When taking a cruise, you have the option of leaving from cruise ports all around the country. However, one of the most overlooked and best cruise port to take a cruise to the Caribbean from is San Juan, Puerto Rico.
If you are leery about visiting Puerto Rico because of Hurricane Maria, don’t be. I’ve visited Puerto Rico four times now since Maria and I can tell you first hand that the island is open for business and as beautiful as ever. Walking around Old San Juan where the cruise port is located you can’t even tell the area was hit by a devastating hurricane last year.
Yes, leaving out of San Juan will require the extra expense of airfare as you have to fly to SJU. But here are reasons why it’s worth every penny to take a cruise out of San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Best Caribbean Itineraries
Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean both have cruise ships based in San Juan year round. Other cruise lines sail seasonally out of the port including Viking Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Windstar Cruises.
Since Puerto Rico is already located in the Caribbean, the itineraries offered out of San Juan can take you to islands in the Southern Caribbean that aren’t offered on cruises out of Florida. Want to visit Barbados, Grenada, St. Lucia, St, Kitts, and the Virgin Islands on one week long cruise? Then you have to leave out of Puerto Rico.
Once you visit islands in the Southern Caribbean, you’ll have no desire to cruise to the Bahamas or Cozumel again. They offer a beauty that is unmatched by the most common cruise destinations.
Viking Cruises even offers a round trip cruise out of San Juan that takes you up the Amazon River after visiting islands in the Southern Caribbean.
More Ports, Less Sea Days
As mentioned above, Puerto Rico is located in the Caribbean between the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Since there are so many incredible islands close by, you can visit five or six cruise ports on a week long cruise. Many week long cruises out of Florida or Texas only stop at three cruise ports.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather visit six tropical islands than just three or four. Go tropical island hopping and book a cruise out of San Juan.
Starts and Ends in Paradise
Your cruise starts on a Caribbean island and ends on a Caribbean island. No offense to Jacksonville, Bayonne, or Galveston, but I’d rather be in Puerto Rico when my cruise is over.
Another great thing about cruises out of San Juan is that it’s always warm there. I’ve taken cruises out of Florida in January when cold fronts came through and everyone was wearing a jacket or sweatshirt. You won’t ever need a jacket in Puerto Rico.
Perfect Port for Pre and Post Cruise Stays
There is no other port on earth that is better for a pre or post cruise stay than San Juan, Puerto Rico. On my last cruise out of San Juan (Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas), I opted for a pre and a post cruise stay so I could enjoy as much as the island as I possibly could.
From beachfront resorts (more on my favorite later) to a mom and pop bed and breakfast in Old San Juan, it’s the perfect extension to your cruise.
Yes, cruise ships often spend the day in San Juan as part of their itinerary. However, there are some things in Puerto Rico that you can only take advantage of if you stay a few nights on the island.
If you really want to escape the busyness of everyday life, spend a few days on the island of Vieques before or after your cruise. Vieques is located just off the Eastern coast of Puerto Rico and is a short 30 minute flight from Isla Grande Airport (that small airport near Old San Juan and adjacent to the Royal Caribbean terminal). Another option is the ferry from Ceiba, especially since the fast ferry started operating two months ago.
Vieques is the hidden gem of the Caribbean. The island is almost known for what you can’t find on it than what is on it. You won’t find a single traffic light and commercialization is basically non-existent. OK, so there is one Subway on the island but that is it. In the day and age when just about every island has become a tourist trap with Margaritavilles, Senor Frogs, and jewelry stores promoted by cruise lines everywhere you go, Vieques is the polar opposite of that.
I recently spent four weeks on Vieques and can honestly say it’s unspoiled paradise. There are thousands of wild horses that freely roam the island and it’s unlike any other place on earth.
Vieques is home to the brightest bioluminescent bay in the world. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, the bay is glowing brighter than ever. I’ve visited the bay three times now and this should be at the top of everyone’s bucket list.
Tip: Go with a company that offers glass bottom kayaks and go at a time when it’s as close to the new moon a possible.
If you love having tropical beaches lined with palm trees all to yourself and visiting mom and pop restaurants while staying in an Airbnb, then Vieques is for you.
If you’re there on a Sunday and would like to attend services, there is now an English speaking church on the island (Vieques Baptist Church).
On the mainland, you have the choice of resorts, budget hotels, Airbnbs, or bed and breakfasts. You can even do something foolish like buy a timeshare and stay there for your extended vacation. There’s no lack of places to stay for a pre or post cruise visit in Puerto Rico.
More Time at El Yunque
El Yunque is the only tropical rain forest in the United States National Forest system. Yes, you can visit El Yunque on some cruises as long as you arrive early in the morning. However, you really can’t take time to enjoy it since you have to get back to the ship before it leaves.
Hiking to La Mina Falls is one of our favorite things to do in Puerto Rico. It’s even better on days when no cruise ships are in port and it’s far less crowded. By taking a cruise out of San Juan and opting for a pre or post cruise day, you can take time to enjoy the beauty of this rain forest. There are some great hidden spots where you can swim in the rainforest that you won’t find an any cruise tours.
Where to Stay
My go to hotel when staying in San Juan is the Intercontinental. It’s pretty much the perfect hotel for pre or post cruise stays. For one, it’s located right by the airport and a short 10-15 minute cab or Uber ride to the cruise port. It has an incredible pool area with a waterfall, tons of palm trees, a swim-up bar, and giant hot tub. It is also located right on the most popular beach in San Juan. You can enjoy time by the pool or walk right out to the largest beach in the city.
When I was visiting here last year, John Travolta was filming a movie (Speed Kills) at the resort.
The hotel is also in the perfect location as there are a ton of restaurants that are less than a 5 minute walk away. There’s everything from fast food to authentic Puerto Rican restaurants. The resort also has several restaurants including a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. You can even have a casual dinner right on the beach at sunset.
Another great option for your stay is the El San Juan Hotel that just reopened this week. It’s located next door to the Intercontinental.
If you want to stay right by the cruise port, there’s a Sheraton that is pretty much across the street from it.
Uber is an awesome, affordable way to get around San Juan but there is one thing you should know. They can not and will not pick you up by taxi stands. If you want to use Uber, walk a block away from the taxi stands and then open the app to get your ride. This includes hotels that have taxi stands right outside of them.
Odds and Ends
Since Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, they use the U.S. Dollar and your phone will work just like it does back in the States.
Puerto Rican coffee is nothing short of divine. If you are a coffee lover, then Puerto Rico is a place you need to visit. Due to the climate, there are numerous coffee farms on the island. My favorite Puerto Rican coffee? Finca Cialitos! It is located right in Old San Juan on Calle San Francisco and is a short walk from the cruise pier. The owner (Joaquin) grows and roasts the coffee beans and it’s pretty much the best coffee on earth. Seriously, stop and grab a cup and you can thank me later.
There are many fixed cab fares for trips to and from the airport, Old San Juan, Isla Verde, and Condado. This comes in handy so you don’t have to worry about being gouged or your driver going the long way to drive up the meter.
While Spanish is the official and primary language of Puerto Rico, pretty much everyone in the tourist areas is bilingual and can communicate in English. However if you can speak some Spanish, they appreciate the effort. This is true pretty much wherever you go in the world.
Make sure you try some local Puerto Rican dishes like mofongo, empanadillas, or tostones and maduros.
There is a free trolley service that takes you around Old San Juan that runs Monday – Friday from 7-7 and on weekends from 9-7. This is strictly transportation but a great way to get around. There is no tour guide on board.
Old San Juan has two 400 year old forts that are filled with history. A ticket includes admission to both forts, El Morro and San Christobal.
If you’re on the fence about taking a cruise out of San Juan, just do it. You won’t regret it.