With all the rain and cooler weather we have been having, it is hard to believe summer vacation is just around the corner!
For a great summer family vacation that will not only allow you to explore and experience beautiful landscapes and historical places but also allow you to immerse yourself in the Spanish language, consider Puerto Rico. It offers all this plus the convenience of U.S. travel and currency (no need for a passport and tracking currency rates). My family and I spent a week and half there over Spring break and I am eager to share with you highlights from our trip as ideas for planning your own family vacation.
About Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico is a the smallest island of the Greater Antilles and is itself an archipelago that includes the main island and a number of small islands that surround it. It is a U.S. territory that had belonged to Spain for four centuries until 1898, when Spain conceded the territory to the United States following the Spanish-American War. As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico is governed by a local constitution with their elected governor as head of state. However, because it is not a state in the United States, it lacks voting representation in the U.S. Congress.
Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. Territory, it is not hard to find people who speak very good English. In fact, most tours are available in either Spanish or English. Nonetheless, the people of Puerto Rico continue to have strong ties to their Spanish heritage and many do prefer to speak in Spanish. For example, I noticed that when we participated in tourist attractions many locals saw me as an Anglo-American and automatically addressed me in English. Yet, when I responded to them in Spanish and continued to talk to them in Spanish, I saw many faces light up as most were very happy to speak to me in Spanish rather than English.
To say that Puerto Rico is rich in ecological beauty is an understatement. From coastal ecosystems with mangroves, coral reefs and bio-luminescent bays to lush rich rain forests and high mountains to a dry forest and terrain that would remind you of places you may have seen in parts of Texas, I was entranced by the marvelous diversity the island offers. Notwithstanding the exquisite natural beauty, Puerto Rico also offers amazing cultural and historical sights and experiences and many really nice people.
During our stay, we rented a condo in Condado, San Juan, located just outside the main tourist area but still in walking distance to a grocery store, the Plaza del Mercado de Santurce (a very popular farmers’ market), many restaurants and a public park on the beach. The location was also perfectly situated with easy access to the main highways, making it an easy place to start your day trips across the island.
Below are my highlights of “things to do and see” in Puerto Rico that I wish to share to help you plan your own wonderful bilingual family vacation:
San Juan and Surrounding Area:
Old San Juan is a place every first time visitor must visit. The city takes you back to the Spanish colonial time with its beautiful architecture and plazas. It is fun to get lost meandering through the streets and/or to slip into a local cafe or restaurant, especially if you get caught in the rain or simply just to relax. While in Old San Juan, you must make sure to visit The San Juan National Historic Site (a World Heritage Site), which includes the monumental forts of el Castillo San Felipe del Morro and el Castillo San Cristobal, the old city walls, the San Juan Gate and Fort San Juan de la Cruz.
Every age will be awed and impressed with Old San Juan’s architecture and historical sites. However, if you have an elementary school age child, you may consider starting your day in Old San Juan at El Museo del Niño de Puerto Rico. Our experience there was absolutely wonderful. We visited the museum on a Friday morning when most local students were still in school and no school tours were scheduled. My daughter had lots of one-on-one time in Spanish with the wonderfully helpful staff who explained the various exhibits and engaged with her in a number of great learning activities. Before we left, we purchased a small fold-up nylon kite from the gift shop to fly in the field in front of el Morro (a popular activity with locals and visitors alike).
Outside San Juan, a great place to take kids from preschool age through elementary age is Villa Campestre. Villa Campestre is a fun and engaging farm/amusement park only a 20-25 minute drive from Condado, San Juan. Unfortunately, it is open to the public only on the weekends. My advice is to get there early when it opens to take advantage of a smaller crowd and to allow yourself at least 2 hours to be there as it is a guided park (one staff member takes a group of kids through all of the activities in the park). My daughter had an amazing time during our visit. She ran baby pigs through a corral, got licked by a cow, fed goats and sheep and enjoyed lots of rides. She also made a new friend with whom she got to practice her Spanish. Because it is a guided program, all of the activities were explained by the staff in Spanish with opportunities for children to be engaged and ask questions.
Another great place to visit just outside of San Juan is La Marquesa, Bosque Ecológico de Guaynabo. Because it is not too far from Villa Campestre, you can easily visit both places the same day. The views from La Marquesa are absolutely amazing. Take a gondola ride to the top. Then walk up the tower to take in even more breathtaking beauty or simply take a leisurely walk along the hiking trails. Once you arrive to the main park, you can enter the Monarch butterfly exhibit, where you will first watch a short film in Spanish about the various stages of the butterfly. Afterwards, be ready to be amazed as you watch some of the butterflies come out of their cocoon behind the glass wall. Then, have fun being close to a variety of beautifully colored parrots in the aviary.
El faro y las conexiones naturales de la costa in Cabezas de San Juan, Fajardo, Puerto Rico. Did you know that there are as many iguanas on the island as there are people? How important are mangroves to the ecosystem and how do they extract the excess salt from the sea? Why are bio-luminescent plankton bio-luminescent anyway? These are just a few of the many facts that you will learn on this tour. El faro y las conexiones naturales de la costa in las Cabezas de San Juan is just one of many family friendly eco-tours and events offered by Para la Naturaleza designed to educate and engage the public. All of their programs are available in Spanish and a few are also offered in English. Make your reservations online ahead of time as space is limited and the programs are popular. We did this two hour coastal tour in Spanish and came away with a much greater understanding of the regional coastal area’s ecosystem along with its challenges and threats. Even days after our tour, my 6 year old was reminding me of some of the things we had learned in context with some of the other coastal related activities we did on our trip.
El Yunque National Rain Forest. El Yunque National Rain Forest is something to not miss on your trip to Puerto Rico. The only Tropical Rain Forest in U.S. territory, it is also home to the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot, (by the way, this is a great book to read with your child before visiting el Yunque). We enjoyed hiking to waterfalls, picnicking and simply taking in the beautifully scenery. We also spotted some of the special boxes that serve as homes for the endangered local parrot.
El Luquillo Beach. No visit to Puerto Rico is complete until you visit the Luquillo Beach. This beach is listed as one of the best beaches in Puerto Rico; and it is a very beautiful beach with soft sand that extends into calm water and majestic palm trees all around providing nice shade and contrast. The downside to this beach is that it is quite popular with tourists. Nonetheless, it is a great beach for families and the piña coladas served fresh in a hollowed out pineapple make the trip totally worth it. Also, don’t forget to stop at one of kiosks that serve local fried seafood and other local specialties located on the road on the way to the main beach entrance.
We chose to do an overnight trip to Vieques; but we also heard wonderful things about Culebra. Getting to either island can be a bit tricky. You can get to the islands either by ferry or by airplane, the latter being significantly more expensive, especially if you are traveling as a family. The ferry service is very cheap; however, space is limited and can fill up quickly. They are very popular places for tourists; however, locals are given preference to board the ferries first since many travel to and fro for work. Buying tickets ahead of time, planning to leave on the earlier departure schedule and arriving at least a half hour before departure are advisable so as to not run the risk of not being able to board the ferry and missing out on your trip to the small islands.
We chose to travel to Vieques because of its popular tours for experiencing bio-luminescence. Our bio-luminescent tour was on Mosquito Bay in an electric boat. The beauty and wonder of the bio-luminescent plankton in the night sky is absolutely amazing and unfortunately is not able to be captured with a regular camera. The island has several companies that offer bio-luminescent tours both in English and Spanish with many types of boats and kayaks to choose from. However, the bio-luminescent bays are not the only thing to sea on the island. The island has many cool beaches to explore during the day; some of which rivaled some of the most beautiful and calmest beaches I have ever seen.
The Interior of Puerto Rico:
Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Park. This is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Antilles as it contains many artifacts along with early Spaniard reports of the life and culture of the Taino people. The culture of the Taino people is believed to date back to 1000AD and existed until the arrival of the Spanish. Sadly, shortly thereafter, the Taino population was decimated by disease and from the persecution by the Spanish. Enjoy learning their history by visiting the museum (videos and information are available in both Spanish and English) and walking through a replica of the Taino village near the ceremonial park archaeological site.
Rio Camuy Caverns. The Rio Camuy Caverns is a beautiful cavern system in which the river, Rio Camuy, runs through. Only a small portion of the cavern is open to the public and tours are conducted in both English and Spanish (make sure you specify which language you want as many English only speaking tourists come to see this site). To get to the cavern’s opening, you will ride a train that takes you down into a beautiful sink hole. In fact this region is famous for its sink holes and you can see a few of them by walking around on the grounds. My only disappointment with this site is that it did not have any walking paths to further explore the grounds around the cavern. It was so beautiful, I left wanting to see more and was disappointed that more of the region was not open for viewing.
Arecibo Observatory Visitor Center. The Arecibo Observatory is the world’s largest radio-telescope. If that doesn’t sound interesting enough, wait until you see it and learn what it does! This is a place where both young and old will be fascinated and awed. A short video that explains the making and use of the radio-telescope and a short guided tour explaining the parts of the radio-telescope are available in both English or Spanish.
If you have time and want to visit another children’s park, consider Arecibo Lighthouse and Historical Park. Located an hour west of San Juan and halfway between San Juan and the Arecibo Observatory, this park has a nice splash pad/shallow pool with changing area, features and replicas designed to tell the history of Puerto Rico, and a great view from the historic lighthouse. My only word of caution is that the park does have a few historic depictions that you may not want young children to see. However, it is easy to redirect children away from these few depictions and focus on the fun activities around the park. The only other thing of concern for me was the very confined living conditions of some of the animals like donkeys and horses in their “small zoo.” However, I do not know if they take these animals out for exercise or rotate them out. The restaurant near the park has pretty good food and you also get a discount if you show your park ticket–I personally really enjoyed their mofongo!
El Bosque Seco de Guánica. After being all over the Northeast and interior part of the island, when we arrived to the Southern region of Puerto Rico, we felt like we were at first arriving somewhere in west Texas! The dry forest region of the south is beautiful in its own right but far different from the lush tropical landscape of the other regions. Nonetheless, this dry forest juxtaposed with a beautiful coastal region with nearby cayos (cays) remind you that you are indeed still on this beautiful island.
Gilligan’s Island/ Cayo Aurora. A small public ferry runs from Guanica to this special island. However, if you drive past the public ferry station toward the end of the road, you will find a gentleman who runs a small inn and rents kayaks by the hour or day. That is what we did, and I am so happy that we did. The water was so calm and the ride out there was short and easy. Once you are there, enjoy! The sandy mangrove lagoon on this island provides a narrow channel that is peaceful, shallow and clear. For this reason, the locals renamed this cay Gilligan’s Island for the lagoon featured on the show.
Ponce. The historic district in Ponce is the colonial part of the city with interesting architecture and museums like the Parque de Bombas. Unfortunately, we went there on a Monday late afternoon when many places in the colonial part of the city are either close early or do not open at all. Nonetheless we still enjoyed a lovely walk around the historic district seeing the interesting architecture and we did manage to find a great local restaurant with yummy tasting Puerto Rican food. My advice is that if you do decide to visit Ponce, you may want to make sure that you go during a time when many local places are open to enjoy it more fully.