In our lIfe BK (Before Kids) Puerto Rico was the go-to vacation spot for me and my husband, Ken. We loved the Latin culture, Spanish language, and combination of city life and beautiful beaches. Every time we stepped off the short (three hours from New York!) direct flight, we marveled at how the friendly lifestyle and warm salsa beat of the island engulfed us, even though we were still in the United States. (Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, so you don't need to bring a passport or exchange money, and with some carriers, you can use your cell phone with no roaming charges). Ken and I were so fond of our getaways that when our son, Aidan, was just two, we decided to take the plunge and try a family vacation on the island. Our only question: Would Aidan like La Isla Encantada (the Enchanted Island) as much as we did?
We needn't have worried. As it turns out, Puerto Rico is a wonderful place for kids. In Old San Juan, we discovered the grassy slopes of El Morro, where kite flying with a view of the Atlantic is a delight for all ages. And we were amused that every abuelita (grandma) in San Juan seemed to feel it her duty to pinch our son's chubby cheeks and offer him a sweet.
On that visit, we made the San Juan area our base and spent time splashing at the beach, floating in the pool, and visiting Old San Juan. As Aidan has gotten older, we've rented a car and taken him to our favorite spots farther afield on the Connecticut-size island. We love to hear him trying out his Spanish, and locals are always happy to do the "¿Cómo está?" "Muy bien, gracias, y tu?" ("How are you?" "Very good, thank you, and you?") drill with him, which we practice in advance with help from Little Pim language tapes.
Aiden is now 9, and the three of us have traveled to Puerto Rico four times. I think we finally have it down to a (messy) science.
What to Do
Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro): In Old San Juan, we live out our Pirates of the Caribbean fantasies at El Morro, a castle-like fort on the Atlantic begun by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Aidan and other visiting kids command the seas from atop the six-story brick fortress and together excitedly explore its dark passageways, turrets, cannons, and ramparts. Across town is another well-preserved fort, Castillo San Cristóbal. Both are run by the National Park Service. $3 for one fort, $5 for both, free for kids ages 15 and under; nps.gov/saju
Museo del Niño (Children's Museum): The three floors of "please touch" exhibits at this child-friendly spot in Old San Juan are just right for kids ages 6 and under. Plus, its setting, a lovely square, is perfect for pigeon chasing and church gazing. We also enjoy shady outdoor lunches on the covered patio of the adjacent El Convento Hotel. $7 adults, $5 kids; museodelninopr.org; 787-722-3791
El Yunque National Forest: Highlights here are searching for coqui, tiny but loud tropical frogs, and watching for flashes of green from the elusive Puerto Rican Parrot. Other top family moments in the 28,000-acre preserve (the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest system) include climbing the Yokahu stone tower, hiking through the lush greenery, and splashing around waterfalls. Note: Bring a jacket. El Yunque receives up to 200 inches of precipitation per year, and the average temperature is a refreshing 73 degrees. The preserve is free; visitors' center $4, free for kids ages 15 and under; fs.usda.gov/elyunque
Luquillo Beach: Many consider this palm-fringed beach just east of San Juan to be one of the most beautiful stretches of sand on the island. It's a party scene here, with hopping salsa beats and seafood shacks filled with hungry beachgoers.
Guánica: To really get away from it all, we drive to the island's southwest corner and the smooth Caribbean Sea. The water sports and swimming here are fantastic, and a short boat ride brings you to Gilligan's Island (yes, like the show), a small cay with silky white beaches popular with those in the know. Bring a picnic, pack snorkel gear or goggles, and let the current carry you through the channel that traverses the island. Bliss. After we go with the flow, we like to lace up our hiking shoes for a walk through the 000-acre Guánica Dry Forest. Not as lush as El Yunque, the forest offers rocky terrain to explore and the thrill of spotting birds, bugs, and plants seen nowhere else.
Ponce: A day trip to this colonial port city, with appealing churches, museums, and parks, is just right when you're ready for a break from the beach. Aidan especially enjoys the fountains of Plaza Las Delicias and the antique fire truck and pumps at Parque de Bombas, the first firehouse in the Caribbean.