From urban jungle to tangled rainforest (and back again)

Puerto Rico still feels like the quiet cousin of the Caribbean. Most visitors are cruise shippers who pitch up just for the day, en route to busier, better-known destinations. But those that linger uncover an island ripe for discovery. A place where you can venture into dense rainforest and be back at one of the best hotels in Puerto Rico in time for coquito cocktails at dusk. Or spend days on near-deserted beaches and fill nights with salsa dancing.

Nowhere reflects Puerto Rico’s glorious jumble of cultural influences and captivating experiences quite like San Juan. It oozes golden-age glamour, with art deco landmarks and intricate iron balconies hanging on every-colour-of-the-rainbow buildings. And with beaches in reach, it’s the perfect base for island adventures.

 

SAN JUAN: OLD SOUL, NEW SPIRIT

Historical heartland
Put away last night’s designer heels and don comfy shoes to visit El Morro. This UNESCO listed 16th-century Spanish fort and lighthouse lies on the cusp of the Atlantic, with rewarding views from high up on the ramparts.

New-age gastronomy
San Juan’s food scene is cosmopolitan to its core. Restaurants such as Marmalade offer truffle-topped tasting menus to rival the kind you’ll find in London and Paris. Equally hip is low lit Latino-Asian restaurant Dragonfly – the poster boy for fusion food.

White sand and white-knuckle surfing
One of the joys of San Juan is how you can easily combine a city break with a beach escape. And there are plenty of nearby bays to choose from. Balneario Escambrón for serene spots, snorkelling and surfing. Playa Isla Verde if you like your beach busy (but beautiful). Ocean Park for sugary soft sand and shelter from the crowds. Playa Peña for a hideaway bay that appears at low tide. The list goes on.

GET BACK TO NATURE

• Waterfalls and wild swims
El Yunque is an absolute must-visit when in Puerto Rico. Reachable on a day trip from San Juan, it’s a wildlife-rich rainforest reserve with take-your-breath-away views from the El Yunque mountain summit. Both the subtropical forest and the peak are relatively straightforward to hike, especially with a guide. And to cool off, you can plunge into natural pools. 


• Luminous lagoons
Although getting to Vieques involves a flight from San Juan, it takes less than 30 minutes. It’s well worth it, too. Paso Fino horses canter along the shoreline and beaches are the definition of blissed-out Caribbean. But the biggest draw are the bioluminescent bays. Kayak (by day or at night) across Bahía Mosquito where the water glows blue and green in a natural light show.
• Prehistoric caves
The enormous, enchanting Rio Camuy cave network seems straight from a fantasy film. Above you will be dripping stalactites and stalagmites, and shards of light piercing the dark. All around you are sinkholes, glowing pools and ancient rivers that have flowed here for tens of millions of years.
Top tip: When visiting Rio Camuy Caves take a detour to Observatorio de Arecibo. One is a wonder of nature. The other is a wonderful feat of engineering – and even made a cameo in a James Bond film.

Top tip: When visiting Rio Camuy Caves take a detour to Observatorio de Arecibo. One is a wonder of nature. The other is a wonderful feat of engineering – and even made a cameo in a James Bond film. 

 

WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFEE

• Hacienda Buena Vista
It’s a bit of a trek to Ponce if you’re staying in San Juan, but you could make it part of a day trip around the south of the island. With guided tours around the forest, past waterfalls and into the mountain plantation itself, it’s easy to see how this historical hacienda got its name. Just be sure to book ahead.

• Castillo Serallés and Casa Bacardi
While in Ponce, you can also pay homage to rum at Castillo Serallés, a grand mansion turned museum. Or, if you’re sticking to San Juan, visit the monument to one of the Caribbean’s favourite spirits, Casa Bacardi.

• Sandra Farms
Eco-boutique producer Sandra Farms offers a modern alternative to heritage haciendas. That said, the Arabica beans that go into its smooth, aromatic coffees are part of Puerto Rican history. Coffee sampling combined with the views from this hilltop Adjuntas estate will leave you feeling on top of the world. Again, call ahead for a tour.

The best hotels in Puerto Rico

Historic Hotel El Convento and modernist Olive Boutique Hotel are at opposite ends of San Juan.