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What to Know Before You Go to Puerto Rico

What to Know before You Go To Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com


Other than a few mentions in history class, I'd never given Puerto Rico much thought before I headed that way with my family. It was an island that the U.S. sort-of-kind-of-not-really owns, and it was in the Caribbean.

Thus ends my pre-trip knowledge of Puerto Rico. (I promise that I do a much better job of researching travel locales these days.)

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When I got there, I was amazed to find that the island was not really like any of the other Caribbean islands I'd visited: it had this unusual flavor that made it hard to place as American or Hispanic. It's just it's own carefree, history-packed, insanely gorgeous self. 

If you're headed to PR for the first time, here are a few things that you should know to make your taste of island life easy and fun:

Pretty much everyone in the tourism industry is bilingual (English and Spanish), so if you're staying in San Juan, Condado Beach, or Fajardo, you'll find it easy communicate. Even though most natives' first language is Spanish, the majority of Puerto Ricans know enough English to help you with whatever you need. Most television programing is also in English, though you will run into commercials in Spanish and English.

Viejo San Juan (the historic district) is compact enough that you can walk to all of the major sites including the Catedral de San Juan Bautista and Castillo San Felipe del Morro. If you're not up to walking, there is a free trolley that will take you around the area. If you're going to San Juan, a leisurely jaunt through the streets of the historic area is a must.
What to Know before You Go To Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com
From L to R: My mom and dad near the waterfront; a pedestrians only area downtown; and me pretending to be a monkey (note: hanging from a tree is ill-advised, as I fell out of said tree two seconds after the photo was taken.)

Condado Beach is a popular spot for accommodations and entertainment. Only a short taxi drive (less than ten minutes) away from the heart of historic San Juan, Condado Beach has multiple high rise hotels like the Caribe Hilton where I stayed [read my review here], casinos, and spas. If you're interested in seeing more of Puerto Rico than just San Juan, Condado Beach is a great base for exploring the northeastern side of the island.

What to Know before You Go To Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com
Condado Beach area as seen from the Caribe Hilton


Make sure to try the local food. The fried plantains (including the delicious fried plantain dish mofongos) and asopao are delicious and can be found all over the island!

What to Know before You Go To Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com
Ensalada y pollo con arroz at a local cafe. Yum.




Puerto Rico isn't very big. Don't feel like you need to stay confined to the area just around San Juan--if you head straight south across the island from San Juan, you'll hit Ponce in just about 2 hours. And if you head west from San Juan to Mayaguez, you'll reach the western most tip of the island also in about two hours. So, rent a car and take a leisurely road trip around PR!

What to Know before You Go To Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com
Get away from San Juan, and you can see one of the two rainforests in the U.S.!


The residents have strong opinions on their relationship with the continental U.S. If you want to hear some interesting perspectives on American policy and government, ask a Puerto Rican what he or she thinks about becoming the 51st state. Some are strongly opposed, while some would invite the move, but the reasoning behind both sides can jump start a heated discussion across the island.

There aren't any all-inclusive properties on the island. Unlike most of the other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico currently does not have an all-inclusive property (like a Sandals or a Beaches). There are certainly large facilities (like El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo), but they're just big hotels with on-site spas, restaurants, and activities. You'll pay a la carte for the parts you use.

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If you're interested in laying by the beach during your Puerto Rican vacation, make sure to do your research before you book a hotel. Because of the currents near San Juan, many of the hotels only have pools--and no ocean access. Even the famed El Conquistador Resort has to boat their guests over to a private island and beach. There are many unspoiled beaches over on the island of Vieques, and there are some beautiful beaches on the southern and western parts of Puerto Rico. Or, you could do as the locals do, and rent a boat to explore the hundreds of tiny uninhabited islands that ring Puerto Rico.

What to Know before You Go To Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com
My sister and I enjoying the beautiful Caribbean water on our boat outing.
Have you ever visited Puerto Rico? What was your favorite part?

This post contains affiliate links. If you choose to book through the above links, I will receive a small percentage with no added cost to you.

El Yunque Rainforest, Puerto Rico

El Yunque Rainforest, Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com

After our eventful trip to the Bacardi factory and a relaxing day out on the water, my family and I decided that we needed to get our rears in gear and actually take in some of the history and culture that Puerto Rico had to offer. 

I'm one of those strange types of travelers who doesn't feel like I've experienced a place until I've gotten out and talked to the people there, walked on the streets, and poked around in at least a few major (and lots of minor!) attractions. Thankfully, my travel buddies on this trip (my parents and my sister) were of the same mind, so we headed out to Puerto Rico's El Yunque rainforest. 

Located about half an hour from our hotel on Condado Beach (just outside of Old San Juan), the rainforest is actually located inside the larger El Yunque National Forest. 

And, fun fact o' the day: it's only one of two rainforests on U.S. soil. The other, as inquiring minds may like to know, is in Alaska of all places. The Tongass rainforest there is a temperate one. Not all rainforests have to be in tropical places, as it as more to do with their precipitation rate and structural composition. 

I know. My mind was blown when I learned that, too. 

So, back to the PR rainforest. We'd booked a tour through the concierge at the Caribe Hilton, so the tour van picked us up at the hotel and took us into the forest. As we were approaching the edge of El Yunque, we began to see more densely packed tropical plants and trees. Then, just as we entered the forest, we saw this beautiful little waterfall on the side of the road:

El Yunque Rainforest, Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com
At La Coca Falls
La Coca Falls are open to anyone driving by, so we all hopped out for a quick picture. There were plenty of kids splashing in the falls, but, since we were hiking later that day, we decided to skip the possibility of getting squishy shoes. 
We came down 191 past La Coca Falls, stopped at the Visitors' Center, and then headed into the forest via the El Yunque Trail.
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We headed further into the forest to the visitors' center, where our tour guide went in to get tickets for us while we browsed the literature available to learn more about the forest. 

El Yunque Rainforest, Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com

And then, into the forest we headed! As we walked along, our guide explained to us that the Puerto Rican frog, the coqui, makes its home within the forest. We saw several of them on the plants while walking, and they were so tiny. I also inquired as to the presence of snakes in El Yunque (because when you're in a hate war with an entire species, you don't let your guard down for a second!) and was told that while there are snakes in the rainforest, they're all non-poisonous.

At least, I know that, if a snake fell out of a tree and landed on me there, I'd die from heart failure rather than poisoning. You know, it's the small things in life sometimes that make me happy.

We hiked along the El Yunque trail (the least creatively named of the trails in the forest) until we arrived at the Las Picachos trail and headed to the tower at the end of that trail. There were so many stairs to the top (but, thankfully, I've had practice climbing the lighthouse stairs on the islands back home), and the views from the top were completely worth the huffing and puffing.
El Yunque Rainforest, Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com
My sister at the top of the Los Picachos Tower. Since I'm always the one with a camera in my hands, I don't get too many pictures of myself!
El Yunque Rainforest, Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com

The excursion to El Yunque from San Juan took us about half a day, but, in my opinion, it was a half day well spent. You can walk any of the trails there for free if you'd like to go self-guided, though there's also a $5 per person forest ranger-led tour once a week. I'd recommended stopping at the Visitors' Center ($4 to enter) to learn more about the species you'll see and the history of the park.  

While the trails do vary in intensity, the path that we took was pretty easy and gently sloped up to the tower. Highly recommended if you're visiting the east coast of Puerto Rico!

When you travel, do you include nature walks or trails into your trips? What national forests have you visited?

Pretty as a Postcard: Boating in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com

Oh, Puerto Rico. You are ridiculously pretty. For all of my readers who are thoroughly tired of snow and ice and would like nothing better than to sit on a beach with an icy drink in your hand, this post goes out to you.

After lounging around the hotel and visiting the Bacardi factory, my family and I decided that we needed a day in the sun to more fully experience the tropical island aspect of Puerto Rico. 

While I'm the ultimate history and book lover, even I can't resist a boat ride on turquoise water. You'd have to be crazy to stay inside museums or the hotel the entire time you're in PR! 

Thanks to the helpful concierge at the Caribe Hilton, we booked a cruise around the waters just off San Juan during our third day on the island. The cost of the cruise included unlimited rum punch, so, even though it was 10 in the morning and our parents were hanging out with us, my sister and I proceeded to sample the wares. 

We were on vacation, so the usual rules didn't apply. 

Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com

For the next three and a half hours, we puttered around the blue waters of western Puerto Rico. We didn't go much other than drink rum punch, bob our heads to the onboard music (as none of us are big dancers), swim in the water at each of our stops, and bask in the sunshine.

No one was worried about the time or work or when we needed to be back at the hotel. It was as if, for a few hours, the world just slowed down and we were able to relish in the most basic of things.

Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com

Clearly, we weren't the only ones with the same idea, as there were boats all over the place. The vast majority of the boats weren't filled with visitors, though--they were locals just enjoying their insanely gorgeous home.

Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com

At one of the islands, we all got out and swim/waded to the shore to frolic on the beach. We wandered along, finding shells and enjoying the sunshine. I found this tiny friend who was more than happy to part ways.

Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com

After bidding adios to my crabby little friend, we headed back to the boat for the next stop. The boat couldn't pull all the way up onto the sand because doing so would kill the motor, so we had to wade about 40 feet in waist deep water and then swim another 20 or so feet in 8 foot water.

About the time that the water got too high for us to wade in, my sister and I started swimming, and I saw something moving every so slightly in the water directly in front of us. I started treading water to get a better look at it, and I started panicking a little when I realized what it was.

SEA SNAKE, PEOPLE. SEA SNAKE.

I quickly told my sister to stop swimming in order to give this (nearly translucent) snake a wide berth. Amber, who hates snakes as much as I do, heard the word "snake" and tried to climb on top of my shoulders.

Now, I ask you, what good would I be to anyone drowned!? And how is trying to drown me going to save her from the sea snake!?

We all made it back onto the boat without any additional mishaps, near drownings, or sea snake encounters, and went on to enjoy the rest of our day (sans snakes or any other creepy wildlife).

Overall, our boating excursion was so relaxing that I think we all went back and took naps. Vacation will do that to you.

Have you ever been out on a local boat tour like this? What's your favorite tropical destination?

Sun, Fun, and Mint Mojitos: Bacardi Factory Tour, Puerto Rico

Sun, Fun, and Mint Mojitos: Bacardi Factory Tour, Cantaño, Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com

While on our Puerto Rican adventure, my parents, sister, and I decided to venture away from our hotel one day and over to the Bacardi Factory Tour in Cantaño. We all love learning about behind the scenes stuff on factory tours, so, even though we're not the biggest drinkers, we decided to devote half a day to learning about rum production. 

As the crow flies, the factory isn't far from downtown San Juan, but there's a big bay that you've got to either go across or around. For our trip there, we decided on the route across, and took the ferry over to Cantaño. The ride was uneventful, and it wasn't until we got to the taxi stand on the Cantaño side of the bay that we got our first taste of strange taxis. 

I should interject here that--up until this point--we'd taken many taxis to and from our hotel into Old San Juan without any issues. 

We waited and waited at the taxi rank for someone to come get us. On the other side of the bay in San Juan, there are always taxis lined up ten deep, but here, all we saw were (figurative) tumbleweeds. It was honestly kind of creepy, as the area we were in was all residential but it was completely deserted. No one was walking a dog or loitering. It was just us, four sunburnt Americans, hanging out on a curb. 

After 20 minutes, we were about to climb back onto the ferry and call it a day when a taxi came up. FINALLY. We piled in and told the driver we were going to the Bacardi Factory. He didn't seem too happy about taking us there, but he took our money and sped off. 

Only to dump us a good 300 feet from the Factory entrance. 

There was a nice roundabout that we could've been dropped off in--it was specifically for visitors arriving by taxi--but no way that was happening. The driver scowled at us as we got out and then screeched off the minute we were all out. 

When we arrived inside the factory property, we were greeted by a big white tent--and best of all on that hot, humid day--we were each given tickets for two mint mojitos when we showed our IDs. Sweet heavens to Betsy, those things were good! 


Sun, Fun, and Mint Mojitos: Bacardi Factory Tour, Cantaño, Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com

We were considering going back and paying for another (the first two were free with the factory tour) but it was time to head inside the main building. 

After slogging another ten miles (or so it felt) through the humidity, we made it into the wonderful air conditioning of the factory. You'd think that, after living in South Carolina my entire life, I'd be used to crazy humidity. Alas, it is something to be endured since it seems that I still have not acclimated after 3 decades here. 


Sun, Fun, and Mint Mojitos: Bacardi Factory Tour, Cantaño, Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com

The tour was really interesting: we learned about the history of rum farming and production on the island, and how rum was a crucial element of trade as early as the 1500s. We also learned a bit about popular drinks that are made with rum, such as the Cuba Libre (a fancy name for rum and Coke). Sadly, no additional samples were made available to the tour attendees. 

After the tour finished, we walked around the property, enjoying the late afternoon sun.


Sun, Fun, and Mint Mojitos: Bacardi Factory Tour, Cantaño, Puerto Rico | CosmosMariners.com
Me and my sister outside of the Bacardi Factory
But we couldn't loiter forever--and we had dinner plans!--so we headed back to the taxi stand outside the factory to find a ride back to the ferry. 

We'd just gotten there when a 10 passenger white van pulled up. Imagine the oiliest, sketchiest man that you can. Now, add more oil and more sketch, and you're starting to get the picture on who jumped out of the taxi. 

Six other people from our tour were also looking to get to the ferry, so we all agreed to go together. How bad could it be? It's not like Sketchy Oil Man could kidnap all of us, right?

Over the next 10 minutes, we were all treated to delightful (read: gag-inducing) tales of the taxi driver's bravado and supposedly ample attributes in the boudoir (to put it nicely). I'll spare you the details, and you can thank me later. 

When he stopped the van at the ferry port, all 10 of us scattered like flies. Clearly, I wasn't the only one who got major creeps from this guy. What was with the taxi drivers in Cantaño that day!?!

Other than Mr. Sour Driver and Mr. Pervert Driver, we really enjoyed our jaunt to the Bacardi Factory. I wouldn't mind heading back on another trip to Puerto Rico, but I think I might rent a car if I was going again!

Have you been to a factory tour of any kind? What's your best weirdo taxi driver story? Share with me! :)

Puerto Rican Paradise: Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican Paradise: Caribe Hilton Hotel in San Juan | CosmosMariners.com

When my parents, sister, and I headed to Puerto Rico a few years back, I was in a much different place than I am now.

I was getting ready to be engaged to my now-husband (only I didn't know that at the time). I didn't have my darling daughter. I was starting my last year of grad school. 

But one thing hasn't changed in that time: my unwavering love of anywhere that has palm trees, turquoise waters, and perfectly white sands. 

When my mom found a super deal on the Caribe Hilton in San Juan, we jumped on the chance to head down to Puerto Rico for a few days. Even though I had to leave early for my adjunct professor training (the job that kept me from eating ramen noodles every night of my grad school days), I knew I had to go with them. 

So, I packed up my beloved Vera Bradley Night Owl weekender bag (which is still with me, five years later), and headed off into what was I found was paradise. 

We took a taxi from the San Juan airport and headed straight to the hotel. When we got there, I was amazed to find that the entire lobby is open air. 

Puerto Rican Paradise: Caribe Hilton Hotel in San Juan | CosmosMariners.com
The lobby looking back towards the ocean and the pool.
As in there aren't any actual front doors. 

And there's a tropical bird in the lobby. 

And all day long, you can hear the sound of palm trees rattling in the warm breeze. Because there aren't any doors!

Needless to say, I was entranced before we'd even checked in. 

Our rooms weren't quite ready, so we took a quick look around the hotel. One of my favorite parts about the property was the San Geronimo Fort that's located just a few hundred feet from the lobby on the Condado Lagoon. Guests aren't allowed to tour it, but it's so cool to know that it's a part of the landscape.
Puerto Rican Paradise: Caribe Hilton Hotel in San Juan | CosmosMariners.com

When we headed up to our rooms, they were pretty standard for a Hilton or Hampton Inn: two double beds, lots of neutrals, a tv, a shower. I did like that we had a view of the fort and the Lagoon.


Over the four days we stayed here, we explored most of what the hotel had to offer including the gorgeous pool area, the onsite grill (standard burgers and fries), and the beach area. I call it the beach for lack of a better word for a a place that has lots of sand and palm trees--but, unlike most beaches, you can't get into the water here. Because of the currents, there's no entry into the water, so your sunning and playing options are limited to the hotel pool unless you want to head off property.

Puerto Rican Paradise: Caribe Hilton Hotel in San Juan | CosmosMariners.com

Clearly, I didn't mind the lack of a proper beach. Give me a good book, and I could stay here all day!

The hotel's been around for a long time--it opened in 1949--and it claims that the pina colada was created at its bar. Kudos to them for finding a way to fit the taste of the tropics into a blender!

One thing that I didn't love about the hotel was the fact that it was a few miles away from Old San Juan. That wouldn't be a problem if I'd gone to the hotel just to sunbathe and relax, but you know that I'm not much into relaxing if there are sites to see! We had to take a taxi back and forth every time we wanted to go into the historic section to eat or tour, which ended up racking up a pretty big bill for four people for four days. 

Because of where it was located (away from downtown), there weren't too many food options other than the grill and the bar in the hotel. There was this one Subway just across from the entrance, but I'm not too willing to go to a brand new place with awesome cuisine and eat cold cuts the entire time. 

So, minor complaints, but both worth considering when choosing your San Juan accommodations. 

Would I go back? Yes, if I was planning to hang around the hotel more than I did on this trip. The views were gorgeous and the property was nice. If I wanted to explore more of the old city, I'd probably head closer into town, though. 

Have you ever been to Puerto Rico? If so, tell me where you stayed and what you did! If not, is this a place on your bucket list?