Last Updated on November 15, 2022 by Wandering our World

Puerto Rico and Hawaii are popular beach destinations for Americans looking to experience a slice of paradise off the mainland. And they are both famous for their sublime natural beauty—think flowing waterfalls, towering mountains, and indigenous tropical forests.

Yet while both destinations can provide you with a stunning beach holiday, they are vastly different when it comes to culture, history, vibe, and unique attractions. So making the right decision about which one to visit is not only difficult, but important too.

But if you really want to immerse yourself in a different language and revel in the fascinating history of a Spanish Caribbean colony, Puerto Rico could be the better choice for you. Yet those looking for plenty of adventure and outdoor activities will likely be drawn more towards Hawaii.

However the reality is there’s many things that could sway you towards visiting either of these once-in-a-lifetime destinations.

Luckily we know both Puerto Rico and Hawaii well, and right here we provide an in-depth and honest comparison to help you finally decide which destination is the best fit for you.

By the time you’ve finished reading, we’re sure you will have made up your mind!

CONTENTS:

  1. A Quick Overview
  2. How Do The Beaches Compare
  3. Which Has Better Water Activities
  4. Which Has Better Land Activities
  5. Food & Culture
  6. Accommodation & Travel
  7. Where To Stay According To Your Budget
  8. Which Is Better

A Quick Overview Of Puerto Rico & Hawaii

Puerto Rico

The archipelago island of Puerto Rico is situated in the Caribbean Sea. Once a Spanish colony, it is hard to believe that this tropical Caribbean Island is an unincorporated territory of the United States.

Thousands of American tourists now flock to Puerto Rico each year to soak up the sun, relax in turquoise Caribbean waters, and experience the thrill of Latin culture.

Simply put, Puerto Rico offers a beach holiday experience that American beaches simply can’t match. With warm Caribbean waters (warmer than the Pacific), this is an island perfect for those looking for a tropical Caribbean vacation with a Latin twist.

Colorful house stacked on a hill over looking the ocean in Puerto Rico
iStock.com/Martin Wheeler

Hawaii

Hawaii is the only tropical state in the United States, and its landscape is out-of-this-world beautiful – there’s a reason why Jurassic Park was filmed here after all.

This state is a collection of more than 120 archipelago volcanic islands that lie in the North Pacific Ocean, all within 2000-4000 miles from the mainland United States.

Hawaii is uniquely positioned on a tectonic plate and all its islands were formed from underwater volcanic molten lava. It is the only place in the world where visitors can experience the extraordinary flora, fauna, and geology of a volcanic island in the North Pacific Ocean.

So while you won’t get Caribbean waters in Hawaii, you will get active volcanoes, amazing surf, and world famous aloha culture.

Na Pali Coast from drone
iStock.com/ShaneMyersPhoto

How Do The Beaches Compare?

Hawaii: The Beaches

When it comes to beaches, Hawaii is somewhat of a legend.

The tropical state has countless beaches spread throughout its numerous islands. This means that Hawaii will have a beach for you no matter what you’re after. Whether its gentle waters for some safe family fun; crashing waves to boogie board or surf the day away; a never-ending stretch of powdery sand for a romantic stroll; or a protected bay for a peaceful snorkel, Hawaii will have a beach for you. That is the beauty of having beach after beach after beach.

When it comes to the quality of Hawaiian beaches, they are jaw-dropping visual spectacles. Sand ranges in coarseness and colour—from gold to black and even green thanks to the lingering effects of volcanic minerals.

Recommended: Sharks & Shark Attacks In Hawaii

Water can change from crystal clear to deep blue to emerald green all within a matter of a few feet. Backdrops range from protruding volcanic lava rock formations to lush tropical jungle.

Not sure where to start? Hapuna Beach on Big Island has been ranked as the number one beach in the United States by publications like Conde Nast Traveler. Or head to Waikiki Beach (see photo below) in Honolulu which is famous for its surfing and energetic beach vibe.

The range of beaches, the backdrops, and all the activities you can do there, makes Hawaii a behemoth when it comes to beach destinations.

Hawaii beach Honolulu city travel landscape of Waikiki beach and Diamond Head mountain peak at sunset, Oahu island, USA vacation.
iStock.com/Maridav

Puerto Rico: The Beaches

Puerto Rico may not have as many beaches to choose from as Hawaii does, but what Puerto Rico’s beaches lack in quantity they sure make up for in quality.

Most Puerto Rican beaches sport soft golden sand, clear waters, and backdrops that range from forested mountains to lush palm tree filled lowlands—it’s a dreamy affair!

Popular beaches include Isla Verde—a long strip of public beach located in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan.

Isla Verde is a great beach if you enjoy hustle, bustle, and people watching. It is lined with restaurants, beach resorts, umbrella hires, water sport rentals, and other amenities. Also in the city are Condado Beach and Ocean Park Beach. Both are located in the hip area of town and offer a trendier alternative to Isla Verde.

The true gems of Puerto Rico, however, are outside the capital. Not-to-miss beaches include Playa Flamenca, a beach on Culebra Island just a 45-minute ferry from mainland Puerto Rico. The horseshoe shaped bay is something out of a postcard and its calm warm waters and lifeguards on duty make it an ideal location for a family beach day. (Recommended: Shark Attacks In Puerto Rico).

Coba Roja municipality on the southwestern end of Puerto Rico is a popular beach town among locals. Visitors looking to immerse themselves can join locals for cultural festivals on the golden shores of Balneario de Boquerón.

Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico
iStock.com/Javier_Art_Photography

But Which Is Better For Beaches?

Both Puerto Rico and Hawaii beaches are gorgeous. But that being said, Hawaii simply has more – and varied – beaches to offer.

If you are adventurous and love a good hunt for a remote secluded beach, then go forth and discover the wonders of Hawaii’s beaches.

But, if you don’t have a lot of time to explore or you want to avoid hordes of other tourists—then Puerto Rico may be a better option for you. Especially as it’s a smaller destination.

empty beach on Kauai
iStock.com/Adam-Springer

Which Has The Better Water Activities?

Hawaii: Water Activities

With over 1,200 miles of coral reef, marine protection is serious business in Hawaii.

The islands boast one of the highest densities of underwater species in the world and has frequently been crowned as one of the top diving destinations on the planet by leading travel publications.

So, it’s no surprise that snorkeling and scuba diving down the island shorelines marveling at all the colorful marine life is one of the top activities to do in Hawaii.

And with the famous Kona Manta Night Dive – where you get to watch manta rays feed amongst lights while swimming around them, Hawaii may just be home to the world’s best underwater experience.

For that dive, the dive operators will floodlight the reef. The lights attract plankton, and the plankton attracts the mantas. Then you sit and watch these gentle giants swooping back and forth above the reef, performing perfect barrel rolls as they feast on the plankton.

In addition to vibrant marine life, Hawaii has an abundance of underwater geological wonders to explore. These range from lava heads to striking rock protrusions. All of which makes snorkeling and diving in Hawaii a truly unique experience.

Hawaii also has incredible opportunities and infrastructure for other water activities like kayaking, jet skiing, boating, deep sea fishing, and waterskiing. These activities can easily be set up through a resort or the hundreds of independent adventure companies on the islands.

And of course, Hawaii is arguably the home of surfing, and possibly the best place to catch a wave on the planet.

When it comes to water activities, Hawaii is hard to beat. And likely your better choice than Puerto Rico in this respect.

Manta Rays swimming across sunlight
iStock.com/JHansche

Puerto Rico: Water Activities

Puerto Rico isn’t a mega tourist destination like Hawaii. And as a result, the variety and accessibility of water activities like yachting, deep sea fishing, and motorized water sports does not match that of Hawaii.

But when it comes to snorkeling and diving though, Puerto Rico is excellent. While coral continues to decline in other Caribbean countries, Puerto Rico has managed to preserve an abundance of its coral population.

Popular snorkeling and diving spots like the La Parguera Nature Reserve, are only accessible by boat, but offer unique opportunities to explore Puerto Rico’s coral reefs, mangroves, and cays.

Aerial drone view of swimming men
iStock.com/nantonov

Which Is Better For Water Activities?

Hawaii has endless opportunities to get active in the water and being a world class tourist and surfing destination, the equipment and facilities are in general better and more plentiful than in Puerto Rico.

That being said, guided water activities and rentals tend to be a lot more affordable in Puerto Rico than in Hawaii. So, if you are on a budget but can’t resist partaking in a bunch of water activities, then Puerto Rico may be the better option for you.

Snorkeling and diving in Puerto Rico is by no means underwhelming, but some argue that it doesn’t beat Hawaii. After all, the Pacific Ocean tends to have a wider variety of marine life than the Caribbean.

Hawaii is also a stop over point for whales too, which is another big plus to Hawaii.

Aerial view of a beautiful whale in a calm sea
iStock.com/Wirestock

Which Has Better Land Activities?

Hawaii: Land Activities

Simply put, Hawaii is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. The islands are filled with interesting geological structures and unique flora and fauna to explore.

Hiking destinations range from waterfalls tucked away in the depths of indigenous forests, such as the famous Hi’ilawe Falls on the Big Island; exclusive beaches such as Kaui’s Kalalau Beach which can only be accessed by the epic 11-mile long Kalalau Trail; and the legendary Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

In fact if you want to see some of the world’s most active volcanoes (and lava bursting out of the ground), or actual scenes from Jurassic Park (the landscape was filmed in Hawaii), then this U.S. stat is going to be a dream vacation.

Luckily many of the hiking trails in Hawaii are well marked, well maintained, and easily accessible. The less known ones can be hunted down with a short Google search for directions. 

Other popular outdoor activities include exotic bird spotting, adrenaline pumping helicopter rides, flying through the forest by zipline, cycling the hilly shorelines for ocean vistas, and traversing the forests by ATV. 

Incredibly the landscape is so diverse in Hawaii you can even snowboard and ski there – as we’ve written about before!

iStock.com/Phil Davis

Puerto Rico: Land Activities

Puerto Rico offers opportunities for fun away from the beach as well.

Visitors can explore the famous El Yunque National Forest to experience the sounds and sights of a tropical rainforest—and it is just a 40-minute drive to San Juan. The forest has well-traveled trails that run from the picturesque La Mina waterfall to the heights of Britton Mountain for panoramic views.

Puerto Rico also offers classic activities like ATV tours, horse back riding, ziplining, and canyoning, and many waterparks perfect for kids – as we’ve written about before.

Similar to the water sports, land-based activities tend to be cheaper in Puerto Rico than in Hawaii.

Puerto Rico forest hills
iStock.com/dennisvdw

Which Is Better For Land Activities?

If you crave a daily adrenaline rush while on vacation, then Hawaii is by far the better choice— the sheer quantity of hikes and other outdoor adventures to be had in Hawaii is an attraction in itself.

If, however, you prefer to wander the streets of town than to wander the trails of mountains then you may be more content in Puerto Rico.

Of course, all the classic outdoor adventure activities are available in Puerto Rico too—and at a cheaper price at that. So, if you like both city and nature adventures then Puerto Rico is a good fit.

So whilst Hawaii is the ultimate outdoor destination, smaller Puerto Rico has similar activities (albeit arguably less dramatic and exceptional) that are cheaper and more accessible.

tropical palm tree at sea and sunset summer background
iStock.com/thekopmylife

How Do The Food & Culture Compare?

Hawaii: Food & Culture

Despite being part of the United States, Hawaiian culture is distinguished from the mainland by its unique menage of eastern and western customs.

Hawaiian culture upholds a deep connection with nature and traditional gods thanks to its strong indigenous roots. The state even has its own language, called Hawaiian that’s derived from the Polynesian language family.

The unique language together with the distinct tropical surroundings, and the melting pot of indigenous, Asian, and Pacific ethnic groups can make visitors forget that they are still on American soil when in Hawaii.

But that being said, certain parts of Hawaii are extremely touristy. And it can be a challenge to break out of the tourist bubble and connect with the locals, especially during a short visit.

Several resorts do at least offer cultural activities like Flower Lei making and Hula dancing—though even these displays of culture can seem overly performative and gimmicky at times.

Recommended: The Correct Etiquette When Receiving A Hawaiian Lei.

On the bright side, Hawaii has more than 50 museums with exhibitions that range from the infamous Pearl Harbor attack during WWII to historic Tsunami’s and traditional tribal art—a great way for visitors to delve into Hawaii’s history and present-day culture.

Hawaiian cuisine is a fusion of Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Somoan, and American among other influences—it’s not commonly found in the mainland United States.

Examples of local delicacies include Poke, a colorful raw fish, fruit, and veggie dish, Saimin, a hearty egg-noodle soup, and Luau, a taro leaf stew also known as Hawaii’s comfort food. International and western cuisine is also plentiful on the islands.

iStock.com/Maridav

Puerto Rico: Food & Culture

Despite being a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico feels like a completely different country. And from the minute you land on Puerto Rican soil it is evident why.

Puerto Rico has been hugely influenced by its Spanish colonial past and Afro-Caribbean heritage. Unlike large cities in Hawaii, which don’t look terribly different from American coastal cities like Miami, the capital of Puerto Rico, San Juan still maintains the historic charm of its colonial past.

Old Juan—the old city center—boasts rainbow colored Spanish style colonial buildings, picturesque cobble stoned streets, and iconic World Heritage Sites including a 16th century citadel overlooking the sea.

There are therefore daily opportunities to experience Latin culture in Puerto Rico—whether it’s through speaking Spanish, enjoying Puerto Rican salsa music and dance, or trying out the many island delicacies.

While there are less international food options in Puerto Rico than in Hawaii, the local cuisine is quite addictive, and is a delicious mix of Afro-Caribbean and Latin cooking.

Dishes like Tostones (fried mashed plantains), Mofongo (a mash of garlic, yams, pork skin, and bacon which originated among African slaves), Pasteles (fillings wrapped in steamed masa flour, like a Mexican Tamale), rice and beans, empanadas, and arepas are just a few mouthwatering examples of what to expect from Puerto Rican cuisine. And of course, there’s Puerto Rican rum, we can’t forget about the rum!

As for Puerto Rico’s ancient indigenous history—visitors can learn about Puerto Rico’s indigenous by embarking on the Taino Route, an educational tour that runs north to south stopping at important monuments and locations in Taino history, an ancient indigenous group that inhabited the Caribbean.

In addition, Puerto Rico has 86 museums that cover themes from art and history to archeology and important figures. 

Colorful image of city centre of San Juan with large Puerto Rican flag above the street. Blue and pink buildings in the street. Sunny day. Red and white stripes, white star and blue colored national flag of Puerto Rico.
iStock.com/Napa74

Which Is Better For Food & Culture?

Evidently both Puerto Rico and Hawaii have interesting cultures.

But in Hawaii, you will only likely get to experience a glimpse of it unless you make a big effort to immerse yourself in indigenous culture. The fact is, mainstream Hawaiian culture is quite Westernized.

If learning about another culture is something you desire in a vacation, then Puerto Rico is likely the better option for you. It takes little effort to immerse yourself and connect with locals in Puerto Rico.

Beautiful Caribbean bay and landscape in Puerto Rico
iStock.com/shakzu

Puerto Rico vs Hawaii: Accommodation & Travel

Hawaii: Accommodation & Travel

Hawaii is often ranked as one of the most expensive states in America, thanks mostly to its remote location.

A week in 2- or 3-star accommodation for two can start from $1,000 in Hawaii. While a week in 4- or 5-star accommodation for two starts at around $3,700. There are ways to reduce the cost of the trip such as traveling during low season, though this could mean poorer beach conditions. Or you can travel cheaply like backpacking in Hawaii – which we’ve written about before.

Travel time to Hawaii can be very long too, especially if departing from northeast hubs like New York, where a non-stop flight to Hawaii averages 11-13 hours and starts at $550 compared to a non-stop to Puerto Rico which averages 3.5 to 4 hours and starts at $180.

From east coast hubs like Los Angeles, travel to Hawaii is shorter than travel to Puerto Rico; at 5.5 hours compared to 8.5 hours at least.

In short, Hawaii may be a better if you are looking to splurge on a special occasion such as a honeymoon or anniversary.

beach holidays, luxury swimming pool with palm trees
iStock.com/anyaberkut

Puerto Rico: Accommodation & Travel

Puerto Rico isn’t the cheapest Caribbean destination out there but it is cheaper than Hawaii.

A week in 2- or 3-star accommodation for two starts at $400 in Puerto Rico. A week in 4- or 5-star accommodation for two can be around $3,000.

In terms of dining out, meals tend to be cheaper in Puerto Rico, especially fast food, and street food options off the beaten path.

So Puerto Rico may be a better choice if you are planning a shorter vacation or need to be more budget conscious. You should also factor in travel time and cost of the ticket when making your final decision.

Resort swimming pool with sunset
iStock.com/Soft_Light

Where To Stay According To Your Budget

Hawaii

Shoestring: Just one minute from the beach and with free bike rental, Hakuna Matata Hostel on Maui is fun, cheap and friendly. You’ll be making memories in no time here, and without damaging your bank account.

Budget: Located in the heart of Waikiki, 2 minutes walk to the famous Waikiki Beach and surrounded by shopping and dining is the luxury boutique Halepuna Waikiki hotel. This four-star hotel will stretch budgets, but the panoramic views of the ocean and city – alongside the gorgeous infinity pool – will be worth it.

Luxury: Montage Kapalua Bay on Maui is one of those hotels we all wish to stay in one day. It’s extravagant beachfront luxury on a 24-acre landscaped resort with unparalleled views to the sea and beach access. It’s everything you’d expect of a five-star resort and more.

Happy couple in infinity pool
iStock.com/grinvalds

Puerto Rico

Shoestring: The Casa Coral hostel, just one minute from the beach, has some of the best reviews we’ve ever come across. The location is unbeatable, the vibe friendly, the decor modern, and you can hire kayaks and surf boards directly from the hostel – or even take lessons from the staff! If you’re traveling on a shoestring, Casa Coral is hard to beat. See reviews, images and more by clicking here.

Budget: Two outdoor pools, hot tubs, tennis courts, an on-site spa, beach access and rooms with ocean views, all set in a lush 20-acre tropical garden. Staying at Copamarina Beach Resort & Spa is one of the most affordable ways to enjoy Puerto Rico in luxury but still on a budget.

Luxury: Imagine every luxury and facility imaginable, and then place that right beside the stunning Bahia Beach and only 15 minutes drive from El Yunque Rainforest. That’s what you get with St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, which is the sort of place that has to be seen to be believed.

Amazing tropical paradise beach
iStock.com/Lara_Uhryn

Puerto Rico vs Hawaii: Which Is Better?

Ultimately the decision between Puerto Rico and Hawaii comes down to your preferences.

But as a rule of thumb, if you have more vacation time, are an outdoors lover, and have a larger budget, take the plunge and cross Hawaii off your bucket list—you won’t regret it.

However if you only have a few days to spare and really want to immerse yourself in a different language and revel in the fascinating history of a Spanish Caribbean colony, then Puerto Rico will likely be the better choice than Hawaii.