It may be a small island, but Puerto Rico is arguably one of the most beautiful and lush destinations in the Caribbean that afford diversity in attractions and activities. You can go hiking in a tropical rainforest one minute and exploring the old forts of a historic coastal city the next, and still have plenty of time to squeeze a little bit of R&R in a private island.
Here are ten of the best activities you absolutely have to do when visiting Puerto Rico.
Explore the Rainforest, Muddy Hiking Trails and All
El Yunque (http://www.fs.usda.gov/elyunque) is the only tropic rainforest in the United States, and it just so happens to be in Puerto Rico. But don’t let its title intimidate you – it has a plethora of attractions that even the kids will find easily accessible. Start by visiting the roadside La Coca Waterfalls (but do be careful on those slippery rocks) then climb the Yokahu Tower for its sweeping views of the forest and the coast and then take a trail, the muddier the better, to one of the forest’s more hidden attractions.
Tip: Pack a picnic basket, plenty of water and your best hiking shoes.
Stay at El Conquistador Resort, For a Day or Two or However Long You Want
Even non resort-loving travelers will LOVE this piece of paradise located only about 15 minutes away from the town of Fajardo. El Conquistador (http://www.elconresort.com/) will capture any traveler’s heart, families with kids especially, what with its stunning location at the top of a cliff, its waterpark that comes with lovely views of both the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea, as well as its private island, Palomino, which comes with its own sandbar that made movie history. Looking to sample the island’s traditional dishes? The resort makes a point of not only integrating the Puerto Rican way of cooking but also adding local dishes on the menus.
Tip: Allocate an entire day on Palomino Island, as there are many things to do there, including snorkeling, kayaking, jet skiing, and horseback riding.
Kayak Through a Mangrove Forest to a Bioluminescent Bay, in Darkness
You’ll love navigating your tandem kayaks through a mangrove channel, in darkness, to see the dinoflagellates perform one of nature’s miracles. Drive to Las Croabas where kayak tour agency Yokahu Kayak Trips (https://www.facebook.com/YokahuKayak/) will take you on this guided adventure into Laguna Grande, one of Puerto Rico’s three bio bays where you’ll witness firsthand the water light up and sparkle when disturbed. In the bay, stop and listen as your guides tell you about how these fascinating microorganisms work and the efforts being done to preserve their dying ecosystem.
Tip: Go on a moonless summer night for brighter illumination. And don’t be afraid to slosh you hand in the water to see it sparkle.
See Old San Juan, from its Massive Forts to its Adorable Houses
With a hint of European flair, a touch of culture, and a dash of history, Old San Juan is an incredible and picturesque city to explore, even with kids in tow. Walk the blue cobblestone streets, taking your time, and discover how the port city was once an important stronghold in the Caribbean. Start at the Capitol and the Plaza de la Barandilla across the street and work your way to Fort San Felipe del Morro and its neighboring cemetery, stopping at Fort San Cristobal along the way. Then head inland to visit Hotel El Convento, Catedral San Juan Bautista, La Fortaleza, and Parque Las Palomas and its old chapel.
Tips: Bring plenty of water on this walking tour, and do take your time exploring the forts. And remember to bring your camera, as there are plenty of photo opportunities.
Zip Line at ToroVerde, Even if You’re Afraid of Heights
Those who suffer from mild to moderate acrophobia need not worry. Zip lining on one of the world’s longest single run line (4.745 feet) may be a little unnerving at first, but when you’re on it zipping over the beautiful valley below belly down like a bird, it’s the best feeling in the world. At ToroVerde (http://www.toroverdepr.com/) ecological park, you’ll be walking and soaring over trees, streams and rivers like there’s no tomorrow. And you’re gonna want to do it all over again. Young kids (8 and over) can participate too, thanks to the park’s kid-friendly Bull Maze rope course, which features suspension bridges, monkey bars and rope nets.
Tip: Allot an entire day for this excursion.
Feast on the Local Cuisine, Devil (and Diet) May Care
Sampling the local dishes is perhaps one of the best ways to truly experience a destination, and Puerto Rico has plenty of those. Dishes that even the pickiest eaters will enjoy are served at most restaurants on the island, even in the new area of San Juan, so they’re not hard to find. Some of the dishes the whole family must try are arroz mamposteao or arroz con gandules, mofongo, brandade and pasteles. The island is also known for its roast pork as well as its Latino-style grilled steak served with chimichurri. Must try restaurants include Café Puerto Rico and The Parrot Club in Old San Juan, the French-inspired Cocina Abierta (http://www.cocinaabierta.com/home), which serves one of the best mofongos (Duck Confit Stuffed Mofongo) in San Juan, and Chops Steakhouse at El Conquistador Resort.
Tip: For those who don’t eat meat, many restaurants serve delicious seafood and vegetarian options.
Explore New San Juan, Especially the Street Art Scene
Surprisingly, Puerto Rico has some of the best urban and street art scenes in the Americas, if not the world; and a visit in San Juan is not completely without exploring Santurce, home to city’s vibrant and thriving street art movement. Spend an hour or two discovering the district’s murals and sculptures on walls, under bridges and on the streets. Start on Fernandez Juncos Avenue near Hospital Pavia Santure.
Tip: Go in the morning or early afternoon.
Visit the Children’s Museum in Carolina, and Go on a Boat Ride
The Museo del Nino de Carolina (http://www.museodelninocarolina.com/), whose aim is to encourage kids to discover and pursue their passion (or passions) as early as possible, isn’t like any other children’s museum. Besides its interactive, kid-friendly exhibits on math, science, arts & crafts, theater and more, it also boasts a mini zoo, where kids can witness firsthand the hatching of duck and chicken eggs if they’re lucky, a go kart track, a boating tour of the nearby mangrove channel where they can see wild iguanas, birds and alligators relaxing on tree branches, and a real commercial plane that visitors can board and explore.
Tip: While ducks and chicken roam free, teach the kids not to chase them or attempt to disturb their nests. Wear long pants and apply bug spray generously before going on the boat ride.
Drive to the Smaller Towns, or Just Drive
Beautiful small towns that mostly slip under the tourist radar are an easy drive away from Puerto Rico’s cities and resort areas, so rent a car, round up the gang and make that drive. Just less than an hour from San Juan and you’ll already find yourselves in small towns that draw surfers, foodies and locals. Keep an eye out of quiet, kid-friendly beaches, idyllic scenes worthy of a stop, local restaurants and maybe a small town fiesta.
Tip: Many roads and towns – even parts of the El Yunque rainforest – in Puerto Rico have good cellphone reception so it’s impossible to get lost.
Swim, Of Course
Warm waters, lovely stretches of beach and lots of natural barriers that break the massive waves far from shore make Puerto Rico’s beaches some of the best places in the Caribbean to swim in. Go to a beach near San Juan or at the resort you’re staying or to an off-the-beaten path one in a small town, slather on some sunscreen and just spend an entire day there. You’ll regret it, if you don’t. And on the northern part of the island, the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic so you’ll even have an opportunity to enjoy both.
Tip: El Conquistador’s Palomino Island has an islet called Palominito where a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was filmed. It’s a lovely spot, especially if you’re looking for quiet and isolated.
Caribe Hilton. 1 San Geronimo, San Juan | 787 721 0303 | www.caribehilton.com
El Conquistador Resort. 1000 El Conquistador Ave, Fajardo | 787 863 1000 | www.elconresort.com
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