Perfect for sun-loving families, this tropical paradise proves an affordable escape rich in kid appeal.
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.
Where to Stay
The Caribe Hilton has much to offer families: a secluded beach that can be accessed only through the hotel, a kids' club, two massive pools, plus free meals for kids ages 5 and under and half-price fare for kids ages 6 to 12. There's even a small fort on the property. Grown-ups take note: this is the birthplace of the piña colada, should you feel an urge to sample the frozen concoction. From $179 a night; caribehilton.com; 787-721-0303
Copamarina Beach Resort and Spa in the southwestern coastal town of Guánica doesn't have any bells and whistles -- there's one restaurant, one breakfast spot, two small pools -- but its authentic hospitality draws families from all over Puerto Rico, and we've come to love the simple style, direct beach access, and friendly welcome. The hotel also offers kayaks, paddleboards, and our new favorite, Snuba, a combination of snorkeling and scuba that Aidan was able to master here at age 8. From $165 a night; copamarina.com; 787-821-0505
For a few nights of luxury, we head to El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo on the northeast corner of the island, which boasts a small water park, a private beach island reached by catamaran, 20 dining spots, golf -- you get the picture. Sharing the property is Las Casitas Village, where we rented a plush apartment with full kitchen and separate bedroom and living room. Either way, reserve space on a nighttime tour of the bioluminescent bay (separate fee). From $169 a night, $229 for Las Casitas; elconresort.com; 800-925-3673
Rincón, on the island's west coast, is popular with family vacationers for its wide variety of rental properties. And thanks to its unique location, you can choose surf lessons in the rolling Atlantic or snorkeling in the mellow Caribbean without leaving town. rincon.org
Where to Eat
Tapas restaurants let us try local specialities in small servings. Dishes that Aidan has liked include chicharrones de pollo (fried chicken bites), plantanos (savory plantain chips), and maduros (sweet fried plantains).
Reposteria Kasalta, a famous San Juan bakery open all day, is known for its delicate pastries and savory Cuban sandwiches. Even President Obama ate here on his historic trip to the island. kasalta.com
In Ponce, Pito's Seafood is our lunch spot of choice. The fish is pulled out of the water just hours before it's served. Ken and I have enjoyed mofongo, a local dish of mashed plantains topped here with lobster. Aidan loves the fried shrimp on the kids' menu -- and peering over the expansive deck to watch tropical fish in the clear waters below. pitosseafoodpr.com
For kid-friendly treats on the go, we love to snack al fresco at the bakery trucks in Old San Juan. We're also fans of coco frio, chilled coconuts with their tops hacked off for easy drinking, sold at roadside stands. And keep an eye out for tropical ice carts (piraguas) , a great way to cool off on a hot day.
Melissa Klurman and her family live in New Jersey.
Originally published in the December/January 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.