Flight time from Miami to Puerto Rico is about two-and-a-half hours, making it entirely possible to leave the mainland U.S. in the morning and be on San Juan's world class Caribbean beaches by noon. Proximity is just one of the reasons you should choose a visit to Puerto Rico, but don't forget about the incredible weather, diverse culture, adventure activities, historical sites, and booming restaurant scene. There are also some things you should know before you visit the island for the first time. We went to the experts, Julie Schwietert Collazo, a former Puerto Rico tour guide and contributor to Fodor's Puerto Rico guide since 2010, and Tania Pabon, a writer born and raised in San Juan, for their professional opinions. Read on for 13 things you should know before visiting Puerto Rico.
1. Americans can leave their passports at home.
Puerto Rico is a commonwealth nation, and U.S. citizens aren’t required to go through customs or present their passport on arrival to the island or when returning back to the U.S. However, entry into Puerto Rico by foreign citizens requires a U.S. visa issued by the U.S. Embassy in the traveler’s country of origin.
2. The legal drinking age is 18.
College students, take note: The legal age to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages in Puerto Rico is 18. Proof of age is still required at bars, restaurants, and nightclubs, so bring your ID when you go out. It should also be noted that Puerto Rican law is serious about drinking and driving, and there are fines for people who carry open alcohol containers in public, just like in the United States.
3. You should tip.
Much like in the United States, tipping hotel staff, restaurant servers, and cab drivers is expected. Generally, bellhops should receive one dollar per bag and housekeeping staff should receive at least two dollars per day. In restaurants, leave the waitstaff 15 to 20 percent of the check. Cab drivers generally receive 15 percent of the fare.
4. The beaches are stunning.
Most Americans think of the beach when they think of Puerto Rico. The island offers 300 public beaches managed by the Puerto Rico National Parks Company. Lifeguards, restrooms, showers, chair rentals, and concession stands (that sell everything from ice to boogie boards) are widely available. Luquillo Beach is 30 miles east of San Juan and offers calm and swimmable waters that are popular with families. Just a five-minute drive from the airport, the sugary, white sands of Isla Verde Beach are good enough for the luxury Ritz-Carlton, San Juan and good enough for us.
5. But Puerto Rico isn’t all beaches.
The beaches aren’t to be missed, but the island’s diverse ecosystem offers a lot more than sand and shore. Julie Schwietert Collazo tells us, “I think what surprised me the most — and still surprises me today, in some ways — is how geographically diverse Puerto Rico is. The island is just 100 by 35 miles, yet it has a rain forest, a dry forest, karst formations, and one of the largest cave systems in the world, not to mention beaches and mountains and offshore islands and cays.” El Yunque National Forest offers visitors over 28,000 acres of hiking trails, waterfalls, and wildlife.
6. Speaking Spanish isn’t required, but it is helpful.
Since 1993, Puerto Rico has had two official languages: Spanish and English. But you don’t have to be bilingual to visit the island. Tania Pabon tells us, “It’s pretty easy [to get by in English] in the cities. Places in and around San Juan, as well as Ponce and areas around El Yunque, attract tourists, so locals there are usually ready to speak English. If you’re going to small towns on the beach or in the mountains, you’d have to meet them half way. It would be helpful to take a book of vocabulary words when you’re getting out of metropolitan areas, just in case.” One note — road signs are in Spanish.
7. The weather is almost perfect.
The island’s temperature is just right at about 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. But it does rain regularly. Pabon explains, “Bring an umbrella! We get a lot of rain outside of hurricane season, but usually it’s a burst of rain in the middle of a sunny day that ends within a few minutes. Don’t be discouraged by it. Keep an umbrella in your backpack in case it hits you in the middle of an excursion, but it’ll be over soon enough.”
8. You can use your U.S. dollars.
Because Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, the island’s currency is the U.S. dollar. This makes spending money a breeze for U.S. tourists, who will also have access to American banks and ATMs. Credit cards are widely accepted, but it’s smart to bring cash and smaller bills for tips and restaurants outside of San Juan.
9. The food is delicious.
Puerto Rico is home to American chain restaurants (like The Cheesecake Factory, Señor Frog’s, and McDonald’s), and if that’s your thing, we won’t judge. But it would be a huge mistake to miss out on the island’s incredible and varied local restaurant and food scene. Schwietert Collazo suggests trying mofongo. She says, “It’s a mashed plantain dish, often stuffed with a meat or with seafood and then doused in a broth. It’s a guilty pleasure; I never eat it at home, but I will always eat it in Puerto Rico.”
When asked for her favorite restaurant, Pabon chose Cocina Abierta. She says, “My favorite restaurant is Cocina Abierta in Condado, an area of San Juan. It’s a gastrobar type of place with fusion Puerto Rican classics. I love to sit at their bar and go through ham croquettes and tuna tacos.”
10. Cruisers love Puerto Rico.
Several major cruise lines call on San Juan’s picturesque ports, and Old Town overflows with cruisers on port days. Some estimates point to two million cruise ship passengers per year on the island. While the influx of visitors is excellent for the economy, the crowds can be intimidating to non-cruisers.
11. You need to dress up…sometimes.
While beachwear is fine for the actual beach, San Juan is actually quite metropolitan, and you won’t find a lot of locals wearing bikinis at restaurants. Pabon tells us, “Many Americans think you can wear flip-flops and shorts everywhere. While beaches and local dives are what we’re known for, cities like San Juan and Isla Verde offer a metropolitan feel with trendy places to have a glass of wine and a good meal. A lot of tourists don’t know that the island has that side to it and don’t come prepared to meet the dress code.” While you don’t have to wear a gown or a tux, visitors should dress respectfully off of the beach.
12. Traffic jams are serious time sucks.
Schwietert Collazo advises, “It’s possible to cover a lot of miles on the island in a day, but traffic jams, which are all but inevitable, wouldn’t make that very pleasant. If you only have one day, stick to San Juan and explore Old San Juan, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s pedestrian-friendly, has plenty of restaurants, and offers both historical sites, like the El Morro fort, and cultural ones, including a number of museums.” Casa Bacardi is about a 25-minute drive from Old San Juan. The distillery is a tourist favorite for rum tastings and learning about how the sugar and rum industries — and slavery — shaped the island.
13. There are gorgeous islands to explore.
Puerto Rico is an island (obviously), but there are smaller offshore islands with gorgeous beaches, coral reef access, wild horses, and breathtaking beauty. Culebra and Vieques are arguably the most popular destinations. Twenty-mile long Vieques is known for a black-sand beach and Mosquito Bay, recognized as the brightest bioluminescent bay by the Guinness Book of World Records. Culebra lies 17 miles east of mainland Puerto Rico. Visit the Cayo Luis Peña Natural Reserve for snorkeling and diving.
Where to Stay in Puerto Rico:
San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is an upmarket, four-pearl resort located in San Juan’s chic Condado neighborhood. The resort’s 525 guest rooms are tasteful if somewhat chain-like, with all offering private balconies with city, pool, or ocean views. There are lots of on-site amenities, including a pair of lovely pools, five diverse dining options, ample meeting space, as well as a solid spa and fitness center.
For those wanting to be near the surfer buzz of Rincon but don’t want to pay a premium, Coconut Palms Inn is a fine choice. The hotel offers beachfront accommodations within a five-minute drive of the restaurants, shops, markets, and attractions in Rincon, with eight quaint rooms that include free Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, and mini-fridges. The no-frills grounds are well-maintained with a relaxed, intimate garden and a large waterfront verandah with a communal kitchen.
The Condado Vanderbilt Hotel is a four-and-a-half-pearl hotel located in San Juan’s vibrant Condado district, directly accessible to the beach. The hotel’s 319 guest rooms are timelessly attractive, with dark-wood furniture and stone-topped bathroom vanities. Early 20th-century antiques are ubiquitous throughout, and the hotel plays up its historic setting with handsome restaurants and lounges that exude a turn-of-the-century ambience.
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