Perched on the balmy Atlantic coast in the shadow of El Yunque, 45km east of San Juan, LUQUILLO combines three of Puerto Rico’s most appealing pastimes: lounging on palm-fringed beaches, world-class surfing and gorging on celebrated cocina en kiosco. While it can get insufferably busy on weekends, it’s well worth a pit stop during the week and a couple of attractive hotels mean you can stay the night (and use it as a base for El Yunque). Getting here involves a straightforward 45-minute drive from San Juan along PR-3, or a shorter twenty-minute hop from El Yunque. Taxis from San Juan’s Aeropuerto Internacional Luis Muñoz Marín will charge $70.
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Luquillo’s town centre lies around Plaza Jesús T. Piñero, just off PR-3, but other than a few places to eat, contains little to see and the beaches are spread out for several miles either side of here. If you’re coming from San Juan the first is Balneario de Luquillo, the main beach and one of Puerto Rico’s most beguiling strips of sand, formally known as Balneario de Monserrate. Look for the brown sign to “Balneario” and “Kioscos” on PR-3, just after you pass the line of kioscos on the left (if you reach the Luquillo exit on PR-3, you’ve missed it).
With a wide swathe of honey-gold sand, plenty of palm trees and El Yunque for a backdrop, it’s definitely one of the top beaches on the island, best enjoyed on weekdays when you’ll avoid the crowds (and the rubbish). As an official public beach, it has a vast car park, toilets, changing facilities, showers and clear, calm water, perfect for swimming. It even has a staffed ramp for wheelchair users known as the Mar Sin Barreras (“sea without barriers”). Luquillo itself is 1km east of the balneario on the other side of a headland and quite separate from it – you have to rejoin PR-3 and take the next exit to reach the centre (you can follow one-way PR-193 in the other direction).
The northern half of Luquillo town is almost completely given over to condos and known as Vilomar or just “Condominio” – it backs Playa Azul, a narrow but reasonably clean beach where you can park for free on the street and doze under the palms. Central Luquillo lies beyond the small headland (“La Punta”) further along, a slightly shabby, sleepy place fronting the rougher beach of Playa La Pared, popular with surfers. To the southeast you’ll see the sand stretching away into the distance: known as La Selva, this is hard to access by car and often sprinkled with debris, but almost always deserted. Conservationists managed to get the undeveloped stretch of coast between here and Balneario Seven Seas (dubbed “the Northeast Ecological Corridor”) designated a nature reserve in 2008, but just over a year later Governor Fortuño rescinded the decision. With turtle nesting sites threatened by the construction of mega resorts, the area has attracted a coalition of various groups campaigning for its protection: see wwww.sierraclub.org/corridor for more details.
Surfers flock to Luquillo’s Playa La Pared (“the wall”) on weekends for its fairly consistent left beach-break, though it can go flat in the summer: it’s fine for beginners, with a fairly gentle swell and a sandy bottom. Board Riders Luquillo Surf Shop (t787/599-2097, wwww.boardridersinc.com) overlooks La Pared at c/Veve Calzada 25, not far from the main plaza and rents surfboards for $40 per day ($10/hr) and bodyboards for $20 per day ($6/hr); lessons are $60 per hour. Ask here about current conditions, or stop by La Selva Surf Shop (t787/889-6205) at c/Fernández García 250, one block inland from the plaza, where boards are usually slightly cheaper and owner Bob Roberts also offers lessons. The reefs around La Punta dividing Playa Azul and La Pared offer some good snorkelling, but you’ll need your own gear.