Eastern Puerto Rico: Real Adventures of Families in Paradise
I am sad to say that I had to return from Puerto Rico two days ago, leaving one of the best vacations I've had in a long time.We had eight glorious days in this tropical paradise, each day trumping the previous with the array of new adventures.
I like Puerto Rico because it feels real. It does not seem to be built just for tourists, but rather an island where people live, work, and enjoy life, all the while welcoming visitors to their homeland. From the moment we arrived in San Juan with my friend Liz and our four children, I knew that this was not a place that puts on a show for its visitors.
No shiny strip of glittery hotels masking the underlying poverty or devestation, no crowded marketplace with people pulling you in all directions to oversell their cheap merchandise with a fakesmile. All we could see from the windows of the rental car were real families going about their business, and plenty of people enjoying life.
We arrived in San Juan on a windy afternoon and headed to the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino. This hotel has over 500 rooms and is located right on the sandy surfers' dream, Condado beach. Our adjoining rooms opened onto spacious balconies overlooking the turquoise Atlantic dotted with happy surfers. The warm sea breeze was the perfect welcome to our week of tropical heaven.
The kids immediately wanted to dive into the two large kid-friendly swimming pools abutting the beach, and the moms took no time at all to hit up the bar.
The Marriott was an easy jump to the city of Old San Juan. Transporting us back centuries with its architecture and cobble stones, Old San Juan is a must visit of anyone heading to Puerto Rico. We had lunch and ice cream at one of the many shops, and headed up to visit el Castillo San Felipe del Morro, one of the 16th century forts that lie on the perimeter of Old San Juan.
Staying in San Juan our first night of arrival made our trip that much easier. We didn't have to worry about more traveling after our arrival and were able to immediately jump into our vacation.
After breakfast at the Marriott (a simple pleasure that can be included in the cost of your room if you request) and a walk on the beach Wednesday morning we headed east on the small coastal road 187. Not far from San Juan is a beach community known as Los Pinones, famous for the roadside restaurants and shacks preparing typical Puerto Rican cuisine.
Luquillo turned out to be the perfect choice for our vacation. Our rental house sat close to the beach, in a gated community of homes called Solimar, each modest home with it's own little patio. We spent most nights on the patio listening to the waves and the sound of the coquis chirping (tiny frogs native to the island). We found the place on Craig's List.
On Friday we journeyed to El Yunque, the only rain forest found in the US National Forest System. With vines curling around the trees and lush hibiscus dipping down to meet the earth El Yunque makes you feel as though you have stepped straight into the amazon. On each stop up the winding road the forest becomes more dense and the view from each peak more astounding.
The best day for all of us was our Sunday trip to the deserted island of Icacos with East Island Excursions.
We boarded the ship around 9:30 am , and immediately the rum punch was flowing. Our host was Owen Wilson's doppelganger, crew member Levi. With four years of experience sailing with East Island, Levi took no time to gain the passengers' trust, it was obvious by his friendly personality and relaxed manner that he loves his job, and wants everyone to have a good time. Food and drink was included in this adventure, and I could feel my limbs becoming loose before the boat set out into crystal clear open water.
We anchored at Icacos for almost 2 hours and were able to comb the beach, snorkel, and fly off the water slide into the ocean. Ultimate kid and adult heaven. Perfect white sand, clear water for snorkeling, and few enough of us to never feel crowded. The crew was comprised of helpful strapping men who suited us up and taught us the pointers of seeing the best sights, all the while staying calm, friendly, and attentive to the 77 passengers on the boat.
Our second stop was snorkeling stop at Cayo Tortuga, a site known for sea turtles. We were not so lucky this stop, and on my one attempt to snorkel I found it difficult to make it out to see much, perhaps it was the combination of the current and the daiquiris. Liz and her son Andrew had better luck and explored the reef easily.
Monday night we decided to hit up one of PR's biggest attractions, the bioluminescent bay. There are five bio bays in the world, and three of them are found in Puerto Rico. These lagoons are filled with millions of organisms called dinoflagellates that light up in the dark when disturbed. Hundreds of kayakers paddle out each night to experience this phenomenon.
In the lagoon the kids could not get over the sight of their hands lighting up the water, or the fish darting back and forth with glowing tails. Nathan reported that this was the best experience of his life, and that made it worth the money for me. A ride in the electric boat will set you back about $45 for adults, $35 for kids, and can seat 6 people total. Given the number of kayaks who smashed head first into our boat on our way out to the lagoon, I would say that unless you are a skilled kayaker it is better to book in advance and go for the boat.
Our final full day in PR was a trip to the island of Culebra. Sometimes known as the "Spanish Virgin Islands", Culebra and its larger sister island Vieques are vacation destinations unto themselves, but can also be great for a day trip when visiting the mainland.
Once arriving at the beach, the sand was pure white and the waters crystal blue, it was a beautiful location to end our visit to Puerto Rico. We rented snorkeling gear, and Liz headed out on her own to explore the reef that lies directly on Flamenco Beach. While admiring purple jellyfish and barracudas she was swept out a little too far and got caught up in a rip current.
Despite the near drowning, we all had a great week. All in all, Puerto Rico is the perfect setting for families who want to give their children more than the average tourist-trap vacation. My kids learned more in this week than in all of our previous trips combined, and I had no qualms about taking them out of school to show them the natural beauty that Puerto Rico has to offer. If you want to experience real life adventure (with no passport requried), take your family to eastern PR, you won't be disappointed.
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