Most of the time when I plan a trip, it’s to a destination I’ve always wanted to visit. Other times I end up in some unexpected cities, but that often happens when I’m visiting friends.
My trip to Puerto Rico didn’t fall into either of these two categories. I booked it on a whim after waking up to a Spirit Airlines flash sale. Although Spirit’s low-budget airplanes aren’t my favorite, I couldn’t exactly say no to $100 round trip flights, could I? It didn’t take much convincing to get my mom on board, so we booked our first mother-daughter trip for her birthday!
My expectations for Puerto Rico were initially quite low, but someone suggested we go on a Puerto Rico road trip, driving around the island rather than sticking to the east side like most tourists do. So that’s what we did. We drove all around the North and West coasts and even drove through part of the South coast before looping back to the Eastern part of the country. While I may have missed out on some of the pristine beaches of the nearby islands, on our Puerto Rico road trip I witnessed the local side of the country at its finest…and I wouldn’t have it any other way. For those of you that are interested in seeing what Puerto Rico has to offer outside of San Juan and the beach (I did those as well), read on to hear about my experience on a Puerto Rico road trip. This is Puerto Rico, off the beaten track.
Day 1: Hatillo
Our cheap flight came with a somewhat brutal six-hour layover at the Fort Lauderdale airport, and, since both of us have trouble sleeping on planes as it is, we were exhausted by the time we arrived in San Juan.
Travel tip: A Puerto Rico road trip is not for the faint of heart. Roads get pretty small once you get out of the city, and drivers don’t believe in blinkers, stop signs, or cautious driving in general.
Thanks to my poor navigating skills (I still maintain that Google Maps sucks over there), it took us almost two hours to arrive at our beautiful airbnb. It was nestled up a hill, and we could hear the coqui frogs and various insects chirping all night long.
Read my guide to picking the perfect Airbnb here.
We didn’t do much that evening, with the exception of some grocery shopping and dinner. If you find yourself in Hatillo, be sure to eat at El Truco de Guin, an amazing local restaurant with delicious and inexpensive Puerto Rican food, and not an English menu in sight. What we had: Mofongo (plantain mash) with churrasco (steak), taco salad, and chicken quesadillas.
TLDR Itinerary: Rent a car and eat at El Truco de Guin.
Day 2: Arecibo, Camuy, Lares
The slightly reckless Indiana Jones adventurer in me loved La Cueva del Indio, a somewhat unmonitored cave in Arecibo. My mom, not so much. Once we had scaled the jagged rocks, it was an easy climb down to the impressive indigenous carvings and crevices. We continued climbing along the double arches where parts of Pirates of the Caribbean 2 were filmed. It was a pretty spectacular view.
Note: The parking situation is a bit weird here. There’s no official entrance fee, but for parking safety purposes we paid $10 for private parking and one of the security people hung around the cave area to make sure we were okay. Totally worth it. There are a couple of private parking lots, but we just pulled into the first lot coming east towards the cave. We went around 10 am and had the whole place to ourselves.
Unfortunately, the Arecibo Observatory was closed, so we continued onto Parque Las Cavernas del Rio Camuy. This cave is totally set up for tourists, complete with an entrance fee, trolley ride, and comprehensive audio guide. My mom loved this one since she didn’t have to fear for her (or my) life, and I have to admit that the stalagmites and stalactites were stunning. We even saw a couple of bats!
Oh man, then came our lunch adventure. Our original plan was to go to a restaurant I’d found online, but after half an hour of Google Maps and plenty of unexpected turns, we decided to continue onto Lares and find somewhere to eat there. By the time we arrived it was 3 pm, and we walked into the only restaurant that said “abierto.” They seated us. We sat and waited. Ten minutes later I went to the counter and said “so do I order here?” and they responded with “we’re closed.” We were very confused as to why we had been seated, and I was so hangry that I dragged my mom to the only place that was open – Burger King. *facepalm*
After lunch, we drove on some seriously questionable roads in an attempt to get to Guajataca Lake. Once we got to this road I wouldn’t even consider biking down (it was that small and rocky), we decided that we didn’t really need to see this lake. And since the connected park was already closed, we decided that we’d had enough of a driving adventure for the day.
Travel tip: Keep a good attitude when driving. Despite being armed with Google Maps, we still managed to get lost quite a lot, but that was part of the fun of our Puerto Rico road trip.
We spent a few hours back at our apartment (I took full advantage of the hammock) before realizing that we had to get something for dinner, since most places close around 9 pm, #smalltownproblems. Neither of us could stomach the idea of a real meal, and since we were too lazy to cook, we had Pizza Hut. I feel the shame washing over me as I type this. We didn’t eat any American food for the rest of our Puerto Rico road trip, but I couldn’t believe we ate American fast food not once, but twice in the same day. Sigh.
Day 3: Isabela, Playa de Jobos, Aguadilla
We checked out of our Airbnb and made our way to Isabela, a cute small coastal town. Parking was a bit of a nightmare here, so we opted to explore by car before driving down the hill to the beach. We found ourselves at Pozo de Jacinto, a part of the beach with blowholes. I loved watching the aggressive waves crashing against the rock formations, although it clearly wasn’t the best place for swimming. The beach was also nearly empty, which was not what we found at Playa de Jobos. We continued our drive along the coast until we hit Playa de Jobos, one of the best spots to learn surfing in Puerto Rico. Maybe we were unlucky because it was a Friday afternoon, but it was packed both at the beach and at the neighboring restaurants. I was itching to go swimming, so I didn’t mind continuing our drive to Aguadilla, where we would be based for the night before starting on the next leg of our Puerto Rico road trip.
Of course as SOON as we arrived in Aguadilla, it started raining. Hard. For a solid hour and a half. We made some use of that time by walking around and exploring the somewhat quiet town. By the time it stopped raining, it was on the later side so we decided to walk around and sit on the beach instead of actually swimming. Crash Boat Beach in Aguadilla was my favorite beach in Puerto Rico; it had just the right number of swimmers and surfers, and had great views of the neighboring town. I highly recommend staying here if you visit the west coast!
Afterward, we headed back to our hotel to shower before heading out to a delicious dinner at Boca Loca. I had chaufa (fried rice with mixed meats) and my mom had a whole fried red snapper. Everything was fresh, tasty and well-presented. Bonus points for amazing customer service as well!
Day 4: Rincon, Mayaguez, La Parguera
After checking out of Aguadilla, we headed over to Rincon and watched the surfers for a while. Even though I grew up in Los Angeles, I’m always in such awe of surfers. Such an impressive sport! Afterwards, we continued down the coast toward Mayaguez, one of the larger towns of Puerto Rico. On our Puerto Rico road trip, we were surprised to find that most towns were incredibly quiet…almost to a point of being deserted. Mayaguez was no exception. We stopped at the somewhat busy Ricomini Bakery for a delicious lunch to share: a steak Cubano, mille-feuille and a guava and cheese roll. After walking around the town and admiring the plazas and artwork, we decided it would be best to drop off our stuff at our Airbnb before our evening bioluminescent bay adventure in La Parguera.
Although the house wasn’t far from the town center, it was by no means easy to locate. We ended up having to call our host and meet her nearby before following her to the house. Thank goodness my mom was used to driving on the narrow Puerto Rican roads by then! The house itself was spectacular…with the exception of the lizard we found inside (a casualty of our Puerto Rico road trip, our host killed him, #RIP) and the one that snuck in a couple of days later. Anyway, once we checked in, we went on our merry way to La Parguera, where we were planning on going on a bio bay tour.
For those of you that are wondering, a bio bay is a body of water where these organisms called dinoflagellates live. When they come in contact with things, they glow. Puerto Rico is home to three bio bays. Although Vieques is supposed to be the brightest one, we couldn’t figure out how to get a trip there to work with our schedule, so we opted for the one in La Parguera. The bio bay is magical and sparkly but just remember that it won’t glow as brightly as it does in photos on Google. It’s also nearly impossible to get photos that do it justice, so sit back and enjoy the ride! La Parguera itself is a lively place to hang out and people-watch. It’s filled to the brim with people at night (albeit mostly locals), which made service at dinner a bit of a struggle. I didn’t follow my own rules and we went to a quieter spot for dinner, which resulted in pretty mediocre food. Oh well. If you’re on the southwest side of the island on your own Puerto Rico road trip, you should definitely go to La Parguera.
My favorite part of the day hands down has to be when we were exactly one minute from our Airbnb, trying to get home. We got stuck in front of this bar because people had just parked themselves, their cars and their horses (??!) everywhere, effectively blocking the road. There were also cars attempting to get through from the other direction. I SO wish I’d taken photos because it was HILARIOUS – funniest moment of our Puerto Rico road trip.
Day 5: La Joyuda and Guanica
Although we initially wanted to go to Cabo Rojo Lighthouse, it turned out to be closed on Sundays. Instead, we slept in, skipped breakfast and opted for a long Sunday lunch in La Joyuda, also known as the Gourmet Golden Mile. It’s essentially a stretch of restaurants known for fresh seafood. We opted for El Bohio, since it had tons of locals inside. The restaurant is on stilts, and has stunning views of the water, and our food was spectacular. We had a lovely appetizer mix of mini mofongo balls, cheese balls, corn sticks and fish sticks. My mom had the garlic-onion grouper, and I opted for a lightly fried red snapper. It was tad pricey and service was really slow but the food was delicious and we were stuffed by the end. It was a leisurely way to spend the afternoon.
Our initial plan was to spend the rest of the day at Guanica beach and maybe even take the short boat trip to Gilligan’s Island (yes that’s a real place). But apparently Guanica Beach is far too vague for Google Maps. When we arrived, we saw a large body of water and figured we could walk to the beach. Nope, nope, nope. It turned out we weren’t at the right place in Guanica (surprise!). Instead, we walked headfirst into some political campaigning for the local government. In all honesty, it made for a good time – each candidate had his own song and people were singing and chanting. This is the kind of thing that makes it worth going on a Puerto Rico road trip rather than just trawling the touristy spots with a group. It was really amusing to watch for a while, but by the time we left in order to actually go to the real beach, the roads to our path were blocked by all the cars. Needless to say, we never made it to the Guanica beach area or Gilligan’s Island. Puerto Rico successfully thwarted my three attempts to visit the beach. Sad times.
Eventually, we made it back to our Airbnb – and avoided the horses this time – and settled in with the hammock and a light dinner. We had plans to wake up early and head to El Yunque the next day anyway!
Day 6: El Yunque Rainforest
We woke up early that morning and were on the road by 9 am. Of course, we couldn’t leave before saying goodbye to yet another lizard who managed to sneak into our Airbnb before we left. We (meaning me) kept a watchful eye on him during breakfast before going on our way. This leg of our Puerto Rico road trip took us around three hours, including our pit stop for lunch. We ended up at this place called Taco Express, which I was initially excited about…until I realized it was basically a glorified Taco Bell. *Tears.*
I was especially excited about this day because we were staying at Casa Flamboyant, a bed and breakfast located inside the El Yunque Rainforest. Yes, you read that right. Inside. We arrived just in time to catch some pouring rain. Luckily Ricky, one of the owners, met us at the door with umbrellas before showing us around the property. Paradise does not even begin to describe the beauty that is Casa Flamboyant. We had a private terrace and our own view of a waterfall. All the water that runs through the property is natural and pure, straight from the forest. What’s more, everything we could possibly want or need was included in the room: tons of towels, earplugs, a fridge, a hairdryer and more. And in the house: more towels, walking sticks, ponchos, and DVDs. The property itself has a pool (with natural water) overlooking the rainforest AND two trails that lead to private waterfalls. Oh yeah, and Ricky even emailed me asking if we had any dietary preferences for breakfast beforehand. Did I mention breakfast included organic fruit from their garden and local farms? This was hands down the best place I’ve ever stayed at. If you ever come to Puerto Rico, or do your own Puerto Rico road trip, splurge on at least one night here!
Now that I’ve sufficiently gushed over Casa Flamboyant, I’ll have you know that I did actually visit El Yunque. We spent a few hours hiking a couple of the trails and although we didn’t spot any animals, we saw lots of gorgeous flowers and plants. The views of the greenery were stunning.
It was a little cold when we returned to the bed and breakfast, but I was determined to go swimming in the pool because Instagram ;). We ended up meeting one of our housemates and his wife, who kept us seriously entertained. He was from Nashville and had been staying at the BnB “fo dayz.”
Since the rain was coming in, I took it as my cue to shower and change, knowing full well that I’d planned to hike the private trails early the next morning. I spent the next few hours hanging out on the terrace, and once it got dark, I spotted a bunch of the coqui frogs, native to Puerto Rico. They’re small, but boy are they loud! Luckily the noise didn’t bother us at night.
Day 7: Old San Juan
This was our last full day in Puerto Rico and we were eager to make the most of it. We woke up extra early to hike one of the trails to the waterfalls. Even though Florin had instructed me the day before, we forgot to bring walking sticks with us. This resulted in some unpleasant slipping and sliding through the mud, but we eventually made it to the empty waterfall. It was totally worth it!
The trail back was a bit easier, although I got stung by a bee like an idiot. No pain, no gain? After showering, we met at the terrace for an extraordinary breakfast. Breakfast started with a plate of fresh fruit, all locally sourced from the garden or local producers. The “main course” was a pan de agua French toast topped with strawberries, fresh cream, mango infused syrup and nutmeg. I’m drooling as I write this.
After a leisurely breakfast, we parted ways with Casa Flamboyant and headed to our hotel in San Juan. We stayed at the Holiday Inn in Condado (affiliate link) and, after dropping off our stuff, took the bus over to tiny Old San Juan. Even though we arrived in the afternoon, we still had time to explore at a leisurely pace.
Our first stop was the impressive Campo del Morro Fortress. It had amazingly stunning architecture and a fascinating history, since Puerto Rico served as one of the main entry points to trade in the Caribbean back in the day. I recommend it over the San Cristobal Fortress if you’re short on time. San Cristobal is far less impressive, although it does have dungeons…
We spent the majority of our time in Old San Juan wandering the streets and admiring the architecture. We saw La Fortaleza, Plaza de Armas, the San Juan Cathedral and strolled through Paseo de la Princesa. Again, it’s really small, so I’d say the best thing to do is to just wander. There’s nothing like colored buildings and charming streets to inspire you. There’s also a free trolley that takes tourists around if you aren’t up for walking.
By the time we got back to our hotel, it was dinnertime. Ricky had recommended we go to Jose Enrique in Santurce. After my experience at Casa Flamboyant, I trusted Ricky’s opinion wholeheartedly, and Jose Enrique did not disappoint. We walked here from Condado (it was a bit of a sketchy walk, oops) and weren’t even sure we were at the right place when we arrived, since it looks like a large house. We were lucky and only had to wait for 45 minutes (tip: get here early), but it was SO worth it. The food here isn’t cheap but it is spectacular. My mom’s swordfish was the best I’ve ever tried. My beef stew was delicious but not mind blowing – but the specialties here are definitely seafood. Go! You won’t regret it.
It was nearly 11 when we arrived back at the hotel. Since we’d woken up at 6, we were exhausted, so we saved our packing for the next day. Our flight wasn’t until the afternoon anyway.
TLDR Itinerary: Old San Juan and dinner at Jose Enrique.
If you’re looking to explore Puerto Rico outside of the usual tourist path, a Puerto Rico road trip is for you. Although Puerto Rico wasn’t my favorite country in all my travels, it was an excellent place to spend a relaxing week. Whether you like beaches, nature, or adventure travel, Puerto Rico certainly has something for you.
Have you ever been on a Puerto Rico road trip? Which cities are your favorite? Share in the comments below!