What’s better than celebrating your 30th birthday in the Caribbean?! We decided to take a 4 day weekend and celebrate in Puerto Rico, a diverse, tropical island known for its clear-water beaches, rainforest, hiking, and wildlife.
PRO TIP: American citizens can get in passport and visa free! Puerto Rico is a territory of the U.S. and Puerto Ricans are natural-born U.S. Citizens.
Day 1: Arrival in San Juan
We flew into San Juan, Puerto Rico at the end of March, which would be our home base for our weekend getaway. We did not rent a car for this trip (except for one day…more on that later). We relied on an airport shuttle service and Uber to get around, which turned out to be readily available and safe. We booked an airport shuttle in advance through Go Puerto Rico Shuttle because we landed at 3:15am and didn’t want to have to figure out transportation so early in the morning. We stayed at this AirBNB (use this link to get up to $55 off your first trip!) for the weekend. It was within walking distance to a beach and we had our own access to a pool!
From what we learned, there are 3 main areas to stay in the municipality of San Juan:
- Condado: has some restaurants and beach access, close to the airport
- Old San Juan: the hippest area with the most bars and restaurants (but not a great area for direct beach access)
- Miramar: in the middle of both Condado and Old San Juan and appears to be a quieter area in general
PRO TIP: While there are many excellent resorts in Puerto Rico, renting an apartment or house allows you the ability to cook your own meals and save money! It’s also a better option if you’re traveling with a group, rather than to booking a bunch of hotel rooms. Use this link for AirBNB and get up to $55 off your first trip!
We decided to stay in Condado so we could basically roll out of bed and be at the beach! We were still in close proximity to Old San Juan, which was important for seeing historic sites and for the nightlife. After making our way into Condado, we quickly found a place to eat some local Puerto Rican cuisine! We recommend trying Mofongo (fried plantains is its main ingredient) and the popular appetizer, Queso Frito (fried cheese).
After filling our bellies, we visited the historic forts in Old San Juan. Our first stop was Castillo San Cristobal ($10 entrance fee). It was built by Spain to protect against land based attacks on the city of San Juan. It is part of San Juan National Historic Site.
After spending some time exploring the grounds here, we walked over to Castillo San Felipe del Morro. The walk is only about 20 minutes and you pass some great sites along the way, including this graveyard by the sea.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro is a historic 16th century fort built to protect the entrance to San Juan Bay and defend the Spanish colonial port city of San Juan from sea enemies. It sees over 2 million visitors per year, making it Puerto Rico’s main attraction with ocean views and a groomed green lawn that hosts kite flyers, picnics and concerts.
After visiting both forts, we spent the rest of the day wandering around the streets of Old San Juan. This part of the city is quite unique with buildings dating back to the 16th century, cobblestone streets, colorful houses, and cool restaurants and bars. You would be remiss to skip Old San Juan!
Day 2: El Yunque Rainforest & Bioluminescent Bay
We rented a car for the day from the Enterprise at Condado Plaza so we could make the trek to the rainforest. It is highly recommended to access El Yunque by car. This was definitely a highlight of the trip. When we arrived there was a complete downpour, but it eventually cleared. It was so humid in the rainforest (as expected) that the rain didn’t bother us at all, but be prepared to feel hot and sticky for most of the day.
We made our first stop at La Coca Falls for a photo op! If you are interested in hiking here, La Coca Trail is just past La Coca Falls as you are driving up Road 191. The trail head is located at about 5.5 miles on the left (eastern) side of the road.
Next, we made our way to Yokahu Observation Tower, one of two observations towers within El Yunque. This one is supposed to have better views from the top! Keep in mind that it closes at 4:30pm. There are 98 steps to the top!
Next, we started our long hike for the day! There are countless trails to choose from, but we decided on the El Yunque Trail, a 2.5 mile trail that’s considered one of the forest’s longest and most strenuous hikes. It starts a little north of the Palo Colorado Visitor’s Center and climbs to an altitude of 3,400 feet. Along the way it passes several rain shelters, through the cloud forest, and ends at the peak of El Yunque. We enjoyed the solitude of the rainforest, while taking in the lush greenery and sounds of the birds and rain!
Our goal was to make it to the peak of El Yunque! However, the weather was not on our side, and after climbing what felt like a million stones and getting 3,400 ft above sea level, we were met with a cloudy view.
PRO TIP: You are in the heart of the cloud forest, a unique and magical landscape with moss covered trees and cool, dense fog. You can expect to see wet, cloudy weather.
But, we persevered and the clouds finally subsided just enough to get some amazing shots of El Yunque! It was so worth the wait!
Later that night, we drove out to the Bioluminescent Bays in Laguna Grande, Fajardo. We book a guided kayak trip at 7:50pm (we had plenty of time for the rainforest and the excursion in the same day as long as you start early). We highly recommend this experience! The kayak tour started out going through the mangroves of Fajardo and ended at the Bioluminescent Bay where the water glows when the microorganisms in it are agitated. It can be very difficult to see – there can’t be any light pollution.
PRO TIP: There are three bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico: Mosquito Bay in Vieques, Laguna Grande in Fajardo, and La Parguera in Lajas.
PRO TIP: You should only book tours with electric boats or kayaks, motor boats pollute the bay and affect the bioluminescence. Swimming is also off limits. Let’s do our best to preserve nature while exploring the world!
Day 3: San Juan
We spent our day at Parque Isla Verde Beach. Being the budget travelers we are, we tried to score some loungers on the beach that actually belonged to the neighboring hotel. We managed to hang there for maybe an hour before getting kicked out — oops!
The beach we were at had one “lifeguard”, but he also doubled as the “coconut man”. So, imagine a guy blowing his whistle at you in the water, while holding a machete and chopping coconuts for the public. Try the coconuts!
Later that night, we went out on the town! Our first stop was at Casino del Mar near La Concha Resort, followed by a night out in Old San Juan. We made several stops at cool restaurants and bars along the way. Definitely spend a night here if you can!
Day 4: Goodbye Puerto Rico!
Our flight was delayed due to bad weather back at home, so we had a ton of time to relax at our AirBNB’s pool, then went to the beach, before heading back to the airport.
PRO TIP: If you have to check out of your AirBNB early, but still have a ton of time to kill before your flight, try asking a nearby hotel if you can store your luggage there. We explained our situation to a hotel concierge and they kindly agreed to hold our luggage!