So, you’re going backpacking Puerto Rico? Great choice. This isle is a sun-soaked journey into the heart of the Caribbean, where tales of pirates and colonial navies swirl between the forts, rum punch sloshes in the coastal shacks, the surf is epic, and the nightlife more epic still. We don’t think you’re going to be disappointed!
Officially called the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, this unincorporated territory of the United States of America is home to over three million people. It sits between the lovely Greater Antilles isles, some 1,000 miles from Miami, but closer to the sailing paradises of the USVI and the honeymoon havens of the Dominican Republic. The isle itself is filled with incredible things to see and do…
From the UNESCO-tagged National Historic Site of the capital to the old sugar mills in the south, the surf beaches of Rincon to the bird-flitting rainforest reserves of El Yunque, there’s oodles to get stuck into. We’ll cover all the must-see in this ultimate guide to backpacking Puerto Rico, but also touch on everything else you might need to know as a first-time traveler on the isle, from safety concerns to the practicalities of getting around. Let’s begin…
Table of Contents
Where is Puerto Rico?
First thing’s first – where is this unincorporated territory of the US, exactly? We’ve already touched on it: 1,000 miles from the tip of Florida out in the midst of the Caribbean Sea. More specifically, Puerto Rico is a member of the Greater Antilles group of Caribbean islands, along with other major vacation hotspots in the region, including Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. It’s the easternmost member of that chain, sitting just to the east of Hispaniola island.
Importantly – at least if you’re coming here to surf – the island meets the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the east, while the sparkling, warm Caribbean Sea spreads out to the south and west. The capital of the country, and the place you’re likely to arrive at is in San Juan, an historic city that occupies its own headland on the north coast.
How to get to Puerto Rico?
Getting to Puerto Rico shouldn’t be too much of a chore, even for backpackers on a tighter budget than the honeymoon travelers and luxury seekers. That’s becuase this island boasts more direct flight links to the USA than just about anywhere else in the region. It’s home to the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU), which is officially the busiest in the whole Caribbean. The upshot? You won’t be short of connections in from North American cities – there are direct hops in from Chicago, Atlanta, Baltimore, New York, and a whole load others.
And that’s not all. There’s a good mix of airlines to pick from, too. Low-cost tickets can be had on JetBLue, Frontier, and Spirit Airlines, even during the peak travel season between December and March. That’s helped to turn Puerto Rico into a doozy of a destination for backpackers on a shoestring.
You can also arrive by cruise ship – San Juan is a major stop on most cross-Caribbean ship itineraries. Oh, and there’s also a regular ferry that leaves from Santo Domingo in the Domincan Republic, arriving in Mayaguez on the Puerto Rican west coast. Taking that is a real experience and lets you add in a whole other island to your backpacking odyssey. Nice.
When to go backpacking in Puerto Rico
The main travel season in Puerto Rico is the same as the peak season right across the Caribbean region. It runs from December to April each year and sees plenty of sunshine and dry weather cross over the island. There’s a peak within the peak, too – watch out for spikes in visitor numbers around the middle of February, when the US spring break sends thousands of party-hungry college goers to the bars of Old San Juan.
For those looking to backpack Puerto Rico, we think there’s a fantastic sweet spot just after April but before the onset of the storm season. It lasts about a month; basically all of May. Temperatures crank up and there is the possibility of a little rain. However, prices will be much lower than they were only a month before and you won’t have to deal with so many crowds.
Travel in the hurricane months isn’t advised. Puerto Rico sits smack dab on the Atlantic storm belt and recent years have been brutal. Yes, there will be great deals in the hotels and resorts, but that’s for a reason. If a system pushes through, you could be under unbreakable rain clouds and high winds for days on end. Or even worse – a deadly hurricane could hit.
How to travel around Puerto Rico
Sorry – San Juan isn’t the easiest part of the USA to get around. Public transport on the island is almost non-existent. Most travelers who plan on going beyond the boundaries of San Juan opt to rent their own car and drive. The highways are generally of very good quality. They consist of a number of freeways and two major toll roads. They link up all of the major resort towns along the north coast and the west coast, so should be great for getting to the door of your hotel.
The only issues with driving around Puerto Rico come when you veer off the major main roads. As the mountains take over, the tracks can become very winding and potholed. If venturing to unknown quarters of the island is part of your plan, we’d consider hiring a private driver or getting a 4X4 (so long as you have the confidence and experience to go with it!).
Of course, the cheaper option will be the public transport. We’ve already mentioned how it’s a bit thin on the ground in Puerto Rico. But it does exist. Expect to use lots of the shared collectivo buses. They are also called públicos and they run set routes around the island out of a hub in San Juan. They only go when they are full with passengers, so be sure to get to the station early on. Prices are about $5 per person to Fajardo and about double that to Rincon. There’s also a municipal bus network, but it mainly covers the region around San Juan city.
The top destinations in Puerto Rico
No guide to backpacking Puerto Rico could possibly be complete without a look at the top destinations on the island. These are the places that we think every first-time traveler simply must get through. They offer sparkling beaches, colonial history, and curling surf breaks. Let’s begin…
Old San Juan
Everyone who’s anyone, no matter if you’re backpacking Puerto Rico on a shoestring or looking to stay in sleek colonial hotels with stacks of dollars to splash, heads to Old San Juan. It’s one of the bucket-list destinations of the island, but also the home of the headiest nightlife scene (especially around spring break) and some of the liveliest shopping districts.
As a backpacker, you might be better off ditching the hotels of Old San Juan itself because they can be quite pricy. Alternatively, there are some posh-tel options in the heart of the 500-year-old neighborhood. Check out Fortel Hostel ($-$$), which is a very swish establishment really close to the main sights that offers mixed dorm rooms for about $30-35 per person, per night.
Backpack dropped? Great. It’s time to head out and explore this amazing town. There’s plenty to get through, including the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a mighty castle raised by the Spanish to fend of pirates and other colonial powers, and the Catedral de San Juan, a gorgeous medley of Gothic building work that reigns as the second-oldest Christian cathedral in the whole of the New World!
Calling all surfers looking to go backpacking Puerto Rico – Rincon is a must. Perched on the far north-western coastline of the island, it’s a place where the vibes slow down, the people become uber-chilled, and the talk is mainly of the fresh seafood and the incoming swell.
Rincon itself spreads over about eight miles of shoreline. It’s stunning stuff – think coconut palms and honey-tinted sands, palms that bristle in the trade winds and white-painted lighthouses that punctuate rocky coves. It’s also eight miles of world-class wave riding. From Domes Beach, where relaxed lefts curl into a wide bay, to the fast barrels of Dogman’s and XXL Tres Palmas, there are lots of reasons it’s on the radar of pros.
When day turns to evening in Rincon, you simply have to take some time to gaze at that sunset. This town has actually won awards for its shimmering night shows, which see the western Caribbean turn shades of ochre and vermillion as the light fades over the horizon. Of course, there are oodles of top-notch surfer shacks for you to enjoy that with a cold one in hand!
Culebra is a smudge of paradise to the east of Puerto Rico proper. It’s one of the smallest isles in the Puerto Rico chain that has a continuous population and takes about 45 minutes to reach from the port in Fajardo on the east coast od the main island (tickets cost a mere $4.45 return). There are also short-haul flights going to the local airstrip, but they cost CONSIDERABLY more.
The main reason we put this one up there with the top places to visit when backpacking Puerto Rico is Flamenco Beach. It’s an undoubted stunner. We’re talking almost a mile-long curve of sugar-white sand with turquoise seas dotted with little coral gardens. You can still spot the rusting outline of WWII tanks on the coast there, but local artists have worked them into something special.
Culebra also reigns as one of the top scuba diving places in Puerto Rico. A handful of companies now offer to take qualified PADI divers out to the various coves and reef habitats in search of rays and turtles. Oh, and be sure to hit the beach after dark, as there are some of the most vibrant bioluminescent displays in the territory on Culebra.
El Yunque has the pretty cool distinction of being the only protected reserve of purely tropical rainforest in the whole of the United States. Dominating the eastern end of the island, it’s a must-visit for anyone interested in wildlife, not to mention anyone backpacking Puerto Rico who fancies getting off the beaten path to keep the company of exotic birds and orchids instead of beach bums.
Hiking is top of the bill. Marked and well-maintained trails can help you explore the wild, wild depths of the island’s high mountain terrain. They take you through a land of 10,000 shades of green and emerald, with ancient Sierra palms giving way to mist-gathering cloud forests. Keep your eyes peeled for boa constrictors, coqui frogs, and elegant birds of prey as you go, folks!
Most people visit El Yunque on a day trip from either San Juan or one of the main beach resorts on the northern shore of the island. We think it’s better to give the region some days of its own. Good accommodation options for backpackers on a tighter budget include the outdoorsy tent hotel of La Casa de Vida Natural ($) and the remote forest lodge of El Yunque Rainforest Inn ($$).
Vieques is one of those backpacker destinations that really inspires the imagination. It’s the sort of place you’d imagine Leo DiCaprio seeking out in The Beach. A whole separate island to Puerto Rico, it’s still a part of the US territory, but lies about seven miles away in the sparkling Caribbean Sea between the USVI. To get there, you’ll need to hop on the 30-minute ferry from Ceiba to Isabel Segunda (the main, and only, town that exists on Vieques).
What awaits is one of the most untouched and unknown and unexplored parts of the whole region. Up until very recently, it was mainly known as an ex-WWII naval base that was inhabited by a corps of marines right up until 2003. They’ve since departed, and the place is now largely given over to protected National Wildlife Refuge land.
Backpackers can cruise dusty roads on the hunt for empty bays and coconut-strewn beaches where there’s hardly another soul in sight. The best of them beckon in the southeast, in the form of lovely Playa La Chiva and Caracas Beach, both of which are delectable swathes of white sand fringed by mangroves and estuaries.
Looking to see a different side to the island than the bumping spring break bars of San Juan and the surf beaches of Rincon? Ponce is the perfect place. It’s the southern city of Puerto Rico, tucked into a large bay at the end of the main highways that come across from the northern coast.
Named after Juan Ponce de Leon y Loayza, the grandson of the great explorer Ponce de Leon, it’s an historic town that oozes colonial charm. Expect baroque churches and cobbled plazas, along with grand Spanish-influenced building work like the Catedral de la Guadalupe and the great Castillo Serralles.
Aside from the uniqueness, there are two things that we think make this one stand out as one of the top places to visit when backpacking Puerto Rico. First: It tends to be cheaper than the north of the island, as there are more local B&Bs and fewer large-scale resort hotels in the surrounding region. Second: Ponce is the steppingstone for reaching the remote beaches of Guánica, where crystal-clear waters lap empty bays.
Put visions of brochure-worthy beaches to the back of your mind for just a moment. Forget about the buzz of San Juan’s rum bars for a bit. Manati is one of those places that not too many travelers know about, but it really excels in one thing and one thing only: Outdoors adventure…
Yep, the small town to the west of the capital is slowly but surely establishing itself as the adventure mecca of Pueto Rico. It’s doing that thanks to natural wonders like the Cueva de las Golondrinas (a sandstone cave complex that hosts huge bat colonies) and the Hacienda La Esperanza (a onetime plantation estate that’s now an overgrowing reserve with jungles, mangrove trails, and unique wetlands).
When you’re not tying up the walking boots and getting the adrenaline going, Manati can offer a charming colonial town center and the beaches of Mar Chiquita, a perfect conch-shell cove that’s great for families.
Is Puerto Rico safe for backpackers?
Generally speaking, Puerto Rico is a very safe place to visit. It actually has lower crime stats and violent crime rates than many other cities in the USA – the territory reported 20 murders per 100,000 head of population back in 2020, which is only two thirds of what was recorded in Chicago. On top of that, the vast majority of travelers who hop across come and go without any issues at all.
However, that doesn’t mean the picture is completely rosy. Puerto Rico is still known for high levels of drug-related crime and suffers from some cartel violence. There have been big crackdowns on that in recent years, but it’s still an issue. Adding that that is the ever-present risk of natural disasters in the form of tropical storms and hurricanes. Particularly bad ones happened in 2022 and in 2017, bringing widespread damage and disruption to the island. And then you have the risk that comes from the island’s snakes and critters.
We’ve actually got a complete guide to the ins and outs of safety in Puerto Rico. It’s got info on everything from the risk of natural disasters to the prevalence of violent crime and is a must-read for would-be backpackers in the region.
How much do I need for backpacking Puerto Rico?
Since you’re planning on backpacking this palm-threaded isle, we’ll assume that you’re looking to do things on a low budget. That means booking hostels and local guesthouses over the big, lux resorts, staying away from the beachfronts, and being willing to compromise a little on comfort.
The good news is that you can still get some great places to stay on smaller expenditures in Puerto Rico. You’re looking at around $50-80 for the budget accommodations that also have class. Here are just a few examples:
- Casa Coral ($) – A short walk from La Pared Beach, this locally owned B&B is a fine place to grab some rest between swims and snorkel sessions.
- Nomada Urban Beach Hostel- Calle Loiza ($) – For the adults only, this hostel come guesthouse has fantastic communal spaces and sits close to the buzz of San Juan’s historic center.
- Fortel Hostel ($) – Get a room in the middle of Old San Juan for less by opting for the Fortel Hostel, a well-rated posh-tel with fancy rooms and shared bathrooms.
Aside from accommodation, food and drink is likely to be your biggest expense in Puerto Rico. We’d estimate around $30-40 per day for that, meaning you’ll spend about $245 over the course of a week, though that doesn’t include any big nights out in the spring break clubs of San Juan!
All that adds up to a rough budget estimation of about $100 per day, not including flights.
Backpacking Puerto Rico – a conclusion
This guide runs through everything you need to know to plan a great backpacking adventure to the unincorporated US territory of Puerto Rico. It touches on just seven of the most incredible places there are to visit while touring the island, from the great rainforests of El Yunque to the tubular waves of Rincon. It also offers insights into the practicalities of traveling to this corner of the Caribbean, including how to get there in the first place and how to travel round, not to mention any safety concerns on the island and what you should expect to spend during your adventure.