Dreaming of Travel: Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is a trending destination for families and it’s no surprise why! Puerto Rico is filled with amazing wildlife (think lizards and parrots), a vibrant history, and delicious food. Not to mention, it’s very kid-friendly. Locals are sure to want to strike up a conversation with families, especially those with young kids.
While many families choose to center their stay near San Juan, we chose the western side of the island, near Añasco, as our home base. Less touristy and quieter than the areas near Old San Juan and Fajardo, it was the perfect place for our family (and I think yours too!) to explore this U.S. territory.
Keep reading to learn more about how to get to Puerto Rico, where to stay, what to do, and local foods to try.
How to Get to Puerto Rico
As a U.S. territory, passports are not required to enter Puerto Rico for American citizens. As such, it’s a great place for families new to traveling with kids to dip their toes into international travel before outfitting everyone with a passport. You will fly into Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) and experience the same customs and security processes as a domestic flight. If you’re planning to stay on the western side of the island, as we did, you will need a rental car. The drive from San Juan to Añasco takes about 2 - 2.5 hours. You do not need anything more than your U.S. driver’s license to drive in Puerto Rico. Driving here is fairly straightforward, but you should expect winding, narrow roads in the mountains.
Where to Stay
There are many luxury (including all-inclusive) hotels and resorts in San Juan, as well as options through Hilton, Marriott, and Fairmont, among other well-known brands. Depending on your budget and style of travel, you certainly have a lot of options! Both in San Juan and across the island, you will also find a variety of Airbnb and Vrbo options too. Using Vrbo, we found a lovely three-bedroom rental with a small patio and pool near Añasco. When traveling, this tends to be the route we prefer so that we have more space, privacy, and access to a kitchen.
Based on our time in Puerto Rico, I would recommend considering the following cities for your stay. If you want to be near all the action and in a high-tourist area, San Juan and Fajardo are your best options (this is also where the highest concentration of hotels will be). If you stay here, be prepared for high tourist numbers during the day due to cruise ships in the port. Ponce is the second-largest city in Puerto Rico, with fewer crowds and tons of history. Those wanting quick access to diverse and beautiful beaches should consider Rincón, Añasco, or Cabo Rojo.
Eating in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is a foodie heaven for kids and adults alike! Typically, American families cannot find kids’ menus abroad. This was not our experience in Puerto Rico! With one exception, each of the restaurants we went to offered a kids’ menu (and many also offered high chairs and changing tables in the women’s rooms). Kids’ menu items typically included rice and beans, chicken nuggets, tostones, and pasta.
Typical Puerto Rican food includes plantains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and seafood. Beach food typically includes pastelillos (or empanadillas) and pinchos (meat kabobs). For dinner, expect to eat mofongo or churrasco with a side of tostones. Additionally, there is a lot of seafood, including fish, octopus, lobster, and shrimp. On the western side of the island, there are many roadside vendors and beachside vendors, which we highly recommend! The food was always well-made and fresh.
What to Do near San Juan
Regardless of where you choose to stay, there are a few things near San Juan that everyone should add to their itinerary. Since we stayed on the western side of Puerto Rico, we opted for one long day of exploring, as well as a few hours before catching our flight home. If I had to do it over again, I would book two nights near San Juan, and spend the remaining nights on the western side of the island. Here are three amazing things to do near San Juan with kids.
El Yunque National Forest
El Yunque National Forest is a must for any Puerto Rico itinerary with kids. As the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System, it is certain to be a hit with everyone in your family. Not only can you hike along lush paths with tons of lizard and butterfly sightings, but you can also challenge kids to spot the elusive Puerto Rican parrot. Highlights of this Puerto Rican experience include La Coca Falls, Baño de Oro, and several hiking options. With limited time and young kids, Mt. Britton Trail is a great option. This trail is a steep, but short (less than 60 minutes) hike to a historic tower with a stunning view. Then, Angelito Trail is less than 1-mile, out and back, and leads to the Las Damas pool in the Mameyes River
Make sure you have proper footwear, plenty of water, and snacks for your visit. For an additional fee, you can also visit the El Portal Visitors Center to learn more about the history of El Yunque, in addition to the research being conducted here. Finally, reservations are required and can be made here.
Bioluminescent Bay Kayak Tour
Adventurous kids will love the opportunity to do a bioluminescent bay kayak tour! While there are multiple options in Puerto Rico, including one on an off-shore island, we chose to go with Puerto Rico Bio Bay Tours in Fajardo. Tours take place at night so that you can (hopefully) see the bioluminescent organisms in a nearby lagoon.
Disembarking from the beach in Fajardo, kayak across a small ocean bay, through a mangrove channel, and into the lagoon. Here, you will hear a description of the bay and how the bioluminescent organisms can survive and thrive here. While no kayak experience is necessary, be prepared to paddle through currents in a tandem sea kayak. The typical family kayak set-up will be one parent and one child. The tour takes approximately 4-5 hours and you will get wet, dress accordingly (water shoes are highly recommended).
Before embarking on your tour, let kids play at the nearby pirate-themed playground. There are also bathrooms and a few food vendors in this small park. Not to mention, a small beach on one side of the park, and a line of restaurants on the other.
Please note: this tour had a minimum age requirement of 6 years old.
San Felipe del Morro Castle
Near Old San Juan, families can explore the beautiful area around San Felipe del Morro Castle, as well as learn local history through the military exhibits inside. Outside San Felipe del Morro Castle, it is very common for families to fly kites on the lawn due to the high winds. Vendors may have kites for sale nearby, but it’s recommended to pack your own. Then, you can also walk along the fortified walls with views of the ocean. Inside El Morro, learn about Spain's military endeavors on the island from colonization to WWII. While you can explore the different rooms and exhibits on your own, park rangers also lead engaging tours. Each section includes recreations of a day in the life of a soldier, from the barracks to the kitchens.
Note: Children under 15 years of age receive free admission here. Plus, entrance tickets also cover admission to the nearby Castillo San Cristóbal.
What to Do on the Western Side of Puerto Rico
Those exploring the western side of the island can’t miss these four family-friendly things to do! From a stunning waterfall to pristine beaches, there is a lot to love about the western side of Puerto Rico with kids.
Cascada Gozalandia (Gozalandia Waterfall)
Nestled in San Sebastian, Gozalandia Waterfall will be a hit with kids of all ages. In fact, we loved it so much that we went back the next day. Upon arrival, you will need to pay the staff member to park in the lot ($10.00 USD). After parking, you’ll notice there is a small pond. Around the pond is a restaurant and bathrooms, as well as the entrance to Gozalandia Waterfall, really a series of falls along a river.
After walking down the first flight of stairs, you’ll come to a fork in the path. To the left is the larger and more fun of the two falls, to the right (after another 10 min walk) is another, smaller waterfall. While it's worth checking out the smaller one, you will likely spend most of your time at the first waterfall. Here, you can take in the stunning view of the waterfall and surrounding area, while kids search for fish in the shallow waters.
Families can also swim beneath the waterfall. Depending on the day and recent rainfall, water temperatures and levels can be mildly affected. You will notice adventurous adults jumping from rock formations in the falls, as well as swimming into the underground cave to the right of the falls (fits two-ish people). I recommend bringing snacks, water, water shoes, sunscreen, and life jackets for novice swimmers. Finally, due to the number of stairs, strollers are not recommended here, babywearing is going to be your best option.
Crash Boat Beach
One of the most popular beaches in western Puerto Rico, Crash Boat Beach is a wonderful, family-friendly beach. Located in Aguadilla, you can easily spend a full day (or more) here. Near the soft sand shore, the waters are warm and relatively shallow. Expect large waves, particularly in the afternoon (great for older kids who enjoy jumping in the waves!). The waters seem calmer to the left of the pier. One of the best parts of Crash Boat Beach are the ample beachside vendors (bring cash, but Venmo and PayPal are also widely accepted). We found everything from pizza, pastelillos, and pinchos to coco frio (fresh coconut water), ice cream, and tropical drinks. Plus, there are often vendors renting beach loungers and umbrellas, as well as selling beach toys. Certainly, this is one of the best beaches in Puerto Rico for kids.
Colón Beach/Colón Park
Another must-see beach in Puerto Rico is Colón Beach. Truly a child’s paradise, there is a lot to love about visiting this beach and park area in Aguadilla. After finding street parking, you will notice there are a variety of things to do here (plus, some rustic bathrooms). First, there is a long stretch of beach, offering white sands and relatively calm waters. Everyone can wade in the water or build sandcastles easily here.
In the park, there is a giant treehouse built into a huge Banyan tree that will delight everyone in the family. Kids can run through its platforms, while parents rest on a nearby bench below. There is also a small playground nearby, as well as lovely green spaces for kids to run around. Several vendors flank the park, offering everything from pinchos to ice cream and small trinkets. There is no charge to use this beach or park.
Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge
A visit to the western side of Puerto Rico isn’t complete without a day spent at Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge. At the main entrance, visit the Caribbean Islands National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. Here, your family can learn a bunch of cool facts about local endangered species and ecosystems. After taking in all of this new information, get back in your car and head to Faro Los Morrillos de Cabo Rojo, on the other side of the wildlife refuge.
On the way to Faro Los Morrillos de Cabo Rojo, you will pass the infamous pink salt flats (which are occasionally open to visitors). The final stretch to the lighthouse can be filled with potholes, making the drive tough (but doable) for sedans. From the small parking lot, trek up the path to the lighthouse. While you can’t go inside, you can wander about the grounds and admire the cliffside views (expect high winds). Bring your swimsuit too, because there are also several lovely beaches here! We recommend walking down from the lighthouse to Playa Sucia. This no-frills, no-amenities beach is filled with stunning views and gorgeous water, plus a fair amount of shade compared to other beaches.
Has your family been to Puerto Rico? What did you think!? If you have any great photos of your family enjoying a day out here (or anywhere for that matter!), be sure to tag us on Instagram @gethappyly for a chance to be featured!
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