When I think of Piñones, two things immediately come to mind: food and the beach. If that’s you idea of a good time, and you want to experience Puerto Rico as the locals do, then you’re just a short car ride away from making it happen.
Located east of San Juan along Route 187 (just a few minutes’ drive from the resorts in Isla Verde), Piñones is a different world from the metropolitan bustle of the capital. Here, the beach is the main draw, and there are literally miles of it. A boardwalk runs along part of the beachfront, but most of it is undeveloped stretches of golden sand. In particular, look for La Pocita, a long beach with a sandbar that creates a natural, shallow pool that’s perfect for families; and Vacia Talega, further along the road, a lovely crescent-shaped beach that sees fewer visitors. Note that neither of these beaches has lifeguards or the facilities of a balneario, or public beach.
Of course, when I say undeveloped, I mean mostly undeveloped; the one thing you’ll find in abundance at Piñones (and one of the main reasons it’s so popular) is its cluster of roadside eateries, which begin as soon as you enter the area. Many of these are rustic kiosks where you can happily gorge on all manner of frituras (a variety of fried fritters), empanadas (turnovers stuffed with meat, seafood or vegetables), chicharrón (deep-fried pork skin) and other snacks and finger-foods that are staples of the local diet. One of the most famous (there’s always a line of people waiting to sample its specially seasoned turnovers) is El Boricua, but you really can’t go wrong with any of them. Indeed, kiosk-hopping is a bit of a weekend pastime with the locals. You can wash down your food with chilled coconut water, served up in its coconut husk, the top hacked off with a machete. On the island, you can order virtually any drink spiked, and locals love their coconut water with a healthy dash of rum or whiskey.
While Piñones is famed for its kiosks, you can also find gourmet eateries here. One in particular is Soleil Beach Club, which has a menu to rival many fine dining establishments in the city but a setting that fits right in at Piñones: rustic, open and warm. Soleil Beach Club even offers free transportation from the city to the restaurant, giving visitors in San Juan the chance to enjoy the Piñones experience without needing to rent a car or take a taxi.
Beyond the beach and food, there are (at least) two other reasons to visit this part of the island. The first is the COPI Cultural Center, located right off 187 at Km 4.2, just over the bridge into Piñones. A small wooden facility, the cultural center offers a terrific mix of cultural activities and excursions at affordable prices. Visitors can rent a bike and take off on a tour of the Piñones State Forest, which follows an elevated boardwalk through the largest mangrove forest in Puerto Rico; or they can rent a kayak and row their way through densely woven mangrove tunnels out into the Torrecilla Lagoon, which will take you so close to the Luis Muñoz Marín Airport that you can catch close-up views of airplanes taking off above you. Both excursions offer the chance to spot some of the local fauna (including some impressively large iguanas in the forest) and birds.
The COPI Cultural Center also hosts workshops for learning Bomba a Puerto Rican percussion-based music and dance tradition with deep African roots.
The other attraction that brings droves of visitors to Piñones is its nightlife; beachfront bars and outdoor venues heat up after the sun sets, with local favorites like the Balcón del Zumbador often drawing live bands. These places offer a total immersion into rustic Puerto Rico, so any visitor looking for a chic nightclub should stay away; however, those who want some authentic local flavor that’s a few miles –– and a world away – from San Juan will be happy they came.