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Castillo San Felipe del Morro in Old San Juan

Puerto Rico

3 Parks, 5 Days: Discover Puerto Rico

By: Miriam B. Weiner

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  • States:
    Puerto Rico

Surrounded by the calm, turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico is unlike any other U.S. destination.

The island’s laid-back ambiance permeates the cobbled streets of Old San Juan and flows through the lush rain forest canopies. Puerto Rico makes a great vacation destination if you’re looking to divide your time between culture and nature. Set up your home base in San Juan, and you can experience it all without feeling rushed.

Home Base: San Juan

Perched on Puerto Rico’s northeastern coast, the fortified city of San Juan is the best place to get introduced to the island. Behind the pastel facades of the Old City you’ll uncover quaint shops selling local crafts, charming restaurants serving local specialties and scenic plazas teeming with people grooving to the tunes of local salsa bands. Outside the walls of the historic quarter, San Juan bursts with activity — shopping and nightlife hot spots give way to rolling golf courses and golden beaches flanked by all-inclusive tropical resorts. And from here, you won’t have to go far to experience the island’s beautiful outdoors spaces.

Old San Juan’s brightly colored streets are lined with local restaurants and shops, and they lead to beautiful plazas where residents often mingle.

Old San Juan’s brightly colored streets are lined with local restaurants and shops, and they lead to beautiful plazas where residents often mingle.
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Miguel Hernández/Flickr

Day 1: San Juan National Historic Site

You would be remiss if you visited Old San Juan and didn’t devote at least part of your day to the San Juan National Historic Site. Overlooking the Caribbean Sea from the city’s coastline, this protected area encompasses several 16th-century fortresses — Castillo San Cristóbal, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Fortín San Juan de la Cruz (El Cañuelo) — and part of the old city walls. These fortifications hark back to a time when Puerto Rico (then a Spanish colony) was one of Spain’s most significant Caribbean outposts. The walls and the forts helped protect the settlement and its trade activities.

You can wander through the old strongholds, which still house remnants of the city’s military past (such as old cannons). For a more in-depth look at their history, sit in on a ranger talk, offered every hour in English and Spanish. And if you time your visit right, you may get to see one of the park’s historic reenactments.

The historic fortresses at San Juan National Historic Site boast beautiful views of the water.

The historic fortresses at San Juan National Historic Site boast beautiful views of the water.
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Tomás Fano/Flickr

Days 2-3: El Yunque National Forest

El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the USA, comprises more than 110 square kilometers of natural splendor. More than 200 different species of trees house colorful birds and frogs, and waterfalls cascade into cool azure pools flanked by vibrant orchids. The views you’ll find along El Yunque’s numerous hiking trails — especially those that lead to the summit of El Toro mountain — will undoubtedly take your breath away.

And after you’ve worked up a sweat, you can cool off with a dip in one of the park’s beautiful natural pools — La Mina Falls and the Juan Diego Falls are among the most popular swimming spots. At the end of the day, you can set up camp for the night or enjoy an evening at one of several hotels located in within the forest and along the nearby coast.

The Juan Diego Falls are one of many scenic places you’ll find in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest.

The Juan Diego Falls are one of many scenic places you’ll find in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest.
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Jims Ideas/Flickr

Days 4-5: Vieques National Wildlife Refuge

Occupying its own island roughly 11 kilometers off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge on Vieques Island encompasses a cornucopia of diverse ecosystems. In this 70-plus square kilometer wilderness area, you can sprawl along sandy beaches, kayak through mangrove forests or swim in and explore rocky grottos — all while keeping your eyes peeled for some of the island’s fascinating creatures. You may spot sea turtles, fruit bats, wild horses and many different types of birds while here.

To get to Vieques National Wildlife Refuge from San Juan, you’ll need to either fly to Vieques or take a ferry to Isabel II (the island’s primary town), so an overnight trip will allow you to experience more of the island. (You’ll find lodging options for a wide range of budgets here, from high-end resorts to small boutiques.) Besides, one of Vieques’ most memorable experiences can only be had at night: a kayak tour of Mosquito Bay. As you paddle, you’ll disturb the bay’s bioluminescent organisms, causing them to glow.

Vieques National Wildlife Refuge features beautiful stretches of Caribbean coastline where you can enjoy the island’s year-round warm weather.

Vieques National Wildlife Refuge features beautiful stretches of Caribbean coastline where you can enjoy the island’s year-round warm weather.
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Paul-W/Flickr