Puerto Rico Travel and Packing Guide

Puerto Rico travel and packing guide

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While the island of Puerto Rico is technically a commonwealth of the United States, it shares many attributes of its Caribbean island neighbors. Most visitors start their trip in San Juan, one of the oldest cities in the world, with its walls that surrounded the city still intact. From there, road trip to El Yunque National Forest, one of the few of its kind, and onward to Fajardo, where the bioluminescent bay kayaking trips leave from.

Barrier islands like Vieques and Culebra may be more remote, but have stunning beaches and slower pace. Residents speak both Spanish and English, so you’ll be able to get by with either. The American dollar is also the currency, so you don’t have to worry about changing over if you’re coming from the mainland.

If we’ve left anything out or you’d like to add to the conversation, please leave comments below!

Puerto Rico travel and packing guide
Explore Old San Juan in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Travel Expenses Tips

You might think that Puerto Rico is a cheap destination to visit, but due to its remote location, prices are higher for the same items. It becomes even more expensive as you go to the barrier islands like Culebra and Vieques. Pack some extra cash for these destinations, especially where ATMs aren’t plentiful.

Travel Like the Locals Do
While the flights between islands and to and from other parts of the main island are the fastest way to get around, it’s expensive for such a short flight. Instead, take public transportation like buses and ferries. They certainly take longer, and are less reliable, but will save you plenty of money that is best used on other expenses. Car rental prices also add up quickly. San Juan has a metro system, but it’s also very walkable.

Puerto Rico travel and packing guide
San Juan Cemetery

Opt for Street Food Over Restaurants
Puerto Rico has delicious restaurants so skip the Americanized meals from resorts and tourist areas. Find out where the locals are eating as this is where the best, most authentic dishes are and where prices are sure to be most reasonable. Grab an ice cream from one of the many streetside stalls and a hearty portion of mofongo at a casual eatery.

Stay in Rentals Over Resorts
While there are many top-notch resorts in Puerto Rico, like the W Retreat Vieques and the Condado Vanderbilt, renting an apartment or house allows you the ability to cook your own meals. Use websites like Vacation Rentals By Owner or AirBnB, which has a slightly smaller selection. It’s also a better option if you’re traveling with a group, rather than to book a block of hotel rooms.

Save in the Off and Shoulder Season
Everyone wants to visit Puerto Rico during the spring and summer, but temperatures are just as nice the rest of the year. Average temperatures in December and January are still in the 70s and 80s Fahrenheit. You could be tanning at the beach while your friends are digging their cars out of the snow! Hotel rates are low and many deals can be found. But with the lower season comes less options for restaurants, as some shut down for part of the year.

Research Free Attractions
Yes, some attractions are completely free! In San Juan, the Bacardi factory tours are completely free (with rum tastings!), but you’ll need to pay for the ferry and cab to get there. The fort is also free to visit on some days of the year. El Yunque is also free to visit, including the visitor’s center, waterfalls and countless hikes. All of the public beaches are free to visit.

Bacardi Rum Distillery TourBacardi Rum Distillery and Old San Juan Tour – $85.00
Discover the historic city of San Juan and visit the Bacardi Rum distillery, Casa Bacardi. Take a guided tour of Casa Bacardi, taste some rum in a welcome cocktail and purchase some souvenirs in the shop. Continue on a guided drive, leaving the town of Cataño passing by the Condado District, a modern area of high-rise condominiums and luxury resorts, to Old San Juan.
Puerto Rico travel and packing guide
It’s free to visit La Coca Falls in El Yunque National Forest.

Essential Gear for Puerto Rico

As we mentioned earlier, temperatures can range from the high 60s to the high 80s year-round. Dress like it’s summertime, whether that means dresses or shorts. Lightweight layers are best.

Swimsuits– You’ll probably be spending a lot of time in your swimsuit and at some of the best beaches in the world. Bring two swimsuits so that one can be drying while you wear the other. Add in sun protection, as it’s more expensive here, and a sarong or towel to lay out on.

Comfortable sandals– Dress them up or down, depending on the outfit, and wear them while exploring the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan. Just be sure to test them out before you leave so they won’t rub blisters and ruin your trip!

Book or e-reader– Between transportation and beach days, you might make your way through half a dozen books, as I did! I read everything on my Kindle but ended up reading two others from my rental house.

American dollars– Cash is king and while you’ll find ATMs in San Juan, you might not find them as often as you venture further out. Bring some with you, just in case you need to quickly catch a taxi or grab a bite.

Carry-on bag– If you plan on hopping between the main island and the barrier islands, pack in a small, carry-on bag. Everything is weighted, so it’s also important to keep your items light in weight.

Puerto Rico travel and packing guide
Chapel of Christ the Savior

Books to Read Before Visiting Puerto Rico

Few English language books have dived into the culture and history of the island of Puerto Rico, but there are just a few worth a read before your visit.

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson– Less well known than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this novel is about a violent alcoholic in love and lust in 1950s San Juan. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa by Micol Ostow– Straight-laced Jewish New Yorker Emily goes to Puerto Rico for her grandmother’s funeral. She learns more about her mother’s side of the family and they teach her to unwind. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Conquistadora by Esmeralda Santiago– The New York Times bestseller is an epic novel about a young woman in Spain who travels to Puerto Rico after reading about it in ancestors’ diaries. Ana must face the consequences of living in a place so remote. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Puerto Rico travel and packing guide
The Puerto Rican flag

Movies to Watch Before Visiting Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has served as a backdrop for a handful of movies, including the latest in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but fewer actually feature it as the backdrop. We’ve included a few Puerto Rican films and one that showcases the country.

Ángel– This Puerto Rican film is set and made in the island. The title character is a corrupt police officer who tries to right his past wrongs.

Goldeneye– In perhaps Pierce Brosnan’s most memorable performance as James Bond, there is a memorable scene at the Arecibo Observatory, which is used as the Goldeneye satellite dish in Cuba. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Broche de Oro– In this Spanish language film, a group of men flee from their retirement home to embark on a road trip. They go in search of surfing and adventure. Grab a copy on Amazon.

Puerto Rico travel and packing guide
Don’t forget to visit the famous fort in Old San Juan.

Top Things to Do in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is ideal for a long weekend getaway, thanks to flights from American budget carriers, or a week or more of exploration and relaxation. Give yourself plenty of time to get from one island to the other or to the barrier islands.

Old San Juan– Historic San Juan is like an open-air museum, offering history around every corner. Stop by the old city walls at Castillo San Cristobal to see what kept the city safe for so long. La Fortaleza is the old governor’s mansion, the oldest continuously inhabited in the New World.

Bacardi Factory– Hop on a ferry from the cruise port and then a shared taxi to visit the Bacardi headquarters. Here you’ll get free samples of their rums, a behind-the-scenes tour and the history of the company.

Puerto Rico travel and packing guide
Taste the world famous Bicardi rum in Puerto Rico.

El Yunque National Forest– The island’s most well-known park can be packed during much of the year, with no parking to be found. Start your day early and hike to the waterfalls after a visit to the interpretive center. Be sure to catch the documentary for background information.

Puerto Rico travel and packing guide
Explore nature at Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest.

Bioluminescent Bay tours– The natural wonder takes place during some parts of the year and can be viewed from kayaking trips that leave from Fajardo and Vieques. It’s a good idea to book this in advance after pricing your options.

Arecibo Observatory– The radio telescope is known for its massive size and role in Goldeneye. They started a program to gather information on intelligent life in outer space. They have a visitor’s center for travelers and the science-obsessed.

Barrier islands– After you’ve had your fill of the main island, hop over to Vieques, a former United States military base, or Culebra, known for its beaches. For the extra adventurous, take a day trip to Culebrita, an uninhabited island.

Puerto Rico travel and packing guide
Vieques is one of the smaller islands off of Puerto Rico’s main island.

Food and Drink in Puerto Rico

The food and drink of Puerto Rico are similar to what you’ll find elsewhere in the Caribbean, but with a few differences. There’s a surprising craft coffee scene here, so be sure to grab a cup of coffee in the morning. It’s also home to the original piña colada, as the plaque at Barrachina says. But when you’re not sipping tropical cocktails, here are a few dishes you can’t miss.

Mofongo– You’ll find it on menus all over the country, filled with everything from pork to seafood to vegetables. It’s made up of a cake-type substance made from plantains, topped with a delicious sauce.

Arroz con gandules– Simple but hearty, this rice dish is unique because of its addition of pigeon peas and shredded pork.

Tostones– The plantain chips are a welcome addition to any dish, mixing sweet, salty and crunchy. The texture is slightly like potato chips, but has more of a bite to it.

Mallorca– The sweet pastry rolls make for the perfect breakfast bite, topped with powdered sugar. You’ll find a bakery in just about every town in Puerto Rico.

Helados– Find simple carts all over old San Juan, selling fruit flavored ice creams in plastic cups. It’s the perfect way to cool off after walking around in the Caribbean heat!

puerto rico travel and packing guide

Written by Caroline

Caroline Eubanks is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but has also called Charleston, South Carolina and Sydney, Australia home. After college graduation and a series of useless part-time jobs, she went to Australia for a working holiday. In that time, she worked as a bartender, bungee jumped, scuba dived, pet kangaroos, held koalas and drank hundreds of cups of tea. You can find Caroline at Caroline in the City.

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Gear We Use

Organization

Packing Cubes – Organize your luggage with the lightweight, durable and compressible Eagle Creek Pack-It Specter Compression Cubes.


Backpacks + Daypacks

Pacsafe – Since they come with extra theft-resisting features, Pacsafe bags make you a more confident traveler. We especially love this bag.

Sea to Summit – Of all the Sea to Summit products, our most recommended is the fits-in-your-palm, super packable Ultra-Sil Daypack.


Personal Care

Nalgene Toiletry Bottles – These leak-free toiletry bottles and tubs come in all sizes – even super tiny, helping minimalists pack it all without bulk.

Turkish Towels – They’re thinner than most travel towels, and they actually cover your body! We can’t get enough of Turkish towels for travel.


Clothing

Speakeasy Supply Co. – They make the awesome hidden pocket infinity scarves that are perfect for stashing secret cash, lip balms, and passports.

Anatomie – Anatomie travel pants come with luxury prices, but they offer many benefits for travelers. See our review of the famous Skyler pants.

Travel Resources

Booking Airfare

Dollar Flight Club – Get flight deal alerts for your preferred departure airport. There is both a free and premium version (recommended for more sweet deals). Members save on average $500 USD per flight!

Skyscanner – Skyscanner is our preferred site for searching flights. They offer unbiased search results and are free from hidden fees. You can also book your hotels and rental cars.


Accommodation

Airbnb – Airbnb is the best place to book out apartments around the world. Sign up using this link to get $37 USD off your first stay booking + $14 USD towards an experience booking!

Booking.com – Search for hotels, hostels, and apartments using this one resource. Use it for flights, car rentals, and airport taxis as well.

Hostelworld – For hostels, Hostelworld remains our number one source for booking stays. Choose from straight up hostels, budget hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Trusted Housesitters – Save money on travel accommodation by becoming a housesitter. Housesitters often have extra duties, like caring for pets and gardens.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. katheryn says

    Absolutely loved Puerto Rico, especially the Ritz Carlton Dorado- one of the best hotels we’ve stayed at in recent years. Also loved driving around, through smaller villages/ towns and exploring!

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