East End Puerto Rico, the perfect San Juan alternative

The East End of Puerto Rico is home to the verdant beauty, catamaran day trips and kayaking in bioluminescent bays. It’s the perfect alternative destination to the ever-popular San Juan. Here are the best places to eat, play and stay in the East End.

The East End of Puerto Rico has beaches, rainforests and fantastic places to eat © Kelly Magyarics / Lonely Planet

What to do

Puerto del Rey Marina

Located on the eastern tip of Puerto Rico, Puerto del Rey Marina is close to the islands of Vieques, Culebra and Icacos.

East Island Excursions offers guided catamaran trips to Icacos and Culebra. The latter, an island of just under 2,000 residents, is a popular destination due to its stunning, horseshoe-shaped Flamenco Beach. It’s dotted with beach bars where you can sip while soaking in the shun, and shops to explore and enjoy.

If you’re looking for a more elusive deserted island vibe, sail to Icacos. Though there are no residents or facilities, a short stroll rewards you with a secluded private beach perfect for shell collecting or watching fish dart around tidal pools.

Since the pandemic, the operator has made changes to all excursions. All guests must wear masks while in the marina and during the excursion, the buffet lunch has been changed to a pre-made chicken wrap (with gluten-free and veggie options available). Snorkelers must bring their own equipment (except for fins), boat capacity has been reduced to comply with government orders and all guests must sign an electronic waiver before the day of the excursion.

Tours begin with a 45-minute boat trip and include unlimited rum drinks. During the excursion, the captain will take you to a snorkeling spot that will vary depending on water conditions; don’t be surprised if a rum-fueled raucous dance party ensues on deck on the return trip.

Tours depart daily from the marina around 9:30am and return around 3:30pm, and prices start at USD$99 per adult. Transportation is $20 per person from most hotels and guesthouses in metro San Juan.

Fajardo Bio Bay

Fajardo Bio Bay, a 20-minute drive north from Puerto del Rey Marina, comes alive at night thanks to the phenomenon of bioluminescence. Microorganisms that emit specific molecules and enzymes that make the water glow are abundant here.

Due to the effects of climate change bio bays around the world are dimming, but Puerto Rico remains one of the top to see this rare magic trick. Kayaking Puerto Rico is just one of many places to book a guided evening tour. Prices start at $55 per person (plus taxes and fees) for a 2-hour guided tour through a mangrove forest, during which kayakers will learn about the reserve’s ecosystems, protected fauna and the visible constellations.

Mist rises and a ray of sunlight breaks through the trees in the El Yunque National Forest
El Yunque National Forest is still recovering from Hurricane Maria © Dennis VDW / Getty Images

El Yunque National Forest

Encompassing nearly 29,000 acres, El Yunque National Forest is Puerto Rico’s largest block of public land and the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Forest System. Its lush green backdrop also served as the setting for the classic movie Jurassic Park.

Post-hurricane Maria restoration efforts continue and camping is still prohibited. The USDA announced plans to reopen a limited number of campsites at some point in the future with a required reservation and permit, though the exact date is pending.

However, there are still plenty of opportunities to explore the native flora and fauna. Entrance to the park is free, but the El Portal Visitors Center charges a fee – $8/adult, kids under 15 free. With so much land to cover, it’s smarter to book a tour operator who will also provide transportation from your hotel.

To truly get a sense of your surroundings, climb the 98 steps of the Yokahu Tower, one of two observation towers in El Yunque (the one with the better views) and take in the sights and sounds of the rainforest. On a clear day, you can even see the islands of St. John and St. Thomas.

Water cascades off the rocks La Coca Falls in Puerto Rico.
La Coca Falls is a beautiful natural feature in El Yunque National Forest © CaptainIFR / Getty Images

For the freshest sip of water you’ve ever had, visit La Coca Falls. The 85-foot cascade is filtered through mineral-rich rocks, making the water unbelievably pure. Look for a pipe jutting out of the rocks on the right-hand side, fill your reusable bottle and enjoy.

A 10-minute drive from La Coca Falls brings you to the Angelito Trail Head (accessible on Road 988 at kilometer marker 3.5) where, during the moderately-difficult 20-minute hike, you’ll spot swaying bamboo, massive ferns, fragrant sleeping hibiscus, yellow ginger and flamboyant trees, that come alive with fiery red-orange leaves in summertime.

After a 15-minute walk on the Angelito Trail, you’ll encounter Las Damas pool in the Mameyes River, whose clear cool waters are perfect for a dip. The water shimmers with flecks of real gold and schools of fish swim right up to your feet. Look for colorful stones on the riverbed to wet and scratch on the rocks, releasing intense pigment that’s been used by indigenous groups for centuries for body paint, makeup and clothing dye.

For a bird’s eye view of the El Yunque canopy, zip through eight lines between the trees with Rainforest Zipline, one of the many outfitters in the area. Prices start at $99 per adult and $79 for children aged 8 to 15.

Cap off the adrenaline rush with a stop at a roadside stand to rehydrate with fresh coconut water served from the shell or hit up a convenience store for a cold can of Coco Rico, the island’s beloved local coconut soda.

Two plates, one containing beef and chicken empanadas sit behind a glass window at kioskos in Puerto Rico
There is no shortage of eats at Kioskos de Luquillo © Kelly Magyarics / Lonely Planet

Where to eat

Kioskos de Luquillo

Set next to a beckoning sugar-sand beach, Kioskos de Luquillo is the coolest food court you’ve ever seen. Located on the north side of Route 3 near Luquillo Beach, the kioskos are a foodie’s delight (don’t be fooled by their unassuming sheet metal façades).

The food stalls are conveniently designated by both a name and a number; Most people order a few bites and a drink at one kioskos then grab a table out back overlooking the beach and later, move on to do the same at a few other spots.

The signature dish at the Peruvian-owned Ceviche Hut (#42) is made with red snapper; Jibaro’s (#22) specializes in churrasco; Terruno’s (#20) grills fresh mahi-mahi and grouper and has more than a dozen varieties of mofongo and La Parilla (#2) offers more upscale dishes like grilled lobsters and filet mignon with chimichurri.

Most kioskos are dedicated to Puerto Rican and Caribbean cuisine, but if you’re peckish for pizza or have a hankering for a hamburger you can find those too.

The kioskos are at their liveliest on weekends, when locals (and visitors in the know) rent private buses to do an evening crawl, listening to live music with a mango mojito and plate of alcapurrias de masa (ground beef-filled fritter) in hand. (Hours vary, but a few are open 11am to 10pm daily.)

A plate of coconut flan sits on drizzles of caramel and chocolate sauce and whipped cream
Always save room for dessert at Iguanas Cocina Puertorriqueña © Kelly Magayrics / Lonely Planet

Where to stay

The 500-acre Wyndham Grand Rio Mar, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and El Yunque on the other, is the perfect home base for a sojourn in the East End.

Tops among the 10 dining concepts at the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar is Iguanas Cocina Puertorriqueña, which offers modern, elevated takes on Puerto Rican dishes overlooking one of two golf courses. Order mofongo stuffed with garlic shrimp and chorizo ​​cooked in agave and red wine. Save room for the creamy coconut flan studded with chocolate pearls. The farm-to-table Roots Coastal Kitchen is a collaboration between executive chef Ramón Carrillo and Top Chef alums Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth, with Puerto Rican, Floribbean and Southern influences–and life-changing local citrus-dusted fried chicken with Tabasco honey .

Caicu Bar is a tapas bar with a focus on the island’s signature spirit, rum. Design your own flight among 15 options (including Puerto Rican brands Don Q, Barrilito and Bacardi), handsomely presented on a wooden board with cards describing their production and flavor profile; swirl and sip while noshing on veggie empanadas with recaito aioli.

Kelly Magyarics traveled to Puerto Rico with support from Wyndham Grand Rio Mar. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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