Eastern Puerto Rico has a rich ecosystem, pristine beaches, and a mouth watering food scene. Here is a 4 day Puerto Rico Itinerary to see and taste the highlights of Eastern Puerto Rico and its sister island, Vieques.
This was an applauded itinerary from a recent girls trip, but it would be extremely family friendly. In fact, I intend to recycle the whole itinerary again (with the lessons learned I mention) below when my kids are at least six years old.
This is a highly versatile for adults or kids to enjoy all the same. I suggest to plan for 4 full days to explore (not counting travel days). When I return with my kids, I will be sure to spend one night on the island of Vieques and I’ll explain why below.
4 Day Puerto Rico Itinerary
If you’re looking for an area to stay in eastern Puerto Rico, we were very pleased with our Airbnb’s central location in Luquillo. This was a great jumping off point for our adventures below. It’s a 40 minute from SJU Airport.
- Kayak in Bioluminescent Waters
- Hike the El Yunque Rainforest
- Explore Old San Juan
- Eat Your Way Through the Kioskos de Luquillo
- Island Hop to Vieques (1 day, including an overnight)
- Honorable Mention – Casa Bacardi
- Food to Try in Puerto Rico
- Know Before You Go: Bioluminescent Tours in Puerto Rico
Kayak in Bioluminescent Waters
I list this first because it is such a rare phenomenon to experience. It was high on my bucket list and still is so that I can return for the full effect.
While there is certainly bioluminescent activity scattered around the world, there are only 5 bioluminescent bays and Puerto Rico is home to 3 of them! (The other two are in Jamaica and Vietnam.)
The three bays in Puerto Rico are:
- Laguna Grande, Fajardo (easy to get to if you’re staying on east side of the island)
- Mosquito Bay, Vieques (sister island off Puerto Rico’s main island) – The brightest bioluminescent bay in the world!
- La Parguera Bay, Lajas (This is the only one where swimming is allowed)
We went to Fajardo, which was nearest to our accommodations. We knew the half moon made it unlikely we’d see any glow, but decided to go anyway, thinking, if nothing else we’d learn about the ecosystem that supports the phenomenon.
Our guides from Eco Action Tours didn’t want to disappoint though, so unbeknownst to us they had rowed out to the bay with a massive tarp that we spread over the top of our group of kayaks to “black out” part of the bay. In doing so, we could run our hands in the water and see it sparkle in response. It was a marvel for sure, but one day I plan to return and do it right by visiting during the darkest moon phase, the right time of year, and I’ll do Mosquito Bay next time. Oh, and I’ll be sure to have the right camera to capture it’s magic!
Wondering if you should go if your trip falls outside of optimal viewing times? My suggestion: Only go if you enjoy kayaking and would be satisfied with how unique it is to glide through mangrove tunnels in the dark, gaze up at constellations once you reach the bay, and learn about the area’s ecosystem. Glow isn’t guaranteed. 🛶
Scroll to the bottom of this post for crucial tips for preparing for an ideal bioluminescent experience.
Hike the El Yunque Rainforest
The most beautiful waterfalls in all of Puerto Rico will be found here at the El Yunque Rainforest. It is a must on a 4 day Puerto Rico Itinerary and can easily be adjusted from a 4 hour to a full day visit.
Here are some low effort, high reward walks you can do in El Yunque to get a taste of the Rainforest’s richness.
La Coca Falls
There is a parking lot nearby, but this waterfall is adjacent to the roadway.
This tower offered our favorite views over the island. You can see all the way to the Atlantic.
Juan Diego Falls
Just a five minute walk from the trailhead will reward you with the most beautiful waterfall pool which is easy to get in and out of.
La Mina Waterfall
La Mina Trail was still closed from the hurricane, but do check if it has reopened before your trip as it looks incredible. It was previously the most popular waterfall in the park.
Angelito Trail and Swimming Hole*
Angelito Trail leads to a fantastic swimming hole with crystal clear water. Note that it is 8′ in some areas so keep an eye on the kids.
It is about a 15 minute walk each way.
Las Paylas Natural Water Slide
If you’re adventurous or visiting with a guide, check out the Las Paylas areas, located outside the park’s entrance. There are two main slides, the upper is much faster than the lower.
To access the rushing river, you’ll need to cross personal property. As a result, the locals are capitalizing on the location’s allure and charge the low price of $5 to park on their property and point you to the trailhead. Careful, the hike down can be steep and muddy.
Even if you aren’t going to attempt the slide, this is a great spot to picnic or use the swimming hole. Bring a garbage bag and earn some good karma by taking your own trash out and any other wrappers you might find.
We watched others slide down, but couldn’t bring ourselves to risk a head injury.
Useful information about Visiting El Yunque Rainforest
As of December 2022, pre-purchased reservations are required to enter the El Yunque National Forest. It costs only $2 per car and you choose a 4 hour timeslot in which you’ll arrive.
The picnic areas are currently closed and we did not come across any bathroom facilities.
Be sure to pack shoes with good grip as the trails are often muddy and slippery. You’ll appreciate water shoes too if you have them as the creeks and waterfall pools are rocky.
Bring a change of clothes, plenty of water, snacks, and bug spray.
You’ll likely lose all cell reception upon entering the park.
Make sure you leave no trace! This is a trash free park so carry out anything you bring in.
*If you arrive without a reservation, these are the places you should explore as they are outside the entrance gate.
Explore Old San Juan
Give yourself at least a half day to meander the streets of Old San Juan. It is easy to cover the whole area by foot. The best way to explore is really just to wander, until you find a square, building, or view of interest.
You can tour the Castillo San Felipe del Morro (“El Morro”) with $7 admission $7.
Walk the western coastline of the city at sunset for gorgeous views and photo ops in the guard towers esepcially if you didn’t go inside El Morro.
For libations, consider a stop at the upscale cocktail bar Skryer or if you’re with the family, head to Barrachina to try the original Pina Colada recipe and please the family with a full crowd-pleasing menu.
For dinner, I highly recommend The Cave. https://www.instagram.com/thecaveoldsju/?hl=en Albeit Cuban Fare they have Puerto Rican staples too and it was absolutely delicious which a fun atmosphere.
If you happen to pass by Anita La Mamma del Gelato when the line isn’t wrapped around the building, be sure to stop in for a cool treat.
Parking in Old San Juan
Even though the sign advertised $3 per hour, the pre-paid cost (cash only) was only $3 for the entire day at La Puntilla Parking. You can’t beat that deal and the location could not have been more convenient!
Eat Your Way Through the Kioskos de Luquillo
The Kioskos (kiosks) are a seemingly endless strip of food stalls and restaurants along Luquillo Beach.
The Beach itself is a bit dirty and gets quite busy, but you can find exceptional local flavors here and good variety to please everyone in your party. If you’re looking for a sit-down restaurant, try La Parilla for seafood or Terruño for Mofongo (and live music).
Island Hop to Vieques (1 day, including an overnight)
Save at least 1 day of your 4 day Puerto Rico itinerary to spend on Vieques. If you can stretch out your total time in Puerto Rico, I’d add another day to zip around the Island of Vieques, but you can cover a lot of ground with just 24 hours.
Attractions on Vieques
Mosquito Bay – Bioluminescent Kayak Tour
The ultimate experience on Vieques is to see the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay for yourself! Watch the water glow and sparkle at your touch!
The only way you can partake in a tour of Mosquito Bay is to ensure you have overnight accommodations on the island as there is no way back to the main island after the night tour.
I spoke with a mom who didn’t know they’d be stranded (as ferries run frequently the rest of the day) and ended up sleeping on the beach as the island was completely booked in peak season!
Read all my tips for visiting one of Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays below.
There is a diverse array of beach vibes on the island of Vieques so make sure to fit a few of them into your 4 Day Puerto Rico Itinerary. Below is a summary of several, easy to access beach spots.
Before setting off on your beach adventure:
- Load up a cooler of drinks and snacks as there are few spots with vendors or nearby restaurants.
- Bring your towels and consider beach chairs too ( some rental companies offer them as an add-on with your vehicle.)
- Load up on bug spray or use bug bands which were super effective for us. We used the same band for 4 days straight. Puerto Rico beaches are riddled with no-see-um bugs and those bites are obnoxious! (Tip: You’re less likely to get bit if you avoid digging your toes into the sand where they burrow.)
- Use a restroom any chance you see them or you’ll be dashing out to sea for a pee.
Playa Negra, Black Sand Beach
A 15 minute walk through a lush trail will lead you to a sprawling beach strewn with black sand. Do not expect its’ entirity to be black sand though. Walk to the right and you’ll find sections of the beach that are black.
Do not park at the top of the staircase to the trailhead, there is a large parking lot just beyond this.
This is the most developed beach of this list. There are several restaurants and food stalls/trucks that line the narrow beach. This is where you’ll likely grab lunch or dinner.
This is also a popular beach to start water sport activities or boat tours.
Sun Bay Beach
This was a favorite for our group. The beach was littered with mature palm trees making it highly photogenic but more importantly, shady.
If you have a compact hammock, you’ll want to bring it for this beach.
Media Luna Beach
A half moon beach that would be an ideal spot to bring the kids because of its shallow waters. This beach is located 5 minutes beyond Sun Bay and is reached via a VERY bumpy road.
Sea Glass Beach
Fairly close to the Ferry Terminal is a Sea Glass Beach. I had hoped it was like Bermuda’s where each wave creates the most beautiful chimes as pieces of glass roll over each other. This was not so, but I did manage to find 6 pieces of sea glass in the short time we were there.
The waves were rough here and there’s a pretty drastic drop off so be cautious when swimming.
Spot wild horses
In just 6 hours driving around the island, we spotted 63 wild horses roaming the island. Large herds of them were seen on the road that leads to the Wildlife Refuge and at Sun Bay. This was a special treat for us, to watch the majestic creatures move freely through the island and majestically walk down the center of the roadways. Just last year we traveled all the way to Assateague Island off of Maryland to see the same and only sighted 13 there!
Getting to Vieques
If you’re staying on the east side of the island, consider a ferry or flight out of Cieba.
A ferry ride will only set you back $2 each way and they run every couple hours.
Pay special attention to the type of ferry you select as a Passenger AND Cargo ferry takes 90 minutes to cross vs. the Passenger Only ferry is only a 30 minute journey.
I recommend a return timeslot that offers sunset views! Bring dramamine if you’re prone to motion sickness.
A flight to Vieques is an experience all on its own. Each passenger must provide their weight for balancing purposes and you don’t have to worry about liquids/packing restrictions as long as your total baggage is under 25 pounds. I was shocked how informal the whole check in process was. They only requested two IDs from our party of four and no backs were inspected.
Only six passengers fit in the plane so if you have a large party, you’ll want to book in advance.
The views from the plane are stunning, but I have to admit we all felt the nerves!
The 8-10 minute flights run every couple hours to and from the island on Vieques Air Link and cost $50 each way. https://www.viequesairlink.com/
We opted to fly to the island and ferry back, simply based on availability and desired timetables.
Transportation on Vieques
You’ll want to rent a vehicle or ferry one from the main island. (Check your rental car policy if you wish to do so, some prohibit taking the car from the main island.) Most visitors though, rent a UTV Golf Cart or a Jeep to explore roads less traveled or more likely, poorly maintained. Rental companies on the island offer transport from the Ferry Terminal or Airport. Book as far in advance as possible.
We paid $89 for our 6 hour UTV golf cart rental which sat four people. A Jeep was quoted to us at $170.
Honorable Mention – Casa Bacardi
If you have a few hours to spare on the Puerto Rico main island and distilleries are up your alley, consider a visit to the Bacardi Factory. You can take a ferry from Old San Juan to reach Casa Bacardi. Or, by car it is about a 25 minute drive from Old San Juan.
On arrival, tours with tastings run $30+ per person.
Food to Try in Puerto Rico
Mofongo is a rich mash that combines plantain, your choice of protein, and garlic.
It is Puerto Rico’s take on an African dish that would alternatively have featured yam or cassava instead of plantains.
Try a Piña Colada at its birthplace, Barrachina, in Old San Juan.
Pasteles to Puerto Rico are like Tamales to Mexico. They are slow cooked and carefully prepared to share amongst families, especially at Christmas time.
Instead of corn wrappers like a Tamale, Pasteles are made with green plantains and root veggies.
Picadillo filling is stuffed inside a chewy dough made from green plantains and yautia root.
We found these out of a food truck at Esperanza Beach.
A spin on Venezuelan arepas, the pocket for Puerto Rican arepas is made of white flour and coconut milk.
Ours were delicious from Wepa Arepa in the Kioskos de Luquillo.
Know Before You Go: Bioluminescent Tours in Puerto Rico
Book in advance! If you’re booking during the optimal conditions mentioned below, you’ll have a lot of competition! Make sure you reserve tour spots as early as you can.
Important: If you do an excursion out to Mosquito Bay, Vieques there IS NO TRANSPORTATION back to the main island after your night tour. You have to plan overnight accommodations. I will definitely do this next time.
Check out a moon phase calendar when you’re booking your 4 Day Puerto Rico Itinerary (and trip timing altogether). You’ll want to arrange your tour during the darkest possible conditions.
Time of Year
Our guides said the optimal time of year to see bioluminescent activity is April to July. The warm weather increases the amount and brightness of the glow.
What to Wear
You should be prepared to get wet at least to your belly button as you will likely need to walk between the shore and your kayak before and after the tour. Wear clothes that you’re comfortable sitting in wet for the whole tour.
Full length clothing is recommended to protect yourself from mosquito bites.
Make sure to wear plenty of Bug Repellant as well. (Our tour company had plenty for guests to use at check-in too.)
Your GoPro or iPhone does not have the right type of lens or filters to capture the incredible sight of bioluminescent.
Bring a camera and lens with a maximum aperture number of F/2.8, ideally an F/1.8 or lower number. Keep your ISO as low as you can while still exposing for blue light. Lower the ISO as much as you can without seeing noise in your photo. This may be hard to preview in your camera screen, so take multiple photos at various ISOs and consider a post edit to remove noise.
Read the rules carefully of the tour company. Bags are likely prohibited other than a lanyard with waterproof pouch to hold your phone or camera. They don’t want to risk anything falling overboard and polluting the fragile ecosystem.
If you’re bringing the kids, check the minimum age requirement. Our tour company required age 6 and up. If you’re bringing a child that young, be sure you can get a double kayak.