1. Old San Juan
Old San Juan is a beautiful area of San Juan, Puerto Rico full of colorful colonial architecture, different landmarks and monuments, and great views of the ocean. Best of all, it's completely free to wander its cobblestone streets or meander down the Paseo de la Princesa! Calle del Cristo and Fortaleza Street are great for shopping and restaurants, Plaza de Armas and Parque de las Palomas are nice for people-watching, there are three historic churches (Capilla del Cristo, Catedral de San Juan, and Iglesia de San Jose) and you can walk along the old city wall on the north end of the area. Some nice sites in Old San Juan are the San Juan Gate, the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, and sculptures like La Rogativa or El Fuente de los Raices. On weekends there are also live music and street vendors along and near the Paseo de la Princesa.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site includes several historic fortifications in the Old San Juan area, the largest and most popular of which are Castillo de San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) and Castillo San Cristobal. The entrance fee to all of these impressive sites is only $5 per person (kids free!). We explored Castillo San Cristobal (the larger and newer of the two) first, watching the video about the two forts and exploring its tunnels, dungeons, and many levels. From the top there were some really gorgeous views of Old San Juan and the ocean. Then, we walked along the old city wall (La Muralla), enjoying the fresh sea breeze, onto El Morro. There's a large green space in front of El Morro where locals fly kites and have picnics. We then went inside and explored its many levels and exhibits, including ones about life at the fort in pirate times and the different cannons and ammunition that were used in them. All in all, San Juan National Historic Site is a fabulous educational attraction for only $5 a person!
The tour of the Bacardi Factory, which is just across the bay from Old San Juan, is totally free, and perhaps even better than free, because every participant also receives two drink tickets to use at the bar afterwards! To get there you can either take an expensive ($20+) taxi ride around the bay or take the ferry across the bay for 50 cents/person each way and then a $3/person taxi ride to the factory. We chose the latter option, since paying for that long taxi ride would defeat the purpose of a free attraction! The "factory tour" is unfortunately not an actual tour of a factory, but you do learn a lot about the Bacardi family, the history of the brand, and the process of making rum along the way, and there's even someone to teach you how to make mojitos, daiquiris, and Cuba Libres at one point. Once done with the tour you can relax with your free drinks and shop in the gift shop, which has some really great deals on Bacardi products.
4. El Yunque National Forest
El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest system, and best of all, it's totally free to visit! You can drive along the roads, stop at any of the lookout points, and take any of the hikes for free, however, if you'd like to visit the visitor center, it costs $4 per person. I do recommend paying the $4/person for the visitor center, as it has some really great exhibits about El Yunque and rainforests in general, a gift shop where you can buy any bug spray, water bottles, etc. that you forgot, and really helpful staff that can give you maps of the forest and help you figure out what trails might be best for you. We hiked down to La Mina Falls, a waterfall with a pool at the bottom that you can swim in, and had a wonderful time doing so, enjoying the plant life that grows at different elevations in the forest, the lizards we saw darting along the undergrowth, and the trickling stream along the way.
Cueva del Indio is an amazing cave full of pre-Columbian Taino carvings a little ways outside of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The cave is well-lit and you can see all sorts of carvings once you climb down the tall wooden ladder to the cave floor. The area is also really beautiful, with azure waves crashing against the rocks below you, lava rock formations and seven natural stone arches. Best of all, it's cheap! It costs $2 to park your car and $1 per person to explore the area on your own. You can have a guide go with you if you'd like, but you'll be expected to tip them well if you do. This is a really nice area to explore that mixes history, nature and culture, and it is well off the beaten cruise ship-tourist path in Puerto Rico.
We stopped at Luquillo Beach for lunch and swimming between a morning hike in El Yunque and an evening kayak tour at the Fajardo Bio Bay. It made a really great stopping point between those two attractions, and it was really cheap! It costs $4 to park your car and $1/person to use the restrooms, changing rooms, and shower facilities for the whole day. It is a Blue Flag Beach, meaning it meets certain standards in regards to water quality, environmental management, and facilities standards, so you can feel good swimming there! The sand makes a lovely crescent around the ocean and is fringed by palm trees, so once you're out in the water you can basically forget you're anywhere near civilization. Luquillo Beach is also very well known for its great food at the kioskos. When we went it was at a rather odd time, so none of the kioskos were open, but we ate at a small beachside restaurant where we had some great food and my favorite--a piña colada in a coconut!
7. Plaza las Delicias
Plaza las Delicias ("Square of Delights") is a wonderful square or park in Ponce, Puerto Rico. There is a cathedral and the iconic Parque de Bombas, a refurbished fire station that has become a symbol for the city, in the plaza, as well as numerous benches, trees, fountains, and, best of all, 16 lion sculptures which have all been painted differently by local artists. Visiting the square is, of course, completely free! It's a wonderful spot for people watching, and all around the plaza there are great shops and restaurants in the colorful Spanish colonial style, including a great ice cream shop with tropical flavors like coconut and passionfruit called King Cream (highly recommended)!
After hiking in El Yunque rainforest, why not head to the south side of the island for a hike in the dry forest? The forest is free to visit, and it's a really pretty area, full of a mix of deciduous trees, flowers, and desert plants. There are longer trails that lead to an old fort (Fort Capron) or Tamarindo Beach, but we saw the sugar mill ruins near the picnic area, then took a shorter trail that lead past some limestone caves and onto the Guayacon Centenario, a 1000-year-old tree. We then drove to Tamarindo Beach (also free), even stopping to explore an abandoned lighthouse along the way.
When I was researching Puerto Rico for our honeymoon, I looked into a few art museums there. When I saw "Flaming June", the piece de resistance of the Museo de Arte de Ponce (shown below), I really wanted to go see it for myself! We were already taking a day trip to Ponce to hike in Guanica dry forest and go to Plaza las Delicias, eating at the Pork Highway on the way back, so it worked out well. The museum only costs $6 per person to enter, and I was really impressed by the collection! First we went through a traveling exhibit about the Vienna Secessionists, then saw "The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon" by Edward Burne-Jones and "Flaming June" by Sir Frederick Leighton, two really impressive works, before continuing on to see all sorts of Puerto Rican art. On the second floor there were even more great European art and sculptures. It was a really interesting stop and I really felt they had a great mix of both classical European art and more contemporary Puerto Rican works.
You can visit the Pork Highway and have delicious lechon asado (roast suckling pig). The food is affordable and the atmosphere is fun! On the weekends it's very festive and social--some of the lechonerias even have live music. You can try really great Puerto Rican cooking, and have fun meeting locals with a short trip to the Pork Highway in Guavate.
Bioluminescent Bay Kayak Tour
If you're going to spend a larger chunk of money on one attraction, I highly recommend taking a Bioluminescent Bay kayak or boat tour! Pretty much any tour operator will charge $45 per person, at least at the Fajardo Bio Bay that we visited, but it was definitely worth it. It's a truly unique experience that is hard to really describe, and if you're going to splurge while you're in Puerto Rico, I think this is a great way to do it! Fajardo is only about one hour from San Juan, and we managed to have a nice (though long) day trip to El Yunque, Luquillo, and Fajardo on our trip. If you aren't renting a car you can often still experience El Yunque and/or the Fajardo Bio Bay by organizing a day tour--just talk to your hotel concierge!
Been to the Island of Enchantment before? Know of any free or cheap stuff I missed? Share your thoughts below!