Since Lucas’ Fall Break was quickly approaching in October 2018, we went on the hunt for ideas for a quick family vacation.
Normally, we come up with a few destination options and go to work on figuring out costs, budget, and ways to save, mostly with points and miles. This time was no different. Our family vacation ideas ranged from going back to Iceland (or elsewhere in Europe) to somewhere a little closer like Turks and Caicos. In the end, I found a great deal on tickets to San Juan, Puerto Rico. And we embarked on another family vacation.
Puerto Rico and San Juan
The Spanish founded the first settlement on the island of Puerto Rico during Columbus’ second voyage to America in 1493. Like a lot of the Caribbean, rich culture and unique cuisine have developed on the island, products of the different people and cultures that have inhabited the island over the last 500+ years.
Visiting Puerto Rico is a unique experience unlike many. Even though it’s technically part of the United States (same president, same currency, and no need for a passport), it feels a lot like being in a different country (Spanish spoken, gas sold by the liter, and signage in kilometers). All of this makes it very easy to get to and navigate the island.
While Puerto Rico is a lot more than just San Juan, San Juan is its largest city and main tourist destination on the island. It is the oldest European-founded settlement in the United State. We had been there in November 2012 for a brief day or so before a cruise to other Caribbean destinations. But this time we planned on bringing the kids and spending more time to take it all in, and my parents flew from Brazil to meet us there.
Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria
The island was hit pretty hard by Hurricane Maria in 2017. We weren’t sure what to expect even though our trip was going to happen almost a year later. As it turns out, most of San Juan is back up and running. It’s the interior of the island that’s taking longer to recover.
The damage caused by Maria didn’t affect our trip at all. Having said that, since tourism is a major part of the Puerto Rican economy, the island desperately needs visitors to continue the rebuilding process. I highly encourage you to consider Puerto Rico as one of your next family vacation ideas.
Things to Do
First settled in 1503, San Juan is a vibrant city with a lot of activities for kids, making it an excellent idea for family vacations. Any trip to San Juan has to include a visit to some of its many historical sites. But history doesn’t have to be boring. There’s plenty to do and see to meet a wide range of ages and preferences.
Old San Juan
Walking through the streets of Old San Juan, you’ll be transported to the past. Old San Juan is the colonial-era section of the city. It’s full of colorful pastel buildings, cobblestone streets, and lots of restaurants to try the vibrant Puerto Rican cuisine.
Old San Juan is where many of the city’s attractions and the cruise port are located. From there, you can take a short, guided walking tour (even if you’re only there during the day’s cruise stop) or a trolley, which is especially handy if you travel with small children.
The Forts: Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristobal
San Juan is home to the largest fort built by the Spanish in the Americas. El Morro, as it’s commonly known, is without a doubt San Juan’s most well-known attraction. It sits on the northern part of compact Old San Juan, making it get to if you’re in the area.
El Morro was the perfect place to visit on a family vacation. Lucas and Ian were busy exploring and pretending to protect San Juan Bay by firing the cannons perched on El Morro’s walls while getting a history lesson at the fort that defended the city from 1539 to as recently as World War II. All that sightseeing and running around tires the kids and (hopefully) provides a full night of sleep.
Just a short 1-mile stroll northeast of El Morro sits Castillo San Cristobal, another UNESCO-designated historical site. If you visit El Morro, hold on to your ticket because it’ll get you into San Cristobal within 24 hours of purchase. You can get to San Cristobal by foot or ride the trolley between the forts.
Puerto Rican Food
One of the best things about going to Puerto Rico (or anywhere for that matter) is trying the local cuisine, particularly if you can experience it as the locals do. Puerto Rican cuisine benefited from the mix of Taino (the native inhabitants), Spanish, African, and American influences. The result is the delicious dishes we tried in San Juan:
- Mofongo: mashed fried plantains formed into a ball served with meat and chicken broth
- Arroz con dulce: coconut rice pudding
- Arroz con gandules y lechon (the national dish): yellow rice and pigeon peas with roasted pork
- Asopao (my mom’s favorite): like gumbo made with rice, shellfish, chicken, and chorizo
- Pasteles: dough made green banana, squash, plantains, and starch roots, filled with meat
- Tembleque (the national dessert): coconut corn starch pudding
- Piña colada (the national beverage): invented in 1954 at the Caribe Hilton’s Beachcomber Bar in San Juan
Expert Tip: Ditch the familiar and try something local. If you’re afraid the kids might not like the food, give them a try. You’ll be surprised how much they enjoy trying new things. And they’ll learn to be a little more adaptable, making future travels and experiences easier.
Of course, you can’t go to Puerto Rico without soaking up the sun and enjoying the sand and beaches. Any trip to San Juan is incomplete without the obligatory day (or two, or three) at the beach. Although beaches do exist in Old San Juan (for example Playa Peña and El Escambron), for the best beaches, head East to trendy Condado Beach, Ocean Park Beach, or Isla Verde Beach. We’ve visited both Condado and Isla Verde before. Both are great, clean, and not super crowded.
We spent a large portion of our time at the beach in San Juan (shocking!). Our daily routine mostly consisted of getting out to the beach after breakfast at 8 am, staying there until lunch (1 or 2 pm), then heading to the pool until 3 or 4 pm. That’s a lot of sun (and fun). To beat the heat, be sure to find a vendor where you can get some coconut water served in the coconut. The experience is a hit with the kids.
Expert Tip: If you plan on spending most of your stay in San Juan on the beach, find a hotel where you can have direct access to the beach. We stayed at Courtyard by Marriott Isla Verde Beach Resort and loved it! And for the best deals, use Booking.com to bundle Flight + Hotel and save 10%-20%.
Bacardi Rum Factory Tour
One of our favorite activities was visiting the Bacardi Rum Factory. Puerto Rico’s Bacardi Distillery is the world’s largest, producing more than 100,000 bottles of rum every day. The Factory Tour is fun for adults and kids. Casa Bacardi greets you and the kids with a welcome drink for a taste of the Caribbean right at the waterfront before they show you how rum is made, matured, and bottled.
The Bacardi Rum Factory is located across San Juan Bay. Although you can get there by taxi, Uber, or bus, I highly recommend taking the ferry from Pier 2 in Old San Juan. It’s the fastest and most scenic route. The ferry leaves every 30 minutes and costs $0.50/person each way. When you cross the Bay, you’ll be in the city of Cataño. You can then take a taxi or a van right outside the ferry station for the short 2-mile ride to Casa Bacardi (rides are around $3.00/person). Taxis from Old San Juan, on the other hand, will run you $40-$50.
A visit to Casa Bacardi is the kind of idea that helps break up the monotony during your family vacation.
El Yunque National Forest
If a day trip is more of your thing, San Juan is a great jumping off point to El Yunque National Forest. El Yunque is the only tropical rain forest in US National Forest System. It is located Northwest of San Juan and is easily accessible by car (taxi, rental car, or tours bus).
A lot of the Forest was heavily damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017, and large portions of El Yunque are still closed to the public. However, you can still experience the Forest by booking a horseback riding tour. The kids in the group love just getting to see the horses, let alone riding them through the foothills of the Forest.
Admission to the park is $4.00/adult and children 0-15 years are free.
Puerto Rico is home to 3 bioluminescent bays (of the 5 existing in the world). Head to Laguna Grande in Fajardo or Mosquito Bay in Vieques (on a sister island) to watch the bay glow with microscopic, light-emitting plankton. You can get on a kayak and float on the bay and watch the light show from up close. Unfortunately, the experience is not a great idea for your family vacation if you’re traveling with small children because it requires being on the water while dark.
Other Things to Do with Children
- Museo del Niño (Children’s Museum) ($10/adults | $6/child age 1-14)
- Snorkeling and scuba diving in Culebra
- Horseback Riding
If you stay in Old San Juan, you could probably get by with walking everywhere. Since we stayed in Isla Verde, we opted to use Uber when we needed to get to Old San Juan. San Juan is not huge, so each ride was typically between $12-$15. Other options include taxis and rental cars.
Puerto Rico is a fantastic idea for a family vacation. Its rich heritage, simplicity to get around, and variety of activities make it easy to keep kids and adults engaged. It’s also a great place to get “international” travel experience without ever leaving the U.S.