If you budget your time carefully, you can see some of the major highlights of Puerto Rico in just 1 week. Naturally, most of your time will be spent in San Juan, the capital, but you'll also have time to visit El Yunque (a rainforest) and a beautiful beach, probably Luquillo right to the east. There also will be time for days spent in Ponce, Puerto Rico's second city, the beautiful beaches of the southwest, the historic town of San Germán, and a side trip to an offshore island or the northwest coast. Start: San Juan.
Days 1 & 2: San Juan
Take a flight that arrives in San Juan as early as possible on Day 1. Check into your hotel and, if it's sunny, head for the pool or beach directly, stopping only for maybe a pick-me-up coffee and a pastry to go. As surely as there will be hours of sunshine every day on your trip here, at certain times of the year, it can also cloud up for a few hours, so we always recommend enjoying the sun while it's shining (even if it's for an hour or so).
After a quick swim and some sunshine, you can still spend the afternoon in Old San Juan, enjoying some sightseeing and shopping. A 2-hour walking tour covers the important churches, forts, and other highlights. Add another hour or so because you'll want to shop while you explore, and probably stop for refreshment, a rum drink or fresh fruit frappe, at one of the Old City's famous watering holes. The city is also one of the shopping meccas of the Caribbean, with bargains galore, lots of local arts and crafts, and high-profile retail shops.
Visit one of the area's many fine cafes and restaurants for an early dinner. Then return to your hotel for an early evening and a well-deserved rest.
On Day 2, with shopping and sightseeing behind you, prepare for a full day in the sun. Most hotel and resort pools are great, and the beaches in San Juan are glorious white-sand, turquoise-water affairs. For many visitors, that's why they came to San Juan in the first place. Depending on the location of your hotel, the finest beaches are Condado Beach, Isla Verde Beach, and Ocean Park Beach. Enjoy the watersports activities along the beaches of the Greater San Juan area. Of course, there's nothing wrong with spending a day at the beach.
Make it a point tonight to enjoy some of the nightlife of the capital, either bar-hopping, taking in the club or music scene, or going casino gambling. San Juan is one of the nightlife capitals of the Caribbean. There's likely a lot going on right around your hotel; Old San Juan, Condado, and Isla Verde are centers of activity.
Day 3: El Yunque & Luquillo Beach
While still based in San Juan, drive east for 25 miles (40km) to El Yunque for a morning visit. This 28,000-acre (11,331-hectare) attraction is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest Service system. Stop first at El Portal Tropical Forest Center for maps and guidance. You're faced with a choice of hiking trails or else driving through. Unless you engage in extensive hiking, you can see some of the forest's greatest beauty in time for lunch.
After a visit to the rainforest, head north toward the town of Rio Grande and follow the signs to Luquillo Beach in the east. There are many roadside signs and kiosks where you can enjoy a tasty but inexpensive lunch. Shaded by tall coconut palms, the beach is crowded on weekends. Surfing, kayaking, diving, and snorkeling are just some of the activities you can enjoy here, along with the golden sands of the beach itself. There are also refreshment stands and a bathhouse as well as toilets. Return west to San Juan for a final night.
Days 4 & 5: Ponce & the Southwest Coast
Leave San Juan on the morning of Day 4 and drive 75 miles (121km) southwest to the city of Ponce, the island's "second city." Take Rte. 1 south to Hwy. 52, then continue south and west to Ponce, following the road signs. Allow at least 1 1/2 hours for the drive. Once in Ponce, check into a hotel for 2 nights.
You can spend another few hours strolling through the historic downtown, visiting museums and cathedrals. Another of Ponce's chief attractions, which can easily absorb 2 hours of your time, is the Museo de Arte de Ponce, which is slated to reopen in October, 2010 after a major renovation.
After some shopping and a local lunch in the old town, continue on one of the beach towns to the west, along Rte. 116: Guánica, La Parguera or Boquerón. Heading to the coast today will mean more time for fun in the sun the next day because Ponce has no real beach. The only reason to stay in Ponce is to go out for a great meal and enjoy the entertainment at the Ponce Hilton, maybe squeezing in a round of golf or some pool time in the afternoon before dinner. (If it's a weekend, there could be a concert at the nearby La Guancha, a public marina and boardwalk where harborfront restaurants serve up local treats and drinks.)
Guánica's three lodging options -- Copamarina Beach Resort, Mary Lee's By the Sea and Hotel 1812 -- are among the best in their class for the region, and the town has seven spectacular beaches. La Parguera and Boquerón are considered the "Cape Cod of Puerto Rico," with ample simple, clean lodging options, from small hotels to guesthouses.
If you head out of Ponce on Day 4, you will also be able to spend 2 hours in the afternoon exploring the Guánica State Forest, the best-preserved subtropical ecosystem on the planet. There are 750 plants and rare tree species that grow here, and many trails descend to the beautiful coastline. Grab a fresh seafood meal at a local restaurant by your hotel. Hopefully, there's live music.
On Day 5, you'll want to head to the beach because among the finest on the island are all around you. In Guánica, go to Caña Gorda or Playa Santa; your best bet in La Parguera is to take a boat to Mata La Gata islet offshore, while the public beach at Boquerón has tranquil waters, white sand, and a healthy grove of palm trees running behind the beach.
In the afternoon, take a drive to the historic city of San Germán or farther on to Mayagüez. Make sure to drive by El Faro de Cabo Rojo, a lighthouse at Puerto Rico's southernmost corner, for a look. It's on a dramatic, blissfully isolated coastal perch.
In San Germán, the town's major attractions, including Iglesia Porta Coeli and San Germán de Auxerre, are in its historic downtown, a beautiful array of Spanish colonial and turn-of-the-20th-century buildings. If you go to Mayagüez, visit its beautiful downtown plaza, and then either its zoo or botanical gardens. Have dinner before heading back to your hotel.
Day 6: Mountain Retreat
It's time to head up to the mountains, because you can't spend a week in Puerto Rico without spending a night at one of its country mountain retreats.
You can visit the Toro Negro Forest Reserve, a 7,200-acre (2,914-hectare) park straddling the highest peak of the Cordillera Central, north of Ponce. Visit Lake Guineo or take a hike to the beautiful Juanita waterfalls. You should also have time to visit the other area forest reserve, Monte Estado State Forest in Maricao. There are fine country inns near both reserves. Most also offer traditional Puerto Rican fare. Have a restful night in the clean mountain air.
Day 7: Rincón & the Northwest
Get up early and begin driving up the west coast north of Mayagüez to Rincón. After checking in at a hotel, hit one of the town's famous beaches. If you surf or windsurf, today's the day for it because you are in the surfing capital of the Caribbean. If it's summer, and the surf is down, then the snorkeling is great. Most hotels and guesthouses have fine pools as well.
If it's winter, consider spending some time whale-watching, as it's the season they breach right offshore. It's also possible to rent a boat to take you to Desecheo Island (just offshore) or the much longer trek to Mona Island, some 40 miles off the coast. Called "the Galápagos of Caribbean," the island is inhabited by giant iguanas and three species of endangered sea turtles, among other rare plant, animal, and marine life. (If you want to squeeze this in on a 1-week trip, it would be best to eliminate the mountain retreat or the second day in the southwest.)
Rincón has a number of fine bars and restaurants, with great food and live entertainment. So make sure you have a great meal and some fun on your final night. And you'll want to be sure to watch the sun go down, which is a beautiful thing on the west coast of Puerto Rico.
The following morning, you'll find that it's only a 98-mile (158km) drive northeast back to San Juan, the hub of all the island's major transportation. The nearby Aguadilla airport, however, also has international flight service, so you could squeeze in some more beach time or another attraction (say the Camuy Caves or the Arecibo Observatory) if you do not have to return to San Juan before flying out.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.