Puerto Rico wasn’t on my shortlist. For no particular reason, it just hadn’t occurred to me yet. But when Julianne told me about her upcoming trip — the bioluminescent bays, island hopping and blue brick streets, I butted in and asked if she wanted company. And that is how, after a four-year gap, we finally took a trip together again!
I didn’t do much research before this trip, so here are 13 helpful travel tips when visiting Puerto Rico that I think will be helpful to you should you decide to visit this beautiful Caribbean island. For those of you who like all of the dirty details, Julianne wrote up our full eight-day itinerary for visiting Puerto Rico just for you!
If you are a U.S. citizen, you do not need your passport for Puerto Rico; it is an unincorporated U.S. territory – That’s a bonus tip!
Where should I go when visiting Puerto Rico?
There are many beautiful places in Puerto Rico, which is a great reason to rent a car. The island is small enough that you can explore many parts of it in a short amount of time. We explored Old San Juan, Fajardo, El Yunque and the island of Vieques.
Puerto Rico isn’t just one island; it’s an archipelago with more than 100 islands. The two most popular to visit if you leave the mainland are Vieques and Culebra. We chose Vieques for its array of beaches and the famous Mosquito Bay. Mosquito Bay is considered the most vibrant bioluminescent bay in the world! It was quite magical. Culebra is touted as “the anti-tourist” spot, smaller, less flashy and quieter than Vieques. If I were to go back again, I’d definitely book some time there.
Should I rent a car when visiting Puerto Rico?
Do you have to? No. You can use taxi or Uber, especially if you stay in Old San Juan and don’t want to venture too far. We even met people who taxied to Cieba, where you catch the ferry to Vieques. I knew I wanted to go to El Yunque, and we also wanted to stay in Fajardo the night before we went to Vieques, so it made sense to rent a car.
I found a decent deal through Enterprise. I have had an Enterprise Plus Membership for years and love their perks. Sometimes it pays to pick a brand and be brand loyal. They came in with the best price for a week’s car rental over all other brands. The traffic in Puerto Rico can be intimidating, but if you have driven in any major city, you can handle it! Just stay alert and make sure you have rental car insurance. If you haven’t rented many cars, I suggest reading our car rental tips piece.
What should I know about the San Juan Airport when visiting Puerto Rico?
Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport is easy to navigate. I don’t check bags, but Julianne does, and she had no issues getting her checked back quickly. As you exit baggage claim, there may be people with TAXI signs. These are legitimate; they will take you to get a taxi. I thought they were scammers, so I passed them by and went to the taxi stand outside. I gave the taxi stand attendant the address of where I was going; he told me how much it would cost and directed me toward a white van which was my taxi. The driver didn’t seem certain where we were going, but we found our way. The two taxis I took were cash only.
If you want to take a ride-share from the airport, you will find a ride-share waiting area just to your right, a short way down from baggage claim. Look for numbered pillars; ride share is 16_19. There are little benches for waiting.
When you depart from the airport, you must go through the Department of Agriculture screening as soon as you enter the airport, so don’t try to pack any cool plants with you! After that screening, you will head to TSA. I have TSA Pre-Check and sailed through in less than five minutes at around 5:45 a.m. for my 7 a.m. flight.
Do I need cash, and what is the currency in Puerto Rico?
Puerto Rico uses the U.S. dollar, and I recommend bringing some cash. I brought $300 and came home with $150, so I didn’t use it much, but I was glad to have it when I needed it. I used it mostly for taxis and tipping. I was able to use my credit card everywhere.
How should I choose accommodations when visiting Puerto Rico?
We stayed in apartments via Booking.com and Airbnb, two boutique hotels, and one “close to the airport — didn’t think it mattered how nice it was” hotel.
What to look for when booking: If a review says “noise” in any capacity, it means loud. I usually ignore any reviews about noise because while I am a light sleeper at home, I typically sleep like a baby when I’m traveling, and I’m not super sensitive to “city” noise. Puerto Rico is just on a different level regarding noise, so read the reviews carefully. I’d also pack earplugs and possibly even one of those cool over-the-ear headphone headbands.
The apartment we booked through Old San Juan Rentals was one of 15 properties they have. We got the address of our apartment at 3 p.m. on the day of check-in. I had missed an email after booking that let me know the address on our booking was not where we were staying and that we would get our accommodation information the day of. I’m guessing this is probably common with the volume of apartments for rent in Old San Juan, so read everything carefully.
Our last two nights were in the Condado section of San Juan, and I loved our hotel there; the area was much quieter. I don’t know how much nightlife there is compared to Old San Juan, but I appreciate a good night’s sleep!
Do I need to know Spanish when visiting Puerto Rico?
The predominant language in Puerto Rico is Spanish, but many people speak English.
I always do my best to learn and use basic phrases in the local language.
I feel it is always respectful to greet people in their language, and often they will reply in their language. That is where my proficiency ends, but the attempt to use basic phrases is often appreciated.
On this trip, a waiter gave me the following advice after I greeted him in Spanish. After seeing that past “Hola,” I was out of my depth; he gently said, “If you speak to me in Spanish, I will reply in Spanish. I love my heritage, and I love my language. But if you do not speak Spanish, say hello in English, then we will know to speak to you in your language, and that is fine.” He was kind, and I took his words to heart.
Where do I park in Old San Juan?
Do not even attempt to park on the streets of Old San Juan. The traffic is backed up for blocks and blocks, the streets are narrow, and parking is limited. Ask at your accommodations where the best place to park is. We chose the public parking lot of La Puntilla; it was $3 per day.
I made a big error, however! I didn’t read the signage carefully when I parked. The parking lot had government-employee and public parking spaces, and I accidentally parked in the employee section. I don’t know why that section of the lot was open when I parked, but on the day we were leaving, that section was roped off with orange barrels and thick metal chains.
Luckily, the chains weren’t locked to anything but tied in knots, so after we paid (and tried to ask the unempathetic parking lot attendant how to get out) we untied them, removed the orange barrels, moved our car and replaced the chains and barrels. It was comical — in retrospect! It was a real Lucy and Ethel moment. (Did that age me?)
Take a camera when visiting Puerto Rico; it’s beautiful.
Puerto Rico is a photographer’s dream. The vibrant colors, the blue brick streets of Old San Juan, the chickens and roosters and the city’s energy all beg to be photographed. I couldn’t put down my camera. We only had two days in Old San Juan, and I shot close to 500 photos. The most stunning photo opp for me was the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery; this stunning, bleached white cemetery is listed in Atlas Obscura. Beautiful and haunting, it sits perched on the edge of the sea. We had to shoot through the gates, as we got there after 3 p.m. when it randomly closed. That was a real disappointment.
Book early when visiting Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico is a popular destination! We booked our accommodations about six weeks before travel, and our choices were dwindling even tho there were a lot of places to stay.
Book ahead if you plan to take the ferry to Vieques or Culebra. We found the ferry process pretty easy to navigate, and I’ve written a full piece on the ferry experience so you have all of the details, but you have to book your tickets to ensure passage.
Hiking in El Yunque is limited on some trails, requiring reservations. And securing an ATV in Vieques is impossible without an advance RSVP.
Puerto Rico is loud.
As mentioned above, Puerto Rico is not a sleepy island. There are many places where noise is an issue, and if you are sensitive to sounds, bring earplugs when visiting San Juan.
Google ”Is San Juan loud?” and many articles pop up.
We stayed in Old San Juan, and our apartment was above a store. At 10 a.m., music started blasting from the store below and ran until 10 p.m. Once nighttime hit, it didn’t get quieter for long. Trucks with booming sound systems cruise the streets, garbage and recycling trucks start picking up from the restaurants, and revelers make their noisy way home from bars. Even the air conditioning inside the apartment, which ran nonstop, was loud. I’ve stayed in many big cities and never experienced anything like it.
What is sargassum?
It’s decomposing seaweed, the foulest thing I have ever smelled in my entire life. We arrived in Fajardo, excited to check out a little seaside restaurant and catch up on work. We exited our car and without exaggeration, I started to dry heave. This phenomenon hits many tropical places, and you need to be aware that the beautiful place you are excited to see might be having an episode. Like most things related to nature, you can’t predict it. We went through it to get into our kayaks for both of our bioluminescent tours, and it was really freaking gross.
Level your expectations for bioluminescent tours.
Back to that whole “nature is unpredictable” thing: Here is what I had in my head about the bioluminescent bay. Picture a lightning bug. (If you can’t picture a lightning bug, you might refer to them as fireflies. If you’re lost, you’re from a country that doesn’t have them, and you’ve missed out on one of the best parts of childhood.)
Anyway, you know how bright they are, right? They are BRIGHT. That is bioluminescence that lights up their little butts. I pictured a whole bay of THAT. The bay in Fajardo had a great tour company, and the kayaking was beautiful. Once we waded through the sargassum and got into our kayaks, we paddled into a channel and made our way through mangroves to the bay as sunset hit. It was magical.
But back to that bioluminescence.
I want you to picture the sparks from flint when you strike it. You blink, and you miss it. That is what the bioluminescence looked like this particular night. It was still cool — just not a “sea of lightning bugs” cool.
The bay in Vieques, Mosquito Bay, is the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world, and it was cool to view through our clear boat. That tour operator was much less impressive, not really having to do an excellent job with any aspect of the tour since, you know, that whole “greatest in the world” factor. There was sargassum there too.
Should you visit Puerto Rico?
Yes. I’m glad I joined Julianne on her trip and visited Puerto Rico. It’s a spunky place with a lot of pride, and I’m glad I got to take in the vibe. If you are looking for a good time, Puerto Rico is calling!
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