Backpacking Puerto Rico: 7 Destinations You Must Visit

Backpacking Puerto Rico
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So, you’re going backpacking Puerto Rico? Great choice. This isle is a sun-soaked journey into the heart of the Caribbean, where tales of pirates and colonial navies swirl between the forts, rum punch sloshes in the coastal shacks, the surf is epic, and the nightlife more epic still. We don’t think you’re going to be disappointed!

Officially called the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, this unincorporated territory of the United States of America is home to over three million people. It sits between the lovely Greater Antilles isles, some 1,000 miles from Miami, but closer to the sailing paradises of the USVI and the honeymoon havens of the Dominican Republic. The isle itself is filled with incredible things to see and do…

From the UNESCO-tagged National Historic Site of the capital to the old sugar mills in the south, the surf beaches of Rincon to the bird-flitting rainforest reserves of El Yunque, there’s oodles to get stuck into. And that’s precisely where this guide to backpacking Puerto Rico comes in, offering tips, hints, and info on where to visit while watching the budget.

Old San Juan

Old San Juan
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Everyone who’s anyone, no matter if you’re backpacking Puerto Rico on a shoestring or looking to stay in sleek colonial hotels with stacks of dollars to splash, heads to Old San Juan. It’s one of the bucket-list destinations of the island, but also the home of the headiest nightlife scene (especially around spring break) and some of the liveliest shopping districts.

As a backpacker, you might be better off ditching the hotels of Old San Juan itself because they can be quite pricy. Alternatively, there are some posh-tel options in the heart of the 500-year-old neighborhood. Check out Fortel Hostel ($-$$), which is a very swish establishment really close to the main sights that offers mixed dorm rooms for about $30-35 per person, per night.

Backpack dropped? Great. It’s time to head out and explore this amazing town. There’s plenty to get through, including the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a mighty castle raised by the Spanish to fend of pirates and other colonial powers, and the Catedral de San Juan, a gorgeous medley of Gothic building work that reigns as the second-oldest Christian cathedral in the whole of the New World!

Rincon

Rincon
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Calling all surfers looking to go backpacking Puerto Rico – Rincon is a must. Perched on the far north-western coastline of the island, it’s a place where the vibes slow down, the people become uber-chilled, and the talk is mainly of the fresh seafood and the incoming swell.

Rincon itself spreads over about eight miles of shoreline. It’s stunning stuff – think coconut palms and honey-tinted sands, palms that bristle in the trade winds and white-painted lighthouses that punctuate rocky coves. It’s also eight miles of world-class wave riding. From Domes Beach, where relaxed lefts curl into a wide bay, to the fast barrels of Dogman’s and XXL Tres Palmas, there are lots of reasons it’s on the radar of pros.

When day turns to evening in Rincon, you simply have to take some time to gaze at that sunset. This town has actually won awards for its shimmering night shows, which see the western Caribbean turn shades of ochre and vermillion as the light fades over the horizon. Of course, there are oodles of top-notch surfer shacks for you to enjoy that with a cold one in hand!

Culebra

Culebra
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Culebra is a smudge of paradise to the east of Puerto Rico proper. It’s one of the smallest isles in the Puerto Rico chain that has a continuous population and takes about 45 minutes to reach from the port in Fajardo on the east coast od the main island (tickets cost a mere $4.45 return). There are also short-haul flights going to the local airstrip, but they cost CONSIDERABLY more.

The main reason we put this one up there with the top places to visit when backpacking Puerto Rico is Flamenco Beach. It’s an undoubted stunner. We’re talking almost a mile-long curve of sugar-white sand with turquoise seas dotted with little coral gardens. You can still spot the rusting outline of WWII tanks on the coast there, but local artists have worked them into something special.

Culebra also reigns as one of the top scuba diving places in Puerto Rico. A handful of companies now offer to take qualified PADI divers out to the various coves and reef habitats in search of rays and turtles. Oh, and be sure to hit the beach after dark, as there are some of the most vibrant bioluminescent displays in the territory on Culebra.

El Yunque

El Yunque
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El Yunque has the pretty cool distinction of being the only protected reserve of purely tropical rainforest in the whole of the United States. Dominating the eastern end of the island, it’s a must-visit for anyone interested in wildlife, not to mention anyone backpacking Puerto Rico who fancies getting off the beaten path to keep the company of exotic birds and orchids instead of beach bums.

Hiking is top of the bill. Marked and well-maintained trails can help you explore the wild, wild depths of the island’s high mountain terrain. They take you through a land of 10,000 shades of green and emerald, with ancient Sierra palms giving way to mist-gathering cloud forests. Keep your eyes peeled for boa constrictors, coqui frogs, and elegant birds of prey as you go, folks!

Most people visit El Yunque on a day trip from either San Juan or one of the main beach resorts on the northern shore of the island. We think it’s better to give the region some days of its own. Good accommodation options for backpackers on a tighter budget include the outdoorsy tent hotel of La Casa de Vida Natural ($) and the remote forest lodge of El Yunque Rainforest Inn ($$).

Vieques

Vieques
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Vieques is one of those backpacker destinations that really inspires the imagination. It’s the sort of place you’d imagine Leo DiCaprio seeking out in The Beach. A whole separate island to Puerto Rico, it’s still a part of the US territory, but lies about seven miles away in the sparkling Caribbean Sea between the USVI. To get there, you’ll need to hop on the 30-minute ferry from Ceiba to Isabel Segunda (the main, and only, town that exists on Vieques).

What awaits is one of the most untouched and unknown and unexplored parts of the whole region. Up until very recently, it was mainly known as an ex-WWII naval base that was inhabited by a corps of marines right up until 2003. They’ve since departed, and the place is now largely given over to protected National Wildlife Refuge land.

Backpackers can cruise dusty roads on the hunt for empty bays and coconut-strewn beaches where there’s hardly another soul in sight. The best of them beckon in the southeast, in the form of lovely Playa La Chiva and Caracas Beach, both of which are delectable swathes of white sand fringed by mangroves and estuaries.

Ponce

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Looking to see a different side to the island than the bumping spring break bars of San Juan and the surf beaches of Rincon? Ponce is the perfect place. It’s the southern city of Puerto Rico, tucked into a large bay at the end of the main highways that come across from the northern coast.

Named after Juan Ponce de Leon y Loayza, the grandson of the great explorer Ponce de Leon, it’s an historic town that oozes colonial charm. Expect baroque churches and cobbled plazas, along with grand Spanish-influenced building work like the Catedral de la Guadalupe and the great Castillo Serralles.

Aside from the uniqueness, there are two things that we think make this one stand out as one of the top places to visit when backpacking Puerto Rico. First: It tends to be cheaper than the north of the island, as there are more local B&Bs and fewer large-scale resort hotels in the surrounding region. Second: Ponce is the steppingstone for reaching the remote beaches of Guánica, where crystal-clear waters lap empty bays.

Manati

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Put visions of brochure-worthy beaches to the back of your mind for just a moment. Forget about the buzz of San Juan’s rum bars for a bit. Manati is one of those places that not too many travelers know about, but it really excels in one thing and one thing only: Outdoors adventure…

Yep, the small town to the west of the capital is slowly but surely establishing itself as the adventure mecca of Pueto Rico. It’s doing that thanks to natural wonders like the Cueva de las Golondrinas (a sandstone cave complex that hosts huge bat colonies) and the Hacienda La Esperanza (a onetime plantation estate that’s now an overgrowing reserve with jungles, mangrove trails, and unique wetlands).

When you’re not tying up the walking boots and getting the adrenaline going, Manati can offer a charming colonial town center and the beaches of Mar Chiquita, a perfect conch-shell cove that’s great for families.

Backpacking Puerto Rico – a conclusion

This guide touches on just seven of the most incredible places there are to visit while backpacking Puerto Rico. From the great rainforests of El Yunque to the tubular waves of Rincon, it’s got loads and loads to offer. But it’s just the beginning, because there are oodles more untold treasures on offer in this unincorporated US territory; plenty to keep you going as you hop from jungle to cove, colonial town to rum bar.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.