Boulevards & Byways

12 Days of Puerto Rico

Countdown to 12 Days of Puerto Rico

When there’s a chill in the air in the northeast, just know it’s time to go to Puerto Rico and warm up. The holidays are a great time, and with several more months of cold in New York, I’m taking off my boots, packing my flip flops, and starting the countdown to 12 days of Puerto Rico.

I’m modeling this post around the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas, an English Christmas carol that enumerates a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas. Instead of gifts, I’m offering up 12 things to see in Old San Juan, 11 beaches to swim, 10 street foods to try, 9 sips of rum, you get the picture.

I’ve been to the island four times since the hurricane (and during the hurricane too, but that’s a story for another day), and there’s absolutely no reason not to visit. Puerto Rico is more than ready for visitors and tourism counts in helping further recovery. I’m inviting all beach bums and hikers, rum lovers and foodies, those who like water sports and exploring caves, and of course, science geeks, history buffs, and art aficionados. There really is something for everyone here. And let’s not forget the bio-bays…they glow blue…need I say more? Let’s get started! 

12 things to see in Old San Juan

Countdown to 12 Days of Puerto Rico

A trip to Puerto Rico wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Old San Juan.  Here are 12 of my favorite sites. Start by walking along San Juan’s most beautiful promenade, El Paseo de la Princesa. Originally created in 1853, the Paseo features a broad brick walkway leading its visitors through a pleasant tree-lined sculptural and garden showcase. Raíces Fountain, sculpted by Spanish artist Luis Sanguino can be found along the path. This magnificent bronze fountain celebrates Puerto Rico’s rich cultural diversity and historical heritage through representations of Amerindian, African, and Spanish peoples.

When you reach the red door or La Puerta de San Juan admire the walls, they’re 15 feet thick. Between 1634 and 1638, the city of San Juan was turned into an impregnable fortress with the building of its walls. This massive door was closed at night to protect the city and its residents from attacks by land or sea.

Continue through the doors and up the hill to Cathedral de San Juan Bautista. This inviting cathedral contains the tomb of Ponce de León and something else that’s a bit unusual. The waxed-coated, mummified remains of Saint Pius (San Pio) is on display. The first Christian martyr of the Roman persecutions during the first century, his remains were brought to Puerto Rico from Spain in 1862.

Make a stop in The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture which houses the largest collection of Puerto Rican paintings from the eighteenth century to the 1960s.

Admire the totem pole or the El Totem Telurico at the Plaza del Quinto Centenario. Built in1992 to honor the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas it was created by artist Jaime Suarez. This totem was built with clay from different areas of the Americas and is meant to signify the various origins of the people.

Take a tour at El Morro Fort and admire the stunning vista of the ocean beyond. A National Historic Site and administered by the US National Park Service, this six-level fortress was completed in 1589 to protect the city from sea invaders.

Visit the Plaza de Ballajá, or military barracks. Built in 1854 for the Spanish troops established on the island, and their families, this building is home today of the Museo de las Americas,  which contains pre-Columbian to modern art from the Americas.

Explore Casa Blanca, built in 1521 as a “strong-house” for Ponce de Leon, who died before it was completed. Today, it’s a National Historic Monument and a museum.

Tour La Fortaleza, built in the early 1500′s, was the first fort to protect the city from Carib Indian sea invaders. In 1846, the building was remodeled from a fort to a mansion. The oldest governor’s mansion still used in the Western Hemisphere and a World Heritage Site, it’s open Monday through Friday from 9:00 until 3:30 pm., but you need to make a reservation.

Ask for a miracle at Capilla del Cristo, (Cristo Chapel), built in 1753, is dedicated to the Cristo of Good Health. Here, if you have a health issue, you can purchase the appropriate body-part-shaped piece of silver (promesas), and leave it at the church as an offering.

If you look to your right when you are facing the chapel you’ll find Parque de las Palomas (Pigeon Park). Here you will be able to feed the hundreds of pigeons that make this park home.

Fort San Cristobal,  built in 1634 and completed in 1771, it was used to protect the city from sea and land invasions. The fort, 150 feet high, was constructed with a number of different units all connected by tunnels, and each self-sufficient. In the dungeon, you can see some of the prisoner drawings on the walls. A National Historic Site, it is administered by the US National Park Service.

For more information check out this self-guided walking tour of Old San Juan.

11 Beaches to Swim

Countdown to 12 Days of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico and a myriad of beaches. These are my eleven favorites.

Luquillo Beach, a stunning crescent-shaped oasis on the northeast end of the island features shallow, calm waters, lifeguards, changing facilities, and food. With an awe-inspiring view of El Yunque National Rainforest, is also close to the famous Luquillo Kiosks where you can grab a bite to eat from one of the many local food vendors.

Pinones Beach, two miles outside San Juan, Pinones is an area where you can paddle kayaks around the mangrove lagoon and rent bikes as you cycle along the nature trail boardwalk. There is no shortage of food vendors selling local dishes like arepas, pinchos, and bacalitos.

La Posita Beach is protected from the rough surf by a natural rock wall running along the length of the beach, creating a clear shallow pool. Close to the airport, you can watch the planes as they fly overhead toward their next destination.

Dorado Beach, west of San Juan, is a white sand cove, and home of the 11-mile long Rockefeller Trail.

Ocean Park Beach, just east of Condado offers a mile-long stretch of sand offering a quiet oasis as well as opportunities to kite-surf, boogie board, and play beach volleyball.

Condado Beach, the island’s best hotels and resorts line this famous Puerto Rico beach which bustles with active beachgoers.  

Mar Chiquita, set on the north coast, is a stunning horseshoe-shaped beach. Waves crash over the stunning coral formations making this the most photographed beach.

Sandy Beach, in Rincon on the west coast, is a magnificent stretch of beach where surfers and boogie-boarders can be found waiting to catch a wave. Lined by apartments, hotels, restaurants, and beach bars it’s a great place to hang out, grab a drink, and watch the sunset.

La Playuela Beach, located along the southwestern coast in Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge is complete with hiking trail, a Lighthouse, and limestone cliffs.

La Chiva, (Blue Beach/#21) in Vieques (home to some 40 beaches) is maintained through the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. The west end of La Chiva offers great snorkeling and the east side has shallow waters for wading.

Flamenco Beach, in Culebra, is rated one of the top 10 beaches in the world. This expansive soft white sand beach and crystal-clear turquoise waters are stunning. Food, bathrooms, and lifeguards are on-site.

10 Street Foods to try

Countdown to 12 Days of Puerto Rico

When visiting someplace new, be sure to try the local foods.  Food, after all, is the single most unifier across cultures.

Arepas are around, puffed dough (some look like a small donut without the hole, while others remind me of an Asian bao or steamed bun), which can be grilled, baked, fried, or steamed and stuffed or topped with pork, beef, or fish. Arepas are one of my favorite foods in Puerto Rico.

Lechon or whole roasted pig is a traditional holiday food in Puerto Rico, but it doesn’t have to be a holiday for you to try it. There’s an entire town, Guavate, dedicated to cooking and serving this juicy and succulent meat all year-round. Take a ride along “pork highway” (la Ruta del Lechón), where you’ll find a party in the street along with several restaurants specializing in pork (lechoneras). With music blaring, salsa dancing in the street, and lechon roasting on the spit, you can’t go wrong.

Chillo Frito or whole red snapper is a must try if you’re a fish fan. Moist and tender on the inside and the crunchy skin on the outside, there’s no better place to try it than in Puerto Rico.

Tostones, thickly sliced fried green plantains are wildly popular in both restaurants and as a street food. These crispy fried plantains, (a very firm banana) are either served as a side dish or as an appetizer and can be dipped in catchup/mayo, a popular condiment in Puerto Rico.

Pinonos consists of ground beef and seasonings with fried plantains wrapped around the meat. Its sweet and savory combination is filling is delicious.

Alcapurrias are one of the many dishes served at kiosks or streetside stands. Consisting of dough surrounding ground beef, they are deep-fried in oil. The dough is generally green bananas (guineo) or grated cassava.

Pinchos is Spanish for spikes. Pork, chicken or shrimp shish-kebob grilled on roadside stands, gets your mouth watering while it cooks.

Bacalaitos are salt cod pancake-like fritters. Delicious. I found this one being fried in a beach-side stand in Manati.

Pastelillo is a flaky pastry which is baked or fried and packed with beef chicken or fish. Enjoy it as an appetizer or a main dish. The smaller version of this snack is often called an empanadilla.

Mofongo is Puerto Rico’s signature dish and if you eat only one local food, this is the one to try. Fried green plantains mashed in a wooden pilon, filled with pork, steak, chicken or seafood, and covered in garlic and olive oil, or a criollo (red) sauce. Yum. Delicious!

A Taste of Puerto Rican Rum History

9 Sips of Rum

Countdown to 12 Days of Puerto Rico

Seeped in history and tradition, Bacardi is the most famous rum in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico takes the title “Cathedral of Rum” seriously which is why I recommend visiting Casa Bacardi in Cataño. Here you can participate in a mixology class, indulge in a rum tasting, or embark on a fascinating historical tour.

8 Hands on Deck

Countdown to 12 Days of Puerto Rico

On Puerto Rico’s northern coast, an 83-foot topsail schooner, the Amazing Grace, sails in San Juan Bay and lures its passengers into the history of Old San Juan. Although walking the city is something many thoroughly enjoy, you get a different perspective experiencing the city while sailing on the bay. This beautiful vessel flies seven sails used in different combinations to suit the wind. The ship is representative of the ones used by the British in the War of Independence and again in 1812. You won’t find pirates in Puerto Rico today, but a pirate flag flutters from the ship’s stern, reminding all of the gnarly tales associated with the schooner’s history.

7 years into the future

Please note: This attraction is permanently closed. 

Countdown to 12 Days of Puerto Rico

Looking toward 2025 the Arecibo Observatory will continue to be recognized as a world-leading radio astronomy, solar system radar, and atmospheric physics facility in Puerto Rico. Home to the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, the thousand-foot dish, nestled among lush green hills, is 150 feet deep and covers roughly 20 acres. It is truly an engineering marvel. Suspended 450 feet above the dish is a 900-ton platform, which hangs in midair on eighteen cables. The Observatory is considered one of the most important national centers for research in radio astronomy, planetary radar, and terrestrial aeronomy, and it is used by scientists from around the world. I highly recommend a visit.

6 Watersports to try

Countdown to 12 Days of Puerto Rico

Surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, snorkeling, kayaking, kite surfing, and jet skiing are all popular water activities in Puerto Rico. My favorite, Pirate Snorkeling Shack in Fajardo, offers informative and educational snorkeling and kayaking tours of Seven Seas Bay and if you’re looking to paddleboard, they have that also. When you come back from your adventure, you can rent one of their fun and colorful swan or unicorn floats. Spend your afternoon floating on the bay and enjoying the beautiful vista. Great for the kids (and adults too)!

5 Things to do in the Rain Forest

Countdown to 12 Days of Puerto Rico

El Yunque is the only tropical forest in the United States National Forest System and is known for having one of the greatest concentrations of biodiversity anywhere, especially among its insects, mushrooms, and fern. Since the hurricane, it is unfortunate that most of the forest remains inaccessible, but La Coca Falls (Carr. 191) and Yokahu Tower (Carr. 191) are open until 4:30 pm each day. I was there a few months ago, and I strongly recommend a drive to La Coca Falls, taking a few photos and climbing the tower from which you’ll see a stunning view of the Atlantic, Luquillo, and the forest canopy. There are tour operators in the area where you can also zip line, horseback ride, or rent an ATV, all while enjoying the beauty of the rainforest.

4 Outlying Islands

Countdown to 12 Days of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is an archipelago formed by one main island and equally beautiful smaller islands like Vieques, Culebra, Gilligan’s Island, and Caja de Muerto. There is an array of other Isla’s sprinkled around Puerto Rico’s perimeter which can be accessed by a variety of specialty tours and charters, but I chose to only focus on four.

On the east coast, Vieques has over 40 stunning beaches to explore and each one is highly unique and worth a visit. This eco-friendly island is special. There are no high-rise hotels and horses roam freely in the streets. It’s all about nature.

Culebra’s white sand beaches, snorkeling, scuba diving, and swimming with turtles can’t be beaten, not to mention its great fun driving around the island on a golf cart.

Both Vieques and Culebra can be accessed by ferry or a small plane out of Ceiba in the northeast and both have an assortment of restaurants, tour operators, and small inns for travelers who wish to stay several days or a week or more. I don’t recommend going for a day because there is so much to see and do on both these islands, but snorkeling day trips are offered out of Fajardo on the east coast.

Best for a day trip, Gilligan’s Island in Guanica offers shallow crystal-clear waters surrounded by mangroves and is perfect for nature lovers and snorkelers. Caja de Muerto in Ponce attracts those who like to hike, birdwatch as well as swim in the inviting waters. Both islands are only accessible by boat and neither of the islands has any facilities. They are so unique and offer diverse wildlife that they are both worth exploring.

3 Bio Bays

Countdown to 12 Days of Puerto Rico

Visiting the bio bay is a must-do activity when visiting Puerto Rico. Tiny organisms in the bay make the water the glow. This bioluminescent glow is produced by a physic-chemical reaction that begins when the single-celled dinoflagellate organism is disturbed.

There are only five places in the world where you can see the bioluminescent bay and three are in Puerto Rico: Mosquito Bay in ViequesLaguna Grande on the northeast coast in Fajardo, and a third in La Parguera in the south.

2 Caves to Explore

Countdown to 12 Days of Puerto Rico

In northwest Puerto Rico in the town of Arecibo, there are two caves worth exploring. Guided tours of the Rio Camuy Caves are offered giving participants a first-hand view of the large network of natural limestone caves and underground waterways which have been carved out by the third-largest underground river in the world, the Río Camuy.

Unlike the Camuy caves which are underground, another cave stunningly located on the side of a cliff worth visiting is Cueva Ventana. Tours of this site will deliver insight into how the cave formed, the many creatures which call it home, the plants on site, (some of which are near extinction), and provide the history of the original Taino Indians who were the original inhabitants of the area.

1 Perfect Island

Countdown to 12 Days of Puerto Rico

Monthly temperatures average between 75 and 85 degrees so there’s never a bad time to visit. Easy to get to, especially from the U.S., there are direct flights from cities all along the East Coast. You can get to San Juan is just a little over 2 hours from Miami and less than 3.5 hours from New York. No passport? No problem. You only need a valid government-issued ID to travel to Puerto Rico from the U.S. While the primary language is spoken is Spanish, most locals know English too. So, beach bums and hikers, rum lovers and foodies, those who like water sports and exploring caves and of course, science geeks, history buffs, and art aficionados, Puerto Rico welcomes you. There really is something for everyone here.





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