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Puerto Rico June 2013

So, I just got back from Puerto Rico with my family, which includes my daughters (Fallon, 8 & Kyla, 5) and my fiancé, John.  We began our travels on a Monday and came back on Saturday.  Now, I have to start by saying that I am very lucky to have a wonderful Abuelita who just so happens to live in one of the most fabulous locations in Puerto Rico called Luquillo.  Her home overlooks the ocean on one side and the El Yunque rain forest on the other side.  The views from her backyard are to die for.  This is where we stayed for the entire trip, so I, unfortunately, will not be able to review any hotels in this blog post.

I have been to Puerto Rico a few times, mostly in my youth, and once with my oldest daughter when she was about 2 years old.  I have to say that coming to Puerto Rico with children ages 5 & 8 is so much more fun!  I think it’s the perfect age for kids to enjoy everything Puerto Rico has to offer.  So, let me share with you my itinerary and reviews for this trip.

Day 1-Our flight landed in San Juan in the afternoon, so after getting our bags and our rental car, we drove off to the first place on my list-La Playita in Isla Verde.  This is a restaurant in Hotel La Playa.  And most importantly, it had a typical American menu for children to choose from, which is extremely rare in Puerto Rico.  I know there are a lot of moms who don’t let their children get suckered into the dreaded kids menu.  And I absolutely commend those moms.  However, I am not one of them.  I have one daughter who eats anything at all, and one daughter who eats pizza, bread or pasta.  So, before the trip, I visited many a website to find restaurants in the San Juan area that offered something my oldest daughter would tolerate.  And I found that while most of the restaurants in the San Juan area do offer a kids menu, most of the food selections on those menus are Spanish style meals.

From the pictures on the website, the hotel looked lovely.  What the web site doesn’t tell you is that it is nearly impossible to find, so get your GPS ready.  And expect to be a little disappointed, as the hotel looks a bit like a shack from the outside, and there are only about six parking spots directly across the street.  There is a building next to it which may or may not be a part of the hotel that looks as though it was damaged in a hurricane.  However, the hotel redeemed itself when we walked into the dining area.  They have wooden tables and chairs under a covered porch, and they also have plastic chairs on the pier directly over the ocean.  While the seating doesn’t scream fine dining, the view really was gorgeous.

As for the food, it was good, and ordering was easy due to the English speaking staff (they even had John Mayer and Dave Matthews playing on the radio).  The girls each ordered the fettuccine alfredo.  I tasted it and the sauce was thick and seemed to be homemade.  I had calamari, which could have used some more flavor, but otherwise, was fine.  John ordered a hamburger and was pleased with that.  Again folks, this was not fine dining, but the view was spectacular and it was a nice place to relax after the flight.  Also, just a note, there was a woman who was drinking a tropical adult beverage out of a coconut.  This drink was huge, but looked very refreshing.  It might have been a pina colada right out of the coconut.  If I didn’t have to drive back to my Abuelita’s house, I would have ordered one. If any of you happen to dine here in the future, order a coconut drink for me and tell me how it tastes!

Day 2-We decided to start our vacation off with El Yunque National Forest.  In my opinion, this is a must when traveling to Puerto Rico.  I had a map of the forest before the trip and outlined the stops I wanted to make.  However, when we got there, the girls needed to use the bathroom, so we made a stop at the Visitor’s Center.  It cost a few dollars (I think $2 per person, if I remember correctly) and was well worth the price, as there weren’t any restrooms on the trail we hiked (Big Tree Trail).  The ticket you receive is good all day, so you can stop back later to use the restrooms before leaving the park.  Just to note, there is parking in front of all of the stops we made.

We started first at La Coca Falls.  Although there is a barricade in front of the falls, it is commonplace to do some rock climbing here.  Both of my daughters climbed to the top rock (which is about halfway up the waterfall).  And they were extremely proud of themselves.  Note to parents- it is slippery here.  So, just make sure your children understand to grab firmly onto something in front of them before climbing.  We all wore running sneakers and I packed water shoes in my backpack.  Just a side note, in my backpack, I also packed bottled water, trail mix and some other snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, a small first aid kit and 2 small bath towels.

La Coca Falls

Our next stop was the Yokahu Tower.  Note-There have been reviews that say there are bathrooms here, but I did not see them.  This is a spiral stone staircase and is definitely worth the climb!  My youngest daughter thought it was a mini castle, so she was pretty excited to climb it.  Once at the top, the views are just breathtaking.  There really isn’t much more I can say, as words just can’t do it justice.

View from Yokahu Tower

Finally, we started on the Big Tree Trail hike with our destination being La Mina Falls.  Let me say that I saw a woman wearing very high wedge sandals on this trail.  Yes, this is the easiest of the trails, and the trail that is best for small children (there were even parents with infants in baby carriers enjoying the hike).  However, I would not recommend hiking this in heels or wedges or even flip flops.  It is a very narrow path with nothing to grab onto most of the way.  It takes about 35-45 minutes each way with small children in tow.  Wear sneakers!!  There are 2 rest areas, and by rest area, I mean a small covered concrete slab with a bench that fits 4 people.  We stopped at one to have some water and snacks, and then we set off to La Mina Falls!  Both of my girls loved the hike.  The greenery is indescribable, and hiking that close to it almost makes you feel like you are a part of it.  It started to rain pretty hard and we didn’t feel a drop, as we were covered by all of the bamboo leaves.  It was truly amazing.  We wore bathing suits under our clothes, so once we arrived at La Mina Falls, all we needed to do was take off our covers, put our water shoes on and navigate over the rocks to the falls.  The water is pretty cold, roughly 65 degrees.  But for whatever reason, it is popular to get right in.  The water isn’t deep, but the rocks are extremely slippery.  I highly recommend water shoes for some traction.  The falls were a remarkable sight and an unforgettable experience for the entire family.

There are a few spots in El Yunque that we didn’t get to, so I can’t review them.  But I thought they were worthy of mentioning because they seemed like good spots for children.  The first is Angelito Trail, which leads to Damas Pool in the Mamayes River.  Apparently, this is a swimming hole with plenty of rope swings.  The second is Juan Diego Falls, which is a smaller waterfall area that is less crowded than La Mina.

After El Yunque, we showered off and went to a restaurant in Fajardo called Metropol.  There were the four of us plus Abuelita.  Out of 5 people total, only 2 of us enjoyed our dinner.  I ordered and loved the camarones al aljillo con tostones.  There was this fabulous sauce that came with the tostones and I wish I would have asked for the recipe!  It also came with rice & black beans!  Every bit of it was delicious.  My daughter Kyla ordered and loved the chicken wings with rice & red beans.  My daughter Fallon ordered pizza, but as this is a Spanish restaurant, I can see why the pizza wasn’t all that good.  John ordered chicken, which was baked even though it was displayed on the menu as fried.  And Abuelita ordered fish filet that she said tasted like sardines.  She hated it so much she asked them to bring her something else (which they did free of charge).  So, overall, just a so-so experience at Metropol.

Day 3-We were planning on heading to the beach, but it was cloudy.  So, we decided on Old San Juan.  I suppose I should have warned you earlier in the blog about the drivers in Puerto Rico.  The word that comes to mind is insane, and this is coming from a Jersey girl.  Here in America, there are some pretty bad drivers as well.  However, in Puerto Rico, things like stop signs and red stop lights are mere suggestions.  Many drivers do not abide by any kind of laws or rules of the road.  So, my advice is to drive only when necessary, or if money is no object for you, hire a limo to take you around Puerto Rico.  Also, just a quick tip, normally I would say save your money and don’t get the extra rental car insurance that every rental car company tries to force on you.  When renting a car in Puerto Rico, I would say any extra protection you can get is well worth it.  And another side note that we learned while staying in Puerto Rico is that most of the Puerto Rican population does not have car insurance at all.

So, parking on the narrow cobblestone streets of Old San Juan isn’t a good idea.  And the large parking garage is quite a distance away, especially with children.  So, we opted to park in the gated area reserved for the fort (El Morro).  Now, I have never been to the fort and since we had to go into the building to pay for parking, I figured we might as well stay and see the fort as well (kid admission is free).  Now, as a side story, for Mother’s Day, my gift from my children was to help them build a “Mother’s Day” fort out of sheets.  So, the prospect of going into a real live fort was very exciting for both of my girls.  And I was so glad we decided to stop here.  It was hard to comprehend the structure in itself, much less the history behind it all.  Standing in a place that was designed to protect soldiers or standing in the soldiers’ quarters, seeing where they ate, all just makes you stop and breathe and appreciate everything we have now.  Well, at least that’s what standing on a vast piece of history does to me.

El Morro

After the fort, we left our car in the gated parking lot and headed for Old San Juan.  It started to rain, so we quickly crossed onto Calle San Francisco and darted into a beautifully decorated Italian restaurant called Sofia.  Lucky for my daughter Fallon, pizza was on the lunch menu!  But, we also tried the ravioli fritti, which was heavenly!  The menu described them as fried ravioli stuffed with pork and cheese and topped with balsamic vinegar.  You get 3 raviolis on the appetizer plate for $9, so while a tad pricey, they are absolutely worth it!  I might even attempt to make these at home!  The pizza was very fresh and tasty as well.  This was a very pleasant dining experience (and the waiter spoke perfect English).  After we ate, we headed for the first souvenir shop to purchase umbrellas.  Sixteen dollars later, we were walking on the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan.

Because of the weather, I decided to only go to the street where we could get the most out of the trip for the kids, and that was Calle Cristo.  At the very end of the street, there is a park called Parque de las Palomas (pigeon park).  There are literally hundreds of pigeons nestled in this park.  And if you have popcorn seeds, they all flock to you.  Even without food, if you hold your hands straight outward, pigeons will land on you.  The girls have never seen anything like this and they were very excited.  I would recommend carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer for afterwards, but this is definitely a must see for children of all ages.

After the pigeons, we headed to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream store for dessert (also on Calle Cristo, but on the opposite end).   We all ordered chocolate fudge brownie shakes, and while we waited, the girls sat at a child-sized chalkboard table and were more excited about the chalk than they were about the shake.  After the chocolate shakes, we walked back down Calle Cristo and made a quick stop at the San Juan Cathedral.  This wasn’t a big hit with the kids, but we took a very quick lap around the inside.  It is a very pretty cathedral, but I have been forever spoiled.  Last year, John and I went to Paris on vacation and stood in Notre Dame and Saint Chappelle.  So, while the San Juan Cathedral was nice, I cannot rave about it, as the churches of Paris have been tattooed on my brain and no others can compare (that is until we visit the Sistine Chapel in a few years).

Our last stop was a place on Calle Fortaleza called the Haitian Gallery.  It is a shop full of hand carvings from all over the world, including Indonesia and Africa.  If you like buying souvenirs, but want to stay away from things like keychains, bottle openers or hats with Puerto Rico emblazoned on them, this is your place.  They also have very cute souvenirs for kids, including handmade dolls, handmade crafts, wood toys and, Kyla’s favorite, dream catchers.  Here is another side story.  Every time we go on vacation, we purchase a memento to put on our plant shelf at home.  It is a reminder of the places we have been together as a family.  The trick is that we have to all pick one thing that we all love.  And I would prefer that it not be a souvenir that is blatantly obvious (such as a statue of the Empire State Building from New York).  So, on this trip, we chose a wooden box carved with sunflowers.  While we all loved the carved boxes, Kyla preferred the box carved with irises.  So, this time, we had to take a vote, and the box with the carved sunflowers won.  Next trip, we will double count Kyla’s vote! The plant shelf at home may take a long time to fill up, but I love that the items on the shelf will have a special memory and a great story for all of us for years to come.

Our hand carved family memento

Day 4-We decided to take a 2 hour trip to the Arecibo area to visit the Rio Camuy Caves.  As previously noted, driving in Puerto Rico can be stressful.  However, the caves were well worth it.  Just to note, some of the research I did on the caves prior to the trip indicated that you have to get there extremely early/as soon as they open (8:30am).  We got there at noon and waited about 20-30 minutes (some of that wait is spent watching a safety movie and some of the wait was for getting your audio tour headsets).  So, I would have to disagree with the “must get their early” crowd.  Just to note, there are English and Spanish headsets, as well as special audio tours for children as well.  The tour is about 1.5 hours.  Because I’m a mom, this means no bathroom breaks for that timeframe.  So, go while you can!  I saw a lot of people with backpacks, and I couldn’t figure out why.  It’s very dark and there aren’t any opportunities to eat a snack or have a drink.  So, I would say to leave the backpacks in the car and just take your camera.  Also, another tip-WEAR SNEAKERS (not heels, flip flops or sandals)!!  It’s slippery and some of the paths are narrow.  The tram ride down to the caves is scenic and exciting for the kids.  The caves are simply wondrous.  Again, I am at a loss for words to describe how beautiful the caves were.

Rio Camuy

On the ride back to Luquillo, we were tempted to go to the Arecibo Observatory to see the giant telescope, but because the driving was getting us too frazzled, we decided to just get back to Luquillo.  However, if I have the opportunity to go back to Puerto Rico, I would put that on my to-do list.

Day 5-Our last day in Luquillo was spent at the beach!  We decided to go to the part of the beach where there are no waves in the ocean.  My girls prefer pools to oceans, so I thought this spot would be perfect for them.  It is like a big pool with the rain forest as the backdrop.   There are also vendors selling ice cream and piragua (shaved ice with flavored syrup poured over it; like a snow cone, only better) in carts right on the beach.  We spent the entire day (from 10am-5pm) making sand castles and playing in the pool-like ocean.  Also, chair rentals were $5 a chair and umbrella rentals were $10 an umbrella.  If you get there early enough, lots of people bring hammocks and tie them between 2 palm trees (there are plenty of palm trees to go around at this beach).  And not too far away are the Luquillo kiosks.  Don’t let these dilapidated shacks scare you.  This is where the best Spanish food can be found.  There must be about 75 different food kiosks to choose from, most of them selling the same thing.  But after the many times I’ve been to Puerto Rico, my favorite is Kiosk #60, also called La Roca Taina.  They have the BEST alcapurria ever (similar to empanadas, but made with yucca or plantain)!  I also tried the sorullos (fried corn meal sticks) and they were delicious!  The only thing we tried at these kiosks that no one liked was “coco frio”.  I think some places make these differently.  The one we got was not the drink I dreamed about on day 1 where the woman was drinking a lush cocktail out of a coconut.  The coco frio we got was a water filled coconut with some coconut oil.  Absolutely disgusting.  But, at least the girls can say they tried drinking out of a coconut!

Luquillo Beach (El Yunque in the background)
Our last adventure before leaving Puerto Rico was at 8pm in Fajardo’s Laguna Grande.  We went on a bioluminescence tour with Captain Suarez from Baby Bay Cruising Tours.  This is a motorboat tour and the cost was $45 per adult and $35 per child.  There is only one other company that does the motorboat tour (Bio Island Tours).  All other tours are kayak tours.  We passed by many kayakers who looked tired and irritated.  I would not recommend the kayak tour if it is your first time on a kayak.  The passageways are narrow and there are a bunch of obstacles to get through before you actually get to the Bio Bay.  It took about 20 minutes to reach the open bay by motorboat, so I can only assume the ride is a stretch longer by kayak.  Just a quick tip-put on bug spray before you go.   The motorboat ride there was a little spooky, with low hanging branches and narrow water passageways, and it was very dark, with only the light of the moon as a guide.  But the tour guide, Michael (who speaks English), was fantastic and really knew how to put my children at ease.  He asked them questions and educated all of us on our way to the lagoon.  He had everyone laughing and enjoying the trip within the first few minutes of the boat ride.  Once the lagoon opened up, it was like unwrapping a precious gift. The sky seemed larger than life.  Michael handed each of us a stick and we all put our sticks in the water and watched as the water lit up in neon blue.  The organism called Pyrodinium Bahamense is a microscopic plankton which produces light when you touch it.  Michael was kind enough to grab a bucket of the water filled with this plankton.  He then set the bucket down in our boat and held an umbrella over it.  He asked the girls to come in really tight under the umbrella.  He then asked them to grab some plankton.  With each scoop, little sparkles that looked like diamonds danced in their hands.  They were ecstatic!  Michael let us know that there are very few places in the world where this species of plankton can be found, which made me feel a little bit luckier that we got to experience this.  This was an excellent end to a great vacation!
This picture does this experience no justice, due to my camera’s flash..  Just imagine the water being neon blue…

 

And that’s a wrap folks!  That was my take on traveling to Puerto Rico with children.  Please feel free to comment or ask questions if you are considering a vacation there!  Adios!