Families could travel to Puerto Rico, plop themselves down at a luxury resort and never leave the property. Few would regret a relaxing vacation soaking up the sun and sea in the Caribbean. But Puerto Rico is ripe for exploration, and visitors shouldn’t miss out on the active adventures, historical sites and immersive cultural experiences found throughout this beautiful island. Let this guide be a starting point for mapping out an amazing trip to Puerto Rico.
Given that this is one of the larger islands in the Caribbean, choosing where to stay is a significant decision. There are lots of factors to consider, but proximity to San Juan or other desirable locations on the island is the main criterion.
San Juan is the likely arrival and departure point for any trip to Puerto Rico. It’s home to half a million people, and its old city center explodes with crowds on the days cruise ships are docked and guests disembark. While it does make for a really fun location to dedicate a day or two (more on that later), those looking for a serene, quiet stay will find better options farther from the city.
If you’re pressed for time or want to avoid extensive driving after you arrive on the island, the tourist hubs of Condado and Isla Verde are both just 15 to 20 minutes outside San Juan. Most of the major hotel chains have a presence in these areas, so accommodation options are plentiful. Two recommendations include the Condado Vanderbilt in Condado and the Fairmont El San Juan in Isla Verde.
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Other beachfront areas, like Dorada to the west of San Juan and Rio Grande to the east, are within a 45-minute drive of the city and its airport. They’re easy to get to, but visitors appreciate being outside the busy vibe of San Juan itself. Resorts here have a more sprawling layout, with fewer tall towers dominating the view as you’ll find closer to San Juan.
In Dorado, we love Ritz Carlton Dorado Beach. This is true oceanfront luxury, with more than 100 guest rooms that are walk-out to the sand and sea through sliding glass doors. In Rio Grande, St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort is great for active families, as it is renowned for incredible golf, tennis, watersports and trails for walking, running and biking. Guests also enjoy being close to the El Yunque National Forest and all it has to offer.
For those with more time or who are interested in seeing other parts of the island, one additional option is Fajardo, home to the large El Conquistador Resort. It is 90 minutes east of San Juan, but quite close to the ferries that shuttle visitors to and from Puerto Rico’s islands of Vieques and Culebra, meaning day trips to those magnificent spots are within reach.
On the southern (typically drier) coast of Puerto Rico, Ponce is the main tourist hub. It is about a 90-minute drive through the interior from San Juan. And avid surfers should put Rincon, on the far west side of the island and 2 1/2 hours from San Juan, on their radar — it offers the best conditions for the sport in all of Puerto Rico.
TIP: Be sure to reach out to Ciao Bambino’s Family Travel Advisor team before booking accommodations, as we often have exclusive perks to pass along to our clients at many of the properties mentioned.
While the wide, sandy beaches, luxurious resort pools and countless watersports throughout Puerto Rico can easily fill a family vacation, there’s much more to see and do around the island.
A day in Old San Juan. Start your exploration of San Juan, immersing yourself in its origins as a Spanish colony, by visiting its two forts. Pop into the visitors’ center to pick up a map, then start at Castillo San Cristobal on the east end of the old city. Afterward, make a lunch stop at one of the lively cafes and restaurants that line the colorful streets. Spend the afternoon visiting Castillo San Felipe del Morro at the west end, and carve out some time to fly a kit in the grassy field that lines the entrance path. (You’ll see vendors selling kites nearby.)
Those with younger children might want to separate this day into two half-day adventures, as it would mean long hours of walking with toddlers or preschoolers. Or skip Castillo San Cristobal, which is a bit heavier on historical information. And if you collect national park stamps, bring your passports, as they’re both national park facilities.
TIP: Ask your hotel concierge or call the visitors’ center to get a sense of the daily cruise schedule, and try to time your day in Old San Juan when fewer cruise passengers are disembarking.
Adventures in and around El Yunque National Forest. At El Yunque, you can plunge into natural pools and lagoons, swing on rope swings, hike to waterfalls and spot exotic creatures in one of the only rainforests on U.S. soil. If you’re lucky enough to visit under clear-sky conditions, drive up to the observation point for stunning views of the island. This region is also home to horseback riding outfitters, ATV rentals and ziplining excursions, so there’s plenty to do during a full day or over several half days. Plan on wet weather, though. It’s a rainforest for a reason!
TIP: Entry to the park must be booked in advance, and some trails may require reservations, especially during peak travel periods. Check the park website for the latest info before traveling to the forest, or hire a guide to handle the logistics.
Kayaking through bioluminescent waters. For an only-in-Puerto Rico experience, book a nighttime kayak excursion to see one of the bioluminescent bays. This natural phenomenon, during which organic material glows in the dark, is incredible to witness and Puerto Rico is one of the few places in the world where it can be seen. The bay in Vieques is considered better for viewing, but this adventure can also be done near Fajardo, where kayakers paddle through a long tunnel of mangrove trees in the dark. Check the calendar, as the luminescence won’t be as easy to see during full moon periods.
TIP: We recommend this for children 10 and up. Younger children are allowed and most kayaks are two-seaters, but the amount of paddling required over the 2-hour tour is challenging and conditions are very dark.
Sample Puerto Rico’s cuisine. My family loved tasting mofongo, a savory side dish of garlic-infused mashed plantains. No child (or adult!) can refuse piragua from a sidewalk vendor; these fruity shaved ice treats take the edge off the sun on a warm afternoon. And be sure to check out the food kiosks near Luquillo Beach — it’s fun to try lots of different offerings in one beachside location.
Need more ideas? There’s a wide range of active pursuits in the interior Central Mountains, if you can tear yourself away from the beautiful coastal areas of Puerto Rico. Here, visitors can go ziplining, river tubing or rappelling. If you prefer to stay by the sea, consider a fishing charter or perhaps visit an animal sanctuary. The Manatee Conservation Center gets high marks for its work protecting the very fragile manatee population around the Caribbean, and you can pre-book an opportunity to be a manatee caretaker for a more hands-on experience.
We suggest renting a car during a family vacation to Puerto Rico, especially if you plan to explore the island, as this will give you more freedom. The improvements made to the infrastructure during the post-hurricane reconstruction have created relatively easy driving conditions around most of the heavily touristed areas. That said, if you prefer not to drive, there are many transfer companies that can chauffeur you to activities as well as back and forth from the airport.
You’ll want to be aware of hurricane season, essentially June through November, when scheduling your trip. Travel insurance is highly recommended, since this area that has sustained serious damage from previous storms from which it took months to recover. A good policy is the best protection of your upfront investment in the event your trip can’t go on as planned.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, and American citizens do not need a passport to travel here. The official language is Spanish, but most locals working in the tourism industry speak some English. Signage and restaurant menus usually include basic English translations.
While it’s fun to come to Puerto Rico with the intention of doing little besides relaxing in the beautiful weather and surroundings, it is well worth the effort to spend at least a couple of days experiencing the vibrancy and activities this island offers.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Nicole Wiltrout.
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