If Puerto Rico isn’t on your radar, it’s time to readjust. The Caribbean’s most convenient destination—especially for Americans, who don’t need a passport to get there—is also one of its most interesting.
An unincorporated U.S. territory since the end of the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico established its own constitution in 1952, beginning its complicated status as a commonwealth. And while its residents are American citizens, its culture—a unique blend of Caribbean and European—represents a melting pot all its own.
Regardless of its political standing, Puerto Rico offers travelers untouched rain forest, colonial architecture, and palm-lined beaches. For a weekend or a week-long getaway, “la isla del enchanto,” as it’s affectionately called by locals, is quickly becoming a go-to destination.
Puerto Rico had a long, messy history with the Spanish prior to its relationship with the U.S. Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain during his second voyage to the Indies, and colonists arrived soon thereafter, enslaving the native Taíno population to work in gold mines and on sugar and coffee plantations. The Spaniards also built coastal forts to protect their “rich port” (Puerto Rico’s literal translation), as well as convents, churches, and Andalusian-style homes.
While the colonial era is not exactly something to celebrate, the architecture that’s survived is well worth seeing. Start in Old San Juan, where World Heritage sites El Morro Fortress and 16th-century La Fortaleza, the governor’s official residence, overlook San Juan Bay. The San Juan Cathedral and nearby San José Church, the city’s oldest, sit around the corner from the Dominican Convent, which is now the National Gallery of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and home to an amazing display of Colonial-era art.
Casa Blanca, which was built in 1521 as a home for conquistador Juan Ponce de León, Puerto Rico’s first Spanish governor, is also now a museum. Fun fact: De León never lived here, but his family and descendants occupied the building for more than two centuries.
Travelers would be remiss if they didn’t go cross-island to Ponce, a city—named for the famous conquistador’s great-grandson—dubbed the “Pearl of the South” that once matched San Juan as a business center. Major restoration work has been done in the downtown area that allows the treasure trove of neoclassical, Spanish Colonial, and art deco buildings to shine.
Plenty of travelers come to Puerto Rico for beaches with a dash of culture on the side, but to skip El Yunque is to miss a big part of what makes the island so special.
The only tropical rain forest in America’s national forest system, El Yunque covers almost 30,000 acres in Puerto Rico’s eastern half. Home to well over 200 species of plants and animals, some of which can only be found in this rain forest (look for the Puerto Rican Amazon, one of the ten most endangered birds in the world and the only parrot native to the U.S.), the lush jungle also offers exceptional hiking trails, waterfalls, and mountains.
While you’re on this end of the island, make sure to hit the coast. There’s kiteboarding, surfing, paddle boarding, and snorkeling—or, for something different, you can spend an evening at sea swimming with phosphorescents.
Puerto Rico offers a variety of places to stay, from unique urban digs like the Hotel El Convento in San Juan to sprawling resorts and campgrounds.
Most families come to Puerto Rico for the resorts, and the top three are spread across the island’s northern coast. Dorado Beach, the newest, is a former Rockefeller estate and nature preserve that reopened following a massive renovation a few years back. It’s not cheap (rumors are Beyoncé and Jay-Z have stayed here) but it fits the bill as splurge-worthy and fabulous for families. Focused on sustainability, the children’s program was designed by noted environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau, and famous Washington, D.C. chef José Andrés helms the main restaurant, adapting his James Beard-winning recipes to locally caught seafood.
El Conquistador clocks in at lower rates and, like Dorado, offers both hotel rooms and condo-style accommodations. The resort is built on a cliff overlooking the sea, which means it lacks an on-site beach, but it runs a small launch that takes guests for an eight-minute cruise to its 100-acre private island complete with a groovy beach bar and water sports. Parents may never make it across, though—El Conquistador’s Coqui Water Park, with its twisting slides and lazy river ride, can occupy kids for days.
Not far from “El Con” is the St. Regis Bahia Beach, which has one of the most robust nature programs I’ve seen. Led by marine biologist Marcela Cañón, this is far from the green-washing too often trumpeted by resorts angling to play the “eco card” for PR reasons. From helping to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles and Caribbean manatees on the resort’s grounds to arranging special kayak tours and hikes through El Yunque, Cañón proves that big hospitality companies like Starwood can do conservation right. In fact, the St. Regis Bahia Beach is the first resort in the Caribbean to receive Audubon International’s Gold Signature Sanctuary certification.
> Getting There:
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Unlike much of the Caribbean, getting to Puerto Rico is easy—and reasonably priced. Americans on the East Coast are blessed with frequent direct flights departing almost every major city from Boston to Miami, while West Coasters usually have to make a stopover in Miami or Fort Lauderdale. There are even international connections from Europe.