5 reasons to visit Puerto Rico this holiday season

Dec 23, 2021

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‘Tis the season for coquito, fireworks and a historic New Year’s Eve countdown.

You’ll find all the above in Puerto Rico, where holidays are taken seriously. Decorations blanket the island by early November to prepare for one of the longest holiday seasons in the world, spanning from right after Thanksgiving to mid-January.

The show will go on this year despite ongoing safety restrictions and protocols, in some ways bigger and better than before. The capital city of San Juan is celebrating its 500th anniversary and the tourism industry is eager to welcome visitors back just in time for peak season. Deals on nonstop flights from major U.S. hubs are everywhere thanks to budget airlines such as JetBlue and Frontier.

If you like your festivities with a side of tropical beach, Puerto Rico should be at the top of your holiday list.

Related: A beginner’s guide to visiting Puerto Rico

New Year’s Rockin’ Eve

This year marks the 50th anniversary of “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” — a repeat number one New Year’s Eve programming special hosted by Ryan Seacrest that boasted more than 18 million viewers last year. The more than five hours of performances provide a glimpse into holiday celebrations around the world. There will be one important, inclusive addition to the programming for 2022 – the first-ever Spanish language countdown to midnight, broadcasting live from Puerto Rico and hosted by Roselyn Sanchez.

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This will be the first year the event is hosted in Puerto Rico. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

The countdown will take place at 11 p.m. ET, 12 a.m. AST. However, due to a spike of the omicron variant, there will no longer be a live audience at the Puerto Rico Convention Center and Distrito T-Mobile, a state-of-the-art entertainment and nightlife complex that celebrated its grand opening in August 2021.

Acts including rapper Daddy Yankee will still perform and the Convention Center will still have an impressive display of fireworks, a tempting option for those seeking an alternative to the Times Square Ball Drop.

Three Kings Day

New Year’s Eve is just the beginning of the celebrations, followed by Three Kings Day on Jan. 6. This holiday honors the Magi, the kings that brought gifts to Jesus when he was born. To celebrate, children write a letter asking for a gift to their favorite king. On the eve of Three Kings Day, they leave boxes filled with straw out for the kings’ horses, like Santa’s cookies. In the morning the straw is gone, and gifts are in their place.

Three Kings’ Day celebration in downtown Old San Juan. (Photo by Mark Zhu/Shutterstock)

Preceding Three Kings’ Day,  the town of Juana Díaz on the south coast of Puerto Rico hosts an annual festival and caravan starting around Jan. 2 that includes re-enactors of the three kings on horseback. They make their way to several cities throughout the island before returning for an official parade on the sixth, where Juana Díaz residents join dressed as shepherds. There’s a museum in town called Casa Museo de los Santos Reyes that is the only museum dedicated exclusively to Three Kings artifacts and artwork.

The party never stops

Puerto Rico is famous for the length of its holiday season. Having lights on a house until February is the norm, not the exception. Instead of caroling, there are parrandas, where friends and family visit each other’s houses with instruments, spend an hour or so dancing and eating before moving on to the next house. They’re meant to be a surprise and grow in attendees as the party goes into the wee hours of the morning.

Christmas Lights Decorations on Facade of Mayaguez. (Photo by Dora Ramirez/Shutterstock)

Each municipality has its own celebrations, from Festival de las Mascaras in Hatillo with colorful masks and costumes to Manantial Iluminado in Vega Baja, a natural spring lit up with Instagram-worthy decorations. If you’re staying closer to the metro area you can visit NaviTown at Bahia Urbana, a fair with carnival rides and the ability to drive through Santa’s workshop. You can also watch the Christmas Boat Parade in the Bay of San Juan.

Puerto Rican holiday food

A typical celebratory feast features a roast pig, also known as lechon. There’s a pork trail in the mountains of Guavate called “La Ruta del Lechon” where you can go kiosk hopping and sample different cuts. They have live music and street vendors during the weekends and holidays.

Looking for a sweet fix? Loiza Dark has a shop right by the San Juan International Airport and should be your first stop when you land. They grow and cultivate their own cacao and create unique holiday truffle flavors throughout the year. When five o’clock comes around during the holiday season, pour yourself a glass of coquito. This festive Puerto Rican ]drink is a creamy coconut and rum-based alternative to eggnog that’s topped with cinnamon to taste. It’s so popular, you’ll find it in pharmacies and corner stores.

For a healthy holiday alternative, Poliniza (Jardines de Castillo, PR 181, Trujillo Alto) offers pick-up service of decadent dairy-free, gluten-free and refined sugar-free desserts, from cakes to brownies, all worth the drive. They offer local favorites like tres leches, a cake soaked in three different types of milk.

San Sebastián Street Festival

All good things come to an end. The Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián signal the end of the holiday season in Puerto Rico. It was still expected to take place from Jan. 13–16, 2022, in the streets of Old San Juan at press time. The festival was significantly reduced in 2020 due to the pandemic, so locals are excited to have it return on a grand scale.

The San Sebastian Festival in San Juan. (Photo by Erick Brazzan/Shutterstock)

During the day, the centuries-old corridors hold artists and vendors, forming one giant shopping plaza and showcase. At night, the city turns into a party with concerts and dancing in the streets. Finding parking is rare and the area is hard to navigate by car, so get an Uber or taxi to drop you off or stay in the Old San Juan area if possible.

Featured photo by Antonio Gravante/EyeEm/Getty Images.

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