Antiquated cobblestone lanes lined with pretty pastel homes and shops, charming bars and restaurants serving richly flavored dishes and refreshingly cool cocktails, and dozens of historic sights to see within a short walk or drive from the city center – San Juan is an ideal vacation destination. While you’re there though, you’d be doing yourself a favor by making sure to set aside some time to explore a bit more of the marvelous island of Puerto Rico.
Whether you’re looking to find the heart of the rainforest, explore a quiet beach, or see the city lights on the other side of the island, options for day trips from San Juan abound. Here’s our take on the best ways to spend a day away while on your San Juan vacation.
There are only five bioluminescent bays in the world – and three of them are in Puerto Rico. So, by all means, grab your flight deals and try to see ‘em when you’re there! There’s Laguna Grande near Fajardo, Mosquito Bay on the tiny island of Vieques, and La Parguera on the southwestern coast of the main island. The phenomenon is caused by millions of illuminating microorganisms living in the water. Timing is key when planning your visit. The phase of the moon is important to how luminescent (if at all) Mother Nature’s show will be. But if you do happen to be there when conditions are right you’ll be in for a memorable feast for the eyes!
El Yunque National Rainforest
Less than an hour’s drive from San Juan is El Yunque National Rainforest. The only tropical rainforest in the United States National Forest System, El Yunque is home to vast biodiversity with hundreds of species of plants and animals living within its mountainous 29,00 acres — a number of which can be found only here. A well-maintained network of canopy walks, ziplines and hiking trails ensure access to the most amazing areas and vistas while leaving untouched the most pristine areas of the forest. While there, keep an eye out for the ancient petroglyphs made by the indigenous Taino people and try to stick around for the free nightly entertainment: the chirping calls of the coqui tree frogs.
Culebra is a small island about 20-miles northeast of Puerto Rico. Accessible by ferry, most of the island is a protected wildlife refuge. Arguably the best reason to take the scenic ferry ride to Culebra is to make your way to Flamenco Beach. The beach is nestled snug in a sheltered horseshoe bay and is in the heart of all the glorious nature Culebra has to offer. Here, the sand is white and the waters are shallow but, if you’re interested in taking the plunge, there are amazing dive sites nearby.
Guánica State Forest
On Puerto Rico’s south coast and not far at all from the city of Ponce is Guánica State Forest. This 9,000 acres United Nations International Biosphere Reserve offers visitors the chance to see one of the best examples of a tropical dry coastal forest in the world (and one of very few in the Caribbean). The forest is a habitat for half of Puerto Rico’s bird spies and hundreds of plants. Trails are kept clean and clear. As fascinating as this unusual ecosystem is, it’s nowhere near as popular with tourists as El Yunque is. So, chances are pretty good you’ll have plenty of space to yourself when you go.
Puerto Rico’s second city, Ponce, is about an hour and a half drive south of San Juan on the island’s Caribbean coast. Founded by Ponce de Leon’s great-grandson in 1692, the city oozes history and charm. Its Spanish colonial architecture is a treasure to behold. Second to San Juan in size and visitor numbers, many say Ponce is numero uno when it comes to experiencing Puerto Rican culture, with some of the best museums on the island. Some say the dining scene is better here (or at least has better scenery), especially at the seaside eateries at La Guancha Paseo Tablado boardwalk.
Where would you recommend going on a free day while vacationing in Puerto Rico?