Island Getaways: A Philadelphian’s Guide to Vacationing in Puerto Rico

Where history and beauty collide.

An ocean view in Aguadilla in western Puerto Rico. / Photograph by Carlos Rivera / Getty Images

Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, offers so much history and excitement that you may never leave it during your stay. But you should. In particular, traverse the island to its more relaxed west coast, where beautiful scenery, charming cities and fantastic food await.

I spent a weekend in early November exploring the west coast from a home base in Mayagüez. Known as La Sultana del Oeste (“the Sultaness of the West”), it’s the ideal landing spot for west-coast visitors because it’s right in the middle of the western seashore, half an hour or less from anyplace you might want to visit. The town has a park honoring the heroes of the modern island, plus several scenic rooftop restaurants. The Mayagüez Resort Casino (from $141) features a family-friendly water park and rooms with spectacular views of Mayagüez Bay.

To the north lies Aguadilla, the second-largest city on the west coast, with a town square (the Ojo de Agua, or “Eye of Water”) that connects to an attractive seaside promenade. I had a delicious lunch at an outdoor restaurant near the south end of that promenade. ARTe overlooks the Caribbean and features craft cocktails and mofongo, a mix of mashed fried plantains, spices, and chicken or fish.

Just north of Aguadilla lies Crash Boat Beach — both a popular fishing spot and a nonstop party thanks to the bars and eateries that line it. Sadly, a tropical downpour that had the staff at ARTe hurriedly raising umbrellas kept us from going to sea on one of the namesake boats.

To the south of Mayagüez is Cabo Rojo, which gets its name from the reddish water lapping up against the pink salt flats lining some of its 18 beaches and 28 miles of coastline — the most of any community in Puerto Rico. Boulevard Guanajibo, a two-lane road connecting Mayagüez and Cabo Rojo, hugs the shoreline, while first-class seafood restaurants line the road, many of them projecting out over the water. One of the best of these, Che Che Colé by Bamboleio (combines creative cuisine, beautiful sea views, and a friendly chef who enjoys chatting up diners as he serves them seafood and chicken dishes over rice and black beans.

You should start your west-coast trip by renting a car in San Juan. From there, take the main cross-island toll road, Route 52, across Puerto Rico’s mountainous middle on its way to Ponce, the island’s second-largest city. This road, one of Puerto Rico’s first superhighways, has scenery that recalls nothing so much as what one sees along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, only lusher and with more tropical architecture. On the way, along the roadside near the mountain town of Cayey, you’ll find a monument to the jibaros, yeoman farmers who made a living off the land for centuries and have become a cultural icon to Puerto Ricans.

The trip takes just a little more than two hours nonstop, but in Puerto Rico, there’s no reason to rush.

>> Click here for more island getaways from Philadelphia.

Published as “Go West in Puerto Rico” in the March 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.