Puerto Rico is a relatively small island and therefore easy to get around, with one important catch: formal public transport is virtually nonexistent, which means unless you rent a car or motorbike you’ll be reliant on the highly localized network of públicos. Internal flights connect Ponce and Mayagüez with San Juan, and also Vieques and Culebra – both islands are also connected to the main island by ferry.
No subject seems to elicit more confusion in Puerto Rico than públicos (bus services), mostly because the vast majority of Puerto Ricans never take them. Públicos operate on set routes, but at the whim of the driver, waiting until the vehicle is full before departing and usually dropping people off along the way. Rates are very cheap – San Juan to Ponce is just $15 – and it’s often a great way to meet some of the locals (the system tends to be used predominantly by students and the elderly).
If you intend to travel extensively in Puerto Rico, though, públicos are not recommended. Though San Juan is well connected with most of the towns on the island, services between other places are patchy at best, and these days públicos tend to operate more like local buses, serving the immediate area. Long-distance trips across the country can mean changing several times, and once you get to your destination, you’ll find your options extremely limited without wheels.
If you do end up taking a público, speaking Spanish definitely helps (drivers rarely speak English), and you must plan ahead. For busy routes, you can simply turn up at the local bus station (usually known as the Terminal de Carros Públicos, or just la terminal) early in the morning (7am or earlier, Mon–Sat) and pick one up, but at other times and locations you’ll need to call ahead, reserve a space and arrange a pick-up time. Some locals differentiate between lineas and públicos: lineas are minibuses that follow fixed routes and timetables (like a normal bus service), while true públicos (which can also be taxi-like cars) go only when full, stop a lot and vary departure times. In practice it doesn’t make a lot of difference, and there are very few true lineas in any case. These days most públicos are Ford minibuses with special yellow licence plates marked “Público”.
Renting a car in Puerto Rico is by far the most efficient and convenient way to get around. You’ll find all the major agencies and several local companies (usually cheaper) in San Juan, with a handful of offices scattered around the island. Culebra and Vieques have their own local companies – it’s expensive and time-consuming to take rental cars across by ferry. Note that you should arm yourself with a decent map, road atlas or GPS system if travelling the island this way.
Rates for economy-sized cars with unlimited mileage start at $40–50 per day or $250 for seven days, but can escalate dramatically during holidays and the busy July–August period – the longer you rent, the cheaper it gets per day. Basic insurance (loss damage waiver, no deductible/excess) can add another $20 per day, but is highly recommended as scrapes and knocks are common (especially in car parks). Most US insurance policies should be valid in Puerto Rico, but check before you go.
Renting in Puerto Rico is much like the US and fairly straightforward for most visitors. You must have a credit card and a driver’s licence valid for up to 120 days (all major countries are accepted). You must be at least 25, although some companies (Budget and most of the local outfits) allow drivers over 21 for an additional charge.
Driving in Puerto Rico
Driving conditions vary wildly, but your biggest headache is likely to be the sheer volume of traffic. The main highways in San Juan and around much of the densely populated coastline are the most congested – it’s best to travel at off-peak times to avoid the worst of it. In contrast, driving in more remote areas and especially in the mountains can be a real delight, and while often winding and narrow, unless it’s been raining heavily, these roads are rarely dangerous.
Those used to driving in London, LA or New York shouldn’t be too fazed by the mildly frenzied driving displayed on San Juan’s crammed highways, and even when driving aggressively, Puerto Ricans rarely lose their cool on the road. Nevertheless, locals do tend to drive far more recklessly than most of their compatriots on the US mainland: speeding, jumping lanes, pulling out without warning and thrashing along the shoulder are all normal practice. Puerto Ricans are also compulsive tailgaters and accidents are common, despite a fairly heavy police presence on the roads and a system of severe fines; Puerto Rico had the highest number of car accident deaths (308) in any US jurisdiction in 2010.
Carjacking was a big problem in Puerto Rico in the early 1990s, but incidents have dropped off dramatically and tourists are rarely affected. The vast majority of crimes occur outside the tourist zones in Greater San Juan (in areas like Río Piedras), late at night, so to be safe, avoid driving in urban areas after midnight and ignore anyone trying to wave you down. It’s also a bad idea to pick up hitchers. Car theft is a problem in some areas, which is why insurance is crucial, and you should never leave valuables in your vehicle. If you break down, call the rental company.
Should you have a minor accident, exchange names, addresses and driver’s licence details with the other parties if you can, before contacting the rental company. Officially, you are supposed to notify the state police within four hours if the accident has caused damage in excess of $100, but your rental company should be able to advise you.
With driving such an important part of life in Puerto Rico, you are never far from a petrol station in the cities, and many open 24 hours. Fuel follows US standards, with unleaded the most common option, though it’s sold by the litre and is slightly cheaper than on the US mainland.
Roads and rules
The Puerto Rican road system is the best in the Caribbean, with freeways (motorways) known as autopistas fanning out from San Juan and four-lane highways (dual-carriageways) covering all the major routes. Autopistas carry frequent tolls of $0.50–1.25, so bring coins if you can: lanes on the right marked “C” or cambio provide change, but the middle lanes are reserved for cambio exacto (throw coins in the bucket) and are usually faster. Avoid the autoexpreso lanes on the left, which require an electronic pass (you’ll be fined if you go through without one).
All roads are given numbers, usually written with the prefix “PR” or “Puerto Rico”, as in PR-2. Distances on the island are given in kilometres (1km=0.62 miles) and therefore appear this way in the Guide. Signage is in Spanish, but in a concession to American car makers, speed limits are in miles per hour: the maximum speed limit on most roads is 55mph, though some sections of highway and autopista range from 65–70mph, and you should stick to 30mph in residential areas. Laws against drunk driving and speeding are strictly enforced, and everyone in the car must wear a seatbelt. It is legal to turn right on a red light, after coming to a full stop (except where signs expressly forbid this), and thanks to the threat of carjacking, you are permitted to ignore red lights altogether between midnight and 5am. Road rules otherwise follow US norms and cars drive on the right.
The Puerto Rico Port Authority (t1-800/981-2005 or t787/863-0705) runs regular passenger ferries to Vieques and Culebra from Fajardo, as well as a less frequent vehicle and cargo ferry for details. Reaching other offshore islands, such as Isla de Mona, requires the services of a private boat operator.
Domestic flights from San Juan’s Aeropuerto Internacional Luis Muñoz Marín to Mayagüez and Ponce are operated by Cape Air for around $75–80 one-way, though fares vary according to what day and time you fly.
More useful for most visitors are the frequent flights from San Juan or Fajardo to the islands of Culebra and Vieques. Several airlines run these routes, though planes are tiny eight-seaters (neither island can accept jets), so tend to book up fast during holidays. The cheapest flights operate from San Juan’s tiny domestic airport, Isla Grande, and cost around $100 return. Cape Air and a few other airlines also fly direct from the international airport, which is more convenient for connections but more expensive ($160–180 return).
Puerto Rican addresses can be a little confusing, with several systems employed using a combination of English and Spanish. All roads have a number: you’ll often see these prefixed by “Carr” or Carretera (meaning “highway” or “route”) when written down, though you rarely see this on actual road signs, where just the number or the “PR” prefix is more common. Note that a sign reading “INT 3” means that an intersection with PR-3 is coming up, not that you are currently driving on PR-3.
In many places street numbers are not used, and locations are either described (esquina means “corner”) or given a kilometre reference. A location at PR-3 km 2.1 would be 2.1km from the beginning of PR-3, though in practice it’s hard to know where this is or even which end of the road is considered the beginning. In some places useful markers on the roadside show the distance every tenth of a kilometre, but these are becoming rarer. It’s always faster to call your destination for directions.