When people ask me “How about a Puerto Rico road trip?” I scream yes very loudly! One of the first things I recommend for those visiting the island is to rent a car and discover beyond the tourist spots of San Juan. My upcoming book, Dining Traveler Guide to Puerto Rico (release date May 2016), is inspired by many road trips taken with my family as I grew up on the island. My latest trip was a scouting mission to see which areas we want to include. There was not enough time to see it all but here are my tips on how to experience Puerto Rico on the road.
Puerto Rico Road Trip: Discovering the East Coast
The car: We picked up our car at Hertz. I was happy to see that now the main rental car companies have moved to the terminal, which makes the process more convenient. I’ve been a member of USAA (bank and insurance company for military and their families) for many years and they offer a discount code to Hertz and a free membership to the Gold Program. I also save by applying my personal USAA car insurance to the rental. Google maps on your mobile works very well on the island. Tip: don’t forget to pack your cell phone car charger! Every destination on this post can be located with Google Maps.
Head South: We headed on our Puerto Rico road trip by immediately heading south on route 52, which crosses the island north to south, from San Juan to my hometown of Guayama. Our goal: to make it to the Lechoneras (split roasted pork restaurants) of Guavate, deep in the Cordillera Central (central mountains) of the island. If you want traditional Puerto Rican cuisine, this is it! I haven’t been in years, but Yelp (and my aunts) were very helpful in helping me find one open on Wednesday at lunchtime. We ended up savoring the salty pork crackling (el cuerito) with rice, octopus salad, and fried sweet plantains at Lechonera Los Pinos. How to get there: get off on exit Cayey and follow route 184.
Ponce: From there, we followed route 184 to route 15 (the scenic route) towards Ponce. We took in the rolling hills, the colorful homes of the Puerto Rican countryside and the scent of charcoal used to cook the pigs. We arrived in Ponce, affectionately known as the pearl of the south (La Perla del Sur). There, we stay in the city center at a quaint boutique hotel, Hotel Belgica. That evening, we headed to La Guancha, a beautiful boardwalk filled with locals with their families, on their evening run, and we even spotted a few romantic dates. The sunset is worth the trip. For more details about Ponce, see my previous post “24 Hours in Ponce”.
Southeastern Puerto Rico: Our goal was to see as much of Puerto Rico as possible with a limited amount of time (5 days). I wanted to take Puerto Rico Route 3 as it shows the beauty of the southeastern coast of the island. First stop from Ponce: my hometown of Guayama. If you love colonial architecture, head to one of the most beautiful plazas (city centers) of the island. There, you are transported to another time, with a turquoise blue art deco movie theater, a Spanish style church, and the beautiful Cautino museum. You see retirees playing an animated game of dominoes and flowers spouting of a garden the players adopted. Head to Rex Cream, a local favorite and indulge in freshly churned ice cream made from tropical fruits such as passion fruit, soursop, and tamarind. Local tip: Feeling hungry? Head to Casa de los Pastelillos, a beachside restaurant in Pozuelo, in Guayama. They have pastelillos (pastries) filled with everything from conch meat to crocodile.
We continued our journey on route 3 and stopped in Patillas at a local favorite, El Marullo restaurant at Inches Beach. Inches is known for its rocky beaches and breaks that are perfect for surfing. We had freshly squeezed grapefruit juice (mine spiked with gin, the Dutchman was driving), octopus salad and checked out the surfers on their quest for the perfect wave. We hopped in our car and continued our trip to Fajardo taking in some of the epic views of the cliffs of Manuabo. This is where the Caribbean and Atlantic come together. Worth a stop to take in the magnificent view. Local tip: there are beautiful beaches in Humacao if you fancy a dip while on the road.
Fajardo: We arrived at our stop for 2 nights, El Conquistador Resort. There, we took advantage of the exclusive access the hotel has to Palomino Island, an idyllic little island off the coast of Puerto Rico with white sand, turquoise waters, and spectacular views from the highest point of the island. More about my stay at El Conquistador here.
El Yunque and Luquillo: No Puerto Rico road trip is complete without a visit to El Yunque. I’ve traveled to over forty countries and discovered plenty of places, but El Yunque will always hold the number one place in my heart. I recommend to arrive extremely early or late in the afternoon on a weekday to avoid the crowds. You can hike to the top of El Yunque Mountain and literally touch the clouds. On a clear day you can see the whole east coast of the island.
Replenish the calories lost in Luquillo beach which has a long line of kiosks with everything from traditional Puerto Rican food to ceviche and Italian cuisine. This place has long been a favorite among locals and tourists. On our latest trip, we indulged on a fritter sampler at Don Faustino (Puerto Ricans love fried food). I always enjoy the mix in Luquillo on a Friday afternoon: a mix of locals coming home from work in their suits, college kids having drinks after a day on the beach, and a few adventurous tourists.
Pinones and Loiza: These places may have a bad reputation because of some violence in the area but during the day, it is a place where locals and their families come together for good street food and lovely views of the beach. I had my 30th birthday at Soleil Beach Club which has a gorgeous view of the beach and Chef Juan Carlos makes a mean lechon (roasted pork). I was delighted that six years after my birthday party he was still making the lechon, this time for my dear friend Vilmaris’ wedding. Looking for a destination wedding with a simple beach setting, good food, and easy access to San Juan hotels? This may be the place for you.
Ocean Park: On your way back to the airport there are a few places you cannot miss in San Juan. For a traditional lunch, head to my all-time favorite: Kasalta. President Obama spent only four hours in Puerto Rico and one of them was spent having lunch there. This is an unassuming Spanish style bakery with grilled sandwiches, Puerto Rican classic dishes, and pastries. Work off the calories with a swim at a local favorite, Ocean Park Beach.
Old San Juan: A place that never gets old for me is Old San Juan. It seems that in my hundreds of visits, I always discover something new. For an insight in Puerto Rican culture, head to El Instituto de Cultura Puertoriqueno which has a vast collection of books, small pieces of art you can take home, and children items. For food, you cannot miss breakfast or lunch at Café Mallorca. Have a grilled Mallorca (sweet bread) with ham and cheese or try one of their pastelones, layers of sliced ripe plantains filled with cheese and ground meat. For cocktails, don’t miss the bar at Hotel El Convento. It’s a quiet space in the middle of the vibrant old city. If it’s your first time on the island, don’t miss a visit to El Morro, the old fort built by the Spanish to protect the island from invaders. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site and part of the US National Park System.
Santurce: There’s no better place to learn about a culture than through its food. The placita de Santurce has been a gathering place for decades. A place where people come together for after work drinks, cooks pick up their fresh plantains from the food stalls, and young people come together. It truly show the fabric of Puerto Rico, where many cultures and races are woven together to make it the vibrant place that it is.
Practical tips: As any place, be vigilant of where you park your car. Parking garages are abundant and moderately priced. Be careful at night when driving. Try to stay off the road late at night, if you need to, treat stop lights like stop signs after 11pm. Always make sure to remove your valuables from your car. I’ve lived and been traveling to Puerto Rico my whole life and never been robbed (knock on wood). However, it is always beneficial to have precautions.
There is so much to see of Puerto Rico and too little time! However a Puerto Rico road trip can give you an insight of the local life of the island. Puerto Ricans love to discover their island on their weekend and their time off. Many of the spots I mentioned I discovered as a kid on road trips with my dad. In these road trips you can savor the food, capture the smile of an animated bartender or listen to stories of the Puerto Rican diaspora from a retiree playing dominos in a sunny plaza in the heart of Puerto Rico.