Despite common belief, Puerto Rico is not just about piña coladas and hotel spa treatments. There are countless things to do outside resort walls for children and adults alike. In this article I would like to summarize some of my favorite activities—beaches, deserts, caves, rivers and a rain forest.
1. Old San Juan
Viejo San Juan (as locals know it) is a 7-square-block area made of cobblestone streets and bursting with pigeon-filled plazas. Quaint and charming—it is more reminiscent of Paris than an old Caribbean Pirate port. Old San Juan is a perfect place to for an afternoon walk. Parks and plazas are situated around 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.
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.
3. El Yunque
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.
4. Rio Camuy Cave Park
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.
5. Your hotel
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.
If you go…My favorite resort—and my kids’ too—is the Caribe Hilton, a recently renovated San Juan staple. The only hotel with a private (and ultra-calm) beach in San Juan, it’s about as family friendly as you can get.