It’s almost hard to believe that these destinations are part of the United States. No passport required!! For those in the southern U.S., you can probably get here faster and definitely cheaper than to Disney World.
So rarely do you hear people talking about a vacation to Puerto Rico. In my opinion, this is a best kept secret. But the best secret of all is the island of Vieques (vee-ekez) just off the eastern coast. Palm trees, winding roads, secluded deserted beaches and wild horses. Totally undiscovered paradise at a fraction of the price of the Caribbean.
In recent years, hurricanes have devastated Puerto Rico and as with any island, its slow to recover. Do your homework and read recent traveler reviews before choosing hotels and restaurants, but definitely go here and support the people. Everyone speaks English but this is a great destination if you are trying to practice your Spanish.
For your first trip, fly into San Juan. From there it is an easy cab ride to the Old Town, your home base. You do not need a car if you plan to stay in and around this area. If you want to do an excursion, tour companies will provide transportation.
Where To Stay
You will stay in Old Town. This is a neighborhood of a few square blocks filled with shops, galleries, restaurants, hotels and B&Bs. The prices are very reasonable and every property is different.
I selected Villa Herencia because it was located in the oldest part of Old Town near the catherdral and was easy access to everything. It was a gem and I’d look no further if traveling here again. I picked a Sundeck Suite which had access to the rooftop patio which was a great place to have coffee in the morning. The accommodations were beautiful.
Things To Do
Old Town San Juan is to be wandered. Just start walking. There are many foods to try – some you’ve never heard of – mofongo, paella, ceviche, mallorca. Definitely a culinary destination – my selections below.
Definitely attend a mass in the cathedral (Catedral San Juan Bautista). You’ll see more of the elderly generation of locals than tourists.
Self-Guided Walking Tour-San Cristobal to El Morro
There are many ways to do a walking tour in Old San Juan. I googled and found an app called “GPSmycity” that offers options for this destination. I don’t remember using an audio tour, but I highly recommend them and would do that next time to add flavor. I just started at Castillo San Cristobal and walked to Castillo San Felipe del Morro and it was a lovely way to see the coastline. It was a drizzly day, but doable if weather doesn’t coooperate.
I’m not one to love forts on vacation, but I do always find that I get great photos and a little history at the same time. See my gallery below for a little inspiration if you’re not a fort person either….
Time to Eat
Here are my memorable food stops in Old San Juan, and what I ate. I was super lucky and ended up being in San Juan during SoFo, a food festival.
Three Must-Do Restaurants
This breakfast/lunch spot is like a small diner with the most amazing pastry plus your standard breakfast fare. I discovered the mallorca – a pastry stuffed with ham and cheese and sprinkled in powdered sugar. Divine. I believe there are many varieties. I think I had one with guava paste too that was excellent.
I had a wonderful meal here. They have live flamenco dancers…and if you’re brave enough, or have had enough Sangria, you might be one of them. Located in Old San Juan near the Cathedral.
La Factoria Bar & Nightclub
I’m not one for nightclubs so I hit this spot early. It was a recommendation of a friend who is from Puerto Rico and a foodie like myself. He said, “it looks seedy when you first walk in but keep going”. Hidden in a second room beyond the main bar is a speak-easy style, old world bar with craft cocktails and amazing tapas. This is a cult favorite so expect a mix of locals, musicians, artists and the lucky tourist who heard about it.
There was no sign outside. I had a general address and was told to look for the “Cafe Hijos” sign. This is usually a sign of a hidden gem.
Time for a little sun and sand! Hop an 8-minute flight to Vieques from San Juan airport. Rent a jeep, rent a bungalow. Grab provisions at a local market and your ready.
Why haven’t you ever heard of Vieques?
Located between the American Virgin Island of St. Thomas and Puerto Rico, this 20 mile x 3 mile island has an interesting history. Most recently the U.S. used this island as target practice for bombers for 6 decades. In 2003, George W. Bush agreed to stop this and remove the military presence, and gave $40 million to improve infrastructure and support tourism.
Today the island is all peace and tranquility. These are some of the most unspoiled beaches I’ve ever come across. And they are deserted. One warning – other than not to wander off into restricted areas where there may still be unexploded bombs – more important to watch for wild horses galloping along beside you while you are cruising in your jeep. Completely safe, English speaking, no-passport-required Vieques is truly a best kept secret.
Where To Stay
There are no large resorts on Vieques with the exception of a “W” hotel. If you stay there, you’re missing the whole point. It is on the worst side of the island from a beach and swimming perspective. I checked it out and felt like I was in Miami, not a tiny tropical island.
Search the web for options. There are not really any “beachfront” hotels. You need a car to access all beaches as they are spread around the island. There are lots of unique lodgings and Air B&Bs. I chose a very unique property called Hix Island House which offered completely open air accommodations. Really cool property though I’m not sure it’s for everyone. We did have a mosquito net over the futon bed, but because the (huge) suite is open to the elements, the furniture is essentially patio chairs and not that comfortable. If you are sitting around after dark, you can’t really leave the lights on very long or you’ll have more critters than comfort allows 🙂
That said, I actually loved the place and highly recommend it for something different. Pictures don’t do the room justice. Full kitchen with a basket of fresh fruits and breads delivered daily and fresh island breezes to cool you at night because the property is on a hill in the middle of the island. There is a pool and a yoga pavilion. And yes, wild horses.
Things To Do
There are two main towns on Vieques – Isabella and Esperanza. Isabella is on the north side of the island and a “city center”. Worth a drive and a visit, but I would recommend staying closer to Esperanza. This is a bohemian beach town and closer to the best beaches. They have a little strip of great restaurants with fresh seafood and tropical drinks. You can also hire various boating and water excursion tours there.
Bio-Luminescent Bay Kayak Tour
This is a must-do. You’ll be with a small group and have your own kayak to explore the bio-luminescent bay as the sun goes down. TIP: It’s not called Mosquito Bay for nothing. Good bug spray is a must – mainly just for before and after the paddle. They claim to be the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world. While you can do the trip anytime, it is best planned as close to a full moon as possible. Click the image here to link for more information.
This was so enjoyable and romantic. The bay is very shallow and calm, and your guide will keep your small group together as you weave in and out of the mangroves. I’d never seen anything like it.
Beaches, Beaches and More Beaches
A vacation on Vieques is about self-packed picnics and lazy days on the beach. Exactly what you came for. Most accommodations will provide you with beach chairs, umbrellas and coolers. Stock up at the local markets on sandwiches and snacks, and plenty of cold beer. Beaches on Vieques are truly deserted with no facilities or food stands. Yay!
Get an island map and you’ll have no trouble finding these. Many have no parking lot. You just drive up and find a little nook for the Jeep.
- Sun Bay- this beach is a local public spot and did have a nice man cracking coconuts and filling them with rum 🙂
- Bahia La Chiva (Blue Beach) – parking spot #14 or #21
- Punta Arenas
- Playa Grande – never saw another human all day
- Media Luna – my favorite
And the food….
There are hidden gems scattered around the island. Some are regular businesses, others don’t really post hours. They open when they have fresh catch or when they feel like it. It goes without saying that everything is open-air dining.
- Coqui Fire Cafe – amazing Mexican spot in Isabella, worth the drive. They do non-Mexican Friday Date Nights
- Bananas Guest House, Esperanza – average food but reasonably priced for the location and something for everyone.
- Tin Box – located somewhere in the middle of the island. BBQ! Abita Beer.
- Bieke’s Bistro – Isabella, totally local fare (huge portions, dirt cheap). Get the pork chop and ceviche.
- Rancho Chiolo – street-side local gem. HUGE mofongo with shrimp
- Bili – a very romantic spot in Esperanza. Fresh fish, best meal on the island.