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Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico Itineraries

Perfect Day in Old San Juan

Puerto Rico’s West Side Story

A rhythmic fusion of rich culture, stunning scenery and endless summer

This US Commonwealth is a lush country with astonishing natural beauty. Superb beaches circle the coast and deep rain forest covers the interior mountains. Two Spanish forts guard the capital city of San Juan, and much of the small old town is a protected World Heritage site filled with elegant colonial buildings.

El Yunque National Forest, on the east end of the island, is the only tropical rain forest managed by the US Forest Service. Hikers and nature lovers enjoy exploring the fertile jungle, the 3,500-foot mountain and its two towering waterfalls.

Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city, sits on the southwest coast, a stretch of shoreline known as the Porta Caribe. The town is filled with historical treasures and has a relaxed artistic ambiance. Plaza Las Delicias is the city’s centerpiece and home to the well-known red-and-black striped fire station museum, Parque de Bombas. Buildings bordering the square are a whimsical mix of architectural styles including Spanish colonial and Art Deco. One of the most impressive structures is a performing arts center, Teatro La Perla, which was built in Neo-Classical style during the 1940s. Catch a ride on the open-air trolley for an overview of the town, and stop at one of the many eateries for a lunch or dinner. Plan to stroll the waterfront at sunset.

On the far west coast, Rincon is a laid-back beach town and surfing paradise. During the day, water sports are the main draw, but as the sun sets into the sea, everyone heads to the bars and restaurants and an active nightlife takes over. On Thursday evenings, Art Walk takes place on the town plaza. A band plays, artists display and sell their work, and visitors are welcome to join the locals from 6:00 pm-11:00 pm.

Other popular beach communities are on the little outer islands of Vieques and Culebra, just off Puerto Rico’s east coast. Vieques was controlled by the US military until 2003, and now the island is developing into a favorite vacation site.  The picturesque beaches are the main appeal, and visitors fall in love with the island’s lazy pace, forests filled with tropical birds, and wild horses roaming freely. At night, boat tours go out to explore Bio Bay, one of the world’s rare bio-luminescent bays. Accommodations range from luxury to basic.

Culebra is known for the outstanding stretch of beach called Playa Flamenco. The long, wide swath of white sand is popular with day trippers, and an adjacent campground entices visitors to stay overnight. Flamenco and neighboring beaches are part of the Culebra National Wildlife Refugea safe haven for sea turtles and marine birds.

When To Go

Zip off to Puerto Rico any time of the year. There’s something going on all the time, the weather is regularly humid and warm, and the San Juan airport is a major hub with service from dozens of international airlines. Hurricane season runs from June through November, so you may want to plan your trip outside that period.

High season runs from mid December until mid April. This is the time when airfares and room rates are at their peak. It’s also when the island is most crowded with tourists. Think about visiting during shoulder season, usually the months of May and November, when prices are typically less.

A week on the island will give you enough time to see the major attractions, enjoy the beaches and even take a day trip to one of the outer islands.  A weekend getaway may include time on the beach,  a few good meals at popular restaurants, and an evening of pub crawling.

How Much Time To Spend

A week on the island will give you enough time to see the major attractions, enjoy the beaches and even take a day trip to one of the outer islands. But, if you can manage more time, plan to stay 10 days and take your time ambling about the lesser visited sites.

A weekend getaway may include time on the beach,  a few good meals at popular restaurants, and an evening of pub crawling.

High and Low Season

Puerto Rico is a year-round destination, but visitors rush to the island during the winter months to escape the wet and cold at home. This makes mid-April to June the ideal time to visit; after the busy high season and before the summer rains begin. Fall also is a good option, say late October to mid-December; after the summer storm season and before the holiday crowds arrive. Throughout the year, you can expect daytime temperatures in the mid-80s.

Weather and Climate

Rain fall varies greatly from one side of the island to another, with the south side (Ponce) drier than the north (San Juan). Even during the wettest season, from April to November, it rarely rains all day, and showers tend to come in heavy, brief downpours.

The mountain areas are cooler than the coast, and evenings can be cool year round, especially near the water. Be sure to pack a sweater or light jacket.

Take hurricane season seriously, but not too seriously. Buy some travel insurance that covers weather-related cancellations, then forget about it. The season runs from June through November, but the island is rarely affected by a hurricane.

Events and Holidays

Puerto Rico is a US commonwealth and observes the traditional holidays of the United States. In addition, it observes nine local holidays when most banks and state agencies are closed.

January (1st): New Year’s Day

January (third Monday):  Martin Luther King Day

February (third Monday): Washington’s Birthday

Late March/early April: Good Friday Friday before Easter

Late March/early April: Easter Monday Monday after Easter

Eighth Monday after Easter : Whit Monday

May (last Monday): Memorial Day

July (4th): Independence Day

September (first Monday): Labor Day

October (second Monday): Columbus Day (aka Native American Day)

November (11th): Veteran’s Day

November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day

December (25th): Christmas

December (26th): Boxing Day

Check the web site QPPStudio.net for a current listing of this year’s holidays.

Time Zone

Puerto Rico is in the Atlantic Standard Time zone and does not observe daylight savings time.

What To Pack and Wear

Pack light.
Shorts, tropical shirts, sundresses, swimwear and a cover up is all you’ll need during the day.

Bring a sweater, wrap, or windbreaker for cooler evenings and breezy outings on the water.

If you plan to hit the finer restaurants, casinos and nightclubs, women should bring a sundress or lightweight pants and tops, plus a shawl or sweater. Men will need a collared shirt and lightweight slacks. Only the most luxurious places require a coat and tie. San Juan nightlife is a upscale affair, so dress comfortably, but appropriately.

Don’t forget plenty of sunscreen, sunglasses and a sun hat.

What it Costs

Expect to spend about US$100-US$200 per day per person for a vacation in Puerto Rico. Of course, the upper end is infinite, and boutique hotels or trendy resorts will add significantly to your expenses.

An good average is about $165 per person per day in San Juan; a bit less in an smaller town. If you go upscale, your average costs will be in the range of $300 per person per day.

Hotels will be your biggest expense at around $200 per night for a double room in a standard hotel. Boutique hotels and luxury resorts begin at about $600 per night for a suite during high season.

Tours, tickets, and activities can run $100 per day per person, but Puerto Rico has plenty of things to see and do that are inexpensive or free. Shoppers, foodies, and party people might want to up their credit limit on a card or two before they leave home.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in $US.

See & Do

N/A => Not applicable

Free

$ => Tickets less than $10 per person

$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person

$$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Sleep

$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double

$$ => Rooms $200 for a double

$$$ => Rooms $300 for a double

Eat

$ => Up to $15 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)

$$ => $16-22 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)

$$$ => $23 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)

Tours

$ => Tickets less than $10 per person

$$ => Tickets $11-25 per person

$$$ => Tickets $26 per person

Currency Converter

Since Puerto Rico is a commonwealth country of the United States, the official currency is the US dollar. However, don’t be surprised if you hear Puerto Ricans casually referring to the dollar as a peso.

The island has abundant ATMs and all dispense US dollars. In addition, major credit and debit cards are accepted in all but the most remote places or by street vendors.

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Fly the Friendly Skies

Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, it’s high. And when prices dip, what happens? You can’t get off work to travel. Sigh.

But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when there’s a deal, you’ll hear about it immediately via your inbox.

Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.

That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airline’s site. Why? Because some of their really great deals don’t show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts.

So it pays to be their ‘friend’ or subscribe to their e-mailings.

 Have Car, Will Travel

Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.

There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell ‘em what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill.

There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.

Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you”ll save with a typical week”s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)

Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day.

Insurance

Hopefully, your trip to Puerto Rico goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?

Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.

Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:

Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.

Medical — Health services in Puerto Rico are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.

Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.

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Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.

Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage. Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.

Do I need travel insurance?

If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If you’re traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, you’ll probably want some coverage “just in case” … no matter what.

Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.

How do I choose an insurance provider?

Do your homework — check around.

The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.

Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).

If you have pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.

Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.

The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the bindumedia.com – expert itineraries, infinite possibilities travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.

For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.

Exchange Rates and Currency

Currency

U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart.

The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.

Coins in wide circulation include pennies (1 cent), nickels (5 cents), dimes (10 cents), quarters (25 cents). The 50 cent and dollar coins are seen occasionally.

Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so plan to have $20s or smaller bills in hand.

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

ATMs

If you get money from an ATM machine, you may incur charges (often $2 or $3 per transaction). Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, U.S. banks will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets let you get a limited amount of “cash back” when paying for your goods — this is an easy way to get cash while on the go.

Credit Cards

Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout Puerto Rico. Don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling to Puerto Rico.

If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card — which doesn’t make sense if they are lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access.

Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that don’t offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration.

General guidelines include:

Restaurants:

For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than- stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many towns, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.

Oh, and one more complication:

Sometimes a tip is automatically included. But at least it probably will be itemized in plain sight on the bill.

Consider tipping servers with cash even when you pay your bill by credit card. It isn’t unusual for tips to be split among all employees or for management to take a cut off the top.

Hotels:

Most bell staff receive $1-$2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5-$10.

Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2-$3 per day and about $5 per day in higher end properties.

At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets, or simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Current etiquette calls for $10-$20 per person, per day for concierge help. Car valet staff expect $1-$2 for delivering you your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.

Other costs:

Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above.

Transportation

Puerto Rico is a major transportation hub for Caribbean islands. Getting to the island is easy; getting around is more complicated, unless you rent a car.

Getting There

Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) near San Juan is a major transportation hub in the Caribbean and the majority of flights to Puerto Rico land there.  Recent renovations to the 60-year-old buildings have made transiting through and laying over at the airport more pleasant. If you have a long wait between flights, look for The Lounge in Terminal C. Admittance is complimentary for select ticket holders, and other passengers can use the facility for a fee.

Direct flights from the US are offered by Delta, American, United, Southwest, and JetBlue.
Air Canada provides service from Canada.

Visitors staying west of the capital may want to fly directly into the smaller Rafael Hernandez International Airport (BQN)  in Aguadilla on JetBlue or United from New York, Newark or Orlando.

JetBlue also has flights from New York and Orlando into Ponce’s Mercedita Airport ( PSE) on the south coast.

Getting Around

Unless you plan to stay and play only in San Juan or the outer islands of Vieques and Culebra, you will want to rent a car. There are taxis and  públicos (public minibuses), but traveling by taxi is expensive and often inconvenient;  públicos serve the main towns and are usually crowded with locals.

Driving your rental car can be a hassle, but if you stick to back roads and highways along the coast you’ll avoid heavy traffic and impatient local drivers. Plan to rent from a major agency and be sure you have adequate insurance. Fender benders and car theft are common on the island.

The car rental agencies require you to have a driver’s license and a credit card. Some companies may accept debit cards, but ask when you make your reservation or call ahead to check.

Background

Just the Facts

Capital: San Juan
Official Languages: 
Spanish and English
Location:
Between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, east of the Dominican Republic.
Geographic coordinates: 
18°15’N, 66°30’W
Terrain:mostly mountains with coastal plain in the north; steep mountains to the sea on the west coast; sandy beaches along most coastal areas
Elevation: 
mean elevation: 856 f/261m; highest point: Cerro de Punta 4,390 f/1,338 m

 

History

A Quick Rundown of History

Christopher Columbus found native Tainos Indians living on the Caribbean island of Borinquen when he and his fellow explorers arrived in 1493. The island’s mountains were covered in dense forests; the shore was lined with soft white sand. A few smaller islands and cays floated off the northeast coast across a coral and fish filled sea. (Today, the main offshore islands are the popular vacation paradises of Vieques and Culebra.)

By 1508, Spanish colonists had renamed the island Puerto Rico (Rich Port) and, within a few years, San Juan was declared the capital. Spain built two massive forts on the waterfront to protect the new capital from invasion, and yet, the English briefly seized control of the island in the late 1500s, and the Dutch staged a successful invasion in 1625.

The Spanish were back in control when a coffee boom hit Puerto Rico in the 1700s, and plantations sprung up all over the island. In 1897, Spain granted the island independence, but only a year later, during the Spanish-American War, US troops moved in and made Puerto Rico a protectorate of the United States.

Today, the island is a self-governing commonwealth, as well as an American territory, and Puerto Ricans elect their own governor. A minority of the citizens dream of total independence. Others hope their island will become a true American state, like Hawaii and Alaska. But, the majority of Puerto Ricans are quite happy being US citizens living in a  free associated state, even though they cannot vote in federal elections and the island is not represented in Congress.

Culture

Culture Is a Mixed Bag

Puerto Ricans are ethnically diverse. A substantial proportion of the population immigrated from neighboring islands, and citizens are a well-blended mix of native Amerindian, African, European and North American heritage.  Spanish is the official language, and most residents also speak English.

While the island is exotic in many ways, visitors are well aware of  American influences. A modern highway system connects all the major cities, and American chain stores and restaurants line the well-paved roads in many towns. Out in the countryside, the US Forest Service manages the magnificent El Yunque National Park.

Etiquette

Use the same good manners you use at home.

Do say hello when you pass someone on the street, and be respectful when you ask for directions or help.

Don’t try an accent, and skip the street slang. You’ll just sound silly.

Do wear a cover-up over your swimsuit everywhere except on the beach or at a pool.

Don’t go topless or nude. Some islands have designated resorts or beaches for that sort of thing. Otherwise, it’s illegal.

Do put a towel down before you get into a taxi wearing a wet swimsuit.

Don’t snap a photo of anyone without asking permission. Ask someone on staff before taking a picture of merchandise in a shop or outdoor
stall.

Do tip appropriately, even generously. Most service providers count on tips as a major part of their salary.

Don’t complain about things that cannot be fixed: the weather, the price of food and other imported products, slow internet speed.

Do accept “island time.”  Relax. Breathe. Forget schedules. Expect delays.

Cuisine

Cocina Criolla (créole cooking) is the local term for Puerto Rican cuisine. It is a bit like Spanish, Cuban, and Mexican food, but cooks throw in African, Caribbean, and American twists. Local spices and produce add to the mix.

Religion

Puerto Ricans are predominantly Christian and follow a form of spirituality that spices traditional Catholicism with native and African beliefs that may include pagan superstitions. Visitors who wish to attend services will find a selection of churches, as well as a few synagogues and mosques.

Language

Spanish and English are the official languages, but most residents prefer to speak Spanish. English is used for all legal and most business matters, and basically, everyone working in tourism speaks English.