Summary: One of the frequent knocks on the Caribbean is that many of the islands (not all) are nothing more than receptacles for tourists. That there’s no real dynamic culture and sense of place. But this statement also ignores the fact that millions of Americans head to the Caribbean each year, and many of them are looking for nothing more than a cheap vacation with a beautiful beach and a frosty drink in a coconut. I can’t say that I blame them.
That said, we’re here to tell you that San Juan, Puerto Rico is the perfect combination of all these factors – affordability, authentic local culture and beautiful, warm sandy beaches. As the capital and largest city on the island of Puerto Rico, San Juan is a city with a surprising diversity of options for visitors. It’s among the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere, having been founded in 1521 by the Spanish. The history is strongly felt wherever you might wander in San Juan, whether it’s a visit to the imposing El Morro fortress or a walk along the fading beauty of Old San Juan’s cobblestone streets.
That’s nothing to say of the glitzy nightlife and beaches of Condado, or the untouched beaches and lush rainforests within an hour’s drive of the capital. Ready to be amazed by one of the most underrated (and cheap) destinations in the Caribbean? Come along for our Budget Guide to San Juan…
Getting in: Most travelers from the contintental United States will arrive at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, the central hub for many flights into and out of the Caribbean. The airport is served by almost all major U.S. carriers, and your chances of finding a deal during peak season are fairly good. As of the time of this posting, just about every major U.S. city east of the Mississipi River was offering round trip January fares to San Juan for between $200 – $300 per person.
Once you’ve arrived, it’s easy enough to grab a taxi into the city center. Rates are typically around $10 – $20 depending on if you’re going all the way into Old San Juan or to the outlying hotels. The frugal can also take the B40 bus, which will bring you to Isla Verde or Rio Piedras, where you can connect to other buses including the A5 to the city center. Total bus cost is .50-.75 cents.
Where to stay: San Juan offers a surprisingly diverse cluster of different neighborhoods, ranging from the glitzy and glamorous to the historic and atmospheric. It all depends on what you’re looking for out of your trip.
- For our money’s worth, the place to stay in San Juan is in Old San Juan, a picturesque neighborhood of cobblestone streets, elegant public squares and quietly crumbling facades. It’s been experiencing a resurgence in recent years, with hordes of great restaurants, bars, galleries and shopping. The best way to go is to rent your own apartment in one of the beautiful old buildings that dot the area. If you don’t want the hassle though, Hotel Milano and Caleta Guest House have rooms starting at under $100/night.
- Just east of Old San Juan is the glitzy neighborhood of Condado, sight of many of Puerto Rico’s best hotels and resorts. Condado is the tried and true tourist hotspot of San Juan, bordered on one side by a heavily trafficked beach and avenues lined with casinos and fancy boutiques. It’s not necessarily the most authentic part of Puerto Rico, but for non-stop action it can’t be beat. Unless you want to drop a wad of hundreds at a fancy resort, the At Wind Chimes Inn has reasonably priced rooms starting around $110/night.
- A little closer to the airport is Isla Verde, another main tourist drag. Though Isla Verde is technically not part of San Juan, it’s conveniently situated next to the airport and close enough you can still easily head into San Juan proper if you want to soak up some culture or fine dining. It’s also got its fair share of lovely sandy beaches, Pina Coladas and casino action, so don’t despair. Rumor has it that the Holiday Inn is the place to stay. It’s nothing fancy, but still clean and a good bargain.
What to See:
- El Morro: San Juan was originally the last stopover for Spanish galleons loaded with gold and silver bound for the mother country. As such the city founders built the imposing El Morro stone fortress at the mouth of the harbor to protect it from pirate and enemy attacks. Today the fort is a National Park and one of San Juan’s top tourist attractions. And the entrance fee? Only $3 for those over 16. On Sundays the locals flock to the vast parade grounds in front of the fortress to fly thousands of kites in San Juan’s vigorous tradewinds.
- Old San Juan Wandering: Spend an afternoon and an evening wandering the atmospheric streets of Old San Juan. Each corner is filled with a wealth of surprises – from delicious mallorcas at La Bombonera, to sizzling live salsa music at the Nuyorican Cafe to the overflowing art galleries and restaurants of Calle Fortaleza, the area’s newest hotspot. Unless you buy a new painting for the living room, you’re sure to end your visit with a few bucks left for breakfast the next day.
- El Yunque: If you’re feeling adventurous, there’s no better way to get a sense of the island of Puerto Rico than renting a car ($40-$50/day). Grab a GPS and head for El Yunque National Forest, one of the island’s most beautiful natural wonders and only about an hour’s drive from San Juan. As the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, El Yunque features an astonishing diversity of wildlife, plenty of hiking trails and some refreshing waterfalls where you can stop for a swim. Cost to get in? Free.
- Hit the beach: There’s a number of beaches within the confines of San Juan if you’re looking to soak up a few rays. Condado has a strip of sand where you can kick back, throw around a frisbee and have a swim. It’s not the most picturesque beach but certainly convenient. If you really want to see the best of Puerto Rico’s beaches, take that rental car I mentioned and point it at Luquillo Beach, one of the most beautiful in all of Puerto Rico and only about an hour from San Juan. Along the edge are food vendors selling roast pork, mofongo and other Puerto Rican specialties.