How to Spend 3 Days in San Juan, Puerto Rico

If you want to travel from the US without a passport, but still want international vibes, Puerto Rico is an excellent option! Since Puerto Rico is an US territory, US residents can travel there as easily as going to Florida - It just takes a little extra time to get there. There's no currency exchange, cell phone service interruptions, or customs to deal with and, again, no passport required! 

Renting a car to explore the entire island is easy enough, but you could just as easily stay in San Juan and get around by walking or taking Ubers. Puerto Rico runs on island time, so you don't want to try to pack too much into your itinerary. That means if you only have a few days, staying in San Juan is probably your best option. Here are some of things you should make sure to do in, and around, San Juan.

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El Yunque Rainforest Tour and Luquillo Beach 

El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the US, so definitely worth a visit. There are trails and walkways from the visitor center, but I would do a tour of El Yunque Rainforest instead of trying to navigate it yourself - especially if you haven't rented a car, since it's about 45 minutes from San Juan. The tour I took started the day of by stopping at a fruit/souvenir/fresh juice/empanada stand where I marveled at the size of the tropical produce on display and had the best chicken empanadas of my entire life. 

From there, we went to El Yunque itself, where we took a short, easy, walk through the forest to the river. Hopefully the sun is out when you visit so that the chilly water will feel refreshing! That spot in the river had a rope swing positioned over the deeper end, and lush vegetation all around. One of the guides plucked a ripe passionfruit off a tree and shared half with me before joining the rope-swingers, and another was discussing the wildlife and foliage native to the area with the people that weren't interested in swimming.  


After visiting the river, our guides took us to the natural waterslide at Las Paylas. Something that wasn't apparent to me in the tour description was that children under a certain age or size weren't allowed to go down the waterslide for safety reasons - if you're planning on coming with children, you may want to check on the restrictions with the tour company in advance. I could see why those rules were in place, because the first time I went down the slide was exhilarating, but the second time I went down it, I hit a corner at the wrong speed and pin-balled the rest of the way down. My cousin filmed the whole thing and you can hear the collective oohhhhh of everyone that watched me go down in the video.... It didn't feel that bad, but it did look terrible (and hilarious after the fact)! 


As rough as my second run down the slide looked, going down the Las Paylas waterslide was one of the things on my Puerto Rico bucket list, and I don't regret doing it! I did end up joining the crowd in the shallows that were watching people go down the slide instead of directly participating after that though. After a little while, the tour moved on to Los Kioskos on Luquillo Beach. 

Unfortunately, I was there in December of 2021 and COVID-19 restrictions were still a very real thing. Because of that, we couldn't really browse the kiosks like I would have liked - there were masks required indoors, occupancy restrictions, and checks to undergo at the entrances. Instead of dealing with that whole rigamarole multiple times, we settled on getting some traditional Puerto Rican food at Terruño. After enjoying our mofongo and mojitos, we went to hang out on the beach and meet back up with the rest of the tour group. That's when we found out that the Mojito Lab was serving up giant mojitos with all sorts of flavor options. If the kiosks were more open, I would have loved to have grabbed something quicker to eat, get a Mojito Lab drink, and enjoy it all on the beach.  

Old San Juan Walking and Food Tour

As usual, I scheduled a walking food tour while I was in San Juan - I couldn't help myself! I loved learning about the history of the city from our guide, who was extremely knowledgeable about all things Puerto Rico-related. 

We started the day off at a coffee shop, which I was personally thankful for. I actually tried to go to this particular coffee shop, Don Ruiz, before the tour, but it was in the courtyard of an old military facility that my un-caffeinated brain couldn't figure out how to get into. We were served little ham breakfast sandwiches, called mallorcas, that sort of reminded me of a monte cristos. Then they brought out coffees, and I hesitated when I noticed there was no sugar or cream. I planned to ask for some because I'm not really a fan of black coffee, but took a sip while I was waiting and was absolutely shocked to find that I didn't really need it! For the first and only time ever, I enjoyed a cup of black coffee. You better believe I brought some Don Ruiz coffee beans home to enjoy back in Michigan! 


Next we walked through the old town and made our way to Chocobar Cortes. If you're a sweets person, Chocobar is for you - every single thing on the menu has chocolate incorporated into it. And if you're not a sweets person (like me) - Chocobar is still for you! Case and point: we had tacos with chocolate hot sauce, that I could have easily eaten a dozen of, and a delicious chilled chocolate drink. I learned several interesting things while we enjoyed our food. First, was that Puerto Ricans put a little block of cheddar cheese in their hot chocolate and let it melt before drinking it. We thought that was crazy, but our guide thought it was crazy that we didn't do that. Second, we learned about Puerto Rico's history of chocolate making and how that related to the coffee we enjoyed earlier. And third, we heard the story of how the company's founder helped to address literacy issues by creating comic strips complete with an original superhero, and making them affordable enough for people of all walks of life in Puerto Rico to buy and enjoy. 


We didn't have the time or appetite to try more food on the menu during the tour, but my cousin and I did return a couple days later to try the chocolate grilled cheese before the end of our trip. When we weren't with our guide, we had to wait for a table, but I would wait a while for the food there. 


We also had two smaller meals that were more traditional - one of meat, rice, and beans, and one of fish with flan for dessert. And, of course, Puerto Rico has excellent rum, so we had drinks with our meals too. I learned that soursop is "guanabana" in Spanish and it makes for an excellent cocktail flavor. 

Rum Tasting Tour

Speaking of excellent rum, we made sure to do a rum tasting tour while we were in San Juan! Our food tour guide recommended Don Q or Ron del Barrilito, but by the time she did so, we had already made reservations at Bacardi. 

Bacardi is actually a Cuban rum, which is why the locals aren't a fan, but the Bacardi facility in Puerto Rico is currently the largest premium rum distillery in the world. Plus, there is a rum that is exclusively made at that facility (casa Bacardi special reserve), so visiting Casa Bacardi is still an experience unique to Puerto Rico. 


Our tour included a welcome cocktail, a tour of the Bacardi family museum, and a tasting with a chocolate pairing. 

Snorkeling with Turtles Adventure

My favorite thing we did in San Juan was our snorkeling adventure. There is a bay in the Escambron Marine Park that a tour company takes groups out in. The bay is open to the ocean and the animals are allowed to come and go freely so there is no guarantee that you will see a sea turtle during your tour, even though they do like to hang out there. However, if you do see a sea turtle, it makes it that much more exciting! We saw various fish, sea urchins, and, towards the end of our tour, not one, but TWO sea turtles! 


Respecting the wildlife is important, so the rule is that you can't touch any of the animals you come across. I didn't realize how difficult it would be not to try to pet a sea turtle that swam within feet of me. But those rules are what keep the animals coming back to the bay and allow this tour to continue operating, so I managed to resist. 

In addition to sea turtles, other exotic wildlife that frequent this bay include a manatee and a friendly barracuda. I would normally panic if I was in the water with a large, wild, barracuda, but the guides let us know in advance that we might run into her because she loves to hang out and watch the tours and has never been aggressive. 

The guide carries a go pro during the tour around the bay and the sends all the videos and pictures to everyone, so that you can just enjoy the experience without worrying about taking your own photographs. The tour company also provides the snorkel masks, flippers, and life jackets in whatever size you need. The bay isn't huge the the guide will go whatever speed is needed for the group, so it's a great tour for all ages and swim levels (provided that everyone is capable of swimming on their own). 


When coming to and from the tour, it should be noted that most cars can't seem to make their way into the Escambron Marine Park even though there is a parking lot right in front of it. The tour guides parked there, but our Uber had to drop us off and pick us up from a nearby hotel on a main road. 

Relax on a Beach

San Juan is on the north coast of Perto Rico, so there are plenty of beaches around to relax on. Right next to our snorkeling adventure in Escambron Marine Park was Escambron Beach. It was an extremely large, clean, public beach with lifeguards and bathrooms complete with outdoor showers to rinse off in. It seems like a lot of people have trouble finding the bathrooms when visiting for the first time - they are on the far East side of the beach towards the marine park and bay. 


Condado beach is another great option, and has a ton of hotels in the area if you want to stay there. We stayed at a hotel close to, but not in Condado, that was only a few minutes walk from Ocean beach. I loved the location, and Ocean beach offered an easy, less crowded, but still public option we could easily spend our free time at. 

Explore the Castles in Old San Juan

A daily entrance ticket will get you into both Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) and Castillo San Cristobal, but it's not a big deal if you don't have time for both because the ticket will only set you back $10 per person (in December 2021). El Morro sits North of Old San Juan, overlooking the San Juan Bay and we went to check it out after the Old San Juan walking and food tour since we were already in the area. 


It only takes about an hour to explore El Morro, so it's well worth the time. It also gives you excellent views of the San Juan coastline. 


Castillo San Cristobal is located at the Eastern edge of Old San Juan, since it was built to protect the city from land attacks. The two forts are a little under 1 mile apart, so it is possible to walk between them if you want to. We didn't make it to Castillo San Cristobal before it closed at 5pm, though. 

Enjoy a Night Out 

There is normally a vibrant night life in San Juan. Unfortunately COVID-19 restrictions put a damper on this aspect of my trip. There are two areas that a mix of locals and tourists usually frequent - the T-Mobile district, which is newer, and La Placita de Santurce, which offers a ton of cool bar options in a compact area. Despite the restrictions, we did explore La Placita de Santurce one night, and I can only imagine how much fun it would be to go back with everything open! We tried going to JungleBird and found it closed. So we ended up at La Penultima, and I can confirm that they had great atmosphere, food, and drinks!

Another option for going out would be salsa dancing. Every Thursday Piso Viejo offers free salsa classes from 8-10pm. After the class, there is music so you can put your newfound salsa skills to the test! 

Check out the Street Art

Santurce is also worth visiting during the day. Graffiti artists have turned the walls of buildings in the area into works of art. If you start at the intersection of Manual Fernandez Juncos Avenue and Calle Cerra, and then walk toward highway 42, you'll see murals everywhere you look. 


Each year there is a street art festival where new murals are created, and artists have been invited from around the globe to add their contributions, so the art is ever-evolving. 


You can go on a tour to see the murals, but honestly there's no need to - the neighborhood is safe to walk around and it's fun to explore and find the murals on your own!

Go on a Tour of a Bioluminescent Bay 

Laguna Grande is located in Fajardo, just to the East of El Yunque rainforest. While not technically a bay, Laguna Grande is the closest to San Juan of the three "bio bays" in Puerto Rico. Small organisms in the water will light up when they feel movement, so paddling through the water will create a glowing effect around your kayak. 

Tours are offered with transportation from San Juan, but it's a really popular option so it has to be booked well in advance. I'll have to go on a bio bay tour on my next trip to Puerto Rico, because when I was looking 3 weeks in advance, there were no openings left on any of the days I was visiting. 

Itinerary 

If all the activities listed above sound good to you, follow this free itinerary that includes them all when planning your trip! Or, start with my suggested itinerary and customize it to fit your needs. 



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