Puerto Rico: things to see, do, and EAT

We’ve been having so much fun on our Grand Tour, we haven’t been doing a great job keeping up on the blog. The Babe has been recording her reflections, the Mama is just behind on transcribing them. We’ll get back to it once we’re home. For now, the Mama is taking over for a special blog post.

We’ve had an amazing time connecting with other traveling families on Instagram! In the last few weeks, we’ve given several families suggestions on things to see, do, and (most importantly) EAT in Puerto Rico–the Mama’s home country. It seems like it’s time to write a little blog post so that all the information is in one place and easy to share with our friends!

About Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is a common wealth of the United States. It is the smallest of the great Antilles, and is located in the Caribbean South-East of Florida. For Americans, it’s a great place to visit for a variety of reasons including:

-the island uses US currency, so there’s no need to deal with exchange rates.

-English is taught in the schools starting in Kindergarten, and most people–especially if they work in hospitality–speak English.

-it’s easy to navigate, and the speed limit signs are all in MPH. However, for some unknown reason (to me) fuel is sold in liters.

-you do not need a passport or visa to visit–it’s just like visiting any state!

It’s a great place for non-Americans to visit too! Namely because:

-the island is gorgeous. It has so much ecological diversity in a very small space; from mountains, to beaches, to desert, to rainforest. As far as I understand it, the only ecological system the island doesn’t have is tundra.

-the people are kind and generous.

-the food is AMAZING.

-it only takes 2.5-3 hours to cross the entire island from East to West, and about 1.5-2 hours to cross North to South. In other words, you can see a lot in a short period of time (just be aware of traffic on any time sensitive trips…especially in to/out of San Juan).

I would definitely recommend a car rental! And if you’re traveling during high season (summer, but also Christmas/New Years), I recommend booking early and with a recognized company. It’s an island, so there is a finite number of cars available for rental. You don’t want to be left without!

In no particular order, here are my suggestions for things to see, do, and eat in Puerto Rico!

Thing to see

-Explore Old San Juan (Viejo San Juan). Walk the colorful streets and visit the fort. Fly a kite on the grassy field in front of the fort–or lay back and watch as others fly them. Then get out of there! Like many highly touristed places, Viejo San Juan only presents one (albeit very pretty) part of island life!

-Head to the west side of the island and visit Rincon and/or Cabo Rojo. This is a beautiful area, with great beaches and surfing.

-Travel South of Cabo Rojo to the very tip of the island where there is a cool lighthouse (faro los morrillos) with a nice crescent beach below. The drive to the light house takes you through a salt desert. It’s not the Sahara, but it is cool to see the way the high salinity of the soil affects the growth of plants.

-Drive up into the mountains to visit native Taino archeological sites. Unfortunately, the Taino Indians were wiped out by the Spaniards within a generation of their arrival, but there have been conservation efforts to preserve their sites. There are some soccer-type fields to visit and cave drawings to see.

Things to do

-Hike in El Yunque. The national rainforest has many different hikes and trails, many leading to small waterfalls–some with pools where you can take a swim. It’s a great place to explore, either on foot, or on horseback.

-Visit “los kioskitos” near El Yunque in a small town called Luquillo. The beach here is ok, but the biggest draw are the little kiosks right by the beach! The kiosks mostly sell street food and are independently run by different families. See “things to eat” below for foods to try here. I tend to stay in Luquillo when I go to Puerto Rico because it’s a short drive from lots of things I want to see and do, but away from the hustle and bustle of San Juan.

-Swim with bioluminescent plankton. There are three bio-luminescent bays on the island. One is near Fajardo, but I believe you can only look at this one from the shore. One is on the small island of Vieques, and I’ve heard you can canoe on this one. Vieques was totally decimated during Maria, and I’m not sure how recovered it is or how the bay there fared. The third is in the south side of the island, and this is the one I would recommend! It’s near a town called La Parguera, and you can either kayak out to the bioluminescent bay or hire a guide with a motor boat to take you out there. I’ve done both, and to be honest, I preferred the boat. Kayaking in the dark, knowing the open ocean is just a little to the south is a little discomfiting. But that’s just me. If you’re an avid kayaker, then go for it! Once in the bay, you can actually swim among the bioluminescent plankton! There are also jelly fish that feed on the plankton, but they don’t sting. They do give off a brighter glow if you brush up against them, because they’re clear and filled with the plankton. Check the moon and rain forecasts and try to go on a dark night when there hasn’t been recent rain. The moon obscures the bioluminescence and rain will form a layer on top of the bay where the plankton haven’t swum to yet. This is by far one of the coolest experiences you can have on the island! It’s like swimming in pixie dust!

Note: if you plan on going to the bioluminescent bay in La Parguera, I recommend booking a place for a night or two on the south side of the island. It’s not a super long drive to the San Juan area, but seeing as how you’ll be out late looking at the plankton, you would have to drive back super late. If that doesn’t bother you, then don’t worry about it. Otherwise, keep it in mind.

-Explore the caves in Camuy. Stalactites, stalagmites, and bats, oh my!

-Make like the locals and take a dip in the sulfur baths in Coamo. There are several pools at varying degrees. The waters are supposed to have medicinal properties, but really, it’s just a different (and stinky) way to relax.

-Visit the Arecibo Conservatory, a giant radio telescope in the mountains outside Arecibo. The dish has been looking for extra terrestrial life since the early 60s. It has also been instrumental in important astronomical discoveries including the correct length of Mercury’s rotational period, proof that neuron stars exist, and the discovery of various pulsars. It is also famous from some dramatic scenes in the James Bond flick, Golden Eye (1995).

-Go out beyond the beach! Definitely bring a snorkel and enjoy the fish by the shore. Or, go deep sea fishing or diving if you’re into either of those things.

-I don’t have a favorite beach, because we always went to the beaches closest to my grandparents houses. But you really can’t go wrong with any beach, and if you don’t like the one you’re at, drive on a little further and find another one!

Things to eat

Because it’s so hot in Puerto Rico most of the time, the majority of Puerto Rican food is fried (gets you in and out of the kitchen quickly). Puerto Rican food is not spicy like Mexican food. It is flavorful and full of spices.

Here are some of my favorites:

Alcapurias-plantain mashed, stuffed with ground beef or crab meat, then deep fried. They’ll look almost black and will be slightly crunch on the outside and soft inside.

Empanadas-flour dough discs stuffed with cheese, ground beef, crab, chicken, or “pizza” (cheese and tomato sauce), and then deep fried

Papas rellenas-mashed potatoes filled with ground beef or crab, then deep fried.

Bacalaíto-cod fish mixed with batter and deep fried.

Tostones-plantains that are fried, squished flat, and fried again. Great as a snack or a side. Ask for mayo-ketchup (mayonnaise, ketchup, and garlic) to dip it in.

Monfongo-plantain that has been fried, mashed with garlic and pork fat, and formed either into a heap on the side or as a bowl (sometimes still in the mortar they mashed it in) that can then be filled with fried meat, shrimp, stew etc. Not to be confused with mondongo, which is tripe stew.

Pinchos-pork or chicken skewers, cooked on the grill. They usually serve them with a small slice of pan sobao on top.

Pan sobao-bread, slightly crunchy on the outside and oh-so-soft in the middle. For breakfast, you can just have it with some butter and a café, or get a ham, cheese and fried egg sandwich on pan sobao. It’s the best!

Fruit: eat as much fresh fruit as you can! Coco (coconut), piña (pineapple), parcha (passion fruit), guava, pomarosa (rose apple- a firm, pear like fruit with a strong flavor of roses), kenepa (they’re called Spanish limes, but they’re nothing like limes…they are apparently related to the lychee), tamarindo, mango, any fruit you see that you don’t know…give it a try!

Seafood is plentiful and delicious on the island. I love ensalada de pulp (octopus salad), which is octopus, onions, green olives, marinated in olive oil and vinegar. Usually served with a side of fried or boiled yuca.

Drinks:

-Coco Rico is a coconut soda. Yummy.

-Malta is a malt drink (think the inside of a whopper candy). Some people love it, some don’t. I’m a fan.

-Rum is the major alcohol produced on the Island. Don Q and Bacardi are both Puerto Rican brands (although the Bacardi family was from Cuba).

Christmas food:

At Christmas time, you’ll find more dishes that use the oven or stove top because the temperatures cool off a tad.

Pernil: roasted pork shoulder picnic/butt, seasoned liberally with garlic, is a staple of the Christmas holidays. Eat it with a side of arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) for the authentic Christmas dinner. And to really eat it like a Puerto Rican, add a little ketchup to your rice (don’t kill me mom–you’re the one who taught me to eat it this way!).

Pasteles: mashed plantains filled with either ground beef/pork or sometimes crab, boiled. These are also usually eaten with a side of arroz con gandules. And yes, you’ll see people put ketchup on their pasteles and/or rice.

Drinks:

-Coquito: coconut nog. It’s like egg nog, only without raw eggs and so, so good! I just had a friend come back from Puerto Rico with some coquito. Her husband loved it so much, she asked me if I happened to have a recipe for it. And I do!

Coquito

Ingredients
-1 can cream of coconut
-1 can evaporated milk (or, if you’re like me, coconut milk)
-1 can sweetened condensed milk
-cinnamon (to taste…I use about 2 tsps)
-vanilla extract (to taste, I use about a tsp)
-1/2 cup of rum, to taste (again, if you’re like me, you’ll get coconut rum)

Directions
1. Place all ingredients in a blender. Mix it all until smooth.

2. If you still have some chunks, pour liquid through a colander into a pitcher.

3. Chill for about an hour and enjoy! 

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I hope this post has been helpful!! Please feel free to reach out if you have specific questions!

~The Mama

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