13 things to know before you head to Puerto Rico

Destinations

With breathtaking oceanfront vistas, lush, breezy mountains, tropical rainforests and one of the coolest culinary scenes in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is the kind of destination to just enjoy the ride.

Learning a few of the island’s unspoken social rules will go a long way to helping you enjoy the vibes and understanding what makes Puerto Rico such a memorable spot for your vacation. Here are our top tips on planning, etiquette, and health and safety in Puerto Rico.

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1. Check the visa rules (US citizens don’t need a passport)

While Puerto Rico is its own country, and local laws and customs differ from those of the United States, the island is still a Commonwealth of the USA.

This means US citizens don’t require a passport or a visa for entry. Flights from the US are considered domestic, so you won’t go through customs when you arrive on the island and you won’t need to present a visa or pay a departure tax when you leave.

However, visitors must still pay the local tax of 11.5% on goods and services and you’ll be required to pass through the US Department of Agriculture channel at the airport before you leave, just to make sure you don’t bring fruits or vegetables or open food packets back into the US.

Non-US citizens may need to apply for a 90-day visa prior to arrival in Puerto Rico, but countries that are part of the US Visa Waiver Program won’t need a visa thanks to international agreements. Check out this list to see what countries are part of the program.

2. Rent a car for long-distance road trips

Public transportation in Puerto Rico often falls short. The bulk of the San Juan metropolitan area – comprising the municipalities of San Juan, Bayamón and some parts of Carolina – is served by buses run by Autoridad Metropolitana de Autobuses (AMA), but the routes and pick up times are unreliable.

Taking a road trip to the beautiful central mountain range, the beaches of the northwest or the southwestern desert requires a rental car.

Cars can go up or down in price depending on the season, but you’ll get more out of your trip if you’re able to explore on your own and make all the stops you need to take photographs at the amazing miradores (lookout points) sprinkled along Expressway 22 in the north or Route 66 in the northwest.

If you want to explore beyond San Juan and the beaches, it’s worth renting a car © OGphoto / Getty Images

3. Don’t expect to see the whole island in one trip

Puerto Rico is 100 miles long and 35 miles wide, but don’t let that fool you – the geography is anything but small in scale and there are many things you’ll want to do while you’re there. The island has a surface area of 3515 sq miles, and white, sandy beaches are only one of the natural wonders you’ll get to experience in Puerto Rico.

Visitors can marvel at bioluminescent bays, caves that are thousands of years old and adorned with Taino hieroglyphics, and a wealth of rivers, canyons, high mountain peaks and salt flats.

While a lot of tourist attractions and popular bars are in San Juan, real Puerto Rican culture is often best encountered in places outside of the metropolitan area. It can take up to three hours to get from one side of the island to the other, and there are bound to be some roads that are either closed or temporarily closed for repairs.

Traveling from one end of the island to the other can be a breeze if you use the expressways, or it can be a long rollercoaster ride via the island’s beautiful backroads. Expect delays due to construction and improvement work along major highways, and be prepared for epic traffic jams from 6am to 9am and 4pm to 7pm, when most people are either heading to or home from work.

4. Pack bathing suits and your Sunday best

As a former Spanish colony, Puerto Rico was left with a legacy of Spanish colonialist practices, including widespread Catholicism, as is common in other nearby Latin American countries such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Puerto Ricans tend to be quite conservative when it comes to dress codes and the places where these apply. In Old San Juan – where the governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza is located – it’s common to see workers in full suits or long shirts regardless of the tropical heat.

Flip flops are usually reserved for the beach or super casual situations, such as trips to kiosks and beachside restaurants, or riverside walks. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you show up at the main mall, Plaza las Américas, in only a bathing suit.

Some clubs have dress codes too, requiring men to wear nice shoes or women to not wear sneakers. Pack your bathing suit and flip flops, but also bring some dressy outfits for going out at night or if you plan to visit any religious sites.  

5. Buy tickets ahead for tours and attractions

If you’re planning to join a snorkeling trip, go on a catamaran tour or eat at the 1919 Restaurant in the Vanderbilt Hotel, book your spot ahead of time. Trust us, planning ahead will be a game-changer.

Man playing an accordion in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Discuss local politics with care in Puerto Rico  © Colvin / Getty Images

6. Don’t expect everyone to speak English

Regardless of Puerto Rico’s modern political status, Spanish remains the language most widely spoken on the island. While you’ll find plenty of Puerto Ricans who speak near-perfect English, you’re most likely to meet these people in the metropolitan area and peripheral cities such as Caguas, Bayamón, Guaynabo, Carolina and Trujillo Alto.

Even in Old San Juan, where restaurant and tourism industry workers will speak to you in English without a problem, it’s worth asking someone if they speak English before asking for directions. Code-switching is hard and it might take a second or two to realize what language people are speaking.

If you’re venturing outside of the main tourist zones, brush up on your Spanish, be patient and courteous and you’ll make fast friends with island residents.

7. Discuss politics with care   

When asking Puerto Ricans about their experiences of major national events such as Hurricane Maria, it’s tempting to come to the conclusion that Puerto Rico becoming a US state would solve these issues. Even if you mean well, saying this to Puerto Ricans comes off as paternalistic and colonialist, implying that Puerto Ricans lack the agency to determine their own political status.

As dramatic as this sounds, conversations about the island’s political situation can get heated, and bring a lot of emotional baggage as Puerto Ricans have never been able to fully agree on the best status for the islands amongst themselves. A better approach is to come to these conversations with an open mind.

Remember that Puerto Rican politics and US politics are incredibly different. The best thing you can do is listen to Puerto Ricans and let them tell you their stories, their hopes and what they want to see the island become in the future.

Fried fish with plantains and salad, a Puerto Rican staple
Throw yourself into the rich variety of Puerto Rican cuisine © Ayotography / Shutterstock

8. Be ready to sample the full range of Puerto Rican cuisine

Don’t let the tasty street snacks – pernil (roast pork), alcapurrias (stuffed, fried fritters) and bacalaitos (codfish fritters) – steal all your attention. While these traditional and delicious foods are prevalent, Puerto Rican cuisine is vast and complicated, with influences that range from West Africa to Spain and Asia.

You’ll find vegetarian-friendly restaurants such as vegan cafe El Grifo in Caguas and 100% HP in San Juan. Then there’s the fine dining experience at internationally renowned 1919 Restaurant inside the Vanderbilt Hotel in Condado, or French restaurant Trois Cent Onze.

Puerto Rico has a host of extraordinarily talented home-grown chefs and wonderful influences from other countries, such as the island’s ubiquitous Puerto Rican-Chinese restaurants, which are typically family-run and cozy. Come for the mofongo (mashed fried plantains) and pernil, but stay for the surprising breadth of culinary experiences that await in Puerto Rico.

9. Be ready for the real “island time”

It’s tempting to think of Puerto Rico as a laid-back escape where the majority of the time is spent going to the beach or hanging around in the sun.

The reality is that the island is centered on a busy, metropolitan city, with people rushing to work early in the morning, and traffic jams at the end of long workdays.

If you need to do any errands, plan ahead, because government offices, fast food restaurants, bakeries and supermarkets will almost always have long lines. Making a scene or looking exasperated because the cashier took a little bit more time than usual will most likely earn you some dirty looks.

You’re on vacation; enjoy the slower pace and go with the flow. You’ll soon learn the art of Puerto Rican small talk and taking a breather while you wait. 

Colourful buildings by the sea in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Petty crime can be a risk on some urban beaches at night © Martin Wheeler / EyeEm / Getty Images

10. Be aware of the hurricane season

Hurricane season in the Caribbean runs from June 1 to November 30, and while Puerto Rico isn’t typically hit by hurricanes, when they do hit, they can be devastating. When booking hotels and plane tickets during hurricane season, always check with your airline about their natural disaster policies.

If you do happen to get stuck in Puerto Rico during a hurricane, your hotel will likely have an emergency plan. Tourists are well taken care of on the island, so ask your lodging about contingency measures before you go.

This is not to say you can’t travel during the hurricane season – indeed, June to November is one of the most wonderful seasons on the island. Just keep an eye on the news and monitor your favorite weather app for warnings of approaching storms.

11. Exercise caution on Puerto Rico’s beaches 

Beaches in Puerto Rico are beautiful, with crisp white sand and crystal clear waters for all to enjoy. However, there are usually no lifeguards on duty, and if you’re staying on the Atlantic coast in the north, the ocean tends to be choppier compared to the mild waves of the Caribbean in the south.

You can usually spot rip currents and whirlpools by the appearance of the surface of the water, which will look different to the water where waves are moving towards the beach.

Don’t panic if you do get caught in one – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends conserving your energy and swimming parallel to the shore until you get out of the current. While rip currents can be deadly, they rarely pull people under the water, just away from the shore.

Exercise caution when swimming with children and if you see a patch of water or a beach that’s completely empty, that’s usually for a reason. This could be jellyfish, spiky sea urchins or strong undercurrents.

When visiting the beach, don’t bring flashy jewelry, expensive cameras, or leave purses out in the open, as pickpockets can be an issue on high-traffic tourist beaches such as Ocean Park and Isla Verde.

12. Exercise the same caution you would use in a big city back home

Puerto Rico is generally safe for travelers but keep an eye out for risks such as dark, empty streets in Old San Juan and other San Juan neighborhoods. In particular, exercise caution when venturing out to clubs in Santurce – this is a high-crime area at night.

Some beaches in urban areas aren’t really safe to hang out at night either. There’s no police presence and these beaches tend to be hidden behind hotels and residences with little to no lighting, providing an excellent opportunity for petty crime. Research the area where you’re staying and try to speak to someone who already lives there or has visited to gauge safety levels. 

13. Don’t skimp on sunblock and bug spray

Caribbean sunlight can hit hard if you’re not used to it. The islands are close to the equator and get hit directly by the sun during most daylight hours, with noon to 4pm being the most punishing hours of the day. Don’t skimp on sunblock – aim for SPF50 or higher – and you’ll avoid the nasty burn.

Any local will tell you that bugs – especially mosquitoes – are a nuisance on summer nights. In the worst cases, they can also carry tropical diseases such as dengue fever, zika and chikungunya. Your best protection against bugs is to wear a lot of DEET-based bug spray, especially in areas close to bodies of sitting water, such as mangroves, lagoons and lakes.  

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