From a European perspective, when I consider the Caribbean, Puerto Rico would rarely be an island I’d have thought about visiting. While this corner of the US is a popular Spring Break destination for American mainlanders it isn’t as well known or visited for us Brits. Yet, my recent visit to this fascinating Caribbean island has given me an insight into a fabulous place, and one to which I’m already plotting my return.
I found so many great things to do in Puerto Rico – a destination that is also challenging the usual status quo of Caribbean travel – which is often based around chain hotels and all inclusives – to put the focus on sustainable travel to the benefit of the whole community.
Located about 1,000 miles southeast of Florida, Puerto Rico enjoys the traditional warm weather we all expect of the Caribbean region. Yet, it also has a long and rich history, a distinctive culture, a unique food scene, natural wonders such as a rainforest, the Greater Antilles mangroves, and most excitingly for me it has three bioluminescent bays – bodies of water with microscopic marine organisms that glow when you disturb the surface of the sea at night.
Being a Caribbean island, there are plenty of great beaches too, you can choose from 300 of them around Puerto Rico’s 270 miles of glorious coastline. There you’ll find great surfing, snorkeling, and diving options, as well as delightfully secluded coves to relax on. Whether you spend a long weekend or seven days in Puerto Rico, or even two weeks, you can be sure that you’ll find plenty to discover.
Sustainable travel in Puerto Rica with Live Boricua
But before we get onto the very many great things to do in Puerto Rico, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how tourists aren’t only visiting the island but how your trip can actually help improve the lives of local people too.
Puerto Rico is among those destinations which are part of the vanguard of ever more conscious and environmentally friendly travel, and I visited Puerto Rico to learn more about this during a special tourism summit called Live Boricua. At its heart, the summit was about the community-focused and sustainable side of Puerto Rico’s tourism industry. Something that with our ever-growing interest in living more sustainably, is so very crucial. So I was pleased to be asked to be part of it.
Live Boricua, I was to discover, is much more than a title or slogan, it’s a way of life for the people of the island. In fact Boricua is a name the Puerto Ricans call themselves, it is a name that not only honours their history and heritage, but for locals, it’s central to their way of being. Boricua sums up Puerto Ricans’ distinct mindset, the rhythm of local life, and the spirit of islanders. To be Puerto Rican is to live Boricua.
I couldn’t help but feel slightly envious of this. What an adventure, what an existential pleasure it must be to imbue their island life with such positivity. I must say when walking around Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan, I got a flavour of a life being lived to the full, with a real feeling of positive vibrancy, which brought the old town alive, and showed in the joy on the faces of people both young and old alike.
The purpose of the summit was to explain what it means to live Boricua through the lens of local people, particularly those behind some of the island’s most innovative sustainable tourism initiatives. We heard from locals about how they are leading efforts to ensure the community prospers, such as Efrén Robles, whose Frutos Del Guacabo hydroponic farm (a form of horticulture that involves growing plants and crops, without the use of soil, instead using water-based nutrients, sand, or gravel), I visited to see how they are working to reduce food imports and produce more locally.
And with Puerto Rico importing 85% of its food, the need to be more self-reliant and reduce its carbon footprint is vital. Also, by being close to the food source, consumers and restaurants etc, are vastly reducing the damaging effects of transporting the products over long distances.
Efrén explained his philosophy and approach at his 12-year-old family-run farm, where they use the power of food to develop an understanding of farming. There are no pesticides used there, instead, they plant flowers that attract bugs so the trees and plants that produce food are left to thrive.
At the farm, they also breed goats, rabbits, and chickens, and I took the opportunity to milk one of the goats. It’s fair to say it wasn’t great for either of us.No goats were hurt during the making of this video… only my pride.
Open to the public, Frutos Del Guacabo, is an educational place for casual visitors like me, as well as a meeting point for food industry staff, students and chefs to exchange experiences as they forge the future of Puerto Rico’s gastronomy.
I had lunch there and the variety of locally-grown food was extensive and tasty, and a glowing testament to the work and approach of Frutos De Guacabo. I feasted on homegrown produce which was extensively laid out before us in an outdoor dining area.
We dined on a variety of local dishes that were all made from homegrown vegetables and herbs, plus cheese from their goats, as well as eggs from their own chickens.
Frutos Del Guacabo can be found at:
Bo. New Lands, Piñeiro Sector, Manati, 00674
Tel: 787 242 7423 or 787 242 6296
Unmissable things to do in Puerto Rico
With that focus on sustainable travel that sees money reinvested into the local community, I went about exploring Puerto Rico with a sense that my visit wasn’t just an interesting exploration of a new place for me, but it was benefiting Puerto Ricans too. I still wanted to explore some local hangouts and learn more about Puerto Rican culture. If you want to do the same, here are some of the best things to do in Puerto Rico that I discovered on my trip.
Chocolate heaven at the Chocobar
One experience not to be missed while in the capital city of Puerto Rico, San Juan, is the innovative Chocobar Cortés. I went along not sure what to expect, but fearful that an excess of chocolate casually sprinkled on dishes would be unnecessary and overtly decadent. How wrong I was.
A delicious smell of chocolate greets you as you enter the restaurant, through the bright yellow exterior. The same family has owned local company Chocolate Cortés for 90 years and now a fourth generation is lovingly running the business, however, the Chocobar restaurant only opened in 2013.
Today with the help of Chocolatier Patissier chef Richardo de Obaldía and his creative menu, everyday meals are graced with an intermingling of chocolate in one way or another.
From the wide-ranging menu, I chose a Chocobar Salad Bowl of local greens, crunchy chickpeas, beans and salmon topped with a chocolate vinaigrette. An interesting combination with the chocolate reducing the acidity of the vinaigrette but boosting its sweetness, which only enhanced the dish.
For good measure, I had a side of French fries with chocolate tomato ketchup. I don’t usually eat tomato ketchup, but I ate this version. Neither the chocolate nor the tomato overpowered the other, instead, they melded to compliment each other and produced a mild, pleasing taste. This led me to eat far more fries than I usually would, but still, no complaints from me.
What a great time I had there, plus I drank the best cocktail I’ve ever tasted, the Don Ignacio, which I ordered from the Chocobar Cortes’ extensive cocktail menu.
A blend of local rum – three-star Ron del Barrilito, cognac, spiced syrup, sweet vermouth, angostura bitters, it comes in a glass dipped in dark chocolate and then chilled. Delicious does not begin to do it justice. There was a lovely sweetness to it that was precisely offset by the gentle bitterness of the dark chocolate around the glass. The spiced syrup was the forward flavour for me and was nicely accompanied by the edgy cut of the rum, cognac, and vermouth.
Above the restaurant is a lovely museum charting the history of the Cortés Chocolate company which began trading in 1929 and its deep involvement in life in Puerto Rico. Among other things they sponsored the first TV show on the island. There is also a small art exhibit upstairs, which like the museum, is free of charge to visitors. The permanent art exhibits are part of a non-profit organisation set up by the Cortes family as an educational tool. Its purpose is to inspire visitors and aid social transformation using art from the Caribbean, by way of art activities that complement academic study and more.
Chocobar Cortés can be found at:
210 Calle de San Francisco, San Juan. There is no need to book to dine at the Chocobar as it is a walk-in-only and brunch is served all day, every day.
Monday to Friday from 8am-3pm
Saturday and Sunday from 8am-7pm
Get a taste for Puerto Rican rum at Ron Del Barrilito
Another great excursion I would recommend while on the island is to Hacienda Santa Ana, home of the Ron del Barrilito rum distillery. For over 140 years, Puerto Rico’s oldest rum has been distilled by the same method on the same site in Bayamón by Ron del Barrilito. The name stems from the rum being served originally from a small barrel, or ‘barrilito’ as it is known in Spanish.
Within the grounds is a divine old hacienda house, with a fabulous staircase leading up to it. The staircase is very wide at the base and narrows as it approaches the house. Standing a little way away but in front of the house is an old windmill which originally was used to mill the sugar cane. Both hacienda and windmill are a beautiful testimony to the longevity of rum making here.
A historic local landmark, I started my visit with a guided tour around the distillery, where they showcased the process of making rum. This was followed up with a tasting session, sampling four different types of rum, from two stars through to five stars. The rums ranged in price from $30/$39 per bottle, then jumped to $300 and finally $750 per bottle. My favourite was the $300 rum four-star one and I almost bought a bottle afterward at the on-site shop, but couldn’t convince myself to spend that much on a bottle only to have to face the wrath of my wife if I did.
Following the tasting session, I relaxed in the bar area where I was served a complimentary Pina Colada, without doubt, the best one I have ever tried. This Pina Colada just seemed richer, creamier, and more full bodied than any other I’ve tasted, and I’ve had quite a few. It only added to the Ron del Barrilito visit that at the end of it I was able to sit back in a convivial setting and enjoy such a memorable cocktail.
Fun fact: The Pina Colada was invented by bartender Ramón Marrero in Puerto Rico at the San Juan Hilton International hotel in 1954 – a good reason to celebrate this on Puerto Rico’s national Pina Colada Day – yes, that is a thing – and happens on July 10 each year.
Ron Del Barrilito can be found at:
Edumundo B. Fernández, Inc. Carretera 5, Km. 5.5, Bayamón.
Take a tour of Old San Juan
Not only did I really enjoy a tour of San Juan’s old town but it was another example of how the community benefits from the island’s sustainable tourism focus.
I met my guide, Pablo, in Plaza De Armas for a three-hour, very relaxed sunset walking tour of Old San Juan that revealed stories of the historic centre, while you stop at five different watering holes to taste traditional dishes and sample a cocktail in each.
We stopped at Tuan Old San Juan, the Palacio Hotel, Singular, Aqui Se Puede, and the Decanter Hotel, all of which revealed an interesting history, and offered a different perspective on San Juan.
My first stop was Tuan Old San Juan, a very old bar and restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. Outside, I looked out over the calm, glistening bay of San Juan, while a nearby band played live music.
Next, the Palacio Hotel in a graceful courtyard, offered a very peaceful setting to enjoy a Mojito and some tasty patatas bravas. This was followed by a short walk to the Singular where I tried the Painkiller Cocktail, which was much better than its moniker might suggest, before heading to Aqui Se Puede where I got a fascinating history lesson as to why alcohol is measured in ‘proof’. Back in the 16th century if a drinker wanted to find out if they were drinking proper rum, rather than a watered down version, they would put a drop of rum on a compass, add a little gunpower and then hold it up to the sunlight, if it ignited that was the “proof” they needed it was a true rum.
The final stop was at the rooftop bar of the Decanter Hotel. Although only a hotel since 2015, this grand property dates back to the 1880s. Sitting there gazing out over San Juan I contemplated a lovely evening over a refreshing white sangria, and my world seemed to me at that moment to be just about perfect.
As Old San Juan is a colonial city with over 500 years of history there is a great deal to experience. The tour through the colourful and vibrant streets gave a fascinating insight into its past, its architecture, gastronomy, and of course culture, while combining that with a taste of traditional food and drink at independently run venues.
Pablo’s knowledge was extensive and his care and attention to the group I was with were very welcome. Due to its long and fascinating heritage, I was very keen to tour old San Juan and it proved to be a highlight. Unsurprisingly, it is an UNESCO World Heritage site, which befits a city founded in 1521, with many stories to reveal over its 501-year history.
One such revealation was The Capilla del Cristo Chapel or Chapel of Christ, which was built in the 1700s. It stands almost isolated at the end of a cobblestoned Cristo Street, with the small, green and peaceful Parque de las Palomas to one side, and the tiny chapel perches on the cliff edge so behind it is a drop-down into the sea. Looking at it in the evening sunlight it had a haunting beauty, as well as a slight feeling of abandonment. The Spanish Baroque style architecture of its exterior was showing its age, but that stood in sharp contrast to the exquisite silver of the alter within.
My guide Pablo told me of its history, seemingly in 1753 a man called Baltazar Montanez lost control of his horse and he and the horse went over the cliff into the sea below. While the horse died Montanez somehow survived and later that year began building the chapel on the spot from which he fell. Today, this little chapel is a place where the faithful come to pray for cures to many ailments.
Tours of Old San Juan can be booked through Spoon Tours and are provided in English, but Spanish and Polish are available for private groups.
La Factoría San Juan
After the tour I went to the renowned La Factoría Bar, or I should say bars as there are six of them under one roof.
What a fascinating place – from the outside it is nondescript, it has no signs promoting itself. So without our guide, I doubt I’d have found it, yet it has been voted as one of the world’s 50 best bars for the past five years. Even without any signage, it’s clear many people know of this little treasure.
As I entered, there was the delightful sound of salsa and the joyous sight of people moving rhythmically in time to the Latin beats. There was nothing fancy or luxurious about La Factoría – it is very old with paint peeling from some of the walls. But it was wonderfully authentic – I loved how real it felt, and as though I was experiencing a true slice of traditional local life.
The six bars you can take in there are La Facto, the main bar; Vino, which as the name implies, is a haven for wine drinkers; Shing A’Ling, the principal dance hall; El Final – a more secluded bar, El Desvío – a quieter hang out, and La Cubanita, which has a more Cuban feel. No matter how many you visit, I think the La Factoría is a Puerto Rico must-see and will leave a lingering memory.
La Factoría can be found at:
148 Calle San Sebastián, San Juan.
Monday to Sunday: 11am-11:30pm
Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays
There was one popular Puerto Rico attraction that I was unable to do myself, but it is certainly something I would love to return to Puerto Rico to see, and that is one of its three bioluminescence bays – Laguna Grande, Mosquito Bay, and Parguera.
If you are unfamiliar with bioluminescence bays, in effect they are areas where the sea is able to glow in the dark, a blue-green colour, when a paddle or hand movements disturb microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates that are in the water. For me, it’s a very unique natural experience and one I’d love to witness.
Caribbean dining in Puerto Rico
As you would expect being that it’s in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico’s food scene is first-rate and I dined at some memorable restaurants. One unusual but tasty example was the Cocina Publica. I say unusual as it would easily be missed, as its location is surprisingly incognito. Approaching the restaurant it looked like the frontage of an office block, and, similar to La Factoría, Cocina Publica had no sign advertising itself. But as I had learned, the best things to do in Puerto Rico often come in understated exteriors. And here, the food does all the talking.
Inside, the décor and layout are fairly minimal but the food was incredible. I had a very tasty dish of salmon, coconut, ginger, sweet potato, black lentils, and coriander with jasmine rice. This was a delicious assault on my tastebuds and was followed by an equally delectable and colourful dessert that I devoured. My take was that Cocina Publica had great quality dishes served by nice, friendly staff in pleasant surroundings and it’s somewhere to which I’d definitely like to return again.
Cocina Publica can be found at:
1057 Ave. Ponce de León, San Juan.
Thursday & Friday: 5pm-10pm
Saturday & Sunday: 11am-4pm
No matter how much time you spend there, you’ll find there are a plethora of great places to visit in Puerto Rico and activities that also help the local economy to thrive. And, if it’s anything like my recent visit, you’ll find it all wrapped up in a wonderful warm Caribbean welcome.
La Concha Beach Resort Hotel
During my visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico, I stayed at La Concha Beach Resort. As the name suggests it is located right on the beach and at breakfast each morning my views over the glistening Caribbean Sea were exceptional. What a great way to start the day!
La Concha is modern, bright, airy, and lively and offers a good quality amenities, bars, and dining options. My room was very spacious, with great facilities and a generous balcony, not all rooms are sea-facing – mine wasn’t – but it was very comfortable.
La Concha Beach Resort Hotel can be found at:
1077 Ashford Avenue, San Juan 00907
Tel: +1 787 721 7500
Getting to Puerto Rico
I flew into Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in the capital of Puerto Rico, San Juan, on a direct flight from Orlando, Florida, in just under three hours. There are no direct flights to Puerto Rico from the UK, but you can get there in 13.5 hours with a stopover at New York’s JFK airport.