Within easy reach of San Juan's cosmopolitan bustle are superb attractions and natural wonders. With San Juan as your base, you can explore the island by day and return in time for a final dip before dinner and an evening on the town.
In fact, travelers looking to have an extended vacation in Puerto Rico may consider cutting back on hotel expenses by renting a furnished condo on one of San Juan's beaches or a high-ceilinged historic rooftop apartment in the Old City. San Juan, with its historic sites, gorgeous beaches, and vibrant cultural activities and nightlife can easily keep you occupied for 2 weeks or more. But the lure of a long-term rental in the city increases exponentially when you realize how many beautiful places there are to see and how many great things there are to do within a leisurely day trip from the city.
Conversely, travelers looking for the ultimate Caribbean vacation experience, but who also appreciate San Juan's cosmopolitan charms, will find some of Puerto Rico's best resorts within an hour's drive of San Juan. In Río Grande, there's the Río Mar Beach Resort and Spa, a Wyndham Grand Resort, and the Gran Mélia Golf Resort & Villas.
To the west, there are two vacation and golf clubs operating out of the grand old facilities of the former Hyatt resorts on a breathtaking oceanfront coconut plantation. Plans are underway to develop two new ultraluxury resorts on the property. Dorado has many other lodging options, such as the Embassy Suites Dorado Del Mar Beach & Golf Resort. Its stunning setting and facilities (including a Chi Chi Rodríguez Golf Course) live up to its resort billing.
Also, road improvements have cut the travel time from San Juan to other destinations and resorts. For example, you can get from San Juan to Fajardo and its mammoth El Conquistador Resort & Golden Door Spa in 45 minutes. Even the sprawling Palmas del Mar vacation community, with hotels, luxury villas, and vacation homes, approaches the 1-hour day trip test. While it's halfway down Puerto Rico's East Coast, it's accessible through two major highways. And Ponce is now a 90-minute drive, making it possible to visit the city in the morning, hit the beach in Guánica for 3 hours, and return to San Juan in the early evening.
Many of Puerto Rico's must-see sites lie much closer to San Juan, however. A bit more than an hour west of San Juan is the world's largest radar/radio-telescope, Arecibo Observatory. After touring this awesome facility, you can travel west to nearby Río Camuy Cave Park, for a good look at marvels below ground. Here you can plunge deep into the subterranean beauty of a spectacular cave system carved over eons by one of the world's largest underground rivers. The caves are part of a wider natural wonderland known as Karst Country, which you can also further explore, as well as an adjacent section of the central mountains laced with beautiful lakes.
Just 35 miles (56km) east of San Juan is El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Park System. Named by the Spanish for its anvil-shaped peak, El Yunque receives more than 100 billion gallons of rainfall annually. If you have time for only one side trip, this is the one to take. Waterfalls, wild orchids, giant ferns, towering tabonuco trees, and sierra palms make El Yunque a photographer's and hiker's paradise. Pick up a map and choose from dozens of trails graded by difficulty, including El Yunque's most challenging -- the 6-mile (9.7km) El Toro Trail to the peak. The best one is probably the hike to La Mina Falls, a 45-minute walk through plush jungle, with interpretative nature signs explaining the foliage along the way. The trail ends at a beautiful spot where waterfalls crash into a wondrous natural pool in the mountain stream below. At El Yunque is El Portal Tropical Center, with 10,000 square feet (929 sq. m) of exhibit space, plazas, and patios. This facility greatly expands the recreational and educational programs available to visitors. La Coca Falls and an observation tower are just off Rte. 191.
Visitors can combine a morning trip to El Yunque with an afternoon of swimming and sunning on tranquil Luquillo Beach. Soft white sand, shaded by coconut palms and the blue sea, makes this Puerto Rico's best and best-known beach. Plan on having lunch, sampling local delicacies at a group of food kiosks right beside the public beach.
Fajardo, and its beautiful Caribbean coast, is about 15 minutes farther east. As noted previously, sailing and snorkeling trips off Fajardo are an easy day trip from San Juan through one of the luxury catamaran outfits that include transportation to and from San Juan area hotels. Or you could visit undeveloped stretches of Fajardo beachfront, around Las Cabezas de San Juan nature reserve and Seven Seas public beach on your own.
Many visitors overlook trips to San Juan suburbs in the capital's backyard. Bayamón has a great science park and zoo, while Guyanabo has an interesting sports museum and Caguas a sprawling skate park and entertainment complex, and a botanical and cultural garden.
Central mountain towns, such as Cayey and Aibonito, are also accessible by day trips from the capital. Having a lunch of roast pork and other Puerto Rican delicacies and breathing in the clean mountain air is reason enough for a drive from the capital. A favorite spot is Guavate, a 45-minute drive south, where open-air barbecue restaurants are lined along a country road with a mountain stream of the Carite Forest as a backdrop.