San Juan, Puerto Rico - Caribbean Port of Call

Things to Do and See in San Juan - El Yunque National Forest

El Yunque Waterfall
••• Waterfall in El Yunque National Park in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico Photo (c) Linda Garrison

San Juan is on the island of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. Many cruise ships visit San Juan because there are so many things to do in the city and surrounding countryside. Puerto Rico is filled with fun outdoor activities, many historical sites, and some gorgeous beaches and good shopping. Plus, it's in the USA. No wonder cruise passengers enjoy a stopover at Puerton Rico.

This three-page article discusses some of the things to see and do in San Juan and on the island of Puerto Rico.

Hike and Explore El Yunque National Forest

For those who have already seen San Juan or who wish to venture out into the countryside of beautiful Puerto Rico, I enjoyed a shore excursion to the Luquillo Mountains and El Yunque National Forest of Puerto Rico, about 45 minutes from San Juan. This trip was a half-day trip for about 25 of us and included hiking for about an hour along a trail to a waterfall and pool. All in all, it was a most enjoyable day.

The Caribbean National Forest-- or El Yunque, as it is commonly known, is one of Puerto Rico's tropical wonders. At 28,000 acres, it is not a large national forest compared to some in the mainland United States, but it is our only national tropical rain forest in the U.S. Forest Service. The highest peak in El Yunque is El Toro, which tops out at 3,532 feet. The park is named for the anvil-shaped El Yunque peak. The forest is thick but covered with dozens of trails, making hiking fun and educational.

El Yunque hid the Carib Indians for two hundred years, but today you will only find 240 species of trees, along with numerous vines and orchids. It rains a lot in El Yunque--over 100 billion gallons each year! All of this rain makes the vegetation lush but the trails slippery. El Yunque is a bird sanctuary and home to the rare (we didn't see any) Puerto Rican parrot.

One animal you are sure to see and hear is the small tree frog called the coqui. El Yunque is home to millions of these inch-long frogs, and their "singing" is present everywhere.

Our excursion included a 45-minute drive through the outskirts of San Juan and away from the sea into the mountains. We rode up into the scenic park in a van and parked near the entrance to the La Mina trail. We met our guides at the trailhead. The shore excursion hike was run by Ecoxcursion of Luquillo, Puerto Rico. Our guides furnished each of us with a small backpack that held a water bottle, towel, and snack. The trail wound through the forest, ending at the beautiful La Mina Falls. The coqui sang to us as we tramped along, trying to avoid the puddles and slippery rocks. The trail crossed many small springs, and the guide was quite knowledgeable, pointing out many different trees and plants. The day was very hot and muggy, as is normal in the steamy rain forest. Some of our cruise mates (including my husband Ronnie) went swimming at the waterfall's pool to cool off. I skipped the swim because the rocks around the pool were very slippery. Being very clumsy, I didn't want to break something that far away from home.

After a short break at the falls, we drank our water, put our shoes back on, and headed back to the van. The only part of the hike we didn't like was the return trip. We had to hike out the same way we came in! I think most of us would have preferred a trail that was more circular rather than having to hike back on the same trail. Unfortunately for us, the guides said that continuing on the same trail would not cross a road where the van could meet us for quite a long distance. So, we all turned around and went back the same way we had come.

If you have been to San Juan before and used your time ashore to explore old San Juan, you might want to consider venturing out into the heart of the Puerto Rican countryside the next time you are in port. We thought the trip was fun, and it helped us walk off a few ounces of the pounds we had gained on the cruise ship!

If you want more ideas on how to spend your time in San Juan, check out the next 2 pages of this article for several more suggestions of things to do in San Juan. One of my favorite (and most unusual) San Juan experiences (described on page 3) was a visit to the bioluminescent Laguna Grande near Fajardo, on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. We paddled in the dark, through a mangrove swamp, in a two-person kayak, to reach the lagoon. What great stories we brought home from that one! You'll either need to be on a ship that departs from San Juan in the late evening, or add this excursion as a pre- or post-cruise experience on cruises embarking or disembarking in San Juan.

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San Juan is a busy port of call for Caribbean cruises. It is also the Caribbean's number one embarkation point for cruise ships, with over one million cruise passengers embarking on hundreds of cruises each year. The cruise terminal in San Juan may see as many as 10 cruise ships at any one time, but fortunately for cruisers, the port is designed for high volume. It is conveniently located on the historic San Juan peninsula, a short walk from the Plaza del la Marina and most of the Old Town San Juan's historic treasures.

Sometimes when the port is very busy, some ships will dock at less convenient piers. If this happens, the ship will supply a taxi or van to the Old Town. Puerto Rico is the largest island in the eastern Caribbean, and has many activities for cruisers who have ported in San Juan.

Although there are many interesting shore excursions in Puerto Rico, here are some ideas of things to do that will give you some of the flavor of this old Spanish U.S. city.

Explore the Old City

Old San Juan is a wonder to see. Cruise ships dock right at the edge of the old city, and much of it is within walking distance. The two major fortresses of old San Juan, San Felipe del Morro and San Cristobal, were built over 400 years ago. These massive structures are fun to explore, and the old city between them is full of of houses, cobblestone streets, and other interesting sights. The narrow streets of old town also hold surprises such as small bars, gardens, and amazing plazas such as Plaza San Jose and Plaza Colon.

Explore a Museum

The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico features Puerto Rican artwork from the 17th century to the present. There is a new east wing with a beautiful stained glass window and a theater dedicated to the late actor Raul Julia.

Go to a Baseball Game

Puerto Ricans love sports and baseball, and the island has produced some wonderful baseball players.

You can see a game, Puerto Rican-style, at San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium for about $5. The food of choice is not hot dogs, but fried chicken or crab cakes. I'm sure you can buy a beer, but you can also have that Caribbean favorite--a piña colada.

Go Shopping

Like most major cities and ports of call, you won't have any problem finding a place to spend your money. The Plaza las Américas looks much like any other modern American shopping mall on the outside, and on the inside you will find many of the standard stores (like Macy's and Banana Republic) seen back home. However, the corridors of the mall are filled with local artisans, and the small independent stores are much different than what you usually see.

Go to a Beach

Puerto Rico is a tropical island, and many go to the Caribbean and only want to visit the beaches. Although a major metropolitan area, San Juan has some wonderful beaches. Isla Verde is a favorite of locals, and you can rent chairs and umbrellas, perfect for watching the San Juan beach scene. Other popular beaches are El Escambron and Carolina.

Experience San Juan at Night

If you're not worn out after a day of sightseeing and beachcombing, then you should experience San Juan at night.

The dance clubs are popular, or you can learn to salsa at one of the many hotels with live music. If dancing isn't your cup of tea, check out one of the casinos. I found that playing roulette in Spanish helped me polish my language skills. The casinos are found in many of the big hotels downtown.

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These are some examples of shore excursion options cruise ships might offer in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

San Juan City & Bacardi Tour

This half-day bus tour includes a drive through old town and the many Spanish colonial sites as well as a ride through the more modern metropolitan area of San Juan. It also features a visit to the famous Bacardi Rum factory where passengers learned some of the history of this sugar cane drink.

This tour gives visitors the chance to "follow the rum" from cane to vat to barrel to bottle. If you haven't traveled to San Juan before, this shore excursion gives a good overview of the city.

Nature & Cultural Impressions

This 5-hour tour starts with a visit to the Botanical Garden at the University of Puerto Rico that was founded in 1971. The garden is the center of study and conservation of Puerto Rican flora and fauna. The second stop on the bus tour is at the Art Museum of Puerto Rico, where passengers do a self-guided tour inside the museum. Finally, the bus travels to Old San Juan, the second oldest city in the Western hemisphere. In the old town, the group visits some of the fortresses surrounded by thick stone walls that were so important in colonial times.

Horseback Riding in the Countryside

The horseback ride duration was about 2 hours and the total tour was about 4 hours. A bus transfers the riders-to-be to a ranch specializing in horseback riding adventures.

The horses are "gentle, but spirited", according to the brochure. The group rides along a shore trail that meanders along the edge of the El Yunque rainforest and the banks of the Mamey River.

Rainforest Hiking

This tour starts with a ride to the top of the El Yunque National Forest in the mountains of Puerto Rico.

The tour group spends the time hiking this natural wonder, and the turn around point was at La Mina falls. It's a good way to "walk off" some of the pounds you might be gaining on the ship! See page 1 of this article for a description of this shore excursion.

Bioluminescent Bay Kayak

Although the bioluminescent bay at Fajardo is over an hour's bus ride east of San Juan, I loved this shore excursion! Be sure to wear your swimsuit and take along some bug spray, "just in case" the mosquitoes are out.

The guides will show you how to paddle the two-person kayak, and the tour starts at almost dark. Paddlers each wear a light, with those in the front of the kayak wearing green on the front of their life vest, and those in the back wearing a red light on their backs. These lights are necessary, because the kayak trail through the mangrove forest is narrow and winding. Without the lights, you'd get easily lost! After paddling about 1/2 mile (45 minutes), the group reaches amazing Laguna Grande of Fajardo. When you touch the water with your hand or paddle, millions of microscopic bioluminescent organisms light up like fire flies. It's quite beautiful, and paddling through the mangroves is fun, especially when there is traffic both ways.

Ronnie and I are neither one in great shape, but we had no problems paddling on this excursion. This is a "must do" for anyone who loves the out of doors and nature. Unfortunately, the tour leaves the ship in the late afternoon and doesn't return until about 9:00 pm, so you'll need to look for a cruise with a late departure from San Juan to take advantage of this memorable excursion.

ATV Adventure

This half-day excursion takes participants to the foothills of El Yunque National Rain Forest, where they board two-passenger All-Terrain Vehicles for a 1.5 hour ride through the rain forest and across creeks. Sounds like fun!