Things to Do in Puerto Rico Beyond San Juan

Lilli Smith

Texas, USA

Puerto Rico: one island, endless possibilities. While the tourist destination of San Juan gets a lot of hype, there’s far more to Puerto Rico than meets the eye. No matter what kind of traveler you are, the island serves up good vibes year round. Want to catch a wave? Lounge on the beach? Get a taste of local flavor? Yep, you can do all that and more. From coast to coast, Puerto Rico is a unique slice of island life. Explore beyond San Juan and discover what Puerto Rico is all about.

West Coast: Puerto Rico for Surfers

Rincon, Puerto Rico.
Rincon, Puerto Rico.

For those looking to hit the waves, West Puerto Rico is the place to visit. Known as the Porta del Sol, this region of Puerto Rico offers powerful waves for a totally tubular experience. And this area happens to be home to my favorite village on the entire island: Rincon.

This small town is referred to as The Town of Beautiful Sunsets. And if that’s not reason enough to visit, it’s also home to some of the most popular beaches on the island. If you’re here to surf, you’re not alone – thousands flock to Rincon every year to test their skills out on the water. Not comfortable on a board? Not a problem, dude. There are plenty of places where you can rent all the gear you need and sign up for surf lessons. Perfect for beginner or intermediate surfers. Or if you’d rather watch world-class surfers show you how it’s done, check out the Rincon Surfing Festival held every year in November or December.

Maria's Beach, Rincon, Puerto Rico. Discover Puerto Rico
Maria's Beach, Rincon, Puerto Rico. Discover Puerto Rico

But there’s more to Rincon than just surfing. Go snorkeling, deep sea fishing, parasailing, or zip lining. Hike to waterfalls, ride horses along the beach, or visit the nearby La Parguera bioluminescent bay. Rincon is also a prime location to go humpback whale watching during certain times of the year. Or if you’re really looking to escape and explore, check out Desecheo Island, just off the coast. It’s a small, remote island that’s a secret treasure trove for diving or snorkeling.

From sand to surf, it doesn’t get much better than Rincon.

South Coast: Puerto Rico for Culture

Carnaval de Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Carnaval de Ponce, Ponce, Puerto Rico.

While Old San Juan offers a lot of charm and history, it’s also overrun with tourists. Instead, head to the south of the island to Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico – it’s absolutely brimming with culture!

Known by locals as La Perla del Sur (Pearl of the South), Ponce was founded in 1692, and its historic roots are evident in its architecture and vibe. Stroll through the streets and take in the neoclassical buildings, decorative colonial homes, fountains, churches, and plazas. And don’t miss the Parque de Bombas, a red and black wooden firehouse constructed in 1882 and still in use today. Ponce is filled with libraries, museums, galleries, parks, and historical buildings. It also hosts many festivals and cultural events, such as Carnival de Ponce in February.

Carnaval de Ponce , Ponce, Puerto Rico. BillW / Shutterstock.com
Carnaval de Ponce , Ponce, Puerto Rico. BillW / Shutterstock.com

Ponce is home to one of the busiest ports in the Caribbean, a spot that exports tobacco, coffee, rum, and sugar cane. Visit the Castillo Serralles (The Serralles Castle) built by the very powerful rum-producing family, the Serralles Family, best known for their delicious Don Q rum. For a cultural deep dive, take an entire day to wander along La Guancha Boardwalk, which boasts breathtaking views of the bay, along with delicious Puerto Rican food and live music.

As the locals say: Ponce is Ponce, and the rest is parking.

East Coast: Puerto Rico for Beach Bums

Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Vieques, Puerto Rico.

Want to escape to an island with stretches of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean? An island where wild horses roam free and the water illuminates the night? It’s not a fantasy – it’s Vieques.

Just seven miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico sits Vieques, a tropical paradise for the beach bum in all of us. The majority of the island (about 70%) is preserved as a US Fish & Wildlife Refuge, which means it’s untouched by construction or commercialization. While it has increased in popularity over the past decade, Vieques is still a relatively quiet, tranquil paradise, waiting to be explored and enjoyed.

Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Vieques, Puerto Rico.

One of my favorite beaches in Vieques is Playa Caracas – a remote beach surrounded by palm trees and mangroves, with rocky cliffs standing like bookends at each end of the bay. You won’t find any cafes, food, or drinks here – but this also means fewer people and much more nature! So, break out your floppy hat, grab your favorite book, and lounge the day away on the gorgeous sands of Playa Caracas.

And as the sun sets, prepare for a real treat at the Bioluminescent Bay (also known as Mosquito Bay), which was named by Guinness Book of World Records to be the brightest recorded bio-bay. Head out to the bay for an unforgettable nighttime adventure. As you glide across the water in a kayak, you’ll be spellbound by the glowing water surrounding you – courtesy of the luminescent organisms that live beneath the surface. This mystical experience is a natural wonder you must see to believe!

While I love the enchanting beaches and bays of Vieques, my favorite part of visiting this island is the elegant Paso Fino horses that roam free. These magnificent creatures are a perfect symbol of the island’s wild, carefree vibe. Horses are actually the preferred mode of transportation on Vieques, which doesn’t have a single traffic light. In fact, you’ll probably see a local riding a horse to the store or to drop off their kids at school!

Get a taste of Caribbean nirvana in Vieques.