Fly kites on the expansive grounds surrounding Castillo San Felipe del Morro. // © 2015 Puerto Rico Tourism Company
Feature image (above): Families can take advantage of several activities in Puerto Rico, such as a kayak trip down Mosquito Bay. // © 2015 Puerto Rico Tourism Company
Albert Einstein said it best: “Rejoice with your family in the beautiful land of life.” And Puerto Rico is a destination that I imagine Einstein would heartily recommend. As enjoyable as the island’s attractions are, many also have an ecological or historical component that will lend depth to a family holiday.
Puerto Rico makes it easy for families from the U.S. to enjoy a Caribbean holiday — because it’s a U.S. territory, passports aren’t required for American citizens. This positions the destination as an option for a spur-of-the-moment Caribbean getaway. The island’s major highways are well-maintained and signage is bilingual, making it a simple affair for the clan to embark on a self-drive excursion.
The island has a range of accommodations, including full-scale, family-friendly resorts, such as El Conquistador, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, which contains its own Coqui Water Park.
When I traveled through San Juan with my 13-year-old son, we enjoyed exploring the 16th-century Castillo San Felipe del Morro, and we were also captivated by families flying kites — kite flying is a San Juan tradition — on the expansive grounds surrounding the castle. Later that afternoon, during a walking tour of Old San Juan, we came upon one colonial-era structure after another, including Casa Blanca, the former home of Spanish explorer and conquistador Ponce de Leon.
We took a lunch break at a tiny restaurant with a wonderful atmosphere and had an adventure of a different type: We tried “mofongo” — mashed, fried green plantains with garlic, olive oil and pork rinds — one of Puerto Rico’s most typical dishes. Afterward, we headed out to the beach fronting our hotel, San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, where we boogie boarded on Atlantic Ocean waves that were more dramatic and thrilling than those usually encountered in the Caribbean. It was a perfect father-and-son day, one that we enjoyed without following a rigid itinerary. San Juan itself had made it effortless.
Whether it’s surfing at Rincon, catching thrills at Toro Verde Nature Adventure Park or exploring the caves of Rio Camuy, Puerto Rico has several can’t-miss experiences for families.
At the top of my list is the island’s Bioluminescent Bays, which can be found in several locations within the country: Laguna Grande in Fajardo, on the eastern coast of the island; La Parguera in Lajas, to the west; and Mosquito Bay in Esperanza, on the island of Vieques, just off the east coast of Puerto Rico’s mainland.
These shallow-water bays are inhabited by microscopic organism called dinoflagellates. This in itself isn’t remarkable — it’s the show these creatures put on that provides the wow factor for an excursion. As an evasive maneuver when encountering predators, the single-celled organisms light up and glow.
It’s possible to join a guided nighttime kayak excursion to paddle out to these bays to witness the natural light displays, which can also be activated by a kayak paddle dipping into the water. Mosquito Bay is considered the brightest of the island’s bioluminescent bays and has the option to explore via electric boat. My son and I joined an excursion to La Parguera, and in addition to marveling at the light display, we bonded over the experience of paddling the kayak back to shore in darkness against an outgoing tide, along a narrow estuary fringed with drooping branches.
Another prime attraction for families is El Yunque National Forest, a 28,000-acre rainforest east of San Juan. The rainforest is studded with waterfalls, many of which are easily accessible from the side of the road wending its way through the park. Families have the option of setting off along well-marked hiking trails or motoring along the road. There are many lookout towers along the route, and kids will enjoy climbing the steps of the castle-like towers to reach viewing areas that offer expansive views of the forest and the sea. I recommend touring El Yunque during the morning and then setting off for lunch at nearby Luquillo Beach. While the beach itself isn’t much to look at, it more than makes up for its lack of visual appeal with 60-plus restaurants and food stalls specializing in seafood.
A friend of mine once said, “You don’t have a good time — you make a good time.” When it comes to family vacations, this also describes Puerto Rico. It demands a little more from travelers than buying a ticket and sitting back. By being present, attentive and involved, a family exploring Puerto Rico will return home with unforgettable memories.