Exploring San Juan's Street Art, Rainforests and Castles
Puerto Rico has so much to offer: blissful beaches at every turn, plenty of cultural tourism and El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the US. It's an ideal spot to visit, especially for American travelers, since it's so easy to get to from the US and super-affordable. You can often find amazing flight deals and award availability to the island, too, making it the perfect place to cash in some hotel points, as there are many hotels with loyalty programs scattered throughout the island. Here's a look at the best art, hikes and castles in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and where to find them.
For starters, history buffs — or anyone who loves a good castle — can enjoy not one, but two giant stone fortresses perched overlooking the deep blue sea: the Castillo San Felipe del Morro (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the Castillo de San Cristóbal. Both castles date back to the 1500s, when Spanish settlers arrived to colonize the island. A $5 ticket is valid for seven days and includes entrance to both sites, but if you don't feel like exploring the interiors, strolling around the walls at dusk is a lovely way to enjoy the sunset.
Simply wandering through the streets of Old San Juan is a great activity for pretty much anyone. The hilly, cobblestone streets are lined with colorful buildings, and the sounds of salsa wafting in and out of bars complete with warm, pleasant evening temperatures set the scene for a truly enjoyable walk. If you want to enjoy the sights but need to take a load off your feet, a free trolley also operates between 9:00am and 6:00pm, stopping at various points around the city. If you pick up a city map at the tourism office or your hotel, you'll see that all the trolley stops are marked along the way and you can hop on and hop off as you wish.
Of course, there are plenty of nearby beaches that you can spend your day lounging on, the closest and most popular being Condado, a great place to watch the local boogie boarders do their thing. Ocean Park, another nearby beach, pictured below, is great for families and has much calmer waves.
Daytime temperatures can get really hot, so if you aren't at the beach, it may be best to head indoors for a bit and check out one of San Juan's many museums, like Casa Blanca, a restored home perched over the sea that was once built for Ponce de León. The Museo del Niño (Children's Museum) is a lively, bright space perfect for families, and the Museo del Arte has a varied permanent collection featuring works ranging from the 17th century to the present-day. Visit the art district of Santurce — the street art you'll see along Fernandez Juncos Avenue (bus stop 22) is creative and inspiring. Foodies should check out the Flavors of San Juan Food & Culture Tour, where they can sample some of the island's most famous dishes. For a real treat, stop by the Bacardí Distillery and end your historic rum factory visit with a stiff mojito or mixology class.
There are plenty of convenient escapes from the city as well. Anyone seeking a short hike or a picturesque drive should visit El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the US. If you'd prefer to skip an organized tour, you can always rent a car and drive up through the forest on your own.
There are several hikes you can do, most of which are well-marked with easy-to-follow trails. The most popular is the Big Tree Trail hike to La Mina Falls, which is a moderate-level 30-minute hike along a paved trail. Non-hikers can check out the Yokahu Observation Tower for incredible views of the tropical treetops.
The Humacao Nature Reserve, located about 90 minutes from San Juan by car, is a one-stop shop for nature, beaches and a little exercise.
You can walk or rent bikes and enjoy the palm-tree covered trails, visit the beach, hike up to an old bunker or paddle kayaks through the lagoon. Keep an eye out for the giant iguanas that frequent the park, which probably won't mess with you, but I wouldn't get too close.
Finally, your trip wouldn't be complete without a kayaking tour through bioluminescent bay, located in Fajardo about an hour from Old San Juan. Although it can be rather touristy since you can only visit the bay with a guided kayak tour, seeing the water glow when dinoflagellates light up the water is a special experience — just be prepared to kayak in almost-complete darkness on the way back!
What are some of your favorite things to do in Puerto Rico? Tell us about them below.
All images are courtesy of the author except where otherwise noted.