Most trips to Puerto Rico start in the capital, San Juan, one of the largest and most dynamic cities in the Caribbean. Old San Juan is a Spanish colonial gem, its cobbled streets lined with elegant eighteenth-century flower-strewn houses, chapels and grand mansions. Nights out in the capital are especially lively, while the resort zones of Condado and Isla Verde have surprisingly handsome stretches of beach.
Wickedly tempting kiosco food is one of the main reasons to visit Luquillo, the gateway to the east coast, while Fajardo is the departure point for La Cordillera, a haven for snorkelling and swimming. Looming over the whole region, El Yunque National Forest is a rainforest of lofty, jungle-covered peaks crisscrossed with hiking trails.
Offshore, the smaller island of Vieques is blessed with vast stretches of sugary sand backed with nothing but scrub, palm trees and sea grape. Swimming in the bioluminescent bay here is a bewitching experience, boats leaving ghostly clouds of fluorescence in their wake. Culebra is much smaller and even more languid, a rocky island ringed with turquoise waters, empty beaches and dazzling cays.
Inland from the north coast lies the bizarre, crumbling limestone peaks of karst country, containing the Observatorio de Arecibo, the Cavernas del Río Camuy and the ruined Taíno ball-courts at the Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Caguana.
The Porta del Sol, or “gateway to the sun”, starts at the northwest coast, justly regarded as a surfing paradise that peaks at Rincón. Divers should check out Isla Desecheo, a protected island reserve encircled by brilliant sapphire waters. Back on land, Mayagüez is the “sultan of the west”, a once-depressed industrial city gradually regaining its former colonial glory. Beyond the city lies a chain of low-key resorts: Playa Buyé and Boquerón boast gorgeous white sand beaches, before the west coast ends at the weathered cliffs of Cabo Rojo. On the south coast, La Parguera faces a tangled labyrinth of channels and mangrove cays while inland, San Germán is crammed with flamboyant mansions and charming Spanish churches. East of here, the southern coastal plain is known as the Porta Caribe, or “gateway to the Caribbean”. Don’t miss Guilligan’s Island, a mangrove cay spliced by a lagoon of crystal-clear water, and Ponce, still proud of its fine mansions, museums and richly stocked art gallery. The city’s annual carnival, (held one week before Ash Wednesday), features parades, salsa and the unforgettable ghoulish masks known as vejigantes. Just to the north, the Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes is another rare reminder of Puerto Rico’s pre-Columbian past, while the best of the once booming sugar towns are Guayama and Coamo.
While the coast attracts the most tourists, the spiritual heart of Puerto Rico lies in the mountains, accessed by the winding Ruta Panorámica and famous for its lechoneras, roadside diners roasting whole pigs over wood or charcoal fires. Other highlights include the massive flower festival at Aibonito, the jaw-dropping Cañón de San Cristóbal, and the rural town of Jayuya, which offers poignant reminders of Puerto Rico’s Taíno heritage. At the far end of the route, Maricao is the producer of some of the world’s finest coffee.