Taking a trip to a tropical paradise is the dream of many. The lure of clear blue water, sandy beaches and laid back lifestyle is a huge attraction. While Pacific Islands and beaches in Asia lure many, there is a closer option. The islands in the Caribbean are closer for North American travelers and one island overlooked by many is Puerto Rico. Since Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, US citizens do not need a passport to travel to the Caribbean island and although Spanish is spoken on the island, so is English. Puerto Rico has a rich heritage, friendly people and the great beaches and atmosphere you would expect from a tropical getaway. Here is our list of the top places to visit in Puerto Rico.
Located just outside San Juan is the archaeological remains of the first Puerto Ricans. The Tainos people lived on the island until the 15th century when the Spanish arrived and they died off from disease and subjugation. What remains is a glimpse into how these people lived. You can see petroglyphs etched in granite, artifacts uncovered during archaeological excavations and see the ceremonial plazas used by the Tainos. While the large central plaza was probably used for ceremonial events there are several smaller plazas where the game of batos was played. Batos was a team sport similar to modern day soccer. The park also has a museum where you can view some of the items unearthed on the site and learn about the Tainos culture. The park and museum are open from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm daily except on major holidays.
While many people love their Starbucks in the morning Puerto Rico was one of the world’s leading coffee exporters once. Today Puerto Rico can’t even meet the demands of the island so very little 100 percent Puerto Rican coffee ever makes it off the island. In the 19th century, Puerto Rican coffee was considered some of the best and exported to European palaces to be enjoyed by royalty and even the Vatican. Today a lot of coffee beans are imported into Puerto Rica to be mixed with the local beans. For the coffee lover a trip to visit one of the coffee plantations to witness how the beans are harvested, roasted and turned into a great cup of joe is an enjoyable experience. There are several Plantations or Haciendas as they are known and some are free while others charge a small fee. Sandra Farms, run by Sandra and Israel Gonzalez offer tours and coffee tasting for $15 per adult.
La Fortaleza was built in the early 1500’s as the first fortification in San Juan Harbor. Built to defend against invaders, the fort was only successfully conquered twice, once by the British in 1533 and once by the Dutch. In 1625 the Dutch invaded and burnt the city including the fort. Today the fort is the residence and working offices of the Governor of Puerto Rico and is the oldest functioning Executive mansion in the western hemisphere. While the fort is still a functioning building, tours are offered where you can see examples of early Spanish architecture and old stone fortifications. You can also view the palace’s dungeons, chapel and the gardens. Located in the historic district of Old San Juan, La Fortaleza is a popular tourist destination.
Located on the Northwestern most point of old San Juan, the Castillo San Felipe del Moro was built on the orders of King Charles V of Spain. Construction began in 1539 and over the next 400 years additions were added to keep up with military technology. During World War I and World War II, the US Military occupied the fort and continued to until 1961. In 1983 the fort was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fort, known simply as El Morro, consists of six levels. Visitors can walk through the dungeons, barracks, passage ways and store rooms to get a glimpse of what life in the fort was like. Take a walk along the ramparts where cannons still face the ocean ready to ward off invaders. Park rangers are available to give an overview of the history and architecture. A taxi can take you to the fort or you can walk through the narrow streets to get there. The fort is open daily except on major holidays.
Castillo de San Cristobal is considered a sister fort to Castillo San Felipe del Morro to provide additional protection against invasion by land. San Cristobal covers 27 acres and was completed in 1783 and is the largest fort ever built by the Spanish in the New World. In 1983 the site was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The double gates of San Cristobal guarded entrance into the city. San Cristobal saw its share of battles. The first shot of the Spanish American war was fired from the fortification. Standing in one of the sentry posts you can look out over Old San Juan. Castillo de San Cristobal is open daily except major holidays and is easily reachable by a free trolley that will drop you off near the entrance.
While Old San Juan attracts visitors to the impressive castles and fortifications it also offers a unique glimpse into the way things were in times past. While driving is permitted in most areas it is advisable to travel by foot since the roads are extremely narrow and hazardous to those not used to driving there. Probably the biggest tourist attraction in Puerto Rico, Old San Juan is frequented daily by visitors to the island and passengers of cruise ships which stop at the island. Forteza Street has numerous restaurants and is considered a must-visit place to go for dining. Some of the city’s finest restaurants call Forteza Street home. Paseo la Princessa is a broad walking promenade that is adjacent to the old city walls. The boardwalk is a great way to see the old city and bay. La Casa Blanco was built by Ponce De Leon in 1521 and is one of the oldest buildings in Puerto Rico. Art galleries and souvenir shops abound in Old San Juan and at night there is an active nightlife with bars and dance clubs.
Puerto Rico has numerous natural wonders, some of which are the awe inspiring caves. Camuy River Cave Park is billed as the third largest cave system in the world and the Rio Camuy River runs through it. Located in a 268 acre park, the caves start with a trolley ride down the mountain to the entrance where you will walk through the caves. The huge cave is fairly open but make sure you have a good pair of walking shoes. The Cueva del Viento is located in the Guajataca Forest and will take you an hour to get there from the park station. Those willing to hike through the forest are greeted by a majestic cave where you can explore on your own. The Vanta Cave is located in Arecibo where a ladder will take you down to the entrance and at the end the cave opens up to view the mountains. One of the most popular caves and also in Arecibo, is La Cueva del Indio. Located on private property the owners will allow you to visit the site which holds petroglyphs dating back to ancient times. To get to the cave you will have to walk across sharp limestone rocks and ascend a ladder. Next to the cave is the scenic coastal area with several rock arches and small beaches to enjoy.
Founded in 1512 San Germán is Puerto Rico’s second oldest city. Located on the western side of the island, San Germán has over 200 historic Spanish Colonial buildings and quaint cobblestone streets. Named after the second wife of King Ferdinand, San Germán is a great place to get away from the tourists and enjoy the Puerto Rican culture and people. Climb the stairs to the Porta Coeli Church, one of the oldest churches in America or the more elaborate San Germán de Auxerre church which faces the town hall. Visit one of the museums or check out the old city area around the plazas of Parque de Santo Domingo and Plaza Francisco Mariano Quiñones. The central district is easily seen on foot and a great way to take in the colonial architecture. The town also hosts festivals in the months of July, September and December. Also in December the Puerto Rican Women’s Marathon is held in the city.
Puerto Rico has fabulous beaches and one beach in particular, Flamenco Beach on the island of Culebra is one of the best. Flamenco Beach is consistently ranked as one of the best beaches in the world and once you visit you will understand why. The white sandy beach stretches the length of the entire mile long bay and is a great place for snorkeling, sunbathing and swimming. Located approximately 20 miles east of the main island, Flamenco Beach is regarded as the most beautiful beach in Puerto Rico and there are two ways to get there. Visitors can take a one and a half hour ferry ride from the town of Fajardo or a short plane ride from San Juan.
There are several rum factories in Puerto Rico but none as famous as the Bacardí Distillery. Located in Cataño and a short ferry ride from San Juan. In 1862, Don Facundo Bacardí Massó immigrated from Spain to Cuba where he set up business as a wine merchant. Soon Don Facunudo began experimenting with distilling Rum. Through fires, earthquakes and revolution the factory, he continued to excel at the distilling of Rum. In 1960 the Cuban government confiscated all of the Bacardí company assets. Having planned ahead, the company had moved trademarks and yeast strains out of Cuba so the company could continue. By 1980 Bacardí accounted for two thirds of all rum sales in the world. The present day factory offers several tours including a tour of the visitor’s center, a rum tasting tour and a mixology tour where you can earn a Bacardí mixology certificate.
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