Where to Go: Regions of Puerto Rico
For an island spanning just over 9,000 square kilometers (3,500 sq. miles), Puerto Rico packs a punch. The island’s six unique regions comprise diverse topography and mesmerizing natural wonders that provide the exhilarating backdrop for once-in-a-lifetime adventures. Within just a few hours’ drive from vibrant San Juan, you can hike in a mystical cloud forest, surf the best waves in the Caribbean, experience rare bioluminescence, wander Taíno ruins and snorkel right offshore at some of the world’s best beaches. Fascinating cities engage history buffs and art lovers with beautifully restored colonial and neoclassical architecture, acclaimed museums and stirring street art.
Founded in 1521 by Spanish settlers, Old San Juan showcases the best-preserved Spanish colonial architecture in the Caribbean. The oldest capital city in the U.S., two fortresses—Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal—and evocative stone ramparts testify to 400 years of Spanish colonial rule. Along cobblestone streets, brightly painted colonial buildings and centuries-old landmarks nudge up against gourmet restaurants, hip art galleries, world-class museums and storied dance halls. Eclectic neighborhoods, palm-fringed beaches, and famed hospitality, San Juan always leaves visitors wanting more. To make sure to not miss out on the best parts this city has to offer, read our guide on best things to do in Old San Juan.
Defined by the jungle-cloaked limestone hills and caves of the Karst Region, the wild, rugged North Coast stretches from the white sand beaches of Dorado, just west of San Juan. Just south of the bustline city of Arecibo lies the region’s major crowd pleaser: Las Cavernas del Río Camuy, a gorgeous cave park featuring hikes through gigantic caverns. Between San Juan and Arecibo, there are two glorious beaches—Balneario Cerro Gordo (Vega Alta) and Playa Mar Chiquita (Manatí). In Utuado, you can explore one of the Antilles’ most important Taíno cultural sites, the Centro Ceremonial Indígena Caguana. At the northwest corner, Isabela’s white sand beaches, framed by dramatic rock formations and lush mountains, draw avid surfers, golfers, hikers and equestrians.
The East Coast region is a perfect distillation of Puerto Rico’s natural wonders. Within a short drive you can experience seven of the island’s most important ecosystems. El Yunque rainforest offers extensive hiking trails, breathtaking views, cascading waterfalls and rare, endemic flora and fauna. The lesser known Las Cabezas Nature Reserve features mangrove swamp, offshore cays, coral reefs, freshwater lagoons and a rare bioluminescent bay. The Northeast Ecological Corridor preserves one of the largest leatherback turtle nesting sites in the U.S.. Unassuming Fajardo is the launchpad for superb sailing and snorkeling with a vibrant coral reef hosting a fantastical array of marine life. Offshore, Culebra and Vieques fulfill the tropical island fantasy with gorgeous beaches, calm azure waters and captivating interiors.
Puerto Rico’s Northwest region draws sun seekers, nature lovers and watersports enthusiasts to its balmy beaches and surreal landscapes. The charming colonial cities of San Germán and Mayagüez are great bases for exploring the region with secluded beaches to the north and south and a handful of worthy cultural attractions. Fun-loving Aguadilla is the regional nexus with an international airport, family-friendly amenities and well-developed infrastructure. Low-key Rincón is famous for its surfing, holistic vibe and organic foodie culture. Isla Mona, some 80km (50 miles) offshore, is known as the Galápagos of the Caribbean.
The Southwest region of Puerto Rico combines indigenous history, a wealth of cultural attractions and bewitching natural wonders. As Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, Ponce lives up to its moniker as the “Pearl of the South.” Horse-drawn carriages clip clop along gas-lit streets lined with elegant neoclassical buildings. Home to the exceptional Museo de Arte de Ponce—the best art museum in the Caribbean—the city is a magnet for art lovers. Just outside Ponce, the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center is the largest Taíno site in the Caribbean. Stretching from Guánica through Cabo Rojo are some of the island’s most alluring beaches, including Balneario de Boquerón, one of Puerto Rico’s prettiest public balnearios.
The main appeal of the Southwest Coast is the tranquil waters that allow for swimming and snorkeling right off the beach. The quiet coastal town of Parguera is best known for its bioluminescent bay where billions of luminescent plankton sparkle when they are disturbed by motion in the water.
Puerto Rico’s largest mountain range, the Cordillera Central is a wonderland of dense jungle, soaring peaks, magical waterfalls, caves and canyons. An hour’s drive south of the capital, this central region is the epicenter for some of the Caribbean’s most unique adventure activities; hiking, rappelling, spelunking and ziplining. With coffee plantations, colonial haciendas and beautiful views, Jajuya shouldn’t be missed. In Guavate, La Ruta del Lechón provides the perfect initiation into one of Puerto Rico’s beloved national dishes, lechón, or roast suckling pig. La Ruta Panorámica is a well-traveled scenic tour through the region’s dramatic topography. At the center of the region, Bosque Estatal de Toro Negro features the island’s highest peak.