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Puerto Rico: Island of wonder

Puerto Rico Tour Desk

Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1902, and the advantages for U.S. travelers are evident — a passport isn’t necessary, American currency is in use, and driving is on the right side.

The capital city, San Juan, is the ideal place to begin for any first-time visitor. It is a popular destination for cruise ships, or those seeking a relaxing stay at one of the many resorts or luxury hotels.

 While Spanish is the dominant language on the island, English is spoken more readily in San Juan. If you do venture away from San Juan, be prepared to engage locals with at least conversational Spanish.

Old San Juan is a charming part of the city that is reminiscent of New Orleans’ French Quarter, or perhaps it’s vice versa. Plaza Colón is the hub of Old San Juan, and the home of a small market for local craftsmen.

A busy day at the port means several cruise ships docked and unloading passengers, making the tiny square crowded with shoppers.

Old San Juan is a colorful blend of Spanish colonial architecture, cobblestone streets and secluded alleyways.

Take the time to explore two of Old San Juan’s colonial forts — Castillo San Cristóbal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro — now part of the U.S. National Park Service.

El Morro lies on the western tip of San Juan extending into the Atlantic Ocean and overlooking San Juan Bay, while San Cristóbal rises high over the eastern part of the city. The forts were completed in the late 18th century and offer exquisite views of the Atlantic and Old San Juan.

For those looking for tranquility away from San Juan, check out Isabela on the island’s northwest side. The quiet village offers a secluded beach, mostly occupied by fishermen in the morning.

Chain hotels are sparse in Isabela, unlike the luxurious ones you’ll find in San Juan. Instead, search online for rental properties that offer tremendous space and privacy. Our rental overlooked Isabela’s tiny bay, mere yards from the ocean.

 For those adventurous to explore the island, Puerto Rico is the perfect size for day trips. The island is about a three-hour drive east-to-west and two hours north-to-south.

If you plan on exploring the island, a rental car is a necessity. Traffic in San Juan is notoriously hectic. Be forewarned that drivers are aggressive and traffic jams are a regular annoyance. Beyond San Juan, expect one-lane roads as you venture off the major highways.

Our first exploration of the countryside was a stop at Hacienda San Pedro coffee plantation, about a 90-minute drive from Isabela.

 Coffee lovers have their choice of several plantations across Puerto Rico, but we investigated Hacienda San Pedro, about a 90-minute drive from Isabela.

Located in the mountains outside the village of Jayuya, Hacienda San Pedro borders one of Puerto Rico’s state forests, Bosque Estatal De Tres Picachos. The tropical rainforest and volcanic soil helps the plantation produce coffee beans, which are rich in flavor.

We grab an espresso, a mocha, and a slice of their delicious coffee cake. Get there early to experience a guided tour of their facilities and enough time to lounge outside their cafe to gaze at the mountains that rise over the valley.

El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, is a serene climb into the mountains outside of San Juan. The first stop as you drive into the forest, is La Coca Falls, a splendid waterfall cascading down the mountain. It’s an immediate hit with visitors, who park their cars for a quick photo.

Plan your day accordingly and take the time to walk some of the hiked paths. The paths vary in difficulty from moderate to difficult, but make sure to take the 40-minute hike and visit La Mina Falls.

Another popular day trip, or night trip, is a visit to one of three bioluminescent bays on the island.

Guided tours are available, whether by boat or by kayak, to experience an amazing natural phenomenon. The bay is filled with microscopic organisms that emit a blue glow when agitated.

Vieques Island off the the eastern tip of Puerto Rico offers the most striking visuals, but other tours are available in Fajardo and Lajas.