Puerto Rico: Isla del Encanto

After recently accomplishing my goal of visiting all 50 states in the U.S.A., I wondered where in the world I should travel to next. Naturally, I felt like Puerto Rico would be a fitting choice, as it’s one of the only parts of the U.S. that I haven’t yet seen, and visiting there would provide me with the feeling of an “international” experience without technically leaving the country. Puerto Rico is the best of both worlds for a traveler from the U.S. because you are genuinely in a different part of the world while still enjoying many of the amenities and comforts of home.

A U.S. citizen does not need a passport to visit here, the U.S. Dollar is the official currency, all major U.S. cell phone plans will work without any roaming charges, and even though Spanish is the main language, English is widely spoken, especially in the bigger cities and main tourism areas. Puerto Rico is an excellent choice for a U.S. traveler who doesn’t want to step too far out of their comfort zone, yet still craves a unique cultural experience. 

Greetings from Puerto Rico!

Flights to Puerto Rico during winter are surprisingly cheap from many cities in the U.S., and in the span of only three hours, my body left the frigid New England snow and landed in the tropical warmth of the Caribbean.  Upon landing, all of the passengers clapped and cheered in joy; I turned to the man next to me with a puzzled look on my face, and he simply whispered, “that’s just what people do here”. This very first impression of Puerto Rico (and the people of Puerto Rico) happened to be the first of many things I noticed during my trip that were wonderfully odd and different from the experiences and customs I’m used to on the mainland.

I immediately noticed that Puerto Rican flags decorate nearly every building while U.S. flags are nowhere to be seen, and all of the road signs are in Spanish. From the moment I first stepped onto Puerto Rican soil, it was very easy to forget that I was technically still in the U.S. and that I actually never left my home country.

Once I arrived at my first destination, El Yunque Rainforest, I marveled at the breathtaking tropical scenery and, functioning on only a couple of hours of sleep, I dragged my body for a roughly 30-minute hike through lush green vegetation before arriving at a beautiful waterfall and swimming hole. I was in shock and awe that during breakfast time, I was wearing a jacket while watching snow fall from the sky, and now just before lunch, I’m swimming underneath a waterfall in the middle of a tropical rainforest. Aren’t airplanes such a wonderful invention?

 

After drying off from my dip in the water and grabbing a snack at a shack overlooking a beautiful view, I decided to continue exploring the island, and made my way to the nearby Luquillo Beach for some relaxation, dinner, and to watch the sunset. In addition to having a beautiful beach, Luquillo also has an area with a long row of over 60 “Kioskos” of street food vendors, gifts shops, restaurants, and bars. This was a great area to try some local bites, grab a much-needed beer, and enjoy some fantastic people watching. This was my first experience interacting with the locals and gave me a chance to brush up on my basic Spanish vocabulary skills. I strongly suggest that anyone visiting Puerto Rico make a pit stop here either after exploring the rainforest or as a side trip from nearby San Juan. 

One of the many street food vendors at the Kioskos in Luquillo

My next stop took me south to explore Ponce. The nice thing about Puerto Rico is that the island is pretty small in size so it’s easy to get from one section to another in a short period of time. Ponce was founded in 1692 and is the second largest city on the island, but surprisingly still has a laid back, charming atmosphere, and is richly colonial in character.

The main downtown area is very compact and walkable, centered around the scenic Plaza las Delicias. This beautiful plaza and the fountains, statues, and buildings surrounding it reminded me a bit of Savannah, Georgia with a Latin twist. The city has a great deal of unique architecture, most notably the historic Parque de Bombas, which was the country’s first fire station. This red and black-striped building is one of the most famous landmarks on the entire island and now houses a fire-fighting museum.

Ponce’s wonderfully unique Parque de Bombas

The heat and humidity outside led me to King’s Cream, a famous ice cream shop in Ponce, where the woman behind the counter kindly let me sample every single flavor on offer before I decided on strawberry. After savoring my delicious treat, I took a drive along the western edge of the island, briefly stopping through historic towns such as San Germán, Mayagüez, and Aguadilla, before eventually retiring for the night in Rincón to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets of my life.

After exploring nearly every other inch of the island, I finally made my way to San Juan, saving the biggest and best for last. I gave myself three days to explore the capital city, though depending on your style of travel, you could easily see most of the main sites in a full day, or alternatively spend weeks here without getting bored.

My first impression of San Juan was that it is a hybrid city with a fascinating mix of old and new; the Old Town section reminded me of the French Quarter of New Orleans, or many other colonial Latin American cities, but the newer section of the city had a vibe and scene similar to Miami. I really enjoyed wandering around the blue cobblestone streets of Old Town, marveling at the vibrant buildings and beautiful architecture around every corner.

One of my favorite spots was the historic La Puerta de San Juan, which is a large, circa-1635 gate that was the main entry into the walled city during its Spanish colonial era. For centuries, this doorway and walls served to keep invaders out of the city, but today, you can freely walk through the San Juan gate to experience the splendor and romance of this elegant, vibrant city.

Exploring 500 year-old forts in Old San Juan

The Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristobal are also must-see sights. At over 500 years old, these forts have protected Puerto Rico from attacks by foreign powers since the 1500s. Today, they are part of the San Juan National Historic Site and have been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

Puerto Rico has some incredibly delicious staple dishes, and I especially enjoyed the mofongo. Two of my favorite restaurants to enjoy this meal in San Juan were at El Jibarito and Raices; both served amazing variations of the popular dish which pair perfectly with a local Magna beer.

Mofongo is a popular (and delicious) dish in Puerto Rico

If nightlife is your thing, then San Juan has no shortage of it, being one of the biggest party cities I have ever seen in my travels. One of my favorite bars in Old Town was La Factoria, which doesn’t even have a sign, but once inside, it’s actually 5 different bars in one – each with its own vibe, drink menu, music, and atmosphere. In the newer, more modern section of the city, Condado and Santurce have many casinos, bars and clubs, and I enjoyed barhopping amongst the locals in La Placita, which is located in the Plaza del Mercado market square. On my last night in San Juan, I took one final lap around the streets of Old Town, marveling at the architectural beauty of this incredible city. 

I fell in love with the rich historic heritage, delicious food, friendly locals, and fun nightlife. Everything in Old San Juan is colorful and eclectic; there is literally history around every turn, and I love the sense of pride and community this island has.  

Exploring the streets of Old San Juan

When this trip began and I picked up my rental car, the first thing I noticed were the license plates with the phrase “Isla del Encanto” written on the bottom. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but upon returning the car and heading back to the airport, the saying had stuck with me, and I now understood exactly what it meant. This place is definitely an “island of enchantment”, and it succeeded in casting its mystical spell upon this vagabond, leaving me yearning to return soon.

I could easily spend months exploring this uniquely diverse island, but sadly, I had to return back home to the U.S. — a country I had to keep reminding myself that I never even left.