Many friends I know who’ve been to Puerto Rico think it’s all about piña coladas and hotel spa treatments. Not so! There are oodles to do outside resort walls that kids and adults flip for. Here, my top five picks for family fun on the island that boasts it all-beaches, deserts, caves, rivers and a rain forest.
Viejo San Juan (as locals know it) is a seven-square-block area made of cobblestone streets and bursting with pigeon-filled plazas. Quaint and charming-it reminds me more of Paris than an old Caribbean port. It’s a perfect place to stroll with kids.
There are parks and plazas around practically every corner and the area’s not hurting for kid-friendly-but authentic-food. Head straight for El Morro, a fort surrounded by ginormous stone walls and cannons. Initially built in 1540, it’s pretty much a maze filled with tunnels, dungeons, ramps and secret passageways. Bring spare change to buy a kite to fly on its vast grassy area, where kids can run free and you can savor the fabulous views of San Juan Bay.
A rainforest in the United States-who knew? El Yunque National Forest is the one and only and-lucky for us-it’s super-accessible. Only an hour from San Juan, it gives you the feel of being in the thick of the jungle. You can drive right in and park within just a few steps of plenty of cool observation areas, waterfalls, hiking trails and lookout points.
There’s also a welcome center to get a better grip on what to see. Kids will get a huge thrill out of all the coquis, tree frogs that make non-stop “ko-key” noises. Keep your eyes peeled for the Puerto Rican parrot, one of the most endangered birds in the world, but don’t hold your breath-spotting one isn’t a sure thing. Bring rain gear-it is, after all, a rainforest and 100 billion gallons of rainwater is dumped on it every year.
Drive to the southern side of the island to find calmer waters-this half is on the Caribbean Sea, whereas the northern side is on the Atlantic Ocean-and a genuine feel for local living. Go to town square first, for the Old Ponce Firehouse and Museum (Parque de Bombas), a way-cool firehouse that’s painted with bold red and black stripes (a surefire kids’ attention-grabber).
Hit it on a Sunday night and you’ll be treated to a free concert, courtesy of the municipal band. After tromping around the firehouse, walk over to Ponce’s boardwalk, aka La Guancha Paseo Tablado, for good local eats and a ferry ride to Coffin Island, which has gorgeous beaches and an old lighthouse. Click here for info.
The cool factor at these caves is through the roof-it’s the third-largest cave system in the world, formed more than a million years ago. Translation: Convincing kids to visit is as good as done. The trails take you 200 feet down into the earth.
You can take a trolley ride through the caves and sinkholes, which have some odd types of fish (they’re blind!), plenty of bats and tons of ferns. Go on your own or pre-arrange a guided tour; either is an adventure. This isn’t just a way to kill an hour-plan on an entire day. Bring a picnic lunch, a camera to record all those crazy stalactites and stalagmites, and some extra coin for souvenirs. Click here for more info.
Yes, my favorite Puerto Rican adventures are outside hotel walls. But truth be told, some of the best family resorts in the world are in Puerto Rico, so why not sink your teeth into them? Most offer multiple pools, gobs of beach activities, lively family events, a fully equipped recreation center and a daily kids’ club, so spending a few days on the property is just plain good judgment!
My suggestion: Alternate between active excursions and leisurely resort days and you’ll go home relaxed, refreshed and revived.
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