Puerto Rico‘s East Island has many attractions that can be explored on day trips from the San Juan area, but sometimes a day just isn’t enough. To really experience the best of this side of the island you must rent a car, book overnight accommodations, and strike out with a sense of adventure.
In about a half hour you’ll come to the popular beach hotels near the town of Rio Grande. This area is an ideal home base if you want a bit of luxury. Choices range from a splurge at the St Regis Bahia Beach Resort to a mid-priced room at either Meliá Coco Beach or Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort. All three are water-front properties with lovely grounds, excellent facilities, and a wide array of amenities. If you’re on a tighter budget, drive a few miles farther east to the towns of Luquillo or Fajardo. Here you will find basic rooms, some on the water, for $100 or less.
El Yunque National Forest and Mosquito Bay are the must-see attractions in this region. If you have time, plan a day trip or overnight visit to one of the nearby outer islands. Ferries leave from Fajardo for both Vieques and Culebra. Each island has its own popular sites.
The little town of Luquillo is the perfect spot for settling into island time with a tropical drink and local cuisine. The Frontage Road between the beach and PR 3 (Calle Marginal) is lined with food kiosks. Don’t be put off by the scruffy appearance of the concrete stalls and little cafes. The health department inspects and licenses them, and you will find delicious low-priced drinks, snacks, and meals. You’ll also find several little shops among the kiosks where you can find souvenirs, beach towels, and t-shirts.
At sunset, walk along the sand at Luquillo Beach (Balneario Monserrate), one of the finest beaches in Puerto Rico.
Plan to spend day two exploring El Yunque National Forest. Get supplies for a picnic at one of the shops or bakeries along PR 3 before you turn off toward the park on Route 191. Stop at El Portal Visitor Center to get an overview of the forest and pick up a map and information on hiking trails. You can drive through much of the park but stop often to hike and take in the views. One of the most popular destinations is La Mina Falls, which requires a short, steep hike along La Mina Trail. Once you get to the falls, you’ll want to dip into the natural pool and splash in the cascading water.
Dinner is at one of the restaurants near your hotel. Fern, at the St Regis Bahia Beach Resort, is island-dressy, pricey, and worth it. For more modest budgets, try Mi Vida, a casual cafe just off PR 3 at 5 Calle Principal in Rio Grande. The menu features burgers as well as empanadas and mofongo. Desperados, on highway 186 off PR 3, serves steaks, seafood, and island favorites.
Use your last full day on the east end of Puerto Rico to enjoy Flamenco Beach on the outer island of Culebra. It is known for its shallow turquoise waters, a mile-long stretch of white sand, and safe swimming areas. You get there by driving to the small town of Fajardo and taking a ferry to Culebra. It’s well worth the trip.
You may prefer to take a somewhat longer ferry ride from Fajardo to the island of Vieques. This is the home of evening boat tours of Mosquito Bay, the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world. During the day, you can snorkel and swim at Sun Bay, a Blue Flag Balneario with bathrooms, food vendors, and lifeguards. Most of the island is preserved as the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge where wild horses run free.
Ferry service to the outer islands is inexpensive but it can be crowded with locals going to and from work, and the schedule is sometimes erratic. Consider flying to either Culebra or Vieques from a small airport in the town of Ceiba. (Air service to both islands also is available from the international airport in San Juan.)