The Escape: Puerto Rico
If you’ve dusted off your passport only to realize that the photo of you inside is from ten years ago, don’t sweat it. U.S. citizens don’t need one to travel to Puerto Rico. Those lucky enough to call the East Coast home can get to the island’s main airport, the San Juan Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport, in just about four hours or less on a direct flight, depending on where they’re coming from.
Where To Stay
San Juan and neighboring Old San Juan are the hubs for most of the things you’ll do, and you’ll find an array of hotels that suit every type of budget. The ones around Avenida Ashford in the Condado neighborhood will put you steps away from the best beaches on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island. There are also a lot of really affordable Airbnb rentals in the area, and having access to a friendly Airbnb owner and someone who knows the island can be better than any amenity a hotel can offer. It really all comes down to what type of experience you want, the sitting by the pool or beach full-service type of experience or the in-town, exploring the city type. Either way, know that you’ll never be too far away from an awesome beach.
Puerto Rico is much more than just 'Gram-worthy beaches, there’s plenty of cool sights to see as well. Head to Old San Juan, the colorful historic area with its blue cobblestone streets and colonial architecture that’s also the hub of San Juan’s nightlife. Google Map your way to the Plaza de Armas on Calle San José to see the main square where San Juan City Hall is and then make the leisurely twenty-minute walk west to El Morro, the massive old fort that was once used to guard San Juan against naval attacks during the 16th century. From El Morro, you’ll have a great view of the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery and La Perla, the housing community that sits on the coast. After you’ve quenched your thirst at a quick pitstop, make some time to visit Casa Barcardi, the home of the famous Puerto Rican rum. It’s a quick $1 ferry ride from Old San Juan and you’ll get to tour the factory, learn the awesome history of the Bacardi family, and, most importantly, sample the fruits of Bacardi’s labor.
Eating and Drinking
First up, head to vibrant and bustling El Jibarito on Calle Sol, a place that’s popular with locals and known for mofongo, the national dish of mashed green plantains with garlic and seasonings that’s then, hell yes, deep fried. It’s usually served with chicken, shrimp or, our favorite, crispy fried pork. Verde Mesa on Calle Tetuan has fresh seafood and veggies, and the mason jar-lit interior has an old-world feel to it. There are street vendors selling meat-filled empanadas and piraguas—fruit-flavored shaved ice, which you’ll be thankful for as the post-drinking hunger kicks in.
You’re in the rum capital of the world, so your inaugural Puerto Rico trip should obviously be honored with a mojito (or four) or many rum and cokes. Old San Juan affords you the opportunity to bar hop to a ton of different lively spots, many with live music and dancing. Also, Barrachina on Calle Fortaleza is supposedly where the piña colada was invented, so obviously you know what you have to try there. You can also find international cuisine all over the place, but Restaurante La Madre on Calle San Francisco is a great choice for Mexican food. They serve margs in unique flavors like coconut and tamarind and it’s the perfect pre-party dinner spot before you hit up Nuyorican Café right down the road. Nuyorican has some of the best nightlife in Old San Juan and here’s live music, djs, and lots of dancing. A few pre-trip salsa dancing lessons probably wouldn’t hurt.
Puerto Rico offers a ton of adventure right at your fingertips. For a day trip or overnight, try Culebra, a small island 18 miles off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico proper, for the incredible white sands and clear blue waters of Flamenco Beach, considered one of the most beautiful in the world. Fly to Culebra in about 20 minutes for about $100 round trip or take the ferry from Fajardo (an hour east of San Juan) that’s only going to set you back about $5 and gets you there in less than two hours. An afternoon ferry or flight will give you time to get your shit together from the night before, eat breakfast in Fajardo, and see a quieter part of the island. You’ll immediately see what all the hype is about the minute you’re in Culebra. While there are places to stay, the land is mostly untouched by commercialization, so you’ll definitely feel those miles away from San Juan. Water sports and adventure are on the menu on Culebra and snorkeling, kayaking and scuba diving should keep you occupied. Grab some empanadas and Medalla beers at Susie’s Restaurant as the sun goes down but plan on a relaxing evening as Culebra doesn’t have anything close to a real nightlife and things shut down early. Wrap up your evening at Mamacita’s where you can strike up a conversation with vacationers-turned-expats. Even if you decide not to head to Culebra, it’s worth spending a night in Fajardo if you’re looking to explore some of Puerto Rico’s lush landscape. Head for adventure in El Yunque National Forest, just outside of Fajardo. It’s the only rainforest in the U.S.’s forest system and if hiking, waterfalls, and amazing nature are up your alley, it’s definitely worth checking out.
As you try and stay awake on the plane flight home, nursing that hangover and possible sunburn, it will be tough to comprehed that such a fun, exotic and lively spot is so close to home. There's always next time around to try and make sense of it all though.