After spending two months on the island, I can easily say that there is no shortage of amazing things to do in Puerto Rico. With countless waterfalls, world-class beaches on Vieques and Culebra, rare bioluminescent bays, jungles, mountains and that famous Puerto Rico nightlife in San Juan, the real trouble is figuring out where to start your adventure on the Island of Enchantment.
Fortunately, the island isn’t that big – only 110 miles at its widest point – making it very easy to turn your week-long vacation into the ultimate Puerto Rican road trip.
Before you balk at the idea of driving in an unknown place, hear me out.
First off, remember that Puerto Rico is a US territory. It has two airports, a major port and doesn’t require a passport to enter. That makes getting there easy.
Secondly, the island uses US dollars and the national languages are both Spanish and English. So you won’t need to worry about learning how to say, “Where is the next rest stop?” in Spanish. Unless you want to try to pick up the language, that is.
Finally, there is no reliable, island-wide public transportation option. There are thousands of people who visit the island each year that never leave San Juan and the surrounding area because they don’t know about all the hidden gems and other things to do in Puerto Rico – or how to get to them. That leaves wide open beaches, empty jungle trails and hidden waterfalls all around the island just waiting for you to discover.
That’s also what makes a road trip your perfect island vacation!
How to Prepare for a Road Trip in Puerto Rico
It’s very easy to rent a car in most of the bigger towns. San Juan, Aguadilla, Rincón, and Ponce all had options that I looked into while I was there. My recommendation would be to make the process really simple and reserve your car when you book your flight, especially if you are traveling during the peak winter months.
There are two international airports on the island – one in San Juan and one in Aguadilla – but they are both very small, so the inventory of cars can get booked quickly.
After you buy your plane tickets and start planning out your week, your next step should be to get out a map and star all the things you want to do in Puerto Rico.
This will make it easy to see which towns will be your main stops. It’s a good idea to know what day you’ll be in each town and plan which hotel, hostel or Airbnb you’ll stay in after a full day of exploring. And if you want to check out some of the brightly-painted beach houses that are around the island, you can use my Airbnb coupon code.
You’ll also be able to start making a loose plan of what you want to see each day – leaving plenty of time for impromptu stops and taking those narrow island roads at a slow pace.
Here are my top 12 things to do on a Puerto Rican road trip:
1. Take a walk around Old San Juan
San Juan is the only large city on the island and is the part of Puerto Rico you see the most often in photos. It’s iconic cobblestone streets and bright buildings make for a great day of walking around around. There are plenty of small restaurants to pop into for “mofongo” – a local dish made of fried plantains – and a piña colada.
Afterward, you can watch boats and cruise ships come in to port at sunset by Castillo del Morro, a 16th-century Spanish fortification that overlooks the harbor, before getting ready to party hop your way through all the best nightlife hotspots in Puerto Rico.
2. Go spelunking in one of the western hemisphere’s biggest caves
When I was looking for new things to do in Puerto Rico, I was surprised to learn that the island is home to a massive cave system and the third largest underground river in the world.
You’ll forget you’re in the middle of a tropical island when you step into the caves at Camuy Cave Park. Afterward, you can drive to the Arecibo Observatory to see the world’s second-largest single-dish radio telescope.
3. Swim in crystal clear waters at Crashboat Beach
Spending a day at Crashboat Beach is one of the more popular things to do in Puerto Rico, but it’s still well-worth the stop.
Jump off the former military pier, take a photo by the brightly painted boats and have some street food from one of the local stands – this is what island life is all about.
4. Jump off Sugar Mill Pier near Aguadilla
Your Puerto Rican road trip is bound to take you along the island’s sugarcane route, where you’ll see what’s left of the Spanish-built sugar mills. Once the home of the island’s largest export, all that’s left are just rusty skeletons being taken over by the jungle.
The pier near Aguadilla is known for a rope swing that once hung there, but thrill seekers still go and make the jump. Enter (and jump) at your own risk.
5. Mountain bike at breakfast and surf at sunset in Rincón
Rincón has a special place in my heart because that’s where I spent most of my time, but I also think it’s the best spot on the island when it comes to looking for adventure sports and other things to do in Puerto Rico that involve a little bit of adrenaline.
You can’t walk around this little town without running into an expat surfer who came on a surfing holiday and never left. Steps Beach/Tres Palmas and Domes Beach are all known for serious waves, but Domes is a great place to hang out for the day if you want a little bit of everything.
You can rent an ATV, take a surf lesson and even rocket down some downhills at one of my favorite mountain bike trails in Puerto Rico before grabbing a Medalla at the bar right on the beach.
If you happen to be in town on a Sunday, plan to stick around for the art walk and some local brews in the town square, too.
6. Dive for bombs near an uninhabited island
Before your Puerto Rican road trip takes you out of Rincón, book a snorkeling and scuba-diving trip to Desecheo Island.
Snorkeling is one of those things you can do almost anywhere in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, but I love this spot because the local boats will take you out to a tiny, uninhabited island that used to be used for ammunitions testing.
Look for a bomb underwater, but keep your exploring to the water. No one is allowed to walk ashore because of the potential danger.
7. Jump off a waterfall by San Sebastián
Hunting for waterfalls in the jungle is one of the best things to do in Puerto Rico and no road trip would be complete without at least one.
Why not make it one you can jump off, complete with a rope swing?
Gozalandia has a name that sounds like it’s out of some sort of make-believe city, but it’s real and it’s one of my favorite places to hang out with friends for a day. There is a swimming hole with a rope swing at the top of the hill and a larger waterfall below it that people jump off when the water below is deep enough.
8. See the sights in Cabo Rojo
If you’re looking for the more adventurous things to do in Puerto Rico, you may want to stop in Cabo Rojo for more than a day.
Cabo Rojo itself is a small town with a lot of colonial Spanish influence. Visitors can learn more about Puerto Rico’s interesting history at the Museo de los Proceres and then venture out to the beaches, wildlife preserves, and salt flats in the area.
On my personal list of things to do in Cabo Rojo: Stand up paddle board through the mangroves off the coast.
9. Watch the water glow in a bioluminescent bay
Glowing water really needs no introduction, but there are bioluminescent plankton living in the water that glow when they are agitated. And Puerto Rico is the place for plankton, it seems.
Of the five bioluminescent bays in the world, three are on the island. Mosquito Bay on Vieques is the brightest of the three, but if you are on a road trip around Puerto Rico, you can easily see La Parguera on the west coast or Laguna Grade on the east. They are most brightest on a new moon, and it’s definitely an experience that is worth the wait.
10. Celebrate at one of Ponce’s festivals
Carnaval de Ponce is Puerto Rico’s Mardi Gras festival. It happens in February each year and is a week packed with dancing, colorful costumes and plenty of libations.
It will take some planning to plan a Puerto Rican road trip during this time (and accommodations will book out well in advance), but you would be able to take part in a festival that not many tourists see.
11. Hike or bike in the desert at Guánica State Forest
Not technically a desert, Guánica is a subtropical dry forest full of cacti, hiking trails and singletracks for mountain bike fans.
There are over 100 miles of trails in the park, so you can be hiking or pedaling for quite a while before you run out of new scenery. There are also a few cacao farms in the area that rent out land for camping, in case you want to sleep under the stars and listen to the coqui frogs after a day of exploring the park.
12. Trek through the only jungle in the United States
No list of things to do in Puerto Rico would be complete without mention of El Yunque. It is the most popular destination on the island and is a great place to go if you want to see rare animals, waterfalls and a high-altitude dwarf forest.
If you are lucky, you may even spot a chupacabra, the island’s version of Big Foot that is said to only live in El Yunque National Park. Read up on the legend of this vampire-like creature and keep an eye out as you walk the trails in the park!
If you are mapping your road trip route according to the 12 things to do in Puerto Rico that I just listed here, you’ll notice that we are now back on the Northeast side of the island, creating a full loop.
Once you make it to San Juan, you could take a day or two to unwind even more and visit the neighboring islands of Vieques and Culebra for their famous white beaches.
Regardless of what things you want to do most, planning a road trip for your Puerto Rican vacation or travels is the perfect way to see every inch of the island. Plus, you won’t have any strict agenda, so you can stay in each spot for as long as you would like.
So, know that you know about all the things to do in Puerto Rico, would you go on a road trip on the island? What would you do first?
I’m Averi Melcher, a former fashion student who ditched my designer bag for a backpack about 7 years ago. A week after learning about the art of slow travel and bicycle touring, I bought my first bike and haven’t looked back since. I’ve traveled (mostly solo) to 24 different countries, seeking out experiences that take me outside and off the well-trodden tourist trails whenever possible. Most of my camping, hiking, and cycling adventures have sprung from conversations with locals and are also shared on The Pedal Project and @thepedalproject.
Wow!. These are amazing things to do in the beautiful Island. Puerto Rico is definitely a place to visit. When I visit I would definitely hike the state forest.
Thank you Josephine! Puerto Rico has a mind-blowing amount of things to do and sew packed into such a small island. And full of surprises (like a desert and the bio-bays). I kind of felt like I was in a dream the whole time I was there. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need help whipping up an island itinerary!
*see not sew ;P
Thanks for the ideas when in Puerto Rico – love the sense of adventure and the photos captured here!
Thanks Kevin! Glad to hear you enjoyed it.