In September, my friend Juliana and I booked a spontaneous (at least for me) trip to Puerto Rico for my birthday. We booked tickets a month beforehand and began planning a 3-day Puerto Rico itinerary (four days including travel days) to the island. Some of the reasons we picked Puerto Rico include the cheap flight rates, the convenience of traveling within the United States (currency, phone service, etc.) and its amazing beauty and history.
But there is a travel twist in this story: we ended up arriving to the island a day after an island-wide blackout (September 2016). Now, many people and businesses on the island are well equipped to manage short electricity outages; however, this blackout was caused by a fire at an important electricity plant.
We arrived to the airport and there was no AC. There were no restaurants open, and the bathrooms were not functioning properly, to give you an idea. Our phones were not working. We had no idea what to expect when coming to the island. It was an adventure.
What else was an adventure? Our AirBnB, which didn’t have power. But our host was very accommodating and super nice when we arrived in a taxi. We settled into our AirBnB and prepared for the next three days of our journey. And in case you were wondering, the power did come back on — waking me up at 3am that night!
Where to Stay: AirBnB in Condado, San Juan
Our AirBnB was private room in Condado, San Juan, which was about $50/night for two people. The listing was Super Location Condado Beach 1 – hosted by Harry. It was a great location and very nice accommodations. Our private room was comfortable, with a good view and had all the essentials. The bathroom was right across the hall and we had access to the kitchen and living room. Another perk was having a rooftop terrace, where we hung out one night. The apartment was a short walk away from the beach and a variety of restaurants and shops, very convenient and a safe area! Overall, I would highly recommend and return again.
Our 3-Day Travel Itinerary
The day we arrived on Thursday, we planned out the rest of our trip, as we waiting inside for a thunderstorm to pass, with no power, entertainment or energy after traveling all day. We stocked up on snacks and prepped for the next three days. Here was our itinerary!
Day 1: El Yunque Rainforest, Luquillo Beach + Bioluminescent Bay
We woke up on our first full day in Puerto Rico to an early sunrise and rented a car to explore the island. We rented a car at an Avis just around the block from our AirBnB. We packed snacks, bought smoothies and left for El Yunque rainforest.
9:30–3:30pm: El Yunque Rainforest
El Yunque is the the only tropical rainforest in the United States and full of biodiversity. We loved taking in nature, in all its forms— from the chirping birds to the various waterfalls you can find throughout the national park. With about 16 hiking trails in total, several historical sites, waterfalls around every corner and breathtaking views, there is something for everyone here.
To explore El Yunque on your own, the easiest way is to drive through the forest on route 191. There are various points along the road to get out and hike, take photos or relax and have a picnic. Here’s where we explored:
KM 8.1: La Coca Falls – a big waterfall perfect for pictures. We climbed up some of the rocks to get closer, and we took in some of the other scenery around this point.
KM 8.3 (ish): The Greatest View!! – As we drove, we saw a car pull over on the side of the road for a view of the whole island. This was the most incredible view from the entire trip, and we came back to it multiple times to just experience the beauty all around us. So, yes, it is perfectly acceptable to pull over on the two-lane road to get breathtaking views of the wonders of Puerto Rico.
KM 8.9: Yokahu Observation Tower – Here is a small gift shop and a tower to climb with great views. It’s a free entrance and there are also restrooms here. We parked, took in the views, and then munched on snacks in the car.
KM: 10.4: Big Tree Trail & La Mina Falls – To get to La Mina Falls, we hiked the Big Tree Trail, approximately a 30-minute walk to the falls. We were told that this was the less intense route and fastest way to get to La Mina falls. Along the way, you are surrounded by beautiful trees and plants. Enjoy the walk to the falls and then take some time to swim underneath the water. When we went, the water was a little cold but it was still enjoyable to get in the water and relax on the rocks, listening to the falls.
Quick tip: Plan your visit for El Yunque for earlier in the day, as the park usually gets more crowded during the afternoons.
What to Bring: Swimsuit, hiking shoes, sunscreen, bug repellent, rain gear, snacks and plenty of water!
4:00 – 6:30pm: Luquillo Beach
After meandering through the jungle, it’s time to relax on the beach! We took a twenty-minute drive to Luquillo Beach (Playa Luquillo). This is a public beach with a fabulous backdrop of the rainforest. The water was crystal clear and calm—and most importantly, so warm! It felt like bath water, with barely any waves. We decided to float for awhile.
Away from the touristy area of San Juan, this was a good escape to see one of Puerto Rico’s beautiful beaches. It wasn’t very crowded when we visited for the afternoon, but there were small groups of people dotting the coastline.
7:00 – 10:00pm: Bio Bay Tour – Fajardo, Puerto Rico
Next, we hopped in the car for a 30-minute ride to Fajardo to the launch point for a kayaking bio bay tour. We decided on the Pure Adventure Kayak Bio Bay experience – to see the bioluminescence bay.
Book your tickets ahead of time, and the company will send you directions to your phone and any other updates you should know in regards to the experience. The day-of, I received a couple of text message updates about time changes, what to bring, etc. They also gave you an exact location to put into your GPS.
Now onto the actual experience – this was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done. First off, I hadn’t kayaked in years. My friend and I were trying to get back into the swing of it. Night kayaking is its own separate thing. We were kayaking in the almost pitch black. We were gliding through swampy areas, trying not to hit the trees next to us in the marshes. Or freak out from random buggy creatures who would enter our kayaks.
After paddling upstream, we entered into a wide opening in the bay. Here, our tour guides gathered the group and gave more information about the bio bay. The guides were pretty entertaining. Because of the electricity blackout, it was even more perfect to see the stars above us.
The main event was experiencing the bioluminescence in the bay. We splashed our hands in the water and saw the water come to light, with so many sparkles in the dark bay. It was quite an experience to end the night.
Day 2: Old San Juan
After a physically-demanding first day, we took some time to sleep in. Although the early sunrise awakened us, we had a slow morning. We returned our rental car from the previous day, and then took another short nap in our AirBnB. After getting ready, we decided to spend the whole day in Old San Juan, the second oldest city established in the Americas.
Late Morning: Wander the streets of Old San Juan
The colorful rows of houses and the historic homes can attract visitors instantly. We took an Uber to Old San Juan – getting out at Calle Fortaleza, a street in the historical district. For an hour or so, we walked around the streets and started to figure out where everything was. We then made our way to El Morro.
Early Afternoon: Castillo San Felipe del Morro
As one of the picturesque historical sites in Old San Juan, El Morro is a 400 year-old castle in a strategic position on the island and in the capital of San Juan. It was free to enter on the day we came (Saturday) – but usually costs $5.00 per person.
When you are there, you can explore the garitas, which are sentry boxes around the whole fort. They are perfect for viewing the harbor and seeing the water from a unique view. Also don’t miss the lighthouse and the Paseo del Morro, where you can walk along the sea.
After El Morro, we got fresh sorbet from a street cart – you must try the passionfruit (parcha), coconut or mango. They are amazing, and we had two when we were there. My personal favorite was mixing parcha with coco.
Afternoon: Lunch/Early Dinner at Barrachina
I highly recommend Barrachina for lunch/dinner in Old San Juan on 104 Fortaleza St. The restaurant has a very pleasant atmosphere and a wonderful courtyard that is perfect for a rest after walking the city streets. In the courtyard, we also saw parrots, which was such a surprise!
Barrachina is also the birthplace of the piña colada, so make sure to order one when you are there. You will see everyone sipping on them in the restaurant! I was really pleased with the food as well! I had a veggie (vegan) mofongo – mofongo is something I never got sick of when I was there! It is a Caribbean staple, so make sure to try it. If it is made with yucca, that is even better!
Nighttime: Explore the Streets & Music Life
Honestly, nighttime in Old San Juan is such a great experience. We ended up at a café, a taco place and sat outdoors for some Caribbean music. There was a little bit of rain, but not bad at all. Just explore the streets and see what you find! It was wonderful to see all the culture and locals there!
P.S. You can also play with parrots and hold 10 of them at a time from a street vendor! This was my favorite life moment of the year (#birdlady).
Day 3: Condado Beach + Travel Home
Before leaving on Sunday, we woke up early to explore Condado beach, about a five-minute walk from our AirBnB. We got smoothies at Red Mango café, which also has a lot of lunch options. On the beach, we swam, ate parcha and coconut sorbet and listened to music.
This was a perfect way to relax and prepare for the journey back home in the afternoon.
Including flights, accommodations, travel (taxi, rental car, Uber), food and activities, my total expenses were $700 for the entire four days. Here it is broken down:
- Flight from Washington D.C.: $300 – Delta
- AirBnB: $200 (split two ways) – $100
- Bio Bay Kayaking – $56
- Ground transportation – $60
- Food & other activities – $184
You can easily make this budget-friendly by cooking your own meals and choosing cheaper restaurants. A lot of the activities we did were free, which makes San Juan and Puerto Rico a great place to visit!
If you are looking for a budget-friendly Caribbean escape, exploring San Juan and the island of Puerto Rico is a great getaway. It can be an easy, hassle-free and low-cost trip with AirBnB and trip planning, as well as exciting for friends, families, and couples. My friends and I are making plans to return!
For more adventures and travel tips, check out other travel inspiration posts.