I am sad to say that I had to return from Puerto Rico two days ago, leaving one of the best vacations I've had in a long time.We had eight glorious days in this tropical paradise, each trumping the previous with the array of new adventures. From white sand to rain forests, ferry boats to sail boats, we covered more ground (and sea) on this week-long excursion than I have in years.
Puerto Rico feels like a real place, not built for tourists or catering to others, but an island where people live, work, and enjoy life, all the while welcoming visitors to their homeland. From the moment we arrived in San Juan with my friend Liz and our four children, I knew that this was not a place that puts on a show for its tourists. No shiny strip of glittery hotels masking the underlying poverty, or crowded marketplace with people pulling you in all directions to oversell their cheap merchandise with a fake smile. All we could see from the windows of the rental car were real families going about their business, and plenty of people enjoying life.
We arrived in San Juan on a windy afternoon and headed to the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino. This hotel has over 500 rooms and is located right on the sandy surfers' dream, Condado beach. Our adjoining rooms opened onto spacious balconies overlooking the turquoise Atlantic dotted with happy surfers. The warm sea breeze was the perfect welcome to our week of tropical heaven.
The kids immediately wanted to dive into the two large kid-friendly swimming pools abutting the beach, and the moms took no time at all to hit up the bar. The Marriott boasts several restaurants and bars, making those delicious daiquiris always readily available. The kids took to the water slide, and later the waves while we sat back and enjoyed our new found paradise.
The Marriott was an easy jump to the city of Old San Juan. Transporting us back centuries with its architecture and cobble stones, Old San Juan is a must visit of anyone heading to Puerto Rico. We had lunch and ice cream at one of the many shops, and headed up to visit el Castillo San Felipe del Morro, one of the 16th century forts that lie on the perimeter of Old San Juan. It's a long hike up to the fort, but the windy ocean breeze made it tolerable despite the pulsing midday sun. My son Nathan (age 6) was particularly excited to get inside the fort and check it out, but when we arrived at the entrance I realized I had left my wallet in the car and did not have the mere $3 entrance fee (kids are free). Unable to convince myself to walk all the way to the car and back, we settled on checking out the outside of the fort, and flying kites on the huge lawn that abuts the property. After some successful kite flying and more ice cream, the kids cooled off in a nearby fountain, shedding their clothes and running through the geysers without a hint of hesitation.
Staying in San Juan our first night of arrival made our trip that much easier. We didn't have to worry about more traveling after our arrival and were able to immediately jump into our vacation. Getting from the airport to the Marriott was a snap, with the help of a GPS from home. If you do not own one of these handy devices it would be in your best interest to pick one up before a trip to Puerto Rico (or rent one from the rental car company). While driving on the island is not necessarily difficult, roads are not always clearly marked or easy to find. We found ourselves driving the wrong way down a one way street more than once, so check to make sure there are other cars pointing in your direction, yikes!
After breakfast at the Marriott (a simple pleasure that can be included in the cost of your room if you request) and a walk on the beach Wednesday morning we headed east on the small coastal road 187. Not far from San Juan is a beach community known as Los Pinones, famous for the roadside restaurants and shacks preparing typical Puerto Rican cuisine. We had lunch at Mi Casita, feasting on rice, beans, plantains, and local seafood, each of us scarfing down our meals with the hunger that only comes from being at the beach. Then on to our rental house in Luquillo, a small town located between San Juan and Fajardo.
Luquillo turned out to be the perfect choice for our vacation. Our rental house sat close to the beach, in a gated community of homes called Solimar, each modest home with it's own little patio. We spent most nights on the patio listening to the waves and the sound of the coquis chirping (tiny frogs native to the island).
Our days were then spent divided by trips to the local Balneario (public beach), a beautiful calm beach one minute down the road, eating pinchos (grilled meat shishkabobs) and drinking rum filled coconuts, and exploring the island in all sorts of other adventures.
On Friday we journeyed to El Yunque, the only rain forest found in the US National Forest System. With vines curling around the trees and lush hibiscus dipping down to meet the earth El Yunque makes you feel as though you have stepped straight into the amazon. On each stop up the winding road the forest becomes more dense and the view from each peak more astounding. We hiked down to La Mina waterfall, about 3/4 of a mile each way, and enjoyed a dip in the cold mountain river under the falls. Nathan was the first one to clamber over the slippery rocks and make his way into the water, quite the pack leader on this trip! Sofie (age 3) on the other hand would have nothing to do with the water fall and spent the duration of our time sitting on the stone steps looking anxious and forlorn. We easily could have spent another day in El Yunque, but for the loud whining of the children as we hiked back up to our car, we did not return, and headed to the beach instead. School aged children would love this marvelous natural phenomenon, leave the whiners at home.
The best day for all of us was our Sunday trip to the deserted island of Icacos with East Island Excursions. This company runs several different boat trips with various adventures such as snorkeling or visiting one of the bio- luminescent bays. Our trip was a daytime snorkeling trip aboard a sailing catamaran called East Wind.
We boarded the ship around 9:30am , and immediately the rum punch was flowing. Our host was Owen Wilson's doppelganger, crew member Levi. With four years of experience sailing with East Island, Levi took no time to gain the passengers' trust, it was obvious by his friendly personality and relaxed manner that he loves his job, and wants everyone to have a good time. Food and drink was included in this adventure, and I could feel my limbs becoming loose before the boat set out into crystal clear open water.
We anchored at Icacos for almost 2 hours and were able to comb the beach, snorkel, and fly off the water slide into the ocean. Ultimate kid and adult heaven. Perfect white sand, clear water for snorkeling, and few enough of us to never feel crowded. The crew was comprised of helpful strapping men who suited us up and taught us the pointers of seeing the best sights, all the while staying calm, friendly, and attentive to the 77 passengers on the boat.
Our second stop was snorkeling stop at turtle cay, a site known for sea turtles. We were not so lucky this stop, and on my one attempt to snorkel I found it difficult to make it out to see much, perhaps it was the combination of the current and the daiquiris. Liz and her son Andrew had better luck and explored the reef easily. Even without the snorkeling, lying out on the deck taking in the surroundings was far more pleasing than anything I could have imagined. My only complaint was that our five hour day was not long enough, I could have stayed a week. When we docked back in Fajardo the kids and adults agreed that our adventure with East Island Excursions was unbeatable, a perfect day for the whole family. At just $69 for adults and $49 for kids, the price is undeniably worth the experience.
Monday night we decided to hit up one of PR's biggest attractions, the bioluminescent bay. There are five bio bays in the world, and three of them are found in Puerto Rico. These lagoons are filled with millions of organisms called dinoflagellates that light up in the dark when disturbed. Hundreds of kayakers paddle out each night to experience this phenomenon. We decided that kayaking might be too hazardous with our kids (plus you have to be over seven to go), so we booked a spot on one of the only two electric boats in Fajardo's biobay. Our boat trip with Baby Bay Cruising Lagoon Company was scheduled to leave at 6:30, but due to some unfortunate planning on behalf of Captain Suarez, Baby Bay's leading man for the past 20 years, our boat was grounded in the sand at low tide and took over an hour to be pulled out. The benefit to this unforeseen delay was that when we entered the lagoon the 150 kayaks were leaving, and we had the place to ourselves. Upon entering the lagoon we passed through over a mile of mangroves, a dark cave-like entrance out of another world. Birds called to us, iguanas napped in the trees, bats swooped by, and our guide Jennifer pointed out the reeds that hold embryos for sea horses who will eventually hatch and swim out to sea.
In the lagoon the kids could not get over the sight of their hands lighting up the water, or the fish darting back and forth with glowing tails. Nathan reported that this was the best experience of his life, and that made it worth the money for me. A ride in the electric boat will set you back about $45 for adults, $35 for kids, and can seat 6 people total. Given the number of kayaks who smashed head first into our boat on our way out to the lagoon, I would say that unless you are a skilled kayaker it is better to book in advance and go for the boat.
Our final full day in PR was a trip to the island of Culebra. Sometimes known as the "Spanish Virgin Islands", Culebra and it's larger sister island Vieques are vacation destinations unto themselves, but can also be great for a day trip when visiting the mainland. We booked the ferry a few days in advance, and found it almost impossible to visit on the weekend, but Tuesday was no problem. The ride cost just a few dollars per person round trip, and took about 1 1/2 hours each way. We left at 9 am and were on the reputably beautiful Flamenco beach by 11, with the assistance of a tiny Puerto Rican taxi driver ($30 round trip). The ferry ride to Culebra was choppy, even in the seemingly still waters, so beware of sea sickness if you are prone to it.
Once arriving at the beach, the sand was pure white and the waters crystal blue, it was a beautiful location to end our visit to Puerto Rico. We rented snorkeling gear, and Liz headed out on her own to explore the reef that lies directly on Flamenco Beach. While admiring purple jellyfish and barracudas she was swept out a little too far and got caught up in a rip current. Thankfully a man nearby heard her cry for help and pulled my dear friend to safety, as I smiled at her from the shore, thinking her waving was in merriment at the beautiful surroundings. Dear God. Warning: when snorkeling, especially after drinking pina coladas, it is best to wear a flotation device and use the buddy system.
Despite the near drowning, we all had a great week. All in all, Puerto Rico is the perfect setting for families who want to give their children more than the average tourist-trap vacation. My kids learned more in this week than in all of our previous trips combined, and I had no qualms about taking them out of school to show them the natural beauty that Puerto Rico has to offer. If you want to experience real life adventure (with no passport requried), take your family to eastern PR, you won't be disappointed.