Puerto Rico Road Trip Itinerary Ideas
Puerto Rico has long been synonymous with beaches, sun, rum and a good time. A road trip around the island will tick each of those boxes with ease, while also offering an insight into the fascinating country that lies beyond the resorts and the cruise ships.
Public transport is close to non-existent outside of San Juan and so a rental car is the only way to go. No visit here will be complete without spending some time in Old San Juan, so be sure to spend a couple of days exploring its colourful streets and impressive forts before embarking on a trip around la isla del encanto.
Start and finish: San Juan
Drive time: 2 hours a day will be plenty
Day 1: San Juan-Vega Baja-Arecibo
Leaving San Juan and heading west, drive out past the Bacardi Factory to Isla de Cabras for a view back across the bay to say goodbye to the city for a week. You’ll find a derelict leprosy centre towards the end of the peninsula that dates back to 1883. With the waves pounding against the shore and views in every direction, this is a great photo spot.
Pick up the 165, a beautiful coastal road, and push on west to Vega Baja, an area in which much of the Rum Diary film was shot. From Highway 2, take the 687 past Laguna Tortuguero and at the end turn left. You’ll be driving through a forest with an untouched tropical beach to your right. Pull up anywhere, step out onto the beach and you’ll be in awe. This may be the only beach this large in Puerto Rico that you can have all to yourself.
Head on to Playa Mar Chiquita to see a stunning cove perfect for a swim before driving via Barceloneta to Ruta 681, a road with almost constant views of the ocean. Shortly before arriving at Arecibo lighthouse, you’ll find a long stretch of beach - a great place to spend what’s left of the day. There are a few places to stay along the coast although the town of Arecibo may be the easiest (if less picturesque) option.
Day 2: Arecibo-Lares-Rincón
After a day of beach after beach, heading inland makes for a great change of scenery. A fascinating and quite bizarre first stop is the Arecibo Observatory, easily recognisable to any James Bond fan having appeared in Goldeneye. Alongside what is the world’s “largest curved focusing dish”, there is an informative visitor centre providing the history and the science of the observatory. Its setting, deep in Karst country, provides spectacular views of this highly unusual, jagged landscape from the observation deck.
The next stop and a real must is the nearby Cavernas de Camuy, further south along the 129. Get a tour of these huge caves where you’ll see stalactites at every turn. You can get a standard lunch of meat, beans and plantains here before continuing to Lares. This historical hillside town is famous for the 1868 Grito de Lares, when a revolt by pro-independence rebels fighting against the Spanish resulted in an extremely short-lived republic. Stop at the plaza before heading west towards the coast along the 111. Cross Highway 2 and take the 115 through Aguada to Rincón.
Day 3: Rincón
Located on Puerto Rico’s west coast, Rincón is a surfer’s paradise which shot to fame after hosting the 1968 World Surfing Championships. It even gets a mention in The Beach Boys song “Surfin’ USA”!
Situated on a strip of stunning coastline backed by lush green forests, this is the perfect antidote to the traffic, resorts and malls which often taint other parts of the island. For those who love VW campervans, sand and waves, you will not be disappointed. Snorkeling is also an option in this area.
Get breakfast at the farmers market in the plaza before heading out to explore the beaches. Domes Beach, named for the bizarre abandoned nuclear plant right behind the beach, is spectacular and can be accessed from the Rincón Lighthouse.
Day 4: Cabo Rojo-San German-Ponce
Head to Cabo Rojo lighthouse and Playa Sucia for calmer waters and even more beauty. This bay doesn’t have the Caribbean feel of the north coast, but the arid scenery surrounding it is no less picture-perfect and there is nowhere nicer to swim in Puerto Rico.
En route to Ponce, be sure to stop at San German, an historic town and the country’s former capital. You will find crumbling grandeur, political street art and maybe a hog roast around the old plazas in what is as unspoiled a town as you will find on the island. Finish the day by heading to Puerto Rico’s second city, Ponce.
Day 5: Ponce–Fajardo
Sleepy Ponce is perhaps most famous for its striking wooden fire station, now a museum, dating back to 1883. Examples of the city’s distinctive neoclassical architecture surround Plaza las Delicias, such as Casa Wiechers-Vilaronga and Teatro La Perla. Both are worth a (free) visit, as is the Ponce History Museum.
7 miles north of Ponce, Hacienda Buena Vista is a brilliantly preserved 19th century coffee plantation. Now a museum, informative tours are offered in English and in Spanish giving real insight into the region’s past.
From Ponce, allow 2 hours to get up to Fajardo. Once there, Pasión por el Fogón is an excellent restaurant, known across Puerto Rico.
Day 6: Fajardo-Cabezas de San Juan
Fajardo itself is not the reason to make the trip to the north east. It is a launch pad to explore the paradise islands off the east coast. Many companies will take you out on afternoon island hopping trips, with snorkeling, food and drinks included. The bigger the group, the better the deal. Serenity Sea Tours offer a great excursion.
If this doesn’t fill your day, the Reserva Natural de Las Cabezas de San Juan offers a great drive up to the lighthouse with spectacular views, or spend the evening on a tour kayaking out through mangroves to Fajardo’s bioluminescent bay, where reflective microorganisms glow in the water under the moonlight.
Day 7: El Yunque-Piñones-San Juan
Your final day takes you to El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System. Arrive early to avoid the crowds – this place is popular, especially at weekends. The drive up, through dense forest, feels like a scene from Jurassic Park. Popular highlights include Yocahu Tower and La Mina Falls, a great swimming spot that can be reached either via the Big Tree Trail or by following a stream down La Mina Trail. Opposite the entrance to La Mina Trail, walk up to the Baño de Oro for an unusual sight. This 1930s bathing complex has long been abandoned.
Drive back to San Juan via Piñones, a scarcely developed line of coast along the 187. Popular with sanjuaneros, this is as quintessential an experience as you can have. Beautiful beaches are backed by wooden shacks serving seafood, alcapurrias, fresh coconuts and Medalla – Kiosko El Boricua is the pick of the bunch.
Having completed your grand lap of Puerto Rico, head to The Place in Condado for some well-earned burgers and frozen mojitos!
By Jack Tatham