’s nighttime in the rainforest of Puerto Rico, all you’ll hear is the wra-wreeeeeeep two-note screech of the coquí frogs. All. Night. Long.
While the tropical forest sounds are charming at first, it does make it difficult to fall into a peaceful slumber. You’ll want to be well rested for your next day’s adventure, so take some ear plugs and use them.
Then there are the sights to see. This island is full of tropical plants, flowers, palm trees and pristine turquoise bays.
In a short hike through the rainforest, you’ll see oodles of amaryllis, poinsettia (did you know it is actually a tropical plant?), torch ginger, lilies and birds of paradise.
2. Explore on and off the beaten path
You can find oodles of tours that will take you to El Yunque National Forest, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Old San Juan and Castillo de San Cristobal. And I’m sure the group tours offer security in that you don’t have to drive yourself, you’re with a group, and they know the best spots to go for photos. Consider them.
But then consider that you can drive yourself into El Yunque to explore the rainforest, taking those less-traveled footpaths into the mountains to your own secret eden of waterfalls.
You can walk the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan at your own pace, stopping at shops or palazzos along the way. You can snorkel and soak in the sun at a world-class beach with only a couple dozen people on the entire strand of golden sand.
All on your own.
Like anywhere else, use your best judgement on where to go and not go. There are some sketchy areas, especially on the outskirts of San Juan. Most homes and businesses have barred windows or high fences. There’s a reason for this if you see it, well, everywhere. Practice your normal safety protocol of staying in well-lit areas, keeping your belongings safely secured, and keeping alert to potential issues.
We explored on our own with no difficulties. Everyone we encountered proved to be warm, friendly and enthusiastic about our visit to their beloved country.
3. It’s best if you know some Spanish
Yes, it’s been an American territory since the late 1800s. But, still, this island’s primary language is Spanish.
People will work with you to try to interpret what you’re saying and seek to assist you. But, really, it’s best to know some basic Spanish so you can get directions, order off a menu, hold a pleasant conversation and generally have a better idea of what those around you are saying.
Additionally, road signs are in Spanish.
You can get by without it, but imagine what kind of experience you’d have with a Spanish vocabulary.
4. The food is ahh-mazing
We’re still looking for a rice and beans recipe that comes close to the scrumptiousness of the dish we scored at a little roadside kiosko.
Chicken is big in the islands and they know how to make it. Additionally, plantain dishes, fresh seafood and pina coladas really are sublime.
The food is pretty safe in Puerto Rico, as is the water. So feel free to enjoy foods and iced drinks as freely as you would in the continental United States.
Do enjoy the foods and drinks, but also get a case of bottled water to take with you when you go on your excursions so you stay hydrated.
5. Book things early
If you’re looking to stay at an all-inclusive resort, a book-it-yourself cottage in the rainforest or go on a Bioluminescent Bay tour, you’ll want to book early.
Before booking your vacation, look at the moon chart for Puerto Rico. You’re going to want to go to the island at a time when the moon is at its lowest light level.
Why? Because you’ll want to see a bioluminescent bay. Seriously. When is the last time you saw water light up when you ran your hand (or paddle) through it?
Once you book your trip during a low-light period, you’ll want to call around to secure a spot on either the electric-motorized boat tour or a kayaking tour of the bio bays. Spots go quick and you don’t want to miss this.