If your Caribbean adventure has come down to Jamaica vs Puerto Rico, then you’ve come to the right place. In this JTG guide, we’ll home in on these two sun-kissed, palm-threaded, beach-rich destinations in the sparkling sea on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean, all with the aim of helping you decide where’s best for you and your travel crew this year…
We’ll warn you: It’s not going to be an easy choice. These are two truly stunning locales. They are places where bays of cotton-white powder meet waters filled with turtles and coral reefs. They are spots where luxury hotels perfect for honeymooners sit next to wild jungles blooming with orchids and gushing with paradise waterfalls. They both also have buzzing nightlife scenes and plenty of history.
But there are key differences between the two islands. One might be better for foodies while the other comes with rich colonial-era history. One’s got wilder rainforests, but the other offers bopping music venues that are famed all around the globe. So, without further ado, here’s Jamaica vs Puerto Rico…
Jamaica vs Puerto Rico for ease of travel
Jamaica has two international airports. One (Norman Manley International Airport) is in the south, near the capital in Kingston. The other (Donald Sangster International Airport) is in the north, around the resort strip of Montego Bay. The latter is the one that most travelers aim for, since it’s got better links to the paradise beaches of Ocho Rios and Negril. However, there are also plenty of international flights to and from the USA into Norman Manley International. The kicker in Jamaica is that the vast majority of nationalities get visa-free entry for period of up to six months (yep, six!), including passport holders from the UK, the USA, NZ, and India.
Puerto Rico is mainly served by the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport near the capital of San Juan. There are more connections going there from the mainland USA than you can shake a rum punch at. For the best deals, check out budget fliers like Jet Blue and Spirit, although more premium names – United, Delta – also run regular links from major hubs like LA, Miami, and JFK. Long-haul flights also land at the same airport from Europe, taking about 12 hours from London Heathrow. Remember that Puerto Rico is a part of the USA, which means you’ll need to satisfy conditions to enter that country before you head over, usually via the Visa Waiver Program.
Winner: Jamaica because most people can enter visa-free.
Jamaica vs Puerto Rico for beaches
Jamaica is often hailed as the home of the very best beaches in the whole of the Caribbean. It’s hard to argue, especially once you’ve laid eyes on the glittering white sands of Negril’s Seven Mile Beach, the secret inlets of Frenchman’s Cove, and the James Bond-style escape of Ocho Rios. Generally speaking, the best of the bays in Jamaica are along the north coast of the island, leaving the south to mangroves and fishing hamlets. Our only complaint is that development – hotels, bars, restaurants – has been allowed to carry on almost uninterrupted in many of the top coastal areas, so it’s very built up.
Puerto Rico has some corkers of its own. The ones that are often touted as the finest don’t actually lie on the island of PR itself, but on idyllic Culebra Island to the east. They hit a zenith with the sand-bottomed lagoon at Playa Flamenco, where dashes of coral reefs entertain budding snorkelers. As you head west from San Juan, you enter the main resort parts of the island. It’s pretty sand after pretty sand there, from Crash Boat Beach to Pico de Piedra, eventually ending with the lovely wave mecca of Rincon, one of the best places to surf in the USA.
Winner: Jamaica takes it on the beach front.
Jamaica vs Puerto Rico for things to do
Jamaica can cap off stunning beaches with all sorts of adventure pursuits. Delve into the Blue Mountains that score through the northeastern side of the island and you can scale to 2,000-meter-plus peaks and see exotic boas and swallowtail birds, not to mention sample highly prized Jamaican coffee. Along the north coast, fun-filled attractions like Mystic Mountain offer bobsled rides themed on Cool Runnings for families, while drop-ins like Floyd’s Pelican Bar – built on stilts above the Caribbean – are an experience you’ll never forget. Oh, and then there’s the reggae, Jamaica’s most iconic export, played in smoky jazz joints all over Kingston and beyond.
Puerto Rico can probably trump Jamaica on the history front. The first place you’re likely to land is the capital of San Juan, which has a UNESCO old center filled with cobbled lanes and colonial relics like the Fortaleza that date back nearly 500 years! Follow that up with a session on the world-class waves of Rincon out west. Dive into the El Yunque reserve for strange orchid and parrot encounters. Go to Fajardo to snorkel through coral reefs and see bioluminescent bays at night. It’s pretty amazing.
Winner: Puerto Rico just about for us.
Jamaica vs Puerto Rico for food
Jamaica is all about the jerk. Marinated chicken or pork in a soup of chopped Scotch bonnet and allspice, it’s cooked in sizzling shacks and chic hotel restaurants alike, everywhere from Kingston to Mo’Bay. You can’t not try it! We’d say it’s at its best when bought straight off the coals at from a roadside seller. That’s not it, either. The jazzy mix of ackee and codfish is the national dish, a sweet-salty combo of seafood and exotic fruits mixed with spice. Oh, and then there’s the oxtail stew – the one to eat up in the highland villages of the Blue Mountains.
Puerto Rico has all the staples of the USA. There are McDonald’s and Wendy’s and all those fast-food names. But that doesn’t mean there’s not something more authentic for food lovers on this island. That comes in the form of the old cuisine, which fuses Spanish, African, and Arawak flavors to offer dishes like the mofongo, a mashed-up plantain mix that’s often served with fish, or the lechón asado, a whole roast piglet.
Winner: Jamaica because of the jerk!
Jamaica vs Puerto Rico for hotels
Look, there’s no shortage of hotels on either of these isles. They both have a rep for being two of the hottest travel destinations in the Caribbean. Jamaica’s north shore is a veritable mecca for honeymoon pads. They often occupy huge sections of the coast, with infinity pools meters from the beach and private runs of sand just for guests. However, you can also find some enchanting homestays in the mountains and more midrange hotels for families that also have good access to the beaches. Here are a few examples:
- Grand Palladium Lady Hamilton Resort & Spa ($$$) – A fine example of an all-inclusive resort, this one’s huge and has a stunning pool, the largest in Jamaica, they say!
- GoldenEye ($$) – Stay in the very place that 14 James Bond novels were written by Jamaica fan Ian Fleming.
- Marvettes Hideaway ($) – A riverside homestay with oodles of character and a pleasing price tag.
Puerto Rico has a similar vibe on the hotel front. There are oodles of city stays aimed at partiers and spring breakers in the capital of San Juan. That changes to midrange and upscale beach hotels as you cruise along the coast to the east and west. The hotel offering eventually transforms into more low-key surf hostels and surf hotels as you approach Rinncon. Deeper inland come the eco lodges on the cusp of the El Yunque Rainforest. Here are some of the top picks:
- The Surfing Turtle ($) – A chilled surfer pitstop near the beach and the forests.
- Casa Grande Mountain Retreat ($$) – Escape to the lush mountains in the heart of this island with this eco hotel.
- Villa Herencia Hotel ($$$) – Outdoor bathtubs and a rooftop terrace are just two draws at this historic hotel in Old San Juan.
Jamaica vs Puerto Rico for cities
Puerto Rico’s capital is pretty famous. Cue San Juan. With more than 500 years of history, it was founded by Spanish adventurers on their way to the New World. That means you get coral-stone forts and UNESCO heritage sites to see, along with enchanting, cobbled streets lined by pastel-painted shops and cafes. There’s a modern side to the main city, too, in Condado and the resort areas that surround it, creating a place that’s always abuzz with life.
Jamaica’s biggest town is Kingston. It’s a gritty and wild place, always choked with traffic and set to the sounds of sizzling jerk and reggae. We think it’s great for a couple of days, but don’t come expecting the same history as in San Juan. Montego Bay is also fun but lacks a distinct character, as it’s now largely a gateway to the beaches and the hotel resorts of the northern shoreline.
Winner: Puerto Rico.
Jamaica vs Puerto Rico for nightlife
If partying is on your schedule, then you’ll find the most buzzing scene down in Kingston in Jamaica. It’s the capital of the country and is positively brimming with chilled reggae bars with local vibes. The more touristy scene is up north, around Negril and Montego Bay. Famous names like Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville beckon up there, along with the more curious Floyd’s Pelican Bar, which is now something of a rite of passage in Jamaica for drinkers. For the chicest scene, head to the sunset cliff bars of Negril and Seven Mile Beach.
Then there’s Puerto Rico. This place gets wild. Like WILD! The annual spring break influx in February and March turns it into a sort of Cancun in the middle of the Caribbean, as the bars of Old San Juan and the resort strips of Condado go into overdrive. Other parts of the island manage to retain more of a relaxed feel, most notably Rincon, where the surfers fuel sunset shacks and chilled Caribbean eateries.
Winner: Puerto Rico, especially when it’s spring break time!
Jamaica vs Puerto Rico – a conclusion
Look, these two islands are downright amazing places. You can hardly go wrong picking one or the other. We do think that Jamaica just about edges it when it comes to beaches, but Puerto Rico wins it on the nightlife front. That said, Jamaica is probably better for foodie travelers, and has a more welcoming entry policy because most nationalities can come in visa free.