Feature photo by anaivette64 / Above photo by KidneyNotes
Unlike many other Latin American countries, Puerto Rico has a limited transportation system. While publicos (collective vans) can move you from one city to another, getting to the departure point is often difficult and time-consuming, and pinning down a schedule is next to impossible.
Driving the island is the best way to get to know Puerto Rico. At just 100×39 miles, it’s easy to discover almost all that Puerto Rico has to offer in a short period of time.
And what the island offers is extraordinary, especially considering its size. These five best drives will take you from the coast to the island’s interior, showing you the diversity of Puerto Rico’s geography:
- the turbulent waves of the Atlantic north coast
- the smooth as a plate waters of the Caribbean south coast
- the curious karst limestone formations
- the extensive underground cave system
- the dense and lush rainforest
- the desert
The itineraries include starting and destination points, with must-see sites along the route. Some lodging recommendations are also included.
Itinerary One: San Juan-Loiza-Rio Grande
If you want to hang out in the capital for a day or two before renting a car, Old San Juan is a compact, walkable historic center with plenty to see and do.
For an impressive view of the bay, climb to the top of either of the old city’s forts: Fuerte San Cristobal or Fuerte San Felipe (referred to as El Morro). Pass through the only remaining gate of the walled city and stroll along the waterfront “Paseo de la Princesa,” particularly inviting in the evening.
On weekend nights you’ll happen along arts and crafts vendors and musicians on this path. But if it’s daytime and you’re in the mood for art, check out Museo de las Americas, located in the Cuartel de Ballaja building.
And if you’re a late night music lover, no stop to San Juan is complete without a visit to the seedy but perennially popular Nuyorican Café. Celebrity sightings here have included Benicio del Toro and Scarlett Johansson…though not together.
This itinerary takes you to one of the island’s favorite beaches, but if you’re already jonesing for sand and surf, throw a towel down at Escambron (aka “La Ocho”), a small but worthy stretch of beach wedged between Old San Juan and “New” San Juan.
My own favorite though, is Ocean Park, a cleaner and typically less crowded beach in an upscale neighborhood just a couple miles away from the airport. If you decide to overnight before pressing on, check out lodging at Tres Palmas Inn, which is just across the street from the beach.
Once you’ve got wheels, head out of the city towards Loiza and Rio Grande. You could take the new toll highway, but you’d miss out on some spectacular driving. Instead, turn left on Road 187 before the airport and head through the beachside town of Pinones.
The road is lined with ramshackle kiosks where fried treats are cooked up on wood-burning fires, and if you’re thirsty, look for a man scaling a coconut tree with his machete; he’ll be happy to hack off the coconut’s cap and hand you a refreshing pick-me-up for a couple bucks.
This two lane road is ideal for rolling down the windows and turning up the tunes. Pull off the pavement, though, and you’re in for a real treat: a well worn track runs through the sand dunes overlooking the water and despite the rampant problem of litter, there’s some camera-worthy scenery and plenty of places to pull over to enjoy it.
Back on the pavement and leaving Pinones behind, you’ll cross the Rio Grande and head into the predominantly Afro-Puerto Rican town of Loiza, which has a rich and interesting history. The bridge that brings you into Loiza was constructed in the 1970s; before that, Loiza was geographically isolated and residents had to cross the river on a makeshift ferry.
If you stop here for a couple hours you’ll still get a sense that Loiza is on the geographic and social margins. Check out the small but beautiful church, named for Loiza’s patron saint, Saint Patrick (and ask a local to tell you why).
Ask around for the artist Samuel Lind and visit his studio, which is located in the home he’s been building for years. Lind is a famous painter, sculptor, and lithograph artist.
Head out of Loiza, still on 187, and follow the signs to Rio Grande. After some road that looks pulled straight out of a romantic movie, you’ll break back out onto the highway and find yourself just outside the town that’s home to North America’s only rainforest, El Yunque.
Check out Hal Amen’s The Best Hikes in Puerto Rico Guide for advice about best trails to visit in the park.
Rio Grande’s a good place to call it a day; head up into the hills for Villa Sevilla, a guest house owned and run by proprietors Marina and Wally Lawson. The grounds are rife with plantain, mango, passion fruit, and dozens of other fruits and vegetables, and when you hear the hens clucking you’ll know a fresh egg has just been laid.
Enjoy the salt-water pool and the views from the porch of the Chalet, which is perfect for a small group of friends. The smaller Casita is good for singles and couples. Marina and Wally are attentive proprietors and have been ranked #1 of all 97 B&B lodgings in Puerto Rico for the past two years on TripAdvisor.
Be sure to ask Wally if you can try his homebrew: beer made with passionfruit straight from the vine.
Itinerary Two: Rio Grande-Fajardo-Guavate-Ponce
From Rio Grande, make your way southeast on Route 3 to Luquillo Beach, consistently ranked by guidebooks as one of Puerto Rico’s best. Luquillo’s waters are typically calm, and the expanse of beach is long, giving people plenty of room to stretch out.
If the afternoon sun has you burned out, drive Route 3 on over to Fajardo and visit Las Cabezas de San Juan, a nature reserve that contains seven ecosystems in a single park. The guides are knowledgeable and while securing entry to the park is onerous (see practical tips), the effort is worth it.
Stick around until dusk and then head out for Fajardo’s bay for a guided kayak trip through the bioluminescent mangroves. Puerto Rico has three of the world’s handful of bio bays, and Fajardo is the best on the main island. You can find a dozen or more operators trying to sell you a trip in the bay’s main parking lot.
Overnight in Fajardo and wake up with an appetite: you’re headed for Guavate, THE place to experience Puerto Rico’s favorite culinary delight: pig on a spit. Take 30 west to 52 south; exit at the sign for Guavate.
The road up to Guavate is lined with kiosks and open-air patios packed with people hungry to chow down on roasted or fried pork and tostones (fried plantains). Cars are parked every which way wherever drivers can find a space; be bold and follow suit.
Head back down the hill and hit the highway, headed southwest on 52 for Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city and the so-called “pearl of the South.” This drive will take you through the mountains, and you’ll notice a drastic change in landscape—from moist and lush to dry and cactus-marked—once you start your descent towards Ponce.
Once in the pearl of the South, take a turn around the main plaza, stopping to see the old fire house, the cathedral, and—my favorite—King’s Cream ice cream (try the coconut and almond—together—they can’t be beat). Tuck in for the night at the historic, family-run and locally owned Hotel Melia (and be sure to enjoy breakfast the next morning on the rooftop terrace).
In the morning, scale the hill with the cross of La Vigia in your sights. If the elevator’s working, ascend to the top of the cross for a sweeping view of the Caribbean; if it’s not, check out the house.
If you’re wondering what else to do in Ponce, check with Quique at the Melia; he’s a friendly person who will go out of this way to help his guests.
Itinerary Three: Ponce-Guanica-Sabana Grande-Cabo Rojo
Ponce could keep you busy for a couple of days (did you take the trolley tour around town yet?), but head on out to the hills for another Fideicomiso property, Hacienda Buena Vista.
A former coffee plantation, Buena Vista is tucked into a densely forested mountainside just off Road 501, and offers an informative tour of the carefully restored house and the grounds. If you time your visit right, you might just get to try some of the locally made chocolate.
From Ponce, head west on Highway 2 towards Guanica. It was in this town’s bay where the US launched its invasion in 1898. Today, the town has become a little-visited but worthwhile stop for visitors to Puerto Rico’s southwest coast. Guanica is also noteworthy for its dry forest.
Somewhat out of the way, but worth the detour for the religious or simply curious, is the Virgen del Pozo (Virgin of the Well) sanctuary in Sabana Grande. Located on Highway 364, Km 2.4, the sanctuary attracts faithful Catholics asking or thanking the Virgin for miracles.
An entire room is filled with evidence of miracles, including photographs, crutches, medallions, and letters written by people grateful for the Virgin’s intervention.
From here Sabana Grande, make your way southwest, picking up Highway 102. One of the few roads in Puerto Rico that can truly be called an oceanfront drive, 102 winds through old pineapple and sugarcane farms, leaving you on a stretch of two lane road where you’re driving almost level with the ocean.
Cabo Rojo has dozens of roadside kiosks where you can pull over and sample all kinds of seafood treats. Be sure to save this stretch of the drive for the sunset.
Itinerary Four: Cabo Rojo-Rincon
Highway 102 leads you north all the way up the western coast. Take it to Highway 429, which will lead you straight into the popular surfing town of Rincon. While you could spend a day or two just lounging on beaches here, don’t skip the lighthouse at Punta Gorda or the monument to the discovery of Puerto Rico, just north of Rincon in the town of Aguado.
Itinerary Five: Ponce-Corozal-San Juan
If you’ve had enough of the beach, choose north on Highway 10 instead of west when leaving Ponce, and head into the Puerto Rican interior. The road north will take you through the mountains, near the coffee lands of Jayuya.
You’ll skim the edge of the Rio Abajo State Forest before ending up in Arecibo, home to the famous observatory. While I’d only recommend a stop at the observatory if you’re really into astronomy, Playa Sardinera and the Natural Reserve of Cueva del Indio (Indian’s Cave) are both worth a visit before you head east towards San Juan.
Although you could take the slower, more scenic route, patching together a drive through some back roads between Arecibo and San Juan, Highway 22 might be a better option. If you want one more stop before arriving in San Juan and trying out some of the activities mentioned in Itinerary 1, be sure to swing by the Bacardi factory in Catano. Tours—and two drinks—are free.
After trying out these routes, you’re likely to see why Puerto Rico’s nickname is the “Island of Enchantment.” Sappy? Sure. But it’s also true.
*Several airports receive daily flights from the mainland US. The main international airport is located in the capital, San Juan (SJU). Other airports include Ponce and Mayaguez.
*Car Rental: You will need a driver’s license and a valid credit card. Debit cards are not accepted by all rental agencies, so if you’re planning on paying with debit, check with the local rental office before you arrive. A reliable and affordable local company is Charlie Car. With locations throughout the island, Charlie is a locally owned operation that has excellent service.
*Speed limit, distance, and gas: Don’t let the seemingly low prices at the gas pump fool you. Pull out your calculator; gas is measured in liters.
*Tolls: Have some cash on hand while driving; there are some tolls along these routes. For more information about tolls and driving in general, visit the Department of Transportation’s website. The site also has excellent detailed maps.
*Fideicomiso properties: Open only Wednesday-Sunday and rarely answering the phone, the Fideicomiso properties are difficult to get into, but are worth the effort. Call in advance for a reservation and be persistent.