Jutting from the deepest waters of the Atlantic Ocean, where it meets the Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico encompasses roughly 3,500 square miles of rugged mountainous terrain covered in lush tropical forests. Much of it is inaccessible except on foot. Geographically, it’s almost like dropping Yellowstone National Park in the ocean. The obvious difference is that Puerto Rico has a population of just over three million people.
Puerto Rico is a living and breathing history of the exploration of the New World. It is unique in its culture, cuisine, and governmental status within U.S. territories. And while no trip to the island would be complete without seeing the forts of Old San Juan, going beyond the city to Northeastern Puerto Rico with kids is the easiest way to sample the feast of fun the commonwealth offers including beaches, watersports, and bio-diversity.
Activity 1: Hike the El Yunque National Rainforest
In the U.S. Forest system there is only one tropical rainforest, and it dominates the eastern skyline from the moment you leave the airport in San Juan. The excitement builds as the roads take you higher and higher into the mountains as El Yunque National Forest grows thicker. Just inside the boundary, the first stop is El Portal—the stunning entrance center loaded with educational displays, a gift shop, a café, and even locals selling crafts.
The El Portal Trail that leads from the parking lot is a great introductory hike. This loop is three tenths of a mile long with only a few inclines. In this short space, you begin to feel the intensity of life in the forest—giant fallen trees slowly being covered with undergrowth, vines that reach toward the sun where it peeks through the canopy, and the ever-present chirping of birds and tree frogs. Longer hikes beckon throughout the forest, allowing you to plan an entire day in the forest if you choose.
Any visit to El Yunque should include stops at the Yokahu Lookout Tower and at one of the food concession areas for local treats like fried plantains. If you choose not to rent a car for your trip, there are numerous tour operators that will provide transportation to the forest. Bespoke Lifestyle Tours offers several options, including combination packages with other attractions.
Activity 2: Kayak in a Bioluminescent Bay
In the dark of the night, watch as inky black water sparkles like fairy dust with every stroke of your paddle when you kayak through a narrow mangrove entry into Laguna Grande near Fajardo. Tiny microbes that live in the water glow when there is a disturbance in the water—like paddling, or even swishing your hand around. Think about how fireflies glow in little bursts and you get the idea. Tours lead groups of kayakers through the dark tunnel of mangroves each night. Kayaking in near total darkness is an adventure but the reward is seeing the delightful twinkles in the water.
One of the world’s most active bio bays, Mosquito Bay, is located on the nearby island of Vieques. To see that one requires an overnight stay on Vieques, as the last return ferry departs at 6:30 in the evening. If you plan to rent a car for your island adventure, this might be an interesting side trip, but if you are content to stay put in Fajardo, Glass Bottom PR Tours will show you the best of Laguna Grande.
The guides are funny, informative, and work hard to give you a good tour, including bringing along a tarp to huddle under to block out light for the best viewing. Tours are for ages six and up and can be purchased online with or without transportation from area hotels. If you stay at El Conquistador, the meeting point for the kayaking is a short walk along the road south from the marina level.
Tips: Take flashlights for the walk, but put them away in a drybag for the kayaking. Any camera you plan to use needs a waterproof housing, but don’t expect great photos of the bio-luminescence; it is almost impossible to capture, making it a perfect time to remind the family about the joys of living in the moment without electronic devices.
Activity 3: Explore Palomino Island
Palomino Island is a private enclave of the El Conquistador Resort with so many activities you will find it difficult to do it all during your stay. The expected things like watersports (equipment is available to rent) are highlighted by the unexpected like lawn games, hiking, and horseback riding.
And then there is the beach. Sugary white sand rings the island. Spend time lounging in the sun, splash around in the designated swim area, or scope out a shady spot under the trees to enjoy a view of the turquoise Caribbean waters. A quieter beach is a short hike up and over the island’s hills. Snorkeling is good along the shallow reef on the island’s north side.
The island is a favorite with locals on weekends, but weekdays you can expect considerably smaller crowds. Access to Palomino Island is free for resort guests via a fifteen-minute boat ride from the marina at the base of the resort cliffs.
Activity 4: Splash in the Coqui Water Park
When you have had your fill of sand, but the kids still crave water play, a little time at El Conquistador’s onsite water park, Coqui Water Park, is just the thing. Resort guests have free access to the three slides, a zero-entry infinity pool, and a lazy river tube ride, while day passes are available for non-resort guests as well. As with Palomino Island, the water park is a busy spot on weekends and mid-day during the summer, but give it a try weekday mornings or evenings for quieter family fun. It may be your go-to spot following a day of adventure exploring the area.
1 Great Place to Stay: El Conquistador Resort
Puerto Rico’s El Conquistador Resort has a history dating back to 1962 when it opened as one of the island’s premier resorts. The best part for traveling families, though is convenience. Using their airport shuttle service and tour providers could keep you from needing a rental car at all, but Enterprise is available onsite. Don’t shy away from the Waldorf Astoria factor. The resort is family friendly throughout. In addition to the water park and the private island, there are seven swimming pools. The resort is a maze of open spaces with plenty of options to sit and enjoy the breeze and the stunning views of the sea and the mountains.
One of the most fun things about the resort is not even an official attraction. Because the main resort is built on a steep cliff, access to the resort’s lower levels water’s edge is via a tram, or funicular, making every trip up and down a scenic adventure.
Standard rooms are large and include refrigerators and coffee makers. For more space and a resort within a resort atmosphere, choose La Casitas Village, where you have options of one, two, and three bedroom villas with kitchenettes.
1 Great Place to Eat: Pizza to Go from Café Bella Vista
Food is never more than a few steps away in El Conquistador’s main hotel. Choices range from fine dining in the evening to casual food morning, noon, and night. There are grab-and-go options where you can get sandwiches, chips, and ice cream. Families with picky eaters will appreciate the breakfast buffet option, or maybe a trip to the tiny ice cream bar near the funicular for waffles. There’s even a full-service Starbucks in the main lobby area.
With all the outdoor fun and exploration, one of the options we enjoyed most was takeout pizza from Café Bella Vista, centrally located near the main lobby. Call in your order, then send Dad to pick up piping hot thin-crust pepperoni for an in-room pizza party.
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