Travel

Unforgettable Places to Visit in Puerto Rico (Besides San Juan)

Lush rainforests, illuminated bays, tasty street food spots, and so much more.

Photo Spirit/Shutterstock
Photo Spirit/Shutterstock
Photo Spirit/Shutterstock

If you’re even thinking of being in Puerto Rico, check out the rest of our DestiNATION Puerto Rico travel guide. It’s stacked with expert advice from locals on what to eat, where to go, and what to do on the Island of Enchantment.
San Juan is a wonder unto itself, but to truly experience Puerto Rico’s vibrant culture, get out of the comforts of the metropolitan capital and take in all the island has to offer. Road trip down the famed Pork Highway, anyone?

Measuring about 110 miles long and 35 miles, it’d take about six hours to traverse the island, but why rush things? Linger over a glowing ocean at one of three world-famous bioluminescent bays. Stuff your face with Borinquen fried goods from pork rinds to plantains. Get airborne over the United States’ only rainforest in the national park system. Launch yourself above crystalline Caribbean waters in some of the world’s best surfing swells. In Puerto Rico, it can all happen. 

At Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) and Rafael Hernández Airport (BQN) in Aguadilla, you’ll find all the major car rental operators with competitive pricing. Do your homework ahead of time to reserve by the hour or by the day. While you’re at it, opt for a jeep or four-wheel drive to navigate rough terrain and coastal roads-though city bus lines, ferries, cabs, and private cars (including Uber) are on-hand, road conditions around the island vary, so better safe than sorry.

Puerto Rico isn’t called the Island of Enchantment for nothing. Why limit yourself? 

Discover Puerto Rico
Discover Puerto Rico
Discover Puerto Rico

Kayak through an enchanting natural phenomenon

1-2-hour drive (and boat ride) east of San Juan
Puerto Rico has the distinct honor of having not one, but three bioluminescent bays, a natural nighttime phenomenon when microorganisms light up to create a starry sky in calm waters. Whether you head to Laguna Grande at Cabezas de San Juan near Fajardo, Mosquito Bay in the nature reserves of Vieques (a tiny island home to about 10,000 residents), or La Parguera farther in the southwest region of Lajas, you’re in for a magical treat, as the waves and wakes kick up eerie-yet-calm bluish light. The brightest, Mosquito Bay, has the strictest protections-no swimming!-while La Parguera suffers from light pollution and fewer microorganisms in the water. It’s a matter of convenience-visiting Vieques’ waters requires an overnight stay, as the ferry stops running early evenings. In each of the bays, mangrove trees grow in abundance, with on-site environmentalists working to protect these special areas.

Marine biologists-turned-tour guides like Alelí near La Parguera advise visiting during a new or crescent moon in the evening for smaller crowds, the brightest sights, and the least disturbance to the area. In Mosquito Bay, kayak tour operators help ensure the bright waters are minimally disturbed for maximum effect. Consult the lunar cycle before you visit, and bring bug spray.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Hang 10 in some of the world’s best surf spots

2-3-hour drive west of San Juan
Thanks to 80-degree year-round temperatures and notable big wave competitions, beachgoers and surfers dominate the northwestern coastlines of Puerto Rico in and around Rincón. Head two hours west of San Juan for a day at Surfer’s Beach and Crash Boat in Aguadilla, Jobos Beach in Isabela, or Tres Palmas in Rincón. While the turquoise waters can get choppy, waves range from waist level (ideal for beginners and boogie boarders) to contest-level swells. Whether you’re a newbie or a pro, experts at surfing schools like Surf 787 and Rincón Surf School will have you hitting the waves in no time, providing everything from wave forecasts to board rentals and surfing instructions.

While you’re at it, follow the northwestern coast south to Punta BorinquenCalifornia nonprofit Save the Waves and local Puerto Rican community leaders work to protect this designated World Surfing Reserve from potentially harmful man-made developments. And if you’re not quite into surfing, head along the northern coast two hours west of San Juan to Steps Beach, so-called for the widely Instagrammed concrete steps that sit by the shore. Here, divers can enjoy the underwater serenity of pastel-colored coral reefs, sunken ships, underwater caves, and tunnels, all in relatively shallow waters.

Rain Forest Zip Line Corp.
Rain Forest Zip Line Corp.
Rain Forest Zip Line Corp.

Head to the rainforest for coffee and adventure

1-2-hour drive south of San Juan
You may not have grown up with Café Bustelo, but Puerto Ricans are serious about their coffee and are dedicated to sustaining the island’s agricultural roots. Head inland to meet and greet local farmers who prioritize growing, harvesting, and selling coffee 100% hecho en Puerto Rico, resulting in a rich farm-to-cup experience.

An overnight stay in the mountains of Utuado at eco-lodge Hacienda Horizonte includes a tour of the 100-acre working coffee plantation, which proudly grows pesticide- and chemical-free coffee. The perfect energy boost for a next-day hike, horseback ride, or zip line, if you ask us. West of Utuado is the 20-acre family-run Hacienda El Jibarito in San Sebastián. The former sugar cane farm is now a coffee roaster and eco-villa with multiple on-site greenhouses and a sister restaurant. And while you’re there, don’t skip a swim at the epic Gozalandia Waterfalls, a pair of hidden waterfalls just a 15-minute drive away. El Jibarito provides transportation to and from the falls, but be prepared to hike through craggy paths before rewarding yourself with a rope swing jump into the water below.

Embrace your inner thrill seeker at a zip line park with birds-eye views of El Yunque, the US’s only tropical rainforest. The ever-shifting forest floor below speeds by at Toroverde, Guinness World Records’ longest zip line on earth. Rather opt out? Get grounded in reforestation efforts volunteering with Para La Naturaleza while you’re in town.

Photo Spirit/Shutterstock
Photo Spirit/Shutterstock
Photo Spirit/Shutterstock

Hike through a dry forest then cool off on the beach

About 2-3 hours southwest of San Juan
Part of what makes Puerto Rico such an exceptional destination is the diversity of landscapes. While sandy beaches and tropical jungles are expected on a Caribbean island, the desert-like landscape that encompasses Puerto Rico’s southwestern coastline comes as a bit of a surprise. The strong winds that blow across this part of the island have created an arid expanse that stretches from around Ponce West to the ocean-and the best place to soak it all in is at Bosque Seco de Guanica.

The name literally translates to “Dry Forest.” Along the handful of trails that make up this 9,000-acre state forest, you’ll find thick desert vegetation and creatures that are heard but rarely seen. The go-to trail is the Fort Trail, which’ll take you about an hour up an easy path to a “fort” that overlooks the town and ocean below. The small structure is really more of a lookout tower, but it still offers some spectacular views and refreshingly cool breezes. Just be warned, the trail gets hot. Bring about twice as much water as you think you need.

Afterward, you’re only a short drive from the beaches of Cabo Rojo, a popular day trip for locals. Post up on the beach at Combate, or cool off with fresh seafood at Annie’s Place. Or, if you want to avoid the crowds, check out the beach at Balneario de Boquerón, a Puerto Rican national park where rangers limit the number of people allowed inside.

Euri Rivera/Shutterstock
Euri Rivera/Shutterstock
Euri Rivera/Shutterstock

Take in giant waves and seaside beach shacks

Just over an hour west of San Juan
The Arecibo Observatory was once home to the largest radio dish telescope in the world, a triumph of cosmic exploration. Of course, that dish collapsed last August, and the observatory is still closed to the public-and although it was a major loss for the space community, there’s luckily plenty left to discover in Arecibo. Consider Poza del Obispo’s wide, golden-sand beach. It’s marked by a crystal-clear natural pool, where you can swim while 20-foot waves crash against the limestone rocks that surround it. Just be careful: at high tide, the waves can carry people out to sea if they’re not paying attention.

Standing above the beach is the Arecibo Lighthouse and Historical Park, home to the 1898 Los Morillos Lighthouse. On a daily tour, you’ll be treated to a lesson in the Caribbean’s shipping history, along with panoramic aerial views of the city and the crashing waves below.

Head east out of Arecibo on Route 681 and you’ll pass through the little beach town of Islote. It’s not so much a town as a strip of funky bars and beach shacks that jut out over the water-an ideal setting for ending the day with a cold beer and a sunset. They’re every bit the ramshackle Puerto Rican beach fantasy you’re envisioning, and while you won’t find a ton of tourists, everyone here is especially welcoming.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Hit the Pork Highway for the best in Borinquen roadside snacks

1-hour drive or less east/south of San Juan
No visit to Puerto Rico is complete without a deep-fried roadside snack. Locals may argue over their favorite kioskos (open-air huts), but you’ll also find them eating, drinking, and dancing their way through chinchorro routes on most weekends. As you adventure through fried food heaven, you’ll find old-school family joints, Afro-Caribbean traditions, and lively music on deck-the makings of a good time.

For the full circuit, start early at Piñones, a beachfront town 10 minutes outside San Juan airport along Route 187. Stop, snack, repeat. Hop back in your ride and continue 20-30 minutes east to Luquillo on the eastern coast, continue scarfing, and eventually end your day at El Guavate south near the mountains of Cayey. (Of course, if you want to take a snail’s pace, you could easily spend all day at each of these spots. The choice is yours.)

Savor plantains in masa dough when biting into alcapurrias and pastelillos, fried dough turnovers stuffed with meat or mariscos (seafood). Grab a pancake-sized bacalaito (salted cod fritter) while overlooking the ocean just a few feet away. Hear the crunch of fritters like chicharrones (fried pork cracklings) or chicharrones de conejo (fried rabbit). See why pernil reigns king as you pass by rows of golden-brown, whole spit-roasted pigs ready to be chopped and served crisp alongside traditional sides like morcilla (blood sausage) and arroz con gandules (yellow rice and pigeon peas). And don’t forget to top it all with the island’s signature garlicky mojo sauce.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!

Alisha Miranda is a Puerto Rican-born freelance writer who believes in annual travel sabbaticals, off-season deals, solo trips abroad and making it all happen on a budget. You can follow her travel diaries at bit.ly/alishaintravel.

 Matt Meltzer contributed to reporting for this story. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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