Hitting the road in Puerto Rico: day trips from San Juan

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Puerto Rico may be small in size, but every corner of this island has a different vibe to experience. Glorious beach views abound on its coasts, but unexpected, brilliant vistas, the ones that make you instinctively reach for the camera, are as typical here as the sand and the waves. The best way of coming across these seemingly serendipitous moments? Road-tripping, of course.

Tired of the city? Hit the road in Puerto Rico © Image Source / Getty Images

Puerto Rico’s roads serve as a stage, and the performers are the rolling hills dotted with little country houses, the wild horses roaming freely through the forests, the fishing villages with tiny bars by the water – these are the enchanting sights travelers find when they dare to venture outside of the city and into the island’s core. Starting in San Juan, these day trips are less than two hours away from the city and reveal Puerto Rico’s raw beauty and cultural merit.

Luquillo – for stunning coastal views and local delicacies

Located on the east side of the island, Luquillo is only an hour away from the capital, and the drive there is pleasant and easy; just get on the PR-66 heading towards Rio Grande and then take the PR-3 South. Luquillo will soon materialize, tempting you to the shore with its blue-green waters and lines of the tallest palm trees around. Head to Balneario La Monserrate, also known as Luquillo Beach, if you want serene scenery, soft sand and easy access. Drive a little further and stop at La Pared Beach for a more rugged coast, a favorite among surfers who come here to catch the decidedly gnarly waves. After a day at the beach, just follow the locals, who are inevitably drawn to the Luquillo kiosks to find flavorsome dishes and cold beer. These beach-side kiosks offer many fried staples like alcapurriasbacalaitos and piononos, but other more filling dishes like roasted pork with rice and beans are also easy to find.

A fisherman tests the waters in Luquillo ©Ricardo’s Photography/CC by 2.0

Culebra and Vieques – for an off-the-grid beach escape

Simply put, Culebra and Vieques are paradise defined, home to swathes of ivory sand lapped by calm, blue ocean and slim dirt roads snaking through dense tropical forests. Getting there can be as easy as hopping on a plane in San Juan and arriving thirty minutes later, or you can turn it into a road trip by driving to Fajardo and then traveling like the locals do, via an hour and a half-long panoramic ferry ride. If you choose the latter option, just be sure get to the terminal early to snag tickets – if you’re traveling on a weekday or a slow weekend, shoot to arrive half an hour early, but if you are venturing out during high season or on summer weekends, be prepared to arrive at least an hour early to queue. Either method of arrival will soon have you swooning over bright white sands like Culebra’s Flamenco Beach or Navio in Vieques. But it’s the laid-back, friendly local attitude will leave the biggest impression on your trip – life is definitely sunnier, saltier, and easier on these welcoming islands.

The cliffs at Navio Beach on Vieques ©Mark Donoher/CC by 2.0

Fajardo – for tropical tunes and arepas

Fajardo is not just the place to catch the ferry to unspoiled Vieques and Culebra – this fishing town is also a prime spot for tropical escapism. Just one hour from San Juan, Fajardo sports an immaculate stretch of sand called Seven Seas Beach, a natural reserve known as Cabezas de San Juan, and some of the best arepas rellenas (white corn pocket bread) on the island. Head over to the village of Las Croabas for local dishes, drinks and music by the sea. If you’re feeling active, rent a kayak or a paddle board in Seven Seas and explore the peaceful coast, or hike to ‘playa escondida,’ a stunning hidden beach with views of Luquillo. Fajardo is also home to El Conquistador Resort, possibly the biggest and most famous resort on the island, and the pristine isles of Icacos and Palomino, only reachable by boat.

Guavate in Cayey – for celebrated cuisine and rural roads

Cayey is known as the home of the highly touted spit-roasted suckling pig, a local delicacy. This is not a dish you get at just any restaurant on the island, though, and many locals consider it mandatory to drive to Guavate to eat their way through the suckling pig route. Officially known as La Ruta del Lechón, this hilly rural road (officially Carretera 184) in the Central Mountains, became an even bigger attraction thanks to celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, who visit often. Along the route, culinary enthusiasts will find plenty of different lechoneras (restaurants) like El Nuevo Rancho, El Mojito and Los Pinos. The celebrated roasted pork is usually served with rice, pigeon peas and a savory slice of cuerito (pork rind) on the side.

A variety of delicious offerings available on the Ruta del Lechón © Brandon Rosenblum / Getty ImagesA variety of delicious offerings available on the Ruta del Lechón © Brandon Rosenblum / Getty Images

Salinas and Ponce – for southern charm and a dose of local culture

The Luis A. Ferré highway is a gorgeous drive that takes you to the south of Puerto Rico by crossing ridge after ridge, and the road itself is elevated enough that you can see the ocean through the mountain tops. Salinas and Ponce are about thirty minutes away from each other, and less than an hour and a half away from San Juan.

The first stop will be Salinas, known for the food kiosks by the road on Highway 1 and the ocean-front seafood restaurants on Camino de Playa (or PR-701). Another popular stop is Aguirre, a picturesque 19th-century sugar mill village now partially in ruins. It’s home to turn-of-the-century cottages, the island’s oldest golf course and a natural reserve.

Half an hour away you’ll find the second largest city in Puerto Rico: Ponce. Dubbed the ‘Pearl of the South’, Ponce has a little of everything: coffee plantations like Buena Vista and Pomarrosa, paradisaical beaches on off-the-coast islands like Caja de Muertos, and renowned art museums. The city’s historic town features a number of architectural marvels; the Ponce Creole style, a unique mix of neoclassical and Spanish Creole architectures, can be seen in over a thousand well-preserved residences all over town. Locals say that ‘Ponce is Ponce’, meaning the city is a class apart. Visitors tend to agree.

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