Puerto Rico Itinerary for solo female travelers
Puerto Rico, the caribbean island which doubles up as a US territory, is a travel destination near and dear to my heart because this is the first place I visited solo (not once, but twice) and loved every minute of it. Both times I stayed in San Juan, the capital city and although I spend some time in the more modern Condado area with beachfront hotels due to the conference I was attending, the majority of my stay was in San Juan’s picturesque old town when I ventured out on my own. In this Puerto Rico itinerary, I will be detailing all the attractions that I visited as a solo traveler, all of which I felt incredibly safe exploring. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I did and visit the island which definitely needs some tourism money since it is still recovering from the horrible aftermath of Hurricane Maria. For details on how badly the island has been decimated, read my blogger friend Lola’s post right here on life in PR after the hurricane. For more inspiration on traveling solo, read this handy solo female travel guide by another blogger friend of mine.
Puerto Rico itinerary: A day at the beach
People flock to San Juan and Puerto Rico for the pristine beaches dotting the island. I am not a beach bunny at all, but there are several public beaches in the Condado area that are very popular with people. If you stay in one of the adjoining resorts (such as the San Juan Marriott), you will also get your own umbrella and beach loungers. Here are the top ten beaches in Puerto Rico for those interested in lazing away under the sun, just make sure to lather yourself with sunscreen since you will be completely exposed to the blazing sun.
Things to do in Puerto Rico: Bioluminescent bay
For the adventurous soul, kayaking in the bioluminescent bay (named after the bioluminescent bacteria feeding on special plankton growing there) is another must do item for your Puerto Rico itinerary since Puerto Rico is one of the few places in the world with a healthy bio bay. This activity welcomes solo travelers as well where you are simply paired up with another person or a guide. In fact, Puerto Rico is blessed with three such bays, with the brightest one being the Mosquito bay in Vieques, followed by the second brightest in Fajardo (where I kayaked during my first visit) and the last one, not so well maintained due to huge influx of tourists, in Lajas. Since these organisms are in a protected ecosystem, it takes quite a bit of effort to get to the actual waterbody and that means crossing swamps and lagoons, in the darkness of the night. I am not a very outdoors person, but found that the effort was really worth the sight and so highly recommend this moderately strenuous activity. Please contact a good tour group that is responsible for this kayaking adventure and follow all their instructions. You do not need prior kayaking expertise to join, but it’s best to go in as a pair or in a group (I went alone but a kind lady in group joined me, at any rate you will be paired with someone). Tours start at sunset and also later in the evening, and you are picked up from your hotel if you indicate that transportation is needed. Please wear a bathing suit below your clothes or bring a dry towel since you get wet considerably in the lower part of your body depending on the venue, for example, when I went kayaking in Fajardo, the bio-bay was located at the mouth of a very narrow lagoon and so we had to wade our kayaks through a swamp, due to which our legs and lower parts of the body got wet. This may not be the case everywhere. Vieques Outdoors and Eco Tours Puerto Rico are two responsible kayaking groups to tour with.
Puerto Rico attractions: Exploring San Juan’s Old Town
Old Town San Juan (read this guide on San Juan beaches and other attractions) was the highlight of my Puerto Rico travel, not only because it appeared to be straight out of a coloring book but also because it is extremely navigable by foot and all the top attractions can be visited safely on your own. You can read my detailed blog post on major Old Town attractions as well as the best restaurants and cafes in San Juan.
Puerto Rico day trips: A guided tour to El Yunque rainforest
El Yunque rainforest is Puerto Rico’s national treasure since it is the only rainforest in the US National Forest system, and is maintained by the Federal forest service. The rainforest is protected and therefore plucking of leaves, fruits and flowers or causing any kind of damage is forbidden and against the law. The rainforest is a 30-35 min drive from Old Town and can either be viewed on your own (if you have a vehicle) or by a guided tour which I highly recommend if you do not drive but want to see this forest as part of your Puerto Rico itinerary. Although there are several options for the latter, I recommend Louie’s VIP tour (nothing pricey about this VIP tour as it includes transportation and is a mere $ 60 as compared to other tour options). Luis Robles (Louie) is the owner and guide of this tour and is a living encyclopedia on everything about the El Yunque rainforest. Once contacted by email and confirmed, you have to reconfirm by calling him again 1-2 days before your trip. Louie will pick you up from a place near your hotel (I met him at Plaza Colon) and then pick up other members of the group (our group included me and 10 others) and then he will head out for the rainforest.
If you visit Louie’s TripAdvisor review page, you might sees few negative reviews about Louie’s temper and his stickler attitude for being on time. I am punctual to the dot (even arrive early) when I am on a paid tour so as to not cause inconvenience to others, and I definitely don’t think it is a bad thing to be fussy about keeping time, specially when you managing a big group and are heading to a destination which gets crowded very soon! Louie was exactly 3 min late to pick us up, and even then he called us to let us know that he will be late. I give mad props to such professionalism! As for Louie’s temper, after having seen him deal so gracefully, patiently and humorously with an unexpectedly rambunctious crowd (7 chatty Jersey ladies who, perhaps, were a bit too hungover from their bar sojourns the night before) which also kept us waiting when we went in to pick them up, I can vouch for the falseness of those reviews. Just please don’t eat or drink in his car (that is a big NO NO). Not only was Louie very friendly, but he rattled off a lot of amazing trivia about Puerto Rico, the rainforest and everything else under the sun. He knows all the flowers, trees and every inch of the rainforest and reminded us time and again about how important it is to conserve and preserve the rainforest for future generations. He also told us fun facts about the forest such as there are no large mammals or predators inhabiting it since no animal that couldn’t be swept by the ocean or carried by the wind could have made it there. Similarly, the rain water flows away in strong currents and therefore there is no stagnant water for mosquitoes to breed, i.e. you cannot be bitten by one in the forest.
Our first stop was the visitor center where we watched a movie, narrated by Benicio Del Toro (native Puerto Rican Hollywood star and an Academy Award winner ) that was a documentary about the forest, its past and the present conservation efforts. The rainforest was called El Yuque by the native Taino people and then was renamed El Yunque because of the Spaniards’ mispronunciation. After Louie familiarized us with the flowers and shrubs nearby, he gave us instructions to the La Mina waterfalls, which we were to encounter after 445 steps/550 feet of descent. Due to the fragility of the ecosystem and to prevent damage to the flora, one should always stay on the paved path/trail. We got a fantastic view of the pot bellied man-mountain from atop the Yokahu Tower and then made our way to the waterfall.
We spent around 30 mins at the waterfall (I firmly stayed out of the water while those in bathing suit splashed around) and then made our way up 255 steps or so, firmly staying on the paved way, to get back to the parking lot where Louie was waiting for us. Famished, we made our way to one of the three food joints near the entrance of the rainforest. The food was good enough for our hungry stomachs (vegetarians ate rice, beans and cheese arepas) and there were plenty of fresh coconuts to quench our thirst. Finally, Louie dropped us off at our respective hotels and was kind enough to offer us help in case we needed any recommendations during our stay. I give two big thumbs up to this tour, which was made super enjoyable thanks to Louie!
What to see in Puerto Rico: Art Museum
Art lovers rejoice, because the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, is a luminescent gem of a place and your entry way into some of the most beautiful and jaw-dropping artistic exhibits from the dynamic art scene of this island for a mere entry free of $6.69! Enter into the fascinating world of Puerto Rico masters such as Rafael Tufiño (Puerto Rican artist and printmaker, known as the common man’s artist), Ramón Frade (his masterpiece “El Pan Nuestro de Cada Dia”/Our Daily Bread of a man holding a bunch of plantains symbolizes the spirit of Puerto Rico) and Francisco Oller who were influenced significantly by European art but remained true to their Puerto Rican roots. My favorite of all the displays was undoubtedly Tufiño’s gigantic mural “La Plena” where he paid homage to this Puerto Rican style of music (of African Origin) via visuals of different people (representing all the diverse races found on the island) and activities. It is a shame that the museum does not allow photography (even minus flash) because I badly wanted to photograph this masterpiece.
The museum, located in Santurce, has 5 floors and used to be the San Juan Municipal Hospital in the 1920s . It is also one of the largest art museums in the Caribbean. There are exhibits on the 3rd and fourth floor, while there is a beautiful sculpture garden with a serene koi pond once you walk out of the second floor. The second floor has a dedicated room for children’s activities and exhibits. This museum is a must visit for all art lovers and if you want a free visit, Wednesdays after 2 PM is free entry (that is what I saw in one of the signs posted, but please confirm). Outside of the museum, stands an enigmatic sculpture comprising of a giant smashing into a car. I dug into the internet and found out that the installation is by Thomas Dambo, who made this gigantic sculpture from broken pallets and wood chips scavenged from all over the island. Talk of recycling at its best! The defunct car was donated by a local man named Wilson, and a construction worker helped remake the car to fit the giant’s fist. The sculpture was originally built for the Santurce street art festival and post festivities found a permanent home with the MAPR. To get an in person view of this amazing sculpture and the many wonders of Puerto Rican art, do visit the museum.
This concludes my guide to solo travel in Puerto Rico and its many attractions, both in urban space and in the lap of nature that you can include in your Puerto Rico itinerary. I hope I could give you a flavor of the diversity of this Caribbean island to inspire your next visit. All these places are extremely safe to visit as a lone woman traveler, specially during the day and the bio bay tour providers pick you up and drop you at your hotel if you request so in your booking. I must add that I felt safe walking late in the evening in Old town as well, but please adopt common sense precautions if you are in the newer part of the capital and want to go partying, clubbing or hitting up the bars.