A few days ago, I came back from a 10 day journey through the breathtaking island of Puerto Rico. Only 100 miles long by 35 miles wide in diameter, I covered a lot of ground while trekking through the rainforest, mountains and beautiful beaches. My journey started on the east coast followed by taking a charter plane to go see the west coast and ending the adventure in the middle of the island for some jungle exploration. After my experience, I want to share some insight on how to live it up and what to be aware of when you visit Puerto Rico.
Here are 5 tips on how to prepare for your journey. Buckle your seatbelts and enjoy the ride! 1. Try Mofongo
For the love of all that is good in this world, don’t be the traveler that doesn’t try the local cuisine when you visit a different country! Get out of your taste bud comfort zone and try what Puerto Rico has to offer. You will have NO regrets. My number one recommendation is Mofongo, which is a plantain lovers paradise. Green plantains are smashed, seasoned and fried to perfection to serve as the base of this dish. Some places stuff the inside of the mofongo with your choice of red or garlic sauce and meat or veggies. While other restaurants keep the center open creating a “mofongo bowl.” Regardless, the dish is a staple to the island and you can’t say you experienced PR without trying one of these bad boys.
If you have a sweet tooth I also recommend you try the Mallorca or sweet bread. This delicious bread is thick, chewy and sprinkled with powdered sugar fairy dust. It can be eaten plain, with butter or as a hearty breakfast sandwich filled with eggs, cheese and meat. If this isn’t your thing, go to any local bakery or panderia while you visit and try a delectable treat. At a café in Viejo San Juan called , Cafeteria Mallorca, they offer much more than just sweet bread. There windows are filled with yummy treats and I ate the best guava pastry I’ve ever had in my life while I was there. Pair that up with a cup of coffee and you are golden.
Moral of the story, try the local food and seek out locals recommendations and hole in the wall restaurants. If you have any questions or need restaurant recommendations feel free to reach out and I can help guide you. I may be a small person but I have a big appetite and nothing makes me happier than a good meal.
2. Don’t be too much of a tourist
For a 22-year-old, I’ve traveled quite a bit in my small number of yours. This rule applies more than ever before in Puerto Rico! If you are a foreigner especially an American foreigner or “gringo(a)”, I suggest you don’t stand out like a sore thumb. The first three days of my trip, I stayed with my long time friend and native Puerto Rican, Kareny Escobar. Everything was fine and the locals treated me kindly. When I went to meet up with my American friends in Aquadilla, that’s when I noticed a stark difference.
The locals were not as friendly, cold, rude and took advantage of us “gringos.” Don’t believe me? Let me give you a few experiences that my friends and I had while traveling. For one, my friend Garrett went to buy a watermelon at a local fruit stand and the man tried to charge him $13….for a watermelon. I went to the same fruit stand to buy a pineapple, bananas and tamarind and guessed what he charged me? $3. Maybe it was my skin tone or the fact that I kept getting mistaken as a boriqua or local. Regardless, something wasn’t right.
Another night, my friend Alex wanted a drink from a bar at a restaurant. She tried to get the attention of 4 different bar tenders (at any empty bar might I add) and was blatantly ignored. She even had a couple of them look right at her and ignore her! Final example and my rant will be over. My first morning in Aquadilla I decided to get a cup of coffee downstairs with almond milk and they charged me $4.50. My friend Alex having already been in Aquadilla for three days asked the barista why he was overcharging me. The men claimed it was the extra charge for the almond milk. Alex argued she got the same cup of coffee the previous day for a fraction of the price. I had no choice but to pay $4.50 because Icons Cafe conveniently doesn’t label the price for their coffee.
My advice? Don’t look like a tourist whenever possible especially if you’re about to pay for something. I was wearing a sun hat and had my camera around my neck when I bought that overpriced cup of coffee. Who knows if coffee mysteriously jumped in price overnight or it was my overly touristy appearance that was the problem but I’ll go with the latter. My other piece of advice is to brush up on your Spanish and Spanish accent. If you can speak a little bit of Spanish people will be somewhat kinder to you and won’t stare at you like a second class citizen.
A final note, there are plenty of Puerto Ricans who are friendly, warm and full of fun. Overall, they are a proud people that love their country and sometimes not the most welcoming of foreigners. It’s just something to be aware of before you get a culture shock like I did.
3. Talk to Locals and Strangers
Whether you’re traveling solo or in a group, don’t be afraid to talk to the world around you. There are over 7 billion people on the planet, each of us with a unique path and different story to tell. You never know who you’ll meet or what opportunities will present themselves from a simple conversation.
On the second to last day of the trip, we headed to El Yunque National Rainforest but stopped for a quick bite to eat at a smoothie shop. When we were talking about leaving, we overheard a guy say something that caught our attention.
” It’s my day off. I’m just going to go home, smoke weed all day and sleep.”
We hit the jackpot. After days in search of bud, our prayers were finally answered. Garret asked the guy if he could help us out and he agreed. Our new friends name was Ashton Obrero. He is a Hawaiian native that moved to Puerto Rico on a whim with a couple of friends. After our first smoke session we found out he was an ATV tour guide in El Yunque and a local reggae musician. Because it was his day off, he offered to take us to a local’s only spot with a rope swing and a natural water slide. Once again, we hit the jackpot.
Without this simple exchange of conversation we never would have adventured the road less traveled by. I couldn’t say I jumped off a rope swing off of a high rock or slid off a natural water slide in the middle of the jungle. At the end of it all, Ashton even offered us a night as his place and took us to the local food kiosks of Luquillo as well. Now Ashton has a place to crash if he’s ever in Florida and we have somewhere to crash if we’re in Hawaii.
Do yourself a favor and talk to the world around you.
4. Visit the East Coast and West Coast
My trip was unique in that I got to see both sides of the island. Three days into my stay, Kareny left for a SUPER last minute flight to Boston to see her husband leaving me
stranded. Well not exactly, but I had to figure out where I was going sooner than later. On a whim, I booked a flight to the west coast of the island to Mayaquez airport on a pilot plane. My flight was 45 minutes long and full of the most magical sights I’ve ever seen. Because Kareny had to go to Boston I was able to see both coasts and I am so greatful for that oppurtunity.
Travel Tip: If you’re wanting to see both sides of the island, take a charter plane through Cape Airlines. It’s $50 plus $20 if you have an extra bag. The plane seats 8 people max and the view of world is stunning. They don’t allow cameras to be used on the flight but the sights will permanantly be engraved in your mental harddrive. Plus who doesn’t want to do something this adventurous!?
East Coast: I want to start by saying both sides of the island are beautiful beyond words and are unique in their own ways. The east provides you with beaches with flater waves, serene views and are much more crowded. In fact, the entire side of this island is more crowded and the traffic more congested and crazy. If you’re into touristy spots I recommend staying in a coastal resort or airBNB near the airport in Carolina or in Viejo San Juan which is the St.Augustine of Puerto Rico.
You can also find El Yunque National Forest on this side. This forest was actual nominated as one of the seven wonders of the world because of its breathtaking sights and sounds. This is a must see if you’re staying nearby. There are numerous trails, waterfalls and primitive camping sights if you’re feeling adventurous.
The popular islands of Culebra and Vieques are also worth visiting. Although I didn’t have the chance to go to those islands, I was lucky enough to visit an island nearby called Cayo Icacos. If you have the chance, take a charter boat for $30 person and make your way to Cayo Icacos for the day. If not, take a ferry to Culebra or Vieques for $10 and spend the day or night there!
West Coast: This part of the island blew my mind with its incredible beaches. I recommend Playa Boriquen or Surfer’s Beach. If you want a stunning view, good waves, a place to set up a hammock or in the need of exploring either beach is a good fit for you. Compared to the east coast, west coast beaches are super secluded and at times Alex, Garret and I were its only inhabitants other than the stray dogs who live there. If you’re an explorer like I am then Surfer’s beach has caves and jungle to explore while Playa Boriquen has some jungle and rocks to climb.
If you’re looking to snorkel I recommend you check out Rincon. Although I will caution you the entire coastline is paved with rock so you need to be careful if the waves are rough. Rincon is home to one of the most beautiful and diverse reefs on the island.
5. Visit the Beach, Mountains and the Rain Forest
So this next one seems like a large feet to accomplish in only 10 days but on an island as lush and petite as Puerto Rico, it’s possible. Only 100 miles long and 35 miles wide and you rented a car you’re going to hit all three landscapes and that’s something that makes this place as incredible as it is.
I don’t put this map here to insult your intelligence but rather to illustrate how much Puerto Rico has to offer you. Even if you can’t make it to El Yunque National Forest on your visit there’s no need to despair. There are small patches of rain forest no matter where you stay. For example, while we were in Aquadilla we traveled 35 minutes south to San Sebastian where we hiked through the rain forest and jumped off of the Golazandia waterfall. Sure the waterfalls are larger in El Yunque, but there just as fun and beautiful anywhere else.
As for mountains, I got my fix while staying with Kareny in Guaynabo on the east side of the island.She lives on a mountain side and I hiked for hours solo up this mountain side. The road was steep,narrow and dangerous but I somehow made it to the top. Although exhausted, the view at the top was all worth my while
But like the rain forest situation, there is even more mountain to be seen and climbed then the central part of the island. In fact, every time we drove ANYWHERE there were mountains either next to you or off in the distance.
TRAVEL TIP: If you are going to climb mountains or explore the rain forest get yourself a pair of non-slip shoes or durable sneakers. I bought myself a pair of Columbia Drainmaker III shoes before I left and they SAVED MY LIFE on numerous occasions.These shoes are non-slip water shoes that look like sneakers and dry quickly.
It obviously rains quite a bit in the rain forest making rocks and other surfaces really dangerous to step on. As for the mountains, they are really steep and sometimes its hard to find your footing. It may cost you $80-$100 for a good pair of shoes but the investment is worth it!
As for the beach, you’re on an island for goodness sakes! If you don’t make it to the beach on your trip then it’s your own fault. You are never to far from a beach and surrounded by coast at all times. I recommend Playa de Isla Verde in Carolina, Puerto Rico. Parts of this beach are really touristy but head to Playas Pa’l Pueblo for a true local feel and less crowded area. An ongoing battle with nearby hotel chains is going on to keep the beach open to the public and natives have even set up camp to help the cause.
What are you waiting for? Get out there and explore all the beauty that Puerto Rico has to offer.
6. Bonus Tip: Learn to Drive
As one local put it, “Driving here is like when everyone get’s their license at 16 and they think they know how to drive.”
It’s not too far from the truth. Puerto Ricans are not bad drivers, they are just a little on the reckless side at times. Some drivers will take the smallest of spaces and somehow navigate their way through at 70mph completley unharmed.Drivng with Kareny put me on the edge of my seat a few times as well. Again, not becaue she was a bad driver but because she will put the pedal to the metal and get exactly where she wants in traffic.
Oh did I mention road rage? Kareny isn’t alone with the road rage. when her friends were in the car and the car next to us was trying to tell us we were in the wrong lane I really thought for a moment we were going to get into an accident. The insults when flying as the cars raced down the road at high speeds. Mean while I was in shock just trying to process it all.
If you do rent a car and you don’t feel confident in your ability to drive you may want to bring a friend a long or take a taxi. Drivers here are agressive, impatient and will go 80 in a 60 on a normal day. Just be careful and don’t cut anyone off.
I hope this helps you if you ever visit Puerto Rico! Feel free to reach out if you have any questions or need recommendations for your visit. Thanks for reading.
Hello I'm Kaila.
I'm a yoga teacher, fitness instructor and travel enthusiast from Orlando. I inspire and teach women how to be the best versions of themselves through mindfulness, movement and play.
I cut through the misinformation and provide you with science based practices to help you reach your highest self- MIND, BODY and SOUL.
View all posts by Namaste Kay