SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - There may have been a time when Puerto Rico was a cheap getaway but those days are long gone.
Puerto Rico is heavily dependent on imported goods and fuel and that's reflected in prices from a taxi ride from the airport to the mojito at your hotel. And it is, after all, the Caribbean, where tourists should expect eye-popping bills in season. A six-star hotel that opened recently in Dorado, east of San Juan, advertised rates starting at $1,500 a night, ranging up to nearly $5,000. There are, of course, cheaper options. There are also things to do that don't cost anything at all. Here are five of them:
It's an island about the size of Connecticut so there are many beaches, about 300 according to some estimates. In the capital, Isla Verde Beach is good for swimming and lolling on soft sand, groomed daily. Playita del Condado is a protected cove that is ideal for young kids and a surprisingly good place to snorkel for being in the middle of San Juan.
Things get much better outside the capital. Crash Boat, about an hour west of San Juan, is great for swimming and snorkeling. Farther west in the west coast town of Rincon is Maria's, which has great surf. Also recommended are the beaches along the entrance to the Guanica Dry Forest Reserve as well as Seven Seas in the east coast town of Fajardo. A good tip for all Puerto Rican beaches is to go early in the morning when the water is calm and there are no crowds. Otherwise, go to Vieques, which has spectacular beaches that are secluded even in the high season.
About a half-hour drive from San Juan, thanks to a relatively new toll road, is an actual tropical rain forest, the only one that is part of the U.S. forest system. El Yunque National Forest is a cool oasis on a hot day. The well-maintained trails are often shrouded in misty clouds and you can cool off in a waterfall or a river pool along the relatively easy Big Tree Trail.
There's an entrance fee to enter the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, but the best way to enjoy this U.S. National Historic Site requires no money at all. The fort that towers over San Juan Bay, known universally as just "El Morro," is a great place to stroll, especially at sunset. The massive rolling expanse of grass at the foot of the fort has spectacular views in any direction. It's a popular place to picnic and fly a kite, sold by nearby street vendors.
OLD SAN JUAN
At the foot of El Morro is the old city, the colonial heart of San Juan. In recent years, Old San Juan has been on an upswing; its cobblestone streets are cleaner and livelier. New stores, restaurants and coffee shops have opened and many of the old homes have been restored. It's a working city, home to the governor's office and mansion - said to be the oldest in the western hemisphere - as well as other government offices and an increasing number of professional firms. It's also become an increasingly busy cruise ship port, and outlet and luxury goods shops have proliferated.
MUSIC AND SALSA
A good place to catch free live music several nights a week is the Plaza Mercado, a fruit and vegetable market in Santurce, a neighborhood that is also home to what are considered some of the best restaurants in Puerto Rico.
The lobby of the El San Juan in Isla Verde usually has live music and dancing on weekends. The bar of course isn't free but there's no charge to get in. The dancers can be intimidatingly good so the less-skilled may be content just to watch the scene.
A number of restaurants and hotels also regularly advertise free salsa lessons.