7 Reasons to visit… Puerto Rico
White sands, salsa clubs and £250 flights straight there? This Caribbean island just got even more tempting, says writer Kate Wills
- Johnny Depp’s beach
Puerto Rico may only be 100 miles long and 35 miles wide but it packs in over 300 public beaches – from the jet-skis and joggers at urban Isla Verde to the unspoilt paradise of Flamenco beach in Culebra. But for true desert island bliss, guests of the El Conquistador Beach Resort (rooms from £125 a night, elconresort.com) can catch a free catamaran to Palomino, a private island of bleached-out sand, palm trees and resident iguanas. From here, rent a paddleboard (£23 an hour) and float out to tiny sister island Palominito – where Johnny Depp leaves Penelope Cruz stranded in <Pirates of the Caribbean>. We can think of worse places to be shipwrecked…
- Street eats
Although it’s now a commonwealth of the USA (so pack your dollars), Puerto Rico was Spanish for over 400 years, and its position in slapbang in the middle of all the trade winds means that the food here is a heady mix of Latin, Caribbean, European and American flavours. Get a taste of the place by eating your way around Old San Juan on a food tour (sanjuanfoodtours.com, £45, for a 3 hour tour). This area of colour-pop 17th-century houses and blue, stone cobbled streets is now a Unesco heritage site, and on the tour you’ll learn how to make mafongo – a traditional dish of mashed plantain, and sample arroz con gandules – pigeon peas and rice with a ‘secret’ sauce. The secret might be how to finish it – it’s seriously filling.
- Island getaway
If the luxury resorts and glitzy casinos of mainland Puerto Rico get a bit much, take a ferry from Fajardo to the island of Vieques (1hour, £1.50 each way). This Bounty-advert-esque oasis has rugged hills, neon flowers and wild ponies who canter around oblivious to humans. Visit the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge (free, www.fws.gov/), a protected area of pristine beaches and coral reefs where you can snorkel with manatees, stingrays and starfish. Rent a mask from most of the beaches or take a 3 hour snorkelling tour with Black Beard Sports (blackbeardsports.com, £43). Before you head back to civilisation, check out the tiny chilled-out town of Esperanza, where shabby-chic rum bars play raggae all day and night, and have a lobster paella at Bili (£18, bilirestaurant.com).
- Spirited stuff
This little island is the biggest producer of rum in the world and a mixology tour of the Bacardi Factory is a fun, boozy way to find out how they make the stuff (£30, including cocktails and souvenir cup, visitcasabacardi.com). But you can’t leave Puerto Rico without sipping a Pina Colada – the classic holiday cocktail was created at the Caribe Hilton in 1954 by barman Ramon “Monchito” Marrero, so head to their pool bar for their signature tipple (£8, caribehilton.com). This historic hotel is also where Hunter S. Thompson began <The Rum Diaries>, although matching him shot for shot could get messy.
- Glowing bays
Watching nature’s underwater fireworks in one of Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays is an unforgettable experience. The most accessible way to reach the sparkly stuff is to jump in a two-man kayak in Fajardo with a tour group (£38 for 2-hours, kayakingpuertorico.com). After twenty minutes of cruising through the mangroves in total darkness, you’ll reach a lagoon full of microscopic plankton which produce a trail of shimmering light when stimulated by your hand or the paddle. They don’t really show up in amateur photos and kayaking gets splashy, so forget your camera and appreciate this one with your eyeballs.
- Singing rainforests
Just a 45-minute drive from San Juan is the El Yunque rainforest – a national park in the mountains with lots of easy hikes through dense tropical trees and ‘is-that-a-snake?’ branches. Pack your swimsuit and follow the La Mina trail down to a waterfall where you can jump in the cool pool and let the falls give your shoulders a pummelling. On your way back up, try to spot a Puerto Rican parrot and listen for the coqui frog – these tiny amphibians have a loud call which sounds like their name. Maps are provided at the welcome centre and hikes are well signposted, but if you want to go with a group, Fine Line Excursions offers a 5.5 hour guided trip for £36 (finelinetours.com).
- Dirty dancing
Although Puerto Ricans and Cubans argue over who invented salsa, a night with the <salseros> of San Juan will have you convinced it had to be here. Every Thursday and Friday, locals head to La Placita – a market square by day but a buzzing street party with live music by night (Parada 18, between Ponce de Leon and Baldorioty de Castro). Head to Nuyorican Cafe (nuyoricancafepr.com) for free lessons every Wednesday, then stay to watch the masters in action. When your feet can’t take any more, stop for a nightcap at La Factoria (148, Calle San Sebastian). With its low-slung fairy lights, tumbling walls and hipster cocktails (The Lavender Mule, £6, was our fave), it’s easy to see why it was recently named one of the world’s 50 best bars.