Puerto Rico (PR) is one of seven islands visited on a 7-day eastern Caribbean cruise on board NCL’s newest ship, the Norwegian Viva. Its capital city, San Juan, is the cruise departure port for this itinerary from December 15, 2023 to March 31, 2024, and an ideal launch pad for exploring this Spanish speaking island. From December 2024, the Viva has two alternating 7-day itineraries departing weekly from San Juan so, if you have two weeks vacation time available, you could have back-to-back cruises visiting even more Caribbean islands. Whether you’re cruising from San Juan or visiting the island on a standalone vacation, here are a few things to know about PR.
Things to know about Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico at a glance
- Main Island size: 161 km wide x 56 km wide
- Currency: USD
- Sales Tax: 10.5%
- Electricity: 120V
- Emergency: 911
- Winter avg temp: 21°C
- Summer avg temp: 29°C
- High Season: Mid-Nov-mid-April
- Time Zone: GMT-4
- Capital City: San Juan
- Language: Spanish/ English
- Entry Requirements: Passport, Return Ticket
- Good morning: Buenos dias
- Good evening: Buenas noches
Where in the Caribbean is Puerto Rico?
Puerto Rico (PR) is located in the eastern Caribbean, which stretches in an arc on the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea, between Puerto Rico in the north to Grenada in the south. Puerto Rico lies between Dominican Republic (to the east) and the British Virgin Islands (to the west).
Puerto Rico is one of many islands in the eastern Caribbean, which include Barbados, Antigua and St Lucia, and in the south, Trinidad and Tobago and the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao to the west, which lie just off the Venezuelan coast.
Like the rest of the Caribbean, the two main attractions for visitors to Puerto Rico are its wonderful tropical climate and its beautiful beaches. However, there is more to Puerto Rico than its beaches and year-round warm weather. The country is also rich in Spanish history and culture as well as lush mountainous landscapes.
Located on the active boundary of the north American and Caribbean plates, Puerto Rico is one of many islands in the region of volcanic origin. Formed about 190 million years ago by an active volcano, its volcanoes are now extinct. Although it does experience minor earthquake tremors frequently, major earthquake events are rare (Source: Wikipedia).
Around 100 miles north of Puerto Rico is the Puerto Rican Trench. At its deepest point, it is 8,600 metres deep making it one of the deepest points in the Atlantic Ocean, second only to the Mariana Trench (Source: National Geographic).
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
A street alley in Old San Juan, with its cobblestone road and colourful houses. Pic via Canva.
Is Puerto Rico safe for solo female travellers?
According to many sources (including here and here), Puerto Rico is safe for solo female travellers, particularly in Old San Juan. However, as with most countries, there are unsafe areas, and women should always travel cautiously and avoid travelling alone at night.
Contrary to most sources, the Travel Safe Abroad website ranks both Puerto Rico and San Juan low on their safety index. This may be due in part to its reputation for crimes carried out by drug dealers and criminal gangs, such as gun crimes, drug trafficking, and theft. However, tourists usually don’t need to worry about these types of crimes. Rather, as with most tourist destinations, they should be cautious of pickpockets, theft and scams.
Some areas to avoid at night (according to this site) are Piñones, Santurce, Parque de las Palomas, La Perla (though this is debatable), Puerta de Tierra, while these areas are safe during the day and night: Old San Juan, Santurce, Parque de las Palomas, Condado, Miramar, Isla Verde, Santa Teresita, Ocean Park, Hato Rey, Piñones, Rio Piedras.
What makes PR a great jumping off point for a Caribbean Cruise on the Viva
From December 15, 2023 to March 31, 2024, San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital city, is the departure port for NCL’s brand new cruise ship, the Norwegian Viva. Except for its December sailings, the Viva departs weekly from San Juan on Sundays. In December, cruises depart on Fridays, including the 7-day Christmas Caribbean cruise (which you can learn more about here). The weekly cruise visits 6 more islands, 1 each day: Tortola (BVI), Antigua, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, and St. Thomas (USVI).
Here are 6 reasons to cruise the eastern Caribbean from Puerto Rico
- Founded in 1521, Puerto Rico’s capital and largest city, San Juan, is the second oldest city in the Americas. In this picturesque Spanish colonial city, you’ll find more than just beautiful beaches and warm weather. In Old San Juan, a UNESCO World Heritgae Site, you’ll discover cobblestone streets, plazas and chapels that reflect its Spanish heritage.
- Surrounded by lush mountains with a tropical rainforest and an abundance of stunning waterfalls, Puerto Rico is also a great destination for a standalone vacation or for those who would like to explore longer before or after a cruise. It’s especially ideal for those with an interest in history, culture and architecture or nature and wildlife, as well as beach lovers who want to soak up the sun by day and enjoy the night life in the evenings.
- On a 7-day cruise of the eastern Caribbean that departs from San Juan instead of Miami, Florida, there are NO sea days. Cruises with a similar itinerary (visiting the same seven islands) that depart Miami, include two days at sea, meaning a 9-day cruise instead of seven.
- From January 2024, the Viva departs San Juan weekly on Sunday (last departure is March 31, 2024). This means anyone with only a week off for their mid-winter vacation is able to arrive in San Juan on Friday or Saturday, cruise for 7 days, visiting 7 Caribbean islands, return home on Sunday after disembarking and still have time for a good night’s sleep before work on Monday. Depending on flight departure time, there may even be enough time to visit more historic sites in Old San Juan before leaving PR.
- In December 2024, NCL offers a second 7-day eastern Caribbean itinerary round-trip from San Juan. Except for Saint Lucia, the cruise visits different islands; DR, Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire and St. Kitts. This is ideal for anyone who has two weeks’ or more vacation time. By taking two back-to-back cruises they can check off five more Caribbean islands on their bucket list.
- Located in the north of the island on the Atlantic coast, San Juan also has an international airport. A non-stop flight from Toronto is 4 hours 50, which is only an hour and 20 minutes longer than a flight to Miami. With an 8:30 pm cruise departure from San Juan, if you arrive in San Juan one or more days before (which I recommend), you’d have an entire day or longer to explore the city prior to your cruise (assuming there are no delays).
Puerto Rico’s cruise port in San Juan is thus a great launch pad for exploring the city’s colonial artifacts, a tropical island adventure, or an authentic cultural experiences before or after a cruise.
Juan Diego Falls, PR
Just one of the many waterfalls in El Yunque rainforest. Pic via Canva.
Did you know?
Puerto Rico is not one island but is a chain of islands. Over 143 small islands, cays and islets, as well as the main island, Puerto Rico, or La Isla Grande, make up the archipelago. In addition to Puerto Rico, which is the largest island at approximately 161 km (100 miles) long by 56 km (35 miles) wide, only two others are inhabited, nearby Vieques and Culebra. A few other islands of note are Culebrita, Caja de Muertos, Palomino, Mona, and Monito.
- Puerto Rico is not the territory’s original name. When Christopher Columbus arrived on the island in 1493, he originally christened it Island San Juan Bautista. However, when the invading Spaniards discovered how much gold was in its rivers, then changed its name to Puerto Rico, meaning “rich port.”
- Puerto Ricans celebrate Christmas for 45 days. The festivities start right after Thanksgiving in November and last until mid-January. Some of the traditions during this time include attending midnight mass, known as Misa de Gallo, Christmas Eve Dinner, which includes a traditional Christmas dessert called tembleque, collecting grass for the camels (January 5th) celebrating Three Kings Day (January 6th – Ephiphany).
- Puerto Rico is the world’s leading rum producer and birthplace of Piña Colada. Not only is rum the national drink in PR, but over 70% of the rum consumed in the USA comes from Puerto Rico. It’s not surprising really, as PR produces 70 types under the Rums of Puerto Rico quality seal – from gold, white, spiced or dark. One I’m sure you’re familiar with is Bacardi.
- Puerto Rico is the birth place of Piña Colada. Since it’s the home of Bacardi, it’s not really a surprise that PR is also the birth place of my favourite cocktail, Piña Colada.
- PR also has its own version of Eggnog. Called Coquito, PR’s eggnog is a coconut-based version of the festive drink but without the eggy flavour. In PR, you’ll also discover some of the world’s top bars, especially in Old San Juan, where you can sample these national favourites. Or for a unique experience, book a brewery tour or local rum tasting.
- Puerto Rican cuisine is uniquely different. Influenced by Spanish, African, Taíno, and American cooking styles, Puerto Rican cooking uses indigenous seasonings and ingredients such as coriander, papaya, cacao, nispero, apio, plantains, and yampee.
- Puerto Rico is home to the longest run single zipline of the Americas. For thrill seekers and families, head to Toro Verde Eco-Adventure Park, the largest adventure park in the Caribbean and Americas, where you’ll find a 2.5 km zipline and rope courses through the jungle. Located about 72 km southwest of San Juan, you’ll also discover beautiful landscapes, a spectacular view of the Orocovisa mountains, plus numerous other attractions.
Sustainable Tourism in Puerto Rico
When it comes to sustainable tourism in Puerto Rico, there is an abundance of experiences that leave a positive impact on the people and place you visit. Experiences include agrotourism, such as spending the day at a local farm or working on a cocoa farm, eco-friendly experiences including visiting Cabachuelas Nature Reserve, exploring Punta Tuna (a scenic coastal wetland) or hiking in Rio Abajo State Forest, and Volunteer opportunities such as farm and nursery maintenance or bird counting at Para La Naturaleza or handing out supplies at senior community centres with Puerto Rico Renace.
How Tourism Cares for Puerto Rico
From May 8-10, 2019, Tourism Cares united 150 travel professionals for Tourism Cares for Puerto Rico. The three-day Meaningful Travel Summit joined forces with the formal travel industry, community-based tourism initiatives, governmental officials, the small shareholder agriculture community, and social enterprises to support the development of local economies for a resilient future on the island.
Watch video to see how Tourism Cares for Puerto Rico.
Eco-friendly Experiences at Punta Tuna
A scenic coastal wetland in the south of the island where you’ll find the first and only interpretive trail adapted for blind people and customized for people with diverse capabilities. Source Discover Puerto Rico. Pic via Canva.
One of only 3 islands in PR that is inhabited. Pic via Canva.
Things to know if travelling to Puerto Rico
- Spanish speaking Puerto Rico is actually an unincorporated territory of the United States of America, so many people also speak English. However, they are not all fluent, so it’s a good idea to learn some Spanish if visiting Puerto Rico.
- Since Puerto Rico is a US territory, this also means the currency is US dollars. If you’re travelling from Canada, you’ll need to exchange your Canadian dollars for US. However, credit cards are widely accepted so only take enough for cash purchases and tips. Bring small denominations which are ideal for tipping.
- If you’re a US citizen, you don’t need a passport to travel to Puerto Rico if you’re arriving directly from a mainland state. However, you will need your passport to visit Puerto Rico from another country or visiting or returning on a cruise ship.
- If you’re Canadian visiting Puerto Rico, you’ll need your Canadian passport, valid for 6 months, but you don’t need a visa to enter Puerto Rico unless you plan to stay longer than 30 days.
- As of May 2023, the Real ID Act takes effect in Puerto Rico (and the USVI) so if you’re a US citizen or permanent resident intending to vacation in Puerto Rico, make sure you have the correct type of ID. You can find more info here and here.)
- Canadians who plan to drive in Puerto Rico will need a valid Canadian driver’s licence for up to 90 days. Longer stays require a Puerto Rican licence.
- Hurricane season in the Caribbean is from June to November, and, although the odds are slim, like most Caribbean countries, Puerto Rico is not immune. Peak hurricane activity tends to be between mid-August and mid-October, so be sure to check weather advisories if you plan to travel during this time.
- Puerto Rico is typically sunny, hot and humid year round, however its weather has two more seasons: the dry season (December to March) and the rainy season (April to November) which overlaps Hurricane Season.
- July and August tend to the hottest and most humid. These also tend to be the most popular months. So, if you visit during this time, be sure to book activities well in advance to avoid disappointment. Winter and spring temperatures tend to be milder, so if you prefer cooler, dryer weather, the best time to visit would be December to March. However, this is also a popular time of year to travel for snow birds.
- Tap water in Puerto Rico is filtered and treated at the source, just as it is in mainland USA, so it’s safe to drink. Bring a reusable bottle to replenish instead of purchasing water in single use plastic bottles.
- You don’t flush the toilet paper in Puerto Rico. It’s customary and expected that you do NOT flush the toilet paper (or sanitary items) down the toilet. While it’s actually the culture there, much of their plumbing is antiquated (especially in Old San Juan) and cannot handle toilet paper without clogging. In public facilities, you may see a sign seeing a sign to use the trash can instead.
- Tipping in PR is not compulsory but, just like the rest of the USA, it is generally expected in restaurants, hotels and bars. A 15-20% is generally a good amount to tip.
- If you plan on visiting El Yunque, be sure to pack waterproof hiking boots and a raincoat. Mosquito repellent is also a good idea.
La Fortaleza, Old San Juan
A centuries-old fort in Old San Juan, the second oldest city in the Americas. Pic via Canva.
Plaza de Armas, Old San Juan
The town square in Old San Juan with fountain in the foreground and the city hall in the background. Pic via Canva.
Blue Beach, Vieques
One of only two smaller islands in Puerto Rico’s chain of islands that is inhabited. One of the other 140 islands can be seen across the water. Pic via Canva.