The Puerto Rico You Haven't Seen — Yet
Puerto Rico is a microcosm, encapsulating cultures from much bigger countries and from thousands of years ago. Go to Old San Juan and you see the Spanish influence, go to Loiza and you find the African heritage, and go to the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center in Ponce and you get a glimpse of the Taíno culture. Not surprisingly, this melange works delightfully well. Our music is world-famous (ever heard of "Despacito"?), our food makes Anthony Bourdain's mouth water, and our enthusiastic and celebratory spirit is simply contagious. It's hard to believe all that tropical goodness comes from an island that's just 100 miles long by 35 miles wide. Not bad, Borinquen. Not bad at all.
This combination of Puerto Rico's celebrated allure and its proximity to the United States places the island on a pedestal for those seeking an adventure without the constraints of traveling to a foreign country — here you can forget about those pesky roaming charges, currency exchanges, and language barriers. For many travelers, visiting Puerto Rico means continuing with business as usual. English is the official second language, the dollar is the local currency, and mobile carriers put the island inside the US's coverage map. On top of that convenience, Puerto Rico has an impressive repertoire of tourist draws, like 500-year-old castles, Instagram-worthy beaches, and a party on every corner. Plus, you can always get off the tattered tourist trails and enjoy the island like the locals do.
Traveling like a local is no easy feat; you have to do the research or have some connections. But I'm a Puerto Rican travel writer and I have your back. This short guide will help you navigate outside of the usual routes and take you on a journey to Puerto Rico's soul. Dance with the locals, eat like the locals, and travel like the locals. Go back home knowing you really discovered Puerto Rico. Here's where to go and what to do!
Let us start with the capital, San Juan, a vibrant city with a renowned historic town, beaches galore, and the largest mall in the Caribbean. I don't forget about you, shoppers. So what's new and locals-only in San Juan? Many of the best spots are hidden in plain sight.
Go to Old San Juan and look for Sol Street; here you'll find a lonely lane with Colonial homes painted in pastel colors and flower pots filled with blooming miramelindas. Cross Cristo Street and reach the waterfront and you'll be in Caleta de las Monjas, where you can have a "limber," or a fruit ice of sorts. Just look for the sign that reads "Limbers, Agua, Refrescos." Then, make a dinner reservation at El Catorce, the reservation-only, five-course restaurant and cooking school by Chef Mariano Sena. It's one of the rarest and most extraordinary experiences one can have on the island. The restaurant lies hidden on San Jose Street, disguised as an apartment.
Next up is my hometown, Cayey, famous for making delicious roasted suckling pig. Found in the Central Mountains Range, this rural town is home to Guavate, a place dedicated to "lechoneras," or roasted pork restaurants. One of my favorite lechoneras is El Mojito, where I used to eat pork like there was no tomorrow when I was in high school. A classmate was the daughter of the owner, by the way, so that explains my past indulgence. Stop here for moist roasted pork with sides ranging from rice and peas, mofongo, tostones, or my personal favorite, potato salad with a twist.
My next recommendation is very close to Cayey and one of my most beloved places to disconnect: the coastal town of Salinas. Follow signs to Salinas Pueblo and drive toward the water. There are countless of restaurants lining the beach, but one that keeps me coming back for more is El Balcón del Capitan. It has the best dulce de lechoza I've ever tried. I swear. Plus, its ocean view is mesmerizing — get there by sunset and have your camera ready. Other cool spots in this town include Aguirre, a centuries-old sugar mill village; the Aguirre Golf Club, the oldest gold course in Puerto Rico; and the Salinas Speedway. Yes, a speedway. Locals do like to flaunt their rides.
Another beach town with many local hot spots is Cabo Rojo. The town's more festive part is Boquerón, where beaches are filled with people listening to music and cooking on the beach, a truly local sight that'll make you want to party.
Cabo Rojo holds a perfect blend of tropical appeal, what with its charming beach bars and restaurants, marvelous water sights, and inexpensive and highly regarded cuisine. Come down here to taste and feel Puerto Rico.
For a more removed experience, take a ferry or fly to Culebra, an island off the east coast of Puerto Rico. You will feel very far from the bigger island and lost in this hedonistic destination. Rent a golf cart and speed your way through the island.
Some of the most beautiful beaches are Flamenco, Zoni, Tamarindo, and, if you can get a boat ride, Culebrita. When the stomach starts to growl, drive downtown and eat at Zaco's Tacos — it has really good tacos and a nice, laid-back atmosphere. For a quick bite, I always go to a "panaderia," or bakery, for a hearty meal, good coffee, or a sandwich to-go. My favorite panaderia in Culebra is Pandeli, on Pedro Marquez Street.
This location is a district within San Juan, but with its very own style and attitude. Classic mandatory stops include restaurant La Casita Blanca for traditional dishes and ambiance and La Placita for salsa dancing well into the wee hours. But Santurce is an emerging area, taking its food, drink, and art to a new level. Some of the most creative chefs, mixologists, and artists have made it their goal to unite talents and start their businesses in this once-forgotten area.
Now we can all enjoy the efforts as Santurce becomes the new go-to destination for those wanting to keep their hands on the island's innovative pulse. Two letters exemplify this exciting new movement: Calle Loiza. This street is home to award-winning La Coctelera, a sultry salsa-dancing spot called La Junta, and what is perhaps the best pizza joint in San Juan, Loiza 2050.