After completing my third trip to the island, this time with my daughter, here are a few of my favorite places in Puerto Rico.
Mar Chiquita (18.472548, -66.484624) - An off the path locals beach. The beach is a crescent-shaped lagoon that is fed with ocean water through a small inlet. There is ample parking during the week. Weekends can be a little more crowded. No ammenities (no restrooms). Bring surf shoes to explore the rocks along the ocean side. Plenty of wildlife. Octopus inhabit the rocks in the lagoon, and we once saw an octopus nab a crab about 10 feet from us.
Arecibo Observatory - If you were a fan of the movie "Contact", take a geek visit to the Arecibo radio telescope. Still in operation, this now national park is still the world's largest radio telescope, with the reflector dish carved out of the top of a mountain. Caution, might be a tough climb if you have been at the beach swimming all day. The walk from the parking lot up to the observatory is about 200 yards at a 40 degree incline.
El Yunque National Rainforest (northeast side of the island) - The only rainforest in the US National parks system. You check in at the base of the mountain and get maps and information there. Then a winding drive up the mountain will take you past many natural wonders, with stops along the way for food. Drive up to km 11.8 and park to take the La Mina trail to the waterfall. The La Mina trail is 0.7 miles (1.2 km) long, descending from 2,132 feet (650 meters) to 1,640 feet (500 meters). Hiking time is approximately 30 to 45 minutes, one-way. This trail is rated as challenging in difficulty. It has several sets of winding concrete stairs that can make the return trip somewhat arduous. Take a bag with a good pair of surf shoes. You'll need the hiking shoes or tennis shoes for the hike, but must have surf shoes for the waterfall. Once you reach the waterfall, change your shoes and take a swim under the waterfall. The rocks are rather jagged under the falls, so make sure to take surf shoes or hiking sandals you can get wet. You will likely get wet. It is a rainforest, and a heavy mist is rather constant, with periods of dense showers that pop up out of nowhere.
Bio Bay (Fajardo) - One of two places in Puerto Rico where you can experience bioluminescence, the other being on the southern side of the island near Ponce.There is actually a third off the eastern side of the island on the island of Vieques, and it has the reputation of being the best. But it requires a boat charter to get the the island (which I hear is beautiful). Several kayak companies to choose from to take kayaks into the bay to view the bioluminescent dinoflagellates. Viewing varies on moon phase and weather forecast. You used to be able to swim in the bio bay, but they do not allow this anymore.
El Morro (San Juan) - If you want a history lesson, visit this 16th century fortress overlooking the San Juan harbor. I was amazed to see the sheer mass of this fortress. The thickness of the walls alone is a marvel to see. There is also an old graveyard. Plus some of the most beautiful views of San Juan.
Old San Juan - Safe during the day, the area has shops and restaurants worthy of an afternoon visit to view architecture and mix with locals.
Toro Negro - Through the center of the island along Route 143 is the forest of Toro Negro. The good: The views are awesome, and in places you can see the entire island. Plenty of areas to pull off and go hiking or take photos. Lots of wildlife (few snakes -- there are no poisonous snakes in Puerto Rico) The bad: The drive is brutal, especially on non-drivers. Imagine two hours of hairpin turns. This drive up to Toro Negro will kill and entire day, and leave you at the end not wanting to get back into a car for a while. I would recommend if in Puerto Rico for a few days and really like hiking.
La Torre (18.457206, -65.985654) - A local spot with handcrafted items and roadside food made form scratch by the locals. Just outside of San Juan, east past the airport on Route 187. You'll know it because one minute you will see the hotels and resorts, and the next it will appear like you have driven into a third world country. Food is amazing and cheap. Note: Some vendors do not speak English.
Hotels: I usually stay on business at the Marriot Isla Verde Beach Resort in Isla Verde (the area by the airport). Nice hotel in a good spot. Casino on site. And they run free dancing lessons one night per week. I have also stayed at the Wyndham Grand Rio Beach Resort. It was nice, and a good launching point for El Yunque. The DoubleTree downtown San Juan is also good, has a great pool, and is cheap for a San Juan hotel.
Cautions: Not everyone in Puerto Rico is bilingual, especially the further you get away from San Juan. San Juan can be rough at night in the Old San Juan area. Get full insurance on your rental car. It seems customary to bump people in traffic (seen it a lot). Driving common courtesies are lacking. No one uses turn signals, and everyone drives unsafely. It can get scary sometimes. Get the extra insurance. If you are driving outside of San Juan, get the toll pass from the rental car company. Do not rent from "E-Z Rental Cars". Junk cars and lots of problems. Speeding carries hefty penalties.