This time last year, vacations were a tenuous and nerve-wracking prospect. Vaccines weren’t yet available to the public and restrictions were in place that made travel far less appealing to prospective tourists. Although the Delta variant poses a serious threat, vaccines are widely available and those who take them are largely protected even against this new, more transmissible strain of the virus. For vaccinated travelers, Puerto Rico is an ideal place to dip your toes into travel once again. Vaccinated US citizens are permitted to visit the island without restriction, and freely enjoy all the island has to offer.
Puerto Rico is also blessed with outdoors that make social distancing easy, including the only tropical rainforest operated by the US National Forest Service. It’s an easy sell, really. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Puerto Rico.
- What’s open in Puerto Rico?
- Staying in San Juan
- A crowd-free island experience to the west
- Explore El Yunque National Forest
What’s open in Puerto Rico?
There’s good news for travelers seeking a literal and figurative breath of fresh air in Puerto Rico: Outdoor spaces like beaches, nature reserves, and golf courses are open. All businesses, including bars, museums, gyms, theaters, casinos, supermarkets, salons, and spas, are open and operating at full capacity. The island also recently eliminated its nightly curfew, meaning guests are free to explore the island into the evening hours. Just note that masks are required in all indoor spaces regardless of vaccination status, and advance appointments may be needed for certain services.
As of August 16, Puerto Rico will require all guests of hotels and short-term rentals like Airbnbs to be vaccinated. Those not vaccinated must show a negative PCR or antigen test taken within 72 hours of the beginning of their visit. Negative tests must be shown on a weekly basis if the visit lasts longer than a week. Anyone found violating this rule will be fined up to $5,000 or face six months in jail.
For more information on what to expect, consult the Discover Puerto Rico website.
Staying in San Juan
Anyone visiting Puerto Rico should try to see as much of the island as possible, but it’s likely that you’ll be spending at least a day or two in San Juan. Just because you’re in the capital city, however, doesn’t mean you need to be squeezing through crowds of tourists. There’s no shortage of beaches on the island, and San Juan is no exception. Condado, Ocean Park, and Pine Grove beaches are all located within city limits, and a great break from the urban environment.
There’s no doubt that Old San Juan is the city’s premier tourist area. It’s currently only open to residents and tourists who are staying in the area, however, so you may want to consider booking your accommodation there. While its cobbled streets, fort of Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo de San Cristóbal, and nearby Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery are among the city’s most famous attractions, you can also enjoy a less crowded version of San Juan by staying in the newer Ashford Avenue, the main drag of the Condado neighborhood. The modern street runs right along the beach and is replete with cafes, restaurants, and resorts.
The Old Town alternative to Ashford Avenue is Paseo de la Princesa, which means “walkway of the princess.” Located just outside the walls of Old San Juan to the south, Paseo de la Princesa is a 19th-century avenue that has Old World charm without the crowds that typically clog the narrow streets inside the city. Ambling down the street, and through the plaza, you’ll have a great view of San Juan’s historic fortifications. The street is defined by its antique lamp posts, stone fountains, street vendors, and views of the old city walls.
Around San Juan, you’ll quickly notice an abundance of street art murals. The capital is full of colorful artwork that will really liven up any walking tour. The Calle Cerra, and adjoining side streets, are particularly known for their colorful art. And if you happen to be visiting in August, you’ll be treated to the Santurce es Ley contemporary art festival, where street artists decorate empty parking lots and old buildings with large murals.
A crowd-free island experience to the west
You can have an epic Puerto Rico vacation without ever setting foot in San Juan. From rainforests to hidden beaches, there are plenty of ways to get the full experience while keeping your distance from others.
It’s currently only open to residents and tourists who are staying in the area, however, so you may want to consider booking your accommodation there. While its cobbled streets, fort of Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo de San Cristóbal, and nearby Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery are among the city’s most famous attractions, you can also enjoy a less crowded version of San Juan by staying in the newer Ashford Avenue, the main drag of the Condado neighborhood. The modern street runs right along the beach and is replete with cafes, restaurants, and resorts.
Just south of Rincón lies Cabo Rojo, another area perfect for escaping the crowds and indulging in the island’s natural beauty. In the southwest, Cabo Rojo is known for its beaches, dramatic limestone cliffs, and restaurant scene. Its name is a reference to the water’s reddish color where the salt flats are located, due to a high concentration of salt. The salt flats here are seriously impressive and one of the island’s most beautiful hidden landscapes. Perched atop the cliffs of Cabo Rojo, the observation deck of Los Morrillos Lighthouse offers one of the best views in the area, looking out over the sea, and it’s probably the best way to admire the surrounding cliffs. For a more active experience, take one of the hiking trails to Cabo Rojo’s natural stone bridge.
A short drive from Cabo Rojo, you can find La Parguera bioluminescent bay. It may not be as famous as Mosquito Bay in Vieques, which is closer to San Juan, but you’ll find fewer crowds. Better yet, it’s the only bioluminescent bay on the island that allows motorboats and swimming, versus just paddling. Take a boat tour, kayak, or just go for a dip and enjoy the surreal feeling of swimming among the glowing dinoflagellates.
Explore El Yunque National Forest
As you’ll soon learn from spending just a few days in Puerto Rico, rainforests aren’t just for South America. El Yunque National Forest, the rainforest near the east coast of the island, is open to visitors with limited capacity in main recreation areas. All other areas in the park are open with social distancing measures enforced. To access the main recreation areas, you’ll need a reservation, which can be made online.
Two of the best hikes in the area are the trek up to Mount Britton Tower and the El Yunque Rock Trail. At the end of both, you’ll have a great view all the way to the coast. To cap off your rainforest experience, take a refreshing dip in the Mameyes River. The El Angelito Trail ends at a rope, which you can use to swing right into a swimming hole.
There are a few waterfalls in El Yunque National Forest, but for a truly dramatic waterfall experience, drive out west to Gozalandia Falls. About 30 minutes from the city of Aguadilla on the island’s west coast (and an hour from Rincón) Gozalandia Falls are a tranquil getaway in the heart of one of Puerto Rico’s most beautiful jungles. The falls lie at the end of a short hike through the trees, spilling into a pool that’s perfect for swimming. While there will probably be locals there jumping off the falls or using the rope swing, it’s one of Puerto Rico’s more secluded experiences and a great break from civilization.
A version of this article was previously published on July 20, 2020, and was updated on August 11, 2021, with more information.