In recovery from Hurricanes Irma and Maria, this tropical paradise still proves an affordable escape rich in kid appeal for fun-loving families.
In September 2017, Puerto Rico was devastated by a double punch of natural disasters: First Hurricane Irma swept across the US commonwealth, quickly followed by the crippling wallop of Hurricane Maria. The island lost power, but not its vibrant personality. Now in full recovery mode, Puerto Rico Tourism wants you to know that visiting—staying at hotels, eating at restaurants, and buying from local businesses—is the best way to support their rebuilding efforts. Based on post-hurricane changes, we've updated our recommendations on things to do and places to stay for families, below, to make it easier than ever to say HOLA to Puerto Rico!
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.
Aidan is now in middle school, and the three of us have traveled to Puerto Rico five 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. $5 for a San Juan National Historic Sites one day pass, free for kids ages 15 and under; nps.gov/saju
El Yunque National Forest: The impact of 2017's Hurricanes Irma and Maria resulted in significant damage to the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest system. That's the bad news. The good news is that the rainforest's lush greenery is regenerating, according to Puerto Rico's Tourism Authority, with regrowth naturally taking place while cleanup crews also simultaneously rebuild infrastructure. There's no way to rush Mother Nature, but while families wait to visit the 28,000-acre preserve—home to tiny and super loud coqui tropical frogs and elusive Puerto Rican Parrots—there are still opportunities to explore the forest's outskirts. Puerto Rico Tourism recommends Carabali Rainforest Adventure Park, an action-packed ranch that offers horseback riding (ages 3 and up with an adult; $35 adults, $25 kids 3-11) and hayrides ($10) along the Mameyes River that include an opportunity to swim in the cool, clear water. fs.usda.gov/elyunque
Beaches: These kid-friendly playas (beaches) around San Juan are favorites with locals and visitors alike:
Playa Escambrón – Steps from the historic city of Old San Juan and El Condado area, this wide beach faces the Atlantic Ocean and offers a variety of water sports; lifeguards are on duty every day.
La Posita de Piñones – Located in Loiza, near Isla Verde, this beach is protected by a jagged line of volcanic rocks, creating a long, calm, shallow "pool" on the shore side of the rock line, perfect for little swimmers.
Playa de Condado – At the western end of Condado, just east of the bridge on Ashford Avenue, this small, beach has calm-waters protected by a coral rock formation that break the waves. The shallow water is warm and clear creating a natural "kiddie" pool.
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
Inter-Continental San Juan Resort & Casino is located in Isla Verde along a 2-mile soft stretch of white sand perfect for relaxing and playing. The luxury hotel has an expansive pool with tropical landscaping including waterfalls and an indoor play area, Planet Trekkers, with myriad toys and video games (note that parents need to be present, there is currently no drop-off option). The family-favorite Trattoria Italiana offers up pizza as well as ample breakfasts, and kids 12 and under eat free off special menus throughout the resort. From $345 per night; icsanjuan.com; 787-791-6100
San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino in Condado offers a perfect location for exploring without a car with a bevy of shopping, restaurant, and snack options in easy walking distance of the beachside hotel. Two interconnected pools, one with a corkscrew slide, provide watery fun just a few steps from the golden sand. The resort also has tennis and basketball courts; complimentary bicycles; scavenger hunts, sandcastle contests, and arts and crafts activities for kids ages 3 to 15; a children's game room; and a gelateria serving a blend of classic and island flavors homemade gelatos, sure to please any sweet tooth. From $371 per night; marriott.com; 787-722-7000
Copamarina Beach Resort and Spa in the southwestern coastal town of Guánica doesn't have a lot of 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 this location, you can also easily visit the bioluminescent bay in La Paguera, about a 30 minute drive. From $165 a night; copamarina.com; 787-821-0505
Rincón, on the island's west coast, is popular with family vacationers for its wide variety of lodging options, including 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 specialties 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
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.