My family has always loved road trips. Up and down our home state of California we’d drive, or on towards the golden cornfields of Nebraska or the wide blue skies of New Mexico, racking up the miles on childhood summer vacations.
Nestled in the back of our green ford windstar mini van alongside my sister Emma and brother Sean, my dad would man the wheel while my mom used her expert navigational skills to, not only get us from point A to point B, but also make sure we’d see whatever sights, from the iconic to the bizarre, lay in our path (and this in the days before Google maps or even Map Quest).
Before I was the age of 16 I had visited 45 states with my family. The number is potentially 46, but whether or not we actually drove through Minnesota is something no one has the memory to confirm (rest assured, all other states have been verified).
This summer, my family had a lot to celebrate with my brother graduating from USC and my sister earning her master’s degree and teaching certification. Spurred by our mutual wanderlust and the rare opportunity to have a whole week to spend together, my family booked a trip to Puerto Rico just two weeks out.
Road Trip Across Puerto Rico
I had the honor of planning the itinerary for our last-minute trip. Given our family history, it came as no surprise to me that, sandwiched in between snorkeling and kayaking through mangroves, one of my dad’s few requests was that we road trip across Puerto Rico.
The island of Puerto Rico is just 90 miles long and 30 miles wide. Thanks to its relatively small size and solid roads (well, compared to those in Costa Rica, that is), you can drive back and forth across Puerto Rico in a day. Visitors with more time to spare may wish to spend a night or two on the west coast, but you’ll be able to see the major highlights in one long day trip.
Are you ready to take a drive? Follow along east to west to discover these eight essential stops on a road trip across Puerto Rico.
Granted, our accommodations happened to be based in Humacao so my opinion may be a bit biased, but Humacao is an excellent point from which to start an east to west road trip across Puerto Rico. Many visitors may be based in San Juan, but if you want to do a true drive across the island you need to make it to the east coast first. Before you start your drive, stop in at Palmas del Mar beach resort and touch the ocean.
From Humacao, I recommend you take the scenic route, more specifically highway 53 that leads to highway 3. This route requires you to dip south first before heading west, but the ocean views that await your drive make it worth it. On this route you’ll also wind up through the hillside and pass through small villages that showcase rural life on the island and rewarded with valley views.
Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center
Before Puerto Rico was overtaken by Spanish conquistadors, the Taíno Indians thrived on the island. Their predecessors were the Pre-Taíno Indians. Located to the east of Ponce, the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center offers a fascinating glimpse into Pre-Taíno culture and customs. What has become the most important archaeological site in the Caribbean was unveiled in 1975, when floodwaters from a tropical storm subsided, unveiling ancient history. Archaeologists have determined that the pre-Tainos moved to the Valley of Tibes around 300 A.D., and these lands were the center of their civilization.
A museum documents the history of the pre-Taíno Indians as well as diverse tribes who called the island home at one point or the other in history. Today visitors can also walk through replicas of dwellings, ancient plazas, and burial grounds. Within the plazas a ceremonial ball game called batu was played in which a heavy bouncy ball made from resins, roots and leaves was tossed back and forth. The grounds also have several examples of ancient petroglyphs.
Ponce (pronounced Pon-say), is Puerto Rico’s second-largest city after San Juan. Don’t let this statistic fool you, however – Ponce feels more like a small town than a big city and the island’s poor economic situation is more obvious here than in San Juan as many streets are lined with crumbling buildings and closed businesses. In fact, we found that two restaurants listed in our Lonely Planet guidebook had recently closed.
In the colonial quarter of Ponce, Plaza de las Delicias is well worth a stroll with quaint fountains, statues and a lavender cathedral. To get an overview of the city’s history, stop in the Casa Armstrong-Poventud. A fine example of neoclassical architecture, this home was built in 1899 by one of Puerto Rico’s first bankers. The docents here are really friendly and full of knowledge. If art is your scene it’s also worth mentioning that the Ponce Museum of Art houses the largest art collection in the Caribbean.
Before you leave Ponce you won’t want to miss the Parque de Bombas. In fact you really can’t miss this building – the red and black stripes of this former firehouse building are so flamboyant, they rival Spiderman.
From Ponce, head west until you hit the coast in Rincón, a surfer town in the northwest of the island where hippy vibes flow along with the waves. Known as the island’s surfer capital, the former sleepy beach town gained notoriety in the late 1960’s when it hosted the Surfing World Championships and has been welcoming gringos, both crusty and sheek ever since.
After taking a wander through the town center, head to El Faro Lighthouse. Situated on a bluff, this lighthouse offers a gorgeous overlook of the ocean the surfers who love it. Relax and enjoy the view or hike down a short trail to sink your own feet in the sand.
Crash Boat Beach
Whereas Rincon houses mainly tourists and expats, in Aguadilla the vibe is purely local, which you know, is what you want if you are in Puerto Rico to see Puerto Rico. Locals flock to Crash Boat Beach, where reggaeton and medalla (a local beer), flow in equal proportions. A line of colorful boats sit up from the shore making for an excellent photo opportunity.
The feature that makes this beach of particular note is the row of lime green docks that push up against the dark sand. Walk out along the narrow pier to take in your surroundings, and if you really want to immerse yourself in local culture, join the thrill seekers and jump off.
The Beach at the End of the Road
In can be tempting to wait sunset out at Crash Boat Beach, but you can’t relax yet – you have one more beach to visit before the day ends – Playa Jobos in Isabel.
As the sun sinks out of the sky enjoy a pina colada at Uma’s restaurant, where surfers linger in the water long after the colors of the sky have muted into full night. When blackness takes hold surfers head in to the bar at Uma’s discussing the conditions of the waves. Uma’s is the kind of place you wish you could belong. As a visitor in Puerto Rico, for at least one night it can be.