Looking for an inexpensive travel destination with tropical weather that’s still part of the U.S.? Then look no further than Puerto Rico, where the dollar goes far and you don’t need a passport. From historic Old San Juan to pristine beaches and towering mountains, here are our picks for cheap, even free sights to visit during your trip.
Old San Juan
Bustling Old San Juan, which sits on an island attached to the mainland by three bridges, awaits visitors with shopping, dining and historic sights. The famous blue cobblestone streets feature preserved architecture dating back to the days of Spanish rule, when the settlement was only the second established in the New World. Dating to 1521, the San Juan Cathedral (151 Calle Del Cristo, website) is the second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere and the burial site of Juan Ponce de Leon, the first governor of Puerto Rico who died during his infamous quest for the Fountain of Youth in Florida. Free admission. La Fortaleza (website), located at the western end of Calle Fortaleza in Old San Juan, was built between 1533 and 1540 as a defensive structure for the Port of San Juan. Today it is the official residence of Puerto Rico’s governor and open to visitors. Admission is $3 and guided tours are free.
Castillo de San Felipe del Morro or “El Morro” (Calle Tiburcio Reyes, website) is a former citadel well positioned to defend the island, having repelled attacks by both the English and Dutch. El Morro, part of a complex of fortifications known as the San Juan National Historic Site, has been a member of the U.S. National Park System since 1961. Open daily 9am – 6pm (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day). Admission is $3 for adults 16 and over ($5 combined admission with Castillo San Cristobal).
Natural Beauty – Beaches and Rainforest
Puerto Rico’s beaches are free to the public, though some have parking fees. Top beaches on the island include Isla Verde near San Juan, the secluded Rosado Beach near Cabo Rojo, Boquerón for snorkeling and Luquillo for families. The island of Culebra is also known for its snorkeling and is easily accessible from San Juan by plane or Fajardo by ferry. Considered the best beach on Culebra and one of the best in the Caribbean, Flamenco Beach is a marine wildlife preserve and ideal for swimming or snorkeling. Once home to a bombing range for the U.S. navy, Vieques Island is a lush getaway reached via quick plane ride from San Juan or by ferry from Fajardo for just $2 each way. Now open to visitors, the island’s unspoiled beauty and deserted white sand beaches have become the Caribbean’s new must-visit sight. Parts of the mostly-undeveloped island are off-limits due to contamination from the explosives used by the navy but the vast majority is a natural wonderland, including the Bioluminescent Bay, which is full of luminescent sea creatures – but not open to swimming, only trips run by licensed tour operators. Watch for the wild horses, which have free run over much of the island. Puerto Rico isn’t just about its beaches and forts – the breathtaking El Yunque Rainforest (website) covers more than 28,000 acres of mountainous terrain east of San Juan. One of the most beautiful rainforests in the world, El Yunque features incredibly lush flora, tropical flowers and exotic wildlife, including the Puerto Rican tree frog known as el coquí. The El Portal Visitor’s Center gives visitors an overview of the rainforest and its ecosystem. You can walk among the treetops sixty feet off the ground or stroll among the bases of the trees. Admission: $3 for adults; children 15 and under free.
Rum Tours Self-proclaimed “the rum capital of the world“, Puerto Rico features four rum distilleries throughout the island. Puerto Rico is known for producing lighter styles though aged anejos are becoming more popular. The most famous is Casa Bacardi (website), founded in 1862. Hop a ferry from Old San Juan to Cataño to learn about the history of rum distilling on the Bacardi Factory Tour. Here you can also take a mixology lesson and learn how to create a variety of rum libations. Tours run daily and are free, including two free drinks for those 21 & over. Hours: Monday-Saturday tours from 8:30am – 5:30pm (last tour at 4:15pm), Sunday 10am – 5pm (last tour at 3:45pm) Less known but very popular with Puerto Ricans, Don Q Rum is made by the Serrallés family. The tasting room is conveniently located in Old San Juan at Casa Don Q in the Ochoa Building on Marina Street (across from Pier 1). Drop in for a free sample daily 11am- 8pm except Thursday. You can also visit Castillo Serrallés (website) in Ponce, which is open to the public and offers tours of the family mansion, a Japanese garden, the towering Vigia Cross and a butterfly museum. Open Thursday – Sunday from 9:30am – 6:30pm (last entry at 5:30pm). However, no rum is tasted at Castillo Serrallés. Adults $5.50 – $12.80, kids $2.75 – $5.50. Much smaller is Barrilito in Bayamón, which does not provide a tour or tasting room. But it’s rums are highly sought after and the family will let you wander around if you show up during normal hours. Just look for the characteristic windmill, which serves as their office. Even smaller is Trigo, which specializes in anejo rums – keep an eye out for these in San Juan’s markets and upscale restaurants.