If you love culture, architecture, nature, beaches and good food, Puerto Rico (PR) has it all. It is an incredibly underrated destination (overall and especially in the Caribbean) and I would encourage everyone that is looking for more than just pretty beaches to give it a try . We landed in San Juan and drove west towards Isabela down to Rincon before spending our last three days in Vieques. It was a busy week and we could have used a couple of additional days to see a little more of what PR has to offer.
Stroll through the colourful street of old San Juan and enjoy the stellar colonial architecture. Visit the Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro), the 16th century fortress that guards the harbour entrance to learn about PR’s history. Plan a minimum of 1h30 to walk around the six floor monument and to roam the small museum. The ticket to the El Morro allows you to visit the Castillo San Cristobal as well which is about 20 min by foot away. The fortifications and governor’s mansion are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Colourful houses of old San Juan
If you happen to be in old San Juan over the week-end, head to la Callé Tanca and grab a drink and / or some food at La Vergüenza Bar. Packed with locals dancing to live salsa music, this bar is overlooking the seaside and is buzzing with people till dawn.
View of San Juan from El Morro
If you have more time and you are ready to venture outside of old San Juan head to Santurce, a free spirited neighbourhood packed with new restaurants, shops and galleries. Finish your day at La Placita, a market by the day and a great spot for an outdoor evening drink. Avoid the Condado area and the famous Ashford avenue which to me feels like Miami’s south beach.
We rented our car with Hertz in old San Juan and the service was great. Renting a 4x4 or a high chassis car in mainland San Juan is not mandatory. However, we experienced some heavy rain when leaving the city, which flooded some streets and would have made a high chassis car valuable.
El Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico
What We Loved
The Canon Club Piano Bar - A great place for a drink. Enjoy their live music while snacking on some tapas. They also have an outdoor sitting area.
Santisimo Bar Restaurant (inside the El Convento Hotel) - Great selection of cocktails / drinks overlooking the courtyard of the hotel. We didn’t have dinner there but the food looked and smelled delicious.
Café Cuatro Sombras - Open daily from 7am to 8pm (It’s hard to find a place to eat breakfast early on a Sunday) in San Juan. Great selection of sweet and salty options such as oatmeal, granola, berries toast, avocado and egg toast and sandwiches. Home made cookies and baked goods. The coffee is excellent too. Also a great place for lunch.
La Terrazza de San Juan - Nestled in the heart of old San Juan, the hotel features spacious and well decorated rooms (although ours was lacking natural light). The rooftop bar (with rather arbitrary opening hours) is great for an apero. The only negative is the noise but I guess it is impossible to find a well isolated hotel room in Old San Juan so bring some earplugs.
Streets of old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Not A Must
Verde Mesa - This place was recommended to us by three different local sources as being the best place for a dinner in old San Juan. We went through the pain of getting a table. They don’t accept reservations so we (and other guests) waited for 45 min to be seated even though the restaurant was quite empty. We had an average mediterranean dinner and an overall underwhelming experience. There is nothing local in the menu (except for the fresh fish). Don’t waist your time and money as you have a lot of great dinner with delicious local inspired options in the old town.
The Gallery Inn - If you are not a bird lover skip this hotel as the whole place can feel a little spooky. We booked a ‘discounted’ room which was overlooking the inner courtyard. The room has no glass windows (only wooden blinders) so it is extremely noisy at night. The bathroom is not completely separate from the rest of the room either. Other than that it is a nice boutique hotel with original furnishing and good service. The hotel is adjacent to the Canon Club Puano Bar (it belongs to the hotel).
The Royal Isabela
Isabel was on our way to Rincon so we decided to treat ourselves to a night at the Royal Isabela. The property is stunning and the casitas are spacious and beautifully furnished. It is a great hideaway for one or two night but I wouldn’t recommend eating there as the food (we had breakfast and dinner) was average (unless the weather allows you to eat on your terrace as the breathtaking view makes up for the food). We didn’t spend any time visiting the city of Isabela though.
What We Loved
The Eclipse - Nested within the Villa Montana Resort, this restaurant is the perfect lunch spot. All fruit and veggies are grown on the hotel’s farm and the fish is caught-off shore. The food was fresh and delicious (we mainly tried the tapas) and the beachfront view is a real treat . If you are in a hurry, pass as the service is extremely slow/inefficient. Google maps seems to misplace the restaurant so make sure to type in ‘Villa Montana Resort’ to get there smoothly. I would totally recommend this place for breakfast and / or dinner even though we only went there for lunch (twice actually).
View from the Eclipse restaurant
Rincon has an atmosphere on its own. Even though it was pouring rain during the two day we stayed there, we loved every second of it. The weather definitely altered our plans as we weren’t able to explore all the beautiful beaches and couldn’t try surfing either. So we ended up surf watching, eating, drinking and beach walking at dusk when the rain finally stopped. The city is very slow paced and primarily filled with surfers. The food was definitely a highlight for us in Rincon (better than in the rest of PR where it’s already excellent).
Sandy Beach - Rincon, Puerto Rico
If you are lucky, you might be able to witness Leatherback turtles nesting from February until August in Rincon (and on other beaches in mainland PR). I wasn’t aware of that so I didn’t make any research on the topic (unfortunately because it is definitely a dream of mine) but apparently Sandy Beach is a popular spot. Rincon also offers the most whale sightings in all of Puerto Rico from January through March, peaking in February.
What We Loved
The Juice Box - Bowls, smoothies and a lot of fresh fruits, if you are looking for a fancy healthy breakfast, this place is for you. The outside sitting area is small (and mainly overlooking the parking lot) but the food was delicious and super fresh. The Juice Box opens at 7:30 every day.
Beach House - The best fish tacos (take the blackened one) we ate in PR. The restaurant features stunning views of the sea, the atmosphere is really relaxed and the service super friendly. It is also a great place for sunset drinks.
Tamboo - This place is literally in every guide and recommended by everyone in Rincon (other restaurants and hotels included). Hence we were a little sceptical and afraid given all the hype surrounding this place but we gave it a try. The food was great, the service is the best and friendliest we had in PR (overall, people are extremely friendly all around PR) and the restaurant sits on the Sandy Beach so the surroundings is top notch (mind that the venue is very simply furnished so nothing fancy). You might also spot some whales in the early hours if you are fortunate.
Not A Must
Casa Islena - We stayed there for a night but I wouldn’t recommend it. The rooms are not very nice and are overlooking a common terrace which doesn’t provide a lot of privacy. The hotel is located on the sandy beach which is definitely a plus and a great advantage if you are a surfer (the sandy beach is a surfer’s spot).
You can get to Vieques by plane (it is around € 200 for a return flight) from the San Juan Louis Munoz Airport or by boat from Ceiba (costs about $5 / person). Note that Ceiba is about 75km from Old San Juan and it takes about 1h10 by car to get there from Old San Juan with no traffic. It will cost you over €80 with a Uber and about €65 with a private driver*. It takes about 45min door to door from the ferry deck in Ciba to the ferry deck in Vieques. If you decide to take the ferry make sure to:
- Buy your ticket online prior to your departure and have a printed copy of your ticket. You can buy them on the following website: https://tickets.porferry.com/events/0f06d637-7300-4d59-7c4c-97e22d8a9fcd. I kept on reading that it was impossible to buy tickets online but I did without any issues. It was a lifesaver because we did't have to queue on site and potentially miss our boat. They only open the online purchase about 3 to 5 days prior to your departure date and the number of tickets available for sale online is limited.
- Get there 1h prior to the departure of the boat and get on the boat asap as the schedule is a little chaotic. Our boat left almost 45min before the scheduled departure time.
- Take some medications if you are easily seasick because on the smaller boats you are seated on the lower part which is bouncy, without windows, small and packed with people.
- Before boarding the boat double check with the staff that the boat you are about to get onto is really going to Vieques (the whole ferry deck is a little choatic).
To catch the 9:30am ferry we left our hotel in SJ at 7:30 am and we were in Ceiba at 8:40am. You are not allowed to bring your rental car from mainland Puerto Rico to Vieques.
* Alicia +1 939226 8802 or Robert +1 787 226 9748 (one recommended the other) were both great and very reliable. They also offer private tours.
If you plan to visit Vieques make sure to rent a 4x4 car as soon as possible. The roads are very bumpy so if you want to explore all the hidden beaches you will definitely need one. There are three main rental companies in Vieques: Avis, Vieques rental car and Maritza's. We booked a 4x4 with Vieques Car Rental and the whole process was smooth. They picked us up at the ferry deck as soon as we arrived (and dropped us off for our departure as well for no additional fees). We got a brand new Jeep Wrangler and the service was great. Vieques Car rental will not allow you to take the car to three different areas of the island (Punta Arenas Green Beach, Bioluminescent Bay and Navio Beach). For Navio Beach it’s not a problem as you can park the car at Media Luna Beach and it is a 7min walk to get there. We did go to Punta Arenas beach (see more info below) and found that the interdiction is a little unjustified as the road was much less bumpier than that to Media Luna (with is an allowed area). Those three places are pretty remote and the roads are narrow so the rental companies are reluctant to go there in case anything happens.
If you decide to go there (which will be at your own risk) make sure to have a 4x4 and go slowly. There is no network once you get to the more remote areas so make sure to enter your itinerary before leaving to your desired destination. We also read that it was impossible to go to these beaches with golf carts but we did see them everywhere we went (except for Punta Arenas Green Beach). Finally, allow 45min to refill your car at the gas station before returning your car. This might sound like an overkill but there are only two gas stations on the island and they can get pretty busy.
We loved exploring all the little beaches around the island and it was a real treat as each single visit felt like a little adventure. We managed to visit three beaches in two days.
Punta Arena Green Beach
Punta Arenas Beach: For me it’s the most beautiful beach I saw on the island. As mentioned above, it is a little more complicated to get there but totally worth it. Arrive early (we got there by 9:45am and the beach was totally empty but was filled with people by 1pm at which time we left) and leave before 3pm (to avoid being eaten by the mosquitoes). There are palm trees (which is not necessarily the case in the beaches on the south shore) so you will be able to find some much needed shade. The snorkelling was better than on the other beaches but still not the main reason to get there. The main parking area is on the left of the ‘Welcome to Punta Arenas’ sign. Most people / tours park there and this area is also closer to where the good snorkelling is but if you turn right at the sign you will be able to access the Northern tip of the beach which was much less crowded. Also when you arrive turn your car around so that you don’t have to manoeuvre with a packed parking space.
Navio Beach: Navio is a small beach mainly lined by bushes and mangroves. The access is pretty easy and you have hidden caves that you can explore.
Naive Beach in Vieques
La Plata Beach: You should get a feeling of total seclusion once you get there. It is one of the few beaches in Vieques with pure white sand. The sea in Vieques has amazing tones of blue and emerald.
One of the main reason I wanted to go to Vieques was to experience the Bioluminescent Bay. Mosquito Bay is considered one of the best worldwide due to the high concentration of dinoflagellates (the microorganisms that sparkle with friction). It was indeed one of the most magical nights of my life. There are about 15 companies operating on the bay. I chose Bieque Eco Trips because they are sustainable, they use clear kayaks (it is as magical to see the kayak sliding on the water as touching the water with your hands) and they operate in small groups (maximum of 10 people). I really liked the fact that you are two on the boat as it allows you to play with the water while the other person paddles.)
Some logistics information: you will get wet so make sure to dress accordingly (long sleeved top, shorts and flip flops or sandals). Leave all your belongings in the car. Don’t bother taking your phone, you won’t be able to photograph/videograph anything (and you risk dropping it in the water).
What We Loved
The Hix Island House - Nested in the middle of the tropical forest, Hix is an eco boutique hotel surrounded by nature with breathtaking views. The hotel is built around nature with outside showers and an open concept rooms (you can totally close your room if you wish though). Each room has a kitchen and you get bread, coffee, tea, jams as well as fresh eggs for your breakfast. You can also grab fresh fruits at the reception at your convenience.
Room view from the Hix Island house
Gracia De Nada - this trailer is located between Isabela and Esperanza and serves great burgers (it's burger patties) and sandwiches. There is a small outside sitting area and the owners are super friendly. Perfect for a quick lunch.
Buen Provecho - This place doubles up as a gourmet grocery store where you can buy high quality organic food as well as fresh fruits and veggies. They serve tasty salads and sandwiches for lunch but you can also grab breakfast. This place is a little pricier than your average lunch in Vieques but totally worth it!
Bili Restaurant - Best food we had in Vieques and the service was great too. In addition, Eva Bolivar, the owner, decided to feed hungry resident for about 4 months following hurricane Maria serving at its peak about 1,400 meals per day. This is the type of businesses you want to support!
De Frozz Ice Cream - Super tasty (and not too sweet) artisanal ice cream with some local / traditional flavours.
Farmers Market (we are talking about two stalls here : -) Held twice a week (on Friday and another day - check as the days migh change) it is located on PR 201 on the left just before the PR 200 intersection. It is hard (and pretty expensive) to find fresh fruits and veggies on the Island so don’t miss it.
Not A Must
Duffy’s - Even though it is centrally located overlooking the beautiful Sun Bay, the food is simply not good.
El Quenepo - We had a very weird experience at this location. The food was good but there is nothing traditional on the menu so if you are looking for local inspired cuisine skip as this place serves mediterranean food. Also we arrived about 15 min prior to our reservation time and even though the restaurant was empty they wouldn’t let us have the table and tried to force us to go and have a drink at the bar. The service was polite but not genuine.