Destination: Puerto Rico
If you’ve always dreamed of beachcombing on Puerto Rico’s beautiful sandy beaches, get ready to start packing your bags! Visiting this U.S. territory, a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Miami, is a great way to experience Caribbean life without leaving the U.S. No passports, no money to exchange, you can use your U.S. driver license to rent a car, and your ATM and credit cards work just like at home. Just over three million people call Puerto Rico home, with one-third of them living in the capital of San Juan on this island the size of Connecticut. The rest of the inhabitants are spread out across this island, which features mountains, rainforests, white sandy beaches, and cities, each with their own unique history and culture.
San Juan is a great place to start your visit, and a great place to familiarize yourself with the history of Puerto Rico and settle into life on the island. With museums and galleries, historical sites, and great beachcombing just steps from the Capitol building (El Capitolio), everyone can find something to enjoy here. You can take part in the culture and nightlife, or enjoy the slow tropical pace of life here. Accommodations range from five-star resorts to charming guest houses, and everything in between—and there’s a restaurant for every taste.
“Puerto Rico” art by Bernadette Skipper
Angie Battig from PR Sea Glass Co., who has lived in Puerto Rico for the past seven years, recommends staying one or two days at the beginning or end of your trip in San Juan to make sure you have a chance to see the main sights. There’s no need to rent a car in San Juan as you can take Uber or use San Juan’s public transportation system to get around the city.
Angie recommends visiting the San Juan National Historic Site. You can visit the forts at Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal, which were built more than 400 years ago to protect the city. You can also see La Fortaleza (now the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico) and the original San Juan City Wall. Don’t miss a visit to the historic district of the capital. “Out of all the places within the island, Old San Juan is my favorite,” says Angie. “With its old-world charm and Spanish colonial architecture, you feel like you’re somewhere in Europe.”
Looking to soak in a little culture? Angie recommends Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. “Don’t forget to go outside in the back of the museum and walk around their garden,” she says. “And, the museum is free after 2 pm every Wednesday.”
Take a day trip to Piñones get away from the hustle and bustle of San Juan. This area, northeast of the airport, is known for its “kioskos” on the beach, which are little stalls selling fried appetizers. “My favorite one to visit is called Kiosko El Boricua,” Angie says. Closer to town, check out Jaime Benítez (Condado Lagoon) National Park. “It’s a great place to rent some paddleboards and kayak,” says Angie. “Sometimes manatees will appear!”
At night, head to La Placita de Santurce, or just La Placita, for live music, dancing, and night clubs in this market square founded more than 100 years ago. It’s home to an active market with shops and offices during the day and becomes the hub of San Juan’s nightlife at night.
Old San Juan is fun for beachcombing, especially for sea glass. “One of my favorite beaches is located directly across from the Capitol,” says Angie. Just head down the steps right across from the Capitol building, where you can find smoothed perfect sea glass. Find a local to bring you to some of the other beaches in the city, where you can find sea glass, sea pottery, and other treasures.
A great side trip from the capital is the rainforest of El Yunque. Just a half hour from San Juan, it is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. and features hundreds of trees and plants, one of the ten most endangered birds in the world, the Puerto Rican Parrot, and trails through the dense vegetation to hidden waterfalls.
The second largest airport in Puerto Rico is in Aguadilla, 100 miles west of San Juan. The area between Aguadilla and Rincón, just 45 minutes further west, features beautiful beaches that attract surfers, snorkelers, and beachcombers from around the world. With plenty of hotels, restaurants, and beaches, the Aguadilla and Rincón areas are a great place to set up base if you’re mostly interested in beaching it while in Puerto Rico.
There are all types of beaches, from those with waves for surfing, to calm-water beaches with coral reefs and hawksbill turtles, to beaches great for filling your beachcombing bag with sea glass and other beach treasures. Be careful in the winter when waves Aguadilla’s north-facing beaches are at their roughest.
The Aguadilla area is a favorite of Bernadette Skipper, an Air Force veteran, mother, and art teacher from Florida. She and friends from the “Florida’s East Coast Sea Glass Club” have visited Puerto Rico a handful of times. When asked about her favorite part about traveling to Puerto Rico she says, “The, sun, sand, ocean, beaches, palm trees, and beauty!”
The group flies into Aguadilla and they rent a car so they can visit all the beaches in the area. And, the beaches in northwest Puerto Rico have plenty of treasures for the group to collect. “We find red, orange, yellow, pink, purple, aqua, cobalt blue, green, brown, black, and white sea glass,” she says. “Plus, seashells, driftwood, sea urchins, marbles, sea pottery, sea tiles, coins, and even horse teeth.”
She and her girlfriends beachcomb every low tide, day and night, using flash lights and headlamps when it gets dark. “I love it when I can save my skin from cancer and too many sun rays,” says Bernadette.
Denice Cummings has also visited Puerto Rico many times, and loves what she finds on the beaches in Puerto Rico. “You will find just about all colors there! I have found red, orange, yellow, every shade of blue you can imagine, black, green, aqua, lavender, pink, and more. The bonus is beautiful shells and once in a while ancient coins!”
The first time Denice and her husband visited Puerto Rico, they flew to San Juan and then drove to the Rincón area. Now they fly directly to Aguadilla and hit beaches all along the northwest coast near Aguadilla. “There really are many great beaches—you can pull to the end of any street on the north west coast and pick sea glass just about anytime,” Denice says. Denice now runs trips to Puerto Rico through her Facebook page, “All Things Coastal: Sea Glassing in Puerto Rico.”
Cheryl Perez from Jewelry Beyond the Sea recommends hitting the beach in Aguadilla early in the morning. The waves sometimes drop the sea glass right up on the shore, or you can dig yourself a hole to sit in at the water’s edge and grab the glass as it’s washed in. “There can be wild water—so don’t plan on swimming—and bring a buddy with you to be safe,” says Cheryl.
Carolyn Pigford from Huntress by Sea Jewelry is lucky to call Aguadilla home. “The beaches of Aguadilla have some great bars right on the beach with great spots to look for glass,” she says. Bernadette agrees! “A group of us had the best time of our lives in what we dubbed ‘The Honey Hole of Sea Glass,’ sitting on a cushion while sea glassing and drinking piña coladas.”
Carolyn loves the activities and wildlife off the west and northwest coast of Puerto Rico. “Snorkeling here is second to none, and the ‘Blue Hole’ at Shacks is a world-class diving spot with abundant reefs” she says. She and her husband, Dale, run PR Surf Adventures, which offers surf lessons, snorkel tours, stand up paddleboard adventures, and the chance to jump off a waterfall.
If you’d rather admire the wildlife from the beach, Rincón is the perfect spot to look for whales during their winter migration. “The Beach House restaurant has to-die-for views at sunset—and you may see a whale!” Carolyn says. “The entire coastline is a treasure trove. Walk when the swells aren’t too high to find some lesser known sea glass and shell spots!”
Since Hurricane Maria in 2017, many island residents depend even more on money they make selling sea glass and art and jewelry made from beach finds. “Be mindful of the quantities of glass that you take, as there are many that rely on the sales of sea glass to provide for their family,” says Carolyn.
When you’re ready to take a break from the beach, check out the art walk in Rincón, a vibrant weekly event featuring the work of local artisans. The Farmers Market in Aguadilla features fresh produce and handcrafted goods, including handmade sea glass jewelry. Another fun “high-tide” activity is a visit to the Gozalandia Waterfalls. Book a trip with a guide or ask a local for the safest time to take a swim below the cascading water.
For a trip back in time, check out Puerto Rico’s second-largest city of Ponce, an hour and a half from Aguadilla and San Juan on the southern coast, whose recently renovated historic district features horse-drawn carriages, gas street lamps, and colorful neoclassical buildings. “La Guancha in Ponce is a seaside boardwalk with food and beachside activities,” says Carolyn. “Explore the area and you may find some sea glass!”
Renting a car in Puerto Rico is a great way to see everything that the island has to offer. However, there is plenty of traffic on this densely populated island, local drivers can seem reckless, and the roads can be very narrow when you leave the main highways. Buy a good map, use a GPS app, and honk before you go around curving mountain roads.
For beachcombers, the usual safety recommendations apply: wear sunscreen, protective clothing, a hat, and sunglasses. Drink plenty of water and be careful of rough surf. Talk to locals about the safest beaches to visit.
As in any city, don’t walk alone at night, leave your valuables in your hotel, and if you think a neighborhood looks sketchy, stay away from the area. Most tourist areas in Puerto Rico are safe, just be careful if you stray from the beaten path where towns, water, and roads are not as well maintained. Outside of big cities, residents may speak only Spanish, so bring along a Spanish phrase book or app if you’re planning on heading into remote areas.
When selecting a place to stay or eat, be sure to check traveler recommendations, and make sure any photos and reviews are from after October 2017, when Hurricane Maria caused considerable damage in some places. Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30, but if a storm is on its way, the news will give plenty of warning. Sea glass collectors say the best time to go beachcombing in Puerto Rico is from December through March, so a visit then should be hurricane-free.
And, leave the beaches better than you found them by picking up trash while you beachcomb.
Photos by Bernadette Skipper, PR Surf Adventures, and Huntress by Sea Jewelry.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2019 issue.
No live shelling: Be sure shells are empty and sand dollars, sea stars, and sea urchins are no longer alive before you bring them home.