This summer is so upside down, we’re not even sure if we’re allowed to travel within our own country. With some states implementing quarantine restrictions for travelers from high-risk regions, and places like Hawaii closing completely to domestic travel, summer vacation prospects for Americans are dismal, to say the least. There’s one piece of good news, however. Puerto Rico is open for business. On July 15, the island officially reopened for inbound tourism, and will once again begin welcoming travelers. A Puerto Rico vacation in 2020 will be unlike anything people have seen before, but there will still be the same energy, natural beauty, and history that it’s famous for. Beaches are open, ferries are running, the rainforest is partially open, and tour operators are resuming services. Here’s everything you need to know about safely visiting Puerto Rico in 2020.
Entry requirements and COVID testing
All incoming flights to Puerto Rico are being diverted to Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, to make it easier to streamline the passenger screening process. Thermographic cameras will monitor the temperature of visitors upon arrival, and face masks are mandatory in the airport. Arriving passengers are required to complete a travel declaration form from the Puerto Rico Health Department, and present the results of a negative COVID-19 test from within 72 hours of arrival. The test must be a “molecular test,” which consists of a nasal or throat swab.
Travelers arriving in Puerto Rico without proof of a negative test will be given a rapid COVID-19 test at the airport, at their own expense. If the test is positive, you will be required to quarantine for 14 days, while covering your own medical and lodging expenses. Even if the test is negative, you will have to quarantine, take another molecular test on the island, and share the results to be released from quarantine before the 14 days are up. So basically, get tested before you arrive, or prepare to waste your vacation quarantined in a hotel for two weeks.
It’s also important to keep in mind that Puerto Rico has a curfew in effect through July 22. Between the hours of 10:00 PM and 5:00 AM, no one is allowed outside except in case of an emergency. So if you were hoping for a wild trip defined by late nights out at the bar, don’t get your hopes up.
What’s open in Puerto Rico?
This isn’t one of those situations where, the second you arrive on the island ready for the adventure of a lifetime, you realize everything is closed. When Puerto Rico says it’s open for business, that’s not just a sales pitch. You might not have quite as much freedom as you would’ve before the pandemic, but you’ll still be able to enjoy Puerto Rico’s diverse range of experiences.
Public beaches and natural reserves are open. Sunbathing and all other recreational activities are permitted as long as you’re with members of the same household. Hand sanitizing stations will be set up in entryways, elevator banks, and other high-traffic spots.
Restaurants are opening at 75 percent capacity, with temperature checks in effect at the entrance. If you register a temperature exceeding 100.3, you will be denied entry. Casinos are also operating at 75 percent capacity, and hair salons, barbershops, and individual spas are open by appointment only. Movie theaters, gyms, supermarkets, barbershops, and farmers markets are also open. Large venues are opening in phases, with strict social distancing measures being enforced, including drive-in and open-air event venues.
Most hotels in Puerto Rico are open, with mandatory social distancing and face coverings in public areas. Hotel pools, fitness centers, and spas (except saunas) will be open between 5:00 AM and 10:00 PM, and hotel restaurants will be open at 75 percent capacity.
You shouldn’t have any trouble getting around the island, either. The best way to explore Puerto Rico is by renting a car, but if you do choose to rely on public transportation, taxis, busses, and subways are all running. For those looking to book guided tours around the island, tour operators are resumed operations on July 15 and will be available for booking.
Staying in San Juan
Anyone visiting Puerto Rico should try to see as much of the island as possible, but it’s likely that you’ll be spending at least a day or two in San Juan. Just because you’re in the capital city, however, doesn’t mean you need to be squeezing through crowds of tourists. There’s no shortage of beaches on the island, and San Juan is no exception. Condado, Ocean Park, and Pine Grove beaches are all located within city limits, and a great break from the urban environment.
There’s no doubt that Old San Juan is the city’s premier tourist area. While the cobbled streets, the fort of Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo de San Cristóbal, and the nearby Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery are among the city’s most famous attractions — and well worth visiting — you can enjoy a less crowded version of San Juan by visiting the newer Ashford Avenue. This modern street runs right along the beach, and is replete with cafes, restaurants, and resorts. It has a vibrant restaurant and shopping scene and is close to the beach. Larger hotels on the strip, like La Concha Resort, are open for business, as well as more boutique lodgings like Casa del Caribe Inn.
The Old Town alternative to Ashford Avenue is Paseo de la Princesa, which means “walkway of the princess.” Located just outside the walls of Old San Juan to the south, Paseo de la Princesa is a 19th-century avenue that has Old World charm without the crowds that typically clog the narrow streets inside the city. Ambling down the street, and through the plaza, you’ll have a great view of San Juan’s historic fortifications. The street is defined by its antique lamp posts, stone fountains, street vendors, and views of the old city walls.
Around San Juan, you’ll quickly notice an abundance of street art murals. The capital is full of colorful artwork that will really liven up any walking tour. The Calle Cerra, and adjoining side streets, are particularly known for their colorful art. And if you happen to be visiting in August, you’ll be treated to the Santurce es Ley contemporary art festival, where street artists decorate empty parking lots and old buildings with large murals.
A crowd-free island experience to the west
A central part of most Puerto Rico itineraries is spending a few days in Old San Juan. But these days, you may be wary of spending your vacation on the busy streets of the capital or lounging by the pool of a crowded resort. Luckily, you can have an epic Puerto Rico vacation without ever setting foot in San Juan. From rainforests to hidden beaches, there are plenty of ways to get the full experience while keeping your distance from others.
The capital isn’t the only city on the island that serves as a good base of operations. Rincón, on the west coast, is a small surf town popular with seasonal expats. If you’re looking for an island experience unspoiled by resorts and souvenir shops, this is it. This town of 15,000 permanent residents is adjacent to four beaches, home to the annual Corona Surf Pro contest, and most importantly, an eatery called Casa Verde, which has the best chicken tacos you’ll ever eat.
Just south of Rincón lies Cabo Rojo, another area perfect for escaping the crowds and indulging in the island’s natural beauty. In the southwest, Cabo Rojo is known for its beaches, dramatic limestone cliffs, and restaurant scene. Its name is a reference to the water’s reddish color where the salt flats are located, due to a high concentration of salt. The salt flats here are seriously impressive and one of the island’s most beautiful hidden landscapes. Perched atop the cliffs of Cabo Rojo, the observation deck of Los Morrillos Lighthouse offers one of the best views in the area, looking out over the sea, and it’s probably the best way to admire the surrounding cliffs. For a more active experience, take one of the hiking trails to Cabo Rojo’s natural stone bridge.
A short drive from Cabo Rojo, you can find La Parguera bioluminescent bay. It may not be as famous as Mosquito Bay in Vieques, which is closer to San Juan, but you’ll find fewer crowds. Better yet, it’s the only bioluminescent bay on the island that allows motorboats and swimming, versus just paddling. Take a boat tour, kayak, or just go for a dip and enjoy the surreal feeling of swimming among the glowing dinoflagellates.
Explore El Yunque National Forest
As you’ll soon learn from spending just a few days in Puerto Rico, rainforests aren’t just for South America. El Yunque National Forest, the rainforest near the east coast of the island, is open to visitors with limited capacity in main recreation areas. All other areas in the park are open with social distancing measures enforced. To access main recreation areas, you’ll need a reservation, which can be made online.
Two of the best hikes in the area are the trek up to Mount Britton Tower and the El Yunque Rock Trail. At the end of both, you’ll have a great view all the way to the coast. To cap off your rainforest experience, take a refreshing dip in the Mameyes River. The El Angelito Trail ends at a rope, which you can use to swing right into a swimming hole.
There are a few waterfalls in El Yunque National Forest, but for a truly dramatic waterfall experience, drive out west to Gozalandia Falls. About 30 minutes from the city of Aguadilla on the island’s west coast (and an hour from Rincón) Gozalandia Falls are a tranquil getaway in the heart of one of Puerto Rico’s most beautiful jungles. The falls lie at the end of a short hike through the trees, spilling into a pool that’s perfect for swimming. While there will probably be locals there jumping off the falls or using the rope swing, it’s one of Puerto Rico’s more secluded experiences and a great break from civilization.