San Juan, Puerto Rico
From the rumble of reggaeton to the beat of bomba, life on Puerto Rico pulsates to a constant cacophony of sound and movement. Hordes of cars weave across the island, commerce bustles at a pace comparable to any developed metropolis, and seemingly incessant fiestas ensure that nobody ever lacks a reason to celebrate. Not only sounds but sights fill the island; Puerto Rico is remarkable for the sheer amount of stuff that has managed to squeeze onto a space the size of Connecticut. In addition to four million people, this tiny plot of land holds some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, the only tropical rain forest in the US, acres of coral reef, the world’s third largest underground cave system, nine protected reserves, the world’s largest radio telescope, and countless diverse ecosystems. Oh, and giant San Juan is the commercial capital of the Caribbean. Puerto Rico offers a diverse package of culture, commerce, and nature.
The northwest of Puerto Rico is home to more rugged terrain and more laid back locals with ideal surfing territory. The dramatic and dry landscape in the southwest holds a wealth of natural attractions, such as striking cliffs, stretches of sand, and rocky ports. Replacing plains of sugar crop after it stopped being profitable in the southeast are mountains that abruptly give way to miles of flat land reaching to the ocean. The northeast is what one imagines of a tropical destination like Puerto Rico as it is full of beautiful forests as well as beaches.
Many people travel to Puerto Rico just for the beaches—and the beaches are unbelievable—but the island easily has enough cultural and natural attractions to keep anyone busy for weeks. Whether you’re looking for a taste of Caribbean culture, an off-the-beaten-track adventure, or just a relaxing vacation on the beach, Puerto Rico will not disappoint.
The island may be small, but Puerto Rico’s size can be deceiving. With so much to see it can be hard to remember to take time to relax on Puerto Rico’s beaches. Here is our list of must-sees to help you make the most of your trip. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
The wealth and diversity of restaurants in Puerto Rico, and especially San Juan, make it easy to visit the island without ever sampling regional cuisine. Don’t make that mistake. Though similar to many other Latin American cuisines, Puerto Rican food (comida criolla or cocina criolla) offers a unique blend of spices and tastes that can satiate any palate. American cuisine, particularly fast food, has invaded the island in full force, and many locals have replaced traditional foods with Whoppers and Big Macs.
The Puerto Rican day starts with breakfast, a casual meal enjoyed before work frequently in a local cafeteria. For many locals, breakfast consists of a cup of hot cafe con leche (coffee with milk) and tostadas (toasted pan de agua with butter). Most restaurants also serve a larger American breakfast, including huevos fritos (fried eggs), huevos revueltos con jamón (scrambled eggs with ham), tocineta (bacon), karma de avena (oatmeal), tostadas francesas (french toast), panqueques (pancakes), and, from Spain, tortillas espaﬁolas (Spanish omelets; a mix of eggs, potatoes, and onions). Unlike Americans, Puerto Ricans also enjoy a good sandwich for breakfast. Sandwiches with jamón, queso, y huevo (ham, cheese, and egg) are popular, but so is just about every other type of sandwich; there’s nothing like roast beef to start the day.
Sandwiches make a reappearance for lunch and this is one of the cheapest ways to ﬁll up. Puerto Rican sandwiches are typically served on pan de agua, a fresh, tasty local version of French bread, and made with some kind of meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise or butter, then grilled in a press and served hot. Local favorites are the cubano and the media noche, two sandwiches made with roasted pork, pepinillas, ham, and swiss cheese. The difference is that a cubano is served on Cuban bread and the media noche on sweet bread. Other popular sandwiches include: pollo (chicken), pave (turkey), atán (tuna), pernil (pork), and bistec (beef). The local fast-food chain El Mesón Sandwiches, based in Aguadilla, makes terriﬁc sandwiches and has a couple vegetarian options.
Most Puerto Ricans head to a cafetería or an American fast-food restaurant for a quick lunch on the go. A traditional lunch includes a heaping pile of rice, either arroz blanco (white rice) by itself, or served with grandules (pigeon peas) or garbanzos (chick peas). Sometimes the rice comes mixed with habichuelas rosadas (red beans), other times the beans are served on the side. Next step is meat; some common options include: biftec encebollado (strips of beef with onions), chuletas fritas (fried pork chops), pollo frito (fried chicken), pechuga de pollo (chicken breast), biftec empanado (breaded Spanish steak), churrasco (yet another type of breaded beef), and various types of pescado frito (fried seafood). Finally, add either tostones (dry, fried plantains; good with salt) or amarillos (fried sweet plantains) and a small ensalada verde (iceberg lettuce with tomatoes and Thousand Island dressing) to complete the meal.
Dinner tends to be a more formal affair eaten at home with the family, and smaller towns may not have any restaurants open late at night except fast food. More formal Puerto Rican restaurants tend to offer meals similar to those served at lunch with a few additional options. You can’t leave Puerto Rico without trying the famous mofongo, mashed plantain served with meat or ﬁsh inside. This traditional dish has been referred to as “the poor man’s food” (despite the fact that it can be quite pricey) and one serving will leave you stuffed for days. For less daring entrees, sample the relatively tame chicken options, such as pechuga rellena (chicken breast filled with ham and cheese). Soups are another popular option, and many are hearty enough to serve as a meal in themselves. Asopao is a thick stew served with either fish or chicken and occasionally pigeon peas. Soncocho is a salty, slightly thinner fish soup. Watch out for less traditional options such as sopón de garbanzos con patas de cerdo (chickpea soup with pig feet). During the Christmas season Puerto Ricans like to feast on lechón asado (pork roasted over an open flame) and cuerito (pork rind). Nothing says “Merry Christmas!” like roasted pork.
Puerto Ricans also love their seafood, though it’s surprisingly expensive given that the island is surrounded by water. The unofficial national fish is chillo (red snapper) served in most nice restaurants as a whole fish, head and all. On the coast you will find a plethora of seafood restaurants serving the gamut of options, including camarones (shrimp), carrucho (conch), pulpo (octopus), chapin (trunkfish), cangrejo or juey (crab), and of course, langosta (lobster).
Mmm, fried food. Puerto Rico is not the place to travel if you want to lose weight, as it’s hard to resist the delectable fried snacks. Small roadside stands, food kiosks, and some restaurants sell empanadillas, fried fritters filled with various types of meat, seafood, or cheese. For even more calories try alcapuria, fried plantains stuffed with beef or pork, or a pinono, a fried plantain wrapped around ground beef. Bacalaítos, flat, fried fritters with a bit of codfish flavoring, taste much better than they sound. To round out the fried family, sorullitos de maíz are fried sticks of ground corn that taste a bit like fried corn bread. Puerto Ricans go crazy for pinchos, hunks of meat barbecued on a stick like a kebab
A couple of popular frozen snacks provide a great way to cool off during the day. Street vendors, mostly in big cities, sell piraguas, shaved ice with flavored syrup on top. Private individuals put up signs advertising the sale of limbers, frozen fruit juice. Puerto Ricans also enjoy their pastries, and at any repostería you’ll find quesitos (long pastries filled with white cheese) and pan mallorca (sweet bread). These tasty treats can be eaten for breakfast, dessert, or just a snack.
Don’t skip dessert. Puerto Rico utilizes its Latin heritage and its profundity of fresh fruits to create some delicious post-meal treats. The most common dessert is the popular flan (egg custard) served plain or with coconut or vanilla flavoring. Another dessert common throughout Latin America is tres leches, a sweet cakes covered in condensed milk sauce. The fruit in Puerto Rico is so tasty that it is often served for dessert; look for guayaba con queso (guava with cheese). Puerto Ricans also serve a variety of fruit-flavored helado, a smooth ice cream that resembles Italian gelato. During Christmas season everyone serves tembleque (a gelatinous coconut milk pudding), although the dessert is available year-round. Finally, Puerto Ricans make their own style of arroz con dulce, sweet rice pudding frequently made with coconut flavoring.
Rum is more than a drink in Puerto Rico, it’s part of being Puerto Rican. In the early 20th century Puerto Rico’s thriving sugar industry has fallen, the rum industry continues to thrive (with sugar cane imported primarily from the Dominican Republic). Today, Puerto Rico produces three primary brands of rum: Bacardi, Don Q, and Palo Viejo. Bacardi has been based in Puerto Rico since the 1961 Cuban Revolution and continues to be the world’s best-selling rum. However, Puerto Ricans prefer Don Q, which is still produced near Ponce at the Serallés Distillery. Real rum connoisseurs declare that Palo Viejo is the best Puerto Rican run, but it is not as widespread. Since Governor Calderón took office a series of alcohol taxes have considerably raised the price of drinking, but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone. The perennial bar favorite is the Cuba Libre, commonly known as a rum and coke. And, of course, Puerto Rico is the birthplace of the piña colada, a blended mix of rum, pineapple juice, and coconut juice. During Christmas season locals make coquitos, a mix of eggnog and rum named after the island’s favorite frog.
But you can’t survive on rum alone; sometimes Puerto Ricans drink beer as well. The locally produced Medalla, a light beer, is the cheapest and most authentic option, although Puerto Ricans drink many imports as well. When it’s too early for alcohol, Puerto Ricans enjoy their café con leche, coffee served with a lot of milk and sugar. Although coffee production has decreased significantly over the last 50 years, the town of Yauco and Maricao are still known for their fine brews. Another popular beverage is mavi, made from the bark of the mavi tree and frequently served out of a large barrel. Finally, Malta India, the producers of Medalla, also produce a popular local soft drink aptly called Malta India.
For an island of its size, Puerto Rico maintain a remarkably impressive tradition of art and culture. The Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, founded in 1955, has been greatly effective in preserving puerto Rico’s cultural heritage and opening it to the public over the last 50 years. This organization runs many of the island’s museums.
As Puerto Rico’s economy began to flourish in the 1940’s, so did its art scene. Around this time the government began subsidizing poster art, graphic arts initially dealing with social and political themes on the island, and later becoming announcements for cultural events and festivals. More recently, Rafael Tufiño Figueroa (1922-present) is considered to be one of the island’s most important contemporary artists. Tufiño used his background as inspiration to paint scences of poverty in Puerto Rico. There has also been a recent rise in female artists. Paving the way is Myrna Báez (1952-present), who uses a variety of media to represent the social issues and natural scenes of the Island
The sheer number of artisans at any Puerto Rican festival demonstrates that artseanía is alive and well in Puerto Rico, though the island does have fewer traditional crafts than some other Latin American countries. One common form of folk art is the santo, a small religious figure carved out of wood by a santero. The tradition of making santos began as early as the 16th century, when Catholic Spanish colonizers places saints on the mantel to protect their homes from harm. Santos can be found at many tourist shops in Old San Juan in addition to almost any crafts fairs.
Another popular Puerto Rican craft is the vejigante mask, a colorful mask with horns worn during carnaval celebration. Some historians believe that vejigante mask-making originated in Spain, where the vejigantes represents the Moors who fought with St. James. Other believe that it came from African and Spanish slaves. Regardless, the art form now integrates both African and Spanish influences in a uniquely Puerto Rican way.
Finally, Puerto Ricans also excel in the art of mundillo, and elaborate lace made with bobbin. This tradition also originated in Spain, then transferred to Puerto Rico; today only the two places produce authentic mundillo. Typically women will spend hours, or days, crocheting the intricate lace, which is then used to make baby clothes, doilies, hats, or numerous other items. This tradition is found primarily in the northwestern town of Moca, where visitors can stop by and watch mundillo makers at work in their homes. Or stop by the Museu de Arte in San Juan to see the world’s largest piece of mundillo.
Puerto Rico’s literary tradition originates in the mid-19th century, when people began writing about social and political themes distinct to the island. The first noted Puerto Rican author, Manuel Alonso Pacheco, was well-known for his work El Gibaro. In the mid-20th century Puerto Rican literature switched focus from the main island to the quality of life of Puerto Ricans in New York. Foremost among this trend is Nuyorican Pedro Juan Soto who has authored several novels including Spiks (1956) and Usmail (1958). In the later half of the century, a number of Puerto Rican playwrights have started turning the themes of identity into dramatic works. After studying in Mayagüez, Spain, and New York, René Marques has gained notice for his play La Carreta (The Oxcart), which depicts a poor mountain family in Puerto Rico and their immigration to New York. Puerto Rico’s most recent player in the international literary scene is Esmeralda Santiago, a Nuyorican who narrates her Puerto Rican childhood in When I was Puerto Rican (1993).
Music is the spice of life in Puerto Rico. From the gentle rhythm of salsa to the pounding thuds of reggaeton, this tiny island plays an exceptionally large role in the international music scene.
The history of sala is an unwilling love story between Cuban beats, puerto Rican rhythms, and New York streets. Despite the fact that the younger generation is turning to the more contemporary music, such as rap and reggaeton, salsa continues to dominate Puerto Rican music. Salsa may be more well-known internationally, but the real heart of Puerto Rico’s music scene lies in its folk traditions. Puerto Rican folk music centers on the décima, a 10-line rhyming verse with six to eight syllables per line. Puerto Rico also has two traditional forms of music that originated directly from the island’s African population. Though frequently grouped together as bomba y plena, the two are distinct music genres.
Forget soccer: Puerto Ricans shed their Latin American ties and choose baseball as the island’s most popular sport. Every year from November to January six regional teams play five to six games per week in competition for the series title. Most of the top Puerto Rican players eventually head to the US to play in the major leagues and this little island has an enormous impact on American baseball.
The common greetings in Puerto Rico are buenos días (good morning; used before lunch), buenas tardes (good afternoon; before dinner), and buenas noches (good night). It is polite to begin every conversation, in a personal or professional setting, with these phrases. Female friends often greet each other with a peck on the cheek or a quick hug. Sometimes men shake hands with women in a business situation, but the standard greeting between a man and a woman is a quick kiss on the cheek.
Unless otherwise stated, Puerto Rican restaurants expects customers to come in and seat themselves. However, American chains in Puerto Rico generally ask that customers wait to be seated. Most waiters say buen provecho (bon appétit, enjoy your meal) when they deliver food of any kind. It is polite to say buen provecho to anyone already eating when you enter a restaurant that is not too crowded, especially smaller Puerto Rican establishments. Waitstaff expect a 15% tip at least for sit-down service (20% for good service in a city), but it is unnecessary to tip at most panaderías. Customers sitting down and eating at any restaurant (even a panadería) should pay after they eat, unless a sign says otherwise.
Puerto Ricans, especially those outside San Juan and in every form or bureaucracy, have a much more laid back sense of time than most Europeans and North Americans. Things get done when they get done. With a dose of patience, this should not be too frustrating.
It is respectful to wear pants or a skirt when visiting Catholic churches in Puerto Rico. The one exception is Old San Juan’s Iglesia San Juan Baútista, where so many tourists enter that nobody enforces dress codes. Most church workers and worshippers also appreciate quiet voices.
Restaurants, bars, and clubs in puerto Rico do not maintain strict closing hours. Most will stay open as long as people are still around, even if this means staying open until 8am the next morning. On the flip side, if an establishment is empty, it is likely closing early. Smaller establishments, even museums and stores, frequently change opening hours and will close if someone who’s supposed to work happens to be sick or unavailable to come in.