Puerto Rico: Top Attractions
San Juan grew out from a colonial center whose awe-inspiring churches and forts still stand amidst a packed collection of shops and hotels. The ocean views from the many beaches draping the island, however, are timeless. Daytrips from the city allow visitors to explore the island's caves, beaches, rainforests, and many other natural wonders. Vieques and Culebra, both a short flight from San Juan, deliver the Caribbean of long-agoÂ—a sun-swept seascape devoid of high-rise hotels and traffic.
Old San Juan
Walking is the best way to get a feel for Old San Juan, a seven-square-block section of cobblestone streets, 17th-century churches, and historic buildings. Stroll the Paseo de la Princesa past the old city walls and through the San Juan Gate, and continue along the waterfront. For teens (and adults) looking for trendy clothes, browse the outlets and designer stores, particularly those on San Francisco, Cristo, and Fortaleza Streets.
Old San Juan: 800.223.6530, www.gotopuertorico.com
Castillo San Felipe del Morro, "El Morro," and Fort San CristÃµbal
On a rocky promontory on the city's northwestern tip sits the old fort of El Morro. Started in 1539 and completed in 1787, the fort offers stunning vistas and a labyrinth of tunnels, dungeons, and lookout towers to explore. The sea winds make the grounds a good place for flying kites. At San Cristobal, another fort that dates back to 1634, you can see cannons in the courtyard, view the troops' quarters, peer into the dungeon, and walk the ramparts.
Additional Info: 800.223.6530, www.gotopuertorico.com
"El Yunque"Â—the Caribbean National Forest
Officially called the Caribbean National Forest, the 28,000 lush acres of El Yunque are an hour east of San Juan and a great place to hike and see nature up close. The easy Big Tree Trail, less than a mile long, leads to a gorgeous waterfall, while the payoff for walking the moderately difficult, eight-tenths-of-a-mile-long Mt. Britton Trail is the sweeping view from the lookout tower. Hardy hikers can tackle the El Yunque Peak Trail, a strenuous five-mile climb to the 3,496-foot summit.
The Caribbean National Forest: 787.888.1810, www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/caribbean/
In San Juan, Little Condado Public Beach has shade and lifeguards. Luquillo Beach, favored by locals and just 15 minutes from El Yunque, offers calm waters and coconut-bearing palm trees along the shores. It also has food stalls and fat-tire wheelchairs for handicapped access. Expert surfers catch waves at Crashboat, a challenging "hang-ten" spot on the island's northwestern tip.
Additional Info: 800.223.6530, www.gotopuertorico.com
Rio Camuy Cave Park
Explore the world's third-largest underground river and a 170-foot-tall cavern at the Rio Camuy Cave Park near Arecibo. A tram takes you down into a sinkhole blooming with vegetation and a guide leads you past giant stalactites and stalagmites through the Cueva Clara, where you can peer into the 400-foot-deep Tres Pueblos sinkhole. Arrive in the morning as afternoon rains can sometimes close the park.
Rio Camuy Cave Park: 787.898.3100, www.gotopuertorico.com
Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory
Check out the largest single-dish radar-radio telescope in the world and see if you can use this government tool to detect life in outer space. The visitor center's hands-on exhibits explain aspects of astronomy and atmospheric science and discuss why the radio telescope, large enough to fit more than 12 football fields, is located in an enormous sinkhole in Puerto Rico. If the site looks familiar that's because it starred in the climactic scenes of the James Bond movie Goldeneye.
Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory: 787.878.2612, www.naic.edu/public/
Sail aboard Hillbilly Tours' 51-foot catamaran to Icacos Cay, an islet off Fajardo on the northeast coast. After a one-hour ride, snorkelers swim in the bay waters with schools of rainbow-colored fish and float above reefs of elkhorn, brain, and staghorn coral. Kids will love the underwater wonders, the boat trip, and the beachside lunch.
Hillbilly Tours: 787.760.5618, www.hillbillytours.com
Mosquito Bay, Island Adventures Biobay Tours (Vieques)
On Vieques, Mosquito BayÂ—nicknamed Bio BayÂ—offers the Caribbean's best examples of bioluminescence. Some say it's even the best on the planet. Disturb the mega-millions of dinoflagellates (tiny organisms) living in these waters and they light up, creating electric blue flashes in the water. Kayak and boat tours depart at night. For the most fun, jump in the bay, float on your back, and wave your arms and legs to fashion foamy, glowing water "angels."
Mosquito Bay and Island Adventures Biobay Tours: 787.741.0720, www.biobay.com
La Dulce Vida Mt. Bike (Vieques)
This mountain-bike tour takes visitors on the back roads of Puerto Rico, winding through land formerly used by the U.S. Navy. Bat colonies now hang from the ceiling of the huge bunkers that were once ammunition storehouses. Visitors travel through part of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge and pause at deserted beaches for a well-deserved swim.
La Dulce Vida Mt. Bike: 787.435.3557. www.BikeVieques.com
Flamenco Beach (Culebra)
Culebra's Flamenco Beach, part of a public park and popular among locals, is a stunning, nearly mile-long horseshoe curve of wide sands licked by modest waves. The town is home to barely 2,000 people and is even more laid back than Vieques. The park also offers overnight camping spots so close to the sea that you can fall asleep to the sound of breaking surf.
Flamenco Beach: 800.223.6530, www.gotopuertorico.com
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication