With splendid beaches near cities and on remote islands, Puerto Rico’s museums, historical sites and restaurants practically play second fiddle.
Unless your pleasure is snow skiing, Puerto Rico has just about everything you’ll want in an island getaway, from stunning beaches and uncompromising luxury to adventurous outdoor activities and snappy, flavorful nightlife. And because it is a U.S. territory, U.S. citizens can come and go with ease: You won’t even need a passport.
First, the beaches: For those who like their idyllic beaches close to the action, Isla Verde, just a five-minute cab ride from the San Juan airport, boasts a line of major hotels, a beautiful powder-white beach, crystal waters and easy access to Old San Juan and other cultural, dining, shopping and dancing attractions.
The Isla Verde beach fronts the Atlantic Ocean, with a fine stretch of sand hemmed by palm trees. Isla Verde is popular with mainland U.S. escapists who want to recline in the sun just minutes after arriving in Puerto Rico. A few big-name hotels stand sentry on the beach, flanked by some smaller lodging options, including some chic boutique properties that look like settings for movie stars’ private parties.
Another popular destination near San Juan is Condado Beach, with a natural rock barrier protecting Condado Lagoon.
Most people wouldn’t pick a former bombing range as a Top 10 stretch of shoreline, but most people have never seen Vieques. After 56 years of control, the U.S. military stopped using the 21-mile-by-four-mile island as a proving grounds in 2003, and the underdeveloped islet now offers postcard-perfect strands of sand, as well as winding roads through forests chock-full of tropical birds – and wild horses, quaint inns, a major resort and a laid-back pace. As part of the activities during the night you can’t miss the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world.
In May 2003, the U.S. Navy turned over control of Camp Garcia, which covered about half of Vieques, to Puerto Rican officials, who promptly protected the area as an undeveloped nature preserve. Because of its newness on the hot beach scene, lodging rates in Vieques are much more reasonable than they are in many other Caribbean destinations. A nice room here in high season can be had for about $60 a night. But upscalers need not worry: A top-tier resort pampers with posh amenities and indulgent spa services.
A City with Spirit
San Juan, founded by the Spanish in 1521, is the oldest city in the United States, but even it is predated by one of Puerto Rico’s top historical and cultural attractions:
Old San Juan. In 1508, explorer Juan Ponce de León founded a settlement he called Caparra. Some 14 years later, and one year after San Juan was founded, Caparra was abandoned and moved, and has been Old San Juan ever since. Ponce de León’s remains rest in the San Juan Cathedral, a 1540 structure of Gothic architecture.
Old San Juan comprises seven square blocks of cobbled streets and colonial architecture – ideal for walking tours – on a peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and San Juan Bay. Highlights are El Morro and San Cristóbal, huge stone fortresses that guarded the city from attack by enemy nations and pirates; children love to fly kites at the fortress, which has warm but strong winds.
A slew of museums can keep culture buffs busy for days. Some of the best are the Museum of History, Anthropology and Art (hosting theater, live music and a 5-acre garden); the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (paintings and sculpture); La Casa del Libro (housing a rare collection of 16th-century books); and the Las Américas Museum (archaeology, carvings and crafts).
Also, don’t overlook the Paseo la Princesa, where artisans sell their wares and live music fills the air, especially on Sunday evenings.
San Juan proper offers a stylish shopping, dining and nightlife scene, particularly in the South Fortaleza Street (SoFo) neighborhood. Expect a trendy, hip setting here, but also one respectful of Puerto Rico’s old culture; you’ll find sharp fashion and classic-style dancing.
Driving around parts of Puerto Rico will remind you that you haven’t left the U.S.: Many of the well-paved roads are lined with convenience stores, malls and familiar restaurants. But the minute you sit down to a fresh seafood meal on a cliff overlooking the sea, you’ll know you’ve left home.
An excellent area for such indulgences is the Porta Caribe on Puerto Rico’s southwest coast, home to the city of Ponce and the seaside town of La Parguera. The highlight of Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, is the Plaza las Delicias, a town square brimming with gardens, fountains and the historic Cathedral of Our Lady Guadeloupe. Ponce’s architecture melds classical, art deco and Creole styles, somewhat like New Orleans.
La Parguera, further west of Ponce, has an inviting pedestrian mall with a carnival atmosphere: Vendors sell trinkets, food and drinks; live bands set up on the patios of bars; and – anywhere near the town dock – boat-tour operators chase down tourists to sell tickets to La Parguera’s biggest attraction, its bioluminescent bay. A 20-minute boat ride from the dock brings you to a bay teeming with millions of microscopic organisms that create an underwater glow. Most tour boats include a local who will swim in the bay, further stirring the microorganisms and brightening the glow.
To be educationally enlightened, a tour of the Fort of San Cristóbal is mandatory. The wall was first installed to protect the city from island intruders in the 1500s. The wall was later burned, and all of the historical information was destroyed with it. Finally, the fort was used during the Spanish-American War for protection of the city. Tours are available to re-enact the soldiers’ experiences during the war, including the dungeon, the bunkers and the secret paths within the fort. The southwest coast also boasts the Dry Forest of Guánica, where cacti share space with deciduous trees. Just offshore, accessible by sea kayak, are miles of snorkel-friendly reefs and mangroves.
Porta Del Sol, on the west coast, is just being discovered for its low-key ambience. Rincón is a charming city whose waters are known for excellent windsurfing conditions. Surfers drop in on 20-foot waves. A zoo enchants visitors of all ages in Mayagüez, whose bustling plaza is reminiscent of Spanish-colonial days.
Puerto Rico’s most famous nature preserve is the rain forest of El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest managed by the U.S. Forest Service. El Yunque actually combines three types of forests (rain, montane and dwarf) and boasts two waterfalls and 50 varieties of ferns, 20 types of orchids, and dozens of species of birds and frogs. The park has a visitors’ center called El Portal, where you can find informative exhibits and popular hiking trails. The mountains of El Yunque reach 3,500 feet and are often shrouded in clouds; the rain forest receives some 100 billion gallons of rainwater annually.
Another, lesser known, rain forest on the island is in the Luquillo Mountains, where the chanting coquí frog shares space with the endangered Puerto Rican parrot and myriad other birds.
Active travelers will have ample opportunity to enjoy the sports of their choice. Puerto Rico boasts 23 golf courses, many championship-level. The island has countless tennis courts, horseback-riding outfitters, deep-sea fishing opportunities (the waters are rich with billfish), water sports of all types, and 17 spas.
Whatever brings you to Puerto Rico, two things are certain: You won’t have time to sample all the island’s attractions, and you’ll definitely be back for more.
Entertainment available includes: Casinos. Nightclubs. Discos. Cabarets. Dinner/Dance. Cinemas. Theaters. Live Music. Folkloric Shows. A variety of bars in Old San Juan.
Air Canada. Air Europa, Iberia. Air Flamenco. American Airlines. American Eagle. Cape Air. Copa Airlines. Delta Air Lines. interCaribbean. JetBlue Airways. LIAT. MN Aviation. Norwegian. Sun Country Airlines. Spirit Airlines. Tradewind. United Airlines. Vieques Air Link. West Jet.
US: Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, San Juan (SJU). Rafael Hernandez, Aguadilla (BQN). Mercedita, Ponce (PSE).
Others: Antonio Rivera Rodriquez, Vieques (VQS). Benjamin Rivera Noriega, Culebra (CPX). Diego Jimenez Torres, Fajardo (FAJ). Eugenio Maria de Hostos, Mayagüez (MAZ). Isla Grande Airport, San Juan (SIG).
Public ferry: San Juan – Cataño; Fajardo – Culebra; Fajardo – Vieques.
Ferries del Caribe: San Juan– Santo Domingo.
Persons arriving from U.S. mainland or U.S. Virgin Islands need no documents.
For those arriving on international flights, same regulations apply as for arrivals in the U.S.
On departure, be prepared to have luggage inspected by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, as laws prohibit taking certain fruits & plants into the mainland.
Historic Old San Juan including El Morro Fortress; (remodeling); La Fortaleza, the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere; Plaza San Jose; Pablo Casals Museum; Quincentennial Plaza; San Juan Cathedral; Plaza de Armas; Paseo de la Princesa.
In Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second city, Plaza Las Delicias, Parque de Bombas Firehouse, Casa Armstrong – Proventud, the Ponce Museum of Art, the Museum of Music, Serralles Castle (rum museum) & El Vigia. Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve. Arecibo Observatory. Phosphorescent Bay in Parguera & the Guanica & Guajataca Forest Reserves. El Yunque Rain Forest. Rum distilleries. Rio Camuy Cave Park. Hacienda Buena Vista (restored coffee plantation) near Ponce. Tibes & Caguana Indian sites in Ponce & Utuado.
Identification such as a valid US or Canadian driver’s license or, for non-US or Canadian citizens a valid passport or birth certificate.
A death certificate if one or both of the parties is widowed.
Divorce papers if one or both parties is divorced.
“VDRL” blood test, which can be obtained in the United States or Puerto Rico. The test is valid for 14 days, but once your marriage license has been signed by the physician you have only 10 days to get married.
Marriage license papers can be requested by mail, but you must allow 60 days for processing.
To request such information please write to:
Demographic Registry Office
Box 11854, Fernandez Juncos Station
Santurce, PR 00910
With the above in hand, obtain a medical certificate from a physician in Puerto Rico.
Lastly, you need to visit the Marriage License Bureau to have all the documents authenticated. Once your documents are in order, you may be married at the free weekly Judicial Center ceremony or at a $150-200 private ceremony (your hotel may set this up).