Until you’ve visited the southern region of the island, you haven’t crossed Puerto Rico off your travel list. (Sorry, not sorry!) After clubbing it up in San Juan, you’ll want to mosey down to the south coast, where one-of-a-kind cultural attractions, natural wonders and secluded beaches are in abundance.
The southern region of Puerto Rico hosts the island’s second-largest city, Ponce, plus coastal destinations like Cabo Rojo and La Parguera. We had the opportunity to escape a very cold New York City, jump on an easy 3-hour flight then bask in the warm weather, do a little night swim in a bioluminescent bay (one of 5 in the world!) and become immersed in the history of Ponce.
So here’s your perfect three-day itinerary for this idyllic, culturally rich (and criminally underrated) Puerto Rican region, along with some ideas on what to pack, to ensure you’re the best-dressed, well-equipped tourist on the island’s south coast.
How to Get There
If you choose to fly into San Juan (like we did), you’ll have about 1.5–2 hours of driving ahead of you. You can rent a car through popular rental services like Hertz and Enterprise. Or, in lieu of driving yourself around the island, book a transportation service that will drive you to the southern part of the island in a more luxurious fashion. Two good options: Gomez Bus Line and VIP Luxury Transportation Services.
You can also skip the drive altogether, and fly directly into Ponce. A small commercial airport and the southern region’s only one, Aeropuerto Internacional Mercedita is just three miles east of the city. However, the airport only offers direct flights to the U.S. via Orlando and New York City, the majority of which are operated by JetBlue.
Where to Stay
Whether you prefer to stay two days near the coast and one in the city, or vice versa, there is a plethora of options. Starting in the city, Ponce Plaza Hotel & Casino puts you in the center of the historic Ponce, where dining, nightlife and cultural sites — like the Parque de Bombas firehouse museum — are within walking distance. The 69-room hotel is housed in a building that dates back to 1882, and you’ll find Colonial-style architecture and decor throughout. Though the historic casino hotel also hosts more modern details, including a restorative pool in the courtyard and an award-winning restaurant (more on that later).
Combate Beach Resort, located on the coastline of Puerto Rico’s serene Cabo Rojo region inside a national wildlife reserve, is a boutique hotel that’ll be your best bet for nearby, exclusive beach access. Paddleboards and kayaks are available to rent, or you can lounge by the hotel’s outdoor pools — just be on the lookout for wildlife, like the Yellow-shouldered Blackbird. If you’re looking for something near the shore and a more than a little trendy, La Jamaca Hotel will make you the envy of your Instagram followers, with its luxurious, rustic and unique open-air layout. A pool with a cascading waterfall, rooms with private balconies and hammocks, an outdoor sea salt bath experience and a bar serving up tropical cocktails are just a few of the special perks.
What to Do
Spend an afternoon exploring Ponce, the island’s second-largest metropolitan area. Here, you’ll find the historic Parque de Bombas – a firehouse turned museum — Ponce’s town square, Plaza Las Delicias, plus an array of coffee shops, more museums, bars and restaurants. Overlooking the city atop a mountain sits El Balcon de la Cruceta, a cross-shaped structure that features a laidback restaurant and the best view in the city. After you’re finished enjoying the sights, head next door to Castillo Serrallés, where you can tour the 1930s Spanish Revival-style estate built by the owners of the Don Q rum distillery (and try some of the delicious spirit, obviously).
When you’re in the mood for something a bit more active, it’s time to rent a Caribbean Chilliboat in La Parguera. Easily the most fun we had on this trip, we peddled through keys, canals and mangroves of the Caribbean Nature Reserve on a banana-shaped water bike, enjoying the clear, shallow blue waters, wildlife and sea breeze. But the water-based activities don’t end there. If you’re visiting Puerto Rico’s south coast you’d be remiss to not take a tour of one of the island’s bioluminescent bays.
There are only five of these rare ecosystems in the entire world, three of which are in Puerto Rico. We visited the bay located in Lajas — the only bioluminescent bay where swimming is permitted — with Paradise Scuba & Snorkeling. As the sun sets, you’ll be transported via motor boat out to the bay, while enjoying some complimentary empanadas, soft drinks and beer. Upon arrival, guests are invited to dive in and night swim in the natural wonder. The tour will provide you with snorkels and explain the best practices to see the exquisite neon blue-green-colored organisms floating about.
Where to Eat and Drink
From speakeasy-inspired cocktail bars to beachside restaurants, there’s no lack of eats and booze down south. Conveniently located inside the Ponce Plaza Hotel & Casino, Lola Eclectic Cuisine is a trendy spot to dine and drink, serving up eccentric dishes like tuna tartare taquitos and a coffee-rubbed flap steak. Or pop down the street to Velada, a jazz bar with a 1920s aesthetic offering a ton of expertly crafted house-made cocktails.
And there’s only one place to hit for some post-beach eats: Isla Cueva. The family-friendly restaurant located in La Parguera serves every diner’s preference, from vegan tacos to loaded nachos, but is mainly known for its burgers and selection of fresh, local beers from the island. And after a long day in the sun, a cold beer and a classic burger are going to be exactly what you want.
What to Pack
You’ll be doing a ton of walking. Why not do it in the year’s hottest shoe.
Turkish Towels Herringbone Turkish Towel
Between the beach and the bioluminescence bay, you’ll need a towel. Dry off with one of these handwoven, extremely stylish towels, made from premium Turkish long-fiber cotton.
Sabah Men’s Marmaris Suede Sabah
From the beach to the bar (yes we just said that), Sabah’s high-end leather Turkish slippers are a must for any coastal vacation.
Patagonia Baggies Shorts 5″
Our favorite versatile shorts are perfect for both water and land activities.
Walden Pond Sunglasses
Trust us, it is bright down south. You’ll need a pair of stylish yet durable sunnies to see you through the day.
lululemon Everywhere Belt Bag
The hands-free, fanny-pack-style bag lives up to its massive hype, and is excellent for carrying the essentials — phone, keys, wallet, chapstick.
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