Wondering what to do in Puerto Rico? Hoping to experience more than the beaches and piña coladas? Here's how we spent our 8-day visit:
Day One: Arrival
We touched down in San Juan in late afternoon, picked up our rental car and drove to Luquillo. We checked into Dulces Sueños, our rental condo (read more on Luquillo and our condo here), then headed to the famous "kioskos de Luquillo" for a bite to eat in the open-air food stalls.
Day Two: Old San Juan
A 45-minute drive from our home base of Luquillo, Old San Juan was our first destination. We explored Castillo San Cristóbal, a 17th century Spanish fort which, for two and a half centuries, guarded the original walled city from land invasion from the east. The fortress is part of the U.S. National Park system, thus honors all varieties of U.S.N.P. passes; otherwise, expect to pay $5 for adult admission admission; kids under 15 are free. We began our tour with a 15-minute interpretive film, which is shown alternately in English and Spanish. From there, we explored on our own, as ranger-guided tours and lectures are not consistently offered, even when advertised.
Our initial plan was to also tour Castillo San Felipe del Morro, just a 20-minute walk from Castillo San Cristóbal, while we were in the area. However, we quickly realized that we weren't yet acclimated to the Puerto Rican sun and humidity, and decided to delay our tour of El Morro until later in the week. Instead, we spent the remaining afternoon wandering the shaded street market of Paseo de la Princesa, just outside the south wall of Old San Juan. It was there that one market vendor introduced us to a new favorite Caribbean drink: maví, a fermented drink made from tree bark, cinnamon, ginger, sugar, and water.
Day Three: Car Trouble = beach day
Today's plan was to visit El Yunque, but a rental car break down necessitated a change in schedule. Fortunately, the car died in the parking lot of our condo, so we were able to spend the day at the pool and Playa Azul (our neighborhood beach) while organizing and waiting for a replacement vehicle.
Day Four: El Yunque
El Yunque National Forest is home to 1,000-year old trees, exotic plants, Puerto Rico's iconic Coquí frog (named for the sound it makes), and the endangered Puerto Rican parrot, among some other 240 species of flora and fauna. To allow visitors to experience the diversity of this biome, El Yunque offers several hikes of varying degrees of difficulty within its 44 square miles. All hikes begin along the single road through the park.
Our visit began with a stop in El Portal visitors center at the entrance to the forest. Admission to El Portal is $4 (waived for those with a U.S. National Parks pass), and is well worth the investment for clean restrooms, a map of the park's 13 hiking trails, an air-conditioned theater with short interpretive film, informative exhibits, and a gift shop with souvenirs and cold drinks.
After El Portal, we drove further into the park, stopping first for photos of La Coca Falls. This point is accessible from the road; no hiking required.
Farther up the road, we completed a 2-hour round trip hike to the park's most visited site, La Mina Falls. La Mina Falls is accessible via two trails, La Mina Trail or Big Tree Trail. We chose the latter, and were surprised that the hike felt more strenuous than expected, thanks to the high humidity and the incline of much of the trail. Nonetheless, it was a doable hike, even for the 7-year old and the grandparents who were traveling with us (one of whom has had a knee replacement and a pacemaker). The hike's highlight is bathing with the locals -and a few tourists- in the natural pool at the bottom of the falls.
Following the hike, we drove further up the road to Palo Colorado Information Center, where we took advantage of the picnic shelters, a shop selling cold drinks, and clean restrooms. Food is also available for sale here, but we had packed a post-hike lunch.
Lastly, it was a quick drive down to El Yunque's Yokahu Tower. The tower's 1575-foot elevation affords expansive views of El Yunque all the way to the ocean. Plus, it's a fun walk up the winding staircase, especially for kids who will enjoy peaking out from the fenestration on the way up.
Day Five: Ponce and the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center
Ponce, a 2-hour drive from Luquillo, was Day Five's destination. The iconic Parque de Bombas, a red and black former fire station, was a perfect place to begin exploring. Inside is a small visitors information desk, where we were given a map for a self-guided tour of the city. The information desk also sells tickets for a 45-minute guided trolly tour. This tour is an entertaining - and air-conditioned! - way to get a feel for the city of Ponce. Tour guides are bilingual, and present each tour in English and Spanish whenever speakers of both are on the bus. Tickets are cash only, and are $3 for adults, $2 for kids (5-12), $1.50 for seniors (60-74), $1 for students and teachers, and free for under 5 and seniors 75+.
Following the tour, we couldn't miss the chance to stop in for ice cream at the famed King's Cream, directly across from the fire station. Mango and maní (peanut) flavors were the family favorites.
From downtown Ponce, we made the 20-minute drive to Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center. There, a duo of knowledgeable and engaging tour guides explained what the site can teach us of the Taíno, the people living on the land at the time of Columbus' arrival in 1493. Read lots more on our visit to Tibes here.
Our drive back to Luquillo included a stop along the precarious Pork Highway in Guavate, where we had a late lunch/early dinner at Lechonera El Mojito. Lechoneras are open air restaurants where the main item on the menu is lechón, a whole pig slow-roasted on a spit. Pavochón (turkey and pork), rice and beans, tostones (fried green plantains), and other Puerto Rican specialties are typically served, along with piña coladas, maví and beer. The meat lover in the group (Homer) loved the meal; the rest of us savored the experience. On our next visit, we'll remember to arrive for lunch; by 3:30 many lechoneras were out of food and closing up for the day.
Day Six: Castillo san felipe del morro and Bacardi Factory Tour
Now acclimated to the sun and humidity of Puerto Rico, we completed our visit of the Old San Juan forts that we had begun on Day Two, touring Castillo San Felipe del Morro. As with Castillo San Cristóbal, we were disappointed to find no ranger-guided tour or lecture here, despite their posted scheduling. However, the fortress is fascinating to explore just by rambling about, and occasional placards do give some insight into the construction and functioning of El Morro's 250 years of continental domination.
From the Spanish imperial history of El Morro, we headed 20 minutes west around the harbor to delve into Puerto Rico's historical empire of rum at the Bacardi Factory tour. While the decision to tour the Bacardi factory felt like something of a gamble, given its $12 ticket price ($8 for seniors, free for children), we figured we would, at the very least, enjoy the chance to sit in the shade and air conditioning for a while, and indulge in an adult beverage (included in ticket price). On those fronts, our entire group, from our 7 year old (who was offered juice, not rum) to the grandparents, appreciated the tour. But even more, the informative and entertaining tour piqued our interest in many areas of history: the contribution of the collapse of a coffee industry to the rum industry, how prohibition in the U.S. helped develop Cuba's tourist industry, the Cuba-to-Puerto Rico migration, to name a few. For a family of wanna-be anthropologists and part-time rum-lovers, this tour was a hit.
Day Seven: Fajardo and Beach Day
By this point in the week, we were in need of a "down" day. We took a quick drive over to Fajardo, about 25 minutes from Luquillo, primarily to check out the ferry logistics for a future visit, as Fajardo is the point of origin for all ferries leaving for Vieques and Culebra, two rustic islands offering snorkeling and scuba diving tours, and many other eco-/outdoor adventures. Vieques is also home to the world's most bioluminescent bay.
Our Fajardo reconnaissance drive included a stop at a local playground, which is a favorite travel diversion of 7-year old Mag.
Returning to Luquillo, we spent the afternoon alternating between the pool at our rental condo and Playa Azul, our nearly private neighborhood beach. (Read more about the condo and Playa Azul here.)
Day Eight: Old San Juan and Dorado
We returned to Old San Juan to simply meander the city beyond the forts. We wandered the blue-cobbled streets of the city, reflecting on the history of the adoquines, or blue cobblestone pavers. Adoquines were made from the waste matter of smelting ore, thus their blue-gray tint, and likely came from the inner workings of European merchant ships of the 1600 and 1700s. Thus, when walking the streets of Old San Juan, visitors are interacting with history in an unsuspected way.
The more obvious connection to history is the architecture of the city, which we spent the afternoon photographing. Apparently mirroring the architecture of Andalucía, Spain (although we have not been; read more about the Puerto Rico/Andalucía connection here), Old San Juan's buildings reflect the trends in European construction at the time of colonization, with distinct Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque elements.
To end our final day in Puerto Rico, we drove 15 miles west to Dorado. Dorado, which was once a vacation destination for the rich and famous -think Joan Crawford, John F. Kennedy, and the like- continues to house several luxury resorts. We chose to skip the luxury and join the locals in celebrating the feast day of their patron saint, Saint Anthony of Padua. It was unclear how a talent pageant, samba contest, and carnival rides relate to sainthood, but we certainly enjoyed ending our stay in Puerto Rico with the most colorful parade costumes north of Rio.
Day Nine: Departure
An early flight returned us to ORD. We drove home and created our own vacation-inspired Bacardi fruit punch.
And began planning our next trip...
What did we miss?
We knew we couldn't "do it all" in 8 days, but we still wish we had done some snorkeling and kayaking, possibly from Vieques. And we really regret missing the coffee region in the island's central mountains.
Do you have any favorite activities or attractions in Puerto Rico that we missed? Leave us a comment; we'll be glad to have a reason to head back!